Cargo Ship Dreams - Floating up the Rio Amazonas

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October 16th 2011
Published: December 19th 2011
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 Video Playlist:

1: Tour of the Boat - Part 1 38 secs
2: Tour of the Boat - Part 2 154 secs
We arrived in Pucallpa from Laguna Yarinacocha and went straight to the market where we each brought our hammocks/homes for the next several days. Tansy came away with a deckchair-ish red a white striped one, Ryan's was a bizzarely nice combination of every colour and mine was yellow with orange suns over it, something to keep me smiling if times got rough on the boat.

My recent posts have been leading to the boat trip up the Amazon; and unlike previous entries, perhaps my desire to do this trip needs a reason. Why did I want to live in a hammock for several days, surrounded by strangers who speak a different language, eating food apparently so poor that guides advise taking prophelactic antibiotics whilst sweating in the heat and humidity of the jungle? A few reason, one, I wanted to see if I could survive the long hours of claustrophic nothingness, two, I wanted to improve my Spanish, and three, the adventure. 1500km by boat the Amazon Rainforest, you can't beat that. I couldn't wait to get going.

I described our boat previously and I'm too lazy to do so again, so below is a copy of that text. There is also two videos attached to this post where Marianella, in Spanish, tours the boat.

"We headed to another port and found a boat belonging to the only company we had heard off previously, a Henry boat. We walked aboard this board which far bigger than the last, a huge vessel that appeared to carrying an impossible volume of cargo. We were given a quick tour of the main passenger deck, where a few people had picked spots for hammocks already. In the centre of the deck were two long and crudely constructed tables, attached to the cold metal floor. Round the back end of the deck were two small compartments; one a kitchen where the food for everyone on the boat was to be prepared and next to it a roll cover which was hiding a small shop. Behind these two were the bathrooms which were not exactly Caribbean cruise ship standard. In each of the bathrooms was a toilet with no seat, no bin or bag for papers (in SA paper is never flushed) and with a shower head hanging from the ceiling in a position so that you could probably shower whilst taking a dump.

The level above should have been for passengers as well, but the boat was carrying far more cargo than normal and all that was visible inside was endless glass bottles, fridges and furniture. On this level there were cabins as well, small rooms containing a pair of bunk-beds with old foam mattresses and a private bathroom which whilst nicely dirty was a definite step up from those downstairs.

The top deck was home to more fridges, freezers, furniture and huge amounts of unidentifiable packaged products too. At the front of the top was a small cleared section surrounding the captains deck. From here we were granted impressive views of the chaos that defined the port. Boats lined the river of all shapes and sizes; there was another Henry boat a little further down amongst them, although it was vacant as all the cargo was being loaded onto ours. The muddy slope down to the boat was covered with a broad scattering of containers, crates and trucks all being uploaded by scores of workers carrying vast weights on their backs with straps around the top of their heads for support. To the side of this main bank was a huge number of enormous logs, cutting machinery and cranes. These trees looked far older than the town itself, perhaps some of the trees were wider than I am tall, I can't imagine the work is sustainable, which if not, is a tragedy."

We took our supplies to the boat, where a lady helped us string our hammocks. We purchased two more to string above us, to store our gear safely.

A Swiss girl came aboard the boat to have a wander around and we did our best to sell her the boat, she said she'd try to be back in the morning. Ryan and I agreed to head back into town leaving Tansy on the boat to keep an eye on our stuff, we were to buy some supplies. I managed to pick up some flip-flops and a bottle of rum from a pharmacy (not a typo), but being a Sunday our task wasn't easy and whilst we were inside a mall, the skies opened.

The volume of rain thundering from above was immense. Our shelter in the mall quickly ended as we were told to leave and they closed shutters to protect from the rain and we sprinted across the street, launching ourselves over new lagoons into the mercado central. Despite only being exposed for a few seconds, we were both drenched. Standing in the entrance of the market, we exchanged bemused looks with the locals and waited for the rain to subside. Either side of us was a long narrow corridor full of stalls and from down these we heard shouting shortly before a wave of water hit our feet. The whole market was flooding.

