Black smoke shot up the stack of a tramp steamer that began a voyage that haunts me to this day (2014). Any Amazon excursion has three stages, and this was the first, on a triple deck ship from the furthermost port or Iquitos, Peru for a few days on the Rio Amazon to the mouth of a tributary. One transfer to a double deck launch conveying a few bands of natives on a weekly run to their sprinkled stilted villages on a tributary. In about two more days, that boat reaches a stenosis on the shrinking river that is as wide and deep as the boat itself, where one is cast into magic on a hand hewn canoe or downriver raft using a sack of bananas or fish as a pillow. The process is an insipid loss of consciousness of civilization into the great void of Mother Nature. Out here the natives think lower on the brainstem, have no inkling of space or time, and wear mosquitoes.
Today, on a muddy shore when I meet the demented Captain known in this region as Diablo, is an exception. Why is there no river bottleneck? Although the sky is blue and dry as a desert it must have rained in the west for days, or a heat wave swept the Andes snowcap, for now the river is rising and widening. Diablo seizes the opportunity to make one last run of the season before the river evaporates. Catching a boat here in the green where only missionaries have preceded is simple hoboing, for where America is welded by RR tracks the Amazon connects by as many rivers.
I stick out my thumb; Diablo wrenches it painfully to pull the boat ashore, and shakes my hand. He is as wide as he is tall, with a cockeyed grin beneath a tricorne, and stands bowlegged on his craft, a chubby 20-meter rust-bucket splashed in blood red called Exporte. Two ragtag helmsmen wrestle the meter wheel in the bridge popping from the bow, and cheer me aboard, ‘Gringo!’ The ship cargo is heavy and jammed side to side with barrels of aguadiente, the rife jungle liquor of 30-60% alcohol, chain saws, 500-watt generators, chickens, 100-pound sacks of rice, my small knapsack, and five male passengers that resemble Hercules on his various birthdays.
Spanish is the men’s second language, after a forest tongue, which I understand more easily than anywhere else in Peru since they pronounce slowly using simple words and present tense. I learn that the Exporte is their monthly curse and blessing, and the only transportation other than onerous canoes during high water or, with the stream now in flood stage, on the final run of the year. The boat is a multi-functional water taxi, mail service, cargo ship, trading post, cantina, movie theater, and, judging by the gleam in his eye, whatever the captain wants it to be.
Each of the powerful commuters has seen a tiger up this river, hence its name, and yawns how he outstared or tracked the ten-foot cats (including tail), though none has shot one because it is nationally protected, but none can meet and hold the cold, black eyes of Diablo. They are a serious breed with a machete always near to chop overhangs that drape from shore the boat during passage.
The goal of my journey is to search for a shortcut trail near Santa Isabel that connects the Rio Tigre to the Rio Nanay which leads back to Iquitos. If I can find this legendary hunter’s path which is accessible during low water season, then I could guide tourists in a grand five day loop in the heart of the Amazon, teaming with wildlife, instead of the current weeks’ long boat rove.
Prehistoric surprises are pulled out the river daily, thrown on the grill, and thrust in front you in soup for breakfast and on rice for supper. My 30-lb backpack holds a layer of paperbacks, GPS, river map, sleeping sheet, emergency cashews, and one change of socks. The cost per day for the passage was $US10.
The captain and I got off on the right foot together due to a quirk that should have alerted me of his deep eccentricities. My right eye had swollen shut the day before covered with a black scab that I wore like a pirate patch. It is more common in oxen, and, the natives had been calling me, beastie, a beast of burden, which is also the jungle jargon for the tropical disease Chagas. And yet, before boarding I had gotten a shave at a corner town chair because my rechargeable razor had broken after a hard month in the wilds leaving me with a natural growth. The barber was a youth in no hurry, while I had a boat to catch, and wanted to look decent to offset the eye. He had a single Gillette blade, without soap or water, and it was a scrape but the hair fell gently to the sidewalk. The blade got duller as the boat horn tooted, but the lad continued, and in five minutes he threw the blade in the dirt, ground it with his foot, and whipped the towel off my shoulders. He had shaved only the right side of my face. With no time to argue I had paid him forty cents for a half shave, and ran for the boat where the captain jerked me aboard. Seeing myself through his eyes in mid-air, I shuddered.
