In the heart of the Amazon lies the city of Manaus, the region’s largest, and an important settlement both for industry and eco-tourism in the region. About half the population of the Amazon live in the city, whose attractions include the meeting of the waters, where the dark River Negro flows side by side with the muddy brown River Solimoes without mixing.
There are also several man-made wonders, including the impressive Amazonas Opera House, a 700-hundred seat theatre constructed from European brick, French glass and Italian marble. It was at said opera house that the casual observer might have noticed a distraught young pink Englishman as the clock struck 2pm on October 4, 1989.
Backpacking in 1989 v 2011
Backpacking in 1989 was a different experience than 2011, especially with regard to communications. No Internet cafes to catch up on email and arrange meeting points, no mobile phones to arrange rendezvous with fellow travellers, just the trusty old American Express poste restante for mail delivery, and even that required advance planning. If I was distraught by being stood up as a naïve 19 year-old in the middle of the Amazon due to poor communications, arriving in Rio to find I was $430 short of a ticket home took things to a new level.
My South American sojourn had started comfortably enough with two months in Guyana as a guest of a school friend. I wanted for little and the realities of backpacking were shielded from me as everything was arranged and transport was always available.
From Male Chambermaid to Intrepid Traveller
The main part of my trip was to travel the continent in the company of Andy, a fellow male chambermaid in one of Munich’s posher hotels. Like me, he had decided to quit England and see the world, and we hatched a friendship whose basic pillars revolved around German beer, male chambermaiding stories and our plans to discover South America together.
Due to prior commitments, we were due to arrive at different times, I to Guyana and he to join me somewhere at a later date. We pored through the guidebooks looking for a suitably exotic, but practical meeting point, and after much debate settled on the Opera House in Manaus.
Realising that communications might be an issue, we decided to factor in a strategy to counter slight delays, and it was decided to meet on October 1 at 1300 and wait for an hour, a meeting to be repeated for the following three days. If the other failed to show by 2pm on the 4th, he was not coming, and the show would have to go on alone.
I received a postcard from Andy in Guyana, telling me that all was on track, and that he was due to arrive in Caracas a week before our meeting, plenty of time to make the journey.
Being Stood Up Outside an Opera House
It had been a great two months in Guyana, riverboats up the Pomeroon to Amerindian settlements, chilling on the great Dadanawa ranch near Lethem on the border, and a brief foray into Suriname. The trip to Manaus was straightforward, a bus ride from Boa Vista, and I was ready for the next challenge and keen to see Andy again.
October 1 came and went, as did October 2 and 3. Hope was springing eternal as I headed for the opera house once more on October 4, not allowing myself to believe he would not be there, since the alternative, alone in the middle of the Amazon with no idea of where to go and how to travel, was unthinkable.
The hour wore on and the realisation set in. He was not coming.
Two o’clock came and I was gripped with fear and panic. What now and where? How to travel? How to meet people? Having so vocally quit England, there was no way I could return, so soldier on I must. Although we had been over all the guidebooks, we had made no real itinerary, having decided to make a plan in Manaus.
Confused and lost, I headed for the bus station, unsure as to what to do next.
God Bless the French
“Excuse me, you speak English?” asked a heavily accented French voice over my shoulder. I nodded my assent to the heavily tanned blond. “Where are you headed? I am going to Riberalta.”
“Me too,” I replied, with no idea where or what Riberalta was; I was just desperate to latch on anything to not be so alone. A ticket was purchased, a chess set produced and some competitive chess followed, my abiding memory being watching Francois periodically removing tiny fish bones from his fingers, a by-product of his shrimp fishing off the coast of French Guyana.
My trip had begun and I was not alone. As for Andy, we met a year later and he confessed that he had been terrified at the prospect of me not turning up so, loyal friend that he is, he decided not to book his flight to Caracas, but headed instead to Morocco where he got mugged and forced to buy a very expensive carpet.
The ensuing months were spent on a fascinating trail, arching through the Andes into the Chilean Atacama Desert, Argentinian Lake District, Uruguayan steak houses and the unknown of Paraguay, and as the trip progressed and the dollars dwindled, the bravado of buying a one-way ticket to Venezuela to start afresh did not seem like such a masterplan. I had matured and decided to return to university and get a degree at least.
