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Two men spend days on a rusty cargo ship crawling along Amazon River, moving slowly from Leticia in Colombia to Iquitos in Peru. They're late for an appointment. Will reads a few chapters of One Hundred Years of Solitude to pass the time and finds the lines between reality and fantasy blurrier than he'd imagined. To keep Baggage Claim ad-free, text MEMBER to (332) 877-9540 (or visit this page). If you don't want to do that but you do enjoy the show, text POD to (332) 877-9540 to get a call from the host.

Weird trivia and stuff Will wants to say

  • If you're curious what the slow boat looks like, check out my saved Colombia story on Instagram.
  • I spoke to Chris Christensen on the Amateur Traveler podcast about this experience. If you're looking for more information or want additional resources, click here.
  • I want to double-down on my endorsement of Luisa and the Casa de Huespedes hostel in Leticia. She helped us organize this ride down the river. Worth checking out if you're curious about the Amazon.

I hear with my little ear

Show transcript

[“El Guaranguito” by Lucila Campos plays. The music fades and becomes grainy]

“Motherfucker, they’ve got to shut that shit off. It’s six o’clock in the morning.”

I look at Geoff, who’s glaring over my shoulder at four men playing poker with Peruvian soles and American quarters. They’re blasting music and they haven’t slept. I know because, from the look in his eye, neither has Geoff.

There’s paint chipping off the wall before me. Rusted pipes are tangled overhead. The foot of my hammock is strapped to the locking mechanism of a port window. And beyond it, thin trees, moving so tediously, so slowly. My hammock sways.

It’s the morning of the third day. Another day remaining. Another morning forgetting I need a shower. Another dreadfully slow, sedentary day of shade in the hull of a ship that never seems to move. 

And me? Well, I haven’t moved for three days. But I have my freedom.

“I think the boat’s a day behind schedule,” I say. “I wish we could text him.”

Geoff shakes his head as though he forgot what texting even was altogether.

“Carlos is just gonna have to wait,” he says.

We’re on a rusted cargo ship on the Amazon River. I face the port side - south. Before me is dense Peruvian jungle and, if I wielded both a machete and the will, I could hack through to the Brazilian state of Amazonas, thirty miles from the tip of my toe.

The ship’s hull is broken up into three floors. The bottom floor houses livestock: chickens and donkeys and horses. The middle floor is fruits and vegetables. Here we are on the top deck. It’s a makeshift township, a web of hammocks erected by commuters to the isolated jungle city of Iquitos, completely inaccessible by car or train. These travelers are Peruvians and Colombians mostly, with a few Brazilians scattered in, working class and gruff. Geoff and I are two of three non-locals aboard, and we’ve grown accustomed to piercing eyes and muffled laughter. 

There is technically a shower, I suppose, but I opened the door on the first morning and a moth the size of a cessna hit me in the chest. I haven’t been back since.

“I need a smoke,” I say. 

Geoff nods. 

My thirty-liter black and gray backpack leans against a support beam. I move my old copy of One Hundred Years Of Solitude, untuck the red and maroon pack of Luckies beneath, and replace the book. Check my pocket for a lighter and I shuffle up to the bow.

[Theme Music Begins]

This is Baggage Claim: travel stories no one tells.

I'm Will Conway.

Today, a very slow boat and a mysterious man named Carlos.

If you like Baggage Claim and you want to see it stay ad-free (and really, you just want to keep it around), text MEMBER to (332) 877-9540. If you don’t want to do any of that but you want to be friends, text POD to the very same number [if you're reading this on the website right now, just click here].

Alright, it’s been a bit. Let’s jump right in.

[Theme Music Ends]

[Light motor and the hum of nature]

The river’s muddy water is pock-marked in motion. The battlefield of a mild drizzle. The rain is gentle, misting, and the sky is gray.

She’s wearing an old gray tank top with the insignia of some French university. Short purple athletic shorts. She’s smoking a hand-rolled cigarette and looking off to the shore. She hardly notices my presence at all when I sit beside her, and I think maybe the shore she’s looking to isn’t in Peru at all.

[Sound of a faraway boat engine]

Just off our bow, a dark-skinned man in a canoe with an outboard motor - closer in size to a weed whacker than a true engine - sets out with a young boy. They’re armed with a makeshift fishing rig: two bamboo rods, a wispy fishing net and a spackle bucket. On shore, a faded amber sheet metal roof behind tall grass. A young child on the riverbank in a diaper and dirty yellow Crocs. A mother, arms folded across her chest.

I begin to speak but I pause. Start again.

“Have you had any unusual experiences here?” I ask, cautious.

She pauses for a moment. Then, in a gentle Parisian accent, “What sort?”

“I don’t know. Anything odd, visually. Mentally.”

She takes a drag of her cigarette and exhales. Her smoke hangs in the air a moment, considers itself, and retreats to the stern. 

