The nice lady at the boat office had said my vessel, the Rondônia, would be “mais tipica”, which I took to mean something like “very traditional”. I had encountered the word “tipica” several times earlier in the trip, where it had been used on menus to describe dishes that had proven something of a challenge to my taste, but I did want an authentic Amazonian experience and the lady went on to explain that this meant that passengers were to supply their own hammock, which sounded simple enough, so I bought my ticket and asked directions to where I might find the hammock district of Belém and was sent back to Ver o Peso Market where I found a fine selection of inexpensive hammocks. Since I would need some rope to put up my hammock the fellow cut a length of hemp rope for me with a quick blow of his machete which not only cut the rope cleanly but also took off about an inch of the corner of his counter. As this did not seem to bother him I assumed he must replace his counter regularly and this was but another small illustration of that great truth that in other countries they do things differently.
I arrived at the pier at six p.m., when the nice lady at the boat office had told me boarding would begin. I passed through a turnstile and saw a handsome vessel with a few passengers lounging at the rail and asked a porter if that fine ship might be the Rondônia. He shook his head and indicated the next ship down.
I will not trouble Gentle Reader with my romantic expectations regarding the M/V Rondônia, its passengers and appointments, as they were none of them to be. There would be no white suits on the promenade deck as we watched a glorious tropical sunset.
Oh, there would no doubt be glorious tropical sunsets, but of the Rondônia itself, alas, it resembled nothing so much as a floating Black Hole of Calcutta. A waterborne sauna crammed to the roof (or bulkhead or whatever they call them on boats) with a steaming mass of humanity packed into open stalls and passageways and hanging bat-like in hammocks.
I stood there draped in my impedimenta, aghast. There were jostling people everywhere. I looked about in vain for a steward or purser or anyone in apparent authority, but there seemed to be no one in charge.
I stumbled into the crowd, making my way down passageways, over bundles of belongings and under hammocks seemingly hung wherever there was an open space.
I had signed on for six days of this. The twenty-five dollars I had paid for my passage suddenly seemed less a bargain than I had at first thought.
As I stood there, dazed, an old fellow saw my distress and took me in hand and led me to the stern rail and found me a place to hang my hammock and showed me how to put it up and smiled and nodded and disappeared. My hammock hung on the outside at the exact height to allow me to lie in my hammock and look out onto the river. It seemed to me the perfect place to be, though I remembered that I should probably withhold judgment until I saw what happened when it rained, as it would once or twice a day. I bought exorbitantly-priced oranges from a shipboard peddler. As this would be a water journey, I looked for the nearest flotation device: I did not see any. I settled back into my hammock out of the way of the roiling crowds and thought about Third World disasters, of ferries sinking within sight of land with extravagant loss of life.