Motorcycle trip Part 6:
I woke to another wonderful breakfast at the Johnson’s house. The sun was shining. And the sky was blue with large puffy white clouds. We made our way to the main part of the base where we met up with the other guys.
We loaded up in the back of a pick up while my dad and Bruce rode in the front. Bruce took us down the road toward Yucumo about 20 minutes or so. He pulled over next to a fence that ran perpendicular to the highway. Bruce pointed to the south toward a line of trees visible in the distance and said “Follow that fence to the trees where you will find a trail that takes you to the river. Len Gill will pick you up there”
So we climbed out of the truck and climbed over the fence that paralleled the road and started following the perpendicular fence. The path led through the pampa grass and was muddy with standing water in places. We all took our shoes off and carefully made our way along barefooted. I was wearing shorts under my jeans which enabled me to remove them as well. Some of the others rolled their pants up to avoid getting them wet. After a mile or two we arrived at the trees. Efrain was in front and found the path through the trees and shortly we were at the bank of the river. My friend Loren was at the top of the bank waiting for us. His dad Len was seated in the rear of a boat at the bottom of a steep bank. We carefully slid down the bank and piled into the boat. After a few pleasantries Len gave the starter cord a few swift pulls and the engine roared to life. Loren gave the boat a big push out into the river and dove into the front of the boat.
Len pointed the boat upstream and revved the engine. Loren took his place at the front of the boat. His job was to watch for floating logs and sand bars. He would stick his arm out to the left or right and Len would jerk the boat left or right accordingly to avoid damaging the irreplaceable engine on a floating log or running us aground. This made for an interesting ride to say the least, and you had better be hanging on or you might be tossed from the boat. After about 30 minutes we slowed to a stop next to another larger boat that resembled a homemade houseboat. Loren jumped out and ran up the bank to tie off the boat.
Once we all disembarked Loren and Len disconnected the outboard engine and struggled up the river bank with it. With the value of outboard engines, you couldn’t ever leave one on your boat without the possibility of it being stolen. They loaded the engine onto a trailer behind a small Kubota tractor. We all climbed aboard and Len started driving down a narrow road that resembled more of a trail. The jungle trees hung low over the trail and often times we had to duck or push branches away.
After a 10 minute ride on the trailer we came to a clearing with several houses and a church. In the middle of the clearing was a large grass field that was used as a soccer field. Rudimentary goals were standing on each end made of poles cut out of small trees. This is where the Gills ministered to the Chimane people. Neal and I spent the rest of the morning hanging out with Loren. They had a Honda 4 wheeler and gave us the grand tour. We were sitting side by side on the rear luggage rack hanging on for dear life as Loren rode around like a madman. He showed us the airstrip the missionaries had carved out of the jungle and the trails through the jungle he rode around on. We rode down to a large beach and raced up and down it carving fresh tracks in the damp sand. We had a blast and returned to the house muddy and wet.
After lunch, I learned Loren had been scheming. He and his parents asked if I would like to stay for a longer visit. Loren was the youngest in his family and all his siblings were grown. With no other kids around that spoke English, I knew he wanted me to stay.
I agreed to stay for a few weeks and accompany Loren and Len on a trip they were going to take. That afternoon we took my dad and the rest back to the trailhead. They started the ride home the next day. I learned later they managed to make the ride to Santa Cruz in two days, one of which took 14 hours. They made it back just in time for Grants appointment.
I borrowed clothes from Loren as we had left mine in Horeb. We spent our days playing soccer with the native boys and riding bikes and their 4 wheeler. When we became thirsty we would grab a ripe grapefruit, orange, or tangerine off one of the trees near their house. We would cut a hole in it and squeeze the sweet juice into our mouths. Unlike the grapefruit sold in the U.S., these needed no sugar to make them edible. The grass airstrip needed to be mowed so we took turns riding back and forth on their small tractor with a 4 foot mower. It takes a really long time to mow an airstrip with such a small mower.
Loren spent eight months of the year living at Tambo, the school where my parents worked. He was more used to being away from his parents than I was. I became extremely homesick after 4 days and wanted to go home. I made an excuse that I am sure they didn’t exactly buy, but they agreed to help get me home. Loren and Len were about to leave on their trip. So after a week of being in La Cruz Len arranged for a native man to give us a ride down stream to the trail we walked in on. Loren went with me and we rode in a dugout canoe for an hour and a half as the man used a pole to push off the bottom of the river propelling us along. The progress was painfully slow compared to the motor boat.
The canoes the natives used were carved out of a single tree. They vary in length. I have seen some that can carry 30 people and use outboard boat engines on them. Others can only carry a handful of people. The one thing they have in common is that when they capsize they usually sink. There were no seats in them, the passengers would sit in the bottom. Often the person “driving” the canoe would stand in the rear with amazing skill and balance. The one we were riding in was about 20 feet long and two feet wide. After being dropped off we then walked all the way to Horeb which took us all afternoon. We stayed the night with the Johnsons and I was reunited with my clothes my dad left for me.
