Days 2 & 3 Ucayali River Aboard the Henry 8 Vessel

P1040861 The Ucayali in mid flood stage. The trees, plants and animals have adapted to the fact that once a year the river will overflow the banks and spill inland, covering  the roots and low lying plants.

I must have dozed off again around 8AM. Did not climb out of  my hammock because it did not seem we were moving.  I carefully slipped out of the hammock shortly after 10AM. The ship was actually in the center of the river and moving.  We had departed Pucallpa.

To be clear: I had boarded a vessel on Sat afternoon at 2PM. that was advertised as departing at 3:30PM which it did not do. Was invited to hang my hammock and spend the night aboard, which I did. No money was requested nor given for the night aboard the vessel. Henry 8 did not cast off till late Sunday morning. (In town I was repeatedly told that no vessel departs Pucallpa to Iquitos on Sunday)

In effect; I spent 18 hours or so on a vessel that remained docked  stationary in Pucallpa. No food was offered for the evening meal nor breakfast the following morning. Apparently, food is  part of the deal ONLY after casting off and the vessel is underway.  No one (including the crew) is fully informed as to the actual departure times. As is the case on all water vessels, the captain has the last word and is the “decider” in these matters. (quoting  a particularly erudite past president of the USA)

The scenes of the passing shoreline were familiar to me from my previous river trips. This vessel allows for a much better view because of it’s size. Passengers have access to four more decks above the main passenger (hammock) deck.  From the top deck, the one where the wheel house is located, a passenger is 50 or so feet above the water. You can clearly see a few hundred yards beyond the shore if the trees are not too dense. The other (rapido) boats are nothing more than very long, narrow canoes. On such boats, a passenger’s eyes are no more than 3 feet above the surface of the water.


Areas that look like lakes (lagoons in English) are called ‘cochas’ in Quechua. In such areas fish do not have to continually fight the current. Animal life is more abundant in cochas because all critters find it  easier to make a living.

At around 10:30AM a couple of young non uniformed crew members began going from person to person in the hammock area.  These men wrote out a ticket for each passenger as they paid their fare. We were informed that you needed to show your ticket to the kitchen staff before receiving your meal. After I paid and got my ticket I wandered around the boat and checked out the  upper decks, the bathroom facilities and the kitchen area.  Always a good idea to familiarize yourself with any new environment. Doing so expands your survivability quotient if conditions deteriorate.

A bell was struck several times sometime around noon. A line of people formed beginning at the kitchen’s half-door and tiny window. At the top of each (carbon copy) ticket there was a line with a repeating series of letters in boxes… D, A, C, D, A, C, D, A, C, D, A, C, D, A, C.  The letters stand for: desayuno (breakfast), almuerzo (lunch) and cena (dinner).  As the line moves forward toward the kitchen window, people leave with food in their bowl or platter. When it is your turn, you hand over your ticket, a man marks off the corresponding meal with a pen slash and returns it to you. You then hand another person your bowl and he hands it to the cook who laddles the food into it, and he hands it to another person who hands your filled bowl back to you through a barred window.

P1040871A small line of folks prepare to have their bowls filled

P1040872My bowl and spork with a sampling of the usual almuerzo fare

I ate every almerzo and cena offered. The desayuno I only ate once. Not because it was horrible, I just didn’t care for it. The desayuno was a very thin sweet liquid with no discernible grain particle of any kind. The watery liquid was ladled into your bowl and you were handed  three quite plain dinner rolls. The idea was that you use the rolls to sop up the liquid.  About two hours after I did not show for the second desayuno a kitchen staff member approached me and asked why I didn’t show for breakfast. I patted my stomach and frowned.

He was not offended but was concerned. He asked if I felt OK. He said that if I was not feeling well he wanted to know. If so, he would inform someone. What he was really saying was that they did not tolerate bad food being served. If people got sick, they would immediately get another cook. I assured him that I felt fine. I went on to spin a white lie saying that I rarely ate breakfast of any kind. He was visibly relieved with that response.

