and the Boat to Nuevo Rocafuerte
The bus was almost full. I sat next to a man in a coat who was reading about legends of Catholicism. We talked about cathedrals, anacondas, and his career of architecture in Tena. He commuted once a week to that jungle city from the mountains of Quito; a day of bus travel in itself. I asked him why the air above the dense jungle was a smoky blue color. He only said it was very pure air. The first bus we jumped aboard did not run all the way to Coca. We got out and waited at a fork in the narrow, unpaved road. The bus with my architect chugged down the road. Corey walked to the roadside to pee just as another bus rounded the corner. "That's our bus! Come on," I told him as we hurried aboard.
We found seats near the back. The cashier fellow of the vehicle came down the aisle collecting the fee. I paid for the two of us. Thus far we had decided to take turns with buying things- dinner, bus rides, empanadas. We always tried to sit apart from each other for a chance to engage in conversation with the locals. For a while the TV at the front played a glitchy, bootlegged copy of a Spiderman 3 DVD. I sat on the left aisle seat, next to a young man with a mustache. He seldom talked. As soon as we left Baeza, the road was downhill, dropping quickly into the Amazon Basin. Pavement was intermittent, and for the most part the bus bumped over ruts and rocks on its convoluted descent into the humid jungle.
Passengers came and went. The man at my side left before long, exiting to a small village of shanties on stilts. There was a small store, a volleyball court, and what looked like a big orchard of banana trees. Corey talked and joked with his new friend, Cesar. They sang about Palomas and romance, each making fun of the other's girlfriend.
I fell asleep, in accordance with my habit of falling asleep for brief snatches of strange dreams. I woke up when the bus stopped at another town, where Cesar disembarked, along with a majority of our fellow passengers. I moved to the back seat and pulled the window all the way open. There were few cars on the road. The captain started up another movie- The Scorpion King. Corey and I cracked up when we saw the Rock slaying hoards of enemies on the TV screen of an Ecuadorian bus making the arduous passage into the heart of the Amazon. It was perfectly incongruous. I tried to ignore the clash of the film; putting my head out the window to see the world. Villages were few and far between. I saw people bathing in the rivers, hanging the laundry out to dry. There was often a host of people gathered in the windows to watch the bus go by.
The heat of the day subsided as the afternoon came on. After a while the bus leveled off and continued across flatter land. I turned to Corey and we talked about the people we had met. A few minutes went by before someone told us "Ya estamos- esto es Coca." This was it, a grid of busy streets under a polluted sky. It was already getting dark. We walked along that main road, and then Corey sat down to consult the Book. He said there was a cheap hostel near the river. The Oasis hostel was cheap, but at least there was a fan in the room. We got there just after dark, and after standing near the bank of el Río Napo, a wide body of brown water that we would journey down the day after tomorrow.
We went out and got dinner at one of the only restaurants that was still open at eight o'clock. I loved spending two and a half dollars for a satisfying meal. We walked back towards the river, past the bridge to the Oasis hostel. I made sure Corey had the Savage Knife; these were grimy streets next to an uninviting river slum.
We slept with the fan on.
The next day we woke up wondering what to do in this city of Coca, officially named Puerto Francisco de Orellana. From what I had seen of the place the evening before, it was flat, humid, and in dire lack of trees. It was definitely not the jungle we had driven through the yesterday. Now, in the late morning, the city was baking under the sun. We went out to get breakfast, send an e-mail to Mom to assure that we were alive, and buy some provisions for the boat ride tomorrow.
After breakfast we went to the capitañía to buy our tickets for the boat. It was easy enough- we showed our passports and paid fifteen dollars each for the boat left the next day at 7:00 am. We were to arrive early to load our baggage and be ready for blastoff.
We ended up doing a few laps around the major streets in accordance with our usual trend wandering aimlessly to get a good sense of where we were and what the people did. Sweating and squinting in the heat, we bought some cold coconut water from an old lady and her cart under an umbrella. Corey asked inside a few establishments if they had Internet. It seemed that no place in the town had that commodity, until we found a computer place across from a supermarket. While Corey told his mom he was alive, I ventured across the road to buy cookies and talk to the people in the store.
Aurora was the cashier. I talked to her about Coca, about my land of snowy mountains that are hot in the summer. "What do people do here for fun?" I asked. "It seems so flat and hot. Do you go out to discoteks and such?"
