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Published: October 2nd 2010
The boat better not taken
It was my idea to take a boat from Pucallpa to Iquitos. As usual I saw something that the common traveller doesn't do and got fueled with passion to do it. I was not too naive to think that it was going to be a cruise-like boat trip, but I had no idea how much I was going to be out of my comfort zone and how much I would beg for it to end. Yet, this trip was definitely an adventure that I will remember, for its filth and for the fact that I did it and survived. Would I recommend? I think that if one wants to feel Peru in its blood and bones - there is nothing more Peruvian or perhaps Latin American than that, though Marika said it reminded her of the boats in Thailand. So, maybe it is third world ultimate experience. I think our main miss up is the fact that we cannot really converse in Spanish, otherwise I think this adventure could have been far more interesting and potentially with less boredom. For example, an American guy that we met, who lives in Lima, was invited to one
of the villages along by a family he met on board. He stayed with them for two weeks. That gave him a first class insight to the life of the Amazonian people, the relationship within the community, the problems they have (like child sex), the way babies are raised and surely more that he didn't tell us. Between one chat and another he told us that another guy invited him to his family house in Iquitos for the night to meet his wife and kids. They are friendly when you know their language. Also, perhaps it is better to do this boat trip in parts, thus having a break after two or three days, but then the mosquitoes will wait for you on the shore, hungry and vile...
I think it provided an extraordinary chance to meet the people who live on this mighty river system and if I was in the right mind set I believe I could chat with some, but I have reached to the moment when I didn't want to travel anymore... I have had enough...
We boarded long time ago, or so it seems, almost in panic fearing to miss the boat
- aka Lancha Henry 2 - the smallest boat of the Henries, only one floor for passengers above one floor of cargo. We planned to go and see the boats at the dock before breakfast, check the times and quality and choose the best one, and a cabin please... how naive. There is only one boat per day but not everyday as we learnt in our lesson, and as noted in several guide books the time of departure is very flexible. We learnt later that Henry 2 was scheduled for 17:30 the previous day (that was Thursday) but for some reason it didn't leave, so when we arrived on Friday morning we were rushed to board, even though we didn't have even a single bag on us, they told us that within the hour it was due to leave, that was quarter to ten in the morning. Puzzled by the intensive rush surrounding us we stopped to look around trying to get back our line of thought. As we realised that there is no chance we could return to pack, have breakfast and pick up our laundry in one hour we asked if there was another boat - no, only
on Monday, that was three days ahead. Then we heard another answer, more suitable to our plans - there is another boat tomorrow, someone must have read our minds and fitted an answer to suit our wishes - this, as we already knew was the Peruvian way, so there wasn't a point to confirm this except by going the next day to the port and then probably pass the time hearing rumours about the departure time, and continue like that throughout the weekend - we thought it wouldn't be fun nor chilling. Meanwhile as we finished this brain-storming session we met Ahmed-Muhammad who speaks English and later on turned to be our new friend. He approached us and told us that the boat departure time changed to twelve o'clock, or two o'clock... We went on board with him to see how packed it was - quite packed - but there was some free space where the 'dining' table was, close to the kitchen. Actually all along the boat there are those long picnic wooden tables but we couldn't see them at first glance because they were obscured by the mass of hammocks and people. I saw the ticket boy sitting
Second day, heavy fog in the morning
... so why do they move and we don't?...
at the front of the main floor where all kinds of cargo were stored, including live stock - twelve o'clock - I believed him. At the floor above Ahmed introduced us to a hammock merchant who kept the space for his 'family' - us - until we were back. We had just enough time to go back to the hostel to finish packing and skip breakfast (we thought we will get something on the boat) and be back before mid-day. Ten minutes to twelve we were in, our hammocks already tied but we, too excited to swing, stood and looked outside to see the thrilling moment of departure - nada. The buzz at the dock as before, men work like ants, carrying packages three times their size and run in line, one after another, towards the boat and back. I looked at my watch 12:16, a little delay, no problem, surely we will leave in any minute. After One o'clock I thought that maybe I didn't hear correctly, 'dosse' and 'dos' are quite close phonetically. After Two o'clock we heard that there was some problem with the papers and therefore we were due to leave the docks at Four in
Jesus our savior... yeah right... maybe it's God who needs help
the afternoon. 15:16 we left. Those three hours on board, waiting, sweating, getting suffocated by the heat, the roar of the radio behind me and the mass of people made it clear to me that I was not as adventurous as I would love to portray myself, I was not in the mood for chilling out, swinging on a hammock, I wanted to move on and the lack of a firm time schedule made me itchy, I wanted air and the lack of breeze made me nervous. Although it was my idea and my intention to take the boat from Pucallpa to Iquitos I wasn't mentally prepared for this kind of creature discomfort today, what a wimp, I know, sorry.
