With the crossing by canoe of the rocky waters of the Mamoré River, we leave the tropical north of Bolivia and resume our two-wheel journey, heading north into a new and fascinating world called Brazil. A five-hour ride on intensely hot pavement takes us through lush fields to the town of Porto Velho in the Amazon Basin, but we are still a long way from seeing the real Amazon River.
At this point, after riding on jarring, washboard roads parallel to one of the Amazon's tributaries, from its spring at 16,500 feet in the Bolivian Andes, we've just reached the banks of Rio Madeira. From here, it's another 500 miles downstream before the Madeira joins the Amazon, which empties out into the Atlantic some 1,250 miles beyond that.
Reaching the Amazon by sailing down the Madeira seems like a good idea now, especially when considering the alternative - riding on over the Transamazonica, a dirt road serving as the only land connection, and extremely difficult to navigate if not impassable, depending on rainfall and the season. We find a transport, the Moreira IV, and negotiate with the captain. His card reads "Paulinho." Like the Brazilian soccer player Pelé, his full name has been replaced by a simple nickname, and after haggling with him over the price of our passage, we agree on 300 reals (about $ 120) per person and bike for a four-day journey from Porto Velho to Manaus. Then we carry all our belongings on board, tying our bikes to the railings.
We don't leave Porto Velho for another two days, the time it takes to load the boat. Much to our surprise, in this age of forklifts and containers, this is all done manually. Truckloads of potatoes, hundreds of crates of onions and garlic, and giant bunches of green bananas disappear into the hold of the 80-foot boat. The men at work, their bodies made muscular by years of hard labor, carry enormous loads down 42 steps hand-cut into the embankment. The heat and humidity are incredible, and we're sweating buckets just sitting in the shade watching. The only respite these Brazilians allow themselves is a glass of water from a jug before running up the hill again. By sunset, their steps get slower, but drenched in sweat they push on for another hour. A question of professional honor, and their pay for ten hours of slaving away is less than $ 4.