Fr En Es De

A lucky day

I slept poorly last nigh. It's five in the morning and I get up. A few minutes later, I am already weary. I can't seem to get rid of my worries. The temperature, which had fallen during the night, begins to rise again. There is a lot of humidity in the air and my breathing is more and more difficult. All my blueprints are warped along with the calendar paper, but today I don't need them. It’s September 24, 1978, a traveling day for me. I think of Polanco. We have an appointment at 8:30 am at the port of the village on the north shore of the San Lorenzo river. He promised to be there but I know him well, he will be late. Before going to the port, I will smoke a cigarette to awaken myself and make my bed. This small house has neither water nor electricity. I was not aware of my previous cushy life! Yes, just the simple act of turning on a faucet and feeling the water flowing softly over my skin has been a dream for the last several months. One slowly gets accustomed to a semi-savage life; I know I can build a system more suited to my reality, but I'm just passing through. My time is limited and my trips are frequent, so I find that to adapt is more efficient than to build. As I make the bed, I realize that this mundane routine does not make sense today: I’m going to be already in another village before dusk. But, how can you skip a fifteen-year-old daily tradition!

Outside, dawn heralds good weather. There is not a cloud in the sky, only the mist that rises, offering the enigmatic spectacle of the Amazon jungle. I look at the old thermometer hanging by the door: 27 ° C ... Wow!... in six hours the mercury column will exceed the 40°C mark. Two buckets and my towel around my waist, that's all I take to "the bathhouse". It used to be called “the clean well” but, due to a bad drainage system, it has become “dirty”. I share that well with about ten villagers. To wash myself, I fill my buckets with water and let it run gently over my head. Luckily, I got up early and no one is there yet. The floor covered with wooden grates is not slippery, the water is not muddy and the solitude is very soothing. The place is visible from all sides. The women who come here to do the laundry have put up wooden poles and a thatched roof. They take possession of the place in the afternoons and then the well becomes the spot for chatting, laughter and probably solace. On the way back, I go to another well, this one is reserved for the kitchen and everyone knows that it is forbidden to bathe in it. The latter is far from the other to avoid underground contamination. I fill one of my buckets and go home. On a kerosene stove, I enjoy some coffee to recover from the sleepless night. It's odd, drink coffee in the evening to fight sleep and thus work harder during the night and in the morning, drink another coffee to recover from the bad night caused by the coffee.

At my boarding house, breakfast is served only after 7:30 am. There are no restaurants here, but there is a tavern and a handful of private houses that offer food to outsiders who are increasingly scarce. The owner of the boarding house must be about 65 years old. He has 11 children, but in the house we only see his wife and his youngest daughter, Consuelo, a very friendly teenager with big black gazelle eyes and a gleaming smile. Last night, she handed me free smoked meat for my trip and a bottle of masato (a local drink made from fermented yucca). I don't like it very much, but for Polanco is going to be like manna from heaven. He will say as usual "Dear Engineer, what doesn't kill you makes you stronger”. I have been told that he is the best navigator in the region. With his large motorized canoe, he has the monopoly of the heavy transport. The guy is huge, the kind who can break the neck of a bull with his arms. However, what makes him pleasant in business is his friendly and familiar demeanor.

To get to the boarding house, I cross the airstrip, a large flat space made of compacted earth that prevents the expansion of the town to the south. My accommodation is in one of the few small houses on the south side of the airport. A small DC-3 aircraft that flew during World War II is currently the only link between "civilization" and us. I am in Iberia, a small town in the Amazon rainforest of Peru. The plane comes in here twice a month. The pilot is a former pilot of large commercial airlines and today he has dedicated himself to serving these forgotten routes. People call him "Capitán DC3". All merchants rely on him for basic food supplies. Later, they do good business reselling the products, although it is the beer with its golden price that serves to pay off the cost of the flight.

Years ago, this town lived on rubber. Most of the people worked on harvesting the sap from rubber trees. But since the last rubber rush in the 1940s, the market has gone bad. The only thing left in the minds of the locals is the hope of a return to better times, that kind of hope that knows neither abandonment nor fear and that prompts people to live and die here while they wait for the beautiful days to come back.

Breakfast consists of tea, bananas, yuccas (edible tubers) and rice with a piece of wild boar. The menu is always the same, except for the meat, which can be replaced by chicken. Despite all possible and imaginable ways to prepare this food, I only dream of a good roll with butter. Impossible for several months: I have never seen a bag of flour here. As I leave the boarding house, the owner shakes my hand and says, "Have a good trip and good luck, my boy!" "Thank you, Don Ramon, I will need it," I reply, watching his angular face, his irregular breathing and his indefinable color of his eyes.

