Monday, January 27, 2020

Nieuw Nickerie, Suriname

I had been expecting to be posting from Guyana, but I got an extra day in Suriname as the ferry that crosses the river separating the two countries runs only once a day and in the morning.  If there’d been an afternoon ferry, I’d be bearing down on the Carnegie in Georgetown.  Instead I ended my day early in Nieuw Nickerie twenty miles down river from the ferry crossing.  

Someone warned me the day before that there was just one ferry a day making the crossing.  I tried to confirm that and received conflicting reports with several people telling me there was an afternoon ferry.  Most people didn’t know, including a couple of police officers. It never occurred to me to check on-line when I had access to WiFi in Paramaribo not realizing it would be an issue and a virtual state secret.  It was a stark contrast to French Guiana, which posted signs giving its ferry’s running times beginning one hundred miles from the border—French consideration and efficiency.  Evidently this was such a rarely traversed border, Suriname didn’t bother. 

It wasn’t until I came to an intersection less than twenty miles from the ferry did I receive information I thought I could trust.  It would have been disheartening to have gone out to the ferry, twenty miles from the nearest town, only to learn I’d had to wait around until the next day.  At least I would have been right there by the ferry.  Instead I would have a twenty mile ride in the early morning, starting in the dark, to make it to the ferry by eight a.m.

At least I ended up at an ultra-friendly guest house in Nieuw Nickerie.   It was all booked up but the proprietor said I could camp there for free.  It had a vast yard, just what I needed to de-ant all my gear.  I had the worst infestation the night before with the relentless ants getting into all my panniers and even my handlebar bag.  They were stinging me all night long, coming back stronger after each occasion when I thought I had wiped them out.  

My seven previous ant attacks, other than the one that came before dark right after I set up my tent forcing me to clear out, the ants got the message and disappeared after I’d massacred them all.  These sent reinforcements four times after I thought I had crushed all  the intruders. I was first woken at eleven p.m. by ants crawling over me, then again at midnight.  I went two hours before they awok e me again and then four hours the last time at six a.m., when I was ready to clear out even though it was still pitch dark.  That four hour interlude allowed them to fully take over the tent.  They were everywhere, even in the underwear I had laid out.  

Combined with incessantly buzzing mosquitoes that filled the upper reaches of the tent and steamy heat, it was easily the worst night of this trip or any.  I doubt Dreyfus had it any worse out on Devil’s Island than I did this night.  I was overheating and dripping sweat, each drop seemingly an ant traipsing along on me.  After the third incursion I contemplated moving my tent, but I was camped at a road construction site with a night watchman and a pack of dogs.  I didn’t want to trigger the fury of the dogs.  

I had ended up at this location on the recommendation of a couple of police officers.  I had initially ridden past it, but when I ventured into the swampy forest and was immediately descended upon by hoards of mosquitoes, I doubled back to this site that was in an open space catching the breeze.  The mosquitoes didn’t immediately make their presence known, but once I settled into the tent, they began slipping in through the holes, even though most were covered.

I’d had a great day up until that point going over ninety miles for the first time in these travels and seemingly putting me within two days of Georgetown if there’d been more than one ferry a day to Guyana.  It was a day though of heat and humidity that had me craving a cold drink whenever I could get one, greatly longing for the ubiquitous ice water dispensers of Brasil. For the first thirty miles out of Paramaribo there was a small Indian-run supermarket every three or four miles.  They thinned greatly after that with stretches of twenty miles between them.  The supermarkets generally had a shaded porch that was a hangout for locals.  Twice I had people present me with a cold liter-and-a-half bottle of water after I asked if it was okay to drink the tap water.


At least I was getting used to the traffic passing me on my right side.  For the first day I flinched at this unaccustomed sensation, so conditioned I was to traffic zipping  by me on my left side.  They all gave me plenty of space, but it didn’t seem so.  It was the rainy season in the Guianas, as it had been in Brasil, but I hadn’t had any rain in a week, other than a few sprinkles at night, in contrast to Brasil where I had to put on my rain coat two or three times day.   Though it was somewhat cloudy, it was much warmer than it had been in Brasil, leaving me perpetually craving a cold drink.  I had feared that would be my lot for much of this trip, so couldn’t complain that it had waited until near its conclusion.  

With my early afternoon arrival in Nieuw Nickerie, I had time to do some exploring.  I thought I might find my first beaches of these travels, but all I found was a sliver of a beach in the mouth of the river that feeds the Atlantic.  It was separated by a long dike that ran for several miles beyond the town, at last an emblem of the Dutch.  Though I saw lots of flowers, it wasn’t the tulip season. It was a very quiet Sunday afternoon with hardly a soul out and about in the heat. The family that ran the guesthouse were all hanging out in the shade of their porch.  

