Taking the Slow Boat Down the Peruvian Amazon
While traveling to research the book I was writing, I drove my motorcycle aboard a rusty cargo ship and settled in for trip from Iquitos to Pucallpa. Little did I know that this journey, which usually takes four days, would take nine days to complete. Here are some highlights from the adventure.
Day 1: False start, still at the port
“Boom, and we’re off. This boat’s like a bullet, we’ll be flying to Pucallpa in no time,” said the captain when I approached the ship.
I bought my ticket, rolled my motorcycle aboard, and then I made a quick dash to town in order to stock up on last-minute provisions: food to supplement the low-quality meals to be served for breakfast, lunch, and dinner; a hammock; a role of plastic to lay on while not lounging or sleeping in my hammock; and art supplies with the boat's many children.
Day 2: It's gonna be a long ride, and why are we still at port?
“Yes it’s true,” the cook tells me, “we're on the cheap slow boat. The trip's gonna take 6 days, not 4 like the rest of the passing ships.”
I spent the day moaping on on the boats top deck while watching the other cargo ships rocket past us.
Day 3: Initiating daily art classes with children
I was glad that I stocked up on art supplies before boarding the ship, because I quickly found out that there were more children aboard than there adults, and they were obsessed with the only gringo. I wielded gadgets that some have never seen before: a compact tablet that I stared at for hours reading books, my charango, my solar panel usb charger, the camera and lenses, my inflatable backpacking mattress, the portable water purifier.
But when I pulled out the markers and paper, the children knew that it was time to start making lots of art. And the parents on the ship seemed relieved to be free of the responsibility of watching their children in the afternoons.
Day 4: Making friends with (everybody) along the way
We bounced from port to port, making stops every two hours at a different community along the way. The ship’s laborers unloaded mounds of soft drinks and toilet paper, and brought back wheel barrows full of dried fish. Other cargo ships continued zooming past us without making these stops along the way
Day 5: I made friends with the bridge crew
I sat through the evening with a crew member named Juan “the owl,” who was the night watch spotlight guy. He'd sit on a wobbly bench just outside of the ship’s cockpit, occasionally telling the captain “slow slow down!” while he scanned the diverging currents in order to sense where is the best channel. In one hand he held the floodlight, and in the other he fiddled with the car battery which powered the light. Beside us at the edge of the ship, Javiar stood at his post as the depth checker, which he did by repeatidly throwing a weight into the water attached by a string.
Day 6: The boat started falling apart
During a deeper inspection of our boat, I realized its flaws. The tarp on the roof that should be have been sturdy against the inevitable daily rain was frailed with gaping holes. There were no life jackets. In the main cabin, the designated sleeping area where we hung our hammocks, there was no way to escape the television on one side and the bone-rattling vibration of the engines directly below.
Day 7: One more day?
After the morning’s art class I held with the children, I did what I do best, and waited patiently. I sat with my legs crossed in meditation on the far end of the ship’s top deck. I knew I’d need a lot more patience, because we just found out that our arrival to Pucallpa was delayed yet again, because one of the two engines had broken, meaning that we were traveling at half speed.
Day 8: Weren’t we supposed to be there by now?
The previous day they promised that we'd get here today, but we didn't. And then they promised this this day would be the real day, but the ship broke down again. Despite this, the captain promised that we were only several hours away.
Day 9: Total breakdown. Abandon ship.
I woke up and expect to see ourselves docked at Pucallpa’s port. Instead, we were still ancored along the side of the river in the middle of nowhere. With curiosity of why we haden’t gotten there yet, I headed to the captain’s hut just when the boat’s crew were waking up.
“The waters are too shallow and it was too dangerous to pass at night. But don’t worry, we’re only three hours away,” said the captain who was in the middle of preparations for starting the ship.
Right before he turned the ship’s ignition, he added, “maybe we should have started calling this ship “Never… never to arrive,” which brought chuckles from the other crew members at knowing what a disaster this trip had been.
And then he struck the ignition. All of a sudden, black thick smoke started billowing from underneath the ship. A load screeching sound erupted as well. It turned out that the crew from the previous trip had emptied the engines’ oil but had forgotten to replace it.
As it was clear that our ship would be stranded for an unknown amount of time, I joined several other passengers in flagging down a passing motorized canoe in order to transport us on the final leg of our journey to Pucallpa.