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Surrounded on all sides by endless jungle, a man named Carlos has an odd reaction when his boat's motor cuts out in the middle of the Amazon River. Maybe life isn't so serious after all. Text MEMBER to (332) 877-9540 (or click here) to keep Baggage Claim ad-free, or text POD to that same number to join a wonderful community of travelers.

Weird trivia and stuff Will wants to say

  • Iquitos, Peru is a fascinating place. I spoke with Chris Christensen about the city (and the Amazon) on the Amateur Traveler podcast not so long ago about the experience - click here to check it out.

Show transcript

[Sounds of nature - chirping birds, humming crickets, and a gentle current lapping at a dock]

865,370 miles.

That’s the diameter of the sun.

Every second, it releases two billion times more energy than the largest nuclear explosion of all time, Tsar Bomba, which, in turn, was fifteen hundred  times more powerful than Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined. The light from those explosions then moves 93 million miles across our solar system in eight minutes and twenty seconds, to right here.

In that context it seems, I don’t know, kind of ridiculous that this knockoff Patagonia hat I bought for $20 at a bodega is doing absolutely anything to protect my face. But it is. I know this because I’m looking at Geoff through the small gap between my nose and the brim of my cap. 

Geoff doesn’t have a hat. He’s got his elbow wrapped around his face. He’s sweaty and blushing red.

We’re on this old dock, rocking softly in tidewater on the riverbank of the Amazon. Beyond Geoff is the river, mostly still but every subtle shift detected in the crystalline refraction of the sun’s glare on that gliding surface. And Carlos - he sits somewhere beyond the scope of my narrow vision.

A soft whir echoes across the river. I move my hat up an inch and trace the outline of a dory humming across the water with my finger. 

Geoff doesn’t move his arm when he says, “Is that our man?”

And I say, “Yeah, yeah I think so.”

[Theme Music Begins]

This is Baggage Claim: travel stories no one tells.

I'm Will Conway. Apologies for the unscheduled week off. If you’re on the email list, you know what happened. If you’re not, the reason’s dumb. Don’t worry about it.

If you want Baggage Claim to stay ad-free, text MEMBER to (332) 877-9540.

Okay friends, you ready to meet Carlos?

[Theme Music Ends]

[Motorbikes and the sounds of people on a street]

Iquitos, Peru. Specifically, the Plaza de Armas in the city’s center. 

This city is bizarre. It holds the odd distinction of being the largest city in the world completely inaccessible by road. There are no cars - it’s just motorbikes everywhere. 380,000 people right here in the middle of the Amazon Rainforest. Your choices are an airplane or a boat down the Amazon River. That’s how you get here.

We took the boat. We stepped off this morning and we came right here. Our noses are adjusting after four days in the hull of a cargo ship and I’m just now noticing that we smell so bad. Like, repulsive.

The sun shines through the belfry of the church steeple on the west side of the square and it pulses like a lighthouse. The sky’s dominant blue yields to touches of purple. Geoff taps his foot beside me. Checks his watch. I smoke a cigarette. Read my book.

“Did we lose an hour or gain an hour coming into Peru?” Geoff says.

“Neither,” I say. 

A flag, red and white and red again, dances in a gentle breeze.

“Where’s our man?” he says.

“The coffee shop has Wifi,” I say. “I can message him from WhatsApp if you want.”

“I’ll go.” He stands and stretches his arms by his side. 

“Watch my bag,” he mumbles. 

He walks away and fades into a swarm of children and pigeons and street vendors twisting balloon animals and frying picarones and… and he kind of disappears. 

And I wonder what would happen if he never returned or if he simply never was in the first place. What would happen if I was truly alone in this square, in this city, in this jungle stretching to infinity in all directions?

And then I recall that I haven’t known Geoff more than a few weeks, that I am truly alone in this city, and that nothing would come of it if he were to vaporize from this place and wake in his bed in Limerick tomorrow morning. He would lose nothing and I would shake off the recollection of the mystery of his existence as though it never was, as though it was but a dream, and I would find myself away from this place - I’d figure it out. 

And maybe the same would be true of him, if I were to walk down the street and find myself in McCarren Park where I belong, wandering back to a picnic blanket with my brother and Steve and my fiance after I lingered too long in the restroom.

“Did you die in there?” they may say. 

And I might say that it was jungle out there and that I nearly did but I’m more than happy to be back with you on this blanket, in the city where I belong, in the world where I belong. That I’m happy to be living this mundane, ordinary, boring life the way I intended, the way it was always supposed to be. And that I’m glad I don’t have to confront the end of things, doubt the faith of your sincerity nor the reality that life is to change and that I am to be swept away from you in no time. 