In the early days, I could see exactly what he was doing, chugging upriver. Initially, the villages were a half day apart, and he paused at each for a half-day, or until the town money and barter of animal meat and eggs had spent at double city prices, and then he fired the 135hp Caterpillar in the rear hold to overtake and fleece the next pueblo of ten to fifty shanties on stilts, and the next.
Daily diversions between towns were sundry through a perilous Disneyland. One day, at about 1300 hours, one of the helmsmen yelled, ‘Huevos!’(Eggs), and rammed a 100-meter sandbar. Fresh turtle tracks spotted the sand from the night before when a mother had come ashore to lay a clutch, and breakfast was a dig away. A 200-meter zigzag trail taught by evolution had confused other predator stork and mammal, but not the eight of us. The ship’s mate with the longest fingernails shouted, ‘Aqui!’ and, as the rest circled like buzzards, from a foot under thirty-two two-inch eggs were carefully lifted into a shirttail. Two broke in the swagger to the kitchen, and an hour later the travelers smacked their lips over the traditional dish for its protein and aphrodisiac. The giant Amazon River turtles are one of the largest freshwater turtles in the world, up to a meter long and 200 pounds, and I have always wanted to ride one with scuba gear but have not seen the saddle, and can only attest the pungent eggs are better left to hatch or to the vultures.
Another day, a fisherman floating downriver on a balsa raft with a tarp and fire pit and quacking duck intercepted our bow, and tied on as the captain cut the motor. A plank was thrown and up walked the big white pet duck leading its owner. As the fisherman and captain dickered for fish, whose eyes are located below the jawline as ground feeders, the duck explored, and so furious was the exchange that when the fisherman left he forgot his duck until the plank was pulled. The fisherman cried, ‘Where is Donaldo?’ to which the helmsmen shrugged and threw the poor man a couple fish. An hour later, I was sitting on the stern where one inlet tube for river water is used for showering, cooking and dishwashing, and one toilet flushes back into the river. When the cook threw the duck on a line tethered to its feet overboard, I thought, how nice, going for a swim, until blood dripped from the jugular and slowly sopped the head and painted the boat. Later, when the cook rang the supper bell and flapped his arms to explain the 25 gallon communal pot, I refused to eat.
My sleeping quarters were in the watery hold on a stack of freshly hewn lumber where the crew had held the duck captive until the pot, with a knapsack pillow a few meters from the rumbling engine room. Each evening, after watching 5’ gray dolphins jump-slide along the boat, slithering snakes across the stream, tarantulas crawl the palms, chattering monkeys, and swallows vacuum the air, I took the hard bed there as preferable to VHS comedy reels on the widescreen on deck. The Exporte, with a draft of 5’, chugged all night trading helmsmen, as one held an 8¨spotlight and the other steered around snags. Nudging upriver in rising water was as tediously slow as walking. Nightly, the boat beached on the river bottom, caught on a snag and twirled, or crashed the flooded shore gathering branches and thousands of insects on deck for ten meters until it stopped. Then the helmsman woke up, or the broken tiller was fixed, and everyone returned to sleep scratching.
The pueblos up the Rio Tigre thinned to one a day, and then every other day, where the natives grew ghoulish albeit friendly, the dogs insalubrious, and the women went bare breasted. The children had never seen white flesh and either took to heels or approached to touch an arm. My own clothes are shredding on the skin like a poor man’s Indiana Jones. At each port the captain donned a fresh shirt and struck a nautical poise on the bow, bandy legged, potbellied, and constantly blurry eyed behind inscrutable slit. He always smiled, even when shouting at the two shirtless, barefoot teens four-handing the wheel. He expertly balanced as the ship rammed the mud in the Amazon method of docking, and shouted, ‘Come aboard everyone!’
