The port on the Ucayali river is a mud cliff. A splintered wooden board at the bottom of the cliff leads the way onto Henry III, a cargo boat that also takes on passengers. The handwritten sign in the harbor announces the departure time: today.
Henry III has three decks. The lower one is reserved for cargo. Metal pipes and wooden slates are stacked into heaps. Young men carry multiple crates of soft drinks on their backs leaning forward with the weight. I watch from the safety of the second deck, a semi-covered platform reserved for passengers. Its center is shielded by the third deck, home to the pilot house. The deck is still mostly empty so I get a good spot for my hammock: away from the engine (noise) and the light (mosquitoes) and close enough to the railing to feel the breeze and not get crammed. I want to buy food at the market in town but don’t dare get off the boat because I’m afraid it will leave without me.
But, as I’m about to learn, time is less important here and 9 a.m. turns into 12 p.m., Tuesday into Wednesday. People here know that today is approximative and doesn’t necessarily mean within 24 hours. The European in me is beginning to feel restless. This situation defies everything I learned about how public transportation works, which I realize makes no sense over here whatsoever. A fellow passenger informs me that there are road blocks in Tingo Maria and we are waiting for cargo. Without enough cargo or passengers, the trip isn’t worth it. Efficiency, here, is a boat loaded to capacity. Where I’m from, it seems to be measured in units of time. Which way does the world make more sense? I don’t know, but this new understanding of efficiency relieves my anxiety. The men toil away until the last bit of sunlight fades and the few lightbulbs on the ship are switched on.
To sleep without getting robbed, I push my big backpack under my hammock and loosen the hammock rope so my body will rest on the bag. I stuff my valuables into a handbag and wear it under my sweater. I turn my day pack into a body pillow, lie down on my side, and pull my blanket over my head.
It takes two days before enough cargo and passengers are on board to make the trip worth it. Both decks are crowded now. Sometimes there are two people per hammock: mother and child, brother and sister. Boxes are stacked, bags and clothes piled up. Blankets are laid out underneath hammocks for children to sleep on. A chicken runs by, clucking furiously, joining the pigs, cows, chicks and other animals accompanying us on the journey.
Around midnight the second night, a last bunch of bananas is carried on board, friends are hugged and goodbyes said. For those who don’t make the trip, it’s time to go home. Somewhere, music is turned on and the lively sounds of Kaliente’s Como hago are mingled with the voices, the clatter, the scraping, the chirping, the clucking, the grunting, the moo-ing and the occasional screech from a parrot. All the workers disembark and the splintered wooden board is pulled on land. The engine roars up and the cliff is full of people watching as the boat carefully maneuvers backwards, adjusts its course and slowly glides downriver, into the night.