They invited me to join them for dinner, a feast of plantains baked in several sauces.  They get a dose of Trump every day on their news and were perplexed by his behavior.  Their president is well-liked and is running for his third five-year term.  With only 600,000 people in their country, it was hard for them to conceive of the size of Chicago.  They have a relative who lives in Queens and wondered how close that was to Chicago.  As much as they’d like to visit him, it is well beyond their means.  

After my limited amount of sleep the night before, I was ready for bed early, especially since I’d have to be up at five to get to the ferry.

Saturday, January 25, 2020

Paramaribo, Suriname

 The website for the embassy of Suriname stated the only way to get a visa to Suriname was via the internet.  After failing in multiple attempts I went to its embassy in Caynenne.  I was told I could actually get a visa at its consulate in Saint Laurent-du-Maroni at the border.  I wasn’t sure if I could fully trust that information so proceeded to Saint Laurent-du-Madonna, 150 miles away,  with trepidation.  If I continued to be thwarted I feared I just might have to fly over Suriname from Cayenne to Georgetown for the Carnegie Library that I  had biked nearly 4,000 miles already to reach.  

Thankfully there was no run-around at the Saint Laurent-du-Maroni consulate and I had my visa, or tourist card that I needed to present at the border to get my passport stamped, in less than ten minutes and for fewer dollars than the on-line fee.  It was a little before noon, two hours before the next ferry to Suriname, enough time to zip over to the tourist office with hopes that it would have WiFi.  It had been nearly two days since I’d had access to it, as there was none to be found in rural French Guiana, unlike Brasil where I had ample opportunity every day. 

The tourist office did have WiFi and also bikes for rent.  It also abided by the French style of closing for lunch, so after thirty minutes I had to sit outside the office to finish off my blogging duties.  I could accept that, but I was disappointed that the 8 á Huit convenience store also closed for lunch, denying me the chance to replace the liter bottle of mint syrup that I had polished off in three days.  

A local supermarket remained open.  It carried some French fare, including madeleines, which I needed to restock, but not the sirop de menthe.  I’ll just have to wait until May for my next menthe á l’eau, though I certainly enjoyed my three days of imbibing the beverage.  Usually I can make a liter bottle last a week or more, but in these circumstances I drank it non-stop, adding a dollop of the syrup to my water bottle four or five times a day with that sweetest of nectars.

When I got stamped out of French Guiana before boarding the ferry, the customs official complimented me for traversing the country in five days.  I was the only passenger on the ferry not making the crossing in a car.  It’s not a very busy crossing, as there are only four ferries a day with a capacity for just eight cars. I sat on a bench for the twenty-minute crossing until it was in the sun.  Then I went and sat in the shade between the eight cars lined up in pairs.  

With so few people crossing no one was hanging out changing money on either side of the river, but there was an exchange bureau right after one gained entry to Suriname, which surprisingly gave a more generous rate than the official rate.  

No one was out and about in the midday heat on foot or driving, so I was caught by surprise when I got a couple blocks away to the highway and was accosted by a car driving directly at me on the “wrong” side of the road, as there was no warning that Suriname, though it be a former Dutch colony, had linked up with British Guiana to the north and drove English-style on the left side of the road.  Later down the road there was an occasional reminder, but I hadn’t noticed any on arrival. 

There wasn’t any immediate hint of Suriname’s Dutch underpinnings other than an occasional sign in Dutch.  But as the miles unraveled and the road remained pancake flat, it took on the flavor of the Netherlands.  For ninety miles I didn’t need my small chain ring, by far the longest stretch of this trip, until I came to a huge bridge over the Suriname River into Paramaribo.  A sign warned six per cent grade.  That seemed like nothing after the many ten per cent climbs I had been subjected to in Brasil and French Guiana.  I was actually passing the backed up traffic crawling up and over the bridge. 

There hadn’t been much traffic until I closed in on Paramaribo, the capital of this country of 600,000 people with just under half of them living in this port city.  The outskirts of the city lent a Dutch flavor lined with small tidy homes with well-manicured yards and adorned with flowers.  

Within the final thirty miles small supermarkets and fruit stands appeared with some frequency, a stark contrast to most of French Guiana and my first sixty miles of Suriname.  I stopped at two supermarkets to break one hundred dollar notes, twelve dollars and fifty cents, that small stands couldn’t break.  At the second supermarket I didn’t really need anything other than small bills.  I at first selected a bottle of chocolate milk until I discovered jars of peanut butter for two dollars.  I returned the chocolate milk.  The proprietor may have thought I was indigent, as after I paid for the peanut butter he presented me with a two-liter bottle of cold water and a raisin-filled biscuit.  

