Saturday, January 25, 2014

Near Death on the Amazon, Part 3: The Storm

Thank you to everyone who has read and enjoyed this series of posts.  Click here to start reading with part 1.)

Police Station of Puerta Alegria
As we left the village of Puerta Alegria, which translates as Port of Joy, I looked back at the men along the shore. They watched us as I watched them. What they were thinking, I can only guess. I like to think they were a little concerned for our safety. The sky had now darkened with dense, seemingly endless storm clouds. The wind and waves were picking up. The rain was increasing from a drizzle to a steady, soaking sheet.

The other probable reason that the villagers were watching us leave was due to a mix of entertainment and curiosity. I myself have an hour sitting along the bank of the river watching the traffic go by. Very few villages have steady electricity and even fewer families have TV, much less Xbox or computers. The people I have met spend much more of their day (both work and free-time) outside. It’s nice to see kids playing in groups in the free air. They run, fish, swim, play fight, climb trees, pretend, chase or are chased by dogs, yell, and even fall down and cry. Every year in the US I seem to see fewer and fewer kids outside in unstructured play.

After 10 minutes of travel we passed a huge bend in the river and were alone. Only trees and water were in view in all directions. No other boats. The only sounds on the river were of the wind, waves, motor and Gustavo’s son bailing water. The water of the waves was entering over the side of the small boat. At last we had to pull over to the side of the river and wait for the waves to subside. At this time I saw the first flashes in the sky far up river. I motioned to Gustavo at the direction of the lightning. He acknowledged this, but as I thought, he said that the electrical storm was much further up river than our village. I was a bit concerned. I was sitting two feet in back of a metal stove and a 5 gallon propane tank.
Lightning in the distance
So how close was the lightning? I use the counting method to determine how close I am to a strike. Thunder after a lightning discharge can usually be heard at a maximum distance of about 10 miles. To find the distance you start counting as you see the flash and stop counting when you hear the thunder. For every 5 seconds the lightning is 1 mile away. At three mile of distance or closer the prudent person will see immediate shelter. I could not even remotely hear the thunder. We were safe from the lightning.

After what seemed like a long time, but was probably only 15 minutes, the wind and waves slightly subsided. Gustavo pushed us away from the bank and into the faster current of the river. He started the motor, lowered the propeller, and the boat lurched forward. He did all of this without talking. His son resumed bailing. I started to become cold.

Gustavo’s son is named Hector. Hector is 9 years old. He is a friendly, very inquisitive boy who smiles and laughs often. He constantly pokes, looks into and explores whatever is around him. And he hates school. The school of La Libertad involves a lot of sitting around. Hector is not a boy who likes to sit in school.
I have told Hector of the significance of his name as it relates to the Greek story of the Iliad, as well as the more recent Brad Pitt movie, Troy. At times we yell his name like a character in the movie yells, in a long, drawn out Heeeec-toooor! He does not seem to appreciate the humor in this.
Hector cooking pancakes
Gustavo fully opened the throttle of the engine. The monotonous drone of the motor masked all other sounds. We continued onward, against the river’s current towards the village. We were alone on the river. I glanced backward at the bank where we had waited. As I looked backwards a saw bolts of lightning strike in the clouds in back of us. I waited to hear the thunder. None came. I was relieved. As we continued I looked ahead for lightning. It struck far forward of our position. Once again I waited to hear the thunder. None came. We were between two thunderstorms. We continued onward.

At 6 pm we arrived at the opposite side of the river from our village, La Libertad. The wind had picked up again and the waves were high. The sun had just set. I could see our destination, the shore about 2 miles from our location. With the high waves we could not pass. Gustavo steered our boat to a small submerged tree. We ran the boat onto the slightly submerged trunk and held onto a protruding limb. Then we waited for the wind and waves to subside.
Gustavo before the trip
At this time the waves increased. The rain changed from a steady sprinkle to, once again, driving sheets. I wrapped myself further into my rain poncho. The backpack I wore, containing my computer and cell phone, helped to keep my back warm. I glanced back, looking through the corner of the hood of my rain poncho. Hector had retreated, curled-up on the bottom of the boat under a blue plastic tarp. Gustavo told me that he was sleeping. Gustavo was bailing. He was shivering. I was cold too, but not yet shivering. I knew that if hypothermia set into Gustavo then things would become much more complicated. There we waited.
If we did capsize or sink, was it possible that I could swim to the shore? My computer and cell phone would be lost, but these were the least of my concerns. Would it be possible to swim? The distance in water would not be a problem. However, I could not see the shore. If I did not swim in a straight line then the distance could be much further. There was also the current to account for. With the rain the river was more forceful. And the piranha and crocodiles?

After one hour in the rain and waves I attempted to call David and Sarah, my friends from Bogota and the USA who were waiting for me in the village. Just in case, I wanted to tell them what had happened. I wanted to tell them what I wanted to do with my apartment and belongings in Colombia. Just in case. Was I giving up? No. I had determined that if needed, if I ended up in the river, I would ditch everything and make it to shore. Nothing had ever been clearer.  Unfortunately my cellphone lost its signal.

I waited with Gustavo. We spoke of things, plans for the village and project. I could see he was getting colder. As we waited we could see the lights the village just below La Libertad clearly. We could also see one light shine from our village, but it was dim. At 9 pm, by my cell phone, the light from Santa Sofia went out. The waves of the river were less. I looked at Gustavo and told him it was time to go back. He agreed.

And so ends part 3 of the three-part story.
Please wait for part 4: The Tree, to be published before I return to the Amazon on February 24, 2014.

Hector at the front of Gustavo's new (non-leaky) boat

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