By cargo ship, to the Amazon

By Cargo Ship, to the Amazon Jungle

By Natalia Cartney

The Henry, a cargo and passenger ship that plies the rivers of Brazil. photos by Natalia Cartney.
The Henry, a cargo and passenger ship that plies the rivers of Brazil. photos by Natalia Cartney.

We caught a cargo ship to the Amazon, in rainy season, and just as the school holidays ended. It was raining as we left, almost obscuring the muddy banks that were the docks.

This was three days after the boat had originally planned to depart, and we had watched live chickens brought on board in small cages, entire fridges carried on human backs up the metallic spiral staircases, ice-cream trucks driven on backwards, sometimes sliding sideways down the thin planks beneath their wheels connecting them to the mud below.

Initially, there was room aboard for the few children to do somersaults on the hammocks. Run even, as they found giant beetles and scared incomers with them. Each hour, new hammocks would be tied to the metal rods from the ceiling. Boxes, or pink plastic hello kitty bags with personal belongings would pile up against poles. The children had to resort to now crawling, ducking, and squeezing between hammock ropes, people’s hanging feet, grandma’s blanket or the man trying to sell chips in between.

Hammocks a Luxury

Even a hammock was a luxury, and as such, shared between as many as could manage. The rest slept on thin mattresses on the floor, and at night towels would emerge on the walkways, making the way to the bathroom a path of human hair and feet.

As the boat left, hammocks were going up between hammocks, until a move by one person could be felt four hammocks away, and there were hammocks along the windows where mothers would lie pressed in against the wall, holding their children.

Kids slept on hammocks down below.
Kids slept on hammocks down below.

Even part of the maybe ten meter lunch bench had hammocks hanging above it. Sailing out meant all sorts of wonderful things, not only the jungle thickening around the banks, or villages with canoes that emerged on river banks, but showers, and regular meals that could be obtained without a nagging fear that the boat might leave in the time we left it.

Showers, although still taken from water pumped out the river directly, at the same temperature and with little or no filtration, were possible. While the boat stood still, the water for the showers came from beneath the boat, not only from the edge of a dock, but also from the same place the boat toilets deposited.

We began to smell less like ourselves, and more like the nature we inhabited. The second benefit, a communist style line for the kitchen, where each person held on to their plastic containers and forks they had brought on board, then presented their ticket to be graced with three square meals a day.

Fried piranhas for lunch.
Fried piranhas for lunch.

I was impressed at the quality, as feeding over a hundred people on what appeared to be five chickens disappearing every day, while still making the meal palatable and not dangerous must have been a challenge. I could never tell if the cook, a transvestite in her or his forties, took my complements seriously.

Fried Piranhas

This food was supplemented, as our budget could allow, with fried piranhas in banana leaves that came momentarily on board as we stopped, or exotic fruit that we learnt to eat one by one on a first time basis.

Dangers amounted to the following: As your hammock aged, and began to sag, leaving you sleeping in what increasingly resembled the letter ‘V’, you might feel the need to rehang your hammock.

If you were brave enough to attempt to retie the knots tied by an old sailor, you were now several feet above the ground, and quickly someone moved in underneath. Leaving your hammock would create the illusion of a space between your hammock and the next, and a new hammock might spontaneously emerge.

Fish for sale alongside the cargo ship.
Fish for sale alongside the cargo ship.

Giant beetles, on their nightly crawl across the ceiling, might suddenly lose grip, leading all your four limbs in an awkward battle against their two pincers, neither of you initially understanding what just happened, and those two pincers holding on for dear life to your skin.

Added to that were the ship’s pet pets, including a flightless parrot, spending time hanging on the scarce life jackets handing from the ceiling, and a small kitten that cleaned up after us, as we tried to create a gourmet tuna dip, placing plates on our knees while balancing precariously on our hammocks.

We knew we were truly in the Amazon when it started to make its way on board. Insects, like fusions of two or three insects you might be vaguely familiar, and several times the size, died with wings spread out in the stagnant water on the shower floors. Mosquitoes took turns for feeding sessions, waiting in the corners above. There would be swirls of water in the river suddenly, where giant schools of fish approached the surface, and reportedly curious pink dolphins jumping where two rivers met.

Amazon of the 21st Century

Inside the Henry.
Inside the Henry.

This was the Amazon in the 21st century, and as we came in and out of reception, from towns we sometimes never saw, there would be beeps of messages arriving on mobiles phones.

At night, when the generator was turned on for light, the power points glowed with phone chargers, and the hoard of the ship’s children gather watching the Smurfs on a tiny TV, or adults watch glimpses of reruns of Jet Lee classics in between the hammock forest, now decorated with hanging laundry and towels in bright yet faded colors trying to avoid the ferment of the humidity.

And between the baskets of fish and fruit was Coca Cola, canned food and chocolate bars, all of which regrettably was thrown through the windows, into what had continued to be the great taker of rubbish, the river. Though now, it had to deal with inorganic plastic. Even the rubbish that went in the ship’s rubbish bins regrettably had the same destination.

View from the captain's cabin.
View from the captain’s cabin.

We watched our passengers, as our passengers watched us. We watched the jungle pass, seeing trees covered in vines, watching whole logs float down the swollen river.

Sometimes from the front, sometimes burning ourselves in the tropical sun, on the mattress that were transported on the roof of the ship, where Amazonian children coming back from their school holidays played hide and seek.

There was a storm on our last night. As it began, the jungle would emerge out of the darkness, each time, thunder lighting up a navy silhouette of trees in the distance and giant storm clouds above.

The captain turned the engines off, and we floated towards the edge of the lake we found ourselves in, until the back of our ship pressed against the river banks.

Heavy Rain

Rain came down heavily, the winds turned the boat until it was our entire side pressing against the jungle. Trees screeched as their trunks broke with the force, reeds and parts of trees came through the windows. We lay in darkness, the loudness of the jungle humming directly next to us.

Mosquitoes, now freed of the trouble of crossing a river, entered in droves. Rumors of police ships up ahead turned into that of pirate ships that invaded, waiting precisely for stranded ships in the invisible parts of the Amazon. In the chill of that night, wrapping ourselves in blankets covered in brightly painted pandas bought for a few dollars at the local market where we started, we waited until a time late in the night when comforting return of engine noise left the reeds behind.

When we arrived in Iquitos, four days up river, we were met by the strange benefit that is concrete. Bikes attached to metal carriages, with ad-hoc plastic sheets to protect from the rain, took us into the town, the strange roar of the diesel engine always around us. Ice-cream shops filled the sidewalks. The Amazon jungle, at its most flooded time of the year, was not far away.

Natalia CartneyNatalia Cartney is an Australian writer and doctor with the dubious privilage of having drunk water from the Nile, Ganges and Amazon rivers. She works alongside photographer Rodrigo Llauro and their work can been viewed at, as well published in magazines such as Cultural Survival and Verge.

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