Saturday, May 19, 2012

Out of the frying pan into the fire.....

This piece was originally written in 2004 in an internet cafe in Buenos Aires, Argentina. It is a detailed recap of my very first day in South America - 3 weeks before I met my husband. It was originally intended to be the introduction to a travel book entitled:

Out of the 'Blue' and into the 'Green and Gringa'
*All names have been changed to protect the identity of my friends.

11 May 2003

I pressed my forehead against the airplane door window in KLM business class, straining to catch that unforgettable first sight of the Andes as the plane tilted left into its circling descent. The landing in Quito was one of the most beautiful and one of the most dangerous - that’s what the suited passengers sitting either side of me had boasted. Not wanting to miss a beat to this nail-biting start of my South American adventure – and to show the passengers around me that I had in fact been listening - I clicked my barely used Canon digital camera incessantly from both sides of the plane. In retrospect my eyes didn’t have the same chance to appreciate what my lens captured.

My seat in business class had been a last minute complimentary upgrade thanks to my ‘Flying Dutchman’ membership and an overbooked economy class - a combination of good fortune that should have dumbstruck me. However, spoiled by a former lifestyle, I didn’t wonder on it too much when I was summoned up to the desk in the passenger lounge to receive my surprise class-upgrade ticket. I waved a nonchalant ‘see you later’ to the good -looking accountant who’d been casually chatting to me, deriving some grim satisfaction from his augmented interest as I rejoined the boarding queue at the front along with the first class and business class passengers.     

I had flown business class on a few occasions over the last year – but more so in the seductive, induction stage of my ‘soon to be ex’ oilfield career with Schlumberger. Still in their wake, it didn’t occur to me then not to take such a luxury for granted – perhaps I hadn’t truly intended on giving it all up at that point. I accepted my good fortune with an ease that belied the worn jeans and baseball cap I was sporting. Nobody would have guessed that I was sipping champagne because I’d timely cashed in a wad of old boarding pass stubs on my last flight out to China – they’d started clogging up my playboy bunny purse - I didn’t act like it wasn’t actually my God-given right to be there.

Once seated and satiated, after a tasty snack and a few glasses of free bubbly, the novelty of all the in-flight activities had started to wane and still too caffeine intoxicated to attempt sleep, I’d been forced to think on the place I was so thoughtlessly heading toward - and even more unwillingly - of that place I had so thoughtfully fled. Ecuador was an obscure destination, or so I’d thought. That any section of the plane could be overbooked seemed a little odd.

I’d felt sure that most passengers would get off in the Caribbean. But when we’d finally re-boarded the plane - after waiting for the all clear on the Quito weather report - my initial prejudices of Ecuador had been subdued when a substantial proportion of passengers remained for the last leg of the flight on to Quito. What was in Ecuador for all of these people with their smart clothes and fancy dresses? My unanswered thoughts meandered from the sure virgin beauty of the mountains to the lush wonders of the jungle, yet inevitably I’d found myself thinking of the oil. There was always oil in the most obscure – unlivable - places. Forcing myself to focus on this cloud’s silver lining, my thoughts flitted assuredly to my good friend and ‘Blue’ colleague Ron Lark, probably already in Quito by now.

Ron’s transferal from China to Ecuador had coincided with the time of my choosing to exhaust my vacation days there; however, the idea of my going to Ecuador had been planted by an external factor, Eric; a drinking friend from my University days, who was currently teaching English in Cuenca. Thanks to my annual vacation allowance I had the freedom to choose anyplace in the world to fly. I first thought tentatively of Ecuador for the simple fact that I already knew somebody there. I further reasoned that Ecuador was as far away from both Beijing and England as could be and part of a mysterious continent of which I was completely ignorant – perhaps the biggest turn on to a born traveler. It seemed as good a place as any to start – whatever I was starting.

But Cuenca was quite far south of Quito, as I understood it, and I was very skeptical of arriving alone on what I considered a high-risk continent. Eric attempted to quash my fears, insisting over MSN messenger that I’d be fine landing in Quito alone – that I had to see the place before I visited him in Cuenca. He assured me it would be no problem to email him when I’d arrived and settled in. I was still dubious, so the plan didn’t turn concrete until the tidings of Ron’s transferal had sunk in.  Knowing that Schlumberger existed in Quito gave me the ‘get out of jail free card’ that buffered the start of my adventure. I could tell myself that this journey was essentially no different; they just would not be waiting in the airport with a sign - as it turned out, Simon would be there waiting instead….

After I’d checked out the exact location of Ecuador on the Internet, and ensured that the British Embassy had not recently warned all Brits to leave, Schlumberger purchased an expensive round trip ticket for me, open-ended for one year. I was leaving China on the pretext of using up my accumulation of vacation days, but with an accepted understanding of my intention to resign. They thought that I might change my mind and I conceded there was a good chance of that happening. I had from then until the end of June - almost 8 weeks in which to find out that the grass was really no greener in South America.

I buckled up now, as the plane leveled out and the seat belt sign indicated that we were soon to land. We were close enough to get a clear view of the snow-capped volcanic landscape skirting the high altitude capital city. I stopped my clicking and stared in wonder at a new beauty. As the extensive development of Quito became shockingly clear, Ecuador earned further reprisal in my eyes. Excitement overwhelmed the usual wave of apprehension as the wheels touched down and the wing fans lifted to break our speed, noisily beating the air stream back giving that false impression of whirring out of control.

My lungs barely endured the waiting as the plane parked and the seat belt sign dinged off, leaving only the forever illuminated no smoking sign. I unbuckled and pulled out my small knapsack from the overhead compartment in one fluid motion. The doors were opened to the outside and I was almost first to leave the air-conditioned interior, straight out into the path of the concentrated equator sunrays. I blinked across to a tiny airport terminal. Somewhere I knew that Simon would already be waiting.

In arrivals a dirty transparent plastic wall cordoned off a lone luggage belt from four immigration desks only two of which were manned. I could see dark, craggy faced men in uniform smoking in the luggage collection area. First inline I smiled my way through and my UK passport was stamped with ‘90 days’ – plenty of time. I glanced left at the immobile luggage belt, happy with myself that I’d not needed to stow any. Fumbling in my knapsack to secure my passport and find my cigarettes, I started for the exit. I slowed my pace when I couldn’t lay my hand on anything remotely cigarette packet like – bollocks…! My box of 20 packs of Marlboro lights was left inside a duty-free bag sitting on the plane! I considered walking away and leaving them for one of the hostesses, but I wasn’t sure if they’d have Marlboro lights in Ecuador. And it was 20 packs….well 18 and a half or so now, it had been a long flight. Somewhere inside of me wanted to delay my meeting with Simon. That thought process alone was enough to leave me gasping… I could really have done with a cigarette or two!

