En Route: Across the Amazon by Motorboat

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Two idle strangers stand and talk on a dock in the afternoon. The Negro River flows in front of them, wide and dark, nearly black. Behind them is Manaus, a city that hit its peak with the region’s rubber boom in the late 1800s. Once deemed “one of the gaudiest cities in the world,” it fell into a near-century of ruin after an Englishman smuggled rubber seeds out of the country. Plantations were established in Malaysia, Sri Lanka, and tropical Africa, and Brazil lost its rubber monopoly.

One of the men takes a drag from his cigarette and says, “My girlfriend is a prostitute here in Manaus. I watch her little boy during the night while she’s out working.”

The other nods his head as a motorboat pulls up to the dock. He tells the boatman in Spanish, the closest he can get to Portuguese, that he wants to cross the river. The boatman tells him how much.

He gets in the boat, and he waves at the smoking man. The smoking man waves back and turns toward the city. The man in the boat watches him leave, wonders what the smoking man’s girlfriend and her little boy are doing right now. The boat leaves the dock.

The river is smooth, and the boat slices cleanly through. The river’s opposite bank, lush and green, slowly grows clearer. Manaus grows smaller behind them.


Ahead of them a stark, meandering line separates black and light brown waters. The divide so clear, so definitive—water black as oil, then suddenly brown—it seems like an illusion. They cross over. This is the meeting of the Negro and Upper Amazon, rivers that run side-by-side for miles, failing to merge because of their differences in density, temperature, and speed.

A pink dolphin surfaces near the boat.


An inlet cuts into the flora lining the brown, Amazonian side of the water, and the boat enters. Farther in, a rudimentary dock appears and the boat pulls up alongside it. Near the dock children play in the water. The boatman ties up, and the man hops onto the worn wooden planks of the dock.

He thinks of piranhas, but still strips down to his swimsuit. He jumps into the murky water and swims over to the playing children. The children laugh as he approaches and splash in his direction and he splashes back, also laughing.

One of the children — a little girl maybe nine or so — holds a naked baby boy. As he approaches, the little girl, smiling, holds the baby out like an offering.

 Featured photo from Guentermanaus.

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