This is a long post and I suggest the reader find a nice cup of Tension Tamer tea, a quiet place, and only then venture on the voyage found in the following pages. You have been forwarned. Avast!
Florence and I went to the market this morning and bought the necessary items for our respective journeys. His is the logical next step from Iquitos, the gateway to Brazil: a three day journey to the border town of Tabatinga. I, on the other hand, was doubling back on my route back south to Cusco and then on to Bolivia. We bought hammocks and ties, plastic bowls, utensils, flashlight. And water.
We are, of course, to be on a river which has plent of water. But as the ship also has bathrooms and the products of those bathrooms get dumped in the river, I concluded that I would need five days of water. I decided on 10 liters, fhat our 2.5 liter bottles.
Florence and I got a mototaxi to the docks where we had inquired earlier. Almost there it appeared as if there were a group of protesters spilling into the roadway. As we neared they began screaming at us “Pucallpa! Pucallpa!” and I began to realize that they were boat tauts, no more and no less than the the guy on the Lima buses who screams the route to, somehow, drum up business from people who thought they wanted to walk. I asked the driver and he said that there were two boats leaving tonight for Pucallpa but the food was better on the one we’d just seen because it was cooked by women. He also told me it was cheaper. Both facts turned out to be blatant lies intended to get more fare from us for my return journey back to the first dock.
We dropped Florence off and he and I bid eachother a fond “adieu” and I returned to the other dock. The taxi driver charged an additional price for our short return journey (3.5 soles) but had to wait while I got change by buying my ticket. The ticket cost about $22 for 5 days, including food. Unfortunately my change was returned to me as two 5 sole coins, which meant I had to rely on the driver to give me more change. He promptly decided that his time waiting for his increased fare was worth more than he’d thought and changed his price to 4 soles. I glared at him until he gave me another 20 centavos in change and then ran for the door.
It’s ironic that I should care about so little money but somehow it comes down to “principle”, had he quoted 5 soles in the beginning and stuck to it that would have been fine but the idea of changing prices because I am a gringo is upsetting to me and puts me in the position of haggling over 50 cents every time I buy something.
After my friend, the mototaxi driver escaped with an extra 15 cents, I wondered bewhildered up the flight of stairs leading to the second and middle floor of the boat, wondering if I ought to set up my hammock now or later. I finished clunking up the stairs with my 4 bottles of water I was greeted by a humming beehive of activity.
There were hammocks everywhere, old men, women, babies, kids, people of every shape and size imaginable. Among these hammocks kids flitted about selling products ñole bowls, soap, water, soft drinks, and home cooked meals for unprepared travellers while families hauled their worldy possessions about the large cabin. The occupancy of the boat said 250 but with the “bring your own hammock” policy I was sure no one was counting. In my bewhilderment I heeded the advice of everyone I had spoken to which was “pretty much every place on the boat is the same”, which turns out to be a complete lie, and I chose a place directly above the furnace and next to the kitchen, bar, and the only garbage I saw on the ship. The garbage can turned out to be the cleanest place on the ship as no one uses garbage cans in Peru. For our nonrecyclable items there is the river or, better, the floor of the cabin. The smell of raw, market-bought chicken pervaded the air, as did the five songs that get repeated over and over at every discotech. Luckily on board the Don Segundo the CDs were so scratched that you only had to listen to half the song.
At first I was worried this might not be enough but once on the boat I was happy I did not spring for the 6 bottle pack as the eager young water salesman suggested because just as I was beginning to realize that I was losing about one liter of water every hour from sweating in the 90 degree humidity I opened my first water bottle and heard the familiar “hhssssss” of sparkling mineral water, which is packaged exactly like still water, or as they like to call it “water without gas”. It is as if on the third day God Almighty first seperated land from the gaseous water and only later seperated regular carbonated water from it’s redheaded stepchild “gas-less water”.
I turns out gaseous or no, almost no one else brought water. To this day I do not know how Peruvians drink it, probably in the privacy of their own homes. In public they stick to juice, soft drinks and beer. If they do drink water then it’s the cursed carbonated water. I hoped to find some poor Peruvian who had, by some mistake, bought still water so that I could trade them, perhaps at a profit.
It only took me a couple of hours to realize the error of my ways and, though I hated to appear as if I were leaving my neighborhood with delusions of upward mobility, I bid a silent goodbye to my neighbors and slunk off to the front of the boat and crept into small space between two hammocks far from the noise and heat of the engine, which rocked the whole boat.
I then had an hour or so of reading my book before the typical getting to know you chit chat started up. On my right side was David, studying to take the university entrance exam in a private school and on my left was Jarden and Lucy, two penniless lovers who dreamed of travel but had no money. They go from city to city, visiting family and trying to save for the next onward ticket.
As I set up my hammock I noticed a girl of 20 or so years more tickled than most at the new addition to the neighborhood. Every move I made, tying my knots which made me nervous and I ended up tying them loosely. As we drifted off to sleep I notieced that this girl had no hammock and my neighbors told me semi-jokingly that she wanted to sleep with me. I glanced over in disconfirm this rumor only to find an unequivicable statement of affirmation on the girl’s face.
