Broken Bridges & Failing Brakes in Amapa, Brazil

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“Holy shit, they are not working!”

There is panic in Coen’s voice as he slams on the brakes. I hold my breath and feel how the Land Cruiser increases speed. The car is in reverse and behind us lies a metal plank that links the shore to the ferry but I can’t see at what angle we’re going down or where we’ll end up. 

No splash.

No rattling of driving onto the metal plank.

A smash it is.

The Land Cruiser hits a brand-new Mercedes bus, whose driver hadn’t had the patience to wait while Coen was turning so we could drive onto the ferry in reverse – he shot right past us. His left rear door now has the imprint of a Land Cruiser BJ45’s spare wheel.

No pics of the accident, but we had another misfortune on the road – driving into a ditch…

Fixing the Brakes in Amapa

We settle the damage without getting the police involved. Our sightseeing plans are washed out and instead we find a lean-to where we can camp and work.

It’s a workshop and storage space for farming machinery and Coen toils at the brakes under a cacophony of steel plates being welded, a buzz saw cutting plates for a new truck cabin, idling engines, and trucks coming and going to deliver sand or stones.

I have to pump the brakes while Coen soldiers on underneath the Land Cruiser. Noise impedes communication. On the left rear side nothing happens. We work on it for hours and Coen is at his wits’ end. When he messes up the head of the bleed valve because he doesn’t have a special spanner, he gives up.

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From a Toyota Dealer to a 4WD Club in Macapa

We drive to the Toyota dealer in Macapá where a mechanic discovers that the rear brakes haven’t been properly adjusted. He quickly fixes the problem.

We don’t have to pay, if only we’d be kind enough to agree to an interview for local television. The request comes from the president of the local 4WD drive club who happens to get his car serviced here.

João subsequently invites us for lunch, drives us around on a sightseeing trip and offers us to camp at the club’s headquarters right outside town. It’s a great way to spend our time since we can’t drive to Calçoene anyway.

We arrived in the wet season, which makes the surroundings incredibly lush and beautiful, but also adds its challenges to traveling. Various bridges have collapsed and there is no way around them – there are few roads in this state.

The repairs will take four days.

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Standing on the Equator

To reach Brazil’s most northeastern state of Amapa, we had crossed the Amazon River on a cargo boat with two dozen trucks. The trip had taken forty-seven hours.

Amapa is as isolated as an island: on the south flows the Amazon River, on the north the Oiapoque River (north of which lies French Guiana). The east coast borders the Atlantic Ocean and the west consists of impenetrable rainforest with no roads linking the state to the rest of Brazil or its other neighboring country of Suriname.

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Macapá, Amapá’s capital, features the Zero Monument, an obelisk-cum-sundial dating from 1987, marking the equator.

Does it feel special crossing it?

No, not really.

Flooded lands, Amapa, Brazil

The heat is the same on either side of the line. After all, the equator is only an artificial line, drawn by man to make it easier to determine where you are on earth.

For Macapá the landmark is a tourist attraction. Besides the Zero Monument, the town boasts the only soccer stadium in the world which has its center spot on the equator. We can’t visit it, as it has fallen into disrepair.

Another interesting part in this region is the intense cultivation of açai that is shipped all over the world while it continues to be a staple for local people (read more here).

A Flooded Village

When the bridges have been fixed we drive to Calçoene, where we search for a man called Gaffarinho. With his wife the octogenarian is sitting on the veranda of his wooden hut on stilts along the side of the road, with a casualness as if he knew we’d be coming.

He informs us that Parque do Solsício, our goal here, is unreachable due to a flooded bridge.

The three of us check out the trouble spot that has been flooded for the past seven days in five feet of water, a result of high tide, the rainy season and full moon.

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Flooded bridge, Amapa, Brazil

Today it’s an idyllic spot with sunlight filtering through the foliage (the first sun beams we have seen in a week), twittering birds, buzzing insects and a snake gliding through the water. A motorcyclist tries to cross the bridge but returns: the water reached his chest.

More people are approaching: walking, cycling, by car. It’s a good place to exchange gossip. The cyclist gives it a try but returns with a fish that got stuck between the planks of the bridge.

“Maybe tomorrow,” Gaffarinho concludes. 

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That afternoon high tide causes the village to be flooded as well and houses (most of them on stilts) appear to be floating. A big fat pig has been put in a wooden boat to prevent it from drowning. The sun gives women the opportunity to do the laundry and every part of unflooded garden and veranda is covered with drying clothes.

Garbage floats all over the place and the shallow water is a source of infection and dengue. Malaria generally is an illness of the forest, affecting mostly mine workers; dengue is rapidly conquering the urban world. Until today there is neither a vaccination nor a cure for dengue.

Flooded village, Amapa, Brazil

Brazil’s Stonehenge

“I am the oldest person who has always known these stones were there,” Garrafinho tells us the next morning when we can indeed cross the bridge and reach this impressive archeological site.

Brazil’s Stonehenge lies in the middle of an undulating landscape with iridescent grass that looks like young rice. The hills are hemmed in by thick, tropical forest. It’s dead quiet with an occasional birdcall in the distance.

The grass is so tall that only on top of the hill do we see the circle of the some one hundred granite stones that indeed do remind us of England’s Stonehenge, even though the ones here are much smaller. 

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“It used to be a cemetery of indigenous people, but during my childhood that had no value. In 1998 I was hired to deforest this area for a cattle rancher. When the owner from São Paulo came to live here and heard about the stones, he was intrigued. I had to tell him all I knew and he arranged with the authorities to make this a protected area on which farming is forbidden.