She wrinkled her brow. "Well, it gets much hotter in the summer… and I don't really know. There's not very much to do here." There it was. She admitted it- there was nothing in this polluted city where you could see only buildings on the horizon and there was hardly a trace of plant life.
I went back to the Internet place and wrote to my sister, telling her we were going into the jungle on a boat the next day, and we would return four days later. I brought Corey to that grand supermarket. First we sat outside to talk about provisions, and we were accosted by a shoe-shine boy. He was filthy and very young, in need of customers. "No thanks. Look, we're wearing sandals." My feet didn't need shining. The kid lingered while we sat on the ledge in front of the store. He played with a broken rubber band, flossing his teeth with it.
"Can you do this?" he asked us, sliding the rubber band between his two front teeth. I said I could. I asked where his parents were, and he promptly replied that he didn't have them. I didn't have anything to say to that. We knew he wanted some money. Corey gave him a few coins, and I followed suit. The kid said it wasn't enough.
"Sure it is. Go buy an empanada or something." We agreed that he was lying; his response was too nonchalant, maybe rehearsed. He had parents. At least I hoped he did. If he were really an orphan, than both of us were callous and apathetic creatures.
We bought two bags of bread rolls, cookies, hot sauce, a thousand crackers, and some cheese. There was also a big shelf of liquors, and Corey wanted to try the aguardiente, a cane liquor made in Ecuador. I asked Aurora behind the counter what it tasted like. She didn't really know, and it turned out that a bottle of the stuff was beyond the reach of our budget. So I asked her what was the best brand of rum she sold.
"I don't drink," came her simple response. She made me feel rude because she thought I thought she was a mere alcoholic in the city. Corey bought a bottle of Cacique rum for two and a half dollars, and we said goodbye to the nice lady who didn't drink.
Just after midday we were walking again. We took turns choosing streets to go down. We came to a bakery with two men seated outside. Inside we bought sweet cakes, made of banana and pure delicious flavor. I stepped outside to eat that amazing bit of cake. "It's hot, isn't it?" I addressed the two men in the shade. They nodded in agreement.
"Where are you from?" one asked me.
"United States, from the sierra." I explained that we were going on the public service boat to Nuevo Rocafuerte.
"Oh, I haven't been out there. It should be fun though."
I was surprised that they hadn't been down the river. It was so close, and there was less than nothing to do in this muggy city. But they had to work constantly in the city to earn a miniscule salary. They asked if we were brothers.
Corey shook his red-haired head. "Us? No, we're just friends."
"It's just the two of us down here for five weeks, exploring the country, I guess."
The men nodded appreciatively. The other spoke this time. "You must be good friends to spend so much time so far from home."
"More or less," I said with a shrug. They laughed.
At a little bookstore I bought the Best of Don Quijote for something to entertain myself on the boat ride and future backpacking missions. I had finished The Little Prince and given it to Corey to read. It was still blazing hot outside. We passed by the bakery and bought another round of the same sweet banana cake. We retreated to the dingy room at the Oasis. I read a bit and fell asleep. Sleeping was the only option at that precise moment of my life.
I woke and left Corey asleep in the room. On the patio I talked to a girl whose aunt worked at the hostel. We sat watching the river, and the renovation of a hotel next door. A backhoe loaded on a barge was whacking a steel column with its bucket. The sound crashed through the hot air again and again. It did not seem the most efficient way to remove a huge steel pole. I asked the girl what the people here did for fun. She shrugged first and said that there were places to dance and such. She was a student somewhere.
"Do you go out on weekends to dance at those discotecas?"
She shook here head. "No. Yo no salgo." That was my second foiled question of the day. Of course she didn't go out, I thought. The reason was not obvious, but I felt that I should have known.
At the end of that muggy day in the flat city with no horizon, we ate dinner at a good restaurant. Corey was a vegetarian, but for this trip he was eating everything. "Just for the culture," he said. "I'm not going to eat a hamburger or anything. I think that would go against my vegetarianism." After dinner we found a store with ice cream next to the dried fish. We bought frozen treats and went back to the oasis for the last time.
We got our bags ready for the boat ride. I took out my travel book and put it in the dresser. I was going to leave it behind because it was outdated, and Corey seemed to enjoy being the official researcher with his new Rough Guide to Ecuador. Besides, books were heavy, and I only had one bag. It was still hot in our room. I went outside for a bit to get some fresh air, and a few raindrops came unexpectedly. I sat with my shirt off on the concrete steps.
