We’re relieved to clamber out of our tent onto the beach before 6am, just as its getting light. The rain has stopped and it’s beautifully cool. Poor Frank tells us they were freezing on the boat!!
Everywhere is soggy and wet so Ollin has gone up to the house to make breakfast and we go on up to eat there too. We struggle up wibbly wobbly steps to a single room and perch on a low bench eating omlettes and drinking tea.
Chickens run around, making us jump and one knocks Zoe’s breakfast plate upside down, while two wide eyed young girls about Zoe and Lara’s ages stand in the corner and rock their tiny baby brother in a hammock.
They stare shyly at the weird blondies eating weird food! They answer my simple questions shyly about the baby’s age but are too shy to tell me their own names or ages…. Then the baby pees. It sprays back and forth on the floor through the hammock. The baby wakes and cries, the mother finally appears and takes it and breast feeds – I wonder at how it must be having and caring for a tiny baby here in the jungle with no western comforts like clean water, nappies, sudocreme!
Later, back on the boat, I ask Gerson about it. He tells me that they make nappies (of sorts) from old clothes, they give birth there in their homes of course, helped by their family and will have occasional visits from a mobile midwife who travels between villages along the river. They’ll wash the baby in the river from soon after birth. he tells me the jungle villagers thankfully aren’t exposed and have no interest in baby formula milk. But in Iquitos and bigger towns, the relentless advertising of the baby formula companies such as Nestlé mean that more and more women are abandoning breast feeding. For year’s I’ve tried to boycott Nestlé but find it’s harder than ever in South America when you need bottled water or a chocolate treat!
We are soon packed up, thanking the family for their hospitality and get back on the river … The crew are worried that the boat is too slow. Alarmingly yesterday, we used twice the expected petrol from our large fuel cylinder but covered much less distance!! Gerson says we’ll try to swap the boat! How? Where?!
And sure enough, half an hour downstream, they pull up by a boat two thirds the size, have a look at it and go off in search of the owner to negotiate a swap!! Ten minutes later they return happy and we start the transfer! Gerson tells us ”the lady wasn’t so happy (you don’t say!) but she agreed” – the crew pull up planks and benches from our boat and the engine, and nail them into the new boat. We move hammocks, bags, cold boxes and leave behind just the shell of our boat (which the crew will have to swap back in 9 or 10 days time when they return) as we head off in our new, slightly faster, much more cosy new boat!
It’s more rustic with a thatched roof. Can you imagine just swapping your boat or car with a random stranger like that back home?! After not very far we run aground again and then have to have to pull up on a beach for a quick toilet stop… We’re not making great progress!
We pull over at a big Army base where Gerson was based on National Service ten or so years ago (he fought in a short war with Ecuador too). He thinks its a good idea to stop, register with them and let them know who we are and what our business is on the river!!
He and Martin head on up with our passports to chat to the General and don’t return for at least half and hour. When they do, Gerson says he didn’t think they believed him but we are ok to continue upstream!
We’re about to leave when Zoe screams! She’s spotted an unwelcome passenger on our boat just above her head – it’s a tarantula – I later Google it and find it’s a Chilean Rose tarantula – a popular pet type! After its given us the tarantula wave, Frank bravely removes it and kills it!!!
We finally stop for a late lunch at the large village of Nuevo Vencedores… A crowd of villagers instantly appear on the riverbank to peer with great interest – I stay on the boat with Ben who still feels terrible while the others wade over a stream to a cluster of houses where they cook and eat chicken and rice … Then Martin comes back and sits with Ben whilst I go to eat. Zoe and Lara lead me over the stream and up to a house…
A larger two roomed home, proper steps up, open sides, busy kitchen with big firepit, a table covered in plates and utensils, one chair, plastic tubs of unknown liquids and foods around the floor, giant bunches of small bananas lying around.
There’s nobody around – the crew have gone to play football with the villagers so I help myself to what’s left and then we spot the monkey. Zoe says it was there earlier rolling around with the family dog!
It comes towards us looking intrigued and not for the first time do I feel thankful we decided to have those expensive rabies vaccinations! Then it’s distracted by a large plastic tub with the lid half off and scoops out a handful of jungle milk – aka chicha – fermented manioc roots! Then it scarpers! This local brew is made by boiling up the roots and then the lady of the house chews and spits it into a bucket to ferment for several days. Martin has tried it before and doesn’t feel inclined to again!
Frank re-appears and says the village girls would love for Zoe to do plaits (braids) in their hair – I’d asked about this earlier, wondering if it would be a good way to interact! They can’t take their eyes off the multiple plaits she has put in her own hair for the trip so she collects hair bands, beads, thread, nail varnish etc from the boat and heads up to the schoolhouse where she is busy till it’s dark, doing hair, and making a couple of bracelets, I meet them heading back to the house as night falls. We get our torches and Lara joins Zoe in painting nails pink or purple, though Frank says they’re a bit embarrassed that their nails are dirty! I ask him to reassure them that ours are too!!!
There is a huge solid, concrete floored meeting house the other end of the football pitch along the river. The villagers have offered it to us to pitch our tents inside! Martin, Ben and the crew move the boat and get Ben inside. They have a second tent for us and a third for Gerson and the boat driver. The others head to the boat for the night and we all turn in early! I can hear the boat driver saying his prayers then all is silent! It’s much cooler than the night before and we’re glad of the extra space of two tents and a light breeze!
But there follows a fairly dire (character building?!) night as Ben gets much worse and is up every half an hour or so being sick and with chronic ‘Mama Mia’ (our favourite term from a song the kids learned in the schoolyard!) There’s no loo, we have to head out to the field and edge of the jungle, surrounded by cows and pigs. When we’re not outside with Ben, one of the girls is up with ”’Mama-Mia” too! And you just know that the mosquitos are having a field day biting everyone’s bottoms!!!
Martin has to clamber across the field and down the banks to the boat to collect clean clothes for Ben and we cut up the new bright pink sleep sheet we’d got for Lara in Iquitos as makeshift underwear/nappies. By morning, we have a big pile of dirty washing which I’m dreading having to go and wash in the river!
In a moment of quiet, Martin and I stand and gaze out at a beautiful moonlit night, the river sparkling beyond the field, feeling very far from the world we know and take for granted and wonder what on earth we were thinking bringing our kids to this remote corner of the Amazon rainforest, without any sanitation, a good two or more days of river travel to a phone signal ( or back a day or more) and with emergency drug supplies that are only recommended for the over 12s!!
We debate options and Martin gets out his First Aid stash that he topped up in Iquitos and re-reads the small print on the info sheets. Ben seems so ill – Gerson also offered us six or seven options earlier, with an English translation written out by hand – one is ‘for pain’! One is ‘for vomiting’ etc. we’ve no idea what they are and can’t exactly Google them!
We know we didn’t choose to come on our family gap year to simply hang out on sandy beaches and eat ice cream. And we wanted the kids to experience the grittier stuff, right? And yet…. ? We have to keep believing it’ll work out ok and we’ll all look back feeling richer for the experience!!