It is hard to find a starting point or an ending point for this story. And I have struggled trying to figure out what should really be included. Thus the following is an edited (although long) account of the last few days, which was supposed to be a simple work trip up several rivers in the Amazon in the district of Loreto, Peru.
I think I first thought it was when I was sitting on top of the roof of the boat, which was gently floating down a very isolated section of the Rio Chambira several hours after the motor’s main bearings failed. The vegetation on both banks was alive with color and sound. We were only 15 minutes from our destination, but once the motor failed the river decided where we went, which was hence from where we came. We had passed the last community about half an hour prior at a velocity of about 40 miles per hour. The river was flowing downstream at about two miles per hour. That is when it again occurred to me that luck does exist, and its counterpart, the mala suerte.
My life has been blessed having experiences that are quite uncommon. But I have to admit that most of these experiences were based on what could be considered mala suerte at the time. The trip was supposed to commence on Wednesday morning up the Marañon River (one of the two main tributaries that feed the Amazon), to the Rio Tigre, then on to the Rio Chambira. The distance to the farthest community was supposed to be about 200 miles (or 9 hours) by boat from Nauta (which is about 50 miles by car from Iquitos). I can only assume that we were about 10 miles or less from our destination when the motor broke. We were about 190 miles away from any repair shop and several hours from any civilization. Moreover, some Amazonian communities are more accepting of strangers than others.
Our "roadmap" for the trip.
The Amazonian region of Peru is the most isolated and remote area of the country. There are not many roads beyond Iquitos. Almost all of the populations are located along rivers and rely upon river transportation, resources from the river (fish and water), local cultivation for food, and wood extraction for building. Petroleum, agriculture, and wood are the primary exports. The communities live a very simple life with few amenities. Many communities lack basic infrastructure such as water, sanitation, and electricity. Due to the level of the river during the wet season, human waste mixes with drinking water. The organization I am working with is here to work with the government to help alleviate the issue of energy poverty through the promotion of renewable energy projects.
Painting outside a solar distribution warehose in Iquitos.
Inundated village with limited solar power and a generator.
I’ll consider the starting point for this story as Wednesday morning when we were supposed to leave Nauta. Nauta is the gateway to the Amazon where the river Ucayali and the Marañon meet to form the great Amazon River. This is the heart of the largest river system in the world. It is too simplistic to call it “big” because the size is unfathomable until you see it. It has no real rival and the incredible volume of water that flows from its tributaries is astonishing. It is not a fast moving river. Rather it is slow and deep, carving through the deep tropical jungle flat-lands of Peru and Brazil, with its feeding tributaries located in Ecuador and Columbia as well.
A few of us from the organization I am working with and some government officials took a taxi from Iquitos to Nauta at 9pm on Tuesday. The road was dark and wet and the driver often hit 120 km/h, drifting wide through the obscured corners. I was lucky enough to sit in the back of the hatchback with the luggage, sans seat belt. In the morning we visited the government officials who would be joining us on our river tour. They kindly informed us that they had planned to join us on Thursday the 18th, not Wednesday the 18th. We thus decided to return to Iquitos for the day to visit other communities that we could reach quickly by boat on the Amazon River, returning to Nauta late that night.
Thursday morning arrived and our rag-tag group of engineers, sociologists, government politicians, and development practitioners was assembled at the docks. We took a fast boat about 5 hours up to a community at the confluence of the Tigre and the Marañon rivers for lunch. Another boat arrived loaded with three 50-gallon barrels of gasoline to take us the rest of the way to our destination. There were about 11 of us plus the gas with a 2007 Yamaha 500 doing all the work. I should have known at this point what consequences were coming.
