She was dressed in a green sleeveless tee-shirt and a short linen skirt – both spotlessly clean – and her feet were thrust into a pair of flip-flops., writes Robin Mead. She was leaning over the balcony of her house in the village of Boca do Valeria, and she had the same welcoming smile as all the other residents of this tiny riverside settlement on the banks of the mighty Amazon river. She said her name was Maria, and her eyes shone with the contented pride a housewife whose home runs like clockwork. “Would you like to come and visit?” she called.
It is not every day that one has the opportunity to take refreshments in a Brazilian river dweller’s house, so we nodded enthusiastically and clambered up the wooden steps to the single-storey home. Like all the other properties in the village, including the church and the school, Maria’s home was built on stilts to protect it from occasional floods as well as from the wildlife which emerges from the surrounding jungle at night.
Only about a hundred people live in Boca do Valeria, and they make their living from the land and the river. Instead of dogs and cats, the children keep sloths, monkeys and young alligators as pets – but house proud Maria was having none of that sort of nonsense in her home.
Pressing cold drinks into our hands, she led us on a tour of the house. It didn’t take long. There was just one bedroom, where Maria’s 12-year-old son was taking a nap on the lone double bed, and a sort of kitchen-cum-living-room. Maria’s mum was at the sink, preparing a chicken dinner, and there was a large communal table but no chairs.
But Maria’s real pride and joy were her modern kitchen appliances: a cooker running on bottled gas, a fridge, a huge freezer, and the inevitable TV set. Boca do Valera might be in the middle of nowhere, but in booming Brazil electricity pylons and TV masts have brought all modern conveniences to the remotest spots.
I had imagined Manaus, almost 1,000 miles inland from the river mouth, to be a riverside settlement like Boca do Valera. When I booked a round trip winter cruise there, sailing from Southampton, I felt as though I was planning a voyage of exploration – and packed enough jungle kit to make an old-time explorer like Stanley Livingstone feel well equipped.
So it comes as a shock to find that, after crossing the Atlantic then sailing upriver through the jungle for three days, you are arriving in one of the world’s greatest (and fastest-growing) cities.
Manaus is a fantastic cruise destination: a transport hub (there are few roads hereabouts, so long-distance river buses run with the regularity of clockwork), an industrial centre, and a shopping paradise (this is where to buy your emeralds, amethysts and opals at a third of the price you would pay elsewhere).
The city, at the very heart of the continent, also has a far from faded glamour about it: the 115-year-old pink-painted Opera House is probably the grandest building in South America, is beautifully kept, and still stages performances by world-famous operatic stars at very regular intervals. Never mind the coffee….there’s an awful lot of culture in Brazil.
Sprawling cities, tiny villages, night-time excursions into the jungle….the Amazon has it all. The river, fed by countless tributaries, is also unbelievably vast: it is wider than the English Channel at its mouth, and hundreds of miles inland it is still too wide to see across. The only clues to the fact that you have left the South Atlantic ocean are the muddy-coloured water and the huge drifting islands of vegetation which must make the navigator’s task a nightmare.
Many modern cruise liners are simply too big to risk sailing amid the shifting shapes of the Amazon, but my floating home – Fred Olsen’s 28,000-ton, 850-passenger Boudicca – was ideal for the trip.
An Amazon cruise is something to remember for ever. Venture on deck at night and you are unlikely to be bothered by mosquitos (“We haven’t seen a mozzie in years,” scoffed one Brazilian as I rubbed in my insect repellant), but you may well meet one of the region’s huge, bird-sized, but completely harmless moths. At one or two ports of call, local dancers come aboard to demonstrate their colourful and athletic skills.
Add a call at one or two Caribbean islands, either on the way out or on the way home, and an Amazon cruise is the perfect way of escaping the British winter. It is also a sharp reminder that, compared with us, Indian villagers like Maria have nothing – but are more than willing to share what they do have with us.
Fred Olsen Cruises (www.fredolsencruises.com) have a 35-night Amazon cruise on Boudicca leaving Portsmouth on January 5, 2013. Fares for the round trip start at £3,499.