Port 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.
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.
My 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.
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.
Space filled up more as the actual time of departure approached