He wasn’t the first person at a grocery store who reacted with generosity when I was meager with my purchases.  In Brasil when I walked out of a store with two packets of Ramen, two bananas and two small boxes of chocolate milk, a store employee gave me four rials, a dollar, and told me to go across the street and treat myself to a coconut.

I also elicited an act of generosity in French Guiana from a guy on a crew laying cable along the road.  I had stopped beside his truck to take advantage of its shade.  After a brief exchange he gave me his phone number and email if I had any need of help and then offered me twenty euros, which I could hardly accept.  He was a Haitian who had come to French Guiana for work and was earning more money than he imagined possible.

During the many days of this trip straining up steep climbs by day’s end my legs are fully depleted. I collapse into my tent famished and exhausted with barely enough time to eat as much as I’d like before needing to sleep.  When the going is flat the legs hardly register the pedaling and don’t want to stop.  I passed up one optimum forest campsite after another in the waning light of Suriname, finally venturing into the forest through a recently deforested patch.  As with French Guiana the ants were not an issue. 

Rafael, my Warmshowers host in Belém, explained Brasil had created super ants after trying to wipe them out with strong pesticides.  Those that survived are not to be deterred.  When he saw the gaping circular holes in my tent when I spread it out to dry, he immediately recognized the ants responsible—sauba ants, known as scissor ants, for their ability to cut through leaves or tents.

I’ve gone even longer without without a flat tire or any mechanical concerns, over a thousand miles.  My only equipment failure has been the lense popping out of my glasses.  It happened a day from Cayenne, where I knew I could find an optician who could replace the lost screw.  I could make do with my spare pair of glasses with my previous  prescription until then.  Unfortunately, it wasn’t a lost screw, but an actual break of the frame, a frame the optician didn’t have.  Nor did I have any better luck in Paramaribo.   The difference in lenses is negligible, so I can make do until I return home in less than a week.  Hard to believe it is coming to a close and the Carnegie in Georgetown is nigh.

Thursday, January 23, 2020

Kourou, French Guiana

 The imprint of France on this Guiana is more and more evident—toilet publiques, town maries, picnic tables along the road, mediatechs, 8 á Huit convenience stores and round-about art.  Kourou, where the Space Center is located, announced itself with a grand arch in its round-about featuring three of its emblems—a rocket blasting into space, parrots and men paddling a boat most likely out to the trio of islands of the notorious penal colony.

Tourist offices are also to be found, though not prominently advertised with signs indicating their whereabouts.  I had to ask the way in both Cayenne and Kourou.  As is common in French tourist offices where they keep records of such things, I was asked where I was from. The woman in Cayenne was aghast.  “An American!  I’ve been here five years and you're the first,” she said.  “Mostly we just get people from France and Belgium and occasionally England and Germany. Do you speak English in America?”

She forced a bundle of maps and literature on me, more than I needed, and was a fount of information. She told me I had just missed a launch at Kourou.  There are only about a dozen a year, so each is a big event.  She heartily recommended the Space Museum and a free bus tour of the vast site that covers 750 square kilometers.

It was forty miles to Kourou on a busy two-lane highway connecting the two main cities of French Guiana.  The flat coastal plain allowed me to get there in ample time for the early afternoon tour.  A replica of a rocket in the parking lot at the entry to the Center alongside a gallery of flags of the many countries who participate in the launches of satellites there gave it the look of an amusement park.  There is no denying it is a tourist attraction, as there were several bus loads of school kids at the museum, though not many tourists, just a German couple who were rocket ship groupies, having also visited Cape Canaveral.

My rush to get there was in naught, as one must undergo a security clearance that takes forty-eight hours to process before being allowed to take the tour.  It was Tuesday and the earliest tour I could take wouldn’t be until Friday.  It would be in French thoigh accompanied by an English transcript.  The next English language tour wasn’t until February 10.  

I’d  just have to be content with the museum, which was bilingual.  It traced the history of space flight, with mannequins of the first men in space—the Russian Yuri Gagarine in 1961, Alan Shepherd the first American shortly after, and the first Frenchman in 1982 with a Soviet crew.  Shepherd later was part of a lunar expedition and was credited with being the only person to play golf on the moon.

A map showed the location of the fourteen sites around the world with space launch pads.  Three are in China and two in Russia, the US and Japan.  The one in French Guiana is the most used of them all, as it’s close proximity to the equator allows it to benefit from the slingshot effect of the earth’s rotation for the rockets to escape earth’s gravity.  It is twenty per cent more efficient than Cape Canaveral and thirty per cent more efficient than those in Russia.  More than fifty per cent of the satellites orbiting the earth have been launched in French Guiana.  In 2007 Russia established its own launch pad at the Kourou complex.