No time at all. 

And they might steal glances to one another, and Geoff may return to the park bench - this park bench, this one right here, thousands of miles south - to find his backpack with no shepherd but a partner in my black-and-gray Deuter bag, with a yellow book poking out the top, forgotten where it sits now. 

“Where’d that kid wander off to?” he would think to himself, but I would be gone.

Back in Brooklyn, I would sit down next to my fiance. 

“I love you,” I would say. 

And she would kiss me like this was all a big mistake, that this was a dream and I wasn’t really in this place and she wasn’t really in that park on that blanket, with him. And I would kiss her like I never did in those times, like he never could.

I take a drag from my cigarette and I watch Geoff open a wooden door to a cafe across the park and I can hear the bells on the door jingle. And I know he’s real. And I know he’s here. And I turn back to my book.

“Madly in love after so many years of sterile complicity, they enjoyed the miracle of loving each other as much at the table as in bed, and they grew to be so happy that even when they were two worn-out old people they kept on blooming like little children and playing together like dogs.”

[Sounds of people fade away, crickets fade in]

Street lamps flicker to life, one by one. They settle into a steady simmer and flood the square in a golden hue, marred only by the fluorescent lights of the cafe on the far corner. Its lights are dimmer and ugly now, no longer charmed by desk lamps and candlelight, and it stands empty save a single janitor, sweeping its floor.

[Lighter flicks, person inhales as to smoke a cigarette]

“I think he’s here,” Geoff says, and points to a rotund blur waddling in our direction from the far side of the park.

I tuck my book in my bag. Rise to my feet as the man approaches. 

He’s in his mid-forties and he stands no taller than my chest. He dons baggy blue jeans, a tight black Nike tee that does him no favors and a baseball cap for the St. Louis Cardinals, to whom I assume he holds no profound loyalty. 

“Not exactly who I was expecting,” whispers Geoff from the side of his mouth.

I shrug. Shake my head. 

“¿Cómo están, amigos? Soy Carlos.”

I shake his hand, and then Geoff. Geoff flirts with the little Spanish he can muster and offers only the slightest.

“¿Vamos ahora?” he says.

“No,” says Carlos. “Iremos por la mañana.”

Geoff stammers and I translate. “It’s dangerous to go at night. We’ll go tomorrow.”

Geoff grunts. I think for a moment that maybe Carlos keeps a headdress in his plastic shopping bag, but then I see it’s just an old liter bottle of Coca Cola.

[Sounds of the city at night fade, sounds of nature and gentle dock rise again]

And so we sit on this little dock in the midday sun waiting for god-knows-what for hours, Geoff with his sweaty elbow over his eyes, me with my black Patagonia cap covering my face, and Carlos sitting like the Buddha, calm and content, cross-legged, with his belly hanging out from under his far-too-tight black tee and his plastic grocery back twitching in an all-too-gentle breeze.

A soft whir echoes. I move my hat, squint and trace the outline of a dory humming across the water with my finger. It’s moving in our direction, though for every yard it gains, the river seems to expand a mile. Its engine doesn’t seem powerful enough to overcome the river, but yet the dory battles and as it nears, I realize its engine isn’t buzzing or whirring or purring or doing anything that resembles a consistent, concerted effort. No. It’s gargling, spewing, panting. It’s cycling through its emotions, it’s become human, whimpering in resignment and exerting once more in momentary, full-hearted commitment. 

The skipper of the dory is a thin man, brown and older and indigenous, wearing an unbuttoned button-down and jean shorts and a ball cap. He’s standing now, thrusting on his tiller with all his might, battling the still river with sweat and bullishness.

“¡Ricardo!” yells Carlos. 

And the man forgets his battle altogether and waves like they haven’t seen each other in years and his boat sulks back down the river twenty yards before he yells ¡mierda! and Carlos laughs and mumbles something in Spanish, and then looks to us.

“Listo,” he says. “Let’s go.”

And so we stand as the dory muscles its way to the dock, gargling, spewing and panting all the way. Carlos steps in first and turns back for our bags, and then Geoff and I drop down behind him. And Geoff and I sit in the middle, our packs at our feet, Carlos sits at the front with his plastic grocery bag, and Ricardo does battle with the tiller behind us. 

We sputter away from our nondescript dock and into the deep, heavy current of the middle Amazon river. And somewhere out there, not quite halfway to the far side, the gargling and the spewing and the panting give way to silence. 

