Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Near Death on the Amazon, Part 2: The Propellor

The Propeller

After leaving Leticia we rounded a small island and headed into the main part of the river. But before going back to village, La Libertad, we stopped to fill our 5 gallon spare gasoline tank in the port city of Santa Rosa, Peru. This small city is located directly across from Leticia, on the Peruvian side of the river. Santa Rosa is frequently visited by Colombians and Brazilians from the area to buy cheap gasoline and other discounted goods at a number of huge floating stores called balsas. The mainland of Santa Rosa is not very interesting, with the exception of a restaurant where it is possible to play with monkeys, baby jaguars, see caimans (alligators) and anacondas and contract food poisoning.

Our stop at the balsas took us only 15 minutes. I also bought a kilo of nails that we needed for construction. When we left we were riding a bit lower in the water. We usually have a 24 foot boat, but today we had borrowed a 21 foot which leaked from poorly maintained seems. About every 10 minutes the driver or backmost person would have to bail water with a cut in half 2-liter soda bottle.

The first hour of our journey upriver was quite pleasant. The sun was hot but the wind of river travel produced a nicely cooling breeze. We frequently passed or were passed by other boats of varying sizes, speeds, and number of occupants. I took off my hiking boots, socks and rolled up my pants in an effort to get a bit of a tan. I always wear long pants while in the jungle to avoid as many bug bites as possible. Even so, my ankles and lower legs always seem to be covered in bites.

The sky started clouding over a little into the second hour of our trip. I saw dark, heavy clouds very far ahead of us and asked Gustavo if that meant rain. He said no, that the clouds were in Peru, further ahead than we were going. I had both my computer and cell phone with me, which I really did not want to get wet. My computer was in its carrying case and wrapped in a plastic garbage bag and could be placed on in my backpack, under a heavy coated nylon rain poncho. If the rain became extremely heavy, the kind where the visibility drops to less than 20 feet, I could wrap both my phone and computer in the case and switch the pack to my front. That was my emergency rain plan.

While in the midst of contemplating the complete rain soaking I may have received our boat was overtaking a much smaller, paddle-powered fishing boat. Just before I was to raise my hand in greeting I felt a slight thud under the boat and then the high-pitched whine which, without looking, I immediately associated with of our propeller lifted out of water. That was followed by a Spanish swear word uttered passionately by Gustavo. We were not longer under power, but our momentum carried us slowly by the fisherman until we were stopped and, then pushed back, by the water current. A glance at Gustavo told me that something serious had happened. He explained to me that our propeller had hit a submerged tree trunk and that half of it had broken off.

Gustavo exchanged words with the fisherman as we slowly drifted by. I could not understand all that was said as Gustavo was speaking in what I think of as River Spanish. This is a mixture of Spanish (with many words being cut off and simplified grammar) and many regional slang words. For example; a boat’s motor is named a pecky-pecky, which is derived from the sound of the machine.

The repair plan was to go downstream to Puerta Alegria at one-quarter throttle and buy a replacement propeller. Even half a propeller will propel, but not well and with the risk of completely breaking off. We did not have a paddle. Gustavo’s paddle had been stolen some months earlier. We headed, slowly, back downstream.

After about 20 minutes of river travel and another 15 minutes to find, buy and install a replacement propeller we were back on our way to La Libertad. However, by this time the rain and wind had arrived. The men of Puerta Alegria advised us to be careful because of the strong waves caused by the wind. Gustavo told them that we would hug the left shore until Monkey Island, and then cross below the island which would protect us from the worst of the waves. This response satisfied them.
Puerta Alegria

As we left the shore I wrapped myself in a heavy rain poncho. I wished for the warmth of a life vest. I had brought some down on a trip a year earlier, but unfortunately they had been damaged and all but one, which we did not have, thrown away.

It was 4:30 now. Our arrival time in the village should be slightly past 6pm. This was very important as sunset is around 5:50. We had no light and river travel during the night is treacherous.

Next: Near Death on the Amazon, Part 3, The Storm.

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