The Space Center employs 1,700 people, seventy per cent who are locals.  It is responsible for another 7,500 indirect jobs in the country, accounting for twelve per cent of its work force.  Kourou itself had another replica of a rocket on its Main Street leading into the town.

I declined taking the hour-long ferry out to the trio of islands where the prison was as the actual island with the prison, Devil’s Island, where Dreyfus and Papillon were incarcerated, was off limits.  I contented myself with looking out at the islands in the distance from a monument to Dreyfus at the tip of the peninsula that Kourou extends out from.

There was a meager slender beach and a couple of hotels nearby where one could gaze out on the islands. As at the Space Center, there was hardly a tourist to be seen.

I would have had to find a hotel if I wanted to go out to the islands, as there are just a couple of ferries out in the morning and they don’t return until the afternoon.  There is a hotel on one of the islands, if one cared to stay over.  I’d been out to the island prison outside of Cape Town where Mandela spent a few years and didn’t particularly enjoy the memory of that experience, so was glad not to be impregnated with any more here.  

Besides the round-about art there was also other random art along the road and in towns, including an, oversized bicycle as if anticipating a stage of The Tour de France.

There was such an abundance of wrecked cars I came to regard them as an art form as well.

Most had rusted magnificently.

And some were nearly consumed by weeds.

Monday, January 20, 2020

Cayenne, French Guiana

 With only 300,000 people scattered around French Guiana, a country the size of Indiana, and half of them concentrated in the capital of Cayenne, the towns are few and far between.  It wasn’t until I was fifty miles into the country that I came upon my first, and then another seventy-five miles to the next.  

I could have dropped in on a small town just after crossing the bridge over the Rio Oiapoque from Brasil, but it was several miles off the highway, and I had no need of supplies.  If I hadn’t changed money in Oiapoque I might have made the effort, as no one was changing money, officially or unofficially at the new bridge a couple miles from the two towns on either side of the river that until a year ago could only be crossed by ferry.  

It was fortunate that I made the effort to search out a bank in Oiapoque to change my rials into euros rather than waiting until the border.  The two banks in the town were closed on Saturday, but I found a cluster of money-changers along the river where the ferry had once been.  I am always wary dealing with them, as I have been tricked and short-changed in the past, but this time I found someone of integrity who gave me a rate almost ten per cent higher than the official rate.  It was so good, I was concerned about the validity of the euros he gave me, but they were all well worn and had different serial numbers.  Dealing with the customs officials on either side of the bridge was a breeze as well, so I could pedal along with a huge weight off my back.  

Though it was exhilarating to be back in France, as the first sign announced when I crossed the bridge, the miles didn’t come any easier than they had in much of Brasil, as the terrain was similarly sharply up and down, with signs regularly warning of a ten per cent grade.

Every kilometer was marked by a post, but not the yellow capped markers similar to a tombstone as in France, that Madagascar had also adopted, but with markers on an actual post.  They were French-themed with the highway number two on a red background, indicating it was a National Highway, as is done in France.  The secondary roads were indicated with the yellow background of a départemental road, further conveying the warmth of familiarity.  

Most familiar were the license plates identical to those in France with the right end of the plate giving the number of the département where the car was registered.  This was the first time I had seen a three-digit number—937.  France is divided into 96 départements, including two in Corsica, and five overseas.   I was quite surprised to see actual French license plates on some cars, evidently cars shipped over from France of people on extended work assignments, many no doubt working at the very active Space Center that launches more satellites into space than anywhere else in the world.  Many had the number 93 of a Paris département.  I even found a license plate along the road with the number 30 in the département slot, that of Le Gard where Craig and Onni live.

The drivers drove as they do in France, tailgating at high speeds when there were two together, undeterred by the regular reminders of crashed cars along the road that they ought to be mindful of their speed.

There was even a cluster of three that had yet to turn into a bundle of rust.

The vegetation had changed from the jungle of the last one hundred miles in Brasil to forest.  Though the sky remained overcast, the clouds didn’t hang low and threaten precipitation at any moment as they did through the jungle.  It was as if the jungle had been a self-perpetuating rain machine.  When the sun peeked out at one point, the first I’d seen of it in days, I stopped to lay my many damp clothes on the shoulder of the road to dry.  Everything in my panniers had taken on a dampness, even the tights I have yet to wear.  When I gathered up the clothes after half an hour many left a damp spot on the pavement.  They were wetter than I imagined.  

I fell nine miles short of reaching the first town of Regina before dark, but had adequate food and water not to be concerned. Finding a place to camp in the vast national forest couldn’t have been easier.  It was dark and quiet enough that I slept until eight, almost two hours later than I had been.  My body needed it, as it was still worn out from my three-days of riding on the rough dirt road. I ended the day famished and exhausted, barely eating enough before succumbing to sleep. 

