One morning not long ago our Florida weather bypassed the usual afternoon thunderstorm and brought us a damp, grey drizzly dawn. I was immediately taken back in my mind to the country of these posts and to the time and place when we “watched the boats”. If you have read very many of these posts you have a right to be wondering why so much fuss about boats, rivers, supply trips and all that stuff. The answer is simple enough, it’s that a big chunk of life was indeed all about boats, rivers and how people and supplies got from town to the villages perched on the banks of the myriad streams and rivers that snaked back and forth through the dark green jungle.
So here is another small story of the big story that is what life was, out there in that jungle. All things considered the best time to make the supply trips was the rainy season when the water was high. It wasn’t my personal favorite time but it was the best because the rocks, sand bars and snags that gave so much trouble in low water would be completely covered to a depth that allowed the boats to cruise along with no problem. The high water did bring its own unique dangers, such as floating debris and wicked strong currents that could just as easily send you to the bottom as sharp rocks in low water.
As noted in previous posts the supply boats, usually two or three tied together would come down stream to the port near town to pick up cargo and passengers to haul back up stream to the villages where the missionaries worked. The rig coming down stream would have 30 or more empty fuel drums destined for town to get filled up, plus an assortment of jungle products our Indian friends were taking to sell in town. These would include maniac in several different toasted forms, plantains and bananas. And of course there were always passengers needing to get to town for any number of reasons I won’t go into now.
Although ‘town’ was on the riverbank the rig couldn’t get there because of some horrific, impassable rapids that guarded the approach by river from up stream. Located 60 kilometers upstream, above the rapids was the alternate port the rig docked at.
The time spent in port before heading back upriver usually worked out to between one and three weeks. Several trips with the Chevrolet 350 flat bed truck owned by an Italian immigrant were needed to get the supplies and the drums now full of fuel out to port and loaded onto the rig. In the meantime, someone or some ones always stayed with the boats there in port. Many times those who stayed with the boats were MKs and young missionaries. They were tasked with taking care of all things pertaining to the boats. Eventually that work became known as “watching the boats”.
The port was located on a smaller steam a few bends up from where it entered the main river. It wasn’t much of a place really. There were a few not so great looking houses and an office the authorities worked out of. The shore line was highlighted by a large mostly flat rock or series of rocks which sloped down to the water’s edge and is where the boats had to dock. I say, had to dock, because it was far from ideal for loading and unloading. The very gentle down slope of the rock meant you had to keep the boats relatively far out from shore to make sure they didn’t get grounded. Upon arrival from upriver the first order of business was to get your paper work checked by the authorities. The passengers, cargo and the boats themselves had to be properly documented. The opposite bank of the big river was the physical border of a neighboring country and the authorities of course wanted to know who and what was going where and that sort of thing.
Also to be considered was the port “commissioner”. Though he didn’t have the kind of authority the aforementioned officials had, he always showed up with a friendly greeting and smile when we pulled into port. A smile on his face was a good thing and the gift of a hefty bunch of plantains went a long way toward keeping the smile in place.
Depending on the season a lot of the rock could be exposed or maybe not so much. Whichever was the case, the surface, either underwater or out of water, was littered with empty oilcans and gazillions of pieces of broken glass. The contents of the oil cans had been used to make up the fuel, oil mix necessary to operate the two cycle outboards most boat operators used. Why so much glass, well beverages in those days both soda and the more potent variety was sold in glass bottles. It seemed that every one of those bottles ended up shattered into a thousand pieces right there on that rock. At certain times a lot of the cargo had to be carried out, as in waded out, in bare feet to the boats. Getting a nasty cut on one or both feet wasn’t unusual.
Then of course there were the domesticated pigs that looked more like the wild variety. These scrawny, thin animals were always patrolling hopefully along the water’s edge finding the rock a little hard for rooting but faithfully grunting and leaving their calling cards. Not to be forgotten were the dogs, always the dogs, competing with the pigs for the distinction of being the most pathetic looking. One felt sorry for these creatures that appeared to be perpetually teetering on the edge of starvation.
After the formalities with the officials were taken care of most people on board went into town on the truck, which had come out to take them and a load of empty barrels into town. The guys left to watch the boats were tasked with
- Making sure no equipment was stolen,
- Making sure the boats didn’t get dry docked,
- Routine maintenance on engines and the wooden hulls of the boats,
- Be ready to move the boats into position for loading when the truck came from town,
- Keeping the boats bailed.
In rainy season, keeping the boats bailed was the big one. It could easily rain off and on for days and nights at a time during which the guys could never sleep very soundly because any boat without a roof could fill with rainwater and potentially sink. This was especially true if any one boat happened to be heavily loaded and already sat low in the water. All night rains of the slow and light variety happened but too often we dealt rain that came down hard all night long. No wonder they call it the ‘rain forest’. Usually the middle boat of the three had a palm roof but often the outrigger boats had no roof of any kind. The guys, of course, slept in hammocks slung from the roof poles of the roofed boat. From the comfort of your hammock you’d shine your flashlight at the bilge area of the side boats and when the rainwater got to a certain depth out into the rain, in your swimsuit, you’d go. For the first couple of minutes you’d freeze, yes even that close to the equator it at least feels cold. The furious bailing however soon got you warmed up. The water may not have come down in literal buckets but we did use real buckets of the 5-gallon variety to get the water up over the side of the boat and into the river. If the rain let up a bit we could hopefully grab a few ZZZ till the skies opened up again. Sometimes the rain would began to let up when the dawn broke through the darkness but other times the dawn seemed to give the rain a second wind and it would pour all day long. Guess what the boat watchers did all day long. At other times the rain would stop around noon, the clouds would lift away and showcase the most brilliant, and strikingly beautiful blue sky. In stark contrast to the grey and dreary dawn the air would be crystal clear.
