After a while the rapids calmed down. Several canoes floated far ahead, little dark elongated spots above sparkling waters. Then, following the river in a semicircle around a hilly promontory, a large village appeared. Its yellow bungalows and adobe shacks dotted a gentle hill slope.
“This is our charming Contamana,” said Jimenez, who stood right behind my shoulder. I hadn’t heard him coming.
“What a serene view,” I replied.
“Our Peru is the most pretty of all countries,” said Jimenez. It was the first time I saw his noble eagle face smiling proudly.
“Enjoy Contamana,” he said. “We’ll stop there for an hour or two. Don’t be late.” With these words he turned around, and headed back to the tugboat.
Twenty minutes later the Padrino took berth at a simple jetty made out of clay. Herby and I walked over the wooden plank. Our feet touched land again. It felt good and strange after the days on the boat. In the village we received a wet welcome. Teen-age girls in shorts, as pretty as cheeky, ran toward us and splashed buckets of water over our heads, to run away giggling. It felt good to be baptized that way, given we were without shower for more than three days. “Welcome to Contamana,” said an elderly man. “It’s carnival time again.”
We climbed the hill and toured the village. There wasn’t much to see apart from a small municipal building, a church, school and a pharmacy. On the hilltop we had a coke in a tiny bar. After days of boiled river water it tasted like divine nectar. From our vantage point one overlooked the village and the Ucayali River as it meandered away, merging into an endless green horizon to the east.
The Padrino’s sirens horned. We rushed down the hill to catch our dear boat. They wouldn’t wait for us a minute. Back on our bulk carrier I joined Captain Perez for a late lunch. He seemed to be in a merry mood, and longing for some conversation. After we finished eating, he stood up and went to his room, and came back with a booklet of beige color.
“ I’ve always been interested in military history,” he said. “This book I wrote myself after the Columbian War.” It featured a forgotten border conflict with neighboring Colombia, which had erupted around 1944 in the pristine jungle up on the MaranonRiver, an area of great remoteness, and poorly surveyed. As it happened several times during the history of South America, conflicts were born from ill-defined borders. Mr. Perez was a good narrator.
“Not far from here” said the captain, pointing toward the North, “the Columbians had sneaked into our territory.
“I was a Marine Corps lieutenant then, and commanded a task force of some eighty men. With great caution we scouted the rivers, and identified the whereabouts of the enemy. When we arrived up in the war zone, we ran intelligence operations first. We learnt from the river Indios that the Columbians had captured a border post and had killed seven of our men. My four platoons spent two weeks hiding and gathering more intelligence. We built a camp and two outposts on the opposite shore and facing the Columbians. We hid in the jungle and watched their daily routine by day and night. Then we attacked, in one big leap, like a tiger. Completely surprised, they were in panic. Most fled into the jungle, only a few resisted and fired back. But their guns were simply no matches for our modern Mauser 9 mm rifles. We killed most of these Columbian bastards, and drove the remainder of these son-of-a-bitches back into their Columbian swamplands. I was young like you, then. Life was adventurous and great.” The captain laughed, stood up and withdrew to his quarters. Jimenez was steering the convoy. I had a short nap.
When I woke up, it was getting dark. The searchlight prowled over the misty river ahead. I went down to the kitchen, and had a little chat with the charming Adriana. I made her laugh, and was compensated with a sparkle in her eyes and a shining golden-tooth-smile. Esperanzita was there too, but as always she didn’t say a word, and looked to the ground with her big, melancholy eyes. It made her appear terribly attractive, too. I wished I could take a dive in her eyes. Adriana offered me some hot ‘tea,’ which was in essence boiled river water. It was hot, and had tea color, indeed.
I squeezed a few fresh limes, which improved the taste. Food and drinks may be a fine thing, but good company is everything.On the way to the bow I met Jimenez. He leaned at the railings, enjoying his break after several hours of steering the boat. As dusk fell, he scrutinized the riverbanks with an eagle’s eye. The fog was disappearing.
“It is raining up in the Sierra,” he whispered, and looked worried.
“Look at the seam of clay at the levee over there. The water is rising and almost wants to flush the banks. The lee shore is already flooded completely. It’s very hard to spot the current in this flooded landscape. Dangerous vortices are appearing everywhere. We have already more than two or even three meters water above normal. The rapids ahead might become dangerous. The river is turning into an evil dragon.”
“Why don’t we stop somewhere, and wait until the water recedes,” I asked.Jimenez shook his head in disbelief then shrugged his shoulders.
“No way the captain will allow us to do that. It’s the contract. The longer it takes us to deliver the cement cargo, the less will we be paid. He will try to force navigating through the night. I’ll take over from him after midnight.”
I should have listened to him. But instead I only nodded, took my little torchlight, and walked down the barges, jumping from one to the next. A fresh breeze blew into my face, and millions of stars sparkled on a crystal-clear night sky. It felt refreshing and wonderful. With the naked eye I could see the Orion, the red star Betelgeuse, tiny Al Saif and distant Andromeda looking like a tiny snowflake hovering above the bright, blue Mintaka. In the center of the firmament sparkled the Southern Cross. Our galaxy draped over the sky like an enormous creamy arc. The view was humbling and breathtaking beautiful.
At the Griselda’s bow I met Mario. He was in a contemplative mood, too, and together we watched the stars, and exchanged our astronomical knowledge, with our backsides flat on the cool metal. Occasionally a satellite would pass by, to disappear suddenly after taking a plunge in our planet’s shadow. There were a few shooting stars, too. We watched and talked for hours, as the river split ahead of the bow and dark bands of jungle passed by.
