March 20, 2013 |
I´ve been hoboing cargo boats around the Amazon for three weeks, and the other morning found me on another jungle riverbank with my thumb out in a light rainstorm flagging a ride. Sunrise is the prime time to hitch rides because Peruvians, including fishermen and captains, are early risers to beat the heat of the day on everything from motorized canoes to fat old tugs and triple deck launches. This morning the rain quits after two hours, I tear off the rain jacket to greet another gorgeous sun blazed day, and a 20´ canoe swings from mid-stream on the Rio Huallaga right up to my waterproof boots.
´Ahoy!´ hails the stout captain grasping my hand in an iron fist to pull in closer.
I climb aboard with my ´house´, a 30lb backpack that I tell the captain contains a wife and dog to break the ice of seeing a white face.
He laughs, and it´s that simple… I´m bobbing downriver to destination unknown.
But this is a special ride in duration and clientele for the sole paying passenger is an architect who has contracted the captain at the expense of the Peruvian government to convey us on the Huallaga to the mouth of the Rio Nucaya, and up it to the high jungle pueblo called Progresso to put the finishing touches on a new schoolhouse. Virtually every Amazon pueblo is built on a river, as most of the early American frontier boom towns were set on railroads to transport settlers and goods.
The slim hand hewn canoe slices the water powered by a 13.5hp Mercury motor with an 8´´ blade mounted at the end of a 10´shaft on a pivot that is effortlessly lifted out the water every ten minutes above plant and log jettison of a recent storm. The river is at peak crest some ten vertical feet higher than will be seen in the coming summer months of low water.
The pecapeca putts down the Huallaga, and veers up the lesser Rio Nucaya until sunset with little river traffic except monkeys and storks on the banks, and, at dusk, alligator eyes pop out like red cigarette lights where one judges their lengths- one to six meters- by the distance between the dots. There are also unseen 250lb jaguars and 10-meter boas that won´t bother the boat at 5mph up the narrowing stream any more than a billions skeeters who can´t be bothered.
An hour before the following sunrise the canoe rams the mud bank of upriver Progresso and we wrap in tarps on the boat bottom against mosquito clouds to nap until the village wakes up. Malaria is rampant deep in the jungle but is endured- a few weak die young- and dismissed as lightly as the American common cold. Our snores are cut short by a rooster´s crow and the rasp of brushing teeth around the canoe. A smiling native explains that only the men brush before breakfast, ´To wash the fish taste out of our mouths.´
The captain and architect climb off to visit the new primary school that is color coded blue to identify the river Nucaya to lost Peruvian Air Force pilots to land on pontoons. Each of thousands of like pueblos with their government provided schoolhouses and generators is laid out in a town square that is always a soccer field with one side on the water. Games start after school and when it gets hot a good kick into the river is the excuse to swim. Every Amazon child has fins, and some of the fish have feet. At one end in Progresso the rickety stick soccer goal is incorporated into the town outdoor church platform with a few folding chairs and pulpit carved from a tree stump.
One of the villagers invites me into his thatched home on stilts that his wife sweeps clean of chickens, piglets and children for an adult conversation, and breakfast of fish and platanos. Peru is rich in four resources: gold seen in the teeth of city dwellers, yucca in the swollen stomachs of kids, fish from the rivers, and platano bananas on virtually every high jungle farm. I have been eating fish, platano and yucca for breakfast, lunch and dinner for three weeks, and can´t complain. In thirty minutes another villager knocks, and yokes me to his adjacent hut for coffee, and later another villager until I have completed the infield. They mostly like to talk mostly about Obama, Hollywood and automobiles. The town generator provides electricity four hours nightly to a TV in every hut, and the natives know more about Mickey Mouse and US politics than Americans.
The average family has ten children, and the smallest I was invited into had a young wife of six years marriage with eight children. The sex ratio is about 3:2 girls to boys, and on asking mothers why, the stock answer is; ‘Of course!´ I am convinced these children have never smelled flatulence, heard a sneeze, or seen white skin except on TV. They seem amazed in their colorful world at my pigmentless bark and approach singly or in pairs, stop just short of my shoes, stare thoughtfully into my eyes for long moments, and run off tittering to show and tell their playmates. Bold ones practice their English, ‘What are you from?’, and one tyke eyed my bloomer shorts hung on suspenders like a barrel around a cartoon hobo´s midriff, and asked, ‘What is your name, Mr. Shorts?’ Soon a small troop followed me around the soccer field like the Piper practicing their multiplication tables.
