I had the hot and long opportunity to take a five day boat ride from Pucallpa to Iquitos, a small island in the Peruvian Amazon. There are no roads that go to Iquitos, so I had to choose between a $100 plane ticket or a 100 sole boat ticket.
There was no guarantee that the cargo ship would leave the same day that I boarded, just as there was no guarantee that the owner would stop selling tickets after he reached maximum capacity. But I bought the ticket, three liters of water, and a hammock.
I was lucky, and the ship left port only a few hours after I had boarded.
The sleeping deck was filled with hammocks, which hung from poles on the ceiling.
The boat didn’t have any windows or walls, but railings about a meter high lined with benches. Old men and women sat looking out into the jungle or inside at their families. Teenagers leaned over the railings at the back of the ship, catching snakes or playing cards, and letting the cards blow into the water after they lost a game.
There was another level underneath us with tables and a kitchen, but after the first day, the tables were blocked by hammocks swinging closely above them. Below that, the cargo deck was filled to its ceiling with crates, hardware, cars, and livestock.
Below that was the brown water of the Rio Ucayali.
The hundred of us stood in line three times a day and held our bowls out to the boys in the kitchen. Breakfast milk in the morning and soup in the afternoon and night.
Every time we stopped in the villages, small, sandaled women climbed the stairs with baskets of food and bottles of warm soda, calling “Hay gaseosas, hay chorrillos,” until the engine turned over and they ran back to the dock together.
One passenger had two puppies that he tried to sell to the foreigners on the boat. They found a lizard and chased him to the edge of the boat, where he dashed under the railing and fell twisting to the water. The puppies stood at the ledge watching for him in the river, but he swam away.
Another passenger had chicks, and another had a pair of roosters. The roosters were in a closed box next to me, and I didn’t know they were there until they poked their heads out of the holes and crowed.
It was a long five days. I spent a lot of time on the roof, squinting in the sunlight reflecting off the white paint. I spent a lot of time in my hammock staying cool while the slow boat rocked me back and forth. I also spent a lot time trying to tell a young boy that I didn’t like it when he yanked the ropes on my hammock. I talked to a man a little older than me who was going home to one of the small villages. I asked him about his life there. I pointed to the brown shacks along the river and asked if he lived in a house like that. He laughed and said, “No, I live in a real house.”
I was lucky again and the boat arrived in Iquitos on time.
About two hours before we docked, everyone started packing away their belongings, and the hour before found us all standing at the railings, watching the city get closer. We arrived at the port and walked in a long, impatient line down to the cargo deck, passed all the cars and boxes and crates and pigs, and onto the muddy wooden boards that made up the dock.
I was very happy to have my feet back on the ground, even if I slipped a little.
Kristyn Bacon is the founder and editor of Trainless Magazine, and she is currently traveling overland from Berlin to Taiwan with her dog.
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