New York Times June 25, 2014
Instead of taking an expensive direct flight to the World Cup in Brazil, Seth Kugel, the Frugal Traveler, took a cheaper and more adventurous journey through four countries over 16 days.
It can take about 16 hours and two flights to get from New York City to Natal, Brazil, where the United States took on Ghana in their World Cup opener last week.
It can also take about 16 days and four flights, three collective taxis, three minibuses, a Toyota 4×4, a ferry, two motorized canoes called pirogues and a river boat that crosses the mouth of the Amazon.
A few months ago, match ticket in hand and facing round-trip plane fare of at least $1,486 for the quicker route, I decided on slow — through the little-visited countries of Guyana, Suriname and French Guiana and then the Brazilian Amazon. I projected the combined cost of all those legs at about $1,200 (including the 30,000 miles I spent on the return flight from São Paulo, valued at 1 cent a mile).
Of course, that was just for transport, and I couldn’t just zoom through the Guyanas (as the three countries are known) without visiting each for a few days. You can read about the Guyana and Suriname stops already, and the French Guiana stop and the food I found along the route over the next few weeks. (Bookmark this page.)
As fun as those stops were, none could match the journey itself, which despite bumpy roads and cramped vehicles and smelly passengers (sometimes myself included) I enjoyed even more.
Several people I met along the way thought I was crazy. Not Roraima Brandão, a French-Brazilian grandmother I met on a minibus en route from Cayenne, French Guiana, to the Brazilian border town of Oiapoque. She had come from Paris, and was on her way to Macapá, Brazil, with her son and two adorably French-speaking granddaughters, Natasha, 5, and Vanessa, 7.
She could have gotten to Macapá by flying Paris to Rio to Brasília to Macapá, she said, but that would be no fun. Sounds familiar. “I like adventure,” she said. “On our way to Oiapoque, we stop in the little villages, we meet people, get to know the reality of their way of life. It’s a better adventure, even if it’s long and tiring.”
That’s the kind of grandmother whose grandchildren end up as travel writers. In fact, Vanessa had already started: “We’re going to Guyana,” she read from a diary entry written two days earlier. “We’re going to play with Uncle Rildson. We’re in the airplane. I was stuck in the airplane bathroom. Like always, Natasha is sucking her thumb.”
I may have avoided getting stuck in a bathroom, but the start to my trip could have been better — a red-eye flight from New York to Georgetown, Guyana, followed by a bus ride that got me to the Suriname border at 4:30 a.m.
Things began to pick up there, though. On the ferry ride across the Courantyne River, just over the border, I met a gaggle of Brazilians, who, when they realized I spoke Portuguese, asked for help with the English-Dutch Suriname customs forms. “Date of Issue” and “Country of Residence” were easy, but we got stuck on “Surname.”
“Sobrenome,’” I said.
“No, Suriname!” said one, pointing to the word and adding an “i.”
Migrants from Brazil popped up throughout my journey — the Guianas all border Brazil, which has 130 times more people than the three of them combined. Thousands have come, largely to work in gold mines of varying legality carved into the countries’ vast rain forest interiors, and I never took a bus or boat without them.
But I also met characters from other countries, like the Colombian ship captain I met in Paramaribo, Suriname’s lovely, whitewashed capital. What was he doing in Suriname? “Fighting the government,” he said before launching into a story of how his boat had been seized by Surinamese officials for illegally transporting fuel (charges he said were spurious) and how his crew was stuck in a Surinamese jail. Not the kind of story you hear waiting for a flight at a New York airport.
You also don’t get to see the Moiwana memorial in Suriname, a recommendation from the driver of a collective taxi from Paramaribo to the French Guianese border. An obelisk-like monument surrounded by what looked like 31 variously sized metal gravestones, it symbolizes the 31 Ndyuka people who had been massacred nearby during the 1986 civil war. The victims’ names were written in both the Roman alphabet and Afaka script, a system of writing the Creole language spoken by the group, descendants of escaped slaves.
A pirogue took me and a few other passengers across the Maroni River to the town of St.-Laurent-du-Maroni, French Guiana, where we were stamped into the European Union. And though there are French flags fluttering and boulangèries selling baguettes, one thing is quite un-French: the near total lack of public transportation. I knew that and planned to rent a car to cross the country, but I arrived during the Pentecost holiday and St.-Laurent’s rental car agencies were closed for three days. (That part sounds very French.) I scrambled and made it through the capital, Cayenne, with one ride in a private car (15 euros) and one collective van a kind hotel owner drummed up for me somehow (10 euros).
