January 13, 2020, Belem Brazil
You could say the riverfront of Belem, Brazil has gone to seed but gone to spore is more accurate. Along the river old buildings, some must have been grand in their day, covered with Portuguese tiles, are developing a coating of mold. In the cornices the mild had provided a base for soil. Grass, bushes and small trees are sprouting. Almost everywhere along the waterfront the paint has faded into a pastel. The effect was heightened by the fact that this is the rainy season with overcast skies although we saw patches of blue with the showers. But it clear that the time and the tropics have not been kind to some of these buildings.
But in some places people are taking care. It looks like some of the tile faces have seen a recent slosh of Clorox, some fronts have new coats of paint and three riverfront warehouses are being converted into restaurant and entertainment venues, air conditioned with a microbrewery, health food stores and ATM machines. Of course, the Cathedral has fresh whitewash, although some of the other churches reflect the wear of the districts.
Next to the repurposed warehouses sits the market, the city claims it is one of the oldest in the Americas in the same location, and beyond that the old Portuguese fortress which was opened on its “closed Monday” to accommodate us.
Beyond the new waterfront a new city rises, or rather high rises. The skyscrapers advertise office space and house “Grandioso Apartments.” It says so on the billboard.
I think Holland America calls in Belem to give passengers the “Amazon Experience.” Tours took guests on riverboat trips and walks through the rain forest. We had some wonderful Amazon experiences on our 2015 trip up the river on another Holland ship so this time we wanted to see the city on the delta where the rubber and other goods from upriver landed for transshipment across the ocean.
Getting into Belem is not easy. It sits on the Rio Guajará about 70 miles from the Atlantic, although it is affected by the ocean tides. Rio Guajará is part of the Amazon delta system of waterways. The main river spills into the Atlantic to the North. The Amsterdam cannot get as far as Belem so anchors in the river off of Icoaraci. (Cruise ships do get to Manaus but using the main channel of the Amazon.) The dock on the riverbank is not appropriate for the tenders so local ferries serve. This is an advantage because they are open on the sides and have both great airflow and views. They are more pleasant than the enclosed ship’s tenders. When tendering started the Captain came on the PA and told us it would be a little slow because one of the tenders had failed a Brazilian Coast Guard inspection. I was suspicious because the only other time we were in Brazil the boat we were on was stopped by the coast guard on the Amazon and held while we watched the clock tick off minutes before we were required to be on board Prinsendam. It was a shakedown but the boat operator would not budge. He told us not to worry. He called his friend, the harbor master, who ordered Prinsendam held until we could get back. That broke the stalemate with the Coast Guard and we made it to the ship on time.
But eventually the tender was cleared, and having picked up a fourth we got off and back on in good order. Apparently, they really were concerned with our safety because on the dock was a squad of lifeguards at the ready in case any of us fell overboard and one on a jet ski ready to race to anyone in need.
On the dock we were met with a band and a dancing bull that looked like one of the costumed dancers from a Boi Bonda celebration. We got a very friendly and energetic reception. Everyone got a necklace with wooden figures that will adorn our future Christmas trees. From the dock it was about a 45-minute bus ride to the Belem waterfront. The ride was worth it. We passed a lot of the city and we were struck by how many of the houses were surrounded by razor wire and that we saw no residences without bars below the third floor. We also passed more “Assembly of God” churches, usually storefronts, than Catholic churches. (See note below.)
We also enjoyed watching river traffic. We saw estuary fishing boats, small craft designed to navigate the mangroves and riverboats carrying cargo and passengers. The passenger boats all have hooks at intervals so travelers can hang their hammocks for a good rest as they plough upstream, riding with the tide for a way and then against the current.
Note. In order to make these pages load more easily I have split the photos into two posts. In the next post “Life on the Amazon” you can see pics of life on the Amazon and from our drive from the tender dock to the old Belem waterfront..