We trudged into the corridor and climbed on ledges for safety, following as all of the locals were doing. Shop keepers raced against the flow to secure goods and catch those that were already floating away. Tens of people were perched alongside us, but our height wasn't enough and the water began to brush against our feet once more. We thought for a moment and jumped in, the water reaching just above our knees. And so we begin to wade through the corridor of chaos, with flip flops, hats and wood drifting past us. Unfortunately, the storm wasn't finished with us yet.

As we approached the exit the scent in the air deepened into a nostril closing terror. The sewers had risen. This was confirmed by Ryan as he peeled a dirty strip of soaking paper from around his leg. The situation was insane, and the random pieces of wood flowing into the market were increasing in size, we had to get out and so we made the final push, rounding the exit where the water was overflowing and heading up some steps to freedom. Of all the places in the city, the market had been the worst to hide, it was the lowest point in the town. We ran from the rain into a Chifa restaurant, slipping on the tiled floor as crude water squelched from our boots. We ate whilst the rain slowed and once finished we left for the food, carrying a meal for Tansy with us. Back aboard, I showed my photos and videos of the flood to the locals who enjoyed seeing the chaos and not having suffered it.

The first evening on the boat was when I met Alberto, a Peruvian guy in his fourties who was travelling to Iquitos to see his girlfriend. Coincidently, he was trying to learn English and of course I wanted to learn Spanish and so we agreed to help each other as much as possible during the trip, before spending the evening playing cards instead.

That night was not my favourite of the boat, it was cold and interrupted by a group of workers boarding drunk in the early hours of the morning. Every once in as while our cold metal ship would sway in the river and collide with a collosal storage container causing a thunderous crash, waking everyone. No one had slept much before the sun rose, causing the boat to heat and everyone to sweat themselves awake and no one slept less so than Ryan who had been sick twice during the night. As we struggled to rouse ourselves into a useful state we noticed that the number of people on the boat had barely raised and then the information floating through that the boat was to leave in the evening and not the morning. This wasn't a big problem to me, but Ryan and Tansy had to begin debating the possibly of leaving the boat to fly to Iquitos as time constraints on their return flight meant they were putting themselves at risk. The longer we waited in port, the less time they'd have in Iquitos to make their flights.

In the morning we waited for Ines to arrive. I was hopeful that she would, having an extra person in our group would be fantastic, even more so if either or both of Ryan and Tansy decided to leave. We were approaching the point of giving up when she arrived and we added her hammock next to ours. Ryan and Tansy spoke to the captain and rented a cabin, having decided that surviving in the hammock for the duration wasn't for them. Having the cabin meant that storing our backpacks would be far safer as well.

We left Vendi, our newly adopted Peruvian mum in charge of our gear and left the boat for town. Vendi was taking the boat to visit her mum, having recently her husband. She was obviously missing her children, because she began to treat us as hers. She had been sleeping on the floor and so we offered her one of ours for the trip; she accepted happily. Downtown and in the market, Ines took charge of buying our supplies and went fairly overboard, buying far too much fruit that we was going to be impossible to finish during the journey. Both Ryan and myself were feeling pretty terrible that morning and found ourselves going along with everything, we wondered if our trudging through sewage or our lack of sleep was responsible.

We got back to the boat early Monday afternoon, making sure we got back with plenty of time before departure and psyched to be leaving soon. Unfortunately, Alberto, Vendi and a proud young soldier informed us separately that we were now leaving on Tuesday. Once again, this wasn't a problem for myself, or for Ines, but it was increasingly to Tansy and Ryan.By the time the evening had set in, Ryan had decided to leave the following morning and booked his flight form Pucallpa to Iquitos. It was the right decision for him; he'd been sick twice whilst we were still docked and had decided that the boat was going to be far to chloastrophobic once more people boarded. Despite it being the right decision, it was hugely disappointing to me, I had a strong connection with Ryan, we're both dirty bastards and had a lot of good laughs, he was my only English speaking male friend on the boat as well. Tansy really wanted to reach the dream of arriving by boat in Iquitos and decided to give herself one more day in hope that we might actually leave. I brought Ryan's share in the cabin to help out, to get the reportedly better food and to guarantee a stranger wouldn't move in, to keep the security of our gear.