The day before, he had told me a lot about the dangers of the rivers and the nomadic natives of the region. He knows his jungle but I believe that he had never seen an engineer so young and so foolish as to be crazy enough to travel back and forth in an inhospitable jungle with all kinds of transportation. He was curious and wanted to know if my salary was good. According to him, no one comes here alone without having a dream, and worse, risking his life for dangerous and arduous work. He had told me stories of successful gold miners not far from here. Yes, I said, I knew some of them well and believed them. If you're lucky, the gold nuggets just beg to be picked up; otherwise it's a daily torture that robs you decades of life. Don Ramon looked disappointed when I confessed that my salary was not even $7 a month and that I was a volunteer, a bit of a missionary, "a hasty and impatient missionary" and that at the moment my mission was to build an infrastructure for drinking water and sewage networks in several small villages in the region. All that, in just a few months. Don Ramon stared at me and slowly shook his head on bewilderment. I also think he was looking for a good partner for Consuelo, who could take her elsewhere, to the big cities, to offer her a comfortable life, to buy her objects that were inaccessible in these places and maybe make her happy. He was right: life here is a constant struggle against nature and disease, but on the other hand there is no stress and time seems to stretch on endlessly.

On the way to the port I have the impression that the wild boar of my breakfast awakens in my stomach, digestion becomes heavy and I regret having refused Consuelo's offer to try a "morning masato" that could have finished the animal. Finally, I leave with my provisions for two days, my little blue suitcase, a long blade machete, a hunting knife with a deer antler handle and, of course, my still sleepy boar! The port! ... It’s a very generous word to describe the thirty meters of brushed shore where the canoes dock. These small boats, usually made from a single log, are handy for navigating waterways while avoiding obstacles in rivers or floating logs. Most canoes are propelled by paddling or by a long pole that pushes on the bottom of the riverbed. There are only two motorized canoes on Iberia; one belongs to Polanco and the other to Conema. I had a terrible experience with the latter during a drought, where it took 10 hours for a trip that normally takes 5. The water level was so low in some meanders that we often had to unload the canoe, drag it across the sandbars, and eventually reload it. It had been quite a penance. I had to use every muscle in my arms and hands to keep on going while the sun scorched my back.


This time, with Polanco, I think luck is on my side. I arrive on time but don't see Polanco or his pirogue. I wait. A swarm of mosquitoes, already awake, attacks me and with their merciless bites drain my veins. I light a small fire to ward them off, a trick I learned from a little fishing boy; I smoke a cigarette too, but the bugs are tenacious. Despite my grimaces and sudden movements, I can't escape them. I start looking for Polanco. He lives near the port. I hope, at least, that the bags of cement, tools, pipes and other supplies are loaded into the canoe. The vegetation is so dense that I can't make out his house. I've got to go...but...unfortunately, he didn't do anything yesterday! All is quiet and the materials scattered along the path are untouched. I stop in front of an opening that seems to be the entrance. The house is at the center of a large cleared area, fenced off by long wooden slats that are under constant assault from the vegetation. Yes, the fence is the only defense mechanism to prevent the jungle from invading. I'm already noticing gaps opening up, but the house is still a long way from being engulfed by the jungle. Polanco's wife has noticed my presence. She comes to say hello with a bottle of masato. I taste it. The alcohol takes my breath away. With a smile, she advises me not to breathe. She says her husband had a visitor the night before, but woke up with a clear head. Ah really?, in good shape ...? I'm afraid Polanco is drunk and cannot operate the canoe. I'm pretty disappointed because he's the only one who can provide transportation. Finally, he comes out of the house fresh and content. He hides his game very well and apologizes for being late. Looking at the pipes on the ground, he assures me that it will take half an hour to load the canoe and that we will set off for San Lorenzo at 9:30. I doubt it, I mentally calculate the distances to be covered and the weight of the objects to be transported and my result is a very long half hour. Fortunately I have already learned that time is measured differently here than I learned at the UNI. A fellow who might be able to help us shows up. I talk to him, money in hand, and he accepts. He leaves with a bag of cement and comes back to tell me the work is too hard, it's hot, he's hungry, and he quits. I double the amount, he refuses. In the end, money does not have the same value here either. An hour later, with aching arms and a swaying Polanco, we finish loading. This time the Masato goes down well and is even welcome; I am happy and light a cigarette to get rid of the legions of mosquitoes that are getting drunk on my blood.

