Amazonian Love Boat Full of Hammocks and Chicken Eggs
Story by Brandon Raphael Dupré
Photos by Mia Spingola // @mambo.mia
It was just after dawn when the final truckloads arrived. The workers, mostly barefoot, swarmed the open truck beds, stacking cartons of eggs onto one shoulder while balancing sacks of oranges on the other, operating on some unspoken, collective organization like how bees or ants do. They ran up muddied planks to the cargo ship, weaving past other workers on their way down, not minding a couple of broken eggs or fallen oranges, the casualties of doing business on the Amazon River.
“Mañana,” we were assured by Oscar. The ship was going to for sure, without fail, no doubt, definitely leave tomorrow. Oscar was about 5’6’’ and wore a discolored red tank top and oversized jeans with sandals and had the remarkable ability of materializing whenever you needed something.
Oscar was the hype man and fast talker of Eduardo VIII. The type of guy you wouldn’t want to sit down at a card table with. He waited at the port’s entrance for confused-looking gringos, ushered them towards the ships, selling them a hammock or maybe a private room on a cargo ship headed to Iquitos, tells them it’s leaving tomorrow, and then plugs his personal product: weed.
“Tengo la buena,” mumbled Oscar after he showed us the ship’s lodging, wiping some sweat from his brow. “Es gewd me frynd, la buena,” he added.
It was now our third day on-board Eduardo VIII, a cargo ship docked in the port town of Yurimaguas in the Peruvian Amazon, when the ship’s engines showed the first signs of life. My girlfriend Mia and I had spent three days watching cows forcefully penned somewhere below deck and chickens flapping in vain against metal bars. We saw cases of beer, small boats, moto taxis, all kinds of fruits and vegetables and every conceivable and inconceivable item someone could want in the remote jungle loaded onto the ship until finally it was ready. The engine chugged, rumbling the boat to life.
Oscar, muddied and wet from the light rain that had fallen that morning during the final cargo load, waved goodbye from the shore, his sandals completely submerged in mud. He took a sip from a flask and readjusted his Chicago Bulls hat against the midday sun. His day was done, but ours, finally out on the river, had just begun — three days and around 20 mosquito bites later.
Yurimaguas has become an unlikely destination for travelers, who now head to the town looking for cheap rides to Iquitos, the ayahuasca capital of the Peruvian Amazon, and a three-day adventure along the Amazon. To local Peruvians, who made up about 50 of the 60 passengers, it is part of their weekly commute. Yurimaguas marks the end of wheels and cement and gives way to murky waters and boats.
We spent the night strung up in hammocks with the rest of the 60 or so passengers on the second deck. Aside from the kitchen that served our meals and the little store that sold gum and mostly beer, a hammock occupied every inch of space on the second deck. In some places, hammocks were stacked three high and even dangled over railings. There were so many hammocks that walking became difficult. To get to the tienda for a beer you’d have to step over a hammock onto a bench, then duck under another two, side step a third, avoid stepping on the three kids asleep on a piece of cardboard, and then duck under another. Just getting out of my hammock required a certain amount of concentration and dexterity so as not to swing my hammock too much and knock into my neighbors, causing a chain reaction of swinging hammocks and annoyed Peruvians.
Below the second deck was where the cargo and livestock was stored and where the flies were the busiest. Above us, the top deck was completely open except for about six private quarters, which are really just metal closets with two bunk beds welded in, and are reserved for the captain, his crew and a few high paying passengers. The private rooms cost around $70, around three times the cost of renting a hammock.
Sleeping a night in a hammock takes either practice or the right amount of alcohol and sleep deprivation, neither of which I had enough of the first night on the river. I woke up countless times in the night and my dreams and my sleepless bits seemed to blur together. Fighting chickens grappled in the corner, menacing bats swooping in, shrills from a baby squirming on a piece of cardboard, large buzzing insects, outburst of laughing and shouting and strange ramblings from a deckhand who mistook me for someone else in the night.
It was all made stranger by the line that had begun to form at 7 a.m., winding through the maze of hammocks towards the front of the ship. Each passenger had a container for a bowl and a utensil in had, something Oscar had failed to mention that I needed.
The line moved fast. The cooks quickly plopped down brown, mysterious breakfast mush from an industrial-sized pot. Quickly, I thought, looking at others pull out their Tupperware — what to use? I took out a notebook from my backpack, the sight of which drew an odd glance or two. The cook plopped down the mystery mush on my notebook with a grin, probably thinking, crazy ass dumb gringo. I later found out that you could in fact rent plates for a small fee, a detail everyone failed to mention.
Just as quickly as the breakfast was served, a line formed for the bathrooms, next to the kitchen. It didn’t move fast, just brief, half-asleep shuffles forward. Four people were at the four faucets that spat out river water, using it to wash their bowls and utensils. One man, only in soggy underwear and a rosary, washed his clothes.
There were four stalls, each with a toilet and an overhead shower head, so that you could conceivably take a shower while sitting on the toilet at the same time. It was soon my turn for a stall. The shower water was sucked up straight from the river and never entirely drained out of the stall, leaving little puddles at the base of the toilet your feet would sink into every time you sat down.
The mornings were like this each day and the afternoons were all about staying cool, a difficult task when trapped on a metal boat in the middle of the Amazon. The savvy Peruvians who made the trip regularly were quick to buy cold beers as soon as it got midday. I followed their lead. Outside of trying to drink your body temperature down, there was nothing else to do to escape the cloth-like heat of the jungle.
Between Yurimaguas and Iquitos, everything pretty much looked the same; only the names of places changed. The water, though, was unlike any water I’d seen before. It wasn’t blue like the ocean or even the dark opaque and ominous blue of the deep ocean that seems lifeless and cruel. It was a dark, frothy brown with zero visibility, the sort of water you imagine hiding hundreds of bloodthirsty crocodiles.
The greatest change was felt when the rains came, which was always quick and violent. You could see the rains approaching from the top deck, a black blob on the horizon. The deckhand could feel the storm coming on before anyone else, and without even looking, would begin storm preparation in earnest. He removed precariously hung hammocks, unfurled plastic sidings to prevent sideways rain and closed the latch on the third story. The rain sounded like nails falling against a metal surface. They would pound for an hour or two, during which time you’d be stuck in your hammock until it passed, chickens roaming the floor and just about every smell trapped on the deck by the plastic siding.
During the evenings, the sunset became the event, as everyone gathered on the top deck, some with beers in hands, as the sun sank. It was like this every night. The sun sat above the jungle, bringing out intense shades of greens and yellows. The moment hung on the water like a bug, briefly, before it too disappeared into the night.
Little wooden boats began to appear alongside ours as the commotion of Iquitos came into focus. Ships twice the size of ours bobbed up and down in the port of Iquitos, some abandoned, marooned on shores until the waters rise in the rainy season. Bananas, grapes, watermelons, oranges — colors popping against the milkshake brown of the Amazon rode by on boats. Luxury cruises with glass walls and seven course meals paraded past with wooden taxis in their wake.
The wild and chaotic commerce of Iquitos, a city flirting with anarchy, was on full display, the large appetite that devoured all the goods on our ship and every cargo ship that sailed into the port. The rapacious desire was the heartbeat of the murky waters and surrounding forests, giving life and abundance just as quickly as it could take it. It is the mañana waiting in the heart of the Peruvian Amazon.