In the morning, as we were eating breakfast a motorcycle pulled up outside. A missionary I did not know came into the house and informed us there was a plane leaving San Borja shortly for Santa Cruz and I could get on it. The man grabbed my borrowed suitcase and laid it across his lap on the motorcycle. I jumped on the back and we made a mad dash for the airport.
When I use the word airport most people would think of a high security facility with a tall fence, security guards, concrete runways, and a terminal full of people. This was nothing like that. There was a building that controlled the airport that also served as a terminal, but there was no fence, no security, and definitely no concrete. We didn’t even go into the building but rode the motorcycle right up to a small gold colored twin engine airplane.
A few minutes later two American men walked up and asked if I was their passenger. The man who gave me the ride confirmed it and left me in the pilot’s hands. The plane belonged to another mission organization and they were flying empty back to Santa Cruz, which worked out perfectly for me.
Once the pre-flight inspection was complete and the runway checked for cows, we were airborne over the vast pampa and jungle. The sky was clear and the expanse of the flat land could be seen forever in each direction. The flight was smooth and I sat back in my tan synthetic leather seat and listened to the two engines drone across the sky. I had no way to keep track of the time, but after what seemed like two hours we descended and landed on a grass air strip on the outskirts of Santa Cruz.
I helped the men push the plane into the hanger and hung out with them until a co-worker of my parents named Dan Gill arrived. Dan and his wife ran the mission guest house and did supply purchasing for the missionaries located in the remote areas. As we rode into town Dan asked when I wanted to get home. And I told him as soon as possible. We stopped by the bus station on the way to the guest house and Dan bought me a ticket for that evening.
The buses traveled mostly at night. I am sure there was a good reason for this, but we always assumed it was so the driver could see the lights of the oncoming vehicles around the tight mountain curves. My bus didn’t leave until 7 pm and I was hungry. Dan gave me a little cash out of my parents account and I hit the street.
I enjoyed running in those days and was one of the best long distance runners in my school. So I jogged a few miles to a friend’s chicken restaurant called Pollo Moderno. My friend Joseph Wang along with his brothers and sisters were classmates at Tambo.
Pollo Moderno is arguably the best rotisserie chicken restaurant in the city. There were no McDonalds or burger joints, but rather chicken was the fast food of the time. The choices were pretty simple. A quarter, half, or whole chicken with rice, French fries, and fried plantains. The hot sauce was Mrs. Wang’s secret recipe and excellent. Joseph’s sister YaChen was working the register and no matter how hard I tried she would not accept any money from me. I enjoyed my lunch and the conversation.
After lunch I made my way back to the guest house. I was not in a hurry and walked casually the few miles back. I relaxed for the rest of the afternoon.
About 6 pm Dan gave me a ride to the bus station, it wasn’t far, in fact I went right by it on the way to lunch, and could have gone alone, but I think Dan was just watching out for me. I was only 13 years old at the time and I am sure Dan felt like he needed to take care of me because he knew my dad would do the same for his kids. Dan was a good man, but sadly like my own father, cancer took him way too soon.
The bus rolled out on time headed for Comarapa 155 miles away, which is ten miles past our house. It was about a 5 hour bus ride to traverse the 145 miles. Often times the busses would be overloaded with passengers sitting in the aisle. Sometimes a chicken or rooster might be carried on in a burlap sack and could be heard complaining occasionally throughout the ride. One time during an overnight bus ride a rooster decided to let us all know it was morning by serenading us for the last hour of the ride. On this trip two kids shared the seat next to me and spilled over into mine, while their mom sat across the aisle. I didn’t really mind them taking some of my seat as this was a regular occurrence. I watched out the window as the bus zigzagged through the mountains and valleys. The drivers always seemed like they were practicing for the Indy 500 with the way they drove.
Around midnight the bus rolled to a stop in a cloud of dust in front of Tambo. As soon as I was stepped down, the bus roared away leaving me struggling to breathe in the dust and diesel exhaust. The generator at Tambo was shut off nightly at 9:30 and there were no lights showing anywhere. I didn’t have a flashlight, but I didn’t need one. The sky was clear and the moon light was plenty bright enough by which to see. If you have ever seen the night sky in the mountains when there is no pollution or lights to hide the stars you understand the beauty of what I was standing under. The Milky Way surrounded by a billion stars could always be seen on cloudless nights. The mountain air was crisp and cool.
I passed through the heavy gate and made the quarter mile trek to our house lugging my small suitcase. The house was dark and silent. Thankfully the front door was unlocked and I was greeted as I entered by our big dog Pepper. He wagged his tail in excitement to see me. I made my way down the dark hallway to my room without making a sound while Pepper followed along. Pepper reluctantly curled up on a rug in my room after I denied him access to my bed while I undressed. It was extremely relaxing to be home and my bed never felt better!