Published: February 15th 2010December 1st 2008
I sit perched on the edge of the boat's bow with my bare feet dangling in the water. This isn't one of the long, wooden river canoes, but the fiberglass outboard motor boat we had when I was a kid. Rusty orange. Thirty-five horsepower.
This isn't even the Napo River. It's a lake somewhere in Oklahoma. I am sitting at the very front of the bow - just on the port side where the two halves of the hull come together at a point. I look out at the expanse of the lake and try to identify it.
Definitely not Tenkiller. Not rocky enough. Bar-Dew? Could be. Grand, Hulah, Skiatook? Maybe.
Beside me on the coarse synthetic excuse for a carpet of the deck is a Zebco rod and reel. Actually, the Zebco is sitting somewhere at the bottom of one of the aforementioned lakes - the casualty of a skirmish between a clump of sunken driftwood and a nine-year old kid. But there it is, all the same.
Attached at the end of the rod's line is a hula popper - my favorite fishing lure. It's lost too, but not in a lake. It's lying somewhere in a deteriorating tackle box in someone's shed or garage or who knows where.
I always liked the hula popper for its interactive qualities. It's shaped like a short, pudgy insect with a gaping mouth that creates a trail of bubbles as it glides across the water. The harder you pull, the more bubbles. If you're quite sure the area is packed with 20-pound bass with no self-esteem issues, you can reel the lure in at a generous speed to get their attention. Otherwise you pop him along at a mild pace to make smaller bursts of bubbles or imitate a vulnerable injury.
The top of the hula popper is green with dark black spots. The bottom is facing me now, with two triple-headed hooks dangling at the front and back. The belly is a bright red.
"Trust me. Orange."
It isn't long after dawn, and the sky is clear. A patchy layer of fog hangs just on the surface of the lake. The boat bobs up and down in the gentle waves that bounce back from the nearest shore just over my right shoulder. A nylon rope dangles over the side somewhere and an aluminum carabineer at the end clunks against the underside of the boat in rhythm with the motion.
I feel something bump against my leg and look down. A pink dolphin from the Napo surfaces for a moment to look around and dives back below the surface to investigate the belly of the boat. Are pink dolphins really pink? Or is that mauve? Fuschia? Champagne?
There's no one here to correct me on this one, so we'll go with pink.
I wait for the dolphin to pop back up and move away a bit. I reach over to the control grip of the mounted trolling motor hooked up to a 6-volt car battery no doubt salvaged from the carcass of a Volkswagen. The electric hum of the motor gurgles beneath the surface and the water around it begins to swirl and eddy. I swing the bow of the boat around to take a look at the shore.
Definitely Bar-Dew - gloomy, silent, and haunted. The shore is a thick wall of twisted, gaunt trees whose tarantula-leg roots spring six inches up out of the ground, arc over, and plummet back down - some straight into the green black water.
Beyond the wall of sickly and wrinkled thirst lies the void of muddy, Midwestern junglescape.
A fat drop of water lands on my arm. Then another. Then two or three on my leg. A few moments later, a brick wall of rain is slamming down onto Osage County. I look up at the stark blue, cloudless Overground. As apocalyptic is it seems, this isn't unheard of in Oklahoma. Crazy jet streams, extreme temperature changes, and microclimates entrenched in ongoing battles produce much stranger phenomena than tornados. The pink dolphin and phantom fishing tackle are the only true signs that this is all just a dream.
With that thought, I wake up. I'm lying in bed in Nuevo Rocafuerte, Ecuador. In the jungle. Far removed from modernity. Unemployed. Unsure. Untied. Underwear-clad.
There, now. Everything makes sense again.
Sort of. Two elements of the dream remain and distort reason.
The first is the rain. It really is raining - hard. Outside the house, a storm rages on. Not just any storm, but a real whopper of a thunderstorm - the kind I only see in Oklahoma. Strobes of blue lightning fill the entire room mere seconds before angry crashes of thunder shake the window. I haven't seen a storm like this in, well, years.
The second artifact of the dream clinging to reality is the swaying of the boat. I lie looking at the ceiling and all of my senses insist that the bed is gently rocking back and forth in the water. I've spent nearly all of the past week on boats, so this is of no surprise. Just a few hours fishing on a lake produces the same sensation. After the Cabo Pantoja, I'll likely be feeling this way for the next several days.