The Cheapest Flights are from Rio
The problem was I did not have much money. Backpackers kept telling me that Rio de Janeiro was cheap for flights, and I should be able to get back to London for about $500. Again, the Internet would have helped to evaluate this, but my only option was to hop on a bus and find out. I arrived 18 hours later with $610 to my name. It did not take me long to find a travel agency, with helpful flight prices to world destinations in the window.
Madrid - US$1030
For the first (but sadly not the last) time in my life, I had that stomach churning feeling of realising I did not have enough money for the next step in life. $600 was a long was short of $1030.
My only possible salvation was the American Express Office in Rio, which I had given as a mailing address. My French housekeeper from my toilet cleaning days was due to be in Rio with her Brazilian boyfriend and had promised to be in touch. I collected my post and devoured it over a beer - university application form, personal letters and a postcard from Isabelle. Perhaps she could help, although $430 was a lot to ask.
The Working of the Passage
I decided to try my luck first at the British consulate, to find out if they had a repatriation fund or some suggestions at least. I was given short shrift, obviously not the first penniless backpacker to appear, and was advised to try my luck at the docks to see if there were any ships heading to Europe.
After an hour, I found a freighter bound for Hamburg, whose burly captain was willing to take me in return for me working my passage. Delighted, I headed off for a celebratory beer at a nearby bar, where a Swede deflated my news by suggestion that a pretty boy like me might indeed have his passage worked away at sea for three weeks. It was back to square one.
Assuming Brazilian Citizenship
Having had a bite to eat and found the cheapest accommodation in town, I walked down the street and saw the strangest thing - a travel agency advertising flights to Madrid for $593! I was by now down to $600 and ran into the office, where my hopes were immediately dashed as I was informed by the pretty sales agent that the $593 price was for Brazilian nationals only.
I cried. I pleaded. I invented terminal illnesses for everyone I knew. I was so totally pathetic that she eventually relented, and asked me to sign some paper in Portuguese which would muddy the waters in the nationality issue. Five minutes later, I was one ticket to Madrid to the good and $7 rich in the world. I would figure out the rest later.
“And when does the flight leave?” I asked (this being a Friday).
“Not until Wednesday.”
That sinking feeling again. I would need the $7 for phone calls in Madrid to try and get home. As the despair once more set in, I remembered I had Isabelle, my former housekeeper. Fishing out one of the few local coins I had, I called and she excitedly arranged to meet me on the beach two days later.
Five Days in Rio on $0
She SHOULD be good for a $50 loan, but there was no guarantee, and I resolved to guard my $7 with my life, since getting home from Madrid with no money would be just as much of a challenge. I slept on a beach, a little scared due to the city’s violent reputation, but consoled by the knowledge that even the beggars were taking pity on me in my hairy, unkempt state.
I smartened myself up as best I could to meet the lovely Isabelle and she hugged me warmly and ordered two large beers. After a while I spotted my moment to ask her for money, but she got there just ahead of me:
“The one thing that is really annoying us though, is all Bernd’s family think we are loaded, and everyone is asking us for money. Fifty bucks here, 100 bucks there, I have just had enough of it. Sorry. I had to get that out. You were just about to say something?”
Ah. I kept my silence, accepted another large beer and tightened my stomach - this was going to be a long few days…
I kept meeting backpackers who had just arrived, eager to hear about the cool places to see. They would shout me a beer or two when I said I had no money, but food - there was none.
For five days.
Checking In for Madrid
Eventually the fateful Wednesday arrived and I almost missed my boss after a Dane insisted I had another beer before departing, but I got to the airport on time - hairy, smelly, hungry and exhausted, but I was there. And I was going home. Well, at least as far as Madrid. I handed over my ticket at check-in.
“I am sorry, Mr. Bradbury, but economy is full.” My heart, my life stopped. I had been ripped off, cheated out of my precious $593, and now I was truly screwed. “So we will have to upgrade you to business class if that is acceptable.”
