We had spoken about crossing into Peru a bit different than most tourists and backpackers. Most travelers stick to the coast of Ecuador traveling by bus across the Ecuador-Peru border to the coastal town of Tumbes and on to Macora. However, there are other ways to cross the border, ways that Robert Frost would have written another poem about, this one being called "The River Less Traveled."
Taking a boat from Coca, Ecuador down the rio Napo to the Ecuador border town of Nuevo Rocafuerte, then a canoe from Rocafuerte across the Peruvian border town of Pantoja, THEN wait for a cargo ship to arrive from Iquitos, Peru and spend four to seven days crammed in a hammock like a sardine in a can with over one hundred other people. Maybe Robert Frost should stick to the woods of New England.
We said our sad goodbyes to our new family and friends in the Shuar community of Nantar and made our way north to the city of Coca. Coca is a not so nice, dirty city whose only purpose of existence is to support the flux of oil workers destroying the nearby Amazon forest drilling for petroleum. We happened to arrive for the end of Carnival, the multi-day festival of partying, water fights, silly string, flour and eggs and a free reason for men to chase down women and throw cold water over the front of their t-shirts. We walked around, had some beers and delicious street food and stopped at a grocery store to stock up on cans of tuna, sardines, crackers, water, cookies, toilet paper, and anything else we thought we might want or need on the cargo ship. The few blogs we had read about this journey said the food cooked on the ship is gross, cooked with river water which is taken from very close to where the only toilet on the ship empties into the river. Yeah, gross..,a couple more cans of tuna for good measure.
We bought our tickets for the Thursday boat to Nuevo Rocafuerte down the Napo leaving at 7am. For $15 per person, we loaded onto the long metal canoe with a roof and torn plastic hanging from the windows for when it inevitably would rain. Packed in on the sides of the boat on long benches with sixty other people and as much cargo as they could fit down the middle, we set off. The driver was in the back of the boat near the engine while the captain sat on the front bow looking for shallow spots or submerged trees and debris on the flooded river. Giving hand signals, he would direct the driver where to turn.
Lazily, we made our way down river stopping to drop people off at a village here, a village there. Space slowly opened up on the boat, at one point enough that I could lie down on the bench and doze off into a nap. I woke up a bit later to the sounds of the plastic sheets being unraveled on the sides of the boat and a black plastic tarp being handed out to the passengers in the front to protect them from the oncoming storm. Looking down river, all I could see was a wall of black coming towards us. The rain hit with such intensity, it sounded like the explosion of glass when a car crashes through a plate glass window. We were heading into something heavy. Lightning and thunder began to engulf us, at first from a distance then too close for comfort. I was thinking to myself, "We're in the middle of a huge river, three-quarters of a mile wide, in a metal boat, and we're the only thing around. Shit." Would we head to shore and wait out the storm hidden beneath taller objects? No. We just kept moving down river like it was no big deal. At one point, everyone in the boat jumped when a bolt of lightning hit the water within 100 yards of us. A crack of orange light with a split second before the thunder clap. I looked up at the bow at the captain, all alone with his poncho on, and his lips seemed to be moving. I was convinced her was saying his prayers.
CRACK! BOOM!! Another bolt, I thought it hit us. If it didn't then it was within projectile vomiting distance. This couldn't be happenening, not after what happened in Nantar a week ago.