Through several intense rainstorms we made our way up the winding river, at one point taking a short cut through an area that is only passable once the river has flooded sufficiently. The jungle yielded every half hour to 45 minutes to a small community inundated at the banks of the river. Most of the houses were either on dry land barely above the river or were on stilts, inundated with water. The roofs were thatch and the walls were wood that had been cut and hewn from local trees. All of the boats were dugouts, some with motors (peque peque). As the peque peques would pass, our pilot would not slow down to prevent them from being inundated with our wake. At one point I started to think about the fate that this type of ignorance could bring upon us. Only in the turns and when the shortcut was too narrow for two boats to pass did the pilot slow down. The rest of the trip was taken at a deafening full throttle, making some of us question when the last time the motor had a tune up.
Bananna Barge - The smoke is from the kitchen. They had two peque peques pushing the whole thing, and they had to use machetes to widen the banks on this part of the river to pass.
We had just passed a turn and the pilot was cranking the throttle once again when the motor produced an ear piercing, rapid succession of CLACK-CLACK-CLACK noises, indicating it had either ingested a large chunk of metal or rocks and was working to pulverize and digest them with its pistons, or the bearings had gone. There were two engineers, a former mechanic, and two boat operators on board with a small tool bag full of all the wrong tools for the job. The boat captains decided it was something hitting the flywheel, the engineers just scratched their heads, and I said I thought it was inside the engine in the best technical Spanish I could muster, “El motor esta roto. Los rodillos. Es jodido. Todo esta perdido amigos. Lo siento. ¿Donde esta lo mas cerca mecánico? ¿Nos tienen suficiente comida para este viaje?”
Typical view throughout the day. Sometimes there was hammering involved; no joking here.
We had left Nauta at 6Am, arriving to the furthest point at around 3:30Pm. As we floated down the river we only passed two boats and one community in the span of 9 hours. The other boat captains would not help us. Some of the members of the group said that they thought it was because there was a gringo on the boat. Apparently the people that live in these communities are wary of whites, which I can understand after colonialism and the trans-corporate neocolonialism of natural resource extraction and its pollution of these river systems and their communities. One story referred to two people found in the river with their faces skinned and their entrails removed. Locals believed that gringos had come in and taken their organs to sell internationally. A boat full of unknown people asking for help late at night in a remote section of a remote river system begs the question. I can understand why no one helped. The same happened with the community we passed. However, on the other hand it is odd because the boat had government markings, thus displaying some form of authenticity.
Floating back down the river.
At around 12:30 or so we came upon another community and were close enough to the bank to actually use the one small hand crafted oar to bring us close enough to pull the boat in. This community was much more accepting. It is possible that they knew some of the government officials. Some of the group slept in a hut in the community while the rest of us carved out little spaces in the small boat. I curled my 6’2” body next to one of the gasoline barrels between two of the benches. Needless to say I did not sleep much that night.
We were up at around 5Am. The community was nice enough to feed us and to charter 7 of us back up river to complete our work. That morning we made the best of our situation and did a social and technical analysis of this community as well. I walked from house to house, which was separated by knee-deep water, to take GPS points. After breakfast I realized that I would be one of the unlucky people left behind because the government officials, sociologists, and engineers were too important to remain, and the boat was too small to fit all of us. We were supposed to find a ride down river to another community where we would meet up later that night.
Different Directions on the Chambira
They left with us expecting a short stay in this community. Shortly afterwards, the disabled boat departed with a peque peque strapped to it, providing a slightly faster mode of transport than what the current could offer. There was also a large boat with an inboard motor that was ferrying some petrol workers to do some work down stream. We solicited them to provide us with transportation down the river when they would return. As we waited patiently we watched children playing in the torrent of rain that developed through the morning. They were playing football (soccer) and occasionally somersaulting or tackling one another into the water… the same water that flowed under one of the community outhouses that I had used earlier that morning. This was a terrifying confrontation in my mind; one that I will write more about at a later point.
Our boat prepared for a "slightly" faster journey down to the Marañon.
Football is fun no matter what the conditions.