I scanned the baggage claim lounge for help. Nothing really looked hopeful so I approached a man behind a desk in the corner. To say my Spanish was a little limited here would be an overstatement. Unless I had thought to ‘thank’ the man into finding my cigarettes I was pretty much screwed. After my tentative English greeting was rewarded with a less tentative barrage of Spanish, charades became my better option. It had done wonders for me in China. My bad acting involved a lot of simulated puffing and pointing at the plane, and I’d managed to smoke a few of his cigarettes before he found a partial English speaker for me to tell my problem to. They told me to wait and after twenty minutes or so a young Latino came springing through the plastic curtains onto and over the once again immobile luggage conveyor belt with my duty free carrier bag. By now I was the last passenger in the airport in spite of not having stowed luggage beneath the plane. I felt a little guilty about Simon waiting. I was already delayed a couple of hours from the extended stopover in the Caribbean where I’d seen little more than the inside of a smoker’s lounge although I’d felt the heat. We’d had to wait for the weather to clear in order to make a safe landing at Quito’s dangerous altitude.

I still walked incredibly slowly out of the terminal into the late morning sun, hoping to spot Simon before he saw me. Outside the airport was crowded with many people. My untuned hearing allowed me to block out the inane babbling so I sauntered passed cab drivers and numerous promoters without comment or apology.  Just beyond the rabble my eyes focused calmly on a familiar boyish grin, they widened however catching on a small flash of red that followed his wave of recognition. I stopped and looked hard at the rose that he was holding a little unsurely by his side. My tummy squirmed uncomfortably at the thought of romance and I thought fleetingly of Paul in China - I didn't fly across the globe to escape from one messed up relationship only to fall straight into another....

Simon was a mutual friend of Eric’s and mine, also from university. He’d never been more than that. But some boy friends were harder to keep as just that than others. I’d guarded myself well for the three years of university behind a long distance boyfriend, but he’d expired along with my ‘studenthood’. I don’t really understand how or why Simon had fallen into this equation. His planned trip to South America just so happened to conveniently fall in with my flight dates. Mindful of being alone in a new country - this time really being alone without the protection of my company Schlumberger - I allowed the fear of the unknown to override my bravado and in spite of a desire for an independent adventure I agreed for him to collect me at Quito airport.  I told myself it would be nice to catch up, I wasn’t above telling myself a lie in order to kickstart my adventure. The truth was I needed him and whatever I suspected his motives were at the time – I had my own. And, in spite of all, it was nice to see him.

“Is that all your luggage?” Simon was shocked to see my minimalist bag. I’d packed for good weather, deeming my jeans and trainers as necessities then a few changes of underwear, a bikini, and my lonely planet guide ‘South America on a Shoestring’. It had been my most expensive purchase after my ticket. I had my debit card, and there was enough on there to re-supply my wardrobe regularly for many moons to come. I hated the idea of a big heavy backpack and I wanted my mild scoliosis to stay mild. Besides that, I hadn’t planned how long I would be there and what I would be doing. So it didn’t matter what I had with me.. I figured I would figure it all out - in time.

We wandered out of the airport and started to walk, neither of us knew in what direction. It was nice to walk in the sun for a while, especially as I’d been sitting down for so long. We chatted about how we’d both wasted the past couple of years since University. I had a lot of negative things to say about working in the oilfield; Simon talked about his travels in Korea. We talked about what we could do in the next 4 weeks; that was how long Simon had before he returned to England. He wanted to climb a mountain, and scuba dive.  Both ideas sounded fun. He seemed to think we could see Ecuador in the first 2 weeks, then Peru in the other. The airport was a long way out from the part of the city where Simon was staying, and nervous about how many cigarettes I would smoke on the walk, we hailed a cab and the driver took us into ‘Gringo-Landia’ named so after the incredible number of tourists that come to this area. I don’t know how much we were charged. I’m glad I now can’t remember. I was surprised that Simon spoke Spanish. That would certainly make my life easier for a few days.

Simon’s hostel was within the realms of Gringo-Land. He already had a room where we could stay. I hadn’t been planning on sharing my room. The thought didn't even occur to me, so I wasn't used to the idea. I didn’t voice my concern - I simply didn't want to be un-cool about it, so I waited until we arrived at Hostel Del Sol to see what the room was like. Simon took me upstairs into a small room with a single bed. I hadn’t even seen the bed at first with all Simon’s crap exploded about the room. My first thought had been, ‘how does he carry so much shit?’ followed – swiftly – by, ‘does he expect me to snuggle up alongside him in that?’ It wasn’t going to happen. I knew that, he didn’t yet. I dumped my bag down where I could find space and delaying a potentially awkward conversation I agreed to go and investigate Quito.

I’d arrived in Quito the 11th May, midday on a Sunday. Nothing was open. We walked around for more than two hours before eventually finding a restaurant. I ordered a cocktail and Simon had a beer. He’d mentioned something very English, as we were walking around like, “Let’s go and get shit-faced tonight.” I didn't have the heart yet to smash all of his illusions of a fun time with me, so I tried to soften the blow by consuming a little alcohol. I told myself I was just being a good sport. In reality I needed a stiff drink.

The bill went onto my debit card, then we ventured a little further adrift of Gringo-Land finding the dingiest club ever that you could imagine to come across, open midday Sunday – and so of course we decided to go inside and take a look – I really didn't want anything more to drink, so I don’t know why I accepted one. The place was definitely sketchy although I was not far from oblivious at the time and still ignorant to the real threat Ecuador poses. The kids inside were underage, and the beer was rank, so for this reason I steered us out of there almost straight away. We politely sipped our beers until the plastic cups were more empty than full, then we slipped away without being disturbed save for a few steady eyes that surveyed our person intently. I had developed a pretty naïve first impression, and that was ok by me. Nobody really knows when they are being naïve.

As we reentered Hostel Del Sol, I suggested a bigger and better room with two beds. Simon didn’t realize how big a compromise this was for me. He spoke in Spanish to the receptionist and I started to feel an uncomfortable dependency on him. A large part of my naivety was in believing that everybody would try to speak English to me. Ruined by Schlumberger, an unwelcome realization that I’d never before actually been anywhere on my own was starting to set in. Pleading exhaustion I managed to avoid getting shit-faced without actually losing too much face and we both slept a long time. 

Thursday, May 17, 2012

"I'm just gettin' on a boat" EXTRACT 4: packing strategies

Monday, 27th October 2003

Today is day six of Daniel's and my jungle adventure down the Rio Napo. Only two days after leaving Quito, Ecuador we crossed the historically dangerous South American jungle border, which separates Ecuador from its former enemy in the south, and arrived at our current location, Pantoja; a small Peruvian community sited next to a large military base. We've been living here for the past four days, standing by until the boat anchored at the side of the river – the boat we’ve come to know as the Lancha – departs, and the next part of our river journey across the continent can begin.

