Friday, January 12, 2007

On a Boat Down the Amazon

I rolled into the river town of Yurimaguas just before dark. I had to go down to the docks and find a boat for tomorrow. My boat was called the ”Madre Selva” (Mother of the Jungle). These riverboats in the jungle are similar to if Carnival Cruises combined with Humphrey Bogart and his “African Queen”. Most of these boats are thirty year old steel ferry style ships that could use a coat fresh paint to brighten them up a bit. There are usually three decks on the vessels. The lower deck is for bags of rice, bananas and cattle. The middle deck is a big open room for fifty passengers to hang hammocks for sleeping. The upper deck has five or six cabins on each side with a walkway out to the roof. The bathrooms for all decks is usually in the back of the boat with a squatter’s toilet that dumps directly into the river. My diarrhea was still reminding me to keep toilet paper and a bathroom close by.

I made reservations for a cabin so I could lock my gear inside and sleep on a cot. The cabin had bunk beds and I had plenty of room to store my bike on the upper bed. I had ridden a similar boat from Yurimaguas last year. The total trip would take forty hours to travel about 300 miles. Our boat might stop at thirty different villages to pick-up passengers and more bananas. Based on our 10:00 AM departure time I would be on the boat two full days and one full night. The boat should be arriving in Nauta by the second night. I would get off the boat there and start cycling the next morning to complete the remaining 65 miles into Iquitos. The boat cost $14 with two meals of chicken and rice per day.

There is something special about being on the river. I felt it the first time I was on an Amazon river boat three years ago. I have felt it every time since. The trees seem more green on the river bank. The clouds are more defined during the day and the stars are brighter at night. Everyone aboard is on a little floating island and we are all friends.

Since I was the only English speaking gringo on the boat I tried to make some new friends with the Spanish speaking passengers. The decks were filled with families and small children that were commuting to local villages along the river. I had brought along a Polaroid camera to take photos of the families. I would hangout on the lower deck of the boat and meet families that were sitting together. Most of the villagers do not have cameras or own photos of themselves. They are always eager to pose for a picture. After I gave them their new Polaroid photo they would all gather around and watch the picture develop like magic. Some of the people were curious about me and America. I would sit with them and draw pictures on my note pad of maps of the USA and skyscraper buildings in Chicago.

There was a TV set and VCR on the main deck. Each evening they show movies for nightly entertainment. The first movie was a Japanese made Kung Fu thriller. It was dubbed over in English then added Spanish subtitles. It was a pretty dumb movie but it was the first English speaking TV I had seen in two weeks. The second movie was another action flick that was even worse. I went to bed about 11:00 PM and I could still hear the movie car crashes on the loud TV. I must have fallen a sleep because I woke up at midnight and heard a very loud woman screaming...”Oh Yes...Oh Yes...Oh Yes”. I thought there must be another gringo woman on the boat having a moment of passion in the next cabin. My diarrhea was calling me and I walked to the bathroom. In the TV area they were watching an American XXX film without Spanish subtitles. I didn’t stay to watch but I expect the action didn’t need to be translated to explain the plot.

The next day was sunny and hot. Perfect weather for cruising down the river. The boat would steer from shore to shore trying to find the best river channel to follow. The rainy season would start next month and the river would double again in width. Even now the river was getting wider the further downstream we went. Some areas were so broad it looked like we were on a lake. The huts on the distant shore were barely visible. When we decided to dock at a village it caused a lot of excitement and all the people came out to line up along the riverbank. Sometimes a few passengers got off and a few got on. Our boat would unload some bags of rice and take on a bunch of bananas. The whole exchange would take only a minute with the boat barely coming to a stop.

There are as many varieties of bananas or platanos in Peru as there are apples in America. I only know two kinds of bananas at home; Chiquita and Dole, and they both look the same to me. In Peru there are at least six common types. Some are as small as your thumb or as large as Zucchini. Each kind is used for a different cooking dish. Some you can eat raw but most of them are served baked like a sweet potato or boiled in a soup. Restaurants serve fried and salted bananas that are sliced like french fries. They are not as sweet as American bananas. During our trip down the river our boat deck was stacked with a large selection of bananas.

During one of the longer stops I was able to get off the boat and walk along the riverbank. The local residents watched me curiously. I don’t think many gringos had ever stopped at their village. When I went to get back on the boat one of the men asked me in broken English if I wanted to stay and be the leader (mayor) of their village. I had to shake my head “No”. I barely spoke any Spanish and I knew even less about making a house from palm leaves or carving a dugout canoe. Their offer was generous but typical of the friendliness the local people showed toward me during my tour.

At 9:00 PM we first saw the small city of Nauta where I would get off the boat. I stood by the boat railing and viewed the distant lights reflecting off the Amazon River. The lights of the city made Nauta look like a metropolis in the jungle. I started packing up my gear and bicycle from my cabin. Since I didn’t need my cabin tonight I gave my room key to a mother with two small kids who had been sleeping on the floor of the main deck. The boat would continue through the night to the city of Iquitos which was seven hours down river. My diarrhea had now ended after three days of Imodium and Cipro pills. I always felt pretty strong and still had an appetite. I was going to be careful about drinking anymore fruit juice.

I got off the boat and walked along the rustic river dock into Nauta. The streetlights had attracted swarms of bugs around the lights. I noticed the flocks of huge bats swooping through the night. The bats had a wingspan of about twelve inches or the size of American pigeons. They were flying within a few inches of me but I could not hear their wings flapping. I was able to photograph them diving in front of my camera. The bats didn’t eat all the mosquitoes that night. I finally got my first mosquito bite in Peru after over two weeks in the jungle.

I found a hotel downtown on the city square (Plaza de Armas). There was a street festival promoting the upcoming elections. I walked over and watched the people dancing. The local politicians were handing out paper cups filled with a dark syrupy beverage. I didn’t try any but it had a strong molasses smell. The music was loud and continued past midnight. I went back to my hotel room overlooking the festival. Finally the music stopped and I could hear the dripping of a major rainstorm on the cement street.

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