A week prior, we were still in Nantar, the indigenous Shuar community, and on one of our last days we decided to go down to the river behind the village with some of the kids and teenagers to cool off. We hike down and the little kids begin splashing and playing in the shallow eddies on the side of the river. The water had risen a lot since our previous time down there. Nantar sits in the upper Amazon basin and the river collects all the rainwater coming down mountain from the eastern side of the Andes. One of the teenagers, Asael, dives into the rushing water and swims across with ease. He proceeds to climb a cliff on the other side, dive back into the river and swim back to our side. A bit later, Asael asks me if I want to cross the river? I had zero intention of climbing the moss and fern covered cliff and diving back in. Maybe I just wanted to explore the other side a bit? I didn't have a good reason but I said "Sure." It was a decision I would have made when I was eighteen, not twenty-eight. He swam across first and was waiting for me on a small island of rocks to help me to my feet. I dove in and swam hard, fighting the current pulling me downstream. I made it across safely, grabbed Asael's hand to get on my feet and...he loses his footing. "Fuck" is the only word going through my mind. The two of us begin floating down the river, feet first past the girls with shocked expressions on their faces. "FEET UP!" I thought at first. "Don't break your leg putting your feet down and getting caught between a rock." But that mentality soon vanished when I realized there was nothing but roaring rapids and no way out downstream. Cliffs lined both sides of the river. If I didn't do something, soon, I was going to die. Period. Asael and I scrambled trying to stop our momentum on the rocks beneath the surface. We caught one at the last possible moment before we had gone too far. The force of the water was so powerful and constant. I have my back facing upstream, my feet and hands trying to cling to the rock below. The force of the water pulls my shorts down and rips them off. Boxers it is. I didn't care if I was naked as long as I could get out of that river. We make our way the only way we can, towards the far side of the river. Clinging onto roots sticking out of the cliff, we slowly work our way upstream a few meters to a place where we can stand on a rock, but still downstream from where Kara and Jess were on the other side. Asael tells me we're going to dive back into the water and swim across. It's the only way. "Fuck." He said he'll go first and wait for me, again (this time it will work out) and he's gone, swimming across like it's nothing. An indigenous Shuar teenager with the Amazon jungle as his backyard. But this wasn't "nothing." If I didn't swim fast enough or hard enough, or if I caught a rock when I dove back in (I needed to dive no matter water for the momentum), that would be it. There was no place to go except down the choked canyon. They would never find a body, the anacondas would make sure of that (I didn't know there were anacondas where we were swimming until after the fact). I was standing on this tiny rock, terrified, frozen, screaming at myself for making such a STUPID decision to cross. Kara is on the other side, could see the terror in my eyes and in my body language. She's screaming over the sound of the rapids that I could do it, swim fast and keep swimming more. I didn't believe in myself. I was screwed. I was fairly certain I was about to take my last breaths on this Earth. I took a deep breath, screamed like a wild man, and dove in.
This is what was going through my mind as the second bolt of lightning nearly hit our boat. Surely, I couldn't survived the river with 45 foot anacondas (the villagers told us after when we hiked back up boxers and all) to be on this other river and killed by a bolt of lightning. The lightning kept coming but instead of on top of us there was a second delay before the thunder, then two seconds, then five. We had made it through the eye of the storm.
The remainder of the day was quite mellow. We made it to Rocafuerte, found a cheap hostel, made friends with a couple from France, Tristan and Amandine, got some dinner and a couple of beers on our last night in Ecuador. What a beautiful and magical country. the following morning, we got our exit stamps for our passports, hired a teenager with a dugout canoe and a "peke-peke" motor (it's a weedwacker with a small propeller instead of the string at the end) to take us the two hours down river into Peru to Pantoja. We had six people in the canoe plus the teenager and six backpacks, heavy, weighing down the canoe. There wasn't a half inch of space from the river to the top of the canoe on each side. We were statues. If someone sneezed, we'd surely tip. If it rained at all, or their was a slight breeze, we'd tip. And somehow, like every other miracle on this journey, we made it safely to Pantoja two hours later, dry.
Pantoja is a small town tucked away from the rest of Peru like a leper yet serves as the nearest hospital for hundreds of miles as well as the regional military base. Back in the 90's, Peru and Ecuador had a little border war and the military base meant something more. Now, all is tranquillo. We met a local, Rodrigo, who showed us to the immigration office where we officially entered Peru, and he told us he lets travelers crash at his house for $1.50 per person per night. He's got a grill, fridge, and TV with DVD player and a handful of horrible spanish dubbed movies (we would end up watching them all). Not bad considering the only hostal in Pantoja has no kitchen or TV and cost $6 a night. The only problem we faced was that the cargo ship wouldn't be arriving for at least a week. Shit. So...the three of us and our new French friends became a little family in Rodrigo's home. We'd wake up, boil water over the fire for coffee and tea, wait around reading books or making macrame until lunch, go to the only restaurant in town, come back, read some more, prepare dinner, and at night either watch one of the horrible movies or play some Farkle (a dice game I picked up from good friends in Peace Corps Senegal). Everyday. Save money. Buy rice and plantains. Go to the river and ask about the boat. We'd get different answers from every person we talked to. Meet the new batch of travelers arriving from Coca. One day there was a football match between the military team and the civilian Pantoja team. The civilians won. But it was more fun because the guy sitting next to us had a pet monkey that we played with the entire time.