Geoff turns back to me, wide-eyed, and I return his gaze. And Ricardo pulls and pulls and the engine gargles and gargles but nothing quite happens, nothing at all. And Carlos sits sideways on his bench in the front, laughing with squinted eyes and mumbling as though nothing has ever quite been so funny. And the harder Ricardo pulls, the harder Carlos laughs. The more Ricardo fumes and mutters and loses his cool, the more hysterical Carlos becomes. And then Ricardo pulls a hammer from his bag and Carlos laughs as I’ve never seen a man laugh before. 

And I decide that maybe he is right. That maybe nothing is quite so funny as two white men and two brown men stuck in the middle of the crocodile-infested, piranha swarming, viper and boa circling Amazon River, meandering gently downstream like a piece of driftwood, because their mortal technology failed them in the war against the immortal. 

And after all, why not choose to view life as a series of hilarious missteps? The alternative is terrifying. 

And so I think, right there in that boat, with Geoff’s face losing color despite the sun and Ricardo grunting and hitting the engine with a hammer, that maybe this Carlos fellow is onto something. Maybe he’s found a way to live that I should envy. And maybe it doesn’t matter that there’s no headdress in his grocery bag and that it’s just a liter bottle of Coca-Cola and he seems to be a fan of the St. Louis Cardinals and far-too-tight black tees. Maybe it only matters that what is simply is, and there’s nothing to be done in situations such as these but to drift down the river and let the world take its course, to let Ricardo hammer away and two white tourists blush and whimper and lose their color and, in the meantime, just laugh. 

And so, at right about the same moment that my own whimpering turns to a smile and a laugh builds in my throat, the engine belches and purrs and we are off. 

And, when it stalls again a moment later, I laugh right from the start, full-throated and earnest and Carlos is in tears and Geoff finds himself chuckling and Ricardo even finds a giggle, too. Maybe not a full giggle, mind you, but maybe just a skipped breath, or a gentle wheeze. But that was enough for the world, because the engine roars back louder this time, quicker than the last, and it doesn’t fail us again.

We slow as we approach the shore, which I learn is no shore at all but an inlet, a mouth of a tributary, shallow and disguised under reeds and lilypads and trees just as frequent in the water as anywhere else. 

Ricardo cuts the engine, intentionally this time, and Carlos passes back two sticks and the four of us find the bottom and push, crawling along like some four-legged floating insect, its legs out-of-sync but its progress steady. And the shallows shallow even more as I choke up further on the stick, and then it becomes nothing as the boat groans and hisses and halts altogether.

We step from the boat and my boots sink into squelching mud up to my ankles, and Geoff and I sling our packs over our shoulders as Ricardo detaches the motor and hides it in the reeds. Geoff and I sling the dory over our heads and follow Carlos up from the muddy riverbank and into the jungle.

And we hike on like that for a few minutes, sweating in Amazonian humidity, our boots muddy and our arms balancing a boat above us, and then Carlos says “estamos aqui,” and we look up from under the boat and a see a homely little construction rising up from the floor of the jungle, stilted and only half-roofed and on the brink of collapsing. 

And, under the dory, I turn my head back to Geoff and whisper out the side of my mouth, “I think the Cardinals play ball.” Geoff laughs, hearty and real this time. 

And I wonder if there’s anything to discover here.

[Theme Music Begins]

That was Baggage Claim: travel stories no one tells.

I'm Will Conway.

There’s this thing that happens when you’re trying to hype your show, which is that you can’t use superlatives too often. You can’t say, “oh, this is going to be the most important episode.” Because then what’s the episode after that, right?

The next to episodes of Baggage Claim are the climax. They’re what this thing’s been building to. They’re the weirdest, craziest, most intense episodes of the show. These are two episodes I need you to tell your friends about. I’m so excited for you to hear them. They’re going to be a blast.

The other big news is that I now have six interviews on the books for the upcoming interview segment. None of these people I have any business talking to. It’s ridiculous that they’re actually taking the time to communicate with me. It’s weird every time they respond to an email.

Those are coming out soon, stay tuned.

The Authentic Travelers Facebook group is an incredible little community. There’s a lot coming down the pike for that. AUTHENTIC TRAVELERS on Facebook and now on Clubhouse. Go find us.

If you don’t want me selling you Dockers or sunscreen in the middle of this, text MEMBER to (332) 877-9540 to keep this show ad-free.

As always, it’s been a pleasure and I’m so stoked to have you here.

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.