I roll over on my side to go back to sleep. Fortunately, the clamor of major thunderstorms does not hinder the sleep of a native-born Oklahoman. On the contrary. It is a lullaby. Relaxing and peaceful.
Within minutes, the violent, gnashing ecosystem has sung me to sleep.
I spend the entire day sitting up in bed with a few pillows behind my back and the laptop propped on my legs. Its fan occasionally spins to a purr and belches electric heat onto my thighs - ensuring a continual layer of sweat. But it would be worse outside.
In the evening, I sit in the living room and engage in idle chit chat with the old man. Just before dark, Fernando walks into the house.
"Good news," he tells me. "I talked to the customs official again. He knows a guy who wants to buy the motorcycle and take it to Coca."
"What about the permit?"
"Oh you know how it is down here. He can take care of that with a few phone calls. No problem."
"You win," I say.
"Yep!" he says and claps his hands together. "Bueno, I'm starving."
The temperature has dropped a bit after dinner, so Fernando and I go out for a walk. Not many people are out, and the dark streets are spotted with remnant puddles of last night's storm.
We go to the main street and walk along the river.
About halfway up the street in the center of the village we pass a rustic wooden shack. The door is open and fluorescent light pours out onto the street. A guy in his early twenties with thick black hair stands just outside smoking a cigarette.
"Fernando!" he calls.
Fernando recognizes the guy and walks over to shake his hand. He introduces me.
"Fernando is that you?" calls the voice of another inside the building. "Get in here!"
The young guy turns to head inside.
"Come on, we were just having a beer before going home," he says.
We follow him inside. The one-room cabin is bare, save a few plastic chairs. The young guy pulls a few of them over for Fernando and me to take a seat. There are two more men already seated - a tall, gaunt man about my age and a portly guy in his mid-fifties. His large, round eyes match his face made rounder by the lack of a chin and the onset of male pattern baldness.
The back wall of the cabin has a window cut out of it with a counter to reveal a small back room. A short woman stands on the other side and leans on the counter with her chin in her hand and listens to the men's conversation.
We all pass a bottle of beer and a plastic cup around as per the custom in these parts and the men swap local gossip and what passes for politics.
They ask me about where I am from and my trip. They tell me about their friends and family members that live in various parts of the States. One has a cousin who works as a mechanic in Detroit. What's the weather like in November in Detroit? Really? Dios!
Another has a nephew working in some sort of organic food market in Los Angeles.
"Oh, all this health stuff," says the thin man. "Look you gotta take care of yourself, sure. But people these days take it too far, probably doing more damage than anything. I tell you what, I honestly think that to live a good long life, it's just as important to be a little unhealthy
sometimes, too. You know what I mean? It's better to drink a bit than not to drink at all. It's better to enjoy a bit of fatty food than worry about it all the time. You're just going to do more damage by obsessing over it. People have no physical stamina these days."
The older man gets excited about this perspective and leans forward on his knees - his belly spilling over his belt.
"He's absolutely right, he's absolutely right! And I'll tell you something else. One of the keys to a long life is lots and lots of sex!"
Everyone snickers at this remark, but the man isn't done yet. He sits back up straight and holds up a silencing hand.
"But just sex isn't enough. You have to do it in all the different positions!"
He wriggles and twists his arms together to signify some slapstick misinterpretation of the Kama Sutra. The snickering evolves into peels of laughter. The woman at the counter covers her eyes with her fingers and giggles silently through her grin.
The man's round eyes dart back and forth between his friends and he regards them with a thin smile.
"What? I mean it," he defends himself.
Once the beer is gone, the thin man slaps out a rapid beat on his knees with the palms of his hands.
"Alright, time to get home. And this guy better get some rest if he's going to catch the boat tomorrow morning," he says, pointing at me.
Fernando and I walk back to the house. The boat leaves at 5:30 tomorrow morning, so I likely won't see him again. We shake hands and wish each other luck.
Upstairs, I find Susana in her room. She is taking the boat, too. We make an agreement to make sure we are both up in the event of an alarm clock failure.
Ten Hours to Coca
By five in the morning, Susana and I are up and ready to go. We sneak out of the house as quietly as possible and walk down to the river. Halfway there, it begins to rain. We hurry to the customs building and take shelter under the covered entry way.