He dropped the mail, collecting a small fee, and the precious cargo which brought more, and his henchmen sold sweets to the children, Saltines to the women, and aguadiente to the men who could afford it. The most prized commodity was gasoline of which the tight fisted captain yielded not a drop as if it was his blood. Much of the trading was barter, with a load of butchered meat, gutted fish and eggs gleaned at one port floated and traded for lumber or whatever he wanted at the next. The stops grew shorter in harmony with the villagers wherewithal.
One day the passengers grew restless, flexed in the hammocks, and sniffed the air. One motioned with a finger silently ahead and the others nodded wisely, as I swung to look. Abruptly, we were entering a gate-like overhand of Sumaumeria trees that strained 200’ up from the ground and above the inferior canopy for sunlight, and wrapped branches over the river to embrace the boat. These are the Amazon’s tallest, fast-growing trees and found on the floodplains where they throw out above-ground buttress roots that offer the ‘jungle telephone’. In the Dutch novel The Dream Merchant the protagonist has ventured so far into the jungle it’s as if he’s reached the edge of time. Every twenty minutes he drums the base of a telephone tree whose sound carries for miles into the forest, to communicate.
The answer was, somehow and though no tree had been drummed, the Exporte rounded a bend, the motor cut, and the men muscled past the captain to take the bow. Already on shore stood a spectacle of human anatomy, like a body building row, a race of humans so exquisitely proportioned that the peoples in the rest of 105 visited countries pale next to them. They lined the bank in various poses of measured suspense, the women in bright dresses and the men in clean trousers with white shirts. What have I stumbled into?
‘What town is this?’ I ask the exiting passengers who gaze warmly up the bank at their wives and sweethearts, and Schwarzenegger children. ‘Pachiplaya.’
The plank bumps the bank, and one after another villagers streak aboard. They clap their townsmen on the backs with thunder, lightning dances in the women’s eyes, and the kids tote heavy loads ashore. The townspeople roll two 35-gallon blue plastic barrels of gasoline (for their chainsaws, pecapeca canoes, and, alas, generators for televisions) along the 20’ gangplank onto the village grass. ‘Gas is life!’ some chant. I help pull crates and boxes from the hold, and am complimented, ‘He speaks Spanish!’ speaking of my sweat. Each boarder pauses to shake my hand, and one after another advises, ‘Visit our creek.’
‘Don’t miss the creek.’
As I step off the beam a child suggests, ‘Go to our creek’.
Greek mythology presents us with the Amazon warriors as a group of exquisite females who belong to an all-female culture and society, reputed for their fearsome fighting skills. Told to be tall and powerful, as strong as any man, the location of the Amazon warriors is unknown. Most historians suggest they wandered as far as England in from 0 BC to 1400 AD. If this is not one of their locales where I’ve alighted, then perhaps the genes are here. More importantly, what would cause a group of Amazonians to evolve into so grand a species, female or male, or both?
I follow the grassy town square with a typical soccer game in progress, except the participants have the size, cunning and dare of the NY Giants, out the town of about 50 neat houses on poles to where it becomes a footpath for 100 meters to the creek. Much out of place, it resembles a Rocky Mountain stream with pebbles in clear running water. I stoop and sip, like a clean mountain stream with a high, essential mineral content. A senora arrives to fill a 5-gallon cooking pot, whom I ask, ‘Where do the pebbles come from?’ She replies, ‘No one has been able to follow it that far.’ ‘Are there other streams like it?’ ‘This is the only with stones that empties into the Rio.’ I bid, ‘Did you ever consider that your tribe is larger and healthier than any in the region?’ She smiles, ‘The stones are the secret.’
Diablo seems at odds in this place, and I notice, on return to the boat that he has not left. His smile is bent into a sneer, and his jaw locks in determination. He climbs the bridge and cups his hands, shouting through them, ‘Come aboard, Everyone!’ I hold my breath in a turning point… and the villagers move, grudgingly at first, gain the inertia of peer pressure, and in a few minutes the line is fifty deep at the plank to gain the Exporte. My heart is plugged with sadness.
