10/3/19 – 10/6/19
Up at five fifteen. At the boat by six. It didn’t leave until seven thirty, but they wanted our bikes early. The boats are referred to as canoes. Fifty feet long. No wider than a car. I lifted my bike to the deckhand and watched him toss it, derailleur side down, on the roof. Soph’s was next with the same lack of care. I tried to pretend that I wasn’t pissed and asked him to be careful with them.
He gave her bike a solid kick to get it into place. I walked away to find a newspaper.
We sat at the back. It smelled like gasoline. Light rain and roof leaking on my right shoulder. Street vendors rush on before departing to sell peanuts, apples, cheese sandwiches, and tiny plastic cups of coffee that everyone threw into the river upon finishing. The floor was soaked so I sat with my bag in my lap.
We get moving. Chocolate milk water from sandy banks constantly washed away and deposited elsewhere. Occasionally the bottom scrapes along the river bed.
Woman holds the head of her daughter in her left hand while she breastfeeds. Changes diaper with the right. Captain hops to the back every ten minutes to bail water. Late morning rain hits. Drop the blue tarps running the length of the boat for cover. Pull up to villages with no docks. Engine cuts and front end creeps into sludgy banks. Passengers jump over the mire as friends catch them. Pueblito lunch stop. Everyone piles off and the restaurant is ready with chicken broth and fried chicken and chicken entrails. Impressively expedient. Outhouse urinal made from a five gallon blue plastic water jug. Expectations of river dwellers draped in wooden beads, exotic feathers, and sandals made of plant fibers dashed by the realities of globalization and superiority of donated polyester polos, imitation Rolex watches, and old school Reebok Pumps.
Kids do cartwheels off the banks of an island. Soph and I philosophize over whether or not their lives would be better if they knew of all the opportunity in the world to be doctors and lawyers and administrative assistants.
“They could have all the first world stresses of debts and deadlines, but they’re going to be confined to a life of swimming off the banks of this picture perfect river and eating fresh fish without a care. It’s just a shame they don’t have a choice.”
A slurry of green vegetation lining the river's edge with the occasional most beautiful tree you can ever see asserting itself far above the canopy with a perfectly round plumage and piercing sun making the leaves look like land masses of the globe and the sky behind the oceans.
We land in Nuevo Rocafuerte covered in jungle sweat as if we’d been riding all day. We meet a guide named Raul who says he can take us across the border to Pantoja, Peru, in his canoe. He also offered to give us a jungle tour, but our first mission was to get exit stamps early the next morning.
Breakfast at picnic tables in a small dining hall with two big fans and everything painted white. Coffee loaded with sugar and bland bread. Everyone crowded around a TV with scenes of protests in Quito. The government had just announced the removal of fuel subsidies in order to comply with IMF guidelines to gain access to funding which would help alleviate certain economic blunders caused by the previous administration. This didn’t sit well with cabbies or indigenous farmers, who were voicing their concerns for the viability of this plan by smashing windows, stealing televisions, and knocking people off motorcycles in the middle of the streets. Occasionally the police would intervene with some tear gas or a club to the head of somebody that didn’t really appear to be involved in the looting, but they didn’t have numbers on their side and a few were actually captured by the mutineers.
Realizing we didn’t have time on our side we decided to skip the jungle tour, get our passports stamped, and go straight to Peru. We’d read in a few blogs, and heard from several people in Coca and Nuevo Rocafuerte, that there was an immigration official that shared an office with the police. We went on a walk to find the station. It was on a muddy road behind town. They told us there was no longer an immigration office. Not willing to accept this, we decided that the stamp must still be laying around somewhere and asked the man to search for it. The best we could get though was an offer to call immigration in Coca and have them mark us as having left the country. They could then take a picture of our name in the register and send it to us. We could use this as our proof in Peru that we had properly left Ecuador. I didn’t like it. Soph didn’t like it. We decided the only thing to do was take the boat back to Coca.
