Men shout as the huge boat lurches sideways into the riverbank. There is a roar as the engines are rammed into reverse and it shudders away again with a creak, creak, creak, snap. Half a tree is wedged into the railings on the upper deck, dangling pathetically above the chocolatey water. Eager bugs crawl off the branches and make haste for the boat’s insides. An inexpertly strung hammock from the lower deck remains on the bank, snagged by the luckier half of the tree. This is darkest Peru, a three-day boat journey from one place inaccessible by road to another. This is the Amazon.
The captain is docking at a smoky hamlet nestled in a calm bend of the river. The boat is almost comically large for the size of the place and the tiny pier it so nearly missed in that first mooring attempt. The homes are open and thatched with leaves from the banana plants that presumably support their existence: men in dugout canoes shuttle back and forth, piling the front of the boat with their week’s harvest for sale elsewhere. Every village the boat stops at between Iquitos, a steaming, jungle-locked city of one million, and Leticia on the Peruvian/Colombian/Brazilian triborder – and there are a lot of stops – seems to pile more bananas onboard. I wonder how on earth they are distinguished between. One group of passengers nearby has a clump of maybe 30 dusky green bananas each bearing the family name in marker pen: this seems an unlikely solution for the vast chimp banquet lying on the bow.
It’s early, 7am, and as the boat pans back into the current to continue its plod downstream the fire alarm briefly sounds: breakfast. There is a rush, as much as rushing is possible in the confined space. There are hammocks, luggage, people and poultry everywhere. The hammocks dim and diffuse the clear morning sunlight, hundreds of them in every colour and pattern hanging from every available railing. They swing gently now as Peruvian families clamber down and poke around in solid, woven plastic bags for spoons and bowls to be filled with avena con leche, warm milk flavoured with cinnamon and containing a few soft oats.
Mealtimes punctuate the dreamlike journey. Hot and clammy days and nights are blurred, spent in the hammocks or leaning over the railings still tacky from fresh blue paint, reading, chatting or just watching. Watching people carving out their little personal spaces in the midst of barely restrained mayhem. Watching the dense, dark jungle dripping in vines, and the white bark of the hardwoods thrusting upwards. The occasional glimpse of a pastel pink river dolphin. The enormous silver-blue sky lying heavy over the wide water and rainforest after a storm, laden with clouds the colour of purple bruises.
Day, night, day, night. Time is hazy. Another shout goes up and the engine snarls. We’ve arrived.