‘Diablo is here!’ yells a helmsmen. ‘We will not return for a season!’ adds the other.
Paradise spoils during the next twelve hours. ‘Bring out more,’ instructs the captain, as the gaunt ship´s mates roll out the barrels of liquor, snap open beers, and crack open crackers. Supply and demand balances in a fierce flow from the hold to the cantina. As the moon rises, Latin disco blares and if not for their stunning physiques the dancers would have fallen drunk on their faces. I sleep fitfully with earplugs and a baseball cap over my face in the lonely hold below.
In the morning, the deck is a dump of wrappers and bottles. On the boat leeward eddy hundreds of bottles tinkle in the river. Already the captain has taken the bridge with his two sleepy-eyed cohorts. ‘They are out of money,’ one mutters. ‘They’ll be back,’ the captain vows. At noon, a piercing orchestra of screams arises in the village, bouncing off the hut walls and along the telephone trees causing birds to take wing. I ferret the thatched huts where everyone is butchering his animals: pigs, Sacha Vaca (Amazon cow), chickens, and jungle deer. Stuffed in dying breaths into rice sacks, and dragged with dripping necks, the town grounds run red to the demon ship. The carcasses are traded for party swag, and another bash begins and erupts into the night.
Somehow, the next sunrise the Amazonians have rebounded on their toes to tasks about town, and working their Chakra farms, as the captain and his goons plot in the bridge. ‘They are out of cash, and animals,’ whispers one. The captain rises, clasps his meaty hands behind his back, and strides in thoughtful circles around and around the deck. He finally dives into the engine room where after 30 minutes of clanging wrenches and hammering, he emerges, nearly black, and asserts, ‘The motor is broken.’ He has gutted his own boat in greed. The crew spreads the parts on the deck and, using the old crusty, burnt engine gasket as a template to pencil and carve about twenty new holes the size of pennies, nickels and quarters for the motor bolts, rods, and so on, they carve them with a kitchen knife in a 4’ square of 3/8-inch aluminum that looks like the side of an abandoned Airstream. How it got here is anyone’s guess, but the captain haggles with two representatives and buys it for crackers and beer, lying that otherwise the Exporte is marooned. Then he climbs to the top of the bridge, and ‘Gas, I need gas!’ he gasps over the town square. ‘And then, Diablo gives credit.’ The cry, ‘Crédito!’ spreads and the townspeople move like zombies in a tsunami to the boat rolling their Sisyphus barrels of gasoline up the gangplank.
Forever is not so long in a place so deep and green as the Amazon, but I’m pulling hair to move on. The mates inform over the embryonic gasket that after this town, the next in two days travel will be swindled, and then others, until the river is heaved by the banks and the ship beaches until next season. It could take days, or weeks, depending on the financial situations in the pueblos.
I might still be waiting if not for a ‘Putt Putt ’just upriver, and around the bend swings a unique (for this region) black aluminum rowboat with a 25hp Mercury roaring with a rooster tail wake. It throttles down and parks on the lee in the graveyard of bobbing bottles. The party on board the bigger boat stops, the music is turned off, and is replaced by a woman’s sob, that is taken up by all into a crescendo wail. The ship empties and surrounds the black boat, some standing knee deep in mid, as a blanket is pulled off a man on a stretcher. ‘May I help,’ I ask the original sober. ‘I’ve had medical training.’ ‘No, gringo,’ she cries, ‘Not unless you can bring back the dead.’
I help move the corpse out the hearse to shore, and up the bank to the first house to the left of the goal post. The equator sun zenith’s at noon as the wake begins with purple jungle flowers and the boys on the Exporte pound out a fresh gasket.
But the tug of Diablo’s charm is great, and in a few hours, after the wake and previous hangover has worn off, the townspeople retrace to the ship and get staggering drunk again. On one side of their village is the Fountain of Strength, and on the other the skipper’s brew. The choice will disappear once Exporte sails. I analyze from the bank with a sleeping bag defending my legs in the 90F heat and 100% humidity, because it is preferable to the biting insects. Due to the high water, the bugs have crawled and flown by the tons to shore, with a dozen mosquitoes in every cubic meter that can choke a man.