Having recovered my sanity, I had to laugh at the irony of it. I had only just made economy and here I was in business class. As I accepted the first glass of complimentary champagne, I felt a little sorry for the pin-stripe suited British executive to my right who presumably had not bargained for such a travelling companion.
The starter, a main salad with salad, was wolfed down in one, and the buzzer pressed asking for more. I had two main courses and two breakfasts and a deep sleep in between, arriving in Madrid in fine cheer. Am sure my mother could book a flight with her credit card and I would be home in the morning.
The Final Leg: Madrid to Blighty
I strode confidently to the BA check-in desk where I found flight times and ticket prices. All was going well until I asked if I could get someone in the UK to pay for the ticket, only to be informed that this was only possible if the purchaser physically bought a ticket from a travel agency. As my Mum was housebound, this was not going to happen, and I could not think of anyone who could (or would) drop tools and run out and buy me a ticket.
Casting around for inspiration, I saw the Iberia desk and remembered dear John in Munich, an Iberian sales agent. It was time to investigate making phone calls with my precious seven dollars. There was an international payphone area where you could pay in several currencies, including dollars.
Discovering Who Your Friends Are
I called John’s home number, praying he would be there. He was.
“Paul! How the devil are you? Where the devil…”
“John, stop and listen! I need your help. Have you got a pen?”
“Just a minute,” and off he toddled, precious seconds elapsing as my $7 war chest was diminishing.
“OK, flight 604, Iberia - Madrid to London. Can you get me a flight, send through confirmation and I will pay you back next week? Sorry to ask but I am in a spot.”
A couple of questions and he agreed to do the deed. I hung up, $4 poorer.
Heathrow airport to Cheshire on $3. Hmmm. I called Peter in Pinner, a friend from university before I dropped out.
“Paul, how the hell are you? Where the hell…”
“Stop. Need a big favour. Can you meet me at Heathrow flight 604 Iberia at 8, bring £30 and will love you forever and pay you back next week.”
“Thanks, see you then.” Clunk.
Worldly wealth - one solitary dollar.
But I had made it. I was home, by the skin of my teeth. Flight to London, beer and kebab with Peter, then the overnight bus to Manchester, a 3 mile walk and a full English breakfast would await. I began to relax.
One More Glitch
“Passenger announcement: would Mr. Paul Bradbury please come to the Iberia desk.” I swaggered across, the final hurdle overcome.
“Hello Mr. Bradbury, your confirmation is just coming through now,” beamed the sales assistant. I was beaming too, I was back from the abyss. And then I noticed a frown.
“And it has just been cancelled.”
“Why?” I asked, incredulous.
“I have no idea.”
“Can you call to find out?”
“Only if you pay for the call.”
“But I only have a dollar left. I need this ticket to get home.” The beam was long gone.
“In that case, we can’t help you.”
From Madrid to Manchester on a Dollar
And that was that, back to the sinking, stomach churning feeling. There is a reason why the book Madrid Airport to Manchester for Less than a Dollar has yet to be written.
I was emotionally destroyed. The hoping, the despairing, the champagne, the frantic phone calls, it was all too much, and I collapsed in a chair unable to think what my next move might be. I was there for perhaps 20 minutes, mustering up the strength to put out my trusty thumb and see where hitchhiking would take me when I heard my name being called again. I went back to Iberia where the beam was once more present.
“Mr. Bradbury, I am pleased to tell you the confirmation has now come through and here is your ticket. Have a pleasant flight.”
Confused and unable to believe this latest change in fortune, I staggered to check-in and was soon airborne for London. Weeks later, John solved the riddle, by telling me that he had booked the flight from home through work, and that they had then called him back five minutes later for some additional passenger info, hence the cancellation.
Peter, Bless him, played his part, and I was on the overnight bus to Manchester, three pints and a kebab to the good. Am unusually pleasant Manchester morning greeted me and the walk home was pleasant enough. Having not shaved or cut my hair in 9 months, I wasn’t sure how my mother would great me at 7am, but I couldn’t have guessed her actual reaction:
“Hello, can I help you?”