The remainder of Monday was spent in a pleasant and simple fashion, I read a little of my book, but spent most of the time studying Spanish with the aid of Alberto. Our friendship grew basic primarily on our limited shared language. He was amused by the book I was using to teach myself Spanish, 'Basico Ingles Para Latinos', a book for Latinos to learn English. Despite being effectively worthless for grammar, it did give me plenty of useful phrases and I promised to give it to Alberto once I'd learnt all I could from it.

As the night drew in we relaxded on the upper deck of the boat with some drinks, a final hurrah for our little team that had been together since Lima through Tingo Maria, Yarinacocha and Pucallpa. It had a been a good time and I'd always managed a good laugh or a decent serious converation with Ryan and as such I was a little sad when I clambered into my hammock later in the night, knowing that he would be leaving in the morning. My expected biggest support from insanity on the journey, was leaving.

I didn't sleep well again, despite using a fleece for a pillow and my Baliese sarong for a blanket, whilst moving higher up in my hammock to give my body a better shape. I said my farewell to Ryan in the morning before sleeping a little more and rising into the sweat once again.

Tuesday was a long day for everyone. The boat was expected to leave around 10am, so when returning from breakfast, we ran aboard after being told the boat was departing. Following a theme, we needn't have bothered, the boat was leaving in the afternoon instead. Tansy spent much of her time in her hammock chatting with Vendi and reading. I read and studied for most of the day and Ines spoke with Marianella, an Argentinian girl who'd arrived in the morning. We carried on in this fashion until around 2.30pm when the boat finally began to rearrange it's parts and pulled away from the mud of Puerto Henry to a feeling of elation and happiness which carried on into the evening.

By the time we left the port, the boat was incredibly crowded. I'd estmate 150 - 200 passenger filled the relatively small space of the passenger deck. The volume of free space decreased further as we passed villages and people drove boats to ours to deliver more passengers through a downstairs window. The children aboard the boat ran around the hammocks, bashing them as they went, making friends with each other and enjoying the novelty of their situation. The adults chatted, played cards and tended to their childrens needs, it was a sweaty but good atmosphere.

The good feelings aboard the boat continued through a mind blowing sunset into the dark, before being interrupted by a booming sound and the engine cutting out. It took time for news of what had happened to spread around, we had hit a tree and were stuck for t night. Looking down from the top deck we could see part of the tree at the front of the cargo deck, lit up by the boats spot-light, it was enormous. Whilst moving at night the crew regularly lights up the river to check for debris and obstacles, how we hit any tree, let alone one this huge, I don't know.

Back in the hammocks, a bell rang, indicating that food was ready and a scramble began, hungry people racing to the small kitchen shack with a multitude of different types of tupperware. Dinner was a surprisingly tasty potato and chicken soup. The smell of the food filled the boat as people attempted to find enough room to eat. It was a messy time as people snacked on additional food to compliment their meals and packaging and leftovers splattered to the floor. We began to wonder how bad the boat could get in four or five days when a lad, who'd proudly showed us his photos of his time in the military, began sweeping the ship. He did this a few times a day for the duration of the trip; he wasn't officially a member of the crew, but he cleaned for his passage and slept on the floor.

The night happened to be a football night, Ecuador were playing Chilé and numerous people pulled radios out of their luggage and settled in for the game with large bottles of beer. Games are always an event in South America, the people of the nations go crazy, there is an unwavering support for their players, with little negativity. Even when Peru were three down, the ship continued to cheer, even more so as they pulled two back before the game finished. It was loud, messy and fun, with some entertaining sights, such us a man who had a cabin with a small television inside, around which at least 10 others were gathered to watch.

I woke in the morning to the beautiful noisy buzzing of the engine, we were moving once again, the tree had been removed. I had been wrong to eat the food in the main part of the ship yesterday and so for breakfast I left my hammock and went up to the cabin where food was to be delivered. I did encounter a bit of a problem, waking Tansy. Every morning I stood outside her room, hammering on the door and calling her name. I don't believe it ever worked, she is a talented sleeper, and I usually chilled outside her room until she woke naturally and we could eat breakfast.

The second day passed like clockwork, I studied, read and spoke with Alberto, I walked upstairs regularly to check out the views. News spread through the boat that we would be stopping in a jungle town, Contamana for the night. Thanks to all of the delays and problems, we were going to be passing through on the anniversary of the cities foundation and we were going to join in on the celebrations. Another delay, but a reward for the rest of the problems we had encountered!