8:00 pm: packing strategies

Only 8 o’clock in the evening, and we’re both already happily snuggled up in our respective hammocks, middle deck on the Lancha, complete with sleeping bags and pillows. There aren’t so many mosquitoes over the river so we’ve packed up our nets – I wish I’d known that a few days ago! Our packing and transportation mission has been a success! Everything we own is now strategically positioned behind the back wall of the crew cabins, front centre of the middle deck - not quite directly - beneath our hammocks. Our hammocks are hanging from the centre rail to the port side rail, offset from all of our possessions - a slight cause for concern! We’ve attempted to minimize risk by fastening everything together using old hammock rope and wrapping the stringed-together-luggage inside a large black waterproof sheet like an enchilada. Dan’s guitar is the furthest possession away from us - and incidentally his most valuable – so we’re hoping no one will be ballsy enough to attempt a robbery.

Getting items in and out of our bags is a delicate operation, one which we have a few days ahead of us to master. I’m in charge of the small green bag - the same bag that contained all my worldly possessions when I first set foot on South American soil only five and a half months earlier - allocated for: all necessary food items like crackers, bowls and - most importantly - Nescafe; entertainment i.e. books, sketch pad and diary; ablution necessities such as toothbrushes and TP; and all miscellaneous items that we can’t possibly live without for 3 days, and that hopefully no-one else would want to nick, items such as Dan’s glasses, sun cream and insect repellant. I’m also accountable for my medium sized blue bag – initially bought for trekking Machu Picchu - which now contains both of our limited wardrobes.

Daniel is our designated padlock-key master, responsible for the security of the big blue hold-all containing all semi-necessary items, more valuable possessions like our cameras, and his ‘Gregory’ rucksack half full of currently unnecessary items. Daniel also holds the key to the removable top section of his rucksack, housing his CD’s and player, which he’s keeping by his side. Passports, money and bank cards have been hidden deep inside the main section of Dan’s rucksack, in a place that we hope is completely and utterly inaccessible. So far we’re both pleased with our luggage system, and it’s a great weight off Dan’s mind in particular to have everything secured and ready for the boat departure in the morning.

Daniel is quietly attempting to read his pirated Spanish version of the latest Harry Potter he bought in Quito. I’m bored with writing in the diary, and like a kid on Christmas Eve; I’m far too excited about the next part of our journey to just sit quietly and relax. I want him to talk to me some more about our adventure and to help me brainstorm ideas for our book, so I keep pestering him. I’ve been asking him the most distractive questions I can think of; yet, all I can get out of him are faint murmurs that barely acknowledge my existence. I’m sensing he’s a little anxious about leaving tomorrow, a Paddington Bear trait I’m now very familiar with – I need to make him laugh, that should loosen him up a little. On top of this anxiety, he’s not yet completely satisfied with his hammock set-up; apparently the sides of the hammock are now looser than the centre. I suspect he’s afraid of falling out when he rolls over in his sleep.

Watching him intently has rewarded me with a begrudging shadow of a smile - or maybe I could be imagining it…. No, there was definitely a flicker of amusement. Come to think of it, I haven’t seen him turn a page for a while now….. It’s time to steal his book!

“Jo!” Dan reprimands, but there’s no real anger......... he likes the attention.

I smile mischievously. The diary is left open in my lap.
Boy in La Lancha

“You’re ornery” he accuses me...... Never before Daniel had I come across such a word…..

“I’m always horny,” I laugh at him, purposely ignoring his comment.

He pulls my hammock to his to kiss me - Making out really is the nicest thing in a hammock….

Eventually I give him his book back. I’m still not ready to go to sleep though, in spite of it now being close to my Napo bedtime.

“Why don’t you quit buggin’ me and write in your diary?” Dan suggests - I think he’s forgotten that the diary is supposed to be a joint venture. On a different note, he’s also discovered that he likes to swing our hammocks in sync while he’s reading. Maybe he’s gotten more reckless as a result of now having a not-so-fatal falling distance down to the deck. I don’t appreciate the rocking motion as much as he does, especially as right now my hammock isn’t hanging freely, and my bum keeps grazing the bags below me on each pass. It’s also impossible to write legibly! I resist the swinging motion by pushing my hand against the cabin wall. The close proximity of our hammocks means we both have to swing or neither can – Sorry Dan. The cute whimper of protest coming from Dan’s hammock draws a smile to my lips.

Before I go to sleep, I want to make an attempt at completing today’s diary entry about the afternoon’s packing venture…. Daniel has promised me he’ll make a contribution tomorrow…

While writing my previous diary entry earlier this afternoon, numerous inquiries from Daniel as to the whereabouts of this and that finally forced me to put the diary down and help him with a most worrisome task of his: moving and securing all that we have to our temporary ‘home to be’ for the next three days. To get the ball rolling – and to emphasize to Ruperto that we were in fact moving out today - we took our hammocks across first.

Contrary to Captains advice - he’d advised us to hang our hammocks behind the crew cabins to break the wind - we elected a corner spot, starboard next to the stairs connecting the lower and middle decks, as we were more concerned with the safety of our possessions as appose to being windswept, and we thought we’d be better able to guard our bags if they were in a corner. The captain came up to see how we were getting along. He saw our set-up and explained to us many reasons why we should move to the front of the deck, sheltered behind the cabins. He gave a very convincing argument, and because we were already really warming to him, we decided to heed his advice; after all, the Captain must know his ship best!

Before carrying anything more across, we decided to take advantage of the sun’s drying capability and wash our accumulation of stinky clothes at the watering hole. We also needed to wash the dried rice from our neglected lunch pots before we could pack them away. Hermila let us use her plastic bowl, and with only our gritty pink dish soap we set about cleaning the pots and clothes at the communal water supply at the side of the river.

José sauntered passed the watering hole on his way back from lunch, and on seeing us, he stopped to make fun of Dan’s scrubbing clothes. He pretended to be offended that we hadn’t invited him to share our lunch, but his permanent cheeky grin belied him of any true feelings of resentment, and rubbing his large belly he proceeded to gloat about the delicious lunch he’d just eaten for $1US a few houses up from Ruperto’s. Laughing we agreed to go there with him tonight.

After we’d finished washing everything, our arms and legs were itching from dried on soap splashes, so we decided to rinse off; however, we couldn’t resist throwing panfulls of the refreshing filtered river water all over each other to cool ourselves. We’d been at the watering hole for close to an hour by then and seen many villagers come and go: some to collect water in buckets for cooking, some to wash pots or clothes like us, and others to bathe themselves. Having spent this extended period of time sharing the communal wash area with a mixture of inhabitants from Pantoja, watching them cleanse their bodies with their hands beneath the clothes they were wearing, I felt my inhibitions draining away along with the soap suds. For the first time in four days I washed myself properly – not counting dips in the river - using our pink dish soap and clad only in bra and shorts. I finally had the courage to copy the villagers and intangibly wash my private parts in public. The experience was a delicious one – I’m proud of this newfound confidence to wash alongside all villagers; man, woman and child. I only regret it has taken me four days to have the nerve! We didn’t have our razors with us, so we agreed that before dark, we would return to shave all undesirable body hair in preparation for the boat journey ahead.

