Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Amazon Cruise

Dancing in the Rain

Today's Voluntary Nomads excerpt comes from Chapter 31 of Part Eight: Bolivia Cliffhangers:

The Amazon Cruise

We called one of our excursions in Bolivia "The Amazon Cruise," although that sounds grander than it was. We didn't cruise the actual Amazon. We putt-putted down the Mamore River, a tributary of the Amazon, for three days on a boat not much fancier than Humphrey Bogart's African Queen. To get to the boat, we flew to the town of Trinidad and chartered a bus from there to the river.

As our small plane carried us from the runway at 13,000 feet up through the Andes and back down to sea level, we passed between snow capped mountain peaks looming higher than our cruising altitude on both sides -- more spectacular than the IMAX movie experience – I hung on to the armrests as if I could keep the plane airborne by myself.

Our embassy CLO (Community Liaison Officer) had organized this trip and chartered the boat we would take down the river. We knew all of the passengers, but we partied the most with our friends Paul and Vicki. The fun started early because of Vicki's fear of flying. She swigged a pre-flight dose of courage and continued to drink, as fast as the attendant could serve her, all the way to Trinidad. Vicki personified life-of-the-party all morning.

The bus we caught at Trinidad kept the fiesta theme going with its splash of colorful decorations typical of the region. The worn-out shock absorbers were equally typical of rural Bolivia. We didn't care. Like a bunch of kids on the way to summer camp, we sang songs (led by our tipsy first-grade teacher of course) and laughed and chattered all the way. The sun shone in a cloudless sky. The tropical humidity brought curls even to my stick-straight hair.

The boat looked sea-worthy to me, but I wondered how our crowd could fit on it. When the door of our cabin opened, I understood. Inside I saw a cot-sized bunk bed. That's it. There was just enough room for one person to stand beside the bed. When Fred and I were both in the room, one of us had to crawl into the bed to allow room for the other to change clothes.

One toilet/shower stall served all passengers. I could tell that the shower used murky river water, so I didn't bother with it. I inferred the same about the toilet and lost the tiny spark of enthusiasm I might have had for swimming in the river. Learning that the river hosted piranhas and crocodiles convinced me to stay dry.

Fred, however, trusted that the captain wouldn't encourage any dangerous activity. He swam in that malignant stew of microorganisms and sharp-toothed predators as did a few others, including Vicki and Paul. He also went crocodile hunting. I kissed Fred goodbye when he left on that excursion, not knowing whether he would return in one piece if at all. He was one of six bold hunters who crept out that night. They beamed a bright light along the shoreline to attract the baby crocs and then kidnapped the unwary beasts with their bare hands. Sport for the hunters brought terror to the crocodile nursery, but the catch-and-release escapade ended happily for all.

The day the rains came, our captain asked for volunteers to catch fish for dinner. I raised my hand. Fred looked surprised that I would do such a thing, but he volunteered too. An older fellow and his grandson joined us, and we stepped into a flat-bottomed wooden rowboat with a crewmember/guide who supplied us with waterproof slickers and fishing gear.

The guide handed each of us an ordinary cane pole equipped with twelve inches of steel leader attached to a barbed hook baited with chunks of raw beef. He demonstrated the proper fishing technique. First he dropped the baited hook into the river. Then he slapped the water's surface vigorously for a few seconds with the tip of his pole, and wham! I flinched as he jerked the fish past me into the boat. The guide cautioned us to fling our hooked fish toward the bow of the boat, away from our feet. Using his deft and heavily scarred hands, he grabbed his fish, stabbed it between the eyes with a short knife, and removed the hook.

A gentle rain kept the swarms of mosquitoes at bay and we merry anglers fished for an hour. We caught over forty piranhas and had them for dinner that night, the smaller ones in a savory soup and the larger ones fried to crisp delectability. We nibbled tiny bites, to savor the flavor and also to pick out the numerous tiny bones.

Fred had befriended the captain, trading manly tales and drinking beer with him as he piloted us down the river, and the captain returned the favor by giving Fred a shellacked piranha skull as a memento. We have displayed it on our mantelpiece ever since, to the grisly fascination of our grandsons.

We went on shore once to visit a village. The people lived a simple life with few possessions. Everyone we met wore a smile; most of the younger ones wore only a smile. The village occupied a clearing in a forest of mango trees. We slipped and skidded on the slick conglomeration of rotted mango fruit and river seepage. The sweet stomach-turning odor and proliferation of flying insects drove us back to the boat within minutes. I might have enjoyed the fresh fish and fruit diet, but still I felt glad that I wasn't born to be a resident of the Amazon jungle, prey to the biting hordes.

The rain continued, sometimes heavy, sometimes light, but always steady. We continued to party, as unstoppable as the falling rain. When we had consumed all the beer on the boat, the captain announced that we had set a record. We didn't see pink elephants then, but we did doubt our eyes when pink dolphins cavorted in the water ahead of us. They were real, the captain assured us – a species of fresh water porpoise in shades of pink darkening to purple – colorful beings rollicking in the bow waves of our boat.

At the end of the cruise we expected to reverse our earlier journey. But the unusual amount of rainfall had created a soupy mess where the road used to be and our bus stayed stranded miles away in Trinidad. We had to settle for the best alternative – our group hired two flatbed trucks whose drivers were willing to brave the conditions. We piled in and scrabbled anxiously for a handhold.

The trucks fishtailed down the road, sliding from one side to the other, swerving too close to the edge of a three-foot drop-off to the ditch that ran beside fields of manioc and maize. I clung to Fred and Fred clutched at a splintery board that jerked back and forth with the movement of our truck. As the trucks sashayed, the mud flew and splattered us from head to toe. I clamped my lips closed and kept my head down, grateful for the shelter provided by the bill of my cap.

I feared for our lives, but neither of the trucks overturned or got permanently stuck. We were a stunned bunch of Yankees who disembarked at the airport. Bystanders' incredulous gazes followed as we scraped mud clods from our bodies and straggled single-file toward the check-in desk. ###

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