We finally left the port. As soon as we started moving I felt the breeze caressing my sweat body, cooling me down a little. Still not excited about my new accommodation I just asked a guy who set near me on the bench by the windows how long this journey was going to take - three days his answer - that's not too bad - I think, trying to fix my mind into chilling/swinging mode and my mood back
Along the banks of the Ucayali
into friendliness instead of the old grump that took control on me. I can't. The boat moves lazily downstream - I try to measure its speed. I want to think 20kmh (no, maybe 10kmh), so if the length of the route is 800km (nooo, try more than a thousand) it would take us 40hrs - OK, that can be in three days, I think, so we get off on Sunday, great, hope the boat will carry on moving at night, we will get there even earlier. I decide to go up to the roof balcony - I really don't know where I took this idea from - there is a roof, true, but not a balcony, a guy marks over me to go down. So no balcony and no air, only the little breeze I get when sitting by the window but once I am in my hammock it is a sweat house... or a sauna, depends how positive I am .
Soon after dusk we stop. Why for crying out loud the boat stopped now? I just enjoyed the little breeze, for heaven sakes. Nowhere - somewhere, on the Ucayally river, three hours from Pucallpa. Night. Now what?
Is that it for today? Three hours float? In this speed it will take a week to get to Iquitos - I really want to go home. What an adventure. I am a convict on this prison boat, with no trial only God knows how long I am going to serve. Mosquitoes devour my living epidermis, flies sting where the mossies didn't beat, flees bite wherever they can, so much so that my arms and legs are too painful to itch - what a nightmare. I find a shelter under my mosquito net. The pyramid shape wasn't so useful in the jungle trip we did only few days ago but here with the hammock it turns to be my little castle, protecting me loyally from the cruel enemy. When I was naive I thought that I would watch the stars at night but the reality is that behind the net the mosquitoes are waiting. The lights are off, so it is hard to find the way in the matrix of hammocks and few mattresses that on the filthy floor. I wish to get up, to get closer to the window but I give up this idea, I hope to not
need the loo later on, so far I am OK. A young man sits behind me by the picnic (dining) table, hugging his radio tape and listening to the music played, it is so loud that even the dead can hear it. Can you please have mercy and turn it off, I beg, what is so wrong with you that you fail to read the situation here-now that people around you are trying to sleep. That is it for today, minutes after seven in the evening, darkness of night, eleven hours to wait until first light, I need to be strong not to blow up. I hope to get some sleep.
Placed in my hammock covered by the mosquito net I found peace. Though impatient, sweat, hot and still vibrated to the sound of music I fell asleep for few hours, then woke up, fell asleep again and then morning, Five'ish, fog. We get breakfast at seven - porridge. No change in the fog, so now we have light but no sight, like it was in the beginning of creation, we stand still until half nine inside a clouds, floating somewhere, in purgatory. It got a little cooler at
night and now, morning, the air is warmish. I ask the woman next to me, grandma of Jesus the (annoying) kid if she goes to Iquitos - no, she goes to a village somewhere between Comapaña and Oronella - I look at the map, it is about fifth of the distance we have to go. My eyes turn down with despair and my head is racing, how do I change my mindset so I can enjoy this trip.
Hours pass slowly. Time is really an interesting concept. I am sitting in my hammock, below me my rucksack, I am not swinging. Byron to my right hand side is sleeping, or dozing. To my left there is the annoying little kid, Jesus, pronounced with 'kh' - can be a bit philosophical but what can I do it's his name, well one of them, Antonio Jesus Salvador - Jesus the saviour, so many names I've forgotten his family name if it mattered. First he was curious about my day bag, which is really out of his limits, even being a Jesus, then trying to be friendly he started swinging into my hammock bashing his little body on my body - God...
kids are so much fun... So he swings there and his grandma sits on the bench opposite us trying to cool herself down with some breeze. Marika also sits on this bench, reading a book. Sometimes the grandma tells him to stop so he goes behind my head, beneath my hammock and plays with the ropes of the hammock, completely ignoring of my existence - that can be quite philosophical too but at the moment it is so annoying, someone please hold me or I am going to change the future of this bloody little kid. The kid of the boat. It seems that everyone on this boat knows him, the sweet boy. Ahmed-Muhammad - it does get a bit philosophical - our new boyfriend for this journey, loves him and so do all the people around me, including B&M, only I challenge myself not to through him out through the window.
