Motorcycle trip Part 3:
The sun rose bright and the sky was clear in Trinidad. We awoke to the roosters crowing and some dogs barking. Somewhere within earshot a baby was crying. Occasionally the baby’s mother could be heard scolding the baby to be quiet because “there was nothing to cry about”. It put a smile on my face to hear that mothers used that same phrase in Spanish that my parents used with me in English.
The men packed up the motorcycles. Our host graciously offered us breakfast, but we politely declined since our bellies were still full from the night before. One by one our motorcycles roared to life and we started down the street single file. The neighborhood kids all came to the doors of their houses to watch us ride by as their dogs boldly chased us as if they were defending their castle from an invading army.
Our accommodations were not far from the edge of town. Very quickly the houses faded and we were riding through the tall trees of the Amazon basin. About 20 miles into the day’s ride we came to our first river crossing. I was excited because we were going to actually ride a motorized ferry across a substantial river. As we approached the clearing along the river bank there were about half a dozen ferries lined up waiting for customers. Several of the boat operators were vying for our business. Steve was in the lead and picked which ferry we would use. My father maneuvered our motorcycle down the slippery bank and stopped just short of the gangplank. He turned his head slightly toward me and simply said “Get off”. I didn’t need to be told twice. I quickly jumped off so he could safely ride the motorcycle across a 2 foot wide board onto the boat. The ferry was a homemade wooden boat that was large enough to carry a pick up or a slightly larger truck or bus. Once we were all loaded up the ferry operators untied the crude ropes that ran up the bank to anchor points secured high up in the dirt bank of the river.
The rivers in this area can fluctuate drastically in height rapidly. Storms brew in the lowlands and blow several hundred miles to the south where they pile up against the foothills of the Andes mountains and dump copious amounts of rain. This is where all these rivers originate and converge forming the larger rivers that eventually flow north to the Amazon. There is no television weather reports or even telephones to warn the river dwellers about the impending rise of the rivers so the tie off points for boats were always high up the bank. It would not be good to come to work in the morning to find the river had risen ten or twenty feet due to rains up stream causing your boat to sink because the tie off rope was not long enough.
To power the ferry across the river there was a smaller boat lashed to the side of the ferry that contained a small outboard engine. The smaller boat also looked homemade. Two men pushed us out into the current and as the ferry floated free of the bank they leaped on board, one ran to the small boat and jumped in. He frantically tried to start the engine. The outboard engine was missing the covers exposing the engine flywheel and the lack of a pull chord. The man snatched up a piece of rope from the bottom of the boat with a knot in one end. The knot was secured in a notch in the flywheel and the rope was frantically wrapped it around the flywheel. With a few twists of his wrist the free end of the rope was wrapped around his hand and he gave a swift pull. By now we were floating down stream and picking up speed. The man repeated the process of wrapping the rope around the flywheel but this time he arched his back, braced his feet and pulled with all the might his small frame could muster. The engine showed signs of life but still did not fire. After several more frantic attempts the small engine roared to life. The man twisted the control handle and began to steer the ferry toward the opposite bank about 100 yards away. With a bump the ferry slid up the bank and the engine operator reved the throttle to shove the ferry up the bank as far as he could. The other man jumped off and set up the rudimentary ramp for us to unload the motorcycles. After a few pesos exchanged hands we were off again.
Not more than 10 minutes later we arrived at the bank of another river. This river was much larger than the first. The bank was lined with more than a dozen boats. Some were ferries and some looked like they might be house boats. There were also a few small boats that could be used for fishing and a whole fleet of dug out canoes lined the bank. The one thing all the boats had in common was they all looked homemade. Once again, there were several men trying to sell us their ferry service. Steve led us along the bank of the river until he found a ferry he liked. After a quick negotiation with the operator we loaded the motorcycles onto the boat in the same fashion as the last time. This ferry was larger than the last and there was already a Toyota pick up on board waiting to depart. As the operators prepared the boat to depart I scanned the opposite bank for the landing. All I saw was tall pampa grass on the top of a steep bank. I walked over to Steve and asked where the road was. He informed me that we actually were getting a 30 minute ride down stream. I heard the boat engine rev up and we backed away from the river bank. There were no seats on the ferry. The occupants of the pick up stayed seated in it. The rest of us tried to make ourselves comfortable for the ride. I was sitting near the edge of the boat watching the water when out of the corner of my eye I spotted what I thought was a dolphin tail. Surely my mind was playing tricks on me. After a few minutes I saw it again, only this time I was sure. I alerted the other guys and we watched as a fresh water porpoise or Amazon dolphin flanked the ferry. Most of us had no idea there was such a thing. Steve proceeded to tell us all about the Amazon dolphin. It would breach the water as it exhaled much like a whale and as it disappeared beneath the water a short dorsal fin followed by a two foot wide tail could be seen as it arched back out of sight in the muddy water. Steve also informed us that this was the Rio Mamore, one of the largest tributaries to the Amazon that flowed north out of the country.
Finally we reached the ferry landing. There were a number of ferries beached waiting for customers. Our boat was maneuvered in between two others and the engine was gunned and the boat rammed into the bank. We disembarked and Efrain and I hiked to the top of the steep bank because it was about all the men could do to get their motorcycles to the top of the slippery slope. I wondered how the pick up was going to get up, but we didn’t stick around to see.
We continued on to the west toward our destination of the day, San Borja. We encountered several more river crossings with ferries that day and one that had a bridge. There was a pole across the road and as we pulled up a man came out of a small mud walled and thatched roof hut nearby to greet us. He required us to pay a toll to cross his bridge. After we paid a few pesos he lifted the pole high enough for us to ride under and across his crudely made bridge. Later, we had a ferry crossing that didn’t use an engine. Rather there was a heavy cable strung across a 20 yard wide river and two men pulled us across the river in a few minutes. We encountered another porpoise on this river crossing. Since there was no engine noise we were treated to the sound of the porpoise exhaling as it breached the water. It seemed to me that it was showing off and saying “hello” at the same time.
