RIVER JOURNEY ON THE BLACK TIGER
Thirty-three years ago, I took a trip on an old river boat, ninety feet long, called the Tigre-Negro, traveling from Iquitos to Pucallpa along the Amazon and Ucayali Rivers in Peru. I wanted to intimately know those things that were furthermost from what was familiar to me. It is not that I wanted to remove myself from home, friends, work, my past. I wanted to discover who I was outside of those things. I found the wilderness alluring.
In January 13, 1983, I flew from Boston, Massachusetts to Caracas, Venezuela intending to explore some of the continent of South America, with a particular interest in the Amazon Basin. As I gradually made my way by road and air, south from Caracas to Iquitos, I learned some of the culture and a very little bit of the language. I frequently found people—Venezuelans, Columbians, Brazilians, and Peruvians—to be unusually open and willing to share pieces of their lives with me. One of these, a woman named Marlen whom I met at the airport in Iquitos, invited me to stay with her family during my sojourn there. She made this invitation perhaps ten minutes after we’d met.
Prior to my arrival in Iquitos I was told about an introductory Spanish course being offered at the Catholic University in Lima, beginning March 10. Lima was on the Pacific coast, across the Andes from the river port city of Pucallpa. The plan was to travel from Iquitos to Pucallpa by river, then traverse the Andes in time to arrive for the Spanish course. I was officially told it would be about four day boat trip. However, once onboard the Tigre-Negro, the crew said a week. It took twelve days. Despite mosquitoes and miscommunications, I arrived in Lima with two days to spare.
The delay was caused by the boat’s engine, which kept conking, and we would be swept back by the rapid current. Eventually, my patience grew to restlessness.
The Black Tiger
March 4, 1983 6:30pm
Now they tell me it’s eight more hours to Pucallpa.
March 5, 1:10am
I can’t seem to sleep, so since all the other passengers are, l put my head lamp on to write. If I wore it while they were awake, I feel as though I would have half the boat around my hammock gawking at me with this thing on my head.
Earlier in the trip I couldn’t sleep for other reasons. I had a little grudge against this one woman on the boat. Her husband and three small children were with her. One night, she and her husband were having a lot of trouble getting their youngest to sleep, a three-year-old boy. I couldn’t blame the kid. All they had for themselves and the kids was a blanket to spread on the deck to sleep on. Every time they put the child on the floor to sleep he’d burst out crying. I have my foam-sleeping pad with me, and since I was using the hammock, I didn’t need it. I offered it to the father of the child and he took it graciously. When he showed it to his wife and told her that it was from me, she didn’t even look up at me. Every time our glances crossed, she just looked away. I thought she must dislike me for being an American, or looking like I have more money.
[But it isn’t her child crying now.]
Part of the reason I can’t sleep is because that steady vibration of the Tigre-Negro’s engine isn’t present and there are no mosquitos biting. When the engine is off we should be tied to the bank. And when we are tied to the bank at night there are mosquitos, but there are none and it doesn’t make sense.
The explanation is that we are once again in the center of the river with all the other floating debris, drifting downstream at the same speed as we should be moving in the opposite direction. I don’t know what the problem is in the engine room. I think it’s the same old thing. The engine has a bilge pump that is continuously working. My understanding is that the boat is too leaky or seals are gone in the pump. Anyway, I just can’t sleep, knowing that are going backwards. I guess it’s better than being tied ashore and having all the mosquitos from the jungle join us.
In case I never get a photo of the captain, I should write a quick description:he’s a short man and stout light brown, curly hair and long sideburns. He looks seafaring. For most of this trip his face has been covered with thick, stubby whiskers. His wife stands a half a foot above him.
I now know it’s more than just the bilge pump, and we are still adrift. The crew is trying to paddle the Tigre-Negro to the river bank with the gang plank. Actually it’s not paddling, but pushing against the water by pivoting the plank away from the boat against the edge of the lower port deck. Two men are on their hands and knees, holding the plank against the edge of the deck and three are pulling on the top of the plank. It doesn’t seem to be working. If we can’t get the engine running tonight, I don’t want to think about how much longer I’ll be on this boat.
3:00amI underestimated the crew’s tenacity pulling on that unwieldy plank. We’re finally tied to some trees that are overhanging the embankment. It’s a pitch black jungle and the mosquitos are bad, but what bothers me more are the ants.
As we drifted broadside into the trees, the crew and I were positioned on the upper and lower decks on the starboard side ready to grab branches to stop our drifting. From the upper deck I grabbed a four-inch diameter tree, which leaned out over the top of the boat, while hands from below reached for trees near the bow and stern.