Girl carrying her washing back the watering hole
On the next trip over to the Lancha, I carried the ‘clean’ clothes and left Dan on the middle deck to start organizing our belongings while I headed up to the top deck to hang them out in the sun; however, I was abruptly overcome by an urgent toilet need. Oblivious to the whereabouts of the toilet on the Lancha I raced back to Ruperto’s house only to find him already sitting there, brazenly, with the door wide open for all family and guests to see! The sight of him shocked me, and I quickly retreated hoping that he hadn’t seen me see him – I doubted he would be embarrassed. Strangely I was more afraid that he would be angered at this invasion of his privacy – despite him openly occupying the only toilet in the guest house. The proof of somebody actually sitting on the seat-less bowl, that I was afraid to hover over and loathe to even stand on without rinsing my shoes off afterwards, was enough to take my mind off the formerly imminent diarrhea, and I managed to hold on and wait a very precarious ten minutes.

Once the emergency was over, I collected the miscellaneous items left in our old room and headed back on over to the Lancha to check on Dan’s progress. By this time Daniel had cleverly secured my mini rape alarm, a convenient gift my big brother bought for me a few Christmas’s ago, between his guitar and the big blue hold-all, now being utilized to securely house the majority of our belongings. This is Daniel’s ingenious solution to the problem of leaving our things unsupervised. The rape alarm is by no means loud enough to alert the captain – it’s doubtful it will even wake the person in the next hammock - but hopefully just its presence alone will be enough to dissuade any potential thieves.

We didn’t finish arranging all our belongings to Dan’s satisfaction until late afternoon, and we were left with just enough time before dark to return to the watering hole to shave. Our small palm held mirror makes it incredibly difficult for Dan to shave by himself. I’ve tried holding it for him, but as it turns out, it’s much easier and more intimate to shave him myself. After carefully removing Dan’s stubble, I quickly shaved my arm pits and legs while there was still sufficient light. Both shaven, together we returned to our hammocks on the Lancha, and side by side we watched the sun set over the Rio Napo from Pantoja for the last time. Swinging gently, we discussed the possibility of, maybe one day, transforming our diary entries into a novel telling of our Napo adventures.

Pantoja Sunset
I’m getting really tired now and even though there’s much more to write, it’s about time I put the diary down and close my eyelids. I set heavy eyes upon Daniel, still deeply engrossed in the realms of Harry Potter. I can’t wait for tomorrow. Tomorrow we’ll be embarking on the next part of our journey…..together.

“I love you.” I say…… He smiles back at me, but I’m already asleep.

"I'm just gettin' on a boat" EXTRACT 3: chainsaws and turtle tracks

Monday, 27th October 2003

Today is day six of Daniel's and my jungle adventure down the Rio Napo. Only two days after leaving Quito, Ecuador we crossed the historically dangerous South American jungle border, which separates Ecuador from its former enemy in the south, and arrived at our current location, Pantoja; a small Peruvian community sited next to a large military base. We've been living here for the past four days, standing by until the boat anchored at the side of the river – the boat we’ve come to know as the Lancha – departs, and the next part of our river journey across the continent can begin.

2:00 pm: chainsaws and turtle tracks

It’s early afternoon, and the heat outside is incredible. We’ve just finished eating our egg and rice lunch. In spite of Dan’s attempt to spice ‘that shit up’, it was painfully bland, and so incredibly filling that I couldn’t finish it. José kept shouting through our bedroom door that he was hungry, wanting to know when lunch would be ready. Once he got bored teasing us – a long time after it became boring for us - he disappeared somewhere to eat. Neither he nor the plastics salesman is eating Hermila’s meals….. Maybe the high prices are universal, and we’re not being charged the Gringo tax that our cynical, travelled minds have come to expect!

Dan has started packing up our room. He’s already taken down my hammock, impatient to secure the best spot on the Lancha, so now I have to sit on the hazardous splinter thin wood that Ruperto thinks qualifies as a bed in order to write this. I want to record the details of our canoe trip before the memory diminishes. Dan will have to pack around me until my heavy lunch has digested.

Kids playing on the river
Armed with water, cushions and cameras and with high-factor lotion covered bodies, we followed Rodrigo the short 10 meter distance from house front to riverside. Rodrigo’s elder brother, his sister Anna and their cousin were all coming with us. We’d no idea what they had in store for us, and I felt more than a little uneasy when the STHL chainsaw was lowered into the boat. I didn’t want to amuse Daniel with my new and more ridiculous malaria dream; he already thinks my imagination has been influenced by too many horror movies.... I couldn’t help but glance his way to see if any fear registered in his face. He gave me an ironic smile and squeezed my hand. With a reckless rush of adrenalin fighting the tight feeling of apprehension in my gut, I held firm to Dan. I hoped he’d remembered to bring his knife.

The small canoe felt crowded with six people and a chainsaw. We sat quietly in the middle of the boat facing forwards with the ‘limb removing device’ at our feet. Anna sat at the front of the canoe, sometimes facing us, and sometimes watching out over the front. Her brothers and cousin sat behind Daniel and me at the back of the canoe with the motor.

The Napo today, like all others, was a rippling brown vast expanse of water. We were covering the same segment of river that we had come down four days earlier in our haste to get to Pantoja. Within seconds my shoulders were ablaze, despite the factor 30 Daniel had liberally applied to my body only a few minutes earlier. As we passed the numerous unmanned military outposts, Ecuadorian and Peruvian alike, green clad men would race down to attention at the sound of the motor. Ruperto’s family are familiar faces in these - all too recent - hostile parts of the jungle border; we, however, are not, and a dreadlocked Americano, sporting a white redhead on his arm is definitely worth at least a short amount of the military guards’ attention. Most would shout a greeting or just smile and wave; others however, not having so much to occupy themselves with during their lazy days, would want to chat and ask questions. Gladly, none were hostile, and there being witness to this ‘chainsaw outing’ was mildly comforting to me if not a little naïvely.

We didn’t see any animals on the way upstream, except for a Kingfisher that Dan pointed out flying over the canopy, and nobody else spoke a word. Rodrigo and Anna seemed to be preoccupied looking for something. Daniel thought at first that they were trying to find an elusive anaconda for us, but soon, we understood that they were scanning the river banks for turtle tracks. The canoe glided upstream for thirty minutes or so before being brought to rest on a flat sand bank island midway across the Napo.

Anna was the first to scramble off into the silt sludge. Everyone climbed out of the canoe after her. And so, unquestioningly, I followed, stepping tentatively over the chainsaw and sinking my feet ankle-deep into the soft sediments of the river bank. Anna and her family members spread out like fingers across the sand bank to cover more ground. Daniel and I headed to a higher grassy region beyond the flat sands to attend to a call of nature in privacy. I couldn’t help glancing back over my shoulder to make sure that the chainsaw was left inside the canoe.