We stopped for lunch in a village called San Ignacio. The kids came to look at our motorcycles and stare at the “gringos”. I was beginning to think that “staring at gringos” was their official spectator sport. I was used to it for the most part, but at times it becomes annoying because you are always being watched. I guess I know how George Clooney and Brad Pit feel.
After purchasing gas from a small shack filled with 55 gallon barrels of fuel we were off again. The road was quite dusty so we all spread out so we were not eating each others dust all afternoon. At one point my dad stopped and offered to let me drive. So I climbed in front of him and took over driving duties. This made my day! I was taking it pretty slow at first, but then my father had me speed up so we wouldn’t fall behind too much. This was the fastest I had driven a motorcycle in my life. My mini bike would only go about 30 mph and we were cruising along at 60 mph. The dust on the road was several inches thick at times and the front tire would part the powdery dust and I could feel it hitting my boots.
Suddenly we were caught in a cloud burst. There was little warning there was rain coming. This was supposed to be the dry season, but it had not been too dry for us yet. I was still driving, but the dust on the road became very slick and I was told to stop because we were starting to slide all over the road. We donned our rain coats and continued on slipping and sliding. It was a good thing I was relegated to the back of the motorcycle because it was all my dad could do to keep us upright. I sat as still as possible to aid in balancing the bike. We caught up to Grant as he was putting on his tattered poncho and had a good laugh at it as we passed yelling out, “Are we having fun yet?”
Not long after the rain started it stopped again. The road dried up and we were back to full speed, but my dad did not return the driving duties to me. Maybe I made him too nervous. After a bit, we caught up to the others. They stopped for a break and to make sure we were still coming. Dad and I removed and packed up our rain coats. We assumed Grant was right behind us, but he did not show up for a bit. Finally, we heard Grant’s motorcycle through the trees as he appeared around a corner and stopped with us. We inquired as to what took so long. He began to tell us that after the rain ended he saw a sloth on the edge of the road about to cross. He wanted us to see it and picked it up and put it on the gas tank and handlebars of his motorcycle. The sloth slipped off, but was hanging on by his claws for a bit and Grant kept riding because he appeared content to ride like that. Apparently, Mr. Sloth decided he didn’t need a lift and dropped off, so he stopped and wrapped it up in what was left of his poncho. He attempted to ride one handed and hang onto a feisty sloth in his lap with the other. While sloths are slow, they are also a very determined animal. They have large claws for climbing trees, breaking small branches, and will use them to defend themselves. And while they are cute, they are also quite stinky. The sloth was clearly not a fan of the poncho, Honda motorcycles, or Grants riding ability. So after nearly crashing several times, Grant abandoned the idea of bringing an unruly and ungrateful passenger with him and left the sloth and the tattered and now stinky army green poncho on the side of the road. We all had some laughs before continuing on.
My dad and I took the point for the time being. We were the only vehicles on the road that we saw. The road weaved slightly through tall trees and thick under growth. Occasionally the jungle would give way to the “pampa” grass. The grasslands were quite wet. Large shallow swamps were everywhere. Herds of cows grazed on the grass between the swampy areas. The water was teeming with colorful birds. Flamingos and water fowl of all kinds were common.
It was late in the afternoon when we started to see signs of human life. There were a few mud huts here or there and we passed several ox drawn carts with homemade wood wheels that were carved out of a single piece of wood. The craftsman never seemed to get the wheels perfectly round and the carts would shake and bobble along the road looking like the wheels would fall off any minute.
Suddenly we came around a corner and there before us was the Rio Manique. This river was about 100 yards wide. The ferry was on the other side of the river, but they saw us arrive and made their way over to give us a ride. On the west side of the river is the town of San Borja. This town is large enough to have a generator to provide electricity for those willing to pay for it. There is also an airport with a grass runway and planes regularly fly produce and meat out to the big cities. Ranchers would bring their herd of cows to the edge of the runway to a slaughtering area. Butchers would do their work and a waiting plane would be loaded down with the fresh beef to be sold in the big city of Cochabamba in the Andes mountains. There was no refrigeration so the cows had to be quickly flown to the city before the meat spoiled. Many of these aircraft were McDonald Douglas DC-3s. The DC-3 is a workhorse of an airplane that was first introduced in 1936. The military version, called C-47, flew through WWII carrying troops and supplies. Some of these aircraft still fly all over the world today. It is an extremely versatile plane. It can have the wheels replaced with skis for use in the Arctic, floats can be installed for water landings, and in WWII the Army Air Corps even removed the engines and used them as gliders to silently fly troops in behind the enemy lines in the dark. The jungle is littered with the remains of these planes that were over loaded or poorly maintained and met their demise.
We stopped at a house that sold gas and topped off the motorcycles. Our destination for the night was just outside of town at a place called Horeb.
We were greeted at Horeb by one of the missionaries that worked there named Bruce Johnson. The missionaries there worked with a native indigenous group called Chimane. The Chimane are a semi nomadic group of people that live up and down the rivers in small groups. One of my good friends, Loren, lived nearby at a tribal location called La Cruz. When my family flew into Bolivia for the first time in 1986, Bruce, his wife Jan and their family flew on the same flight as us. Both our families were new to the country and this formed a bond between us. After dinner and a whole bunch of story telling about the trip we all settled in for the night in our respective accommodations. My dad, brother, and I stayed with the Johnsons. A hot shower never felt so good after 4 days of dirt, dust, and mud.