The large boat returned at around noon but informed us that there had been a break in one of the pipes and the team needed to go fix it. They spent the next 10 minutes loading food (lunch) and supplies for their journey. It is important to realize that there are miles of oil pipes going through the Amazon. Some of these are older than 40 years, with difficult accessibility in the thick jungle, and they literally go under water in many areas (especially the river crossings). So when they said they had a leak they had to fix, I wondered which one. Communities complain not of the oil slicks that you can see on the surface of the river, but of the chemical contamination as a result of the dispersants. There is talk of an increase in the catch of deformed fish with oversized heads and an increase in asthma in children. I wonder if there are studies on the change in health in these communities over the last 40 years and links to petroleum production in the Amazon. This is another theme that I plan to explore later.
This is supposed to prevent a slick, but there are many gaps in the barrier.
Two Dugouts and Some Beer
After several more hours of waiting, the large boat returned and we headed back down the Chambira. The boat captain was much more professional than our previous driver, slowing for all other river traffic and even being respectful of the effect of his wake on communities. In less than two hours we were back at the mouth of the Marañon and the Tigre. Due to its size and the fact that the community was completely inundated with water (more so than the one I previously described) we had to dismount the boat onto a dugout canoe and paddle to one of the houses. Our guide was a girl of no more than 13 years. She easily and swiftly carried three grown men and their luggage as we unsteadily boarded and disembarked (dugouts are not as stable as the fabricated kayaks and canoes of North America). One of the men was less than thrilled about this transportation, confessing that he could not swim.
Our dugout captain (on the left).
We were welcomed warmly to the house and spent a half hour talking with the family. They were wonderful people. One of the group climbed into a dugout to explore the community and to locate a friend of his. The houses were small islands, isolating and wrapping families in wooden blankets of only 400 square feet in some instances. The only transportation among houses was by boat. This was a different world to experience.
Our companion returned after a short time and we departed, gifting a box of crackers to the family. We then ferried two separate trips to another house where we met one of the leaders of the community. His wife shared some food with us (rice and eggs) and we shared some beer in the typical Peruvian fashion… a 33 with one glass shared among all participants. The company was phenomenal, overflowing with jokes and stories while the children played soccer barefoot on the wooden floor. The leader and one member from our group were taking turns telling jokes with dynamism and vocal intonation to match. By the time the sun had set we had over 12 empty bottles on the table with us and our friend had once again departed in the dugout.
When our companion returned he informed us that he had seen the boat that was supposed to be ferrying our friends pass this community and head to the community that we had lunch at the prior day, located across the mouth of the two rivers. After some deliberation we decided to pay a peque peque operator to ferry us the 30 minutes in the pitch black dark to get there. Our friend who could not swim was not happy about this turn of events, but had a friend over there whom he wanted to see. We set out with a teenage boy, what we assumed was his younger sister, and our luggage. The half hour was dark. I have no idea how this kid knew where he was going. As we glided through the water the bow wake occasionally crested the rails providing our undersides with a shock of water that drenched everything in its path… which indeed was everything.
Crossing the river in the middle of the night was the second time that I realized the uniqueness of this experience; one that could only happen with the luck of misfortune or a large sum of traveller’s checks and a zest for adventure. As we passed the point the small twinkle of fireflies blinked at us from the reeds and trees. The boatman navigated agilely past small floating islands and drifting vegetation. Even the roar of the little Honda motor was not loud enough to drown out the sound of life emanating from the darkness.
The peque peque and its crew.
We landed in the community and disembarked in the direction of the same building we had lunch at the prior day. Two friends whom the others knew greeted us. One was a fellow civil engineer and the other was a government official. Our group’s boat had not come here. The rest of our party was still missing. Regardless, we continued our raucous drinking far beyond the point where I was ready to quit and long past the time that the community generator shut down for the night. I started filling my glass with just enough to wet the bottom. There are two offenses that I have learned to avoid since coming to Peru. You never turn down food in a community that accepts you as a guest, always making sure to finish the first plate. And you never walk away from a circle of drinking friends. When the first person left I knew it was ok for me to follow, and our night of revelry was over.
Our raucous group.
