A Day In The Boat Life On The Amazon River People networking, just hanging out, praying, escaping city bustle, commuting to work — just another day on the White Swan riverboat.
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A Day In The Boat Life On The Amazon River

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A Day In The Boat Life On The Amazon River

A Day In The Boat Life On The Amazon River

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Now this weekend's Long Listen - a time to step back from the frantic news cycle and, for this story, step onto a boat, a boat that's gone up and down the Amazon River for decades. Onboard - mostly Brazilians who found a way to make a living on and along the river; Also onboard, NPR's South America correspondent Philip Reeves.

PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: We're sailing down the middle of the Amazon in the middle of the night. The river's engulfed by darkness.

DIULCINEI GUIMARAES: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: At the helm is Diulcinei Guimaraes. He's been sailing up and down this river for a quarter of a century. Guimaraes flicks on a spotlight and shines it onto the gloom ahead.

GUIMARAES: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: His light picks out a huge log sprouting leaves and branches.

GUIMARAES: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: "Lots of big trees from the rainforest around us topple into the river at this time of year," says Guimaraes. A flash of lightning lights up the horizon. We notice some fishermen in canoes a few hundred yards away. Guimaraes is always on the lookout for these.


REEVES: Our riverboat is called the White Swan. She's painted white, made of iron and is a little battered, as you'd expect of a boat that plied these waterways for 67 years. Most of her 100 or so passengers are sleeping on the middle deck, packed closely together in brightly colored hammocks.


REEVES: Some here at the top deck bar sitting beneath the stars playing dominoes and drinking beer. Conceicao Souza's run this bar for seven years.

CONCEICAO SOUZA: (Through interpreter) You have to have a lot of patience dealing with human beings in a crowd.

REEVES: When drink flows, there can be fights. Still, Souza enjoys this work. She sees the boat as her home and the river, too.

SOUZA: (Through interpreter) There's is nothing more beautiful than a world of water like this, right?

REEVES: Sometimes, she says, you see alligators and pink dolphins. We're traveling between two cities. We set out a day ago from Manaus, deep in the rainforest, and are heading for Belem, near where the Amazon meets the Atlantic. The next three days will mostly be spent sailing through forest. Almost all the passengers are Brazilians who live around the river basin. These are precarious times in Brazil. The country's struggling to recover from its worst-ever recession. A massive corruption scandal's badly corroded the public's belief in democracy. The people along this river seem to live in a world apart from all that. Yet they worry, too.

VENILSON ASSIS: (Through interpreter) It's sad. If our country depended on the politicians, everyone would starve.

REEVES: That's Venilson Assis. He's a truck driver, age 40 with four kids still in school. He's sitting on deck beneath a hot morning sun. Venilson says he couldn't earn a decent living in Manaus. He's heading to the forest to work in a gold mine - four months on, one month off. He'll earn about $500 a month.

ASSIS: (Through interpreter) I'm doing this adventure hoping that eventually I can spend all my time with my family.

REEVES: Venilson hopes one day he'll manage to buy his own truck and stay home.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: Talk to some of these passages, and you hear another worry. They say they love the Amazon and depend on it and are aware of the damage being done by industry. Felipe de Morales is heading home to his village in the forest after going to Manaus for a health check. He's 63 and a shopkeeper. De Morales says mining is polluting the Amazon and thinks more should be done to protect the river.

FELIPE DE MORALES: (Through interpreter) Because it's a precious liquid. It's where we bathe and drink. People should respect it more.


REEVES: Music pours out from the bar of White Swan all day. That song's by a band from the Amazon who are actually onboard starting a local tour. For them and others here, the river basin is like a road network, says Reginaldo de Brito...

REGINALDO DE BRITO: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: ...Connecting its towns. De Brito's in charge of our boat's cargo. At ports along the way, he picks up crates of produce - shrimp, watermelons, acai berries. De Brito's big worry is pirates.

DE BRITO: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: "In the Amazon, lots of boats get raided," he says.


REEVES: We're arriving at a small town called Monte Alegre. Hawkers are waiting on the quay.

It's a small crowd of people. One guy has a wheelbarrow full of mangoes that he's trying to sell passengers on the boat. Other people have dried bananas. Some people have pirarucu fish, which they've cooked, and they're selling it. That's a big fish in the Amazon.

Some of these guys don't bother with the gangplank. They just climb up the side of the boat and start selling. This river's all about trade, from the huge barges loaded with soybeans destined for China to Elaine Patricia, a mother of three. Patricia travels the Amazon selling skin cream and lipstick. This year's favorite lipstick along the river is...

ELAINE PATRICIA: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: "...The color of red wine," she says. Patricia likes going around by riverboat.

PATRICIA: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: Because that way she can get to know people and demonstrate her products. There's another woman onboard interested in meeting people.

MARI DALVA: (Through interpreter) It's necessary to travel to win souls for the kingdom of God.

REEVES: Mari Dalva's a missionary for the evangelical church. The church has grown hugely in Latin America in recent years.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing in Portuguese).

REEVES: It's night again. On the middle deck amid the hammocks, Dalva leads a prayer group.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Speaking in Portuguese).

REEVES: The groups joined by Pastor Antonio Rocha.

ANTONIO ROCHA: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: Rocha blesses the boat.

ROCHA: (Speaking Portuguese).


REEVES: A young man steps forward and offers himself as a fresh recruit for the church.

ROCHA: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: Rocha calls on Jesus to drive out his sin. The group starts to pray.

DALVA: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: The young man is Gilson Monteiro.

GILSON MONTEIRO: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: "Joining the evangelical church is a big step," says Monteiro, "a source of hope in hard times." His newly discovered faith and religion contrast sharply with his lack of faith in the people running his nation. Brazil has a presidential election this year. Monteiro says he won't be voting.

MONTEIRO: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: He wouldn't care if someone set fire to his voting card, he says. For most of this journey, the river's been very wide, several miles across. In the final stages, we turn south and enter some straits. Suddenly, the rainforest is right beside us, and this happens.

Suddenly, we have company. There are lots of tiny boats. And almost of them have children in them, sometimes very small children. And a lot of them are being paddled by women. There are lots of these little boats. And they've come out from the forest.

The women and children in these canoes are begging. As they paddle towards us, passengers on the White Swan toss down bags of food and clothes. One canoe's paddled by a boy who looks about 8 and is alone.


REEVES: That's not a bird you're hearing. That's him. I'm on this journey to listen to people in Brazil and to collect their voices. Of all the voices I've heard on this river, that cry for help from within the forest is by far the most unsettling. Philip Reeves, NPR News.

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