Stories from the Amazon
A passenger on the boat to Manaus offers a smile during the five day journey.
Haitians Make Difficult Trip in Hopes of Finding a Better Life
The claim was the boat capacity was 500 people. It seemed like way more as I wove around bodies and hammocks.
Without the extra cash to rent a tiny cabin on a boat, the alternative is space to hang a hammock.
Have you ever seen one of those stainless steel ball gadgets on an executive’s desk? Five or six balls quietly hang from strings until one of the outer balls is lifted to let crash into the remaining ones. There’s the click, click, click until all the balls stop swinging and again hang quietly. Now, replace those stainless steel balls with hammocks and you can imagine what it is like to sleep on a boat during five days on the Amazon River in Brazil.
Separated only by cloth, often my head would bump into my neighbor’s head or foot, depending on position in the hammock.
This arrangement definitely is not conducive for those who are claustrophobic or need personal space.
To gain a little extra space, I opted to hang my hammock high. To get in and out, I had to pull myself up by grabbing an overhead bar.
The sides of the boat are open on each level. This allowed me to watch the jungle glide by as the boat traveled to Manaus. Occasionally, when a thunderstorm with powerful winds would blow in, the crew would unroll blue plastic tarps to create temporary walls until the storm passed.
Then the plastic tarps were rolled back up to allow both views of the passing landscape and breathing of fresh air.
Often I awoke in the middle of the night shivering. The cool air and constant breeze created by the moving boat made the air surprisingly cold. Not what one might imagine on a jungle float in the river. To combat the cold and to help keep warm, I wrapped myself with extra cloths or my towel.
After the initial excitement of getting on the boat wore off, I began to learn about some of the Haitian passengers.
Passengers from Haiti pass the time on the boat to Manaus (left).
Documents hang around the necks of the passengers from Haiti heading to Manaus (right).
“I left my 10-year-old daughter, LaRose, behind in Haiti with her father,” explained 30-year-old Jean Baptiste. “It was so hard and sad to leave her behind, but there is no future in Haiti — none. It is my plan to make enough money to send home and, if it goes well, to return back to Haiti in December of 2013.”
The route to Brazil for most Haitians is long and difficult.
“I’m one of the lucky ones and only spent one month in Tabatinga, Brazil,” Baptiste said.
I thought “lucky” was an interesting choice of words as she talked about the house where she lived in Tabatinga while waiting for her paperwork to be processed.
“We had 17 people living in a small house. Not being able to work legally, all we could do was sleep and eat. I also did my share of crying; it was a very hard time for me.”
In Haiti, Baptiste had been trained to be a secretary. With limited Portuguese language skills, she acknowledged it will be a challenge for her in Brazil.
“I am hopeful I can go to school to learn Portuguese. This will increase my chances of getting a good job,” she said. “I’m willing to do anything to help my family.”
For Baptiste, this included going on a long boat ride down the Amazon River.
“Before getting on the boat, I was very stressed and afraid. I don’t know how to swim. But I am so proud to be going to Brazil, nothing is going to stop me.”
The stories were similar from just about every Haitian I had the chance to talk with on the boat. Single men and women and younger and older married couples — all of them have their entire life’s belongings stuffed into bags under their hammocks.
They were all heading to unknown futures, hoping a better life was waiting for them in Brazil.
“I’m willing to do anything to help my family.”
That includes floating down the Amazon River without knowing how to swim.
View of the Amazon Rain forest from the boat to Manaus.