We arrived under darkness with great anticipation. Tansy and I had been on the boat for four days now and the opportunity to be free to walk where we liked and to see something new was hugely exciting. Almost everyone clambered down the boardwalk to the town, the locals impressively dressed and us undeniably shabby. For a small jungle town, Contamana throws a damn good party and the term 'jungle town' seemed wrong to use after we'd seen it. It was built around a typical central plaza, a huge concert stage set up on one side. A pop rock group were performing with a bikini clad babe on the mic at the front. Tables were laid out around the edges where hundreds of people were socialising and drinking beer. We walked around the plaza first, stopping to use the internet and drinking a couple of cocktails before settling at one of the table with four middle aged French people who were staying a few cabins away from Tansy's. The eight of us completed the gringo contingent from the boat and we drank together, exchanging stories and trying to communicate through our miscellaneous languages, enjoying the music.

Eventually we had all had enough and staggered drunkenly back to the boat to face a surprisingly challenge. Getting to our hammocks was wonderfully awkward and require ducking and weaving between the ropes of a hundred hammocks, whilst in the dark night of the jungle and being required to squint to spot those people who didn't have hammocks and were sleeping on the floor. It had been a beautiful, lucky evening but I was glad to make it to my hammock.

I wouldn't recommend earning a hangover whilst on a cargo ship in the jungle. It's not an enjoyable experience waking shortly after 5am, dehydrated and sweaty, exhausted but without somewhere to sleep. We all through though, drinking as much water as possible and waiting for breakfast which was very decent, a sturdy combination of rice and chicken.

I spoke with Alberto, who as always, gave me some useful information about the day and what we would be passing. We took to the deck on his advice that soon we were going to be passing through some wooden villages and some jungle covered mountains. Everything was going smoothly and we enjoyed an impressive lunch of rice, baked beans, potato and chicken. I sat with Alberto in the main ship before he gave me a quick tour of the boats wildlife. Under the table where we sat was a puppy, kept in place by a surrounding wall of luggage. Nearby were to small green parrots, busily attempting to chew their way out of a cardboard box and further away, under someones hammocks were two upside down turtles, their front legs feebly flailing out of the brown cotton bags they were living in.

A while later we pulled up in another tiny town for a brief break and we left the boat amist a thrash of sellers climbing aboard to sell colas, fruit, phone credit and many other things. We didn't have time to walk far before turning back, but the town was surprisingly well built for a place in the middle of the jungle. Paved roads, plazas, electricity and basketball courts stretched ahead of us as we turned back to our home, happy to have stretched our legs during another unexpected stop.

The days became regular for us all, the girls spent the majority of their time oustide the cabin or on top of the boat making jewellery. My pattern consisted of waking early, going upstairs to knock on Tansy's door, eating breakfast and returning to my hammock to study, read or to talk to either Alberto or Vendi. I'd head upstairs at midday for lunch and return downstairs tired from the heat to take a siesta for a couple of hours whilst the children ran in circles around the hammocks, knocking them and me as they went. On waking, Vendi would always be nearby and we'd swing in our hammocks, enjoying the motion and the chaos around us. It was strange on the boat, despite the crowding and the craziness of the children running around and the slightly insane person who'd sleep under my hammock during the day, I found the experience calming. It was regular, the faces were familiar and it was home.

On Friday, the fourth day travelling and the sixth aboard in total for Tansy and me, we decided to drink the bottle of rum I'd purchased in Pucallpa. We sat on lifejackets outside the cabin, enjoying our drinks in the cool of the evening breeze, exchanging travel stories and wondering whether we'd ever make it to Iquitos. Theoretically, the journey is four days, we should have already made it, but visually by map, we were less than halfway.

