As the plane banked sharply to begin its descent, my heart was pumping
wildly for a number of reasons. I was immediately amazed at the vastness
of the twin peaks of the Andes mountains we were about to fly between
as the plane continued to align itself for the landing at the Jorge Chavez
airport in Lima, Peru. Over the last half an hour I had been following
the wide and serpentine undulations if the Amazon River below as my anticipation
grew of the impending 10 day cruise down its entire length. The bulk of
the trip up to this point had been spent thinking about how I had been
able to make this trip happen.
Just last Friday, I had been tossing burgers and frying ‘taters
at a small, family owned diner on the outskirts of Bonita, California,
an hours’ drive from the Mexican border. I would often encounter
well dressed gentlemen, most with the tell tale bulge of a shoulder harness
bearing a pistol at their side and most often these gentlemen would be
accompanied by one or more attractive ladies that did not have the appearance
of being a spouse.
A week ago, late on one August evening, I had witnessed a particularly
vivid shouting match between one of these ‘businessmen’ and
his lady friend that culminated with the young lady storming away from
their table. On the way to the ladies room she passed me as I was standing
in the doorway to the kitchen and dropped something into my left shirt
pocket and held one finger to her lips indicating for me to remain quiet.
She came right back out of the restroom, winking at me as he passed, and
went back to the table only to be escorted out the door by a still furious
As soon as they had stormed out of the diner and squealed out of the parking
lot, I looked in my pocket, and with greasy fingers pulled out an enormous
diamond ring. “Hot Dog, look at this” I said aloud, then thinking
a little bit clearer, I quickly put it in my pants pocket, turned to the
owner of the diner and said that I might be a little bit late coming to
work tomorrow. I toured a few pawn shops in the San Diego area the next
morning and left the fourth one with $55,000 in my pocket, and headed
straight to a travel agents office.
In all the years cooking and sweating behind the stove at the diner, I
was continually dreaming about a long boat ride down a scenic river that
would be more than a day or two in length, accompanied by the staccato
sounds of monkeys and the tropical bird like the macaws screetching in
the background. Some research led me to pick the Amazon River over the
Nile River once I learned that no expedition has ever made a trip down
the entire length of the Nile River. Something about 18 foot long crocs,
giant poisonous snakes and huge hippopotami along with a large selection
of turbulent falls lessened the glow for me as well.
At more than 4000 miles in length, the Amazon River trip would fulfill
my dreams of both the long river cruise, the sounds of an array of jungle
animals and an opportunity to see some of my favorite birds, the macaws.
The tour overview stated than on the sixth day of the tour we would be
visiting the Pacaya-Samiraia Reserve where there were an abundance of
the canary-winged parakeets and my favorites, the blue-and-gold and the
scarlet macaws. The travel agent said that if I left within a week or
two, I would be traveling down the river in advance of the yearly torrential
monsoons that make the river less friendly for navigating, and advised
me to get my preventive shots to guard against malaria and yellow fever.
As the plane began to level out and continue its gentile descent, I was
able to pick out many of the faint outlines of the headwaters that formed
the beginning of the Amazon River, here in the heights of the Andes Mountains
Upon landing, I passed thru security with no issues, picked up my two
bags, exited the terminal and found the bus that would take me to the
tour boat location. Once at the tour boat site, I was able to load right
away as the tour would begin in only two hours, and because I am a motor
geek and am always interested in what type of power is being used to make
me move along on my journey, I began seeking out the Captain, whoe turned
out to be more than willing to give me a small tour. The boat was a small
taper bottom design with four foot gunnels and a single big block Chevy
motor for power that transferred power to the driveshaft thru a transfer
case near the rear of the boat.
Right on time, at high noon, the Captain tossed the ropes back towards
the dockhands and we eased away from the dock at noon the first day, and
the next few days were uneventful, but filled with the usual guide chatter
about what we were seeing on the shoreline, native customs and the typical
warnings about getting in the water with the crocodiles, snakes and of
course the flesh eating piranhas. It was about four o’clock on the
fifth day of the tour when it was obvious by the sound coming from the
motor that we had encountered a problem.
The engine raced wildly and came to an abrupt stop. The lack of sound
was deafening across the entire deck. All aboard began to look at each
other with searching and fearful gazes as the thought of spending a night,
or more, adrift and powerless in the jungles of Brazil, left no one with
much to look forward to. As the previous warnings of the dangers in this
part of the world began to sink in, many were becoming concerned about
the real dangers that were currently evolving and their actual chances
I had noticed that the bulk of the crew traffic was towards mid ship and
my curiosity drew me to see if I might me able to help. As I looked over
the inner deck rail and was monitoring the repair work that was going
on, I noticed that they had assumed the motor was broken and in an attempt
to free it up using a long pry bar, I could see that the shaft going to
the transfer case was rotating almost one third of a turn while the output
shaft to the propeller was not turning at all. I motioned to the Captain
and told him what I had seen and the crew quickly began to tear off the
top of the transfer case. With the top of the case removed it was clear
that the dual row chain that connected the driveshaft sprocket to the
prop shaft sprocket had broken and had become twisted and snarled, locking
the two sprockets together.
As they got the chain extricated from the gearbox it was determined that
the chain had been disfigured beyond repair, but that both sprockets were
still useable, but that they had no spare chain, and the crew immediately
started to yell and blame each other for their being in this situation.
I motioned to the Captain and asked if he had screwdriver that I might
borrow for a moment. As soon as he handed it to me, I went to the rear
of the deck where I had seen the old, small motorcycle that the Captain
used when we set ashore. I bent over to get a better look, and my suspicions
were confirmed. It had the same dual row chain on it that they needed
in the engine compartment, so using the screwdriver I removed it and took
it to the Captain and was greeted by an outburst of toothy grins and a
chorus of Spanish outbursts of appreciation.
All was soon repaired and we got back under way. I began to eat at the
Captains table during meals, and experienced a full afternoon visiting
and arguing with the macaws. The trip lacked any further negative events,
and we completed the trip to the far East coast of Brazil where I got
on the plane in Belem that was headed non stop to San Diego.
The decision to pawn the ring was easy, the flight to Peru was pleasant,
the visit with the macaws was magnificent and even the river incident
was exciting, but my thoughts of landing at the San Diego airport are
filled with anxiety, as I recall all the incidences and close calls that
have occurred as the planes attempted completion of their landing patterns
at the fifth most dangerous airport in the world.
As the nose of the plane eases over into the start of our descent, I am
hopeful that the shimmy in my shorts is from the turbulence encountered
from the landing gear being lowered into the landing position.