A man with a sleeveless shirt walked towards me. In the yellowy light from the wall behind me, this man was fearsome. He had a pointy beard and short brown hair. His eyes were bloodshot and his muscular arms carried a few beers. "Buenas noches," I said without conviction. He nodded and went into the room next door to ours.
Corey and Nick on the Boat, and What Happened When They Met Federico and Paola
A wake-up call was a handful of bangs on the door at 6:00. We ate a breakfast of bread and cheese. The bottle of hotsauce fell off the dresser. The cap broke, and we discovered that it tasted horrible. So did the cheese. "That adds two horrible purchases to your list."
"At least I didn't buy a s***ty carton of wine and a bunch of lumpy chocolate milk. f***in' dick!" Battles like this were commonly executed in very serious mockery. We laughed and shouldered our packs to walk to the river.
The sun had not yet risen. At the boathouse we presented our passports and waited on a patio above the water. On that river floated a long steel-hulled launch with a canvas top. "That's our boat, I think."
We sat on a bench and waited to start loading. A man with a huge backpack came onto the patio. He wore a tank top, cabana pants, and a beard. The barbarous man from last night was going to Nuevo Rocafuerte too.
I twisted around to look east, down the river. The sun had risen, a ball of dull bloody red hanging in the sky. It shone eerily through a filter of engine exhaust, city industry, and perhaps excrement from oil refineries. The bearded man took snapped a picture of the swollen red ball. He was short. He pulled out a pack of cigarettes and lit one. "If you are going on that boat down there, then you should go load your baggage now." I thought his accent might be French. He still looked fearsome.
We jostled our way across the steel ramp onto the bow of the boat, where dozens of people loaded boxes, sacks of potatoes, and other miscellanies. We handed off our backpacks to a man who tossed them to the top of the pile.
"What if they fall off? Into the river?"
"They'll put a tarp over everything. It'll stay" Corey trusted the people in charge of the operation. We took a seat on the left side of the long boat. There were benches along each side and a row of colorful plastic chairs running down the aisle. The boat filled. A man with glasses sat on my left. Corey was at my right hand, and a few places down was that man with the pointy beard and loose pants. Next to him was a woman with black hair and a beanie. I assumed they were travel partners. Both started reading before we disembarked.
We pushed off from the dock after a debate about the weight of one man's cargo. He had to unload and wait for the next boat. I heard the man with glasses next to me as we entered the current of the river. "Ciao, mi vida." I assumed he was talking to an unseen wife and family that lived in Coca. It was a strange thing to say aloud to no particular person. We finally left that dull city, and that man left his life.
The boat putted along. The steel hull must have been heavy. There were over a hundred people seated on the benches and the flimsy plastic chairs. Kids had parrots and many people had roosters trying to walk around when they were trapped in cloth sacks.
The sun had risen higher and shed its red mask.
"Good thing we're gonna be on this boat for the next twelve hours."
"Yeah, good thing. And I like that we're going to this village with no idea of what we're going to do there."
The public service boat chugged along with the current of the river, sometimes splashing through the wake of a faster tour boat. Every time we passed another craft, each boat sounded its horn.
"They're greeting each other," said the bespectacled man at my left. I nodded. It was a childish beeping melody that our boat used as a horn. It made all manner of blips and toots to say hello to fellow boats.
One young man sitting in the aisle asked the people around him where the trash can was. The man adjacent me, whose name was Carlos, jabbed a thumb over his shoulder. "The river is the trash can," he said in Spanish. But the first man shook his head and put a plastic wrapper in his pocket.
I talked to Carlos, first about the usual things. I told him the nature of our trip, and how Corey had proposed a journey to Nuevo Rocafuerte. He said that it would take longer than twelve hours, and that the return trip would be longer against the current. "You could take one of those other boats though, like that one." He pointed at one flying past us. "Those are much faster, and more expensive. This is the boat for the poor folks." That was just what we wanted. We steered clear of packaged tours, expensive gringo tourist deals.
I asked Carlos about the town. It was by the eastern border of Ecuador, close to Peru. "I work at the police department there, and we check passports for people crossing the border."
"Hmm. Is the border of Peru dangerous? Like Columbia?"
"No, no. There are good relations now between Ecuador and Peru. But I work out there for a twenty-one day shift." He gestured to the duffel between his feet. "I bring food for that long." He used to work in a different city, but he was transferred.
Later he told me about things we could do out there. We could pay someone fifteen or so dollars per day to take us out on a motorized canoe; there were lagoons to explore. I said I didn't know if we wanted to do that. "Is there a hostel? Or could we camp out there?" We did have a tent, I added.
