Getting ready for the Amazon

It seems like our next trip, a 14 day cruise on the Amazon from Manaus to Fort Lauderdale, is sure taking a lot of preparation work compared to our past cruises.  But now the biggest part of that work is (hopefully) out of the way.  Sent out the paperwork to apply for the Brazilian visa yesterday, so hopefully we’ll see that back soon.  What’s interesting is how much variance the various Brazilian consulates have in how they deal with visa applications.  You have to deal with the consulate that has jurisdiction for where you live, which in our case means Chicago.  The nice thing is the Chicago consulate seems to be pretty easy to deal with.  Heck, they even allow you to mail your application in (for a small additional fee), where many of the others require in-person application, or going through an expensive visa service.  And compared to the situation that those having to use the LA consulate were having, where they just flat-out couldn’t get an appointment, and the consulte was severely limiting applications through visa services (so those services were charging a couple  hundred dollars on top of the visa fees), apparently we get it relatively easy.

The other thing that’s come up while preparing is that man, it seems like there’s a lot of shots that are necessary.  Yellow Fever vaccination was required because of the countries we’re visiting, so had to get that done.  Then my doctor decided that I should really get the Hep A and B shots, so there’s 3 shots for those before I leave (plus either 1 or 2 after I get back, the 6 month later one, but I can’t remember if both A and B require it or just one of them).  Then of course the flu shot.  Then while getting the YF shot, the nurse at the travel clinic pointed out two more things.  First, she suggested that if my tetanus shot was more than 5 years old, I should get the updated one of those.  And then, apparently, this year the advice for those with asthma was changed to recommend getting the pneumonia shot.  Yikes, I’m starting to feel like a pincushion.

Detroit to Manaus

Easy enough trip to Miami, no major snowstorm like we had to deal with last year.  Got into Miami about 20 minutes late, then ended up spending at least a good 45 minutes or an hour while Princess waited for another group to come in and get luggage before they took us to the hotel.  Seemed a little excessive in our book, especially considering that for this mandatory operational “overnight” we knew we were going to be going to the airport for a 12:50 am flight.  Got to the hotel around 7pm, and after figuring out how to check in (Princess did not do a great job with this), found out we were assigned the 9:40pm bus to the airport.  So our mandatory overnight turned out to be less than 3 hours.  Ended up eating dinner there at the hotel since we hadn’t seen anything coming in, and didn’t really have a lot of time to go out exploring.  Went down to catch the bus, and once again Princess seemed to be lacking, with nobody anywhere to give you any directions on where to go.  All together, not exactly the most favorable impression so far. Get to the airport to check in, and find the amusement contined.  Our charter flight was on Omni Air International, and they were using the Virgin Atlantic booths to check in.  But apparently, they’re only sorta allowed to use those booths, because they couldn’t run the luggage through the system, and instead were putting them on carts to haul off to TSA for inspection, jockeying around people with luggage trying to check in.  The F terminal at the Miami aiport is also a joke.  I honestly don’t know how they can even legally operate it with a normal flight load during the day.  As far as we could determine, there’s one restroom each for the men and women, and the men’s at least had 4 stalls.  With just our flight with 350+ people it was still inadequate.

Things really became a joke when we got on the charter.  It was a DC-10 airplane, and was confugured in a 3-4-3 seating configuration.  I honestly don’t know what normal was for a DC-10, but I can’t imagine it was that.  For one thing, you could barely walk down the aisle.  Lucky us got a bulkhead seat.  What that meant was probably a smidgen more leg room (and nobody to recline into you), but seats with immoveable arm rests, and I’d probably have to guess it was maybe a 16 inch wide seat.  I’ve never seen a seat that small in an airplane, even commuter jets.  Bulkhead of course means no underseat storage, but to top things off, the first couple of rows in the section also didn’t have any overhead storage.  And what overhead storage there was, nobody bothered to warn anyone that it wasn’t exactly designed for a standard carryon piece.  Could be worse, we know of a couple that was assigned row 13.  Problem was there wasn’t actually a row 13 on the plane.  They did serve a breakfast on the plane.  Somewhere around 3 am or so, and after making an exceptionally loud announcement that they were doing so (naturally, right after I had finally managed to actually fall asleep).  This was by far the worst flight I’ve ever been on, and to be honest, I’d argue the seating configuration at a minimum borders on the inhumane.  Oh, and what do they frequently use this plane for?  Shuttling troops overseas.  That’s just plain not right.  (FWIW, the one flight attendant told the couple near us what the seating capacity on the plane was, and I’m pretty sure they said 378.)

