I think if you have read all of the “Witch Doctors, Wine Coolers and Woe” posts you deserve some sort of prize. Right now I am thinking “Grill Cheese Sandwich”. Delivery method uncertain. Suggestions welcome. Want to get in on that sandwich? Start here.
How do you end up on a sinking cargo ship on the Amazon? It’s not easy let me tell you. Many factors have to line up just right. Luckily the planets aligned and Paul, Allison and I were able to book passage on the Benjamin Navio for $50 and experience this once in a lifetime thrill. How screwed we were was at first not readily apparent. Sure, as we went to board our dilapidated rusting shit-sack of a boat we felt…concerned. The boat next door was covered in ribbons, balloons and pinatas and had dozens of tourists swaying and dancing to bongo drums. Our boat had 30 guys loading sacks of concrete, bales of wire, mattresses and tires. None of them were singing and there definitely no pinatas .
We made a split decision to “jump ship” and get on the happier boat instead. Asking for a refund was akin to telling the Captain his mother was a goat- fucker – it did not go well. After a hasty discussion in which Paul and Allison said abandoning the $50 they had paid in favor of buying new tickets was akin to being called goat-fuckers I reluctantly boarded the Navio and stored my pack.
The sun was setting into the harbor and the noises of the city began to die down as we explored our new “home”. Other passengers began to arrive and claim spots for their hammocks. There were about 30 passengers in all – mostly Brazilian women and children and a few men and us. There was only 1 man who spoke English on the entire ship. Ivan was Columbian, married to a Brazilian and had studied in England so he spoke Spanish, Portuguese and English. A very lucky break for us.
As we where such a novelty (how did tourists end up on this boat? Ah – they are stupid and cheap – si claro) Ivan swiftly introduced himself and took us under his wing. A friendly man filled with a passion for life he took us all through the ship and explained everything we were seeing. He also introduced us to Helmudt Schmidt – a German born man who had spent his life in Brazil as a priest and a missionary and was on his way to the deepest part of the Brazilian jungle to spread the good word. We did not exchange a single sentence with him (he only spoke Portuguese and German) but he was forever smiling and welcoming. I’m not churchy but Helmudt radiated a peaceful benevolence that was undeniable.
As the men finished loading the cargo Ivan took us aside and urgently told us that “We have a big problem here”. Apparently Ivan had travelled with this particular captain before and he was notorious for poor ship maintenance and overloading. (so far so good..) Also that he had taken on over 250 tons of unsanctioned cargo in the form of sacked concrete and the boats limit was set at 500 tons. (well that sure as shit wasn’t in the brochure). Ivan told us he was going to find the port authority and tell them to halt the ship and then he left us dangling on our hammocks, mouths hanging open.
Why didn’t I get off the boat? Why didn’t I? I’m asking you. Why the hell didn’t I get off the damn boat?! Paul and Allison where ready to go down with the fucking ship for fifty bucks – did I really want to travel with these people? I was frozen in indecision and sat swaying on my hammock while the chatter of a few dozen Brazilians getting settled in for the night filled the decks around me. Ivan returned with the port authorities in toe and the captain was summoned. What a relief! Now the matter would get straightened out and we could safely be on our way at first light.
We heard the men murmuring amongst themselves and noticed some shifty glancing about. Then we witnessed the old “special handshake” where – according to Ivan – the Captain slipped the port authority some dinero and ” Bob’s your uncle” you are set to sail my friend – but please do it in the dead of night so my colleagues don’t find out and ask me to share the money. It was like a fucking teamsters meeting. Before I could snap to my senses and jump ship the lines were cast off and we chugged away from the shore – the twinkling lights of Manaus fading into the distance – the faint sounds of reveling and bongo drums from the neighboring boats swallowed up by the wind and the water.
Our trip to Tabatingo was supposed to take 3 days. By day four we were officially sinking. Ivan casually walked over to us as we were immersed in yet another game of hearts and said, “The boat is sinking and so I want to tell you what to do.” I abandoned my cards – he had my attention. Ivan said that the boat was now only a few inches away from allowing the water to flow into the lower holds and each hour we sank a little bit more. He told us when the water rushed in we should try to jump as far away from the boat as possible so we were not sucked down as it sank and that we should head for the banks. He also cautioned us against the alligators and piranhas
and suggested we check for open wounds as this would attract the predators and would be bad. Then he said he had to go help clear out the mattresses that had been stored in the ships’ chapel because the Captain had found Jesus (with the help of Helmudt) and was now going to pray for a miracle.
Have you ever had one of those days? You know when you are just kind of hanging out and not doing too much and then you find out you are on a sinking ship in the Amazon? Yeah. It was my first time too. Strangely I felt very removed and blasé. The whole thing was so surreal I’m not sure it fully registered. It occurred to me that perhaps it was an exaggeration – an overreaction maybe, until I went below and saw how the water was literally lapping over the lower handrail. That and the sudden conversion of the Captain and his crew to devout Christians.
We sailed on, the sun setting slowly into the tree line, the river placid and indifferent.
The Amazon is over a mile wide at points and is lined with steep banks heavy with vegetation and strong currents. You can’t just “pull over”. You have to dock where the water is shallow enough and there is a town to welcome you. I mean it IS the jungle – like…the actual real jungle so pulling into the “breakdown lane” and hopping out onto the shore was not possible. We needed a town and we needed one fast.
Two hours after Ivan’s maritime survival pep-talk the miracle arrived in the form of carved mud banks leading up to a small town on a hill. We were saved with less than an hour to spare! The Captain navigated to the shore and quickly set down the anchor. The deckhands immediately began hustling the concrete sacks off the ship while the Captain cut a favorable deal with a local merchant. We tumbled off the ship in a daze and saw this tiny town open up before us.
Children waited with baskets of food to sell and there were many warehouses stacked with goods for sale. The town leader took us on a tour of the wide dirt streets lined with palm trees and proudly showed us the local school which featured neat rows of desks and meticulously kept books and materials. It was quite beautiful. I saw a town filled with people who – by my standards – appeared to have nothing. Simple shacks, few possessions – a community so small and isolated that our white faces were a sensation.
And yet there was something so satisfying about the orderliness of the town, the school, the warehouses. Everyone seemed engaged in supporting their small community. There was not a feeling of neglect or apathy – quite the opposite. The town bell tolled warning us that it was time to re-board and head out. We settled back into our hammocks – the strangeness of the day still clinging to us. Ivan ambled over and told us how the Captain had cried and prayed for mercy and fell to his knees in the small ships chapel and then within minutes the town had appeared like a miracle. Then he mentioned that the Captain had only unloaded 200 of the 250 tons of concrete so perhaps we still might sink but not as quickly so do not worry too much. I was starting to get the swing of things so I did not let it trouble me – I just curled up in my hammock and fell asleep.