The canoe is loaded from bow to stern. There is only a small space to operate the rudder. Polanco climbs in while I squeeze onto the half square meter that remains free at the bow. Polanco starts the engine and off we go. The propeller of the canoe is at the end of a long rod. The motor, rod and propeller can be tilted about a horizontal axis at the stern of the boat so that the propeller can be lifted out of the water to avoid hitting the trees and timbers that block the bed of the winding rivers. Recently, Conema had pointed out to me that the propeller was his livelihood and that without it, he and his canoe would be out of a job because it was too big and too heavy to maneuver with paddles. Within minutes Polanco and I are free of the mosquitoes and the rapidly rising heat. A light wind comes from the west, as if it wants to sneak in the same direction as us, enclosed between two huge green walls.

The vegetation on both banks is so dense and gigantic that it reminds me of prehistoric images found in books about dinosaurs. I can't see any access to these green walls and the river seems to flow between the branches. Even the banks eventually disappear: everything seems to be planted in a greenish mass of water. It is a world in which the color green predominates in all its shades. Tree trunks protrude from the water like giant periscopes. Others are partially submerged and can only be seen a few centimeters away from the canoe. Polanco skillfully avoids them. Yes, he knows his river like a fish. I am impressed by his skill and that reassures me. The huge pile of pipes between us makes conversation impossible, so I concentrate on watching everything that passes me by. I like the hum that the little "peque-peque" motor makes, which, together with the many sounds from the forest, makes me dream of the explorers of old times.

If all goes well, we will be in San Lorenzo in five hours. I am afraid that the site is completely abandoned and the workers have disappeared. I had left behind about ten men whose job was to clear the site of brush and do excavations. I had difficulty hiring them because the site is inhospitable and you have to walk at least ten hours through the forest or pay a pirogue to get there. They had finally agreed with the promise of having free food, staying in a hut provided by the locals, and being paid in cash. We were able to communicate through the radio of the border army stationed near the village, but for two weeks the army stopped giving us information. I take all the wages in my blue suitcase; the banknotes are wrapped in brown paper and form small packages that look like bricks. Each brick is labeled with the name of a worker. I have also included a note saying where the suitcase goes if it gets lost or if I can't do my task.


Every now and then I see rows of Unifilis turtles (called Taricaya here) lined up on the semi-submerged branches near the shore. Each group consists of 8 to 12 animals and they look like families rising out of the water to sunbathe. There are also colorful lizards, large and small, and of course alligators that jump into the water at the sound of the engine. The most difficult to spot are the vipers on the surface of the water, but with their bright colors and graceful movements, they are the most beautiful. I would have preferred a rowing boat. Too bad I don't have time to list my observations. I am not a person who loves thrills or flirts with death, but I do find the unknown and discovery appealing. I like what I am currently doing, learning and adapting without deviating from my goal. I hope that when the project is completed, more entrepreneurs will come to complete the home installation phase and allow these people, who have been forgotten by almost all those in power, to have clean drinking water in their homes.

Around noon the sky is still blue, but behind us I see small clouds. Polanco keeps the helm well in hand. The river gets wider with every bend in the meanders. He keeps the canoe far from the bank to avoid being mowed down by a branch, but not too far to avoid the strong and turbulent current in the middle. I think back to my fluid mechanics class and it looks like Polanco is riding in the transient flow layer, placed between the laminar and turbulent flow. After two hours, the monotony of the landscape and the heat tempt me to sleep...no, no, no!!! I open my eyes and... surprise paralyzes me!. The canoe tilts dangerously to port. The pile of tubes slides down. I see the whole event in slow motion, hear Polanco's desperate voice: "Engineer watch out, jump, jump!". With a cramped face, he makes desperate efforts to correct the boat, but it is too late and futile. The current capsizes the canoe. The entire load is already in the water. The pipes float for a few moments and then sink one after the other. The empty, overturned canoe flees, pushed by the current. It sinks. Seconds later, the river has resumed its normal course, leaving Polanco and me helpless. It was as if everything with us or near us had evaporated. I managed to grab my little blue suitcase, but everything else disappeared, including my hunting knife, a childhood souvenir. We reach a large trunk; as we climb it, I remember the turtles sunbathing. Here I am, lost in the middle of a river, in an unknown jungle.