Mosquitoes and Montezuma’s Hangover
One of the men we met when we disembarked the peque peque guided us through the inky black night with a small flashlight to a warehouse at the edge of the village. There were a few ramshackle rooms that had been hastily constructed to house workers who were constructing the local health clinic (a project of the local government). Two of us shared a room with two very small beds. Once again my 6’2” frame was forced to fit into a space that was more than accommodating for an average sized 5’4” Peruvian. We set up our mosquito nets and instantly fell asleep.
Somewhere in the middle of the night I woke up to a feeling that has become too familiar over the last few months in Peru. I’ve been struggling with a reoccurring stomach infection since late October. I am not sure if it is due to stress, a food allergy, a parasite that I picked up somewhere, or the fact that I am addicted to the spiciest food I can find. Regardless, it often affects me at the most inopportune times. This night was one of those times. It carried into the next day, negatively marking my experience and making me look like a hung over gringo that couldn’t handle my beer. Without being absolutely explicit, I tried to explain how I had been experiencing reoccurring stomach infections. Most of my companions just gave me looks that said, “What’s that little gringo? Can’t handle the Amazon? Wanna go home to your American creature comforts? Can’t handle a little night of drinking in the jungle little boy?” I just gritted my teeth and kept purchasing water and toilet paper from the small market.
In addition to the unfortunate and ironic onset of the stomach infection, I learned the valuable lesson about how to use a mosquito net. Once you are inside do not leave otherwise you will invite unwanted guests. At some point during my inebriated and debilitated evening several dozen mosquitoes entered what I assumed to be my stronghold against malaria and dengue. When I awoke I had a more mosquitoes inside the net than were outside trying to get in. Moreover, the insects that had been preying on me over the last few days had started to leave their mark. I was covered in hundreds of welts.
There are (at least) three types of tenacious biting insects that produce welts in the campo here. The first is obviously the mosquito. I have encountered a far higher quantity of these while camping in the Sierras in California and on the coast in Maine, where trying to evade bites is pointless and they actually seem to be attracted to repellent. However as I have already suggested, getting bitten by these buggers here can potentially lead to malaria or dengue, therefore it is not the number of annoying bites that matters. The second bug is much smaller and more tenacious than the mosquito. The people here also call these biting flies mosquitos, but they do not resemble them. Rather they are much smaller and get between hairs and you feel them as soon as they bite. Some areas of the campo seem more inundated with them than others, and they are difficult to swat off. They leave terrible welts that last for days. The third bug is the “noseeum”. Tent companies often tout their mesh weave as “noseeum proof”. These bugs are barely visible to the naked eye and travel with you (in your shoes and clothes) after you have left their territory, continuing to bite for days. They especially prefer warm areas of the body (ie-near joints, in socks, the groin, etc). Over the last few days I have become covered in thousands of small raised welts that I have no idea what or when the original source took its first taste of me.
The Long Wait and the Deep Wake
We spent the day wondering where our companions were, trying to contact them (there is very spotty cell reception in this region, only existing in the largest of communities that have the luxury of a cell tower) and trying to solicit other boats in Nauta to commit to the six-hour trip to pick us up. The other party finally called at around 11 Am and said they would arrive in an hour. After three more hours of waiting we were reunited. We boarded the boat and took off across the Marañon River to look for fuel in the community we had visited the previous night. During the journey the sky opened up, drenching us with a torrent of unrelenting rain; any window that was open received gallons of water. Moreover, due to the weight of all the passengers, every time the boat slowed down suddenly the wake would inundate the stern, drenching whoever and whatever was in its path. The sump pump was working overtime to keep the boat from filling with water.
We arrived at the community and loaded all the fuel that they would sell us (which was little) and headed back down the Marañon. Shortly after we were underway our motor decided to protest its repeated abuse and lack of an adequate maintenance schedule by sputtering, dying, and inviting a tide of wake water into the boat to greet those of us who were in its path. The fuel filter was obviously clogged. The captain removed the external and secondary filters and did his best to try to clean them by hand, pouring the excess gas straight into the river and looking at me, shrugging his shoulders. Then, for a reason that evades my understanding, he decided to put the external filter on backwards. I pointed this out and he said that everything was fine. He started the motor back up and we were on our way.