Regina, a town of less than a thousand, was two miles off the main road.  My first destination was the boulangerie, not for a baguette, but for madeleines and whatever meat and cheese pastries it might offer.  I had been looking forward to this moment for miles, if not days, so my heart plummeted when I saw a sign on its door apologizing for being closed this day.  

The supermarket wasn’t open either, so I had to make do with food being dispensed from a van set up at a pavilion a block from the church.  It seemed to be a Sunday event catering to church-goers.  I had a hearty bowl of noodle soup with shrimp and a side of several fritters.  I lounged for a couple of hours, letting my legs recuperate, as I luxuriated in the buzz of French all around me punctuated by a chorus of “bon appetite’s” and “ça va’s” and “á bientot’s.”  It was music to my ears.

I knew I wouldn’t reach the next town before dark, so was in no hurry.  I stopped at the town cemetery on my way back to the highway to see if it upheld the French tradition of being a source of water.   It did, so I gave myself a dousing and also washed a little more of the residue of mud off my bike and panniers.  It is so engrained it will be a long time before it is all gone.

I had another fine ant-free night in the forest. I didn’t each Cayenne until after noon.  Billboards advertising McDonald’s and KFC specials of six and seven euros began from five miles away.  The Carrefour supermarket had a competing deal.  I stopped at the Carrefour, which just like those in Senegal was a replica of those in France, the aisles packed with everything, other than the produce, shipped over from France.  I didn’t mind at all paying double for a liter of mint syrup and a kilo of madeleines and a can of cassoulet.

A French cyclist parked next to me confirmed that the cheapest hotel in town for forty euros was that recommended by Lonely Planet.  Since I was splurging on food, I wasn’t going to wince at the price of a hotel.  It was near the Suriname consulate which I had to visit in the morning to get a visa, the only one of the five countries on my itinerary that required one. 

Friday, January 17, 2020

Oiapoque, Brasil

Even with a cloud cover the sun is often strong enough to penetrate making shade a welcome refuge. It can be a while though on certain stretches that a spot of shade comes along.  I feared I was going to have to make do with the measly shade of my bike for my next break when at last I spotted a tree in the distance creating a patch of shade that just barely reached the shoulder of the road. 

Moments after I plopped down on the curb before I’d even had a chance to dig out my peanut butter a truck stopped and a young man hopped out holding a two-liter bottle of Coca-Cola. Was this an apparition?  I’ve had some amazing, semi-miraculous gestures of goodwill in Brasil, but this might top all of them.  It became even more incredulous when the truck took off leaving the Coca-Cola bearer behind. He might as well have been deposited by a space ship.

The young man joined me on the curb and explained this was where he’d get the bus to Macapa.  Then he reached into the bag he was carrying and pulled out two small plastic cups, filled one for him and one for me as if he had known I was awaiting him.  I drank it in small sips savoring it’s every drop.

After my first sip he dug into his bag and pulled out a bag of cookies and offered those as well. He was eager for me to drink up so he could give me a refill.  Then he pointed at my water bottle and asked to fill it.  This was almost as incredible as Rafael, my Warmshowers host in Belém, coming up alongside me in the thick of traffic leading to the city.

I had more good fortune that night when the choice I made of several pousadas (guest houses) I selected in Calcoene, the last town before the border 135 miles away, had a refrigerator full of bottles of cold water that I could help myself to.  This was my first source of unlimited cold water since crossing the Amazon.  A hotel I stayed at two nights before had no water to share, directing me to the supermarket to go buy water. I’d use my filter, which I had yet needed, before I did that. 

I reluctantly resorted to a hotel in Calcoene as the terrain had turned swampy.  The night before I ventured off into a pasture with thigh high grass not realizing it was a bog until I spread out my tent and discovered a spongy surface.  There was some slightly higher ground nearby that seemed suitable until I’d set up my tent and the mosquitoes came out. Before I’d had a chance to drape my shirt over the cluster of holes the ants had eaten in the tent, the mosquitoes were pouring in and they continued to find their way in through the holes I couldn’t cover.  I was in for a long, long night.

I doused myself with repellant, which somewhat kept them at bay, but not their incessant buzzing.  When I laid down to sleep I crawled into my silk sleeping bag liner covering most of my flesh, but I had no idea if the mosquitoes could sink their fangs through it and would feast on me all night draining me of who knows how much blood. This was far worse than any ant attack.

Though a hotel seemed welcome the next night, I didn’t really want to stay in Calcoene, as I would have preferred gaining another ten miles on the dreaded sixty plus mile stretch of dirt road that was thirty-five miles away, so I could start riding it all the sooner the next day.  I finally had it confirmed that a one hundred kilometer stretch of the road remained unpaved.  I had seen photos of other cyclists traversing it as a muddy quagmire, and with all the rain, it could a mess and might take me a couple of days to get through it.  

