Thousands of working Brazilians sail on Amazon riverboats each day to carry out their business and personal lives, in a region where the main superhighway is one of water.

Many sleep in hammocks instead of bunks, where they peacefully hang like bats at night and naptime.

These hammocks fill the middle and lower decks of the White Swan, a rusty, 67-year-old ironclad ship piloted by a man known to all as "Mustache." NPR boarded for a journey with about 100 passengers, along with cars, machine parts and merchandise from gourds to makeup to musical instruments. The ship sails between the cities of Manaus and Belém, where the river pours into the Atlantic.

The community that forms onboard during the four-day trip shows how Brazilians in the country's north lean on each other — and remain connected to nature — as the country struggles to recover from a deep economic recession.

Ship bartender Conceição Souza likes to call the river where she's worked for 28 years the "world of water." She says passengers frequently swap contact information with each other and with the crew in order to stay in touch.

Over the years, the ship's travelers have observed hundreds of tiny riverside communities slowly growing less poor, with some families adding small engines to their paddleboats and expanding their wooden stilt houses.

But the region has also seen rising violence related to the war on drugs. Some of the few in-demand jobs in this tough economy are security guard positions, like the one drawing White Swan passenger Dione Negreiro, 34, to Belém. Brazil's federal police inspections of Amazonian ships for illegal drugs and weapons have become routine.

To protect their passage, evangelicals on the boat organize worship. It's a sign of Brazilian evangelical Christianity's ubiquity and power that an hourlong service of hymns and prayers — punctuated by tears, yelling and shouts of "Hallelujah!" — yields no complaints from dozens of nearby people on hammocks.

Passengers donate used clothes to small riverside communities by tying them in plastic bags and pitching them overboard when canoes approach. Some families ride up in small motorboats, lash them to the White Swan and clamber aboard to sell salted shrimp and giant green beans.

The Amazon River churns powerfully through one of the world's most biodiverse habitats, which in this part of Brazil includes rubber, palm and açaí trees knit together like giant lace. Pink dolphins share the vast mud-colored waterways with piranhas and the occasional alligator. For many travelers, simply spending time in nature helps ease life's difficulties.

Thirty-two-year-old carnival artist David Penha takes in views from the top deck, blissfully separated from his cellphone. The river is so wide that it makes the Amazon jungle on each side look short. Old ships half-sunk in sand, yellow-painted school boats, and floating fuel stations hint when villages are near.

Venezuelan sisters Gikleidys Rojas and Metchells Rodríguez enjoy the Amazon's blooming sunrises and sunsets as a rare pensive leg of their journey fleeing Caracas.

They echo a comment from Souza, whose bartending paychecks helped take care of her siblings after their mother died: When it looks like options are slim, she says, the river offers a chance to move.

NPR correspondent Phil Reeves and reporter Catherine Osborn recently reported along the Amazon River on a journey across Brazil.

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