At 10-15 kms/hour the Land Cruiser crawls through potholes, jolts over bumps and carefully drives onto wooden constructions called bridges. Hour after hour, day after day we drive at a turtle’s pace. This is the main highway between Manaus and Porto Velho, in the heart of the Brazilian Amazon: the infamous, 800 km-long BR319 of which we’ve heard nothing but horror stories.
Setting a Challenge
The BR319 was constructed in the 1970s as one of the first roads to open up the Amazon to the rest of the Brazilian economy. However, this is a region that often gets flooded during the rainy season and the construction was so poorly done that the road quickly fell into disrepair. Nowadays, all trucks and most vehicles ferry their way up and down between Manaus and Porto Velho.
We wanted to conquer this challenge. We listened to tips from other travelers, chose the dry season to drive it and extensively stocked up on fuel, food, and water. The first 100 kms were easy enough; there were still communities and the asphalt and bridges were in reasonable shape. After we had taken our second ferry, the scenery changed: From here on there was nothing but vast tropical forest, a meandering ribbon of what once was asphalt and the two of us (plus six oncoming vehicles during the course of three days).
Traveling Slowly or Slow Travel?
The rocking motion of the car brought me in a meditative state. My body moved forward, backward, sideways, my eyes followed green tree after green tree for hours on end with an occasional lizard crossing the shimmering road, or a toucan flying across. On the barely two-meter-wide path, some stretches of a yellow line were visible. It was hard to believe at one time this line separated a two-lane highway.
Traveling slowly it was indeed, with days of barely covering 100 kms a day. But was it slow travel? As we hit the final stretch of the BR319, I realized it was not.
Anxiety Rules the Trip
The anxiety of getting across in one piece – including the Land Cruiser – had ruled the entire journey. We kept this image in our head: another 600 kms to go / another 500 kms to go / another 400 kms to go; how much longer will it take? The Land Cruiser was performing excellently, the bridges not bad at all but only one of those two (car or bridge) needed to break down to be in serious trouble. And so we pushed on.
As a result of that anxiety, of not knowing what lay in store for us, we didn’t take those two hitchhikers on board, one of them a backpacker who had been waiting for a vehicle for two days – he most certainly faced the depth of his own challenge of getting across by road instead of boat. We were worried about ourselves, and didn’t want to worry about a third person (in all fairness: where would he have slept that night as we rough camped in the pouring rain?).
Too Busy with Ourselves
We did stop for a moment to ask a family obviously camping in their pickup along the side of the road if they were okay, but we couldn’t quite wrap our heads around the driver’s waterfall of words, other than that a companion was on his way to the city to get him some sort of spare part.
Only later I did I realize I should have offered food and water, and felt ashamed. Why didn’t we stop, get out and share a meal or drink, or at least offered to do so? Neither did we visit the sole village we crossed during those three days where the people seemed friendly enough, but only passed through. The ferry was waiting, as were another 600 kms.
We were too preoccupied. With ourselves. With our car. I admit, in retrospect, it’s easy to talk. The ordeal was in no way as dreadful as we had anticipated. Nevertheless, we missed out on connecting with life in and around this uninhabited part of the Amazon. And so, yes, we traveled slowly but it was no slow travel. We can tick BR319 off our list of legendary roads but haven’t really gotten to know it.