by Peter Nelson
A few garbled words with someone who may or may not be the captain of this vessel, and I step onto this gigantic barge groaning under an immense number of cases of Pepsi Cola. Tied to it by thick ropes is this improbably small tugboat. I spot what appears to be an empty wire bunk surrounded by other bunks in a small cleared space amongst all the Pepsi on the center of the barge deck, and promptly take possession. A small dark man comes over and gesticulates excitedly while speaking with great enthusiasm. Through a winning combination of dumb looks and shoulder shrugs, I convey my, uh, lack of understanding, and he gives up and goes off to find another bunk.
It isn’t long before we’re underway, and it isn’t much longer before I realize I have made a major strategic blunder. Before boarding, I should have grabbed up all the books in English I could find in Ciudad Bolivar. Too late now. Who knows where I’m going? Or when I’ll be back? And here I am, stuck with nothing to read but The Peloponnesian Wars, by Thucydides. “In the sixteenth year of the war, the Spartans laid waste to Athens.” “In the seventeenth year of the war, the Atheneans laid waste to Sparta, etc., etc., etc.” Not your most engrossing reading when lying on a wire bunk on a Pepsi barge in the middle of the Orinoco River. Because who knows when I’ll ever find another book, I decide to ration myself to 50 pages a day. Luckily, thanks to this being the driest and most repetitious history ever written, having to limit my reading is no burden!
Before long, I’m into the rhythm of life on the barge. The tug’s diesel engine is very loud, but soon it becomes part of the background and recedes from consciousness. Whenever you want a drink (the Pepsi is, of course, strictly verboten), just dip your cup over the side. The river water is dirt brown and no doubt chock full of lots of interesting microflora and fauna, but I never get sick. Two or three times a day, depending on someone’s energy level, a pot of beans or rice is cooked up. One evening, somebody caught this huge river turtle, and we ate that. Tasty, sort of porkish, pretty greasy. The “sanitary facilities” consist of an outhouse perched shakily over the stern of the tug. Want a shower? Just dump a big can of river water on your head.
No one attempts to talk to me, and I reciprocate. It’s very pleasant, temperature-wise, quite sunny. But on the morning of the second day, I woke up and found myself unable to open my eyes. My face had been so badly burned from the combination of very bright sun and glare off the river, that my eyelids were swollen shut. I thought I already was sufficiently tan, but apparently not.
The tug chugs on. I read a little, stretch out on my bunk a lot. There isn’t a great deal of room for strolling the foredeck while musing on Fate, as us nautical types traditionally do. Cases of Pepsi totally fill the barge from stern to bow, except for our tiny island clearing in the center. The tug itself is off-limits to passengers, except for visits to the outhouse. Still, one adapts to boredom rather easily in the tropics. Especially when one has no alternative.
The Orinoco this far down is a mighty river indeed, and we stay mostly in the middle channel, so there isn’t much to see of the distant shores. Nights though, we go in close to shore to anchor. That’s when these voracious clouds of insects, which we’ve avoided all day by virtue of staying out in the middle of the river where there’s always a healthy breeze, buzz down to take their revenge on succulent gringo flesh.
Even so, early evening’s my favorite time of day. The lowering sun turns the air all purple and silver, and multitudes of brightly-colored birds come down to the river to feast on the bugs. Traveling through the jungle by boat is better than a subscription to Audubon magazine. Toucans, herons, birds of every size and plummage. And really beautiful people, physically beautiful — men, women, children, everybody.
We chug along, I read slowly, keeping to my reading ration, more or less. Restraining myself is easier than you might think, since Thucydides is so incredibly boring. We make short stops here and there to drop off small bundles of supplies at little communities along the river. No towns to speak of. The biggest is Caicara, just your basic dirt village. A few chickens scratching, a few scrawny dogs and children.