Meanwhile the Padrino had picked up full speed, and the river rushed beyond my grinding saloon door, waves shooting past. With increasing speed the boat shivered. What was going on? Was there a need for another race? Why did the captain take so much unnecessary risk? We all knew how fragile our convoy was. An uneasy feeling haunted me. My instinct told me: be prepared. Something would go seriously wrong again, I sensed. An uneasy twenty minutes passed by. Even half asleep I watched the boat nervously.

Then, suddenly, there was an enormous bang. It rocked the entire boat. Objects were hurled through the cabin. Squeaking and breaking metal and screams of despair reverberated through the ship. I jumped up. My body shook. Had some massive object rammed our boat? What was going on? Another huge bang, a grinding sound made the boat quiver. Then, in a few seconds, the boat groaned like a wounded animal and tilted over to my starboard side. The walkway plunged into the river. With enormous power a wave pushed the saloon door open and flushed in. I was standing in the middle of a whirlpool, currents ripping on my body, whilst the starboard plunged deep into the moon-lit river. I hardly managed to hold on. My cabin, in another second, had almost filled up. The full moon disappeared behind the ceiling as the boat tilted farther. Water swirled up to my chest, and was steadily rising. Blood shot through my veins. What could I do?

‘Keep cool,’ I told my self. The boat continued to tilt and more water came rushing in with gurgling sounds. ‘I will count until three,’ I told myself. ‘If the boat doesn’t tilt back, I’ll dive into the river, to save my very life.’ Oh my God! Will I have to die now?’

I counted one, then two, then… the boat gradually tilted back, somewhat limping on my starboard side. The big wave rushed back into the river, sucking away the little suitcase containing my traveler checks. I jumped to grab it, but … too late. I saw my shaving gear and a bottle of cologne drifting away in the current, as well as a pair of shoes. I dived for the bag with the camera. There I stood shivering. It was soaked from the bottom to the top. I checked my remaining papers. Wisely I had put flight tickets, passport and check receipts stowed in a leather bag in my blue jeans, and most of my cash was inside my zip leather belt, and just a little wet.

I heard the Captain shouting “All hands on deck”. Jimenez was screaming in the engine room “we are flooding!!”

Down below my feet, the engines stalled. I felt water up to my knees. With a slurping sound some of it receded back into the river, as if with a second thought..

My feet trembled. My body felt cold. There was a sudden silence. Even the countless mosquitoes had been washed away. All had happened so quickly. It had been an encounter, an eye-to-eye with death. Just another ten inch of tilting and I might have been buried in the river mud under thousands of tons of steel and Portland cement. It didn’t feel funny to go to eternity that way.

I rescued my soaked sleeping bag and our remaining rucksacks. They were damned heavy. I felt like a walking water spring, as the muddy river spilled out of our clothes and belongings onto the stairs. I took all of my strength to carry our water-soaked belongings up to the deck of the limping ship. I looked around. The moon had set behind a curtain of black rain clouds. The boat was gently, but uneasily drifting without engine power in complete darkness, without any control.

On deck I met Herby. He lay on the deck, looking apathetic, and was bleeding on his head. “Where are my glasses,” he stammered. “I cannot see much, what has happened? Where are my shoes?”

It turned out that Herby, who had been sleeping on the dinner table, had rafted with the table over the deck to hit the last bar of the railings with his forehead. What a lucky bastard. His shoes and glasses had been catapulted into the river, and equally our precious anti-malaria tablets.

I felt desperate, too. In an act of anger I pulled out the film from my camera, and threw the plastic roll into the river. What a shame. All these beautiful pictures were gone for good. Gradually, as darkness gave way to the first rays of sunlight, I calmed down and went to see what happened.

I first met Adriana. She had a stoic expression on her face, and didn’t say anything. With a regular swing she emptied bucket after bucket of water from her thoroughly flooded kitchen, aluminium pots floating around like a hopeless flotilla. Next door, the engine room was under water, too. There stood Natcho, looking like a ghost, with a soot-covered face, in the middle of diesel fumes, dark oily water reaching up to his belly.

Jimenez came over, looked at the machines, then at me and said: “Can you help us?” Together we disassembled the auxiliary motor pump. Something had gone wrong with the carburetor. It turned out to be river silt, stuck in an air inlet valve. We reassembled it, and the pump uneasily sputtered back to life. Water gushed out off the fire hose, and in an hour or two the engine room was pumped empty and back under control.

I went up to the bridge, to meet a worried Captain Perez.

“What has happened,” I asked him.

“We don’t know for sure,” he replied. “This river is full of shifting sand bars. You can hit one by day, or by night. What’s the difference? Even the best map of the world won’t help you. We navigate by instinct. It’s almost a gamble,” he said, shrugging his shoulders.

“We have lost three of our four barges, and our roustabouts. They were sleeping on the Griselda. The Alegria is what’s left.”

“Can they swim?” I cautiously asked.

The captain’s face suddenly became sad, and he quietly shook his head. “Only God knows if they have survived.”

A shiver went through the boat. The Penta diesels rumbled back into life. They sputtered a little bit, and sooty black clouds were ejected from the twin exhaust pipes.

Captain Perez regained his smile.

“Situations like this one aren’t always as bad as they look at first glance. Let’s see, we’ll check everything, until the Pentas work like a clock. These Volvo engines are like a rock. Don’t worry we’ll make it to Iquitos. There is no alternative, anyhow.” He ended the sentence with a loud laughter. I wasn’t sure, if this was all that funny, and I probably looked puzzled.

“Give me three, four hours, son! We’ll stop in Groa, a nice little village. It has two pubs, and the prettiest ladies of the entire Amazon. It’s carnival time, and everything goes. We’ll fix the boat over there and find some of our cargo back, so God will!”

I went up to the deck. Adriana and the Sanchez family were arranging laundry lines all over the deck. The two of us could use two lines to dry our clothing. The entire sundeck now was covered with some of our papers, books and wet sleeping backs, laying on the ground or hanging here and there. Whatever riches we had well hidden in our bags, lay now exposed to anybody’s eyes. I borrowed Jimenez’ fine mechanic’s tool set. Then I disassembled my Minox camera as well as I could. First I rescued the battery. Then I borrowed one of Mario’s leftist revistas, and put my camera parts on the paper. Gradually it dried between the orange glowing exhaust pipes and the equatorial sun.

When I put it back together, it actually worked. A little drop of Adriana’s cooking oil would keep the shutter in the lens lubricated, at least for a while. Only the shutter adjustment screen had burned. It hung too close to the exhaust tubes. What a shame. My only choice was to take all pictures with an aperture of 2.8, and to adjust the shutter manually with the ASA knob. Better than nothing, I said to myself.

Herby didn’t look happy. His passport had been with my stuff down in the broken cod room, and was soaked. Now dry, he opened his passport to find the picture gluing on the wrong side of the leaflet. We joined up in a desperate laughter. Somehow our adventure felt unique, and I tried to dig some positive points. “There is nothing we can do right now. Maybe we can have another picture made in Iquitos, and get new glasses for you,” I said. “We’ll try to get our traveler checks back. There should be an American Express bank. I kept a sales copy in my zip leather belt, together with the dollar notes.”

“I hope you’re right,” replied Herby, looking skeptic. “Let’s have a cup of hot river water with lemon at Adriana’s.”

“Good point,” I said laughing. “Let’s enjoy life as long as we can, given it may be our last day.”

(c) 2008 by Franz L Kessler