We travelled a few miles down the river and then stopped at a community to gather data. I was rushed taking GPS points while grabbing my stomach, hoping that my body would not betray me, while the sociologist rapidly asked as many questions as he could convince the community to answer. Then we were off again. But no more than 50 Meters passed before the motor once again refused and the wake once again greeted us. I guess my seat next to the motor must have somehow signified my volunteer status to aid in keeping the motor going when the driver pointed to my soaking body and said, “pump”. I took the primer and started pumping the gas so that it could be forced past the clog… or force the debris from the external filter into the secondary filter. I tried to find a steady rhythm to constantly feed the carburetor’s demands as the driver set the throttle to full. The exercise was like doing forearm workouts without the ability to take a break. Moreover, the faster he went, the more the secondary filter became inundated with the debris from the external filter, and the harder it became to pump.
We came to another community after another half hour of travel, and another drenching wake. I once again removed my saturated body from the boat to take GPS points. Then the pumping resumed again for another 30 minutes as we travelled to the next community. We repeated this cycle several times before we arrived at another community to get gas. I asked the captain if there were filters here to purchase or if he would consider trying to clean the filter again. There was no use in trying to switch seats with any of the other passengers to take over my position as pump-man/ tide-wall. I asked, but no one was willing to take the beating that I was getting with the rain, the backwash, and the need to act like I was in a forearm endurance competition.
After another 20 gallons of gas, the captain returned and removed the filters once again. This time, after his futile effort to clean the internal filter, he produced a pin from somewhere in the driver’s area and began perforating the fine outer metal mesh and internal fiber folds of the filter. He then reversed the external filter so that it was flowing in the correct direction and we once again motored down the Marañon.
A Dark Return
The final 1.5 hours was spent watching the sun set deep into the tropical green of the jungle hanging over the murky brown waters as we cut through the inky chocolate liquid toward our destination in Nauta. The final events of the journey consisted of hitting a large clump of vegetation that stalled the motor and navigating into the darkening night through a section of the river that was loaded with floating debris and logs. The clump of vegetation was not a problem. The driver used the trim motor to raise the outboard while I climbed onto the transom to remove the debris that had been wrapped around the prop. Navigating through the night however became more difficult as the visibility was further reduced with more heavy rain. Logs and other large debris could be heard hitting the hull of the boat and motor. Occasionally the captain would need to stop and reverse the prop to remove whatever had become lodged under the boat while the wake greeted me with a wet reminder of its presence. However no more adventures followed and we arrived in Nauta at around 8 Pm.
Long sunset over the Marañon
The disembarkation was quick and we found motor taxis to take us to the inter city taxi stop at the edge of town. After an extended wait of around an hour we located a taxi to bring us back to Iquitos. One more motor taxi and we were back at our respective hotels. The hotel I had been staying at was full, so my work companion and I found another hotel a few blocks away that was, to put it mildly, on the underpriced side. But I cannot complain. We had just experienced what I consider something that is rare if not unknown. I see the mala suerte that we had overshadowed by the luck that ensured that we all returned safely with a great story to tell.
Much like the beginning of this story, it is hard to locate a good ending. I am not a storyteller. I chose to post this due to the absolute absurdity and simultaneous magnificence of this experience. I had no expectations other than work, but I got more than I could imagine. I should stress now that I am by no means trying to paint a negative image of the Amazon. I have had a wonderful experience here and am in no rush to leave. Furthermore, I am eager to return here in March to present some of the data that we have collected this week once we produce the analyses we are working on. I am simply trying to work through what I saw and experienced. The ability to turn this into words is the opportunity to revisit, digest, and share a brief but very meaningful part of my life.
I am now back to work and feeling much better after an unwanted but necessary dose of antibiotics. I guess that I am now in the waiting period for one of the thousands of mosquito bites on my body to present me with the symptoms of malaria or dengue. The incubation time is 9-14 days for malaria and 4 days for dengue. I guess this will be yet another test of my luck. But hey, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger right?