"There's a simple hostel, but since you have a tent, you could just camp in town. You could even sleep on the space next to the police department. I'd arrange with the other guys."
We would think about that, I said. We wanted to hike through the forest, if that was possible. As the afternoon burnt away the morning, I dragged my hand in the cool water of the river. I pulled out my little book and dozed off trying to read. Carlos drank a juice box next to me. When it was empty, he proceeded to hurl it over his shoulder into the river. Corey and I exchanged a look of disproval. Only one man seemed to think that throwing trash to the currents was a bad idea- he was the one in the aisle with a camouflage jacket. Everyone else proceeded to jettison diapers, bottles, wrappers, and more bottles over the course of the day.
We passed barges and oil refineries. They were strange intrusions in the jungle- it all was. Everywhere was a profusion of dense green. The jungle rose abruptly at the riverbank, walling in the wide body of water. I could not see deep into the foliage. There were few developed areas. The ones we did pass were made of heaps of iron, and bulldozed land.
The boat sounded its horn, which this time was a car alarm. Chirps and bleeps let everyone know we were coming to port- at an obscure village in the jungle. We dropped off half a dozen people and their cargo on the muddy bank.
"Pretty jungle girls," noted Corey. A pair of them stepped off the boat in their bright red jeans. They dragged sacks of vegetables and rice towards a group of dwellings huddled together, overlooking the river.
Someone shoved us off with a long stick, and we proceeded down the river. At around noon we stopped at a point where Carlos told us we could buy some food and take a leak. We only did the latter- breakfast was the only meal we would eat. We decided to make this boat journey a fast to atone for the vast amount of Ecuadorian fare we had been eating lately.
When we resumed passage, the bearded man and his lady friend sat adjacent to Corey and me. The dark haired lady crossed her arms on the edge of the hull and laid her head down to sleep. The man offered us a loaf of bread. He held it out, but put it back in his bag. "No, thanks." He read his book of Greek philosophy in Spanish for a while before we talked. Corey was closer to him. I didn't hear a lot of what they said. He was from Argentina; the lady was from Quito. I watched the river run.
Corey borrowed his philosophy book and thumbed through it. "I like this. I've read parts of it in English." I asked someone in the aisle to lend me a newspaper. Everyone aboard tried to pass the time as we followed the river on its path through the thick greenery.
The man from Argentina offered us bread again. We shook our heads again. "Are you sure? Ok, then I won't offer anymore." Eventually we introduced ourselves. He was Federico, his friend Paola. They had only met a few days ago at the airport in Guayaqil. He worked for Philip Morris.
"So when you work at Philip Morris… is it mandatory that you smoke?" Corey asked.
He laughed. "No, not at all. The company in South America is a really different branch, anyway. But working there is good, I mean they've given me four months off."
"Four months? And you've been traveling that whole time?"
"Yeah, I'm almost at the end of my journey. I went through a few countries, and I'll be back in Argentina within two weeks. There's a cargo boat that goes from Nuevo Rocafuerte to Pantoja, in Peru."
We asked him about currencies in other South American countries. He said that Ecuador was pretty cheap, Argentina used a different currency and was more expensive, but probably still cheap. "But Bolivia is the best, man. It's so cheap. Bolivia is like free."
'Bolivia is free' remained a catchy phrase for a while.
Paola scooted closer. She was sunburned from sleeping when she was half hanging off the side of the boat earlier. "So why did you guys choose to come all this way?" We shrugged. "It's very rare that someone just comes out here." She spoke good English.
"We just figured it would be an adventure. I wanted to get out of the city and see the jungle. He did too." He gestured to me. "What are you going out there for?"
"Well, I'm going to visit a family and baptize one of their kids. We're very close; I lived with them when I was working on my thesis. They've been really nice to me. But anyway, baptism. Somehow I have to make everyone believe that I'm Catholic, then I'll become a little girl's godmother. And a few days later I'll go back to Quito."
Both of them had a worthwhile reason for going out there. Our tentative plan involved wandering around and camping by a police station.
The sun went down. The jungle air was alive with sound. Still we chugged downriver. Many of our passengers had left, but a sizable portion remained for passage to Nuevo Rocafuerte.
