A bond with the river Amazon

by Oraldo Reátegui

Nonstop (Issue III/2019)

The Amazon river winds like a snake through the Peruvian Loreto Province where the rainforest is littered with small settlements, each made up of just three to five huts. The distances from one village to the next are immense, even more so when you consider that they are not connected by streets but rather by a meandering river, with numerous bends which often double the distance.

Captain Seín Pérez knows the Amazon like no one else. As a child he already enjoyed joining his father, who was also a captain, on his trips along the region's rivers. This early interest developed into a special bond with the river, the forest and the river-bank dwellers, he said. Aged 20, he started his skipper training and he was promoted to captain eight years later. And today Pérez is captain of the Eduardo III, a 1,300-tonne-steel ship, which transports people and goods between the port city of Yurimaguas and Iquitos, deep in the heart of the rainforest.

The journey upstream takes three days. There's no such thing as a timetable. The boat launches when it is loaded up. Pérez has been in charge of the Eduardo III for many years. “Along the Amazon, all that counts is your experience,” Pérez said. The ship's journey in the Amazon region, with its treacherous shallow places, requires a very accurate knowledge of the route and the river's “behavior”, which doesn't only change with the year but also with the seasons.

Pérez said that he relies more on his own navigation skills than on electronic navigation devices. To help, he always uses a small ship, which explores the route first, revealing where the deepest part of the riverbed is so that the Eduardo III can follow it. “No one journey is like another,” said Pérez. Once he transported 200 passengers, more than ever before. They wanted to go from Brazil and Colombia to Lima, to watch soccer matches during the American Cup. Most of them were fans of their respective national teams, and the journey ended up being very lively.

In all his years of working on the boat, he was only once directly involved in an accident. Halfway along the route between Yurimaguas and Iquitos, the boat's engine ran out of fuel and his ship was caught in the Amazon's strong current. Before he could tie up the boat at the edge of the river, it ran onto a sand bank, turned over and almost completely capsized. Luckily passengers and the crew emerged with nothing worse than shock symptoms were later rescued from the stranded boat. That was the most dramatic moment in his whole skipping career.

But the time of ships like the Eduardo III could soon be over. The government is planning to dig up five of the Amazon region's most important rivers. Pérez said that he hopes that the necessary technical research has been carried out, so that the region's environment is minimally scathed by the intervention. But he is less bothered that the widened rivers will mean that shipping companies with bigger boats will be able to move in, linking Belém do Pará on Brazil's Atlantic coast to Yurimangas. But for the time being, transport along the Peruvian stretch of river will continue, as ever, via ships like the Eduardo III, where passengers stretch out hammocks on the top decks and goods are stacked in the hull below, to be loaded on and off by people in the ports along the route.

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