“you will get sick”
Claire was still sick at her stomach when we bought tickets on the lancha Eduardo V for Iquitos; brave, since most of the guidebooks say the food is cooked in river water, and “you will get sick.” Happy to say they are wrong. The food was simple and starchy, rice, plantains, papas, and a little meat, but reasonably prepared and came in generous proportions. We didn’t get sick, and Claire was downing the whole bowl by mid trip. We bought two plastic bowls and metal spoons to eat with.
“Not for getting clean. For getting the stink off”
There were toilets (no seats) and even a couple of river water showers; a sign, roughly translated said, “Not for getting clean. For getting the stink off.” They were also nice in the heat of the afternoon. I showered twice in shorts and shirt and stood by the rail to drip and cool while enjoying a view of life on the Amazon.
The lancha is a sort of large barge with a motor, two decks and a wheelhouse. The vessel’s purpose is carrying freight; rice, and more rice, scrap steel, fertilizer, cement, bulls, pigs and at least one rooster, none of which were fed or watered during the trip, every manner of household goods and appliances, general merchandise, bags of unidentified stuff, and one tandem bicycle.
The Eduardo V
(This is for James Rovang, my nephew, a marine electrician specializing in exotic navigation equipment in Anacortes, Washington) The Eduardo V has one piece of navigation equipment, that doubles as a depth finder: it is a panga (long open motorboat) the Captain sends ahead with two men when he is not sure of the channel (Peru has no channel markers of any kind). One runs the motor/tiller, the other uses a long pole with depth markings to try to avoid sandbars. This information is not sent back by radio, they don’t have a radio, but the panga charges back to the Eduardo, the depth finder crewman scrambles back on board to tell the Captain where not to go. Very efficient, eh? At night, a crewman stands on deck with not more than a one-thousand watt hand held searchlight; he scans both shores and the middle for about ten seconds, turns the light off for twenty seconds, and repeats. From this the helmsman steers a pretty big ship through the night.
The Amazon and its tributaries carry a heavy load of silt, and the channel is constantly changing. Being a riverboat captain must be a very difficult job. I thanked the Captain for his hard work one morning and he told me (with bloodshot eyes) he had been at the wheel all night. We were stuck a few times that night; you can tell because the ship lurches up and sideways, and the engines labor and speed up. I wondered how many extra days it would take us to get to Iquitos if we were well-and-truly aground. A rescue ship would be two days away. No worries, we had a year’s worth of rice on board, and a dozen emaciated bulls.
hammock is where you sleep
Passengers are an afterthought on these life-lines to Iquitos and many small villages along the Amazon’s banks. You buy space, bring a hammock to hang crossways above the deck, vying politely for some personal space. The hammock is where you sleep, and sit during the day. We became very familiar with our hammocks over the 48, mas o menos, hours it took to Iquitos.
a new baby
We also met and “talked” to our close (very) neighbors and crew. One family was returning to Iquitos with a new baby, either four weeks old, or four months, we couldn’t discern, not being very expert in such matters. We did however enjoy smiling at the baby, and having her smile back. The parents are very proud. I thought the father was going to cry as he told me how happy his baby made him. I told him (somehow) that his baby was making everyone on our ship happy; true.
One young man was so proud of his position in the cavalry of Peru’s military he showed me his military ID. Claire said he wanted to talk to me because of my military style haircut. I can be a good listener too; even when I don’t understand much.
stumbling, quiet cursing and occasional vomiting over the rail
One group of young men nearby got drunk on some clear liquor, but they didn’t last long, crashed in their hammocks long before midnight. There was a kerfuffle sometime in the early morning hours, when one of them awoke and discovered something important of his missing. He was blaming his compatriots and very upset. Flashlights searched the decks, hammocks were turned upside down, bags searched, all with considerable stumbling, quiet cursing and occasional vomiting over the rail. We looked carefully beneath our hammocks. You see they had a large, live snapping turtle tied up in a plastic bag with them, probably as a celebratory dinner gift for their welcome home dinner. We worried it had managed to wander off, and our butt laden hammocks were inches from the floor. I know what a snapping turtle can do with its beak! My father and grandfather ran a “trotline” in the Coal River; don’t let a snapping turtle get near any tender parts!
We slept well each night except one. A heavy squall hit us hard one afternoon, raining hard for two hours, bullets streaking the brown water and shaking the ship. The riverscape, usually pudding brown, selva (jungle) green, and sky blue, was now an even shade of streaked gray blue, and animated, a fury of sound and motion. The constant meandering of the river meant a short fetch, and held the waves down. I wondered why the downstream current, against the wind usually, didn’t get choppier that it did. It was fun to see some real weather. We’ve had sunshine almost every day (except flat fog on the coast) for six weeks, and the storm was a treat. However, the weather system left some very cold air in its wake (locally called a friaje), and I almost wished we hadn’t already mailed home the winter gear, stuff we mostly didn’t need in the Andes. Claire complained of a cold butt, pressed against the hammock, and my toes took until noon to recover. We knew it could get cold down in the Amazon Basin, but it was only something read in a book. Now we know, really know, in a way you can only know by feeling it on your skin, in your bones.
exotic fruits, cakes, handicrafts and parrots
At most village stops, women and children clambered on board, selling everything from gaseosas (sodas), to exotic fruits, cakes, handicrafts and parrots. The mud banks are filled with them vying for position to make the first round of the passengers hoping for a sale. Iquitos and Yurimaguas are very far away, and we few passenger/customers are delivered to their very doorstep. No wonder they are in such a hurry to get to us.
yelps and whistles of excitement and encouragement
We arrived well after dark in Iquitos, and had to navigate the hoards of moto taxi drivers and tour touts, while we loaded our gear on Zippy. We managed to fight our way through the hotel bound traffic in darkness, receiving many yelps and whistles of excitement and encouragement from the moto taxis, even as they seemed to nearly run us down. We survived again, found modest accommodations, slept okay on the funny flat bed, and are learning our way around Iquitos, a most fascinating city of 400,000, deep in the Amazon. It’s time to pinch myself. We are indeed here in the middle of nowhere, yet again. How do we keep making these crazy plans?