After talking for some time we slept as we could and woke up with the sun, around 6am. There was various movement as people went about their morning ablutions and then all of a sudden a man started banging loudly on a pot and within seconds the air become electric: we rushed with our tupperware towards the kitchen. Breakfast turned out to be Quaker (pronounced QUAH-KERR) which is Quaker Oats, very thin with condensed milk and water. Very sweet, and with some stale bread: delicious.
After breakfast we became more jovial. I offered my cards up and they became popular immediately. We played on teams and my team lost famously until I figured out that folks on the boat actually knew American style Casino and that I knew the strategy.
Far from the lonesome voyage down the solitary undergrowth, somtimes pushing fallen trees aside while dodging anacondas and unfriendly indians with blowdarts. Instead I’m playing games called “punch” and “dirty ass” with new friends while drinking Bimbo Break Lemon Lime Soda.
After this I passed the time writing, reading, and talking. I tried to read my Lonely Planet but it is like reading a phone directory for Disneyland so mostly I spent my time talking. Everyone likes to talk to the foreigner and everyone knows someone in the United States. Who knows if they actually do but they sure like to talk about it. They like to hear about my journey and differences in culture.
Also I have become more culturally prepared for the food sharing. I am careful not to offer things I want to keep for once something has entered into the community it belongs to community and is there to come and go as the members of the community wish. For instance, I offered my sleeping bag to one girl the other night and the next night she offered it to my neighbors, Jarden and Lucy. Also with precious soda: once one other person takes a sip of it it might pass the lips of the other 248 passengers before it returns to the original owner. But still, it’s worth it. Despite the fact that I am now the one buying drinks for everyone, I am pleased. At least people seem to have their own stories, own agendas, and not looking to get drinks from the rich gringo tourist.
I am the only gringo on the boat for five days and no one speaks a lick of English except for the occasional “Thankyou noproblem” which is followed by giggling at the use of a different language.
The days aboard the boat are divided up by meals. Lunch was typically rice, noodles, a very small piece of chicken (like a beak or a leg), and a dozen beans. Dinner was even better: chicken soup, minus the chicken. They do not serve drinks and, water being expensive ($1 a liter) no one really brought any. With good cause I began to see the writing on the wall: on day three the drink line was going to form around me and I remembered the best training manual I could have ever read: Tortilla Flats by John Steinbeck.
There are people who are happy that everyone shares for they have nothing. What a windfall to this culture I must be and while there is something to be said for the respect of private property, there is also something uncomfortable about having more and not sharing, asking those with less to sit and watch you enjoy your happy life. There’s something anti-community in, though at the same time I think respect of one’s “betters” and their wealth seems to be a cornerstone of society. Still, it’s interesting and refreshing having to rethink my bounderies, learning to keep that which is Ceaser’s unto Caeser and also asking myself who really needs these things more: me or the others around me. All private property is theft from the community and it is ironic that we feel this idea of loss most when our own private property leaves us and is distributed among the community, among those who want or need it more.
By lunchtime my enamorada had invited me to hear her sing at church and gazed at me with a look that could only mean she had the names of our first five children already worked out and that I would have to hurry if I wanted some say in the names of the second half of our family.
By now we had settled into a comfortable routine of playing cards and talking, broken every so often by Jarden turning up with new alcoholic drinks he had liberated from another “neighborhood”.
One of them, translated to “7 deadly sins” – essentially an alcoholic aphrodesiac that is “guaranteed to give you an erection” could well be the official drink of the jungle. All alcoholic drinks in the jungle seem to be aphrodesiacs. They are sold in the market, not the stores and all have names like “Breaking the Panties” or “Losing the Virginity” or something like that. They are all made from trees and are homebrews marred by no brand names. They are sold in markets by old women who probably ought to know better.
I now learn my Spanish in themes of conversation, much like the chapters in a Spanish textbook. I traded card games until late into the night with two twenty year old “boys” who ran their own business selling clothes. They explained words like “profit”, “investment”, and “factory mistake”. They would travel from Lima to Iquitos and back, selling their clothing to very small villages at a 150% profit. But even this outrageous markup, they explained, was the market price as the cost of travel to these villages is prohibitive. Many times they would only break even. But, if the reader chooses to browse the photo section of the blog, he will find that on this boat ride the rural villagers living in towns accessable only by boat wore new clothing only a few months behind that of Lima. I was very impressed by these boys and they were so impressed by my impression that one of them gave me a clipon reggae earring that he claimed to have made by hand.
Tired and interested in how it felt to sleep in a hammock I decided to retire. After one failed attempt which left me sitting on the floor I successfully entered the thing, pulled up my sarong over my body for a sheet and mosquito protection, and drifted off to sleep.
PART 2: Fiesta on the 4th Floor