After a stolen toilet stop we found the others and joined their search strangely aghast at the errand in mind. From what we could make out, they were trying to track turtle nests to steal their eggs for food, and to take any turtles too if they could find any. I followed with a hidden determination to undermine any successful discovery if I possibly could. I was very relieved when they couldn’t find any turtle eggs - admittedly, more relieved that Ruperto’s family weren’t planning on chainsaw massacring us on this particular sand bank of the Napo!

We headed further upstream and stopped again at another sand bank. This time Dan and I stayed in the boat in silent protest for the endangered Amazonian turtles. The cousin stayed with us, and so Dan used the opportunity to ask him where we would be stopping to spend our Ecuadorian dollars. He looked at us with a blank expression and replied, “No hay.” When the family of turtle poachers returned empty handed to the boat, they started to turn the boat south, an indication that we wouldn’t be going any closer to the Ecuadorian border than this. A little frustrated, we tried to reason with Rodrigo that we needed to buy some rice with our dollars. He told us that supplies had all been sold yesterday, and there was nothing to buy here. It had been a fruitless mission from the offset. Like his father, Rodrigo tried to appease us – or at least to postpone our disappointment - by suggesting that we try and use our dollars at either of the Ecuadorian military outposts that we’d already passed a number of times now, on our way back downstream. We agreed, resigned to the fact that we would have to keep hold of our Ecuadorian coins a little longer if not indefinitely, and the canoe started to cut through the water more effortlessly south on its course home to Pantoja.

As we neared a large fallen trunk trapped motionless in the tributary, their was a sudden burst of excitement from our family of guides as they shut off the motor and tried to steer the canoe towards the drift wood – had they spotted an anaconda; why else would they be this agitated? After a failed attempt from Anna to secure the canoe to the tree trunk as we sailed past, the lads had to fire up the motor and turn the boat one hundred and eighty degrees upstream to try again. This time they used the engine and slowly lined the boat up alongside the fallen tree, successfully securing the canoe still.

Rodrigo and his chainsaw
Seeing our perplexity, Rodrigo enlightened us with the simple fact that they were planning to take this large wood trunk back to village; apparently drift wood is easy pickings out in the jungle. This was the obvious reason for a massive chainsaw, accompanying us on this short trip upstream……. My insane relief was immense, and finally I could laugh full heartedly at their antics. The cousin drew the proverbial short straw and had to get into the river and push the trunk up from beneath, so it could be cut out of water. He was very reluctant to get into the murky brown fluid - I don’t know whether he was more afraid of piranhas or anacondas! Anna teased him mercilessly making the whole party laugh, even me, although I couldn’t understand a word of what was being said.

They encouraged me to hold the chainsaw so that Dan could take my picture. I didn’t want to go any closer to the object of my malaria dream, but I went along with it anyway, so as not to dampen their infectious light spirits. The chainsaw was then used to cut the trunk into two decent sized pieces that could be towed back to Pantoja. After the job was done, they started to play around, and I really began to relax and enjoy myself. They tied the trunks to the back of the boat, one on either side of the boat, and we set off home.

By this time my feet were burning, once again a vivid red square pattern strapped in my Columbian sandals. The time was approaching 11:00 am, and the ‘close to’ midday sun radiation was increasingly unbearable. We sacrificed our backside comfort and used our cushions in order to protect our feet. Rodrigo was suddenly on his feet again and quite animated. I glanced towards the direction he was motioning half expecting to see another fallen tree of sorts, but I saw nothing. Dan, however, was already on his feet, camera lens fully extended, his breath held on one small word…. ‘Fin.’ My memory flashed back to another time on another boat in the Galapagos when Daniel had uttered that word to me. The dolphin display that had followed is still now too incredible in memory for me to do it justice in text. I knew his eyes were already on target, and my eyes followed his to the rippling water just upstream from our canoe.

This is what we’d been watching out for since we had first set eyes on the larger than expected Amazon tributary. Two - as far as we could tell - incredibly shy pink dolphins, playing beneath the murky brown, sweet waters of the Napo. They showed their fins a few times, but they didn’t come any further out of the water, and Daniel only managed to get a few rippling water shots. I didn’t see any pink, I could barely make out a full fin, but Dan’s Canon lens told him a clearer story. They were heading upstream. And despite Rodrigo’s attempt to track them a little, they never showed themselves again. I think they were scared away by the close proximity of the canoe motor. These dolphins weren’t anywhere near as showy as the Galapagos dolphins. Maybe they aren’t as used to tourists, but it didn’t matter because these dolphins were fresh water dolphins, which are a rare breed, and we were both euphoric to have seen them.

All this excitement happened next to the Ecuador out post. The soldier there on duty subsequently informed us that all food supplies had been exhausted the day before. But after the dolphin episode, we were far too keyed-up to consider our money situation. Eager to further our budding Napo education, the soldier pointed out that there were many fish in this part of the river, and that was why dolphins frequently swam here. On the short ride home Rodrigo told Daniel they had some pet turtles at home suggesting that Dan take some better photographs. I think Rodrigo was concerned that Daniel didn’t manage to get any great shots on our outing and that we might be disappointed. On the contrary, we’re just super grateful to have even been in the presence of such fairy-tale creatures as pink dolphins!

Daniel and I had a disagreement as the canoe pulled into the river bank. The trip is bringing out a personality clash that we hadn’t yet come across during our five months together in Ecuador. Both of us are more strong willed than either will admit to the other, and in our stupid stubbornness, we can’t avoid ‘back seat’ cooking, cleaning… you name it, the other can do it better! Even irrelevant decisions are cause for debate, like which knot is better for hammock safety? We make quite a mutinous team. Dan keeps telling me, ‘All teams need to practice’…… we’re definitely getting a lot of that! This particular dispute came from a terrible attempt to agree on a plan of action for the afternoon move. We were both feeling ravenous and far too hot to boot, but before we could stave our hunger, we needed to buy groceries. Hermila’s next door neighbour, like a few other women in Pantoja, sells an extremely limited selection of items out of the front of her house. Hers is the only place we’ve found so far to buy a cold coca cola for a dollar, but only after ‘first dark’ when the electricity has kicked in, and her fridge has had time to cool down the drinks inside. I was preoccupied with sorting out lunch, and Dan worked hard to convince me to cool down at the watering hole first. On this occasion it turned out that Dan was right, and I really did need to cool down. After thoroughly soaking ourselves through, we felt loads better, and we were laughing again. At the neighbour’s house we bought supplies for the boat journey; and, in a strange twist of fate, the extremely friendly lady accepted our Ecuadorian dollars without batting an eyelid! Funny that… our hosts had told us they weren’t valuable here in Pantoja! We returned to our adverse guest house to prepare lunch.

