With the haze of dawn, the anchors lifted. The mosquito torture was finally over. We had brunch with the captain, up on the bridge, some very old hard cookies and tea with limejuice. During the morning, the weather was fine and the boat gathered speed. Herby and I felt still drowsy from the sleepless mosquito night. He also complained about headache. I encouraged him to swallow another malaria pill. I found myself a shady place, not far from the Sanchez family, and observed the jungle passing by. This morning I became aware of a dilemma that bothered me: true, this journey was most unique, but there was only so much one can watch, and remember.
Furthermore, even the most fascinating landscape, the most thrilling experience became routine after a while. What to do? I asked myself this question and fell asleep. A wave of rolling thunder woke me up. It was early afternoon. The waters of river had swollen, flowing agitated and in vortices behind the tugboat. The sky went dark, lightning was everywhere, and thunder reverberated from the dark walls of forested riverbanks. A massive downpour of rain hit us, and waves of dense rain hushed over the deck. Everybody on the boat attempted to seek shelter from the rain as well as one could. It almost felt cold. As the rain clouds lifted, we passed an area of rapids. The barges jostled and crackled, whilst the old cables, a hundred odd times recoiled, shrieked and squeaked under the strain of the current. It gave me a chill, a premonition that frightening events lay ahead. When the rain eased, I regained my seat on the railings, stretched my legs, and watched the scenery. One would imagine that the Amazon Basin is rather flat and monotonous. This view turned out to be incorrect, as I realized that day. We had left the high sierras some 100 miles ahead of Pucallpa, and the terrain had been flat ever since. Now looking downriver loomed sierras, islands of mountains in a seemingly endless plane, forgotten ranges embedded in the infinity of the forest, with fat milky clouds combing through dark jungle canopies. My second day on the river seemed to end uneventfully. For some reason our captain decided to continue navigating throughout the night. It was dark on the boat. On deck there were no electrical lights.
When dusk fell our lonely searchlight wandered over the meandering river snake, illuminating specters of floating tree trunks, water lily patches and vortices. I wondered for how many nights the big battery’s electricity would last. There was no map, no orientation, only the captain’s experience, or should I call it instinct, that guided the convoy through the sand-shoal riddled stream. This night Herby and I camped between the exhaust pipes, right above the engine room, and located beneath a corrugated iron roof. This place was to become our most favorite sleeping place, in absence of other good options. Orange-red glowing, the exhaust pipes were coated by one inch of roasted insect carcasses. The glowing pipes kept most of the mosquitoes away from us, and those who didn’t, got an excellent chance to become a glowworm. A gentle breeze blew off the remainder of vampires. The glowing tubes also provided a bit of heat during the occasional heavy rain showers at night.
Monotonously, the engines rumbled, as the Padrino pushed the barges through a silent darkness toward the river town of Iquitos and distant Brazil. Around 2300, a burst of unfamiliar noises woke me up. There was a deep rumble and rattle of distant generators. It emanated from somewhere in the forest ahead, where a diffuse bluish illuminated a crescent of hazy night sky. Squeaking sounds of steel tubes under strain, raucous sounds, shouts, whistles and rumblings were heard. Where the hell did these noises come from? Turning the corner of the meander, an oilfield appeared. Not far from the river, there stood the drilling mast, illuminated in blue flickering neon, surrounded by a buzzing, steaming and smelly world of oil field operations. I watched the surprising and somewhat eerie scene. One turn of the river, only a few minutes later, and the oil well laid behind us, like a spook of another, very different world. We felt again immersed in the loneliness of the silent, muddy river, and surrounded by voices of the jungle and the regular raw rumble of the diesel engines below. The Padrino steamed downriver through a dark, starless night. Mist banks had gathered above the water, and reflected a milky glow. In the cone of the searchlight driftwood and riverbank forests appeared as ghostly silhouettes. As the night progressed, the fog became dense. It dampened the sound of the engines. I visited Adriana in her den, enjoyed her pretty smile, and drank another pot of hot river water with limejuice. I asked her where she was from. She just shrugged her shoulder and told me that she belonged to the river, and was riding for many years on the Maranon, and more recently, the Ucayali. Obviously, the Padrino was her home. I wanted to continue our conversation for a bit longer, but somehow she didn’t seem to be in the right mood, and I had become tired, too.
I regained my sleeping place on warm polished steel plates, right between the mosquito-incinerating twin exhaust pipes. I closed my eyes and listened to the noises. There was the steady rumble of the Penta diesels, just below the steel plate on which I had stretched my legs. Someone in the Sanchez corner snored with a steady pitch and a recurrent melody. I guessed it was Emiliano, the proud Peruvian teacher. There were also smacking sounds, followed by a wobble, and repeated low-voice outcries: mosquito or sangudo. Mrs. Sanchez was hitting her baroque butt that floated in hammock-suspension. Obviously she tried in vain to prevent the tiny vampires from biting and sucking her large apple-shaped bacon. On the other side of the deck, some steady voices became louder. It seemed that Herby finally had found a way to communicate directly with Mario, the passionate leftist revista reader. At last I got relief from my unwanted translator’s job. They chatted in some bastardized Portuguese and Pigeon Spanish Criollo. Now, after days of painstaking intellectual struggle, they finally agreed on one common intellectual denominator: Albania. Europe’s most impoverished and brutal country was chosen as torch-bearer of true worthy socialist promises, and progress. Even the venerable Mother Theresa had given up and run away from that dreadful place, I thought. A new worker’s paradise was found! Old tasteless bread, a Chinese-sponsored dictatorship, foul-smelling government officials, Gestapo, greasy newspaper, unhappy women, prisons. Oh my God! Such I mused and fell into a deep, calm sleep.
(c) 2008 by Franz L Kessler