Down the Rio Napo: Part 2 – Leaky Canoe. Suspicious Government Business. Stuck on the River at Night. Quechua Families Feed us Weird Things.

by Brooks

I cross the border in a peque-peque, a dugout canoe with a small motor. I got a cheap ride from a guy who has a farm amidst the riverside jungle between Nuevo Rocafuerte, Ecuador, and Pantoja, Peru. He was headed in my direction anyway and didn’t mind taking me along for the ride – for a lot cheaper than anyone else had offered.

I arrive in Pantoja two hours after the cargo boat had left the port for my intended destination, the city of Iquitos. I have to wait six days for the next boat.

I count my money. If I’m paying 3 dollars a night for lodging and I put aside 6 dollars a day for food, I’m still short a few to pay for the ride in the cargo boat. I make a deal with Marcela, the owner of the town restaurant. I can pay 5 dollars a day to eat all three meals there and I’ll just barely have enough money to survive.

My first lunch in Peru is ceviche, a delicious plate of raw fish “cooked” by the citric acid in a lemon marinade, with baked, crunchy, giant corn kernels, and pieces of yuca.

Ruperto is my host in Pantoja. A waddling, horking, friendly old Peruvian guy, Ruperto lives alone in a decrepit house by the town port. His favourite activity is “mirando gente,” watching the people walk by. Sometimes he goes for walks around town too, which only takes about 10 minutes, even at his slow, waddling pace.

He is hosting a few other people as well. Carlos is from Iquitos. He is doing a survey of young children living in areas of extreme poverty for a government aid program. Julio is from a town downriver, Santa-Clotilde. He was hired by Carlos to take him up to Pantoja in his canoe. There’s also a Quechua indigenous boy named Rober. His family lives in a stilt hut between Pantoja and Santa-Clotilde. He is Julio’s assistant.

After a couple days, I am on friendly terms with Julio, and he offers to take me with them to Santa-Clotilde for only 50 soles (20 dollars). From there I’m told it’s easy to find a ride to Iquitos. Suddenly I have enough money to pay full price at the restaurant, so I head there and pay the difference.

We leave before sunrise the next day. The canoe is a bit bigger than your usual dugout deal, with a slightly bigger motor too. It’s a bit leaky though. Rober has to bail out the water every 20 minutes.

We go to a little village about an hour downriver where Carlos has more government business. He needs to get the village schoolteacher to sign a piece of paper attesting to government aid she has received. She hasn’t received any government aid, she says. She refuses to sign the paper.

I look at the paper. It is a form with statements like “I have received (blank) services or goods,” and “These services and goods were provided by (blank) during (blank) dates.” The blanks are not filled in. Carlos is insisting that she sign the paper “to justify my route,” he says. Again, she refuses. Carlos is frustrated, apparently not seeing anything wrong with what he is doing.

Over the next several hours, we visit a few more small riverside communities so that Carlos can get more people to sign more blank pieces of paper. Later we pick up a woman named Kathy, who is another government worker who was doing the same survey on young children in a different town.

It is 5:00 p.m. We have been travelling for 12 hours and have finally arrived at Julio’s intended shelter for the night, a small stilt hut housing a Quechua family – friends of Julio’s – where we can set up our hammocks for the night. It’s humble lodgings, to say the least, but it’s better than sleeping in the middle of the jungle or being stuck on the river at dark…

Kathy insists that we keep going. We can find somewhere else to sleep, she says, and we are in a hurry to get back to Iquitos.

The sun sets around 6:30 p.m. We are still on the river, and the sky is getting darker by the minute. It is soon pitch-black.

Kathy says she is afraid, but I am excited! This is very adventerous, in my opinion. I can’t see what the difference is between the river at night or during the day, except that at night it’s more of a thrill! Julio told me afterward that people have drown trying to navigate the river at night. They hit a log, capsize their boat, and no one ever sees them again.

Around 8:00 p.m., We see a flashlight wisking this way and that on the distant jungle shore. Thank God, says Kathy. When we get to land, the flashlight is gone, and no one answers our call.

It’s time for Julio to get pissed off. He has every right to be pissed off. We had perfectly good shelter three hours ago. It was unnecessary and dangerous to keep going. He yells for a while and threatens to abandon us (does that include me?) on the shore.

Should I sleep in the boat? That seems pretty damn uncomfortable to me. I’d better just stay awake all night. Or maybe I’ll hang my hammock between some trees near the shore. But then Julio and his canoe might be gone when I wake up in the morning.

After brooding for a while, Julio suggests we keep going. About 10 minutes farther down, we find a campfire on the shore. Another Quechua family has a big hut nearby. Relieved, we set up for the night.

The next day we once again set out before sunrise. Along the way, we stop at a couple of  Quechua homes to do some shopping. Julio buys giant yuca, live caracol (a kind of river shellfish), and a live turtle, rooster, and duck. The animals are all stuffed in the front of the canoe.

A Quechua family feeds us zapote, a delicious, thick-skinned, brown fruit with fibrous orange flesh and big black seeds. Another family feeds us wild boar soup and platano. The cooked boar head grins on a steel platter. Julio eagerly grabs some cheek muscle with his bare hands. I give it a try too. It tastes like pork and licking a battery. When we drop off Rober at his home, his mother offers me mazato, a drink made from yuca, traditional among the indigenous people (the women chew up yuca and spit it into a gourd, leaving it for a couple days to ferment.) Julio calls it “leche de vaca yuca” – milk from the yuca cow. It tastes just like you would expect a regurgitated, fermented root vegetable to taste.

At one of the Quechua homes, a small monkey approaches us from jungle. It casually wanders up a house stilt and hangs upside down near the kitchen fire. Kathy decides the buy the monkey as a pet for her mom. The lady of the house finds some string made of a ripped t-shirt and ties it around the waist of the now screaming monkey, who continues to scream for the first 20 minutes after we resume our journey, but soon seems to accept his fate. He happily eats some tiny bananas, which makes my stomach churn to see such tragic cuteness.

Or maybe that’s not cuteness making my stomach churn. Come to think of it, I don’t feel so good…

There weren’t any bottles of water available in Pantoja, so I had bottled some refresco (kind of like lemonade) that I got with my meals at the restaurant there. I had treated it with my water purification drops, but within a day the bottles started to bulge and it tasted a bit funny.

One time in Montreal, I drank fermented fruit juice I found in a dumpster behind Parc avenue, which tasted delicious and didn’t make me violently ill. I figure it might be safe to drink this fermented refresco too, especially since I’ve treated it with water purification drops. My stomach disagrees with this assessment, however.

Julio and Carlos have been drinking water straight from the river. Kathy “treats” her water with the juice of a fruit similar to an orange. I doubt that works. Carlos says he has no other choice but to drink the river water, but he says biologists have tested it and contaminants are within an acceptable range. I don’t trust Peruvian biologists, but I am dying of thirst and have no other option. I reluctantly fill my water bottles and add a big dose of water treatment drops. I am now drinking brown water.

After a total of 25 hours sitting in a canoe, we arrive at Santa-Clotilde at 3:00 p.m. on the second day. I am dizzy and stiff and hungry and tired. Within the next 12 hours, I will have so much fermented refresco expanding in my intestines that my body will have no choice but to order an emergency evacuation. I will be sick for a couple days, but I am alive and happy nonetheless.