At night the vampire bats and mosquitos were always around looking for a meal as were the blood sucking gnats during the day. None of these pests were always at their worst but when they were out in full force it was less than pleasant. The mosquitos could and did give you malaria and the vampires could and did lap up people’s blood. My father was relieved of some of his blood at the port one night. The pesky gnats that patrolled during the day were probably the most wearisome of the whole clan of blood seekers. Bats and mosquitos could be keep at bay with the use of mosquito nets at night. But you couldn’t hid under your mosquito net all day and get anything done. Some folks used insect repellant. I personally didn’t like using it because of the way it made your skin feel.
In the seasons between seasons, the sun could shine very brightly from early morning and then around the middle of the afternoon a thunderstorm would drench everything. The wet rain on the hot rock turned the afternoon into an unwelcome sauna. Being that close to the equator you could count on it being hot all the time. These ‘sauna’ experiences however redefined the meaning of hot. This wasn’t a good time to be loading cargo. You could have paused to wring out your sweat soaked clothes but nobody did because you’d soon have to do it again and again. Nobody worked in shorts because the blood-sucking gnats would attack the bare skin by the hundreds if not thousands. Needless to say it was not easy to keep hydrated. I can remember at times my stomach being so full of water no more would go down and at the same time feeling desperately thirsty. I guess the body was losing water faster than it could get back into the cells.
Watching the boats wasn’t all work. We usually had time to do a little fishing and wash our clothes with that famous blue soap which I guess was work but nothing like loading 55-gallon drums full of fuel and every bit done by pure grunt work.
It was always fun when the river guides stayed with us at the port. The captain who many times was my father employed Indian men who knew the river well and who could predict the depth of the water by reading the surface with an experienced eye. These trusted men would initially go into town, get some needed items for their families back in the jungle and come back to the port with the truck that brought cargo out to the port. Though not native Spanish speakers they had learned a jungle version of that language and we the boat watchers had learned the same version, so we got alone fine. They would hold us spell bound with their stories of what life had been before the missionaries came.
Though coming from two different ethnic groups they shared the common denominator of being river people. Building a perfectly shaped dugout was a skill both groups had developed to perfection. The story of turning a plain looking log into an eye-catching piece of craftsmanship is told in the story “The Dugout”.
They told us stories about hunting and fishing and the dangers one always had to be on the alert for. Of special interest to me was when they would get going with stories of monsters that inhabited the rivers, jungles and mountains. These accounts were an open window into their worldview. In those days we weren’t thinking of worldview as such, to us it was just plain fascinating. One river guide’s ancestral home was in a river system relatively close to the port where the boats were docked. On a clear day a big mountain was visible off in the distance and according to our friend who used to live over there, this mountain was the home of a huge creature that breathed out fire, had scales and flew here and there. Mostly it could be seen at night when the flames would be contrasted with the darkness. Thinking of storybook tales of fire breathing, flying dragons I inquired as to how long ago the creature had been there. Our guide assured us it had been there for a very long time. A creature more like the elusive sasquatch roamed the lowland jungles and still other deadly creatures lurked in the deep pools of the rivers waiting to swallow careless passerby. I’m sure some of the stories we shared with them about the place our people had come from were just as incredulous to them as their legends and stories were to us. When the men landed on the moon the reaction of some was, “they must have been very tiny people”.
Our days at the port were punctuated by the heavily loaded Chevrolet 350 flatbed truck laboring down to the water’s edge. If the water was just the right depth at the shoreline we could transfer the 55-gallon drums, now full of fuel directly onto the boats by carefully rolling one barrel at a time along a 12-inch wide plank. Usually however each drum had to be dropped from the back of the truck onto an old tire, to cushion the fall, then laboriously rolled up the narrow plank and onto whichever boat it was to ride in. We boat watchers always hoped the folks in town would remember to send out a big bag of sweet bread, canned sardines and coffee for the sardines to swim around once we ate them. Yes, of course, we preferred the fresh fish we caught but we weren’t always fortunate enough to have the fresh variety.
In a couple of weeks the boats would be fully loaded, the last truck from town bringing the passengers would have arrived and off we’d start on the journey back up river. Earlier posts have detailed what a typical trip looked like. Actually no two trips were exactly alike. Being flexible and reacting quickly to any situation or emergency was necessary to make sure the cargo and passengers made it safely to their intended destinations.
These river guides have by now all passed on. The three men my father most often employed for this work were believers and we will see them again. In the meantime what these men, their families and their peoples taught us as we lived in community out there in the jungle is part of who we are today.
One day in God’s perfect timing we too will pass on or Jesus will come for his church and we will together be part of that ultimate community where when, Rev. 21:3a “God’s home is now among his people! He will live with them, and they will be his people. God himself will be with them”. Amen