In the evening, my crew tied our Amazon riverboat to a tree at the confluence of the Napo and Amazon Rivers. Sitting on the observation deck with dozens of Pink River Dolphins surfacing around us, we looked into the distance across the mouth of the Napo River. The rivers are huge at this confluence. Dawn on the Amazon is moored at the place where Francisco de Orellana and his men first looked at the river they later named the Amazon. What must they have thought when they sailed around that last bend and this giant river came into sight?
A Three-toed Sloth had the bad luck to be in the top of the tree we were tied to. We caught a few catfish while sitting on the observation deck drinking cold beer, and laughing at the predicament of the sloth trapped above. A big thunderstorm swept across the rivers towards us. I felt the power. Looking out across the confluence of the two massive rivers, I saw something I did not like. Both rivers looked equally flooded. The water level of the Napo should have been lower. Fishing was going to be difficult.
The big rain came. Three of the women put on bathing suits and played on the observation deck in the tropical downpour. I went to my cabin to read my book, Musashi, a classic Japanese samurai adventure story. Listening to the women laughing and squealing, and shouting “freedom” and asking blessing from nature in the rain, it was difficult to concentrate on my book. I amused myself thinking that the sloth had never before experienced a night like this.
The next morning the sloth was gone, and so were we, up the swollen Napo River, backtracking Orellana against the flood waters. This was supposed to be a fishing trip. I tried hard to find fish. We went on 6 rivers and 7 lakes in seven days, all flooded. Fortunately we were with friends from my home town on their second cruise with us. They are experienced fishermen, and they knew the fish were feeding in the flooded jungle where we would never get at them. It was a good time to be a fish.
We discovered trouble 250 kilometers from Iquitos, way up the Mazan River at a village and lake called Gamitana. Near the opening to Gamitana Cocha, there are two thatched roof native houses on stilts above the flood waters. I sent two of my crew to the houses in our Jon boat to ask about fishing. As they approached the houses a flock of Yellow-rumped Caciques raised a ruckus, and a man came to the porch with a towel wrapped around his head and neck. Edson and Alberto talked with him for a short time and then hurried back to our Amazon riverboat with the story from the man wrapped in the towel; “Fishing is good when the water is low, bad when the water is high. We are sick. Do you have any medicine?”
All we had were aspirin and Advil. Edson and Alberto took several pills back to the sick man. A few minutes later a woman in a dugout canoe paddled over to our boat, begging for help. The village was out of sight at the end of the lake. She said that all of the men and boys were very sick, coughing up blood. The women were not as affected and were carrying on with all of the work. No one had died but many men and children were weak. The woman told how she had paddled her sick parents by canoe, many kilometers to a poorly supplied health center in Mazan. They were tested for malaria. The results were negative. She paddled her canoe and parents all the way home back upstream still not knowing what was wrong. We told the woman we were returning to Iquitos and would try to get help for them.
Back in Iquitos, the Department of Health responded to our request to help the village of Gamitana. They contacted the health center in Mazan and authorized them to send a doctor to the village. Apparently testing for malaria is a first response and the whole village was tested. A few did have malaria but the large majority did not. Medical detective work revealed the trouble was a non-contagious rare plague like disease called Leptospirosis. The villagers contacted leptospirosis from ingesting rodent droppings in the food or water. The recommended solution was a village wide clean up of each house, burying the accumulated trash and garbage, and controlling the rat population. The villagers are slowly recovering their health.
Every Amazon rain forest expedition is different. I will always remember this one, when we played a small role that saved a village from the plague.
Follow this link to see photos of the trip, Six Rivers With Three Friends.