A column of workers, their shoulders curbed with sacs of cement, stepped through the wet mud at the riverbank, leaving thousands of foot imprints in the smelly clay. Around the corner they disappeared in a hole of the bleached, blue-painted hull of the river bulk carrier ‘El Padrino.’
I had to shield my eyes from the blazing sun, as I looked up. Above, on the railing, leaned ‘El Capitan.’ An elderly man in his sixties, short pants, he smiled at us, the travelers from afar.
“I have no clue when we will be leaving,” he said. “Ask the workers. They will finish loading the cargo soon. Once the cargo is complete in the main ship, and the four barges, we are ready to go. I can’t give you much hope, so. Normally we don’t take passengers at all. Once, we had cabins with beds and shower onboard. But now most of them are in tatters. Go to our agency in town, and try to persuade the ship owner!”
It was February 1979. My friend Helge and I had arrived over the Peruvian mountains from Lima, in an exhausting bus trip that took twenty-two hours. Now we were caught stranded in Pucalpa, a little town and harbor located at the upper Ucayali River, from where cargo boats sail down to the isolated jungle cities of Iquitos and Manaus.
Pucalpa was nothing but a small, shabby industrial hub, surrounded by shantytown streets. We had already spent two nights in town, trying in vain to hire on the few ships scheduled to leave downriver. There were no passenger boats. We were desperate to leave.
The ship owner’s agency was just a few minutes of energetic walking away. We were lucky to find the boss behind his desk. He was a short, robust man in his early fifties, and friendliness didn’t seem to be part of his business philosophy.
“No more foreign passengers on my boats,” he shouted with an angry voice to my modest request. “Last month, we shipped a bunch of young French tourists. These were nothing but trouble. They complained about everything, food, accommodation, and mosquitoes, whatever. True, our food may be somewhat monotonous and not quite French Cuisine. Our cabins are simple, without comfort, and without French beds. We also have little entertainment to offer. In brief, you won’t like it.”
“We won’t complain,” I said, and tried to persuade the captain in the most eloquent language I could dream up. “First, we are geologists and geographers, not just ‘turistas’. We study your beautiful country, and plan to work in the copper mines. We are also ready to help out on the boat, if this should be necessary...”
A hawkish smile appeared on the manager’s faces, and the glow of a golden tooth.
“Pay twenty-five dollars each to my accountant. Perhaps you are better than French. Go.”
At the harbor, the Padrino was about to pull anchors. Happily we boarded the vessel, dumped our belongings in our unusable cabin with broken cots, and sat up on the deck with the joyful feeling in our hearts that two weeks of wonder lay ahead.
At three the captain horned the sirens. The boat vibrated. Scary black diesel clouds were injected into the blue afternoon sky. Vortexes appeared in the brownish water, as the boat pushed into the river. Hundreds of villagers stood at the muddy riverbanks and observed the spectacle with great attention. As we regained the main current, their figures became smaller and smaller. Then we turned with the river bend. Suddenly there was nothing but the noise of the engine, the hissing voices of the jungle that flanked the meandering river full of murky, yellow water.