Just ahead of dawn I woke up with a familiar bang and a grinding sound. I rolled over and almost touched one of the orange-glowing exhaust pipes, our outdoors anti-mosquito device. The boat trembled, squeaked then stopped with a sudden quiver. It felt like a deja vue.

I heard Jimenez shouting “estamos parados.” He was reprimanding Jorge, the roustabout, who had fallen asleep, whilst steering the convoy.

Herby woke up as well. “This can’t be true!” he said. We had got stuck, this time next to a muddy island covered with rotting dark drift wood and overgrown by water lilies. The river lay wide open and gave the appearance of a lagoon. Fog lay over the water, a gray blanket in the first light. Many miles afar, a brown line indicated a distant levee. ‘Oh, these damned channels and shoals,’ I said to myself. Herons were stalking through the mud, picking worms and fat white larvae from the soft sediment. Bon appetit.

So, here we were, stuck. Nothing happened for the next two days. Endlessly, the captain tried to pull the barges out of the mud. He sometimes succeeded, only to get stuck again. Jimenez looked increasingly depressed.

“With the rainy season in full swing, the water will rise and make us float,” he said. I wasn’t sure if he was serious about what he said. Perhaps he simply tried to comfort himself, or us. Everyone on the boat seemed to have fallen in a silent or grumpy mood, as the open-ended problem caused a lot of stress and seemed to burden everyone onboard. Adriana hardly came out of her den, and the captain looked sick and appeared to hide in his room, whilst delegating his authority to Jimenez.

At least Herby’s fever was gone. We borrowed Jimenez’ chessboard and we killed dull time by playing chess, this for the next two days. I won mostly over Mario, but lost most times against Herby. He played with mathematics, whilst I played by instinct. Mario always lost out against Herby. Fortunately, it rained quite frequently, in massive downpours that followed one after the other, thunder and lightning, gloomy evenings. It gave us some relief from mosquitoes. There wasn’t any juice left in the truck battery, and the searchlight went completely dark. We were desperate.

“We should have taken the bus back over the mountains, instead of going onto the boat,” moaned Herby.

“Yeah, we should have done that. We just are left with thirty-five days to get to Montevideo. I wonder how we will ever make it down to Uruguay.”

We played another party, and went to sleep. Sunlight woke us up. We were still stuck, hopelessly stuck, in the middle of the Amazonas that barely flowed away with a lazy drag. I had enough. Everything appeared to me as a dream turning sour. I had consumed all my positive feelings. I saw the captain as an old, dangerous fool. Even the haughty Jimenez wasn’t anything but an involuntary clown. I had enough of Adriana’s river soup, the eternal salted fish and cooked bananas, and the pretty but potato-minded Esperanzita.

I leaned against the railings, as Herby came along.

“How do you feel today, I asked?”

“Not too bad,” he replied. “I just wished we could leave.”

As we talked in a morose mood, the Padrino started to pull once more. The ship vibrated, and creamy cappuccino-colored vortices appeared behind the boat.

“We are really stuck,” commented Herby. “We are just stirring and milling foul-smelling gumbo clay.”

Suddenly there was a different sound, a sound we hadn’t heard for many days. It came from the sky. It was an airplane.

“Look at this,” I shouted to Herby, pointing to the sky.

Herby looked puzzled and shook his head, and said:

“It’s a plane, nothing but a plane. Man, haven’t you seen planes before?”

“Stop it,” I laughed. “It’s flying low, with a loud noise. I can even see the logo ‘Fawcett.’ What does that mean? The bastard is landing! We have made it to Iquitos! It’s the only long airstrip in this part of the world, and the city must be right around the corner.”

Joy lit up on Herby’s face. “Yes! You’re right. This is great!” We hugged each other and danced on the deck like a couple of happy drunken chimpanzees.

The roustabouts Jorge and Jaime looked at us. Their puzzled looks told me they couldn’t dig what was happening to us.

“Look over there,” I said to Herby, and pointed to the distant lee shore. A small outboard engine passenger boat, hummed in the distance and trailed the shore in downriver direction.

“They might take us,” I shouted to Herby. “Let me pull off my T-shirt and give them a sign.

“You are just an awful, silly optimist,” replied Herby. “They’ll never pull over.”

“Let’s give it a try,” I said and whirled my last white shirt in the wind above my head. “Ten bucks for me, if the bastard turns around and pulls over.”

“Deal,” said Herby laughing, and gave me five.

What happened next caught both of us with surprise. The little boat changed course and headed right toward us.

“Quickly, let’s get our stuff!” Off we ran, grabbed our few belongings, and shook hands with the captain, Jimenez, and Adriana. She gave me a long, sad and puzzled look.

For eleven days we had lived together like a family, and now, in a matter of seconds, our lives split apart as quickly as they had come together. The small passenger boat pulled alongside of the Padrino. It was fully loaded almost up to the waterline, covered by a palm-leaf roof, and carried already some twenty passengers.

“Hope to see you in Iquitos,” I shouted over to Adriana and jumped over into the boat that lay moored against the Padrino. It may sound sad but there are moments in life when emotions come second. There was no choice, and no time to loose. The boat’s little outboard engine hurled up. Then we took seats on sacks full of green coconuts, squeezing –in between cholitas in long cotton skirts. I looked back. In the mild afternoon light, the Padrino and the four stuck barges were rapidly vanishing in the haze. On the other downriver side the glittering skyline of Iquitos appeared, and shone like a mirage above the corner of the next meander.

I felt elated, exited and very sad at the same time, knowing that a great and unique adventure had come to a sudden ending.



© 2008 by Franz L. Kessler