Polanco is worried about his canoe and asks me to help him recover at least the engine. Yes, of course. Before diving, we pick up lianas. They will be used to mark the position of the boat. They will also be useful to resist the current and especially to pull us up if we get stuck between the submerged branches. The nightmare of being only a few inches below the surface of the water and not being able to stick our heads out is frightening. We search by feeling our way through the murky water. Polanco is an exceptional diver. He quickly finds his toolbox and about fifteen minutes later we recognize the shape of the canoe. Fortunately, the motor has not moved from its place, but it is impossible to pull it up. We try many times without success. We are too tired to continue, and Polanco suggests that we should return to the village and come back tomorrow with help. He thinks that four hours of walking will be enough. I think about it. No, I can't stop let alone go back. After all, I lost everything I was carrying. In addition, for three weeks the workers have been waiting for their pay. I've got to go. We reach the shore to rest. Polanco tells me that the canoe touched a tree trunk that was completely submerged. He knew what to do, but the canoe, destabilized by the pipes, reacted unexpectedly. I like to believe him, but I would add that a bad night with a few glasses of Masato certainly did not improve reflexes. We head back north into the forest, looking for the trail that connects Iberia to San Lorenzo. The vegetation seems impenetrable, but Polanco knows it as well as the river. I follow his steps, because for me everything is dense and I don't even know where to put my feet. Mosquitoes are already upon us but, truth be told, their bites are the least of our problems. After a quarter of an hour we can see the path. I have walked this path twice before, but with a guide. We stop to mark our position in the trees and branches. I take the money out of the suitcase. The sodden bundles of money look like soft bricks. Polanco laughs and so do I. I hand Polanco a brick and ask him, “How far from here to San Lorenzo on foot?” Polanco, astonished, replies “But you are mad! The path is very narrow and it will soon be dark. It is more reasonable to return to the village." Maybe he's right, because I'm afraid of getting lost or being attacked by a wild beast, but I also think I can manage the remaining five hours just fine. Without a guide, I have to take care of myself and walk as fast as I can. Faced with my determination, Polanco gives me some advice and pulls out a flashlight from his toolbox. I try it out, but it doesn't work. It's still wet, but I keep it anyway, because you never know. We wish each other luck. He goes west and the "madman" goes east.

My clothes are still wet. I hope to reach San Lorenzo in five hours. The path is so narrow that, from time to time, I have to crawl. Without a machete, I have to move the branches with my hands and arms; the thorns tear my clothes and sometimes my skin. I feel as if I'm moving slowly; I'm attentive to the sounds of the animals and the unexpected movements of the vegetation around me. I noticed that the wind intensifies as it shakes the treetops more and more violently with ominous howls. I'd like to run. But it’s impossible. Fear gradually takes hold of me. I still have some time, I tell myself, calculating my journey time mechanically. I think it’s getting cloudy, but it’s difficult to confirm, as my view of the sky is limited to the openings between the foliage of the trees. I feel weakened by thirst and hunger. I know there are streams around here, but I don't have time to look for them and I don't feel like leaving the trail. Miraculously, a few meters off the trail, I find a puddle where the water barely runs; there's a layer of greenish moss on the surface and above all there are all sorts of insects and toads around. I look for vipers, but the place seems forgotten by predators. At the bottom of the water, weeds and algae grow. I remember an elementary school teacher telling me never to drink crystal-clear water in the wild, that it could be toxic, but that it was safer if you could see other living creatures in it. I gently push aside the greenish foam and dip my hands in to drink. Ah, it's so good to feel quenched! Sure, I've just swallowed millions of harmful microorganisms, but I'm confident that those living in my stomach will win the battle. Well, organisms or not, the precious liquid gives me the strength to carry on. Later, Shucks! A fork in the road! What's next? The left-hand path is a bit wider and I take it. Not far from the junction, I notice a natural clearing in the forest. The noise that had accompanied me so far becomes different, deeper and quieter. A hut? A cleared field? I approach slowly. I discover open spaces where light penetrates unhindered. There are no leaves on the few trees still standing. In the center of this desolate, reddish landscape are towers of anthills, as if someone had built great sandcastles for children. Yes, these are huge anthills; the biggest must be 2 meters high, a meter in diameter at the base and half a meter at the top. I approach to contemplate the details, keeping an eye on the ants around me. They rise and fall on my feet with panicked movements. The towers are impressive works of engineering. In places, they seem to violate the law of gravity. The number of ants on my legs multiplies and I realize that my visit is Non Grata. I slowly move away and return to the trail. Millions of ants, of all shapes and sizes, work non-stop. Fascinating! After a quarter of an hour's walk, the vegetation is so dense that it prevents me from continuing: the left-hand path was the wrong choice. I head back and try to gain time by leaving the path and cutting southwards through the vegetation, encouraged by my adaptability. I'm sure I'll cross the other trail and then be able to turn east.


