Chapter 2

As we regained the main current, our speed increased and their silhouettes back on the quay became smaller. As we turned with the river bend, all the visible world of civilization had suddenly gone in some mysterious ways. Wherever my eyes prowled the horizon there was nothing but jungle and the path ahead full of murky, yellow-brownish water.

Gradually we made contact with the people of our little floating island of rusty steel, steaming east down-river and surrounded by a mysterious wild world that wasn’t ours.

The old captain Perez, mostly in shorts and t-shirt, was a friendly cheeky man, and never short of a chat. He had the only decent room on the ship, right behind the bridge, with bed, ward, a working table, and a cupboard. Next to the captain’s, in a small room, dwelled the proud ‘Indian’ eagle-faced first officer, serious, noble, laconic and inapproachable. Most of the time he was seen standing on the bridge, and steering the convoy, or overseeing the occasional maintenance work in the engine room.

Twice a day we had a chance to chat with the captain. We always had the honor to share the breakfast, lunch with him, when Adriana served cooked banana and salted fish on the only table on deck. She was a pretty lady in her prime, with broad hips, long black hair, sensual lips decorated with two golden teeth, and a little hidden cheeky smile deep in her dark-brown eyes. She dwelled below in her lower deck kitchen, together with her neat but alternating grumpy and shy teen-age daughter Esperanzita. The ladies had their cods right behind the kitchen downstairs, an oily blackened abode, with one big water kettle bubbling day and night- limejuice river water being the only drink on board.

In the center of the Padrino rumbled two powerful Volvo Penta diesel engines, with deafening sound, fuming oil and radiating heat to the point that the two exhaust pipes, leading upwards through the deck, shone orange-glow hot. This was the realm of Natcho, a mid-age man with a round face, a sad and dreamy expression, and sporting a moustache. He wasn’t a man of many words.

In front of the boat, where the four stacked cargo barges cut silent waves through the river, the three roustabouts: the one-eyed Jorge, the short-cake Jaime and the dreamy limping Paolo could be found recoiling broken steel cables, clearing drift wood caught between the barges, or welding again a broken shaft.

Soon we found out we weren’t the only guests onboard. The Sanchez family inhabited the upper part of the deck, an open space next to the captain’s room. A teacher couple with three children, they were traveling to Requena, a little down-river town, and heading for a new public school assignment. Their hammocks span the deck, dangling above their belongings of various boxes, rolled floor mats and cooking devices. And there was also Mario. A man in his late twenties, with dark fatty hairs and a short moustache, he introduced himself as a student of Political Sciences. He was lucky to have a cabin. He appeared on the upper deck mostly in the afternoons, reading one of previous-year leftist revistas. He seemed to possess an inexhaustible load of this boring political stuff. He seemed to suffer from a speech defect, and he didn’t seem to wish sharing much about himself or the reasons of his journey.

He liked, however, to chat with my trusted, equally leftist fellow student and traveler friend Herby. I had the honor (for my better command of Spanish), to translate the varieties of leftist ideas between Herby, and Mario the Peruvian. It wasn’t so funny after a while, in particular when their political ideas bounced forth and back. Nothing came out of their discussion.

As the hours of the afternoon melted away, I couldn’t help feel some sympathy for the complaining French. A sharp smell of ancient, highly overcooked vegetable oil emanated from Adriana’s kitchen. There was no doubt this wasn’t a three star restaurant to be counted in the renowned Guide Michelin. Its acidic kitchen odors competed with the fumes of the Volvo Penta diesel engines for the first price in piercing smelliness. Green flies were buzzing around, and communicated between kitchen and bathroom. The latter was filthy beyond any description and unfit for any civilized visitor used to a minimum of hygiene. I don’t feel telling more about it.

Despite these obvious shortcomings the boat felt like a new home. It seemed like a confined, unique and floating little world, inhabited by a handful of peculiar people with their own specific reasons for being here. For some it was a working place, or even home. What else could it feel like, given we were surrounded by the loneliness of the jungle.

For others, like us, it opened a spontaneous and unique window offering glimpses of a world usually hidden to most travelers.

Like a giant silvery snake the big river uncoiled in front of our eyes, unzipped in the middle by the barges floating a few hundred feet ahead, causing a peacock tail of waves with black-and-white reverberations. As dusk fell, I went back to the middle of the deck and chatted with Sanchez. He showed me a heavy golden ring on his finger, and told me it came from the Peruvian Chavin culture, and was several hundreds of years old. His eyes gleamed with pride. Despite speaking Spanish, he obviously felt Peruvian.

“Don’t you feel proud of your Spanish heritage?” I asked him.

He shook his said, and answered in a grumpy voice:

“The castellanos came to our country not because of love or compassion. They came here driven by greed for gold. They came to our country like robbers, and they plundered it from the first until the last day. Did they build any infrastructure, roads, railways, or any bridges? Nada! Aren’t you a mining engineer, a geologist? Look at our mines from the Spanish era! Like worms they dug them with no plan, no system. Our Spanish mines resemble a beehive. There are so many uncharted tunnels, so many unknown blind shafts, that digging new tunnels is almost impossible without hitting some older burrows, and many miners lost their lives that way.”

Emiliano paused and gave me a skeptical glance, then adding:

“The Spaniards only wanted to get the gold, the silver, the tin as quickly as possible, and without respect for our people, country and a good future. They only built a few palaces, prisons and these heavy baroque churches, leaving us with a cruel religion that shuns everything enchanting that life has to offer.”

After his proud a somewhat grumpy monologue he paused. I just nodded. He may have overlooked some more rewarding Spanish contributions such as the writings of Cervantes, but I guess he got a point. I couldn’t help sympathizing with his worldview, given it reflected a truth pertinent to so many present and ancient colonies, robbed and abused by whatever central power at whatever period in history. If I put myself in his place, I also rather would have identified myself as a descendant of the noble Atahualpa the Inca, an accomplished chess player, rather than of Pizarro, the former Extemeno pig herder and Peru's ugly brutal conqueror.

As dusk fell I wished good night to the Sanchez family, and looked out for a suitable sleeping place. Herby and I spotted a relatively clean spot on the barge Alegria, free of driftwood, cement dust, rust and metal debris. There we spread out our sleeping backs. Close to the equator, the night fell quickly, and the captain slowed down the speed. The boat’s eerie searchlight, powered by an old truck battery and the only electrical light onboard, illuminated a corridor of misty white glow above the dark river ahead.

Shadows of floating islands and driftwood popped out from a gloomy darkness ahead. The boat slowed down farther. Then, at about midnight, our captain had the anchors dropped in some God-forsaken boggy bayou. Probably he felt that navigating through treacherous waters with no obvious current would expose the convoy to the risk of running aground. The river stretched out wide as a shallow lake, and there was little or no visible current. A few hundred yards away a jungle silhouette stood up as a dark impenetrable wall. Around us, the backwaters around were full of hissing and buzzing sounds. As mist fell over the river, mosquitoes went out for dinner, and the dinner was Herby and I. There were thousands, ten thousands of them, descending upon us in dark black clouds. Some crawled into the ears, other in the sleeping bag, they were just everywhere and there was no escape. The night felt long. Sleep was impossible and my arms were swollen and lobster-red blobs in the first morning light. Herby felt miserable and cursed our fate.

(c) 2008 by Franz L Kessler