“Actually, Frank, I need to tell you something,” said Mario. “ I lied to you about myself. I’m not a student of Political Sciences, though this is my hobby. I worked in Pucallpa as an accountant, but then, well, I had trouble with a girl.”
“What was the problem?” I inquired.
“Haven’t you seen the gir gir girls we call the ‘little flowers’? When it gets dark you see them sta sta standing along the boulevard leading to the harbor. In pink short skirts, they are lined up ready for lo lo love. In brief, I started an affair with one of them, and made some promises in a silly moment. Her name was Ines. A girl can easily turn a man’s life upside down, and make a fool out of you. I made her pregnant, too. Then, some bad guys threatened me. In brief, I had to quit my job and run away from Pucallpa.”
I was thinking about what best to answer to Mario’s confession, when the river started to run fast. Down east the full moon was about to rise, illuminating the horizon with a line of silver. The waters of the river seemed to whisper. Faint tremors ran through the barge, together with the groaning of steel when under stress. I directed my torch and scanned the river. Little wave crests rippled everywhere. The river was about to become wild again. We were obviously approaching another sequence of rapids. Jimenez’ words came to my mind.
“Let’s better go back,” I said to Mario, and stood up. I had a bad feeling in my stomach. “No problem,” replied Mario. “This boat has steered through thousands of rapids. This one won’t be the last one.”
He hadn’t finished his sentence, when our barge skidded and banged violently against the along-side barge, the Juanita.
A violent current shook the barges, and pulled them apart from each other. As seconds went by, the strength of the river doubled. Steel cables squeaked, and crackled with a sound of tuk-tuk-tuk. The old material was stretched to its utmost morbid capacity. Then, disaster struck. Suddenly, the main cable at the Griselda’s stern broke. It snarled down toward us like a huge steel whip, hitting the ground, whilst luckily missing us. It whirled up some loose bolts and cement dust. Our barge made a sudden leap. We were thrown onto the iron deck. Then the two other cables screamed as they failed, too, whilst ripping off a steel shaft.
Sparkles of metal scintillated and sprayed in a fountain of fire seven feet high, as our Griselda rumbled along the Juanita squeaking, jumping ahead. We were caught captive. It was too late to jump, too late to run. Freed from all cables, our lonely barge shot down into the rapids, with an estimated speed of some 35 miles/hour. The river looked like a brown bubble bath, waves and foam crests everywhere. Only a few seconds had passed. The tugboat, together with the other barges, had dropped back and was left far behind.
“Give me the torch, now” I shouted to Mario, who was searching for his plastic slippers on the deck. “We need every sparkle of electricity.” Mario gave me a dull look. He wasn’t about to win the Novel Prize soon, I thought. I seized my torch and signaled back to the Padrino, just as the tugboat and the other barges were about to disappear behind a meander sling lined by high forest. The searchlight turned toward us, and blinked into my eye. Jimenez had seen us, and he at least was a smart guy.
“They have seen us, and signaled back,” I said to Mario. “They know we got a torch light. Let’s hope they find us back.”
It was midnight. Mario had an indifferent look and didn’t utter a single word. I had no time for him, as I pondered alternatives. With a magic hand, the current steered the barge through the current, meandering and zigzagging down the lonely, mighty river.
Several times it looked as if we would bang right against the shore, and hit clay walls with overhanging trees. But again, with a magic hand, the current moved us off the riverbanks and turned the bow toward a distant lee shore. It felt like some ghost had taken control of the boat and was steering it with some eerie, illogical yet terrible precision. We, however, had no control whatsoever, being completely at the river’s mercy.After two, three hours of rapids the waters slowed down. Here, the river had spread out and inundated an undeterminable area of bogs and wetlands, with little forested islands popping out here and there. The endless water table shone in the moonlight. There was no sign of our tugboat.
“God knows how they are going to find us,” mumbled Mario.
“They will find us in the end,” I replied with a stern voice that tried to convince me, too.
“Let’s hope so,” said Mario, looking depressed.
“We are still alive, and healthy,” I commented. “We can build a raft. We can sail and row downriver until Iquitos. A raft is, unlike this bloody barge full of cement, stable and steer-able. The river will take us there, don’t worry.”
I almost had convinced myself, when we heard a grinding sound that increased in strength. The barge shook. Metal shrieked. What was going on? Then the barge came to a sudden hold. We had gone stuck, some five hundred feet from a swampy lee shore, in a morass of dead water and clay. It wasn’t quite as pretty as the Coca cabana. Several blackened tree trunks were either sticking out of the bed or lazily floating around. The stream looked about some five, seven miles wide and flowed very slowly.We sat in the moonlight for another hour or two. Mosquitoes were humming around my ears, noises echoing from the jungle as fireflies lit up over dark shores. Then I heard a faint rumble in the distance. Was it the Padrino? Mario had fallen asleep, and was snoring.Not long, and a distant cone of light prowled over the shiny lake surface, veiled by a thin layer of fog.
“It’s the Padrino”! I shouted with joy. Mario woke up and looked in disbelief. I switched-on the torch and beamed a signal in the direction of the searchlight and the rumbling sound. The searchlight zoomed in on us. Gradually the barges with the tug pushing behind appeared in the moonlight. After five minutes the Juanita lay next to our brave Griselda.
(c) 2008 by Franz L Kessler