Manaus Day 1

The insanity continued in Manaus. When we get there, they tell us they can only let 50 people off the plane at a time. This actually doesn’t seem that unreasonable, obviously customs doesn’t want too long of a line at once. Well, that made sense until you get to where you claim your luggage, only to discover that everyone let off before you is in a mad scramble trying to find their luggage, half the pieces have been removed from the belt, and more luggage is still coming out. We actually did pretty well, 3 of our pieces were already in the room (scattered around), and the 4th came up pretty quick. After maneuvering around all the people still looking for luggage, we passed a very short line for the guy collecting the customs declaration form. While I’m not necessarily arguing, this guy basically just collected the form, not even glancing at it. You could have written anything on it, and he wouldn’t have cared. Princess then collected our luggage to take to the ship, and collected our passports and the immigration form, and sent us on to a bus to to the ship. That’s it, and we’re now in the country without a single Brazilian official even glancing at the passport (although they’re supposed to be reviewed and the visas stamped while we’re on the ship). Oh, and if I ever see an Omni Air plane again, it’ll be too soon. If Princess tries to put me on one again, I’ll cancel the cruise.

Things definitely started picking up from here. We got on the bus to the ship, about a 25-30 minute trip, and had a guide that talked abuot Manaus and some of the things we were passing. We’d heard rumours that Princess really didn’t have a plan for the incoming passengers and would just put us in a room somewhere until we could board the ship, but it turned out we were able to get on immediately. They did sequester us in a room until our cabins were ready, but it was fairly civilized, and pastries and some drinks were provided. We weren’t even there an hour before we were released to go to the cabins and do whatever we wanted.

Hit the cabin to drop our stuff off, and then we decided we’d go ahead and walk into the city. Headed out, and there was a long line on our way out for the ATM, so figured we’d either find one in the city or stop by on the way back (We needed Brazilian Reals to pay for our tour the next day). Outside the port terminal the streets are kind of a marketplace, lined with stalls selling stuff. And we’re talking about a wide variety of things. One stall would be selling remote controls, the next cell phones, the next rope, the next hardware type things, then another cell phone place, you get the picture. Several places selling things like Christmas lights and other holiday decor (and just imagine how out of place it looks to be seeing places selling things that have snowmen on them in the middle of the Amazon rain forest). None of this stuff was really looking to sell to tourists, this was all geared towards locals. Personally, I have a hard time imagining shopping for things like that. And the sidewalks were incredibly crowded. We headed uphill from the port, past what I think was the Manaus Cathedral, and in the direction of the Manaus Opera building. This is supposedly a pretty neat place, and apparently is actually used quite a bit. Outside, they were working on preparing for a large Christmas show they hold. We didn’t actually go in, although we might have had problems catching a tour in English we found out later from someone that had looked into it.

From there we just headed back down the streets back towards the ships. We were already feeling the heat of the midday (Hey, remember, it was about 18 degrees when we left Detroit). Even having taken water with us and it just being a short trip off the ship, it was still hitting us. By the time we got back to the port I was starting to get some leg cramping (and man, for an hour or so after I got back to the room, it got real bad). So obviously I wasn’t getting enough water. We did stop to try the ATM in the port building. There seemed to be two there, one that seemed to be mainly local banks, that all the locals used, and another from HSBC that none of the locals used. Course, I think all the locals were probably laughing at us as us and another American couple spent quite some time trying to figure out an ATM that was in Portuguese. Someone finally stumbled across an option to have it show English, so we were able to get the money we needed.

After a couple of hours relaxing, and finding an afternoon snack, Cathy decided we needed to head out again and look through some of the places selling stuff to see if she could find anything she wanted. She also wanted to try walking down to where the old French market was, where we’d passed a large fruit, vegetable, and meat market on our way in on the bus. Didn’t make it all the way there, but did get a brief look at the French market (although you can only sorta see it, supposedly they were doing some restoration on it, and discovered something that’s caused progress to stop).

Manaus is definitely a different city from what we’re used to. In the middle of the Amazon rain forest, it’s a city of almost 2 /million people. There’s a lot of old architecture that’s been reused for stuff, but also a lot that has been gutted and is sitting vacant. I wouldn’t say it’s the cleanest city in the world either, there was definitely evidence of rats. (And apparently, it’s not unreasonable for a kid to decide to urinate on a tree along the side of the road.) During the day, the areas we were in I felt fairly safe, but I don’t know if I’d necessarily want to wander those same streets at night (but I wouldn’t say that that’s any different than plenty of other cities we’ve been in). It’s actually on the Rio Negro, not the Amazon, just a little upriver from where it does join the Amazon. People here seem to be perfectly content to travel between cities on boats that are very crowded, take several days to get to where they’re going, and you need to bring a hammock if you want somewhere to sleep. And it seemed like everyone in the city near the port was selling tickets for these boats. And you can tell it’s the rainforest, at one point it was pretty clear, then all of a sudden a wall of rain swept through, then cleared up pretty quick.

The show on the ship that night was a local cultural show, done by some local dancers. Apparently it covered the evolution of dance in Brazil. It was mildy entertaining, but I don’t know that I’d say that the dancing was particularly skillful. After that it was off to bed, because it’d been a long couple of days and we had to get up pretty early the next morning for a tour.

