It has been three years since our last major trip, to Morocco, not for any reason other than it was time to take a break. It has been my habit to blog about each trip we have taken, and I devoted a chapter in my business memoir, “With Love and Quiches”, describing what we were able to bring back to our bakery business from our travels in which we sought out every bakery we could find to visit.
This trip was a little different. We needed a rest and, though the Amazon sounds exotic and invokes visions of deep jungles, rain forests, and snakes, we were actually luxuriating on a beautiful (and mercifully small) cruise ship. During some of the stops, we were treated up close and personal to exquisite birds, foliage and giant water lily pads while paddling in tiny canoes, but the Amazon is a very wide river and most of the time, during the thousand miles we traveled on it, we viewed the scenery from afar on deck chairs while sipping champagne. For this trip, this suited us fine! We have certainly paid our dues, walking (and/or driving) hundreds of miles, in and out of small side streets, all over Europe, India, Egypt, Russia, South America, Morocco and so many other places we have visited. I had already ridden my last camel and my last elephant when we planned this trip.
The Amazon was at the tail end of the rainy season, and we were warned to always carry rain gear for just in case, but we had nothing but lovely weather except for one day when we opted to stay close to the ship. More importantly, Brazil is at the epicenter of the Zika epidemic, and we agonized over that; but we really needed to get away and, actually, never saw even one mosquito the whole time, maybe because we were slathered from head to toe with Deet.
Actually, what stood out most were the jaw dropping private yachts we saw once we exited the Amazon and continued on to visit some islands in the Caribbean. These were boats as big as cruise ships and worth billions. I’ll tell you more about them later.
But let me now run through the trip. We started out in Manaus, Brazil, where we spent a few days before the start of the cruise. Manaus is the capital of the state of Amazonas, founded in the late 1600s, and is located in the middle of the Amazon rainforest and jungle, and access to the city is either by plane or by boat. There are no roads out. It is urban, but the culture of Native Brazilian tribes is preserved. Hardly anybody speaks a word of English, especially the cab drivers, as we learned the hard way. Ditto the supposed tour agents that the cruise ship arranged to be stationed in the lobby of the hotel to suggest a few things to do in the days before we boarded the ship.
Our hotel had no money exchange, no city tours to offer, no phone, no coffee maker, but was lovely anyway. We found our way armed with a street map in merciful English. What the city does have is an exquisite and historic Opera House (the Teatro Amazonas which had hosted world famous artists at the height of the rubber boom), a fantastic Central Market, and a great restaurant, Braziero, which a hotel clerk recommended and where we were the only tourists (always our preference).
Once on board, the first excursion we chose was on a local river boat where we saw how the Rio Negro merged with the Rio Solimes, the Meeting of the Waters, where the two rivers flow side by side for miles without their differently colored waters mixing: an amazing phenomenon. Here we also saw floating markets and the river people living in small houses built on stilts in the water with no plumbing, but with an internet dish on every roof!
We made stops in a few more towns along the river, small and fairly isolated, always with a small but beautiful church, always a great and interesting market with local produce, meat, fish (and no refrigeration whatever) as well as vendors displaying local crafts. These towns are all steeped in Indian culture, and Parentins hosts a Boi Bumba Festival (with dance, music and all the rest) in June each year visited by tens of thousands of people from all over Brazil. We were treated to a fabulous performance by the local talent to give us a taste of the coming festival.
As we crossed the Equator, cruise guests who had never crossed before were called Pollywogs and had to gather outside on the deck and gamely submit to kissing a huge raw fish and a soaking splash from buckets of water thrown by some of the crew members. Good sports, fun to watch, and I am happy to report that we were not among them, having crossed the Equator before. Once initiated, they are called Shellbacks, and this assures a safe passage across the Equator.
Once we entered to Atlantic Ocean, we made a stop at the notorious penal colony, Devil’s Island, in French Guiana, formed by Napoleon’s government in 1852, home to France’s worst criminals. There were only two escapes from this brutal place, one of them depicted in the great movie, Papillion, with Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman (rent it, if you can). Alfred Drefus, the French Army captain wrongly accused of treason, also served ten brutal years there. The prison wasn’t closed until the 1960’s.
After that we moved on to the Caribbean with stops in Barbados, St. Lucia, and Guadeloupe, each with their own local flavor, always a fabulous open market, magnificent beaches, and plenty of tourist resorts.
Our favorite stop in the Caribbean was St. Barts’. Irwin and I used to go there for a winter getaway quite often, but not for at least 20 years, once we started our globe hopping. We could not recognize the place. When we used to go there, there were hardly any cars and no traffic. We used to rent a jeep and tool around to a different beach every day. We would stop for lunch at a beach shack on St. Jean Beach, in bathing suit and bare feet. All gone! Replaced by upscale hotels and designer boutiques. We had a delicious lunch in one of them, still on the lovely beach, and still treated to everybody walking around topless as they did twenty years ago. This place is a playground for the rich and famous.
Best of all, as I mentioned as I began this blog, were the spectacular private yachts anchored all over the place, some at 500 feet or maybe larger, some of them 4 or 5 decks high. Hard to imagine such wealth. Even the captain of our boat, Andrew Pedder, could not resist coming onto the loudspeaker and exclaiming his awe, while pointing out various boats and their statistics. I couldn’t stop snapping pictures of these behemoths.
Our last stop was Jost Van Dyck in the British Virgin Islands where we swam in the beautiful blue water.
The above was all off the boat. Our favorite days were spent on our ship, especially during sea days. We met so many interesting people from all over the world, the food was wonderful, as was the very low key entertainment (this was not Las Vegas), and all throughout the day there were interesting lectures to attend if you could manage to drag yourself away from the pool. I had the pleasure of a private tour of the kitchen with the executive chef, Andreas Lang, where he described that everything was prepared to order, nothing ahead of time except the stock, bread baked fresh three times a day.
The tour ended in Ft. Lauderdale where we went right to the airport and were home a few hours later, instead of facing an 18 hour plane trip from G-d knows where as is usually the case. We travelled 3372 nautical miles. This was a great trip!