A week passed in Pantoja only to discover the boat was out of gas somewhere days downriver and wouldn't be arriving for another week. Shit. We made bets if our families had contacted each other yet to see if the others had heard from us. They probably feared the worse that we had crashed, drowned or been kidnapped by drug smugglers delivering cocaine from Bolivia and Peru north to Ecuador and beyond. We were close to running out of money before we could reach an ATM in Iquitos. No more restaurant. ONLY rice and platino. Budget, budget, budget. The last few nights in Rodrigo's house, we noticed rats running along the ceiling rafters, listening to the chew God-knows-what all night long. It was time to get out of Pantoja. After thirteen days, the cargo ship, "Jeisawell" finally pulled into town.
Wow! This ship was a rusty piece of junk. But Hey! We were moving again! I asked a deck hand, probably 30 years old, how old the boat was and his reply made me laugh. He said, "The Jeisawell is much older than my grandfather." We set our hammocks very close to each other so when the boat got packed, people wouldn't try to put one between us or above us. We set off stopping at every village along the Napo to load plantains, massive amounts of plantains to be sold in Iquitos. Chickens, pigs, cows, a couple water buffalo, turtles, macaws, every animal you could think of. The cargo and animals were stored on the first level of the ship below the sleeping area and on the roof above the sleeping area. As more people boarded the ship, the hammocks began to resemble a spider's web. The head of my hammock sat in the hammock of a woman with an infant who loved to rock her infant constantly in the hammock, a constant bump to my head day and night. Below,. where my feet were was the head of another Peruvian woman who liked to push my feet out of the way at night but hey, I'm tall, and stubborn, and set my hammock here first. She just had the bad luck of putting hers at the feet of a gringo who's 6'5".
When it would rain, droplets found their way through the cracked and rusty ceiling into the sleeping area so Kara and I had to MacGyver a plastic rain fly, life vests, and our rain jackets above our hammocks to divert the water away from us. In the rear of the sleeping level was the kitchen and surprisingly the food wasn't horrible. Most meals consisted of rice with salted meat and platino. The three meals a day were included in the price of the ticket. There was the one bathroom on the ship below the sleeping level behind all the cargo. I avoided the cramped, filthy space by all means. I enjoyed much more peeing off the front railing of the boat than crawling under the hammocks to the stairs past the pigs to the filthy toilet.
Along the trip, there were brief moments of excitement that interrupted the mundane recreational activities of sweating in a cramped hammock, sitting on the only bench on the front of the boat, or climbing onto the roof when it wasn't raining to play dice. Early in the trip, the captain's macaw (Yes, the captain had a bird AND he only had one eye! BUT unfortunately wore sunglasses day and night to hide it instead of a patch) flew overboard and was drowning (turns out macaws don't know how to swim) and one of the young deckhands dove overboard to save it. Then later in the voyage, one of the cows on board, who'd had enough of the cruel treatment and conditions decided it would be better to kill itself than remain on the Jeisawell so it jumped overboard but was still tied to the boat. So the captain steered us to shore where all the deckhands got in the water or on shore to push/pull the animal back on dry land, bushwhack through the jungle to make a path back to the front of the boat. At another point, one of the water buffalo charged the men trying to pull it onto the boat and ran itself into the river.
By day four, the novelty and excitement of taking the cargo boat was wearing thin and we were excited to get off the boat at a village called Massan, a town where the rio Napo makes a large loop before entering the rio Amazona. By getting off at Massan, and taking a twenty minute moto-taxi ride across the strip of land to the rio Amazona, and boarding a twin engine speed boat that takes an hour to reach Iquitos instead of staying on the cargo ship for another nineteen hours. Thankfully everything worked out, and we got off at Massan and caught a speed boat because we found out the next day that after we left the cargo ship, its engine cut out and it needed to float with the current until it reached the Amazon river. So...by 10 pm, we were in Iquitos, Peru, the largest city in the world unreachable by road. With a population of roughly half a million people, Iquitos made its mark on the map from the rubber trees that made the rubber barons of the early 20th C. filthy rich before synthetic rubber was created essentially destroying the rubber business. We found a cheap place to stay in a jungle tour operator's office/hostal, put our bags down, took much needed and deserved cold showers, and headed out for some nice cold cervezas in the noisy streets of Iquitos. We didn't know at the time but our Amazon adventure was only just beginning.