“I’ve been dreaming quite a bit,” she says. “Vivid. More real than usual. I don’t know if that’s the Amazon. I’ve been reading a book about dreams, so that could be it.”

“I had a moment before the boat,” I say.

“Oh,” she says.

“Geoff and I were in a cabin on the water with this young Colombian guide about thirty minutes south of Puerto Nariño. We hung our mosquito nets and hammocks, snuffed our candles, and I was just beginning to drift off. From where I was laying, I could see these trees from the window.”

A droplet of rain rolls down my cheek. I wipe it away.

“And they were just... I don’t know. Vibrating?”

“The trees?”

I nod.

“Vibrating might not be the word,” I say. “Squirming? Their edges were fluid, like rolling waves on the ocean.”

She inhales. Smoke swirls. I trace ripples in the water across the river to the fishing rig, where it rocks in a light current. The boy stands on shore, handing his father supplies.

“I haven’t seen anything like that,” she says.

[Sounds fade out, Lucila Campos song fades back in]

Hammocks. Dozens of them of every color. Some are striped in bright yellows and purples and reds. Some are matted brown, ragged and worn.

A child runs past, giggling, her braids swinging behind her as she weaves through hammocks and adult legs rising above her like redwoods. Her brother follows behind her, piping and angry.

A mother in a hammock, her young son dozing on her chest. He stares at me as I pass. His face is dark and his eyes are glassy and bloodshot. He sniffles to himself but never lets his eyes leave me.

Four men still play cards on an upturned barrel. They cheer and giggle and moan, drunk and exhausted.

Geoff sits where I left him in his hammock, one foot on the floor and white headphone strings dangling from his ears.

“Have you read that yet?” he says, pointing to my bag. One Hundred Years of Solitude sits atop, its yellow and green jacket glowing against my slate gray bag and the chipping iron support beam.

“Not yet,” I say. “My buddy wouldn’t let me leave without it.”

“Let me know how it is,” he says, and replaces his headphones.

I sit on the edge of my hammock for a moment, striped red and yellow and black like a coral snake. I lean forward and pick up the book, settle back in the hammock. Thumb to the first page.

“Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.”

I sway and I read and something tribal and elegant blares from the speaker behind me but I don’t hear it, because I am lost in the story; I’m lost in the desperate woman speaking desperately.

“If you have to go crazy, please go crazy all by yourself!”

Thin trees move slowly out the port window at my feet.

[Sounds fade, rain rises]

The port window is black now. It glistens wet under fluorescent lights. My toes do, too. I almost envy the book for a moment, dry and warm and loved and acknowledged. Rain thwack thwack thwacks on the rusted roof while Geoff listens to a podcast about this or that and Rebeca eats dirt. 

“And, in fact, she could not bear the earth in her mouth. But she persevered, overcome by the growing anxiety, and little by little she was getting back her ancestral appetite, the taste of primary minerals, the unbridled satisfaction of what was the original food.”

The port window flashes. Trees matted against the universe. Purple crystals stand frozen and the river is gray and streaked but then the window is black once more like nothing happened. Like I closed my eyes and the world’s colors inverted for a moment but only a moment. As if the world was calm and steady and nothing happened. Nothing at all.

I count. “One, two, three,”

[Thunder roars]

It starts from nothing at first, just a momentary shiver in my shoulders on a breezy afternoon in the Indian summer. But it groans and rumbles and the ship itself quivers in fear.

“Let’s take a look,” I say to Geoff. 

He nods. Stands.

We meander through the maze of hammocks of this color and that, past the speakerbox with nothing to say, past the upturned barrel and four empty chairs, past the Parisian reading her book about dreams, past the little boy, sleeping on his mother’s breast. And we halt for a moment at the rusty door with an indelible shoreline on the ground, a glistening puddle under fluorescent lights. Here, dry. There, wet.

“Let’s do it,” says Geoff, and he puts his hands to his head as if that will do much of anything. As if through all this time and all these rainstorms in the Amazon, people have just been waiting for an Irishman to put his hands on his head and teach them to stay dry. As if the Amazon itself will bow to the mighty man in a Tottenham jersey with eight fingers and two thumbs on his forehead.

I bring my hands to my head, too. 

We don’t dampen the way one does when it rains. We don’t spend time with speckled shoulders and moist forearms. We were dry a moment ago and now we’re not. We convert from the comforts of dry habitation to the shellacking of the world’s greatest wonder without transition, without introduction.

The world is black, but then I see that it isn’t. I see that the sky is colorful once I let myself find it. 

A smattering from a darker palette. Grapes and slate blues and hints of lavender even, in the thin patches that allow themselves to be backlit by the moon. I think, but only for a minute, that maybe this palette is even more beautiful than the primaries that dominate. But then my home palette returns in a flash of lightning and I remember that no, this is the one I know. 

