Screams woke me up in the early morning hours. I jumped up. The engines rumbled with low torque. The usual orange on the exhaust pipes had turned faint purple. Everyone on the deck was asleep. Dense fog enveloped the Padrino. Tugboat and barges drifted at slow speed in a lazy current. An acidic stench of diesel and of smoldering paint prickled in my nose. There was a flickering orange glow on the starboard sky. Something was wrong. I ran to the bridge to see what happened.

The scene I witnessed was quite scary. Through the fog a dark ghostly silhouette of a ship appeared, still some fifty feet away, but the Padrino drew closer. Yellow flames shot through the engine room’s portholes, and plunged the scene in flickering orange. Raucous muffled screams and shouts of panic echoed through the fog. Now I finally could recognize the ship. It was the Marilouisita. We had visited this red-and-white painted bulk carrier, far prettier and modern compared to our lousy Padrino, up in Pucallpa.

Three river days had passed since, and it felt like almost a lifetime. “We are already complete,” they had told us. “We also never take foreign turistas.” Thanks to God they didn’t.

Now, the boat was in flames. I saw Jimenez with a water hose in his hands. He was over there, on the other boat, a shade of a man against the fire’s glow. The Padrino’s small aluminum dingy lay moored against the Marilouisita. I heard the little portable auxiliary pump start with a clicking and rattling noise. Water shot from the fire hose Jimenez was holding. It looked like a desperate fight against the flames. After a while, however, camouflaged by a dense cloud of smoke, the orange light gradually faded. The scene plunged into an uneasy gloom. Had they managed to extinguish the engine room fire, on the other ship?

Our captain appeared on the bridge. He wore his silk pajamas. How senile and frail he looked in the first pale morning light. He shouted something into the chocolate-colored fog. I couldn’t understand anything. Our Padrino slowly drifted toward the Marilouisita. Jimenez came back, his face blackened by oil soot, looking both energetic and nervous. “It is done,” he said and disappeared in Padrino’s belly. A while later, our three roustabouts reappeared from the fog in the dingy and off-loaded both pump and hoses. Now both bulk carriers lay side-by-side. The fog was still very dense. I heard the rumble of rolling drums. Our roustabouts were delivering these to the other ship, probably in some kind of emergency assistance. Then they pulled back the wooden latches.

“Let’s go,” shouted Captain Perez. Jimenez was up on the bridge. “Move the boat a farther 100 feet backboard.”

Jimenez nodded, and pushed the throttle. The Padrino slowly moved away from the Marielouisita. Vortices formed behind the tugboat. Then the engine stopped. We barely drifted, as a yellow bright morning sun pierced through the fog.

One hour later, the fog had lifted. As Jimenez restarted the engines, I looked back. Behind us lay the Marilouisita in the faint morning light, moored against the riverbanks, and surrounded by a heap of driftwood and debris. Her stern was blackened by soot. Some empty incinerated oil drums smoldered on the deck. It seemed an oil fire had engulfed the stern section of the vessel. It wasn’t an uplifting view. Hammering noises resounded from the ship, the wounded ship’s engine room. Obviously they were trying to fix a severely damaged engine.

Meanwhile our Padrino steered into the current and went full throttle. I stepped down the iron ladder to the lower deck, and made my morning walk over the barges Alegria, Esposita, Juanita, and finally Griselda. The first three were attached one by one in a linear configuration, the tugboat pushing from behind, as usual. The Griselda lay next to the Juanita, attached to the latter with three old rusty cables, that looked recoiled and re-knotted for at least a hundred times.

I took pleasure in sitting at the barge’s bow, and watched the waters parting in front of me. I swore to retain every drop of this unique experience. Far in the distance behind me, a few hundred feet away, rumbled the Padrino’s Penta diesel engines. My place at the bow of Griselda was the calmest place on the convoy. When sitting and watching the river I sometimes fell into a contemplative state of meditation, or even melancholy, as my eyes followed the meanders as they opened one by one. There was something profoundly calming and soothing in the river, a glimpse of eternity, perhaps. Watching water was in itself rather interesting. At dawn, the river looked black-opaque, silvery like mercury at noon, dull café-au-lait and hazy in the afternoon, and occasionally verdant and silver-lined at dusk. At times I felt I could look into the river, below its shining surface, but was this just another illusion?

I began to feel close to the river people, these aquatic nomads living in a seemingly timeless world of gradual change, flow, melancholy and mellow nostalgia. Sometimes I closed my eyes, ready to listen to the noises originating from waves, vortices and the hissing sounds from the jungles on both sides of the river that had grown almost a mile wide. Occasionally I took some pictures, though it felt hard to select an appropriate scene- what is supposed to be unique in a setting that is unique by itself? I always carried a little Minox 35 mm ready with me, my trusted traveler’s camera.

At noon the current strengthened again. Little white foam crests appeared on subtle waves, as the river broke through a chain of hills in a staccato of benign rapids. Vibrations ran through the convoy. The Griselda banged mildly against the Juanita, despite the driftwood that had accumulated between the two barges. It gave me a chill - we had some 700 miles left to go until the jungle city of Iquitos, and I wondered what would happen if we were challenged by more demanding rapids.

(c) 2008 by Franz L Kessler