But it was good to stock up on food and water in Calcoene and start the day with all nine of my water bottles full, the first time I’d had that necessity in several weeks, for the 135-mile stretch until the next town at the border. Calcoene had several pousadas and one legitimate hotel to choose from.  It had once been a boom town, but was now in decline.  I was the lone guest in the pousada and the others didn’t look like they had any more clientele.   It took a while to connect to the pousada’s WiFi, as the letters in the password had to be entered in lower case even though the slip of paper I had been given with the password had them all in upper case. 

The map indicated there were some hamlets on the road ahead that might have provisions.  And there was always the possibility of a house providing food and drink.  Ten miles before the pavement ended I came upon a house offering food and drink. Along with the ubiquitous empanadas there was a bowl of eggs on the counter beside the glass case full of empanadas.  I gave one a spin, giving it the hard-boiled test, and  was thrilled that it passed.  I could ask for nothing better to supplement my provisions. I ate three on the spot and took three more for my ramen that night.

The occasional truck and car that passed me from the opposite direction were all covered with mud.  It did not portend well.  It had been raining off and on all morning, coming down so hard at one point that I took shelter under the awning to the entrance to someone’s property.  He noticed me and invited me, offering me coffee.

When the dirt began it was wet and full of puddles, but as hard-packed as pavement, though very rough and rocky.  The only mud was in water-filled potholes, which were easy enough to avoid as I pretty much had the road to myself.  The road was too rocky to ride along much faster than five miles per hour, but at least I wasn’t sinking into soft muddy dirt.

With a roller-coaster of steep hills there was little hope of averaging much better than five miles per hour, as I had to brake hard on the descents, almost going slower down than up.  Some were so steep I walked down them, not wishing to strain my cables or wear my pads.  I detached my cyclometer when walking, hoping that would make the pavement come sooner, as I might forget to calculate that distance in the distance I had to traveled and what I had left to go.

I was looking at potentially twelve hours of riding time to cover the sixty miles.  Since I didn’t reach the dirt until after two p.m., that meant two partial days and one full day on the dirt.  I had food enough, but might have to filter river water.  I was spared that as I came upon two sources of water.  The first was at a small store seven miles after the pavement ended in the first of the hamlets and then the next day at the twenty-five mile mark where a small restaurant had a water cooler, where I could fill my two empty bottles at that time.  

All the rain had made the rain a quagmire in spots.  

My bike was becoming caked in mud.  There was one short stretch where the mud adhered to my tires and made the riding very slippery.  As I slid I feared it meant I had a tire going soft, but thankfully I didn’t have to deal with that. 

The terrain had turned junglish.  Camping was going to be a challenge.  I was fortunate to find a small clearing just before dark where road crews dug dirt to put on the road.  It looked as if it would be ant and mosquito-free. 

I had made a fifteen-mile dent in the dirt. It would take a great effort to finish it off the next day.  The road leveled off some and I was able to up my average speed to over six miles per hour, but I only managed seven hours of riding time, holding me to forty-three miles for the day.  It had been a tough, demanding day on a road that few travel, no more than four or five vehicles an hour, mostly pick-up trucks with a huge load wrapped in tarps.

There had been small clearings with a house or two every so often on this stretch, which were a possibility for camping,  but I came upon another small clearing with a mound of dirt to hide behind half an hour before dark. Having completed fify-eight miles I knew the pavement was imminent.  

I had to wait ten miles before that glorious moment arrived.  When my tires graced the pavement it felt as if I were riding a magic carpet.  It was thirty-one miles to Oiapoque.  The road continued with its ups and downs, so it was still hard going, but at least I could fly down the descents.  

I kept hoping for someone selling empanadas, not that I needed food or water, as I had food aplenty and two bottles of water remaining. It would just be nice to have a place of shelter to sit and confirmation that all was still well with civilization.  I’d had no contact with the outside world for two days, no Wifi after having it every day since I left Montevideo exactly two months ago.  Trump might no longer be president or he might have started World War III. 

I stopped at the first hotel I came to, a motel with a courtyard where I could lay out my gear to dry and wash all the mud off everything.  Even though I had my sleeping pad wrapped in two plastic bags, moisture had gotten in during all the rain before the dirt. It was soaked and hadn’t had a chance to dry.  I emptied my panniers and took them into the shower with me.  The grit was in everything.  But I had survived the toughest stretch of the trip and now have a taste of Europe to look forward to tomorrow when I cross into French Guiana on a recently built bridge over the Oyapock River.

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Tartarugalzinho, Brasil

Rio de Janeiro is experiencing an extreme heat wave with temperatures well over one hundred degrees, but I’m continuing to be blessed by pleasant temperatures in the 80 after crossing the Equator in Macapa and returning to the northern hemisphere where the days are lengthening. 