Manaus Day 2

Shortly before we’d left for this trip we found out that Princess had cancelled a large number of their shore excursions on the Amazon. This included a couple that we’d really been interested in, such as a night trip into the flooded forests looking for caymen, and a trip the next day that did the meeting of the waters and Lake January with the large lily pads. (In hind sight it was probably good that we weren’t stuck with that night trip after having dealt with that overnight flight we had). However, one of the people from our cruise critic group had put together an excursion with a local guide and still had room for us.

This turned out to be an absolutely tremendous excursion, easily one of the best we’ve taken on a cruise. Rudolpho was our guide, and he picked us up at the pier and took us to a speed boat that we used to travel upriver for an hour. After all the heat walking around town the day before, it was amazing just how different the experience was to be on a speed boat on the river. Very comfortable and relaxing. Our first stop this morning was to be at a spot where we could get in the water and swim with and feed the pink dolphins. A little before we got to this, we ran into what I think was a flock of cormorants on the river’s edge. Easily a couple hundred of birds in this flock, and at one end they’d be taking off from the water, and landing at the other end. When in the water all you could see was their long necks sticking out of the water, so when I first saw them I though they looked like some kind of odd reed. Was really kinda neat.

We stopped at a place first that was supposed to have some restrooms and to pick up our guide. Water hadn’t been working there so the restrooms had all been nailed shut. Since I still needed to change into a swim suit, turned out the only spot available was the open end of the floating houseboat we had stopped at, which was definitely a different experience. Especially when all of a sudden I could hear a boat motor coming up the river towards where they could see me.

From the house boat thing we went to a platform a ways out and sure enough there were several dolphins swimming in the area. When the guide got in the water, the dolphins started congregating around. We were able to get in the water, and then hold fish up over the water, and the dolphins would stick their heads up out of the water and take the fish from your hands. The dolphins would also constantly be bumping into you under the water, and you can’t really see them until they’re within a foot or so of the surface, because the Rio Negro has really dark colored water, with very little visibility.

We then went to a nice sandy beach fr a little while, where we could walk around, get in the water, and just relax for a while. Very soft sand, and the bottom just sloped very gradually out from shore so you could walk a ways out into the water.

From there we headed to a local house for lunch. This was a local family house, some people that actually now do have electricity, but only for the last year or so. Lunch was barbequed chicken and fish, plus some things like Piranah soup, watermelon, and Mango juiceOne of our party also took some time to try some fishing. Never did catch anything, but he was definitely getting bites, you could see the fish pulling the line. As we were finishing up, it did absolutely start to pour rain. I have to admit, I was pretty impressed with the palm frond awning we were under, I didn’t see a single leak.

After the rain let off, we headed back to the boat and headed downstream some more to a village that was set up by a tribe that used to live upriver. It’s now a preserve of some kind, which allows them to continue to practice their heritage, and yet be closer to the city if they needed anything from there. Rudolpho likes to bring groups here if there’s time to get a taste for something fairly authentic.

Then it was hurry back to the speedboat before yet another rainstorm swept in, and we headed off back to the ship through some of that rain.

All in all, I’d have to say that this was an incredible trip, easily one of the best excursions we’ve taken on cruise ships. It more than made up for the other excursions that we’d looked at being canceled, and I can leave knowing that at least we really did get a chance to get out and get a taste of what’s here. If you ever happen to be in Manaus, I can highly recommend getting ahold of Rudolpho to see what he can put together for you.

Sailing today was right at 6pm, which also happens to be when first seating dining is.

That’s the one thing I do truly dislike about the small Princess ships, traditional dining. I like to watch us sail from ports, and the fixed seating dining often seems to get in the way of that. I don’t know if we would have gotten to the meeting of the waters early enough that it was still light, but wouldn’t have minded trying to see it.

Parintins

Parintins is a tender port. We hadn’t planned anything, and the only excursions Princess had were for a tricycle tour of the city and for a demonstration of the Boi Bumba festival. Neither of these really sounded particularly interesting to us, although we did think about the Boi Bumba thing. But I personally felt it was a bit pricey to sit a couple of hours for a dance. So we just got off the ship and wandered some of the streets. Again, definitely not a place that’s really touristy, and to me, just didn’t seem all that exciting. One of the things that we were told was that there’s several things that we can’t bring out of Brazil, and a lot of what the few vendors that were there were selling was made out of those materials (Primarily wood). Lots of neat wooden items, but we’re not supposed to buy it.

That’s about it for Parintins. Formal night on the ship, joy oh joys. The ship actually stays in port overnight here, but the last tender runs about 5:30 or so. They say there’s a strong current that makes doing it at night unsafe. (I’m not overly convinced there’s much reason to be in town at night anyways). The next stop is only 20 miles or so down the river, so not much point in leaving at night.