The hammock I’d bought for the riverboat was nearly too long. I had to tie it as tight as I could so that when I got in it to sleep my butt didn’t sag to the ground. The hammock stretched across the whole of the roof of a barge-pushing boat on the Rio Mamore in the Bolivian Amazon basin. I tied it as tight as I could and when it got dark I got in there and my butt had about two inches of clearance.
It was still pretty early but I didn’t have anything to do in the darkness except read and listen to my iPod and look at the stars. The river was snakelike, meandering. By night this meant I lay in my hammock and watched the stars rotate above my head. By day this meant I hid from the sun behind the water barrel for twenty minutes before switching to chase the shade to the opposite side.
In my hammock I read for a while and listened to an album or two. I hadn’t listened to the Grateful Dead much at home in California but here in the Amazon their music made me feel less lonely. I was trying to stay up so that I wouldn’t sleep. I’m not all that sure why I was afraid to sleep. But I finally put down my iPod and went to bed. I was in my shorts with no shirt and a towel balled up for a pillow.
Before long I woke up freezing. I didn’t know why. It didn’t feel cold out but I was shivering. I put on a shirt and wasn’t freezing anymore but then I woke up freezing again. I put on pants this time and a sweater and went back to sleep and again I woke up freezing. I put on every piece of clothing I had. I did away with the towel for my pillow and wrapped it around my legs. I’d been up in the Andes and I’d traded away my jacket but I had a good hat and knit gloves and socks and I put on those too. I put on every piece of clothing I had except for my shoes.
Which was convenient, because soon, I would need those shoes. The problem was that the boat didn’t stop moving and the air was wet so my hammock got wet. So if I stood up the air was warm but the wet hammock turned the air that blew through it cold. Also the wetness stretched the hammock out and I woke up one more time and found my butt at rest on the wet metal roof. So I unwrapped the towel from around my legs and got up and got my shoes and put them under me and spent the rest of the night and the next five nights sleeping with my butt propped up on my shoes.
It’d taken some effort to get to the Rio Mamore. I’d been in a city called Santa Cruz right on the edge of the Amazon waiting for the bus to take me to Trinidad and the river. The river would take me back to Brazil. Santa Cruz was hot and sleepy. I kept expecting to round corners and find some beach but I only ever found more city and when the city quit I found jungle. The bus couldn’t go to Trinidad because some people had blocked the road. Nobody could explain why they’d blocked it and I waited for three days until I got restless. I spent my time walking around and sitting alone in the empty square with the wind-battered palms, drinking sweet and milky thimble-sized coffees, watching fallen fronds sweep across the paving stones.
I asked around for another place where I could get a boat. A guy at the bus station told me I could get one in Puerto Villarroel. I hadn’t heard of this place and I’d been asking around for a few days already but I wanted to get out of Santa Cruz. Puerto Villarroel was on the Rio Mamore but far south of Trinidad. It would add a week to my trip. Seven extra days to get to Trinidad and then the five I’d expected to get from there to Brazil. I didn’t mind the extra time though. I had no deadline but I had to keep moving.
The bus stopped at an intersection in the middle of nowhere. There was an intersection but there weren’t any signs. I saw some houses down the road and I went up to one and asked where the port was. The guy pointed and I started walking.
It was maybe a mile into Puerto Villarroel. I found a café with yellow plastic chairs and yellow plastic tables outside. I saw a few taxis and men standing beside them and I asked for a ride to the port. They said they’d have to wait until there were enough people to fill a car and at this point I didn’t mind the rest so I sat down to drink a beer.
I got out to the port which was a wooden dock and the first thing was that the river had more mud than water. I asked a guy and he said if it rained and the water came up the boat to Trinidad would leave in seven days. That meant seven days of waiting and seven days on the river to get to Trinidad assuming it rained. I didn’t want to wait that long so I kept going though now my movements became nonsensical.
