I jumped over to the Juanita and climbed up the iron ladder on the Padrino up to the bridge. My legs shivered a bit after our ordeal - the experiences of the previous hours made me feel anxious but also energetic. Some inner voice told me that there was more to come, that we hadn't quite scratched the bottom of this Amazonian Pandora's Box.
I tried to calm down as well as I could and sat down near to the bridge. Below, illuminated by the full moon I saw our roustabouts mend the broken cables. They did so by knotting the broken cable ends, then coiling them, and finally stabilizing the cable with the help of some driftwood. From watching them one got the impression this was nothing but a routine event for them.
Up on the bridge, I observed a somewhat eerie scene. In the pale moonlight, I saw the silhouettes of two men, standing next to the steering wheel. First officer Jimenez was having a serious argument with the captain.
“We shouldn’t continue navigating tonight,” I heard Jimenez saying. He had an unusual nervous pitch in his voice.
“The water is too high. It’s difficult to find the current and to locate the narrow channels between the islands ahead. We're have barely electricity left in the battery... we may need to navigate in the moonlight. Even in case we succeed, we might get stuck or loose our barges for good in the rapids farther down. This is pure madness, crazy, una locura. The boat needs a thorough technical inspection. Who knows, if the iron shafts are still holding. Two shafts on the Juanita are seriously damaged. There is a hole in the barge, too. If we take water, it will drop like a stone.”
Captain Perez shook his head. “Don’t worry, son,”
I heard the him laughing.His voice had a cynical, mad pitch.
“We have done this many times before, and we’ll be doing it again, this night. The faster we ride through this mess, the better. Our contract is at risk. If we loose another night hanging around idle up here on the river, our premium will be gone.”
“We have strict guidelines not to put our ship and cargo at risk,” objected Jimenez with a pitchy voice.
“La Santa Virgen! Guidelines! Do you believe we’ll ever earn a single Sol Peruviano in our glorious country if we follow Mr. Casado’s shipping guidelines whilst enjoying the glow of his golden teeth? Why doesn’t he fix our headlights, and the electrical system onboard, if he is as much interested in the cargo and perhaps our well-being? With the high water level right now we’ll shoot through the Groa Rapids and make easily the distance of two days in two hours. Go and start the engines, now, and open up the Penta throttles.”
I caught a furious glimpse from Jimenez’ eyes as he energetically rushed down the metal stairs to the engine room below. After a moment, the engines were running and rumbling, and a mighty shiver ran through the boat.
Captain Perez stood at the railings, up on the bridge, and looked over the calm river ahead with a grin on his wrinkled face. He was a gentleman, yet there seemed to be a grain of monkey-madness in whatever he did. He always reminded me, in some ways, of the King Louis character in the 1970 Jungle book movie. I greeted the captain with respect, and started a little chat with him. After a while, I asked: “How can you undergo such a daring journey with obsolete, old, and broken material, in absence of any sound maintenance?”
Captain Perez turned toward me and smiled. The full moon illuminated his wrinkled, friendly face, with pale eyes shining behind his thick glasses.
“That’s the way Peru is,” he said. “There are things as we wish them to be, but also the way things are. Our life on the river is dangerous. We pass our days without any life or health insurances. We aren’t protected like you, up in the spoiled gringo countries. Our life is about mere survival. I’m an old man, too.
“Son, listen to me carefully. Once you reach my age you’ll have a different perception about the meaning of death.”
He ended his sentence with laughter.
His comment came as a shock to me. I knew that traveling on the Amazonian rivers was a dangerous business, but I hadn't thought it was a daily gamble with all of our lives, including mine.
For the moment, my brown-water-rafting on jungle rapids was over. I was exhausted. With an extra dosage of adventure in my veins, I felt the need for a good night’s sleep, in a closed room, not to be disturbed by light, noise or anything.
That’s why I went in our empty cabin. I placed my bag pack, Herby’s and a little suitcase into the hole located in the middle of a broken cod. Our stuff roughly filled the void. It gave me a minimum of comfort. But my veins were still full of adrenaline. I couldn’t find any sleep. The full moon shone into my rotten cabin, and floated above the river and the squeaking saloon-style door. We were moving south.
I daydreamt about our Adriana, our charming cook. I wished I could make love to this mysterious jungle queen. Hold her in my arms and delve her thousand erotic secrets. The idea comforted me somewhat, and I fell into a light sleep. But I wasn’t alone. A nasty mosquito cloud hummed around me and these bloody vampires were biting me wherever they could. ‘Humans get used to everything, even bloodsuckers,’ I thought.
(c) 2008 by Franz L Kessler