The geography buff in me was excited to cross into Brazil at the Oiapoque River, which (trivia alert) is France’s longest border, beating out the one with Spain. Most of it, however is uninhabited rain forest, giving the link between St.-Georges-de-l’Oyapock, an adorable village on the French side (population 4,000), and Oiapoque, the scrappy town on the Brazilian side (population 23,000), the feeling of being in the middle of nowhere.
But of course, to the people living in them, they are the center of everywhere. I love exploring Brazilian towns like Oiapoque, which are almost always full of nice people, crumbling hotels, swarms of kids in school uniforms and cars driving through the streets making incomprehensible announcements through tinny loudspeakers. It was game day — Brazil vs. Croatia — and I stuck around long enough to participate in the local betting pool, or bolão, putting 10 reais (or $4.57 at 2.18 reals to the dollar) on the unlikely result of 5-1, Brazil. (To my credit, that was the score by which Netherlands shocked Spain the next day.)
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A formidable obstacle stood between me and the next stop, a city called Macapá, at the mouth of the Amazon. It was BR-156, a federal highway/disaster area that begins with a stretch of 73 miles of muck and mud so famously treacherous that I first heard about it two countries away in Suriname. Buses ply the route for about 96 reais, but as everyone in town knows, in the rainy season (i.e. now), they can take 24 or even 48 hours to make it, and often need to be towed out by army trucks. (Pictures of these scenes fill megabytes in local cellphones.)
Three days before the Natal match, I shelled out 300 reais for the last spot in a Toyota 4×4 driven by Adriano Picanço, a swaggering man with a soft spot for Brazilian gospel music. (The day before, the price had been 250 reais, but my pleas were of no avail.)
Adriano stuck in a flash drive loaded with hours of his favorite religious tracks, and we took off. The first few miles though were nicely paved. “Just to trick Americans!” he said, guffawing.
But as promised, the road soon turned into mushy, mucky mire. “The highway has been paved twice,” Adriano said, as we jolted along. “On paper. In Brasília.” That seemed at least partly correct: I found this notice on a Brazilian government website stating that a $87 million real paving project along the same route had been “concluded.”
Tell that to the mangled brake cylinder that stranded us for two hours along the way.
Twelve hours after we left, we pulled into Macapá, and the next morning I was aboard the Ana Beatriz III, for a journey twice as long, half as expensive and infinitely more comfortable than the last leg. I hung on a deckside hammock with all the other passengers and rocked back and forth as the banks of dense Amazonian forest went by. (I also sat in the ship’s snack bar and watched the World Cup, thanks to a crew member constantly readjusting the parabolic antenna.)
There were occasional flashes of excitement. With no stops until Belém, occasionally another boat pulls alongside to pluck off passengers midriver and bring them ashore; once a woman and two young girls hitched their paddle-powered canoe onto the Ana Beatriz — a feat in itself — and then boarded, pirate-style, to sell shrimp to passengers before casting off miles downstream.
From Belém, it was an uneventful flight to Natal, except perhaps for running into a Ghanaian-American restaurant owner from the Bronx, also headed to the game, who said he would be cheering all goals for both teams. I accused him of being anti-goalkeeper.
Getting affordable lodging for a World Cup game can take extreme measures — exactly how I’d describe the reservation I made on Airbnb for $51 a night at “Casa Nudista,” an apartment of self-described nudists with a strict no-clothing rule. As my laundry situation grew desperate, I’d actually begun looking forward to it.
Alas, it was not to be. The reservation was mysteriously cancelled just days before I arrived, and although Airbnb offered to cover an extra 20 percent on top of my original fee, I had to settle for a bare-bones apartment with just a mattress and some sheets. (In a statement, Airbnb said rather vaguely that the nudist listing “violated their terms of service.” I can’t imagine why.) I missed my original estimate by a bit — total transportation costs ended up at $1,374, still less than the original flight — but no matter: I was at the World Cup! Arriving late at night on Sunday, I woke up on game day to see what is usually a sleepy, pleasant beach city turned into a Fourth of July parade. With an estimated 20,000 Americans in town, red, white and blue jerseys (and wigs and tights and jester hats and even loincloths) were legion; a friend of mine overheard a Brazilian evangelical passing out religious materials turn to another and say “They look just like they do in the movies.”
Walking up the ramp and seeing the gorgeous new Arena das Dunas unfold before me, I was as excited as I remember being at a sporting event since the first time I saw the Green Monster in Fenway Park, circa 1978. The ambience was both electric and friendly; Americans chatted with scattered Ghanaians and the Brazilians seated among us were friendly and politely said they were supporting the United States. (This was a white lie — when Ghana scored, yellow-shirted masses throughout the stadium erupted.)
In the end (the very end) the United States won. The game had been an exhilarating, wild ride — almost as exhilarating and wild as the ride to get there.