Chapter 1

“I have no clue when we will be leaving,” the captain said.
I had problems listening to him, given the noise that surrounded us. A frail white-haired man in his early sixties, glasses, and pants, he stood at the rusty ship’s stern deck, and looked somewhat amused at the crowded scene below him.

“Why don’t you ask the workers? They should know best when the cargo loading is done. Once the cargo is complete in the main ship, and the four barges, we are ready to go. I can’t give you much hope, so. Mr. Casado, the ship’s owner, hates turistas.”

As he spoke a crowd of some 50 workers were busy unloading a convoy of trucks that just had arrived at the Pucallpa harbor. A column of workers, resembling a procession of ants, they carried on their shoulders sacs of cement, and puffed and panted under the heavy load. Stepping through the wet mud at the riverbanks they left thousands of footprints in smelly clay. Heading toward the ship’s bow, they disappeared in a hole of the bleached, blue-painted hull of the bulk carrier El Padrino.’

I shielded my eyes from the milky blazing light, as I looked up to the ship’s bridge.

“Normally we don’t take passengers at all. Once, a long time ago, we had cabins with beds and shower aboard. But now most of the cabins are in tatters. There is little of electricity on the boat. In today’s Peruvian economy, there is no money for any maintenance whatsoever,” the captain said smiling.

“We are actually performing under very basic conditions,” he continued. “If you really want to travel with us, go to our agency in town, and try to persuade the ship owner!”

It was February 1979, and our first week in Peru. Vietnam and China were fighting an undeclared border war, and in the USA the Three-Mile-island nuclear reactor got hypercritical, and appeared ready to blow up. In Iran, the sinister Khomeini had seized power. Snow had fallen in the sahara, and a violent winter storm bore down on western Washington. In Kabul, Mulim extremists kidnapped the American Ambassador. A violent battle erupted near Ddjamena, in Chad. Such news I read in El Comercio, a prominent newspaper printed in the country’s capital Lima, that had arrived a day late with either bus or truck.

Well, these things were far away.

Over a bitter Nescafe and a salty noodle breakfast, a local revista offered some news from the neighborhood. There was talk about a strike in the southern Peruvian copper mines. A 16-year-old prostitute had been found strangled dead at the harbor. There were concerns about crop failure in view of an early rainy season. Another page featured a story about a row between altiplano milk farmers and a Swiss-based baby-milk producer. There were accounts of landslides along the east-west trunk road, following an earthquake. Another article featured a strange encounter of a holocaust surviving lady, who found and met her niece in Pucallpa – and weren’t able to understand each other given linguistic problems.

My friend Herby and I had arrived in Pucallpa in the La Perla bus, having traveled a very long cold night over the snow-covered sierra, and then along a winding road of a thousand serpentines down into the muggy Amazon Basin. This rather exhausting bus trip took twenty-two hours to complete, and brought us to this murky edge of a water-and-jungle world located at the eastern foothills of the Andes.

Visiting Pucallpa was one of Herby’s ideas, considering it was the best accessible river port in the Andean foothills counting from Lima. Perhaps he might have read about the young Che Guevara traveling downriver from Pucallpa, but I knew he also dreamed riding down the entire Amazonas stream to Belem, and than following the Atlantic coast southward to Uruguay. I, however, wanted to visit Bolivia, Argentina and Chile. Herby was fluent in (African) Portuguese, whilst I had studied a bit of Spanish literature, done geological field work in Spain and spoke that language reasonably well. Herby tilted towards the Portuguese-speaking worlds, whilst I felt emotionally closer to the Spanish-speaking countries. We had fun challenging each other with arguments for either itinerary. My strongest argument was that river travels could become boring after a while, and that the Southern Andes might offer unforgettable sights and countless adventures. I also dreamt about getting a bit of field experience in some of the Andean copper mines.

Fact was that we were caught stranded in this little harbor town located at the banks of the upper Ucayali River, dwelling for some USD 2.50 a day in the lowest of the low budget hotels, feeding on Chinese-style tallerines noodles, and fried fish down in the open-air harbor quay stalls.

The captain was right: we found out that all downriver passenger services had been discontinued. Only a few bulk carrier vessels sailed the Ucayaly River, supplying isolated jungle cities such as Requena, Iquitos and Manaus with basic construction materials, petroleum products and essential merchandises.

