The first day I was in Leticia, a village on the Amazon on the border of Peru and Brazil, I sat dreamily on a quay by the huge river and watched life pass by.
The riverboat Ariadna Quinta, Río Ucayali, PeruEven although it was 3,000 kilometres from its mouth, the river was two kilometres wide, and dwarfed the river-steamers, barges and freighters lining the banks. Behind corrugated-iron roofs, thick green jungle came down to the muddy water. A long narrow canoe with a thatched canopy glided in and two men unloaded oil drums. An old woman stared idly at a giant tree trunk floating lazily downstream.
I walked over the ramp to the Amazonas bar, which squatted comfortably on stilts above the water. A crowd sat playing cards and drinking beer. A shifty-looking man behind the bar who was chopping papaya with a machete looked up and wiped the blade on a dirty towel.
‘What’s yours?’ he asked. ‘Coke, dope or a drink?’
It wasn’t the only clue I was in Colombia; the red-, blue-and-yellow striped national flag hung limply from the mast of a paddle-steamer rising and falling gently in the swell. Sweating workmen stripped to the waist and with cloths wrapped round their heads rolled barrels down the gangplank of the boat.
‘Fruit juice is fine,’ I said.
Cerro de Pasco, PeruI stayed until dusk, and the sun settled into clouds stretched like elastic over the flat horizon. An aged steamer, its black hulk silhouetted against the sunset, sidled up to the quay, with a green light on its mast tingeing the tranquil water. A frog belched like a bleary drunk and swallows darted through the village in a hollow in the jungle behind. In the bar, cigarette tips glowed through the darkness and candles flickered, attracting myriads of crazily dancing moths and insects until a generator hummed and a bulb flared in the darkness.
It was still so hot the heat hit you like a punch in the face. In the end, people drifted home and only a boy was left. He leaned outside and lowered a tin can into the black water before he poured the contents over his glistening body and threw the rest back into the river. It shattered the reflection of moored paddle-steamers into a thousand fragments. A few traces of blue still remained in the sky and I could see the darkened shape of a canoe setting out across the river.
It was night in Leticia. . .