Since then I have been a guide and guard, and I helped with the excavations. The circle was used for ceremonial purposes. For example, during the solstice the sun hits the tallest stones in such a way that they throw no shadow. If I were young, I would study archeology. This is the most important archeological site in the world,” Gaffarinho finishes with fervor.

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Roller Coasting to Lourenço

A new thunderstorm is brewing on the horizon and we return to Calçoene before the bridge is flooded once more.

We thank Garrafinho for his time and hit the 53-kilometer long, red dirt road to Lourenço. It is like a roller coaster: we snake uphill, thunder downhill, braking forcefully at the lowest point because of disastrous mud pools at the bottom. We swerve to the left and just as suddenly the other way around.

It’s a fantastic drive through rainforest that alternates with cleared patches.

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Preparing farinha

Along the side of the road, a man is roasting something in a flat, long, wooden tray, but what? We stop and ask. We meet five mine workers dressed in tatters, unshaven and covered with scars. We are offered coffee.

One of the men caught an armadillo this morning, which is now simmering in a blackened pan above the fire. Would we like to stay for lunch as well? He is roasting cassava flour, which will turn into hard kernels, called farinha.

You will always find a bowl of farinha on tables in Brazilian restaurants, as it is added to more or less every dish Brazilians eat.

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The Gold Mine

About an hour later we reach Lourenço’s gold mine. We can enter without registering and without getting any safety instructions either for that matter.

We are free to walk around and take pictures. That’s impressive, considering that the general image of mines is that they are Wild-West kind of places. Not here. A Canadian company used to mine here, but fifteen years ago the government no longer extended the concession and gave the mine to the people of Lourenço.

Locals can join the mining cooperation if they have lived in the town for at least two years, and since the mine is legal, it is regularly checked by the authorities on safety and environmental issues. 

The first mine we see is worked underground, at a depth of 75 meters. Few people work here, rotating in shifts as the mine is worked 24/7. This is a private operation within the corporation and the miners are paid a fixed salary.

The majority, however, works as freelancer, or in small groups. They search for rocks containing gold above ground, and will pay another freelancer who has the machinery to extract the gold. The corporation will buy their gold but their income obviously depends on how much gold they find.

Workers show us the slivers of gold in rocks, which they pound with a hammer until they are the size of a fist. These fist-sized stones are then crushed in a machine after which the grit flows through a recipient with a ‘magical mat’ (as they call it, which simply is a kind of floor mat) that contains water and mercury.

The residue is panned in a drum with water, where we see gold flakes as well as a lump of gold dust mixed with mercury. The latter is burned, the mercury evaporating, leaving the gold. 

It’s clear this is a safe place to be. Nobody minds our presence, on the contrary, workers are happy to explain the gold-mining process, we can hold the gold in our hands and taking pictures is no problem.

One of Brazil’s Toughest Roads

After a day of enjoying watching all this, we set off for our last challenging stretch in Brazil: the 90 miles to Oiapoque. This road is one of the worst in Brazil and often impassable during the rainy season. Getting through is a matter of luck.

We feel we might just be so lucky since for the past couple of days we’ve had lots of sunshine. We will need that luck as well, as our visa will run out in a couple of days.

A number of cars and trucks are still stranded with the owners out of sight, but other trucks are arriving with sand to fill up the deepest holes and eroded stretches.

We cross the wide Uaça River, named after the indigenous people who live in the forest here. We see signs demarcating the Indigenous Reserve and stick to the road: the Policia Militar has made it very clear to do so, as we are unwelcome in the forest.

Indigenous Reserve, Amapa, Brazil

Macho Culture & Group Pressure

Suddenly we are asked to wait. A bridge is under repair. Workers are replacing a wooden beam supporting the construction.

Three workers watch how one man is working his butt off to cut through the partly rotten beam with a chain saw that sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t. His skin is covered with sawdust, the color of his clothes no longer distinguishable. He has neither ear nor eye protectors.

A couple of hours later the bridge is temporarily open for passenger vehicles. We’re the last to cross but stop half way. I get out and assess the situation.

The gap between the two beams over which we are driving is very wide, which leaves no space whatsoever to maneuver. Moreover, the right beam consists of a couple of narrow beams, of which the middle one is partly broken. It makes for a gap about the width of the Land Cruiser’s wheel.

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Muddy roads, Amapa, Brazil
Deforestation, Amapa, Brazil

I conclude we can’t cross it. The dozens of truck drivers and workers around me disagree.

I am a woman and my opinion doesn’t count in such situations. I feel it, I know it – machismo is a big thing in Brazil. Coen gets out as well to discuss the situation, but is only pushed to drive on,

“Come on. Go! We have got work to do!”

Group pressure is a scary thing and being in the middle of nowhere without authorities doesn’t help. Coen feels cornered into doing something he doesn’t really want to do. We decide that I will drive and that Coen will guide me across, which is contrary to our division of tasks.

The locals will never let me be Coen’s guide, no doubt pushing me aside or blocking my view. At last with our roles in reverse we have some chance of doing this together.

With bated breath I let in the clutch and slowly head towards safer ground, focusing on Coen’s fingers signaling me. The front wheels reach the road but then I hear the crack I feared. I close my eyes and feel the Land Cruiser sinking.

Wheel stuck in bridge, Amapa, Brazil

The right rear wheel has split the beam and the Land Cruiser now rests on its axle. I hit the brakes and pull the hand brake.

Furious, I walk away. 

A truck pulls the Land Cruiser out – fortunately it is undamaged. I need a long time to let off steam, damning macho cultures and group pressure. But, we made it across.

I’m glad it’s the two of us again as we have another 60 miles of mud and rainforest ahead of us.

This article was first published in Toyota Trails.

Note that we did this trip in 2010; meanwhile, the road conditions in Amapá have hopefully improved!

Muddy roads, Amapa, Brazil

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