Lunch is being prepared I smell. With the ring of the bell the crowd rushes to line up for lunch. All having their tupperware and a spoon, queuing. Small talks begin and fade as soon as food is being served - chicken, rice, plantain - tastes good.
The gay cooks did a good job. I eat as slow as I can to pass time, then washing, then sudoku, but even this cannot make time to pass. It has been by now more than 36 hours and I suggest that if we are lucky we get off on Tuesday. I need a time frame I realise, quite funny being known as a procrastinator. But when I don't enjoy I like to know when it ends. The watermelon lady passes by, I buy a portion and feel refreshed as if I took a shower. I just visited one of those cells a little while ago, it was bearable. Though wet because it is a washroom as well it wasn't as filthy as I feared it could have been. Being so particular about this issue of toilets and showers I expected to have a problem on the boat, hence my nervousness about the length of the journey. Meanwhile B&M realise that the showers are being cleaned (daily, sometimes even twice a day) and get ready to catch a place. It is really nice to have a shower it gives about twenty minutes of dry skin before it feels sticky and
ugly again. When we shower we care not to drink the water as they are from the river, this river is filthy like a sewage. The locals through there all there waste, plastic bottles, remains of food and yes, the toilets are drained to the river and the used toilet papers and hygiene bandages too. The food however is being boiled over and over and that, we believe, kills the likelihood of contamination, and as I think I noticed they used bottled water. So far I am fine.
Another day passed and another night. We had another night-stop but the next day we resumed boating with dawn and continued at night. Jesus and his grandma boarded off so for the time being I have more room around me and nobody touches me, bashes me or hits me. As the time passes I get used to this routine. Lying in my hammock, sitting on the bench, go to the front of the boat to get a better breeze and to talk with Shirley from NZ, another gringo we met on board, she travels on her own. We talk, swap books and share discomfort and minor moanings as a chill-out passing
time, running speculation re when this exciting cruise is due to end. I am yet too impatient to read but I find Sudoku relaxing. I guess one can learn a lot about oneself through this boredom and lack of attractions. However, whatever I learnt I am not yet able to compile. The boat stops again, people are boarding, with them are some vendors who sell food they made and some drinks. I buy a portion of a cake, tasty and good as a dessert. B&M buy some peanuts, I buy another cake. As I cannot really have much interaction with the 'Amazonian people' because of the level of my Spanish, food is a good brake for a small talk. I get a little idea of their life simply by watching them, and asking about their food. Lots of fish as expected from people who live by the river, but turtles as well, or a snake if they catch, or the benadu which is something like a jungle lamb. If I was a fish eater I may have tried one dish, but I prefer meat, and for me the food on board is good and plenty. On the same time I
Turtle for dinner
Every turtle wants to be a nicely cooked delicious soup
do fear in what kind of hygienic conditions those fish were prepared. I may do injustice, but this is another reason why I don't try. In another occasion a girl with some turtles boards. The turtles are tied and there is a little wooden stick across their front limbs through the shield. I feel sad watching it. This is, though, another face of the Amazonian life, far from supermarkets they eat what nature supplies. There is no mercy there unless you like to be hungry (or a vegetarian)...
It was night. I was between a doze and a sleep when I heard: 'Ai gasiosa tres soles... ai volta oon sole...' Are we there yet? What time is it? What's going on? I woke up from another brief sleep on my hammock. It was Three in the morning and the boat has just arrived in Requena, about two thirds of the way to Iquitos. I don't know what is more bizarre - that those vendors actually thought that boarding at Three in the morning would find them buyers, or the fact that actually there were buyers. Three in the morning, oh my lordy lordy lordy lord. I just got over
the nightly mosquito attack and felt comfy lying sweat sticky and filthy, covered by unbelievably amount of people, most of them are youth, who just boarded seven hours ago and staffed the really last corners of space, and now 'Ai gasiosa' - go to sleep...ohhhh I hope this will redeem all my sins... - it is Three in the morning. An hour and a half ! later they went down and after another half an hour we resumed boating. Floating in this prison boat to Iquitos.
After five days, four nights, and one hour at the port going back and forth trying to find a place to dock we finally went off the boat. I was thrilled. I don't know if I showed it but if I didn't have to find a hostel I would have been dancing and in tears for the excitement of having my life back. All I had in mind was comfort and air condition as first goal. Motor-taxi drivers, like mosquitoes, attacked us before we saw the doorway out. We took two and drove to the hostel I marked, no rooms. Another one and then another one and one more, eventually we found this
hotel, River Fox, where I am sitting now. I really hope an architect didn't design this house because if so it is an insult to the profession, but at least I have AC in the room.
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