Thursday, May 17, 2012

"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.

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