I can thank the generally overcast skies and regular dousings of rain for keeping the temperatures moderate.  In the rare instances when the sky clears and I’m subjected to the direct rays of the sun it’s like being hitting by a flame-thrower.  There is usually one hard downpour a day and a light drizzle or two.  There are also spells of a light mist such as greenhouses use to spray their plants.  I don't mind the rain at all except at the end of the day if it comes too close to camping time.

Contending with one hundred degree temperatures would not be pleasant in this lightly populated northern corner of Brasil with water and shade few and far between.  There are stretches of sixty and eighty and another of over one hundred miles between towns in this final stretch to French Guyana.  With so little traffic there are no extra service stations between towns and what service stations there are are so barebones they don’t have the tankards of ice water that I have come to take for granted.  

It is most disheartening to no longer have them to look forward to. The restaurants don’t have the dispensers either, though some do have bottles of home-made ice water in their refrigerators they will share, though I can’t be greedy about it and have to be content with filling just one of my bottles.  With so few people to cater to the restaurants do not have the buffets that fueled me up every afternoon.  They at least all have trays of empanadas that provide energy enough.

I was expecting the junglish vegetation I experienced crossing the Amazon to continue, but it’s back to the savanna of thinly sprinkled trees.  My day in the lush jungle aboard the ferry almost seems like a dream now that it is two days behind me.  It was such a deep, unexpected immersion into the “backwoods” of the indigenous people I am still processing the amazing experience. I am almost wishing I had taken the return ferry and had another helping.

Logging trucks have been about the only trucks on this route, but not even one per hour.  I can go five minutes or more without any vehicle.  The terrain is mostly flat.  With my fresh legs I had my first eighty mile day since Uruguay and then had another.  They could have both been centuries if there had been more light and less rain. 

I could cross into French Guyana in two days if the road remains paved the final one hundred and fifty miles.  I’ve heard conflicting reports on whether a sixty-mile stretch before the border has been paved.  If it’s dirt and a heavy rain catches me on it, it could be rendered impassable on the bike.  I’ll have to count on a benevolent trucker to get me through, as happened to me in Bolivia years ago.

The miles are passing so effortlessly for the first time, I am startled at times to discover I’ve gone fifteen or more miles and ought to be thinking of taking a rest. I am growing excited about crossing into French Guyana and being somewhat able to communicate with the locals.  Since it is a French départment, I am hoping for the kilometer markers I’m so familiar with in France and whatever other cultural attachments to the home country it might have along with the euro as it’s currency.  

It would be as exciting as ice cold water to find bottles of mint syrup for sale, so I can have my favorite drink, menthe á l’eau, through the three Guianas.  That has me almost as excited as the Carnegie Library in Georgetown, now less than eight hundred miles away, that was the impetus for this trip.  

Sunday, January 12, 2020

Across the Amazon

 I was looking forward to the sunrise over the Atlantic, as the sun still rises in the east in the Southern Hemisphere, when I curled up to sleep beside my bike on the car deck of the ferry from Belém to Macapa.  I may have been the only person aboard not sleeping in a hammock or in one of the ten small suites.  Two of the four decks on the ferry were long, open-aired spaces for passengers to hang their hammocks, wide enough to hang three across. Both decks were packed with a colorful array of hammocks not more than a foot apart. 

It would have been a novel experience to be among them, but I felt obligated to guard my bike, or at least all the gear on it.  Lonely Planet warned that thieves were known to grab packs and toss them overboard to accomplices in boats and then dive into the water.  One had to be more wary of that on the popular week-long trips to Manaus that all the backpackers and tourists are drawn to than the ferry to Macapa.  

So few travelers venture to Macapa that the 700-page Lonely Planet guide to Brasil didn’t mention it, even though it’s a city of half a million people.  Nor did Lonely Planet have anything to say about the sector I was venturing into to the Guianas. Looking around at my fellow passengers, none seemed the seedy, thieving type, but I still felt inclined to keep an eye on my gear even after I learned a crew member was somewhat on guard duty.

I had retired to bed early when the ferry got out into open water a little before dark and started rocking more than to my liking. Prone as I am to motion sickness I feared I could be reduced to the fetal position for the entire passage as we skirted the Atlantic, as this was not a full-sized ocean-going ferry.  

It was just big enough for fourteen compact cars, seven in the front part of the ferry and seven in the rear where my bike resided.

It had no seating area other than a small cafe of ten tables at the back of the car deck and a two-tabled cafe at the rear of the upper hammock deck.  The top deck had a long bench at its rear, but was otherwise uncovered open space.  