On Saturday things seemed different, reports of our arrival date in Iquitos were ridiculously mixed, even Alberto didn't seem to know. Marianella asked the captain, but even he seemed unsure. What was good to hear however, was that due to the incredible volume of cargo we were carrying, it was unsafe to stop in many of the smaller villages for fear of grounding and so we began to progress faster than before. This meant that the villagers had
First of Many Sunset PhotosFirst of Many Sunset PhotosFirst of Many Sunset Photos

Sorry, but the sunsets over the river were uniquely spectacular due tothe wide river, lack of artifical lights and the outline of trees of the riverbank!
to motoboat out to our ship to board, wandering rapidly around to sell their wares before returning to shore. The sellers were always popular, the variation in diet their fruits provided was very welcome. Often Vendi would buy something we didn't recognise and offer us some. In exchange we offered her water, cola and some of the fruit from our over supply, which she always accepted gratefully. Her favourite from our bag was my bag of heart sweets, which I gave to her in their entireity eventually.

At around four in the afternoon exciting news came to me from Alberto. The Rio Ucalayi was about to join two other rivers to form the Rio Amazonas. People gathered at the windows and across the rails of the decks for the moment, which was pumped with the beauty of the moment. Technically the Amazon is just a river, only it's so much more. It is the river. The heart of the most famous jungle in the world, something read about in adventure books as a child, home to a masterful ecosystem and a staggering number of different species. It is the reason why we'd taken the trip, to be able to say that we'd been on the Rio Amazonas and we were finally there.

A few things happened after we arrived on the Amazon; we began to see some river traffic, more interestingly, we began to see river dolphins regularly and as the sun sank over the river it gave out colours brighter than I have ever seen before. The experience was magical and everyone aboard Henry V seemed in good spirit. This arrival at the Amazon meant that our journey was nearly over, the news of which came as a surprise to us all. There was one other change after we reached the Amazonas proper, suddenly the number of bugs multiplied enormously. The ecosystem surely couldn't have been so different, but suddenly the quantity and variety of bugs that flew into the light of the cabin was tremendous. Large moths, beetles, roaches and any other kind of shiny nasty looking bugs you can think of all threw themselves into the cabin where I happily took photos of them. I rescued a huge moth from the water on the bathroom floor, it obviously appreciated my help and showed me by landing on my glasses and squatting there until I removed it. We relaxed with mixed feelings, we had been on the boat for a long time, six days when we thought it'd only take four, yet we were all comfortable on board, I loved my learning and time in my hammock, the girls loved spending time together making their jewellery. Tansy gave me one of the bracelets that she made, it's around my ankle at the moment.

Dinner the final evening was a good one, pork and rice. The meat on the boat was as fresh as it can be, the chickens that we ate for every meal were slaughtered underneath in the floor below the passenger deck, the pig was no exception. There was a staircase in the passenger deck to the engine deck and the pig was in full view as the cook thrust his blade into the animals neck. It was not a pleasant thing to witness, but we were very happy to have a little variation from the ever constant chicken. Maybe I would have taken a photo of the meal, if only I hadn't eaten it so quickly.

At one in the morning I woke to the noise of two hundred people moving
Waiting for the Whistle!Waiting for the Whistle!Waiting for the Whistle!

Sellers line the riverbank, waiting for the boat to come close enough for the selling to begin!
about, we were arriving in Iquitos and everyone was preparing to leave. We decided to stay aboard for the remainder of the night and leave in the morning. I said my goodbyes to Alberto who left and we arranged to meet in the morning at the port, I was sad to see him go, we'd become good friends. Without 95% of the people aboard the boat, we had space once more and slept solidly until early morning once more, when it was time to leave. We took down our hammocks, giving Vendi one of them to keep and headed ashore, stopping briefly for a sad look back at the empty space that had been our home for the past eight days, a place where previously there had been 200 men, women and children living eating and sleeping.

We took photos and said our goodbyes to Vendi. She promised to come to the airport the following day to bid Tansy farewell as we jumped into motos and left Henry V behind.

The journey had taken much longer than it should have, but I wouldn't have minded if it was longer still. The food wasn't great, but no-one got sick as expected. The bathrooms were dirty, the children loud but entertaining, the lack of sleep was hard but liveable. I loved the time on the boat, it was a real adventure, worth it alone for the moment of joining the Amazon, but even more so for the benefits it gave my Spanish. It was a fantastic, memorable trip and one of the best things I have ever done whilst travelling.

Additional photos below
Photos: 39, Displayed: 39


19th December 2011

Very cool!!
ahh I was waiting to read this one to see how the journey would be! sounds like a crazy time and those sunsets WHOA!! really cool

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