Amazonians are among the world´s most hardy people from centuries of geographic isolation, as well as the selective breeding practices of infanticide of the sickly, raiding villages for female breeding stock, killing males of the neighbor tribes except the strongest young to adopt as their own, and malaria with other jungle ravages. The genetics of self-sufficiency have evolved solidly over the centuries. As one hobos further and further away from the major waterways and up distant tributaries, the people grow wilder looking, own their own dialects, their clothes grow rattier with hand-me-down hand-me-downs from the lower reaches, the women shed tops, the kids turn naked, and the apus or shamans look like they drink blood. I always turn around at this point rather than risk verifying reports of Peruvian soldiers roasted and eaten on the spit.
The jungle children love school- I’ve asked hundreds-because they say they like to study. All can read, write and do math on a par with USA kids, but a Peruvian´s education stops after primary school to work the family field or business, for all but the rare parents who can afford to send their privileged kids days away to a city secondary school.
However their schooling begins at home. They are put through early rigors that rival a monastery with a years´ long rite of passage from the birth canal into the sticky, mosquito infested forest. While American children are dropped into cribs with all the bells and whistles to stimulate their attention, jungle babies take the opposite turn. For one year the Amazon babe is at mother’s breast; about year two he is placed on the hut platform lip over swirling piranha infested water and if he falls in the gene pool strengthens; the next year he watches it rain; and the fourth observes the rise and fall of the river. Next he watches the bananas grow and bunch for a year on the family farm, and finally about year six he is handed a sharp machete and learns the rhythmic swing left and right of the jungle. He is an automation with a physical mind pulsing low on the brain stem, and his rock body is impervious to mosquitoes, rain, cold and sun. Nothing ruptures his daily trance… except each evening at 6pm the shout, ‘Lights!’ raises the roofs and an old man somewhere cranks each town generator and millions of household TVs burst to life and are tuned to cartoons, news and American movies. The trances are destroyed like the earth pathogens did in the Martians in H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds. They sleep it off, and are reborn robots the next morning. The bumper stickers on their canoes and boats would cut to the chase of three jungle philosophies: There is no meaning in life except what you invent; it´s a dog-eat-dog world; and death is nothing.
Everywhere I arrive in the Amazon the first few hours my name is ´Gringo´ as Blondie in The Good, Bad and Ugly; a few hours later the more respectful ´Senor´; then the more familiar ´Mister´; and finally by the last hut in Progresso I am called ´Hobo´. Yet it´s whispered always in Latin America behind the back, ´Gringo´, the Ugly American that must be lived with.
All around the soccer field/town square a procession is taking place. This is the harvest season! From Britain to Canada and USA, China to India, the Caribbean, Russia and wherever people plant and eat crops the harvest festivals are celebrated by assorted work and rituals. In America it is called Thanksgiving. However, nowhere in the world is the land so fecund and harvest as bountiful as in the upriver pueblos of the Amazon. The organically rich black water of Rio Nucaya has promised for one year many and large fish, animals and the cash crop food staple bananas to Progresso.
Today in Progresso from the vantage of nearly every hut on town square I have witnessed a parade of men, women and youth carrying banana bunches from the jungle edge to the river bank, and stack carefully into a 20-meter canoe that sags lower into the water. At noon, it is stuffed beam to beam and six-feet high with bananas. A middle-age man who has been keeping a ledger of dozens of contributors to the load stuffs the sheet in his pocket, dons a white baseball cap, and as two sons struggle with five gallon gasoline containers, I leap off a wooden stool, out the window and jog a few meters to ask for a ride. He hands me a funnel, we fill the pecapeca tank, and as the engine kicks and warms we scale to the top of banana mountain. High on the boat center he points down a 4´ diameter hole at my berth on the floorboards. I skinny down the well with a gallon pail and became a working hobo on a banana boat.