Time goes by, I think I'm heading south but still nothing: no trail in sight. I realize that the vegetation is misleading. I turn to retrace my steps, but I've left no trace and everything around me looks the same. My visibility doesn't exceed two meters. I lose my sense of direction. Anxiety grips me as I realize I'm lost in the middle of the jungle. For the first time, I think of my parents and brothers since I arrived in the region. If I don't get out of here, it'll take months to find my corpse, or what's left of it. And how could anybody find me? I don't even know how close the trail is, and besides, it's not used very often. Polanco said that people prefer to travel by pirogue. I shout "Help!" at the top of my voice, but it's drowned out by the sounds of the jungle, monkeys, birds, insects, reptiles and so on. I stop to calm my despair and think of a plan. I construct a stick to clear a path in one direction only, hoping to meet a river before dark and hopefully find a pirogue. My goal of reaching San Lorenzo has just changed. I walk for a long time without thinking too much, like a frightened zombie. An hour later, I notice that the vegetation is diminishing. You've got to be kidding me! The anthills! The anthills! I'm running like crazy and there they are! I kiss the ant-covered ground with the ardor of a lover. I'm excited, I'm back on the right path, but this time, at the fork in the road, I turn right. I am cheerful, but not for long. The rain begins. The sounds of the forest are replaced by an incessant murmur. Green turns to grey and black. Lightning skims the treetops. Thunderclaps crack the sky as if it were about to shatter into uneven pieces. I run, I go down, I go up, galvanized by fear, like a wild animal fleeing its predator. The trail floor is full of pitfalls and covered with half-buried roots, holes, branches, fallen trunks, small puddles; the trail itself rises and falls and sometimes the change is abrupt, delaying my run. My feet almost never fall on a flat surface and my ankles are constantly twisted at different angles. The rain is now intense, an Amazonian rain: generous and short-lived. I find some shelter under the trees. In two hours, everything is dark. The rain has stopped. My clothes are soaked and I'm cold. The buzzing is different, as if other bugs and birds have replaced the ones before. I'm sure there are big beasts not far from the trail, because I can hear the sudden, sharp cracking of branches ahead and behind me. Don Ramon had told me that if we walk fast we make so much noise that most of the animals flee. I take out Polanco's flashlight and try once more to light it. What a fluke! It works! I hear again a familiar noise: toads everywhere! I shine the light on the path and see them: there they are, jumping. I remember Don Ramon's logic: first the rain, then the toads and finally the vipers. The thought makes me shudder, but there's no stopping my momentum. When the toad area is far behind me, I touch my face: what I thought was sweat is actually blood. My face, arms and hands are scratched, but I can't feel the pain. I look at my feet, my poor feet, wet, tired, worn, but still faithful.

Probably around 8 pm, the terrain becomes flatter and the trail wider. A dog's bark fills me with courage. Incredibly, despite the omnipresent noise of the forest, I can still make out the bark. What joy! I don't think I've ever felt so much love for a dog. After a few minutes, I see something in the distance; what's over there? A little light! Yes! I pick up the pace. I fall twice, but get up again. The dog's barking is now louder and more threatening. I stop and the dog falls silent. I see a hut and the silhouette of a man coming out with a rifle. The animal starts barking again. Before I am mistaken for prey, I switch on the flashlight and shout: "Hello, hello, where am I". The man: "Who's there? ... but ... Engineer! It's you!...but how? Are you alone?" Yes. It's the border guard sergeant who I tell what happened to me in two minutes. "Come in, come in," he says."The workers are still here. We thought you had given up on the project. We talk for a while. He gives me coffee and dry clothes. I tend to my wounds. Other soldiers come in and stand around me. The sergeant says, "You're lucky, it's time for dinner, come on, some rice and masato will do you good". Yes, masato of course, I'm lucky. After dinner, the soldiers offer me a place to spend the night. I am so tired that I am fascinated and delighted by the wooden slats that serve as my mattress. I fall asleep quickly. I think about the next day and realize that today is Sunday and tomorrow is the start of the working week. Before I close my eyes, I review my day. I think about Polanco, Don Ramon and Consuelo, but above all about the anthills! And I smile, because luck has always accompanied me.

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