I ate every morsel of all other meals served me during the  four day journey and I never got sick.  It was plain food, but it was tasty and filling.  Almuerzo was always rice and a piece of plantain or yucca with small piece of chicken. Cena was always just a soup, also with rice and yucca and sometimes a small piece of beef instead of chicken.  There was a bar that sold bottled water or soda.  Most folks (like me) had brought their own liquids.

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P1040905On the morning of the third day there were some low peaks near the rivers edge.

P1040935Orellana on the Ucayali. Looking towards the bow of the cargo vessel

P1040954 P1040955The luxurious bathroom facilities aboard the Henry 8 vessel

At the stern of deck 2 which is the same deck which hosts the hammock and kitchen areas, there is a bank of six metal doors behind which is a porcelain toilet bowl with no seat and an overhead faucet for taking a shower, all in the same space. The water that comes out of the sinks and the shower and that fills the toilet bowl is obviously pumped directly from the river. It is the same brownish color.  Only three of the six metal doors allowed access. The others bathrooms were out of order.

There were two sinks on either side of the bank of metal doors. The sinks also had industrial style spigots.  After meals, everyone would rinse out their bowls in the sinks. I did the same. Women with luxurious long black hair would sometimes shampoo in the sinks. Some people washed clothes in the same sinks and would hang their clothes on the rails at the stern when it wasn’t raining.

Everyone aboard, including all the children and the older folks, appeared to be very well groomed throughout the entire journey. Their faces and bodies were gleaming clean.  They often changed clothing. Pride in one’s appearance is a cultural norm here, no matter the (to the Western mind) ‘primitive’ conditions.   It was obvious that everyone was showering in the bathroom stalls every day at some point, including all the 15 or so crew members. I took my first shower in this manner on the second day. It was a quick one, but it sure felt good. I saw many people brushing their teeth using the water from the sink. This, I could not bring myself to do. I brushed using a spare amount of bottled hydrogen peroxide I had brought with me.

Day 1 on The Ucayali River and the Henry 8 Cargo Vessel

DCIM100SPORTPort of Pucallpa on the Rio Ucayali.  Some of those trees may be 100 years old or more. Some lumber will be used locally, some might be exported and become furniture, musical instruments, boat decks, or fancy dashboards. One port, one day. Multiply by the proper factors and new insights emerge.

P1040813Raft of recently cut trees in background being floated to market. Poor people doing hard, dangerous work to make a few bucks.

As I review the past few months in my mind, I am aware that I have only begun to process the scope of the experience. Have been traveling in the area where the Andes cloud forest runoff drains into the massive ocean of fresh water known as the Amazon river; one fifth of the fresh water on planet Earth.

Have now traversed a couple thousand kilometers of rivers  in and on several different boats on the four major tributaries that constitute the upper Amazon; The Napo, The Maranon, The Huallaga, and the Ucayalli.  This constitutes only a  fraction of the entire Amazon region. The Amazon is  humongous, gargantuan, mammoth, gigantic. It’s big.

It’s mind boggling immensity gives the false impression that it is indomitable.  6 billion mindless, self-seeking humans, some of them  equipped with fire, chainsaws, fishing nets, oil drilling rigs, and cyanide and mercury to leach gold from stripped soils say otherwise.

Iquitos is not far from the union of the Maronon and the Ucayali. The one river that results from that union is called the Amazon by the locals. Iquitos is 3600 river kilometers from the Atlantic ocean. The Amazon river continues to receive  more water from hundreds of other tributaries as it wends it’s way to the Atlantic.