Deep in the well I ponder bananas. There is the banana and platano, with no biological distinction between the two, both known by the botanical name Musa. The banana has yellow skin and is sweeter, a desert, while the green skinned starchier platano, a cooking banana, was today´s chips with fish. Each Progresso family owns a 100-meter banana garden that he has hacked from the jungle, a private square hemmed from others in an agricultural checkerboard by a narrow fence of uncut trees. The farm trails double as wood gathering and hunting paths, and in the summer months (July through September) a walking hobo may adventure in Jurassic Park for weeks connecting villages and rivers and relying on the natives for food, shelter and guides.
The biography or a platano patch is that a young family heads out to the jungle and judges a fertile spot by the resident fauna. The forest is cleared for a 100-meter square, seedling platano trees planted, weekly weeding trips, and nature fertilizes and waters. Each tree after one year produces one bunch of 60-100 bananas that weighs 25- 50lbs. One tree produces annually for three years before running out of steam, and then is burned to ashes to fertilize new seedlings. Unlike other world harvests, the banana season runs all year so, like staggered certificates of deposit, the bank of trees may be harvested anytime. Earlier today the three-inch stems were cut, hundreds of bunches caught, and carried to town. Each bunch sells at a big city market for about $10, so a plot of a ten trees affords a family $100. This banana canoe is a $2000 load.
The captain shouts, ´See you in a week!´ as we pull from Progresso. My head pops out the well like Kllroy at a dozen investors cheering a safe journey, the captain waves the ledger with gravity, and as if by afterthought someone tosses a cardboard box to me that I catch and feel a scratching within. The captain yells, ´If you like it, you can buy it for $40 to pay for gas.´
A minute later as the boat stalls around the first bend, I hear, ´$20…´ and open the box. A month old animal blinks in the sunlight, and crawls up my arm to sniff the platanos. ´Hello, Uncle Sam,´ I say.
The Sacha Vaca or Amazon Cow looks like a runt deer with an anteater´s long snout and the keen mind of Arnold the pig of Green Acres. It is a proper tapir and frequent household pet eating when young like the dickens, and growing to 250lbs. This baby at 15lbs. is the size of a small cat with tawny fur and yellow lightning bolts down the sides of the neck. Fantastic swimmers, Sam loves splashing in the water well and looks up quizzically when I bail it dry. Today the Amazon tapir is considered endangered.
The bottom board seams leak water around my feet at the rate of five gallons every thirty minutes, and if I fall asleep for an hour the captain knows by the sway at the keel that I’m slack and screams, ´Heave to, gringo!´
It rains, the sun shines, I urinate on my feet to keep them from freezing, and dive deep into the well to escape the equator elements. We pause once to cut giant 5´x2´ tree leaves to umbrella the roasting bananas. To kill time between bails I rub Sam´s chin and he nudges back, and as he nibbles them I estimated the number of banana bunches aboard at 200 for a total three ton cargo.
The captain receives no commission except a week´s paid vacation from his own platano farm, and is chosen because as a youth he visited and remembers the Iquitos marketplace, plus the $500 new motor is his. He will guide the load, sell at the market, and return in a week to disperse the community bank. The business is being repeated now a thousand times over with crop varieties such as yucca, corn, agave and mangos, that makes an American hobo´s life sweet in the Amazon.
The motor is another 13.5hp pecapeca mounted at the end of a 12´ shaft which on a pivot is easily lifted to swing 360-degrees to propel and steer the craft. The pilot´s view of the river is blocked by bunches, but two young sons are his eyes, one perched on the stack directly in front of him to relay hand signals from the other sitting on the bow looking out for floating vines and logs that might choke the motor. They are learning the ropes and, one day will step into Captain Bananas´ boots as the trusted town bankers.
They live in a water world. The spare five-gallon gas containers are sufficient at two downriver hours per gallon for the fifteen hour voyage, and my gallon pail enough except when it rains buckets. To this moment when the captain cursed, ´Gringo!´ I believe the motor runs out of gas rather than myself as the engine sputters out and the 5mph current carries us crashing a hundred meters into the flooded plain tugging vines and knocking over saplings until perhaps by sheer weight of a carpet of insects the bow comes to rest on in the crotch of a four-story tree. The sheepish captain stains bugs out of the gas and fills the tank, swivels the rotor into reverse, and we pull vines and push trees back onto the main stream.