Monday, May 14, 2012

"I'm just gettin' on a boat" EXTRACT 2: dollars and doubts

Monday, 27th October 2003

Today is day six of Daniel's and my jungle adventure down the Rio Napo. Only two days after leaving Quito, Ecuador we crossed the historically dangerous South American jungle border, which separates Ecuador from its former enemy in the south, and arrived at our current location, Pantoja; a small Peruvian community sited next to a large military base. We've been living here for the past four days, standing by until the boat anchored at the side of the river – the boat we’ve come to know as the Lancha – departs, and the next part of our river journey across the continent can begin.

9:00 am: dollars and doubts

It’s nearly 9am now, and we’re sitting on the front porch of Ruperto’s jungle abode waiting for Rodrigo to finish sawing up the trunk he’s currently working on. He’s unnervingly skilled at handling a chainsaw. We’ve been watching him and his elder brother and cousin craft unbelievably flawless planks for Ruperto’s boat using a very large handheld STHL chainsaw for most of the morning. Rodrigo holds the record for speed and craftsmanship, averaging one trunk every ten minutes. He only has this last one to complete before he takes us out in the family motored canoe, so I thought I’d use the time to enter the rest of this morning’s events in the diary.

After breakfast, Daniel and I washed up our pots at the public watering hole, a task so far only seen to be done by the women and children of Pantoja. As always, Dan earned himself many amused glances from the male inhabitants working on Ruperto’s boat, all stripped to the torso and sweating hard from heavy exertion under the hot morning sky.

When we returned to the porch, Daniel gave Ruperto some soles to buy petrol. This money exchange prompted Hermila to ask if we could pay for the meals we’d already eaten, so Daniel gave her the Ecuadorian change that we’d set aside to pay for our meals in Pantoja. To our surprise and much to our dismay, Hermila said that we owed more money than we’d calculated; that her lunches were in fact double the price of what we’d thought and budgeted for. Adding salt to the fresh wound, she refused to take our Ecuadorian coins saying that she could only accept the Peruvian equivalent in soles.

After this confusion, I began to fear that maybe we had misunderstood the cost of our board also; after all, the cost of meals had initially seemed straightforward enough. We probed José first to see if a going rate existed. He told us that he was paying $2 US for his own room and a bed; he wasn’t sure if we were getting charged for two per person. Daniel soon discovered the unwelcome ‘truth’ directly from the horse’s mouth; that between the two of us, we owe $4 US a night; an expense we are trying to avoid by sleeping in hammocks.

Both misunderstandings could be blamed on the language barrier. This may even be Ruperto’s intention, but even with the strange and unfamiliar Spanish dialects here in the Amazonas jungle of North Peru, Dan’s Spanish is too good for him to have made such an error. We suspect it’s more likely an attempt on Ruperto’s part to exploit our assumed economic advantage by using this easy excuse - Ruperto is definitely giving these two travelers more credit than we deserve, we simply don’t have the cash with us!

Daniel tried his hand at diplomatic Spanish with Ruperto, earning us a total $1 US reduction from each night. We’ve decided not to eat anymore of Hermila’s overpriced meals, and we’re going to move our home over to the Lancha when we get back from our day trip. Somehow three more dollars seems quite a lot. The captain told us, on our first meeting yesterday, that we could sleep in our hammocks on board the Lancha until its departure, at no extra cost. We declined this friendly gesture to avoid offending our current host family.... perhaps a foolish sentiment. The Lancha is supposed to be leaving early tomorrow morning anyway, so in spite of the morning’s turn of events, it’s high time we moved our home over there.

But now we’re in a slightly worse-off position money wise than we’d hoped to be and we’re afraid that the Ecuadorian coins we’d been counting on will have no more value to us, being that they’re apparently already useless this close to the border …..Anne definitely didn’t mention that small detail! That leaves us with a fair way to go on a very tight budget of Peruvian soles, before we can get to a bank or dollar exchange in Iquitos.

In an attempt at appeasement, Ruperto has told us that we can take our Ecuadorian dollars on the boat trip upstream and buy food supplies, or maybe some fish hooks – I assume he means for catching our own dinner - closer to the border. At this we are feeling a little reprieved.

Rodrigo has killed the chainsaw. After four days on dry land, we’re happy to be ‘gettin´ on a boat’......

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

A Darwinian Love Affair

For those of you that haven't already heard the tale of how I met my husband, here's a little love story about a hippy hobo and a lost lady destined for love......

9 years ago I worked offshore in China. I was a Field Engineer in the oil industry, but after a short stint on the rigs I'd had my fill - enough to last me a lifetime. I resigned unceremoniously and hopped on a plane across the world - my destination Ecuador, South America. I had a few University friends running around on the Gringo trail. It was as good a place as any to start living again.

After a reckless few weeks backpacking off track with an old uni buddy, we flirted too close to danger and were held up at gunpoint on a quaint fishing village beach. Thankfully the biggest casualties were a pair of Sketchers and my Fossil watch - my buddy fared roughly the same. But heeding fair warning we headed back to the relative safety of Quito and Gringolandia, licking our wounds and thanking our lucky stars.

The mugging was a major bummer, and it left a nasty taste in my mouth for backpacking - and unfortunately my buddy also. Feeling like I was in 'checkmate' I wandered aimlessly down a street in Quito passing myriads of internet cafs and fabric vendors, digging fruitlessly in the bottom of my local woven bag for some matches for my Marlborough Light - wishing fate would step in and lend a helping hand, which of course it did.

A fellow traveler and smoker (a trustworthy stranger in these parts) sitting on a bollard on the pavement offered his lighter, and we got to chatting. He was Canadian, and I liked the way he sounded. I needed a friend and a new travel buddy with ideas. He had great ones, and in a few hours I was accompanying my new friend to a small tourist office to book ourselves on the very next flight and boat tour to the Galapagos Islands.

Buzzing with excitement we headed back to our respective hostels to pack for the next day, passing by a small restaurant bar called H.V.H along the way. Danny, the guy that ran the joint, was outside punting the place. A band was playing that night  - he indicated down the road to a small, (and oddly) suited-up dude, with blonde dreadlocks, who was hurrying away carrying a guitar that looked half his size - and the food deals were great, so I made a 'date' with the Canadian for that evening to celebrate our imminent cruise plans.

I remember my hair was braided. I remember I was the slimmest I'd ever been in my life. I remember I was wearing a pair of  well worn 'Jesus' sandals, handed down to me from a friend. Faded flared jeans sat low on my hips, and a brief yellow tank top showed off my tan. It's not hard to remember as those were almost the entire contents of my rucksack. I'd neglected to buy a bigger backpack, and so the only clothes I had, save for a denim skirt and bikini, were the ones on my back - my trainers had already been nicked!

Dan gigging in Quito, 2003
I don't remember many details about my new found travel companion. His name was Mark, and together we made fun of the kooky lead singer on stage. I remember everything about that kooky singer. The suited hippy had taken off his jacket, but was still wearing a necktie, and his long wayward blonde dreadlocks were sticking outwards from beneath a Santa Clause hat - it was the first day of June. He strummed slowly on his acoustic guitar watching the audience over a pair of wire-rimmed John Lennon glasses, as he slowly and deeply bastardized the intro to the upbeat Beatles classic 'Hard Day's Night'.