Two seconds after I secured a good grip, my hands were covered with tiny red ants. I could only think about all those bites on my legs. Franticly, I shook them off, but the first mate yelled for me to hold on or we would keep drifting. I took my jacket and wrapped it around the branch to try to protect myself to some degree. The trees glistened as thousands of ants reflected the cabin’s light.
I broke off a large branch, covered with them, that poked through the window into our sleeping quarters and caused the women to scream. More are getting onto the boat other ways. If we release ourselves from these trees we’ll drift and probably won’t get another chance to snag onto something else. I was handed a rope and I tied one end to the tree and the other end to the cross member on the ceiling to which my hammock is tied. Other crew did likewise.
Now the boat is secured and I am laying in my hammock, picking off stray ants, hoping that the rope does not make a highway for others to climb onto me while I’m sleeping. They bite but don’t hurt much, but neither did the ones that attacked my legs during my walk a few days ago.
The Tigre-Negro finally got under way about an hour after I made my last entry. The boat didn’t become overrun by ants and I see no sores forming on my hands and arms. The old bites on my legs are almost completely healed now. I was concerned about having those that got infected worsen, while I was out here and had no access to medical attention.
We supposedly have about five hours remaining in our journey. I haven’t had a complete bath in a couple of days and I’ll be glad to have a hot shower. Some people are already packed. I’ve been more or less packed for the last two days.
[Following the lead of the crew, I found the most opportune time to bath was when we were underway. A small dinghy riding the top of our wake, tied to the starboard side, was always accessible. I noticed crew climbing down from the Tigre-Negro into the boat where they would use a bowl to scoop water out of the river for bathing. They would strip to their skivvies, suds up, scrub, and rinse.]
Out of courtesy, I accepted a drink yesterday from one of the passengers, a man in his forties. He made it with some kind of spice and ground wheat. I suspected the water used came from the river, but I weighed the risks and drank it. If those diarrhea-prevention pills are still potent after being exposed to moisture I think they may come in handy. My intestines have started to give me some trouble.
The woman I once resented, because I mistakenly misinterpreted her shyness as snubbing, just returned my sleeping pad, and thanked me very much.
We’re at a village now. I’ve chosen to stay on the boat to study my Spanish, while I have the privacy. Ten minutes ago a couple of porpoises surfaced near the boat. Now, I’ve had several sightings. They have the same bottled nose as the familiar dolphin, but only about five feet long.
One of the passengers opened a coconut, which took him ten minutes to hack through the fibrous outer shell. As I write, he just gave me a couple of big pieces!
We’ve been going steadily now for about six hours and there are television towers reaching up in the southern horizon. This is comforting. Finally, I am confident that we will be in Pucallpa very shortly and my stomach feels better.
I’m in the Hostel de Peru and unfortunately, not going to see as much of Pucallpa as I would like. The port authority has told me to move immediately on to Lima, because I don’t have a stamp on my passport!
I should have gotten one arriving in Iquitos, but running into Marlen made things a little confusing at the airport. After leaving the plane I met her on the way walking to the terminal building and a man at the entrance of the building handed me a small form. When I gestured to Marlen that I had to fill it out, she said it wasn’t important. I shouldn’t have been thinking about her so much and thought about the fact that I was entering Peru, and I needed my passport stamped. Now I’m in the country illegally!
This was revealed when the captain kindly walked me to the port authority after we docked at Pucallpa. I am not sure why he thought I should go there in the first place, because I was already in Peru when I boarded his boat. However, it was providential, because I could have gotten in trouble with an unstamped passport. (I only knew him as “captain” and will have fond memories of our drinking together in Pocapangas’ general store. It was an honor to be befriended by him)
When I showed the port authority official my passport, he said (I assume), “Where is the stamp on your passport?!” At this everything started coming back to me; the airplane, Marlen, her saying “It’s not important.” He demanded that I take the next boat back to Iquitos and get my passport stamped. I might have learned a little Spanish up to now but not nearly enough to make him understand my situation. I can’t remember ever being so desperate. The river ride was immensely interesting, but I had no desire to do it again—round trip. I literally begged him to stamp my passport and he unwaveringly said that he could not, because I did not enter the country at this port.
However, I would not leave. I needed his mercy, and finally he relented, and strictly told me to go directly to immigration office in Lima. Now I have to find my way across 13,000-foot-high mountains, through dirt roads with hairpin turns to get to the west coast of Peru.
ROGER CONVERSE is a deacon in the Anglican church and located in Philly from the Boston area for seminary in 1989. He also works with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship teaching ESL and Bible intro to international students and scholars at U. of Penn. He has old travel journals that he would like share with those who would like to read them.