We stopped at another village to deposit some more folks and their goods from the city. A bit of light remained in the sky, and we kept going. It was taking forever. The four of us started to complain, and my stomach rumbled. After the sky was a solid black, we stopped at one final jungle village. The boat tried to, anyway. We approached the bank to find nothing, no simple dwellings or any sign of a break in the foliage. The car alarm horn sounded, but there were no lights on the shore. We continued on to Nuevo Rocafuerte.
"They couldn't find it?" mused Corey. Paola shook her head.
"There are very few street signs out here," I said.
The downriver journey ended at the dock of the town. We saw streetlights and a few rows of houses. There were no cars on the road. A young guy greeted us on terra firma. He wanted to practice his English; we wanted to practice our Spanish. The result was a great miscommunication, but we did learn that he worked at a hostel on the other end of town.
Paola warned us against that place. She said it was an impossible place to sleep. She was going to stay with the family she was visiting, and since they had accepted plenty of guests in the past, she invited us along. We followed her down the quiet street. We had spent an entire day sitting on that boat. The ground felt strange underfoot. The streets were quasi-cobbled, of grey cement blocks with grass reaching up through the gaps.
We didn't go far to get to the house. It was two stories, one of the few tall buildings in the town. It stood at the end of the road, surrounded by palm trees. When I walked in the front door, I saw rich hardwood furniture and floor. An old man sat in a plastic chair on the left side of the room. He stared blankly at the television on the opposite wall. He muttered loudly and smiled as we entered. I could not make out his words.
Paola introduced us to a portly woman, the wife of the house. I never remembered her name. She brought out her husband, Don Cesar. He was dark skinned, with short black hair and a large pair of eyeglasses. He was short, and standing there with a snugly fitting shirt, he looked rather nerdy. We told him were we were from, and that we had met Paola on the boat. Federico, too.
Don Cesar's wife led us upstairs to our room. We could pay five dollars a night, Paola said. Meals were two dollars. "This will be so much nicer than that hostel. These people are awesome. I consider them my other set of parents sometimes."
"Look, honey. We'll have to share a bed." We set down our packs on either side of the little bed. I heard Federico singing a Guns 'n Roses song in the room next door. The upstairs area was enclosed with screen. I still heard the jungle air thrumming with insect life, bird life, life of every sort. We washed up and sat at the table.
At that dinner we became acquainted with chifle, a preparation of bananas similar to French fries, but a thousand times superior. We were served a simple salad of cucumbers and lemon, a freshly caught fish that could still gaze up at me, and a nice portion of rice. There was a pitcher of juice at the center of the table.
Corey tried it first. "God! This is amazing! We're never gonna have this again in our whole lives," he said sadly. We ate like a pair of ravenous capybaras. I heaped more chifle onto my plate. And more salad. And more rice.
"You guys must be starving," said Federico. "You didn't eat even a bite all day!"
"We had breakfast."
After dinner we waited for Paola to take us on a stroll into town. I stood in the living room, admiring the little paintings of Andean scenery on the wall.
"Look, Nicolas," said Don Cesar nodding at the TV. "A wildfire in the US." This man was interesting. He spoke quick Spanish with a little bit of a lisp. It was hard to understand him immediately.
We walked a block or two. Paola prepared a pipe and asked us if we wanted a toke. We kindly refused, and Federico whipped out another of his cigarettes. At a little wooden store we bought a few Pílseners, la cerveza de los Ecuatorianos. "Pílsener es Pílsener, hoy y siempre." Corey recited the slogan we had seen on posters.
The four of us sat out on the patio and talked for a long while. Paola told us we could go out in Don Cesar's boat the next day. He was a sort of informal tourist guide for nearby lagoons, and she wanted to see if there were signs of river otters. Those creatures were the subject of her thesis. It was an exciting prospect, definitely preferable to camping in the front yard of a police station.
Television shows came up. "I love Friends," said Federico with a smile. "I have every season on DVD."
"Are you serious? That show is awful." Corey and I agreed. "But Jennifer Anniston is really hot," he added. "I bet Federico just sits there with his girlfriend and talks about how hot Jennifer Anniston is."
Federico put his camera on a mini tripod and snapped a picture of us four. We had to leave before eleven; that was the hour when the electricity was shut off in town.
I wrote in my travel log that we had met a handful of kind people. I ate some of the candies I had bought in Quito. Corey was astonished when I pulled out dental.
"You brought floss? Holy s***!"
I was taken aback by his flossing enthusiasm. "Here, have some."
We turned off the light and went to sleep, two gringuitos sharing a bed in a house at the edge of a vast, moonlit jungle.