The water world has special physics, and you first hear the whistle of wind at the top of the well, and like a thousand drums the patter of raindrops sweeps from behind and catches the canoe. Someone yells ´Here she blows!´ but by now everyone has stripped to his underwear to weather the storm. While the well offers protection from all but the vertical drops, Sam does an ankle deep jig and I bail around him like crazy as the rate of leak climbs to 10 gallons every thirty minutes. Three lags in this strange world occur. Behind the boat, miles away, a tsunami slowly builds as the feeders of the Nucaya hurry and raise the water five feet in an hour. If you walk in the jungle the raindrops don´t touch you for thirty minutes until the canopy begins to drip. Finally, in fifteen minutes the bananas that have caught the brunt of the rain begin to drip and the boat is in danger of capsizing with the water near the inner lip of the canoe as well as reflecting waves off the bank battering the outer rim.
The downpour lasts an hour, sunlight follows for a few hours, before a new check of cumulonimbus covers us and the pattern repeats. By some meteorological quirk it doesn’t rain much at night. The tapir being mainly nocturnal has buried its head in the palm of my hand during sunshine, and at night wades around my feet and cocks its young ears at the calls of friends and enemies of the jungle- the howl of the cougar, love croak of a dozen species of frogs, and chorus of millions of insects as deafening as Times Square at midnight. The bow mate swings a AA flashlight back and forth signaling the banana beleaguered captain of snags ahead, while the second mate sleeps. A full moon helps with glimpses of the Southern Cross through the shore canopy.
The occasional yellow kerosene lights in windows of riverbank huts vanish at once signaling a curious transition of river elevation. The entire Amazon is divided into high jungle that is dry except for storms, and low jungle that is flooded all year from winter rains and spring Andes snowmelt (except three short summer months). In traveling up a river to the Andes foothills, at a certain point the land wins over the water and finally offers a purchase for life. However, on the lower reaches of the same river there is no ground to build houses, plant gardens and hike trails to hunt because for about nine months of the year a nearly 30’ vertical river rise overruns the banks into a floodplain that extends a few hundred meters to a mile of inland swamps and lakes. Already the stream beneath our banana boat is widening to a hundred meters and the current diminishes to 3mph in approaching the river mouth.
High and low land expounds the human history of the jungle. The earliest settlers paddled up rivers until they found land to walk, build and plant on. It was fertile and attracted more pioneers for resource and company. The town grew to a point of mutual diminishing return at about twenty huts, and the more enterprising families struck out inland or upriver to start new lives at fresh sites. As the towns spread and grew across the Amazon, a communal field on the waterline became the blueprint around which the huts were constructed in a U with the river completing the fourth side of the square. Goals were thrown up when soccer arrived, but the fields still double as the market and gathering place. If, by a long shot, the pueblo grew into a city then the town square became a plaza around which lovers court and the elderly sit and think whatever Peruvians ponder.
At the mouth, the pueblo called simply Mouth, Peru has experienced growing pains because it lies in a nearly constant state of flood. A half-dozen ramshackle huts on ten feet stilts where the Nucaya slams into the Marinon glance a half-mile across the mouth at each other. If there is a soccer field it is an underwater game. We land at dawn over the flooded front yard at the front steps of the town store. I climb out the well with Sam snuggly in a pocket, and we walk into the doorless shop hailing, ´ Buenas Dias!´ The wood walled, thatched hut on a ten-meter bamboo slat platform is sectioned by palm dividers into a tiny bedroom for the owner, a wire mesh cubicle off the living room stacked with evaporated milk, biscuits, soap, funnels, pails, mosquito and fish nets, string, and a few bottles of soda, and a kitchen with a 5´-square 2´ deep sandbox with at the center a firepit, and already water a-boil for coffee. A narrow plank surrounds the island hut with a bucket on a rope that is cast five feet down to backyard water. Laundry and bathroom are performed from the same roost making the backyard coffee ´strong´.
´Buenas Dias!´ announces an ancient senora swaying out the kitchen. She pours coffee all around and exits to the perimeter plank to pull up a 4´ wide, 30´ long fishnet that is used for volleyball at land´s end. A dozen fish in various stages of dying are caught by the gills and fins in the net, and she nimbly detaches and dispatches them with a conk on the hut side, except an Amazon delicacy, the Carahama, which she releases live into a bucket of water, and removes two with the jab of a fork for the breakfast skillet. The 1´-2´ Carahama looks like a cross between a Catfish and Tyrannosaurus Rex with an exoskeleton armor and sucker mouth making it a vegetarian. It has gills but also breathes atmospheric oxygen and can walk days between water holes. When served nearly boneless, as it has three meals running a day for three weeks, it tastes and has the texture of good American beef.
