TRAVELING THE AMAZON: REFUGEES
(North Platte Bulletin) - By Dean Jacobs
Early in the morning, I found myself planted on all fours in the yard of the hostel.
Lucas, a traveling companion from Austria, watched with empathy as I battled a case of food poisoning from the previous evening’s dinner.
At least I had a ticket in my pocket for the boat, thanks to Lucas. Two days earlier, he spent an entire night at the port waiting at the front of the line for the tickets to go on sale.
Lucas had asked, “Can you bring my money for the ticket?” He didn’t want to spend the night at the port with a pocket full of cash.
The next morning, I arrived early at the port with his money and mine. I also had our passports. A long line of Haitians had already formed behind Lucas. The boat had space for only 500 people.
Our teamwork paid off and we were third in line for tickets.
But two days later, my space on the boat was in question as I spent the early morning sick.
Dehydrated and determined not to miss the boat, I regrouped, threw on my backpack and set off to find Lucas.
At the port, I was greeted by a mass of people who were all hoping to get on the boat for Manaus. A line system had snaked back and forth under the covered area of the port. For reasons unknown to me, I was directed to a place in the line not far from Lucas and Deja, a woman from Montenegro.
I decided to cut across and join them.
The woman standing behind them had a fit, until a woman from Peru in front of us explained I was there earlier in the morning but had to go back and get the rest of my belongings.
I bought ice cream for the Peruvian woman and the children of the woman who had the fit. Things settled down as the wait to board stretched into hours.
Finally after the arrival of the federal police to check everyone, passengers started to board.
In 10 minutes, the whole line system collapsed, and I found myself in a sea of people all aiming for a two-foot wide gangplank to get on the ship. With my large pack on my back and my small pack on my chest, I was smashed between bodies all pushing and shoving forward.
As the heat of the bodies pressed against me, it began to take its toll on my already dehydrated body. Sweat rolled down my cheeks and my shirt became soaked. I was concerned about passing out.
This is when I had the realization of what it must be like to be leaving a ravaged country like Haiti.
A sense of desperation and panic filled the air. A fear of being left behind could be seen in the eyes of the people.
It took an hour to move five feet closer to the gangplank. In front of me, Lucas plowed the way like an offensive lineman. Between us was a tiny indigenous Indian couple completely smothered and overwhelmed by the aggressive Haitians.
“You first,” I repeated over and over to the frightened couple as we inched closer to the gangplank.
The system was painfully slow; the federal police checked every bag for every person who boarded the ship.
A federal police officer at the end of the gangplank would point to the next person allowed to climb aboard. He pointed to Lucas, leaving me with the tiny couple. Next he pointed to the couple, but they missed his signal. So, he pointed to someone else. Another 20 minutes passed. I started to feel lightheaded and I was still experiencing symptoms of dehydration.
Catching the officer’s eyes, I pointed to the tiny couple in front of me. A minute later they were gone.
“Keep breathing, Dean,” I repeated to myself. “Breathe in, breathe out.”
Fifteen minutes later, the officer pointed to me and I scrambled up the gangplank, hoping I would not fall off because of my lack of balance.
As I climbed, I turned to see the countless number of eyes watching me board.
On the second level of the boat, I found Lucas. He had tied my hammock next to his. The five-day journey down the Amazon River to Manaus, Brazil had begun.
The boat's capacity was said to be 500 people. It seemed like way more as I wove around bodies and hammocks.
Without 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, 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 views of the passing landscape and breaths 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 in a jungle, floating in the river. To combat the cold and 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.
“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 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 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 a long boat ride down the Amazon River.
“Before getting on the boat, I was very stressed and afraid," she said. "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 are all heading to unknown futures, hoping a better life is 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.