We met an Italian woman with the same problem. She had a second issue in that she was funding her travels by selling art. This meant that she was broke. We opted to spend an extra ten bucks to take the fast boat on Saturday morning and she opted for the slow boat. We arrived in Coca around eleven o’clock. We’d been told that there was no rush to get to immigration as it was open “Veinte cuatro siete.” (twenty-four seven). We decided to get a cab and go straight there anyhow. There were no cars in the parking lot but the doors were unlocked. Nobody there. All the computers turned off.
I went to the police station next door and was informed that immigration was not open on the weekend. We'd have to return Monday morning. They told us back at the docks that the strikes were impacting fuel shipments and they did not even know if there would be a boat on Sunday, let alone Monday or Tuesday. An officer made s a few calls for us. I knew it was pointless though. Nobody was going to come in on a Saturday to stamp two passports.
You want to do something, but there is almost nothing that can be done, and you can't really understand what people are telling you. Your bikes and gear are two hundred kilometers away in the middle of the jungle. You’re helpless. All anyone can say is “tranquillo,” and try to assure you that somebody that can help will arrive. But you know this won't happen.
An officer says an immigration official will come by at 2:00. We doubt this, but get lunch to kill time and on the way out another walks up and says something that I don't understand but catch something about immigration. He shoves his phone in my face and I assume he has our man on the line. I reached for the receiver. He pulls it away and yells something at me, then puts it back against my cheek. I hadn't fully grasped that he wasn't used to putting a phone in front of somebody that wasn't cuffed and my ability to grasp it in my own hands appeared to be interpreted as a threat. He yelled and took it away again. I wasn't sure what he wanted so I held my hands behind my back and muttered something in broken Spanish about needing a stamp and walked away.
The immigration official miraculously showed up at 2:02 as if there was a culture of punctuality in Ecuador. We got our ink and told him that there would be an Italian looking for him in a few hours. He said she would have to wait until Monday.
We found a hotel and left the next morning; joking about our close call and wondering if our the Italiana would make it. Then the engine on the boat cut out. Captain grabs some tools and jumps to the back. Five minutes and we are moving again. Within ten minutes we’re stopped. They pulled one of the motors out of the water this time and we continued, at half power.
We make it to town an hour or two later than expected. Raul, the tour guide, was waiting at the docks. We get our bikes from the hotel we'd left them at and grab lunch as he and his brother prep their boat and around two we leave for Pantoja. Continuing down the Rio Napo with Ecuador on the left and Peru on the right. The river merges with Rio Aguarico and we’re totally in Peru. They drop us on the shores as a storm starts to roll in and try to help us with our bags, but we tell them to get moving ahead of the weather. An immigration officer greets us and points to his office, telling us to find a hotel first and drop by whenever it is convenient.
There are only about three hundred people in the village. Electricity is provided by a generator which only runs for a few hours in the evening. In a rare form of widespread Latin American collaboration, all of the towns along the river banks have organized a currency cartel and nobody is willing to budge from the rate of three soles to the dollar even though the official rate is closer to three and a half.
After getting our entrance stamps we found the boat to Iquitos that would be leaving the next day. It was occupied by a heap of loafers that doubled as the captain and crew. We gave them a wad of cash and requested a receipt. They looked at us strangely and then handed over a slip of paper. It had a shopping list written on the back of it, but the front had a picture of a boat.
The slow boat was moored just off shore. I watched people loading chickens and garbage bags of possessions wrapped in tape and stringing hammocks in any space they could. It looked like a floating prison. We’d read stories of overflowing toilets next to the kitchen and all the crew and passengers getting sick and vomiting over the sides. When water levels are low they can get stuck for half a day until a good rain comes. Some people said that kids would try to steal their phones out of their hands and pockets while they slept in hammocks. I didn’t trust that captain wasn’t going to steal my bike from our boat, but felt our chances were a bit better. There appeared to be a pig shitting on the top deck.
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