The hearse driver stumbles over the end of the sleeping bag, and grins sheepishly. I respond, ‘Senor, I am stranded in a drunken town, and must escape the zany captain. Hades is this locked jungle, trail-less, and with no other boats. I want to ride out with you.’ He kneels next to me covered with mosquitoes, and croons in my ear, ‘It will be cloak and dagger,’ and straightens and lurches away. That night, as the party rages next door, I sleep in three inches of water on the bottom of the hearse because I must get away. Adventure should be 80 percent ‘I think this is manageable’, but the last 20 percent should be safe, just outside the comfort zone. Before sunrise, the driver trips over me a second time, splashes around to the Mercury, and fills the tank. ‘Stolen,’ he whispers, jutting a finger to pursed lips in the moonlight, and pushes off silently into the middle of the river. He kicks the engine. Five minutes upriver, he shuts it down, and lets the boat drift like a poem into the weeds. His chin drops to his chest expelling, ‘We are desperados.’
Dawn over the Amazon is like a rebirth. The pilot in an orange reflector vest and embroidered ‘PlusPetrol’ on his jumpsuit slows the Mercury to a purr, and suddenly opens up. ‘Pedro was a good man, 6’ and 190 pounds of rock muscle, with splayed feet. I didn’t know him, but the blanket bounced up and down during delivery and that’s when I noticed his determined look even in death, like his townsmen in life. I’m sorry I had to steal their gas, but there would have been no way back. He was snake bitten on the leg while working at the oil company, and…’ demonstrating with his free hand off the gas that the venom had quickly moved up the blood to capture his brain and then stop the heart. ‘Where are we going?’ I ask, not that it matters. He responds with a Peruvian waggle, thrusting a hand above his head, pointing ahead, and the vigor of the action indicates a long journey. Fourteen hours later, at 20mph, the rocket out of Hades hearse pulls under a bridge at the last negotiable port on the upper Rio Tigre before it turns to threads in the Andes. The pilot lets me off in the shade and invisible to the townspeople where I palm him $20 (one day’s wage) in Soles which he grabs, explaining, ‘It isn’t necessary because I’m paid by the company, but gracias.’
PlusPetrol is a subsidiary of a worldwide oil company in the exploration and production of oil and gas. The Peru operation stretches from the overhead bridge at Dos de Octobre and west along a 60 mile road aside an 8’’ oil pipe through pristine mountain jungle. I climb out and hitch a ride with the road inspector, and help him place yield signs at the track junctions. In two hours, we reach Andoas on the Rio Pastaza and the corporate headquarters of 2700 workers, that’s hemmed by am 8’ chain link fence topped with razor wire, where I ‘throw my feet’, as the hobos say, to a gate guard. He passes me to his superior, and in the next hour working my way up through the head of security of 200 men, who was a retired Peru Special Forces captain who had trained at Ft. Bragg, USA, and finally to the president of the entire operation, a compassionate Argentinean businessman with penetrating eyes that take a worried look at thousands of mosquito bites on my arms and legs that have given rise to a 1/32nd inch ‘wet suit’ of venom-edema over the entire body. He introduces me to the chief physician at the modern company hospital where his report reads, ‘This foreigner is known to me. He is capable of travel, but needs to be mediated to a city.’
Despite its remote location in the Andes foothills, PlusPetrol maintains an airport that charters daily 100-seat LAN jets to shuttle its employees to and from the capital Lima. I’m lucky to get an assigned seat for which everyone refuses money, insisting it is a mercy lift. Minutes later, the silver jet taxis down the airport with dozens of eyes upon us from the forest lined runway. These are shape shifters, the Amazon natives who have lived for so many generations in the bush that they melt into it from the visible eye. I know they’re there, because some stepped out, especially the children, to watch the silver bird catch wind, uplift, and in minutes I was in the clouds and off to another adventure.