It was funny - but only to start with. And then it got really really good, and I was singing and dancing in my chair to the groovy little cover-band we'd happened across. My day had turned from hopeless to happy in a few short hours. We stayed until the band took a break. And that eccentric little hippy with the big voice came and sat right behind Mark and me. Our morning flight was early, so we hadn't planned on staying later, but lulled by the band's presence in the bar we hung out a little longer.

Dan and Jo, H.V.H. Quito, 2003
He asked who we were, and it was a little unnerving to return his intense gaze. He really paid attention. After some lighthearted discourse we soon discovered that the Musician/English Teacher (hence the suit) was also Galapagos bound the following morning - school was on a break. The coincidence didn't mean much that night. The Galapagos islands are pretty big, and many boats of all shapes and sizes set out on tours each day.

But it was fun for us all to have a common journey in our sights. The singer went back to singing, and Mark and I - after listening politely to a few more covers - left the little bar. I put a meager tip in the band's collection tin on our way out - and earned a thrilling 'Thank you Josie' in a quiet low timbre. A little disconcerted I avoided eye contact and smiled goodbye.

The next morning I think I arrived with Mark, but when I got to the boarding lounge I was alone. And the velvet toned "Josie" that welcomed me was unmistakable. In the light of day, the hippy singer was less mysterious, but just as intriguing. The suit had been dropped for a Guayabera shirt over a wife-beater, thai fisher pants and some funky strap sandals that I soon learned were Chacos.

'Dan' was good-naturedly beating himself up for having just dropped his new camera lens. It was a large professional looking camera - and not a digital. Lucky for me my new standard digital camera had survived the beach robbery. This enigmatic hippy had only recently permitted himself such an elaborate purchase after banning himself previously for committing the same blunder. His self discipline was a little alarming, and not so in line with his dreadlocks. I admit I was fascinated.

Mark's arrival put an end to further discovery, and he was surprised and perhaps a little disappointed to have last night's singer in our midst once again. The flight was not seat allocated so Mark sat beside me and Dan sat behind Mark, who it turned out suffered acutely from fear of flying.

A mischievous side soon emerged from Dan, which was incredibly infectious - if a little obnoxious - and his merciless teasing of Mark was hard to resist. I was attracted by how easily he was to be around and the laughter in his eyes and lips. I didn't want to have to say goodbye when the plane touched down in the islands - not just yet.

I don't remember how he came to be in the seat beside me. But I remember him leaning over and showing me an oil related article. I thought I detected a hint of disapproval in his demeanor, and I knew then I liked him as I wanted to lie. I wanted to deny my treacherous oil background, and pledge allegiance to all hippies - in particularly this one. But I didn't lie. I told him where I'd come from, and what I'd done. He surprised me by showing intrigue. There was no hint of disapproval, just interest, and something more that made my heart beat a little faster.

When our plane landed he waited by our side. And when our pick-up truck arrived he tagged along with us in the bed of the truck, until we arrived at our unnervingly small boat. It wasn't a coincidence. The musician/hippy/photographer hadn't prebooked on a tour - he was hoping to score a last minute deal, and (as I learned much later) he already had his sights set on more than just our boat.

We all boarded, and Mark and I checked out our above deck shared quarters. I could hear Dan's voice belting out 'Hotel California' from below deck. The guy was more interesting than anyone I'd met in forever. I'd been blown away by the fluent Spanish that had come tumbling out of him when we climbed on board and introduced ourselves to the boat tour guide, and the subsequent banter and negotiations that followed between our guide and Dan thereafter. He was singing for a discounted ticket - on the premise he would provide live nightly entertainment.

Ship mates, Galapagos, 2003
(left to right: Jo, Mark, Nadav, Dan) 
'Please let him stay' was all I could think over and over. The world was looking more vibrant with this man in it and I didn't want a grey shadow to fall over the great Galapagos Islands. Inevitably we all got we wanted (accept for Mark) and from then on, Mark may as well have been chopped liver. I guiltily sensed he was feeling sidelined, but there hadn't ever been any promise of romance - even though we were sharing tight quarters on a most romantic voyage.

Jo, Galapagos 2003

Dan showed no mercy to Mark, who had never been a potential suitor in my eyes. But Dan never knew that. As far as he was concerned, he'd met a couple traveling together - and berthing together, but no honor code made him step back. Much like Darwin's 'Survival of the Fittest' developed on these Islands, all was fair in love and war. It didn't matter - although I don't know if I even realized it at the time - I was already smitten with our 'off the wall' cruise crasher.

The next few days were the most magical of my life, with each dawn offering a different once-in-a-lifetime experience. We had dolphins racing the nose of our boat - just beyond our reaching fingertips as we laid bellies flat on the front bow. We swam with sea lions, turtles and penguins (on my birthday) - and even over circling sharks! One day the sea before us erupted into a thousand flipping rays - somersaulting to rid themselves of some pesky parasite.

'eccentric hippy' Galapagos, 2003

The nights offered backpacker banter and relaxation, and romance was hard to resist. After the others had retired to their bunks, Dan and I would sit at the back of our boat, watching sea lions pop-up - cheekily hitching a ride inside the towed rowing boat if they dared. The fast moving black sea was hypnotic beneath us, with the shiny fluorescent plankton catching the moonlight. We shared our stories, hopes, fears and dreams. It didn't take many nights before I kissed him first...

The week passed by too quickly, and each day was filled with laughter and love - although it was way too early for either of us to label it so. He nick-named me his 'oil girl' and it thrilled me. He comforted me when I recoiled from the Tuna bludgeoning, and made me hot lemon tea when the cold water overcame me. He hated me smoking. I loved being around him and I felt protected in his arms. I missed him for even the briefest separation...

Dan, Galapagos, 2003

But I was liberated by such a short term romance. I already had my connecting flight booked out of Quito to Cuenca, in the South of Ecuador, so we knew our days were numbered. It didn't hurt - yet - but it made our time all the more special, and I didn't want to waste a second.

Our inevitable goodbye was easy (stiff British upper lip and all) and after a heartfelt hug I refused to look back. The timing of our encounter had been perfect, and I couldn't have wished for a better pick-me-up. I would not allow myself to want more - he hadn't offered it and I already had a plane to catch.

By the time I reached the Galapagos airport I was eager to be seated and on route to the next chapter of my worldly adventure, but the Travel Agents had messed up my flights. My connecting flight out of Quito looked to already be boarding before I had boarded my flight out of the Galapagos. The time difference had been overlooked and there wasn't another flight to Cuenca until Monday (it was Friday).

I didn't want to be hanging around in Quito all weekend. My holiday romance had stayed on in the Galapagos for an extra two days and wasn't returning until Sunday, so there wasn't anything left for me in Gringolandia. I was experiencing a severe comedown after such a wonderful week, and without a new adventure to distract me from my feelings, my withdrawal symptoms were starting to hit hard. I missed my dread lock hippie dude - a lot.