It is possible for 9000 ton cargo ships that have up to 18 feet of their hulls below the water line to navigate to Iquitos. The Amazon river is two miles wide there. Manaus, Brazil is 2100 km DOWNRIVER  from Iquitos.  In Manaus the Amazon is 6 miles wide or more.  The Atlantic ocean is another 1500 km downriver from Manaus. Along that stretch The Amazon river  achieves depths of over 300 ft. Where the Amazon meets the Atlantic the river is 150 miles wide. That is a lot of  FRESH water!

Pucallpa is much larger than either Francisco de Orellana  on the Rio Napo in Ecuador or Yurimaguas, Peru on the Rio Huallaga.  All of the above towns are distinctly Amazon basin river towns. They are the main shipping ports between Iquitos, Peru and the Andean or Pacific cities/towns to the West.  Each town is on a different river, each of which is a major tributary of the ‘upper Amazon basin’.  Each of those rivers have many tributaries that feed into them and, in turn, they all feed into the Amazon. Pucallpa is linked to Lima by a paved road (560km) . There is an airport in Pucallpa.

Took me three days to scrape the dust off and to stop vibrating from the Chachapoyas to Pucallpa push.  Left my room only a few times.  Once to  familiarize myself with the port in preparation for my cargo boat ride down the Ucayali back to Iquitos. The other times I went out of my room were to go to the local market for breakfast or to have lunch downstairs.

The Romero hostal where I stayed had an attached restaurant downstairs that served a decent almuerzo (pronounced: Al moo air tzo) for about 8 soles.  In Peru, almuerzo consists of a set daily menu served from noon to 3PM that includes soup or salad, a platter of rice, yucca, some beans and your choice of a small piece of chicken, beef, or fish… and a jar of fresh fruit juice.

On my first visit to the port I located the area where the ‘Henry’ cargo vessels tie up. It was obvious that ‘Henry’ dominates the cargo route between Pucallpa and Iquitos. Don’t know whether ‘Henry’ is owned  by one person or one family. Maybe it is a co operative of individual owners who joined together to simplify management and branding like the ‘collectivo’ vans.

Went to the port a second time on Saturday morning (15Mar14). There was one of the largest ‘Henry vessels’ I had seen. It was over 250 feet in length. A sign said that it would depart that day at 3:30PM. I spoke with a hand who invited me to check things out. I asked for the fare to Iquitos. 100 soles… including  meals.  How long to arrive? 3 or 4 days. Cabins available? He asked someone else. How much? 300 soles.  He allowed me to have a look at the second deck up where the bulk of the hammocks are hung. It did not look crowded. I told him I’d be back by 2PM.  Should I get a ticket now? Not necessary, was the reply.

Went back to the hostel, packed and readied my gear. One last item. I needed to get my own bowl for on board meals. I already had my own spork. Went to market, got plastic bowl. Had almuerzo. Took a nice cool shower thinking that it might have to last me for a few days. Paid hostel. Got mototaxi. Arrived port. A dock worker was quick offer his services. He grabbed  BOTH of my bags, tossed them on his on his back and off he went.  He was in his twenties, could not have weighed over 150lbs and was wearing a pair of flip flops. He nearly ran across the ruts of mud in the port and across the narrow single plank that was the only way onto the ship… and onward the 200 feet to the ingress area. This was not his first rodeo.

These primitive version of longshoremen are amazing.  Anything not larger than a steamer trunk and not heavier than 300 lbs. goes on their back. That includes huge sacks of rice, several heavy stalks of bananas, bags of cement, furniture, cement blocks. Vessels go from Iquitos to Pucallpa several times a week. They all get loaded and unloaded on both ends of the trip.

Passengers who enter and exit in river towns along the way  handle their own stuff.  Many go the the ‘city’ to sell produce and to buy consumer items not available in their small river village.

A crewman told me it was company policy and necessary that I open both my bags for inspection. He was impressed with my gear, especially my new 23 inch long machete. There was no problem. He looked at me and asked how many years I had worked in the jungle. Don’t know if it was his genuine assessment of me or if he was stroking my ego… but his comment made me feel good.  When he was done, he got a crew member to help carry one of my bags up to the second deck. I asked about tickets and payment. He just pointed to the upper deck.  The very visible sign still indicated that we were due to depart at 3:30PM. It was 2.

