Between July 27th and August 30th, my companion and I followed the mighty river at its own slow rhythm on local cargo and passenger ships. By the end of our adventure, we had covered more than 5,000 kilometers on water alone.
This will be a bilingual account: mine in English, his in French.
Lima to Yurimaguas – 27 July 2016 (Andrée)
Lima in the Peruvian winter is swaddled in fog. Cool, damp, blustery days when it feels even warmer outside than inside. A day and a half in Lima, enough for a second incursion into the Museo Larco to remember its gold Inca masks and jewelry, modest humorous clay pots: a man and a woman glaring at each other in a bucket, little houses with various critter perched on the roof and the “erotic” collection…
You also go back to the Larco for its delightful restaurant in a flowery patio and its exquisite food. The sun even deigned come out for a little while.
Every Monday at 12 sharp, it’s the changing of the guard in front of the presidential palace. Operetta soldiers goose-stepping with the fanfare playing its brassy version of “El condor pasa” and “O Fortuna” from “Carmina Burana”. It all seemed a bit disconnected.
Twenty-four hours on the bus between Lima and Tarapoto. It wasn’t so bad, I slept most of the way. On the second day, we stopped for 30 minutes in a dusty cantina. Next time, I’ll order, Y. who doesn’t know Spanish too well got us a stew of chicken innards, legs and necks. We weren’t too sure what it was exactly, so we stuck to rice and potatoes. The dog would have liked it.
Another two hours today to Yurimaguas. No idea when the boat will leave, maybe tonight, maybe tomorrow. We boarded this morning, hung our hammocks on the top deck where there aren’t so many people, and got a cabin just in case. The beds are none too clean nor appealing but it will do to stow away the luggage and change. This will be the first leg of the trip on the Amazon from Yurimaguas to Iquitos on the Huallaga river, a tributary of a tributary of the Amazon which only really begins in Iquitos.
It promises to be long, but it’s quite peaceful to be disconnected and to wait for the goodwill of others to get going or for the cargo to be loaded with hundreds of bags of oranges, potatoes and onions, crates of eggs and a cow mooing somewhere under. Isn’t it what travel should be: patient transition, going slowly, crossing borders, trying to remember that “there is a relationship between Here and There” rather than being instantaneously transported from one point to another?
Aboard the Eduardo X. 28 July 2016
More passengers boarded, of the human and cattle sort. Poultry too, cackling all night and crowing at dawn.
Around midnight, Y decided to go sleep in the cabin. He was cold. I’m mildly amused since he was dead against renting a cabin: “It goes against the romance of the trip.”
Romantic me remained in my hammock, in a half-sleep, dreaming all night that my sleeping position was controlled by a computer screen which I kept playing with in the hope that I’d finally get comfortable. At 7, Y came to wake me. He has slept like a baby he said. “Will you come back to the hammock tonight? ” I asked. “I don’t think so.” So much for the romance of the hammock.
The cabin with its humidity stains, soiled mattresses and pillows resembles a prison cell. A coat of paint would do it good.
As for the communal women’s toilet, separated from the rest of the ship with bars and nothing else, it’s a reunion site for washing dishes and clothes, gossiping and splashing water all about while a few men, conveniently parked in front, watch the action from behind the bars. Showers and toilets are in the same stall. No hook to hang your things. No waste basket. Nothing but the toilet bowl and a pipe coming out of the ceiling. Taking a shower is quite the adventure, particularly if you don’t care to touch the floor. You gingerly put a leg under the trickle, then another and try to slosh the water around to finish the job not quite satisfactorily.
It’s raining this morning. Isn’t it supposed to be the dry season?
We slowly pass by tiny villages or isolated houses on stilts with thatched roofs, a little corn field or rice paddy, no electricity.
The water is chocolate milk, the shores violent green above ripped out banks in various layers of ocher and red. The leap of a pink dolphin or the white silhouette of a heron occasionally break the monotony of the brown silk ribbon.
29 July – Still aboard the Eduardo X and entering (eventually) the Río Marañon.
Shortly after stopping briefly in the village of Lagunas, we became stranded on a sandbar. Barely lit, the village offered a surrealistic scene with women clambering down the steep shore to climb aboard and sell their wares: churros, oranges, tamales, popcorn.
In the morning, the boat hasn’t moved yet. We’re not even halfway through to Iquitos and it’s unlikely we’ll get there within the planned 48 hours.
Tried to sleep in the hammock again, but no matter how I swaddled myself, I got cold, kept losing my blankets and getting hit on the head by various objects that I had stacked in my hammock, deeming them essential to my comfort. At 1 am, I went to sleep in the cabin.
The sun rose, a pale halo in the fog. Much discussion and little hope is in the air. Time has stopped, no communication from the crew.
Breakfast: some milky, thickish, cinnamony, mystery drink and buttered bread.
Do I hear an engine? A definite effort there. There might be hope.
Not. The boat is desperately nibbling at the shore that fritters away bit by bit into the muddy river.
It looks like we finally managed to get away, only to get stuck again on another sand bank, this one in the middle of the river. The case seems desperate: it took a dozen peasants to try and tug the cable, over and over again. With much encouragement from the boat, they finally manage to get us away from the coast, back towards Yurimaguas for a while to turn around and head for our destination.
At 18 km per hour, if all goes well, we might make Yurimaguas-Iquitos in 4 days rather than two. But what’s the rush?
Food is a bit of an issue. Mucho cilantro!!! Chicken, rice, plantain and potatoes. Fodder.
And that’s the first class fare for us sissies in the cabin. On the lower level, people queue with their bowl where some sort of soup, chicken I gather, is ladled in for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
After dusk, we landed briefly to embark more passengers. A village must have been hidden behind the muddy embankment but that’s all that could be seen from the boat. The scene, violently lit by a projector aimed from the boat, evoked a bedouin encampment or refugees fleeing a natural disaster in a surrealistic and painterly chiaroscuro.
Around 10 pm, we stopped again. I didn’t go see but could hear pigs ashore protesting vehemently. Let’s hope they’re not coming aboard, the boat is already overloaded and you can’t make your way to the bathroom anymore without being brushed by someone’s foot or elbow. Same thing in the hammock, as more passengers got on – including the pig – hammocks started to be hung so close together that you might as well be sharing it with your neighbor for all the kicking and elbowing you get. My neighbor happens to be a very spastic ten-year old.
30 July – Still on the Eduardo X
I suspect our cabin neighbor to be a pedophile. He’s a pudgy Madrilene who drinks alone in his cabin, sings early in the morning and prowls at night in search of little girls. From my hammock I heard: “Casse-toi connard!” ( F… off, you a…h…!) The following morning, Pauline, one of the two French girls on board explained that he had been bothering a little girl. When she told him to stop, he hit her hard on the arm. Afterwards, he kept to himself except for doling out candies to unsuspecting girls. I told them to stay away from him.
We arrived in Nauta in the afternoon. It is an exodus, the boat empties itself as the mosquitoes, absent until now, suddenly embarked. Most people get off here and take a cab to Iquitos, about 70 km downstream. On the upper deck, there is only the two of us and the two French girls left. Maybe 20 or some hammocks left on the lower deck, the pig, a tuk-tuk and a cement mixer. It’ s 7:30pm and they are still unloading. I don’t know if we’ll get our dinner ration tonight…