A Plague in the Village

by Captain Bill

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.

{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Larry Williams May 19, 2007 at 7:33 pm

Well, you have done it again, Bill. You have captured the essence of our second adventure in the Amazon basin. You have a future in either photography or creative writing if you ever decide to stop playing with boats.

Yes, it is true that Dave and I came to the Amazon basin this time to catch a bunch of fish. It is also true that we did not catch a bunch of fish since the water was too close to flood stage. However, it is just as true that we still had a great time. We truly enjoyed our time with you and your crew, as well as taking advantage of an opportunity for father and son to share time together for several days.

The night we tied up to a big tree at the rivers’ confluence was magical. We caught several catfish, watched the big (AND IT WAS REALLY BIG)) storm move toward us across the water, drank a few beers, told a few tall tales, spotted the sloth hanging in the tree we had tied up to, and most magical of all watched a bunch of pink river dolphins play for a long time just off our boat.

And yes, how many people from Montgomery County, Indiana, can honestly say that they sat at a dining table on the main deck of a 65-foot boat on the Amazon River while three native Peruvian women danced, and sang, and shouted “Freedom” on the upper observation deck while a mighty rain storm assaulted them?

We may be slow (being from Indiana and all), but we figured out pretty quickly that a change in our objective was in order. Led by our captain and boat owner, Bill Grimes, (also a native Hoosier), we ditched fishing as our objective and turned our adventure into an ecological activity. Monkeys in trees, vast species of birds, a boa, another sloth, ten bats in a straight line on a tree truck during daylight hours waiting for night to fall, extra large beetles and spiders, a multitude of butterflies, wild orchids, and many, many other sightings of wildlife and plants made our adventure truly worthwhile.

Adding to that, the interactions with you and your crew were as rewarding on this trip as on our first trip. Once again, the accommodations were outstanding and the food was delicious and bountiful.

Our second trip to Iquitos and a river cruise on Dawn on the Amazon will not be our last one. I just wish that we could get there soon. I am homesick for my Peruvian friends and the intriguing Amazon basin.

Larry Williams

2 Dale Baskin May 23, 2007 at 8:58 pm


Great story. It’s wonderful to know that you can make a difference in peoples’ lives, even when the opportunity comes as a surprise. Keep cruising — one of these days I might be back in Iquitos to enjoy the Dawn on the Amazon myself!

3 Bill June 10, 2007 at 9:41 pm

Hi Larry,

We must be slow because we could have been dancing while the mighty rain storm assaulted us, calling out, “freedom” across the largest river on earth. Our friends back home would never have known, except for the sloth and it wouldn’t tell.

Best wishes,

4 Bill June 10, 2007 at 9:49 pm

Hi Dale,

Thanks for checking up on me again. I was hoping to see you for the Great River Amazon Raft Race 2007. We share your sadness that your rafting partner, Montana John Mack met his untimely demise at Mancora Beach. We miss his smiling face here in Iquitos. Mike and I, and everyone that knew him feel awful. The raft race will not be the same without him. I hope you will carry on the winning tradition.

Best regards,

5 Manuel and Tamaura September 20, 2007 at 3:54 pm

Hello! Thank you for your recollection of some experiences along the Amazon river. We are trying to collect information regarding our own excursion along the amazon this January-April. We are heading south from Guatemala through central America in November and then taking a charter boat to South America sometime before Christmas. I was hoping that since you seem to be so experienced in this region, that you might have some advice for us. We hope to trek on foot, by bike, and boat our whole journey and love to sleep under the stars. We are not interested in common American convenience and are having trouble determining the best way to hire a boat along the Amazon. We are making our way to Peru as our flight home is from Lima in April. Thank you for any information!

Love and bliss!

6 Bill September 20, 2007 at 5:04 pm

Judging from the description of your great adventure I think you will be most happy flagging down launchas or colectivos, as they are called in Peru. They are basic, crowded, hammock boats that stop at nearly every village along the rivers. You can get off where ever you decide, and pick up another boat later by waving a large piece of white cloth at the next boat you want to catch. Sometimes you have to hire a small boat to carry you out to the launcha. You must have your own hammocks, and you must be vigilant guarding your possessions, backpacks, even your shoes, towels, everything. One person should stay with your gear while the other goes to the toilet or to the top deck. Bring pure water with you, or water filtering equipment. You should have an anti-diarrhial medication with you. The quality of food on launchas is…an adventure. I hope this is good advise for you.

7 Bill April 2, 2008 at 3:37 pm

I am proud that Dawn on the Amazon played a small role in speeding up the medical response to Gamitana Village, and ultimately to this research. It took days of prodding and pestering to get the medical authorities in Iquitos to take some action. Now I am sure they are glad they did something constructive.

“An international team of researchers has isolated a new species of Leptospira, the bacterial spirochete that causes the disease leptospirosis, in the highly biodiverse Peruvian Amazon region. In a study published in the open-access journal PLoS Neglected Tropical Diseases, the researchers demonstrate that the animal source of this species is the domestic rat, and they show how the incorporation of this new species into diagnostic routines helped identify the disease among patients in Iquitos, Peru.”

“After isolating, identifying, and provisionally naming the new species Leptospira licerasiae, the authors incorporated this new isolate into blood testing of patients with acute febrile illness (fever fits) in Iquitos. The results showed a much higher incidence of leptospirosis than previously suspected, showing the importance of using region-specific Leptospira in diagnosis.”

Bill Grimes

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