After half an hour, I hear something off in the distance. At first, I think my imagination is playing tricks on me, but then the sound becomes unmistakable.
Weeeeeeee waaaaaaaa weeeeeeee waaaaaaaa.
A car alarm?
Before I have a chance to ponder what chemical could possibly produce the hallucination of a car alarm in the middle of the jungle and just how I managed to ingest it, Susana sees my expressions of confusion and smiles.
"That's the boat," she says. "The use the car alarm to let people know that it is coming."
"I see. But it's just so....very out of place."
"I know," she laughs. "But it works."
We grab our stuff and run down to the dock where the boat has stopped to pick up passengers.
The boat is about eight meters long with a gabled, wooden roof to guard against the rain. We duck inside and take a seat on one of the cushioned benches that line either side of the interior. There are already about half a dozen people on the boat - some dozing.
After a few minutes, we are cruising up the river at high speed. The car alarm is still screaming at top volume. Every few minutes, we stop at one of the outlying villages for more passengers.
After about an hour, the boat is packed with people, and the alarm is mercifully turned off.
Susana and I talk for a little while. But soon the drone of the engine has us slumped forward asleep using our backpacks in our laps as pillows.
A few hours of broken sleep go by. There is a large TV mounted at the back of the boat. The pilot flips it on and starts a DVD. Loud.
I raise my head and rub my eyes. Susana lifts hers as well, glances at the television, and then looks at me with a look of tired desperation.
I wobble my head in agreement and she plops her face back down into the crook of her arm. Only eight hours to go.
I try to sleep, but all that comes of it is a slipshot dream which is mostly dialog from the badly dubbed action movie blaring over the TV.
Giving up after a while, I sit up and see Susana gazing at the screen where Steven Seagal is pulverizing the jaw of a thug for not having appreciated one of his brainless one-liners. She looks at me.
"Why do you guys only make violent movies?"
I laugh. Every backpacker knows that, down here, the only actors you can hope to see on a regular basis are Steven Seagal, Jean-Claude Van Damme, Chuck Norris, and - on rare and special occasions - Dolph Lundgren.
"We make all kinds of movies. The question is, why do you guys only buy the crappy ones?"
We kill as much time as we can talking about anything and everything. The rain stops and a shaft of sunlight peaks through a hole in the clouds. The speed boat blazes up the Napo River and leaves a hula popper trail of foamy waves behind it.
And just when we think we can't bare the monotony any longer; just when the bones in our asses begin to scream in agony, we start to pass several slow-moving boats on the river. Small buildings begin to peek out from the thick jungle. And within half an hour, we start to see traces of an actual city along the banks.
Five minutes after that, the boat drops out of warp speed and cruises into a large, gleaming port crowded with vessels of all sizes. Next to the port is a modern bridge spanning the Napo. Beyond it on both sides lies civilization.
Once the boat has stopped, everyone hauls themselves up to the concrete dock and ambles up the pier to land.
Susana and I walk to the street and take a moment to stretch our legs and recirculate stagnant blood. The sun is well on its way down, and the city lights are beginning to pop up.
"Are you going to Quito tonight or tomorrow?" she asks.
"Think I'll go tonight and just get it over with."
"Ok. They have a room reserved for me, so I may as well use it. Plus I'm exhausted. I can't imagine sitting on a bus for another eight hours after today."
"Yeah, well. I'm extremely stupid."
"The bus station is on the way to my hotel. Come on, we can share a taxi."
We hail a taxi - a brand new Ford Ranger full of polymer fragrance and Indiglo sheen. The artificiality of the truck's cab is striking - both alluring and excessive.
The driver pulls up in front of the bus terminal a few minutes later. I climb down out of the cab and open the rear passenger door where Susana pushes my bags out for me to take. I set them down and get my wallet out.
"Don't worry," she says. "This one is on the Republic of Ecuador."
"Thanks. Expense accounts are a beautiful thing," I say putting the wallet back.
We say our farewells. I close the door and the truck pulls away.
After buying a ticket and having some dinner, I board a Quito-bound bus and lean the seat back. I'll only have a few days there before going on to Colombia.
Colombia. I can't wait.
The bus cruises through the streets of Coca and across the bridge that straddles the Napo. It turns off onto a highway and heads for the Andean foothills - leaving the junglescape behind. Raindrops slap into the tinted windows and quiver in the wind.