I quickly drifted off to sleep, even though it wasn’t even seven p.m.  My body had been in recuperation-mode all day, having spent it sitting in the air-conditioned ferry terminal as it drizzled outside, as I awaited the three p.m. departure.  With my body in shut-down I felt drowsy and capable of taking a nap at any time, so was happy to be forced to somewhat prematurely begin my night’s sleep. The rocking seemed to dissipate during the night.

When daylight began streaming in I was quite taken aback to notice thick jungle not fifty feet from the boat as I looked towards what I thought was the east and wide open water.

My first thought was I had gotten on the wrong boat and was headed upriver to Manaus, but I knew that couldn’t be the case as my ticket had been checked twice before I boarded and I’d even confirmed I was in the correct line.  I was equally surprised when looking to the other side that jungle was equally close, as if we were passing through a channel.  I quickly turned to my iPad and checked the GPS.  I discovered that we hadn’t headed out to the Atlantic, but were following an intricate network of rivers to the west of the huge island of Marajo, as big as Switzerland, in the mouth of the Amazon.

The blue arrow marks our location, which I regularly checked following our progress, trying to guess which waterway we’d follow.

We remained on narrow waterways much of the way, though crossed main arteries of the Amazon from time to time. It was immense.  One nearly needed binoculars to see across it.  The Mississippi was a mere trickle in comparison.

So there was no sun rising up out of the Atlantic.  We were in the thick of the jungle on waterways that had dwellings with docks every so often.  There was always someone paddling a canoe in sight, all manner of people, from children to grandmothers.  Some approached our boat as passengers were known to toss plastic bags of food.  As I gazed out at this unexpected spectacle, a trickle of passengers passed me to the cafe and returned with a small bag of food.  A breakfast of a cheese sandwich, banana and apple was provided to all.

I gathered mine then went up onto the top deck to watch all the action.  It was incredible.  This was as authentic as it gets. At last, after weeks and weeks of anticipation I was experiencing Amazonia.  I was as swept away by it just as I had been when I first laid eyes on Mount Everest from my bicycle seat as I approached Kathmandu.  I was filled with a sustained sense of “wow” then and now.  This was genuinely authentic and unique.

Unlike the touristy boats to Manaus down the wide Amazon that stay well away from the shoreline, we were right in people’s front yards on the narrow passageways we were following.  

We could see the smiles on people’s faces and the patterns on their clothes hanging to dry.

This was the Amazon River experience that one could hope for.  Friends who have done the Manaus trip complain how boring it is as they chug along out in the middle of the vast river and they see nothing but the distant tree-lined shoreline. There wasn’t anything boring about the ever evolving collage of habitats and people in canoes and the variety of foliage and trying to imagine what their life’s must be like.  I sat up on the top deck with its 360 degree views for over two hours until it began to heat up too much to be out in the sun.

I retreated to the upper hammock deck and sat on my ensolite pad with there being no chairs.  I had been expecting to do a fair amount of reading, but the scenery was too mesmerizing to read much, though I was able to finish Sara Philippe’s Wesleyan thesis “Everything Has Become Southern: The Confederado Colony in Santarém, Brasil.”  

Santarém was several hundred miles up river from where I was about halfway to Manaus, so I could relate to their experience.  The couple hundred southerners who ventured to Santarém after the Civil War did not have an easy time of it.  Within ten years most had returned to the US, many transported back by US ships sent to Belém to rescue them.  Unless they were willing to work very hard themselves, they weren’t likely to succeed, as it was difficult to find locals, especially among the Indigenous people, who were prepared to work more than sporadically.  

Few of the Southerners had the funds for slaves or the necessities requisite for success having lost most of their resources during the Civil War.  And the Brasilian government didn’t hold true to promises it had made them to wave import taxes on essential equipment, one of the reasons the US government felt justified to rescue them.  

Though Philippe doesn’t examine other groups of Southerners that ventured to Brasil, those that went where the weather wasn’t so hot had greater success.  The Amazon was simply too steamy and demanding, thwarting them just as it did Henry Ford sixty years later not too far from Santarém where he attempted to set up a rubber manufacturing operation. 

Fortunately there was no WiFi on the boat to distract me, but it did have ample electrical outlets for charging and that Brasilian essential, ice water dispensers, on three of the decks.   I appeared to be the only non-Portuguese speaker and the only English speaker. Not a soul attempted to speak to me.  One of the 14 cars though had a bike mounted on its back.  Just about everyone was in shorts and flip-flops.  A few wore soccer jerseys, though no one had a ball to kick around.  

We arrived in Macapa, or actually Santana, a few miles down river, at five p.m.,  right on schedule, 26 hours after we departed.  I didn’t have enough daylight to escape the sprawl, so ended up camping at a service station for the second time in these travels, but at least I was in my tent.