It is determined during breakfast that our canoe is too small to negotiate the brimming Marinon, so I am freed to hobo another boat. I stand on the front steps under the rising sun trying to flag distant crafts. In an hour, I sit with my feet dangling in the water with the ducks and read the final chapter of Leonard Moseley´s marvelous Disney´s World. On the last page I look up over the floodplain and feel as if I know and so thank Walt for introducing me as a nine-year old to JungleLand in Anaheim, California. Who would have thought…
A senora my age paddles up for sugar and asks my country, job and marital status. Satisfied, she presents her teen daughter, asking, ‘Would you like a wife?’ The pretty bewildered girl blushes at the prospect, and a younger man could do worse in this world than marry, settle and raise a baker’s dozen Peruvians teaching them the word of the book and edge of a machete.
In a while, a 10-meter balsa raft with a full family and load of yucca and corn for the Iquitos market drifts by. It is constructed of thirty balsas laid side-by-side with a half dozen cross logs to secure them, and a bamboo slat platform with a tarp lean-to, cooking fire, family of six, barking dog and jumping monkey. At 1mph and steered by 3´-wide paddles on either side, it will reach Iquitos in about a week, but the family will return in style from the sales up the Rio Nucaya in a used pecapeca canoe which will secure their future.
Soon, a ten year old build like Lou Ferrigno who smells like chlorophyll paddles to the store for salt and asks if I am lost. I require him to name the nearest species of trees, birds and insects, and he looks around in one breath and names about twenty. So I hire him for a dollar an hour on a guided tour into the floodplain. Colored saucer butterflies flit for an hour through mangrove roots to a cocha, or lake, where a pink dolphin jumps and he avows it is safe to swim because the 6-meter crocodiles are sleeping in subsurface burrows through the heat of the day.
Back at the store, Sam is crawling beneath the bug nets and licking the toes of the giggling banana crew. Pleased at my smile, they say, ´Your ship has arrived!´ In the Peruvian mind there is now, not then or the future. Word is out via the water grapevine that a downriver launch will arrive quickly, and a celebration feast is planned with the senora already banging pots and pans.
I return to a post back on the front steps awaiting dinner or the boat, whichever comes first. The strategy of hoboing river craft is the same as the American hobo on the freights except in the Amazon you try to be seen rather than duck out of sight. The pulsing motion and flow of scenery is similar, with adventures and escape around each bend, where on rock ballast or muddy shore the only downside is waiting between rides. On shore, the standard signal is to bellow, which is heard up to a quarter-mile over a small engine. Splashing water such as jumping jacks is seen from a half-mile. The universal flapping white shirt, or in my case the light side of a reversible windbreaker, draws a boat from the far bank of a three-quarter mile river such as the Marinon, or a mile if standing in front of a dark backdrop such as a copse of bushes or dark wooden hut. As the craft closes in you may switch to wave a dollar bill. At night you waggle a flashlight.
I consider Sam, and the kittens in pockets and dogs on leashes I have known as an American hobo along the steel roads. For $20 I could have a road chum, and ride him to boats like Flipper when he gets older. But ´Supper!´ is the call. It is rare and savory, honest to god rice and a chunk of meat on a shared plate. The Banana Captain delicately puts a piece of meat on my rice, as the two lads toast, ´A rich piece of meat for the Gringo.´ The skull bone is so thin it crunches like a chip and the fat oozes between my teeth and down the chin.
I think to offer some to my pal. ´Where is Sam.´ I ask.
The captain blanches, ´He died.´
´How?´ The captain rubs his thin belly.
I gag, and rush from the table out the door to the steps, and stand for hours splitting and flagging until the fat old tug Vargas laden with yucca and mangos chugs up and bottoms out on the front yard. A gangplank nearly catches my temple. I stroll aboard taking a piece of Sam with me, grinning, and breaking wind on the bow of another riverboat wondering where I’ll land.
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