Approaching the eve of my seventh month backpacking Latin America and en route to the initial stop on my scattered travels, I recently found myself on a cargo carrier tranversing Rio Ucayalia from Peru’s magnetic jungle gem Iquitos to the regional capital of Pucallpa, Ucayali region. Whether it was a desire to strike out and mark my impending anniversary in a fresh and relatively unmuddied setting, removed from the romp and stomp of the gringo trail, or whether my now keenly trained nose could not resist the whiff of a four day Amazonian voyage with meals and accomodation included for the bargain basement price of 70 Soles (about 25 US Dollars); I remember my five days aboard Henry V as a colourful mosaic of monkeys, parrots, hammocks, kids and characters- and by far one of the more memorable experiences of my trip to date.
I spent the morning of my departure rushing around central Iquitos to stock up on water, snacks, toiletries, rope and a hammock before finally busing down to Puerto Henry to secure my afternoon passage. Even by midday our brightly painted lancha seemed brimming with hammocks and humans staking claim to the two central passenger levels. I weaved my way through the fold and selected a strategic, breezy position towards the front of the slightly less crammed second deck, where a friendly neighbour rescued me from the public humiliation of erecting my first ever hammock unassisted. (In the following days I was to find myself repeatedly buffered down the line as more passangers came aboard, until I awoke one morning soaked by an early downpour and decided to reevaluate my strategic position).
Night had fallen by the time Henry V was fully laden with moto-taxies, trucks, trunks, chickens, beer crates and still more families of passengers. Great engenuity was excercised in tetrising all this in, nowhere more so than the passenger levels wherein seeming every nook and cranny was now occupied by hammocks, bags and bodies.
A friendly young deck hand cautioned me early in the evening that theft was an inherent issue in such close-quarters – especially, perhaps, for the only foreigner onboard. I hoped that my pivotal role in the recapture of a particularly agile cock would endear me to my new neighbours, but took the added precaution of sleeping on my rucksack full of valuables for the duration of the journey. Lathered in the last of my Bushman’s 80% deet, I was pleasantly suprised to find that I slept like a log each night amidst the sprawl of feet and elbows.
The dormitory directly below mirrored our own: a large nave bisected by a line of long dining tables and benches, itself encased by two rows of tightly fitted hammocks; this central section itself hemmed in by two additional lines of canvas running top-to-tail along an outer wall of coloured windows and steel-benches. In addition to the swinging canopy of bodies, extra floor space was spread over with blankets and toys, and converted to play and sleeping pens by the strong showing of families travelling with children. The resultant obstacle course was ill-suited to a 6′-something frame, making the pilgrimage to the downstairs refectory feel more like a scene from Indiana Jones. While the kids quickly developed an effective four-hoofed hop about the boat I tried my best to emulate the duck-pivot routine of everyone else that first morning as I shuffled and apologised my way towards the front of the que.
Friends of mine who had recently completed a similar journey along Rio Marañon from Yurimaguas to Iquitos had described a smouldering love affair between their boat’s cook and young kitchen hand, played out episodically each meal-time (rough-housing, belt-pulling, oui chef). Sadly no such matinée was included in my ticket price, though watching the kitchen’s florally clad three man team dash about & dish out hot food to some two or three hundred passengers was distraction enough. Each morning my mandatory tuppleware container was filled up with oatmeal broth and bread biscuits, whilst rice, plantain and chicken made up the afternoon and evening meals.
I had naively envisaged a quiet few days of reading, my thoughts drifting away to the selvian soundscape across the water. The reality however was that the ship hummed to an almost constant backing track of chatter, children, reaggaeton and the occasional remix of Gangnam Style. All this actually lent a nice ‘homey’ feel, a tranquility of sorts intermittently puncuated by a booming “DOMINIIIIIIIC!” from one of my apparently lesserly mobile neighbours who found herself perpetually short a son (more often than not Dominic was to be found irritating a baby tamarin monkey that lived down our line of hammocks).
Evenings aboard were a more sociable affair. Both levels backed onto a deck area and a row of shower/toilet cubicles, which doubled as a popular after-dinner congregation point for the kids to play bottle top football and the men to tell grubby jokes. The rooftop deck was generally a more tranquil option, featuring as it did a beautiful and ever-changing panorama of the surrounding tree-plain, as well as some truely breathtaking sunsets.
Amongst a group of new friends were two travelling musicians heading to Cusco and with whom most nights were spent chatting as they went about expertly crafting a new didgeridoo, of all things. One of my favourite aspects of this trip was being thrown in the deep end and forced to practice my dodgey Spanish in conversations ranging from the disinfectant properties of citrus to environmental issues facing the Amazon. It had been sad to see that the only bins on board (those next to the toilets) were infact emptied overboard along with diapers, plastic and all the ship’s refuge; despite a number of signs espousing the importance of protecting the natural beauty of the jungle.
Spirituality proved to be a reoccuring topic of conversation within our group, and one that definitely pushed my comprehension to its limits. In addition to being a musician and an exceedingly patient communicator, didg-playing Rob was a budding writer working on his first work of fiction. Although on multiple occasions I found myself wondering if I had lost the trail of conversation completely and had simply begun making it up, I gathered that the narrative pertained to a loosely biographical spiritual odessey. Unrequited love. Commune with nature. A metaphysical transformation of some description. Thirty-five pages in. How long was it to be? Who was to know? This is not the creative’s way.
On a couple of evenings though, serious conversation gave over to the passing around of vodka or a non-descript bottle of abejachado- a traditional bark and honey remedy that I was assured would bestow upon me an astonishing verility (any doubts as to my translation here aleviated by one man’s enthusiastic forearm gestures after each and every sip). Throughout the course of the four to six day route, boats make a number of stops to load and unload cargo. Our second last night saw an extended stop off at one of the larger port towns on the Ucayali. Seeing the captain strolling leisurely off in the direction of a cold drink was all the encouragement we needed to disembark and explore the town ourselves. Less encouraging was the sight of our ride pulling slowly out of the dock as we reemerged at the water line some two kilometers upstream. A volley of excited shouts and more physical excercise than I have recently grown accustomed to brought ship to shore just long enough for us to jump aboard and make our way sheepishly through a bemused and jeering crowd: “Hey gringo, next time you take a speedboat!”
This experience stands out as one of the more off-beat and interesting of my trip so far. Five days is longer than most backpackers can afford to spend floating through the Amazon in a hammock, but if you do have the time up your sleeve (and a good book), I really couldn’t recommend it enough.
Written by: Andrew Digges is an Arts and Social Sciences honours graduate of the University of Sydney. Before travelling Andrew worked as a youth contact worker in Sydney, but has since been travelling Central and South America for the past 8 months. In South America Andrew is currently teaching English at Milagro School in Huanchaco, Peru.