Again I wandered aimlessly through Quito's central tourist grid known as Gringolandia, Marlborough in hand - hoping for fate to throw me a bone. I soon found myself logged on in Papayanet, the cornerstone internet caf and tourist trap of Gringo-Land, ironically situated across the road from H.V.H, which was all of a sudden shrouded by a painfully magical memory.

I opened my Hotmail account and my spine started tingling at the topmost email. It was from 'him'. I clicked on the message eagerly and slowly read the unpunctuated text. If my memory serves me correctly, it read something along the lines of:

hey guirl
heard you missed your flight...
howd you like to come hang out at mine for a couple days/weeks/months?
you could learn spanish, do some yoga, paint a little...    
just a thought                

So I waited nervously for what seemed like hours, on the corner of H.V.H and Papayanet, on a Sunday afternoon for my hippy hobo and his guitar case to show up. After a shy 'reunion' kiss we made our way together out of the safety of Gringolandia. Huddled side by side on a rickety bus belting techno-cumbia, I was unusually quiet - awed by the spontaneity and recklessness of my own actions, and scared to be once again off the beaten track as we headed to a very real district of Quito called La Vicentina Alta, where we would start the rest of our life ... together.

Dan and Jo, H.V.H, Quito, 2003 

Sunday, May 6, 2012

"I'm just gettin' on a boat" : sound asleep and malaria dreams

Monday, 27th October 2003

Today is day six of Daniel's and my jungle adventure down the Rio Napo. Only two days after leaving Quito, Ecuador we crossed the historically dangerous South American jungle border, which separates Ecuador from its former enemy in the south, and arrived at our current location, Pantoja; a small Peruvian community sited next to a large military base. We've been living here for the past four days, standing by until the boat anchored at the side of the river – the boat we’ve come to know as the Lancha – departs, and the next part of our river journey across the continent can begin.

6:50 am: sound sleep and malaria dreams

We’re both awake now – well almost - and it’s only 6:50am. I've just finished boiling our standard breakfast-for-two water ration on our ‘so far’ trusty portable gas stove. It looks like two canisters will get us down the Napo after all. I’ve discovered that having oatmeal and Nescafe ready is the only effective way of coaxing Daniel out of his hammock and mosquito net cocoon at this hour. My use of the word ‘effective’ here doesn't mean without his obstreperous groans and his pulling his face; both of which I can’t help but find adorable.

Clapping my hands and echoing my father’s authority, I try encouraging him out of his morning slumber.

“Feet on the floor, feet on the floor!”

More groans….. Maybe I need a different approach. Fighting hard to find where the mosquito net ends and the hammock begins, I effectively duck my head up and under Daniel’s mosquito net and cover his scrunched up face with as many wet kisses as it takes.

“I’m up, I’m up!” …….Not as many kisses as I’d thought!

Pantoja’s military base provides electricity to the village for a few hours every evening, starting from dusk., ‘Lights out’ is promptly scheduled for 10:00pm for all Pantojans who don’t have the luxury of a generator. Despite possibly being the most prosperous man in Pantoja, Ruperto just so happens to fit into that power-less category...... I don’t think he sees electrical generation as a justifiable expense for his family.

This means that as guests under his roof; there is nothing for Daniel and me to do after dark but to climb up into our hammocks and sleep the night away, hoping we can make it through the darkest hours by ignoring that inevitable bladder calling..... And without anymore embarrassing incidents like the one Daniel experienced the other night ! Our small sized hammocks are a perfect fit, if you can avoid locking your knees back; I've discovered the hard way that the straight-legged position isn’t accommodated very well by the inside curve of a hammock. Still, I’ve been having some of the best sleeps I can remember – except of course for the odd malaria dream. In honesty, there’s no justification for our reluctance – Dan’s in particular - to rise each morning, but life here is slow, and with no real reason to move, it’s too easy not to.

Sleeping in my hammock
Saying that, last night was different, and my reality was dominated by the ever increasing presence of my jungle-fear contrived ‘malaria’ dreams. For many hours I lay awake, paralyzed and - what I’d thought at the time - rationally convinced that we’d be murdered in our hammocks. I’d fallen into a welcome sleep much earlier than ‘lights out’ – soon after dusk, and I’d been sleeping soundly until past midnight when the jungle peace was shattered by an infernal blend of something like Techno-Cumbia and a monotonous drum beat that seemed to come from beyond the village boundaries, from some place deeper in the jungle – maybe somebody was lost and signaling for help by beating the large exposed roots of that special tree Dan told me about.. More dogs than I could remember began to bark their answers - strangely in time - to this insane beat, and all at once Pantoja seemed larger than life.

The noise disturbed another guest - perhaps José… or it could have been the man who relentlessly tries to sell plastic piggy-banks and batteries outside the front of the house every day. His footsteps were loud and stretched the entire wood decking that supports Ruperto’s and Hermila’s small guest-shack. I could have sworn somebody was already inside our room, and finally, reaching the peak of my fear, I capitulated and was forced to poke my hand out of my bug-free cocoon into open mozzie territory in order to prod a very unimpressed Daniel awake and ready in case of attack… How could he have slept through that incessant noise anyway?

Thinking about it now in the bright glare of the morning sun makes me giggle; I’m feeling a little chagrined about disrupting Dan’s sleep as well as my own; however, I’m still stubbornly relieved that we both made it through last night unscathed.

Hopefully today is our last day in Pantoja, assuming the Lancha leaves tomorrow like the posted sign and the Captain have been promising us. Anne's words of warning -coming from the only Napo account our pre-trip internet search came up with (we have a copy of the document with us, laminated to survive the trials of a river/jungle journey) - not to trust any promise of a schedule, is preventing us from raising our already-too-high hopes any further. For our last day, we’re splashing out on a makeshift jungle tour by subsidizing Ruperto’s petrol. In return for 20 soles, his kids are turning one of their everyday Napo-life errands into a sightseeing adventure for the benefit of their increasingly bored gringo guests. After four days of living on what I now regard as a jungle ‘island’ – our only way out is by boat - we’re desperate to stretch our sights further than the painfully small confines of our present home.

Looking up now, at the large beautiful web spun over the door to our room, I notice that our roommate is strangely motionless. Just a large black blob, with legs curled upwards tightly in a spider fetal position. It looks like our arachnid friend has died in the night. The grasshopper must have dealt him a lethal blow before losing the intense battle that had been our ‘live discovery channel’ entertainment yesterday evening. I feel absently sorry for the spider and a little concerned for myself having lost my first line of mosquito defense. Remarkably – and exasperatingly for me - on Dan, there is still hardly a bite to be seen.

The chainsaw has just started up. Rodrigo, Ruperto’s son, must be up and already working hard to build his father’s boat.

View from Pantoja