Pucallpa in 1979 could be described as a small, shabby industrial hub around the harbor of painted wooden houses, surrounded by a few shantytown streets. The kind of town characterized by heavy industry stores, welding shops, diesel engine reconditioning, chicha (fermented corn flower drink)stalls, barber shops, newspaper corners, lottery offices and a handful of brothels.

It didn’t appeal much to us. We had already spent two nights in town, and achieved nothing in respect of our travel plans. We found out that getting a good piece of information many following many erroneous trails – the always friendly and respectful Peruvians never denied an answer or a recommendation when asked, but the received information was at most times incorrect and let to erroneous trails and lost time. This way, however, we came to know almost any barrio and street.

Last day and this morning we managed to tour three shipping agencies, following someone’s tips, but nothing positive had materialized so far. Time ticked away, and our charter return flight from Montevideo, a few thousands miles on the other side of the continent, and five weeks away, appeared increasingly elusive. We also traveled on a meager student’s budget that didn’t cater for too many expensive airfares. We were desperate to leave, and didn’t want to give up too easily.

“Let’s give it one more chance,” said Herby, looking mischievously through his glasses, and an expression of intellectual discontent was on his face. I nodded, and off we went walking fast, to the next bus stop and rode another city bus for one of these brownish, unreadable and wrinkled Dos Soles Peruvianos bank note. The bus rumbled us over a few hundred of potholes right in front the Padrino’s shipping agency, a simple small pale-green painted wooden building containing an accountancy office, and attached to a large corrugated iron sheet warehouse behind.

We were lucky to find Mr. Casado, the boss, behind his massive hardwood desk. He was a short, robust and square-faced man in his early fifties, and friendliness didn’t seem to be part of his applied business philosophy.

“No more foreign passengers on my boats,” he shouted with an angry voice to my humble request. His many golden teeth blinked from his broad shark-style mouth.

“Last month, we shipped a bunch of naughty young French tourists. These were nothing but trouble. They complained about everything - about food, accommodation, and mosquitoes, whatsoever. True, our food may be somewhat monotonous and not quite living up to French Haute Cuisine. Our cabins are simple, without comfort, and without lavish queen-size French beds. We also have little entertainment to offer, and some travelers expressed having missed a certain sense of privacy. In brief, you won’t like it.”

“We won’t complain,” I said, and tried to persuade the captain in the most eloquent language I could dream up.

“First, we are geologists and geographers, 23 and 24 years old. We travel through the continent for our respective university carriers. We aren’t just fun-and-pleasure seeking turistas. We study your beautiful Peru, and plan to work in the copper mines, if there is a chance. We are also ready to help out on the boat, if this should be necessary...”

My words seemed to have an effect. The manager stood up. A hawkish smile appeared on his face, underlined by the full glow of his golden teeth.

“Pay twenty-five dollars each to my accountant. Perhaps you are better than these bloody French. Go.”

That’s what we did, picked up our rucksacks from the hotel, and managed to arrive at the quay just in time. At the harbor, the Padrino’ s engines rumbled, and the cargo convoy was about to pull the anchors. Happily we balanced over a slippery log that linked the quay to the boat. Receiving some instruction from the captain, we located our cabin on the starboard side, and dumped our rucksacks.

Well, the owner hadn’t exaggerated. Our cabin was a wet, moldy, foul-smelling shack with broken cots, and a grinding western-style saloon door, that gave to a narrow walkway and the river. In brief, our cabin was in appearance somewhere halfway between the Ritz and Folsom prison.

However, this wasn’t bad enough to spoil our mood. We climbed up one level and sat up on the deck with the joyful feeling in our hearts, yearning for two weeks of adventure and wonder. Down on the cargo barges, a few roustabouts were busy doing a welding job on steel shafts. Blue sparks blinked over from there. Four cargo barges lay ahead of the tugboat, heavy cement-loaded and barely sticking out of the murky water, attached with corkscrewed steel cables to the tugboat, and to each other.

At 1500 the captain horned the sirens. The boat vibrated. Anchor chains were grinding into anchor casing. Scary black diesel fumes blew into the afternoon sky. Vortexes appeared in the brownish water, as the boat pushed into the river. Hundreds of villagers, forming a multi-colored human wall, stood at the muddy riverbanks, and observed the spectacle with a relaxed attention, some grins, chatter and the usual broad smiles, that can mean so many things.

(c) 2008 by Franz L Kessler