And while I may be intrigued by mystery, enraptured by the novelty of understanding the grandiosity of the color spectrum, I prefer to paint in pastels. 

My home palette returns again bright and dominant but it is not lightning. It’s the shine of a spotlight, massive on our boat’s bridge. It turns to the shoreline and I see trees as I do in daylight. It runs over the river before it, and I see the water, muddy and brown as it is and pockmarked with little wet mushroom clouds, little droplets everywhere, so dense that they form a crystalline atmosphere in the inches above the water’s surface. And then it blinks and it’s gone.

Geoff and I sit for a long time, not because the rain subsided - it hasn’t - but because we’ve grown accustomed to its presence, its familiarity. We’re relaxed. Calm. And then…

[Thunder cracks]

A branch breaks somewhere. Cracks slowly like a monkey has exceeded its limits but it’s fast now and gone and the sky is purple and the world is white and the sky bellows. It strikes a tree off our starboard side and I swear I see the inside and I swear I was hit by a frying pan.

“Let’s go inside,” he says.

And we pass the boy crying on his mother’s breast and the Parisian laying wide-eyed and the upturned barrel and four empty chairs and the speakerbox standing shamed in the corner. I sit on the edge of the hammock, and eventually, I reopen One Hundred Years of Solitude, dry still but lonely, and read.

“The house became full of love. Aureliano expressed it in poetry that had no beginning or end.”

[Sounds fade out, boat engine fades back in]

My ribcage shrieks against rusted metal as it grinds against the port window. I crane my neck to the shoreline at the ship’s bow. Pastel constructions of all shapes before me, each with a corrugated tin roof, but each a different color. There are baby blues and brick reds and faded pinks and a smattering of yellows. In the harbor, a flamboyant green and orange tugboat nips at the heels of a sluggish barge, stacked impossibly high with wooden pallets. Smaller boats bump one another and men in cargo shorts and bare feet leap between them with wooden boxes in their arms.

“Almost time,” says Geoff from inside.

I return from the window. The inside of the boat is nearly barren now. The maze of hammocks has been deconstructed and replaced by men in jean shorts milling about and mothers pulling their sons against their thighs.

I reach for One Hundred Years of Solitude, with no intention but to tuck it into my backpack. But it lays open before me, I lean against the support beam and balance the book against my chest.

“He started writing again. For many hours, balancing on the edge of the surprises of war with no future, in rhymed verse he resolved his experience on the shores of death. Then his thoughts became so clear that he was able to examine them forward and backward. One night he asked Colonel Gerineldo Márquez:

“Tell me something, old friend: why are you fighting?”

“What other reason could there be?” Colonel Gerineldo Márquez answered. “For the great Liberal party.”

“You’re lucky because you know why,” he answered. “As far as I’m concerned, I’ve come to realize only just now that I’m fighting because of pride."

“Will, let’s go mate.”

We follow a petite family of four down the steps, past the floor once filled with every variety of fruit and the ground floor still smelling of manure but vacant now, but for strewn hay. And we emerge from the quiet, penumbral hull into blazing equatorial late-morning sun and chatter of all varieties. 

[Sounds of a busy marketplace]

The shore is teeming with humans. Men form an assembly line, passing down boxes of fruit and bunches of bananas. Families line the water’s edge, waving vigorously and clapping like we returned from the moon. 

We tiptoe down a decaying wooden plank with mammoth packs on our backs, and onto solid ground for the first time in four days.  We slog up the hill and the voices fade behind us. Climb a series of stairs to an alleyway behind a shoddy brick house with a rusty corrugated roof. We march on through the shadows and emerge on a street, tri-wheeled rickshaws zipping past. We turn right, carry on for fifteen blocks or so, before Geoff points to a regal steeple ahead.

“Carlos said it’s past the church,” he says.

The block beyond the church is the city’s Plaza de Armas, an open city square, meticulously-groomed, with a charming white monument in the center. We find a park bench, heave our bags to the sidewalk, and sit.

“What now?” I say.

“We wait,” says Geoff.

I pull my packet of cigarettes from my pocket, shake one out, and put it to my lips.

[Lighter ignites]

[Theme Music Begins]

That was Baggage Claim: travel stories no one tells.

I'm Will Conway.

I mentioned this in the Intermission episode, but if you missed it, I announced I’ll be launching interviews. Those are coming soon - I actually recorded the very first interview on the day that this episode comes out. So you know, congratulations to me. You can expect the normal Tuesday episodes that follow the format of today’s episode. The interviews are additional.

If you like Baggage Claim and you want to keep it ad-free (it would be really weird if I tried to sell you Dockers in the middle of this, huh?), text MEMBER to (332) 877-9540.

Okay, see you next Tuesday.

[Theme Music Ends]

Will Conway

About

Former political software guy. Now a traveler and adventurer, which isn't a job, and host of the @heybaggageclaim podcast, which really isn't either. Travel stories no one tells.