I checked out the hammock area. It was less than half occupied. Many places to choose from. I had been told by others that a vessel like this could get very crowded. I was pleased to see that there were people from all age groups.  Grandmothers to infants.  I was the only Anglo. I took my time in placing my hammock.

I placed my cases directly under my hammock.  Used a heavy duty cable lock to join them together. They are plastic, waterproof and knifeproof.  I had custom painted them a bright blue. It would be very difficult to make off with both of them cabled together and not be noticed. Was warned that when you stop at some river towns there are vendors who come on to sell stuff and sometimes the stops are at night. Possibility for a random sneak thief robber exists.  Everyone else seemed to have at least one traveling companion to keep an eye on things.

P1040804My hammock within an hour of boarding. I staked my territory in the center of things so there would be lots of eyes around. I wasn’t thinking about it but it was a good spot because it was drier when the wind blew the rain sideways.

More passengers arrived. The hammock space began filling up. It got to be 3:30.  No indication of casting off.  Then it was 5PM. Then it was 6PM.  The rumor was that we were waiting for a bit more cargo but would be leaving at 8PM… which came and went. The new rumor was 10PM… which also came and went. The next rumor was we would be departing for sure at 6AM.  Before 11PM rolled around the new departure time was 8AM.   No one so much as rolled an eye.

Blankets come out of plastic bags and get spread on the metal deck below the hammocks. The hammock deck is above the engines which are two decks below us. The space is open to the air. You can hear the big diesel engines the whole trip. Only once did the air get nasty with diesel fumes. And that only lasted for 20 minutes or so.  The lights in the area stay on all night. Some passengers take it upon themselves to physically unscrew a few of them to reduce the light, but there is light all night long.  A few outlets are available to charge cell phones and laptops. I volunteered my triple outlet extension cord for the duration. It was always in use.

P1040853Saturday night, Pucallpa. Barge next to us and the snarl of other Henry vessels

Removed my boots and tied them to the lines holding up my hammock.  Put my flip flops on one of the cases. Had to use a case to stand on to negotiate my way into the hammock. All other hammocks were lower to the deck than mine. I had more breeze at night. My hammock has a zippered mosquito net sewn to it’s edges and hung above it from another line. I slept bug free every night.

With as many people as was in that small space and given our individual circumstances it was amazing to me that there were no loud unruly children, no loud unruly adolescents, no loud unruly anyone. No harsh words. No tempers flaring. Everyone accepted things exactly as they were. Nipples on swollen breasts were offered to infants who suckled contentedly. Young children listened to their parents and were very respectful of everyone’s personal space.  Fifty and sixty somethings settled themselves.  Everything was incredibly orderly, and calm.  People who chatted or played cards did so quietly.  No one shouted orders. There were no policemen. No one was drunk or obnoxious. 80 strangers of differing ages, in many separate groups, sleeping together in an industrial environment, in hammocks or on blankets tossed on a hot metal deck …without rigorous rules or instructions.

Healthy, strong, patient, compassionate, calm and temperate is how I would characterize most of the river people I encountered. You notice different facial features that different tribal people have. Now, all being homogenized with TV propaganda and the ever expanding availability of the internet. Everyone has a cell phone.

The night passed. It gets cooler from 3 to 6 AM.  Dawn happens. Mornings are usually misty and the mist does not rise till 8 or 9AM. Stayed in my hammock and glanced through the net looking through the many windows trying to notice if we were moving.  Cargo vessels have an annoying way of revving engines at odd intervals. Only the captain or crew know what’s really going on. The passengers must be patient.  Eventually, you know that the boat will actually cast off and the engines will engage the propellers and the boat will be moving in the direction you are going.

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Space filled up more as the actual time of departure approached