According to the map going to Cochabamba didn’t help my progress but from Puerto Villarroel vans only went there and back to Santa Cruz. I didn’t know if the road from Santa Cruz was unblocked yet and besides Santa Cruz was too inert to go back to anyway. It was too hot a city not to have waterfront and I didn’t want to spend another afternoon in that empty square.
Cochabamba’s back up at altitude. I spent a night and got a flight to Trinidad in a six-seater. The flight cost forty-eight dollars. From the air I saw the brown mountains disappear into the jungle. Bolivia has two modes: arid rugged altitude and green wet flats. Flying over the jungle, this western edge of the Amazon Basin, I saw meandering rivers and I saw abandoned meanders that had become lakes. These were horseshoe-shaped lakes and S-shaped lakes that had once been rivers but had become disconnected.
When you fly over the Amazon the horizon looks like the ocean but green. Flat green curving in the distance. Trinidad sprung up out of this, a carved out frontier patch of red clay streets and roundabouts and bulwarked-mud roads cutting straight into the jungle like spokes.
The boats lined up along the port’s mud bank. Past the mud I was relieved to see plenty of water. The first few boats weren’t going anywhere but the third boat was headed to Brazil. They were leaving that night at six. Two other Australians would be passengers too. They said they’d been waiting for the boat to leave for three days. They were anxious to get moving. I was disappointed to find other travelers but their company would eventually become a relief.
I went up to the roof of the boat. I’m sure there’s a better name for that. The top deck, the third of three. The Australians has pitched a tent up there and I strung my hammock along the back. The top deck stretched fifteen feet wide and thirty feet long, with a cab up front, at the opposite end of my hammock, for the driver. I guess also it’s not that my hammock was only too long—it’s that the railing I tied it to was too low to the ground. Maybe three feet off the ground. That’s right. Fifteen feet is plenty long for a hammock if you can tie it high enough.
We didn’t leave at six or at seven or at eight and the Australians and I leaned over the railing and waited, watching the sun pound the muddy water, keyed up for signals, waiting for the sun to dip down, for the engine to rumble to life.
We were pushing a barge carrying 200,000 liters of gasoline. A few other passengers joined us. They looked like police or military. They had their own barge and they tethered it to ours. It had a motorcycle on top and well after six well after it’d gotten dark, under a spotlight, they loaded the hold in their barge with bags containing what I suspect was cocaine. When we got to the Brazilian border, a boat with an outboard motor came and picked them up and pulled them and their barge across the river into the jungle.
In the Amazon, I’d imagined snakes hanging from trees and monkeys bounding between branches. Instead there’s nothing to see. The landscape doesn’t evolve. It’s muddy bank and green wall of impenetrable vegetation on and on forever. So you’re moving through virgin forest and there’s nothing to look at. Or, nothing to hope to see aside from what you’re already seeing. One minute, you’re tempted to think, would be enough time to take in this view.
But you look out anyway, because you’ve got not one minute but five nights and rather than look for monkeys swinging from branches and snakes hanging from trees, you come to realize that you have to look harder, because you’re looking for hints. Because you know the place is teeming with life. You know that you’re surrounded but you just can’t see it. Or you can see it, but you’re not seeing it right. And you get hints from the birds and from the fish. You see birds rise together from the canopy, speckling the sky where a minute before your view had been clear. And you see the crew tossing lines with meat and a hook into the water and pulling out fish within seconds, the closest thing you’ve encountered to the American image of shooting buffalo from moving trains. Except that here, everything’s hidden under the water and behind the green.
I developed a routine that I came to depend on. I woke up in the morning and brushed my teeth by the side of the boat and ate the breakfast of rice and meat or rice and fish. I drank my single cup of sweet milky coffee. I didn’t talk much with the Australians. Then I read and did push-ups and sit-ups. Then I had lunch and then read and crouched behind the water barrel in the rotating shade. Then I took a shower with the hose that pumped river water. Then I read more and ate more rice and llama or rice and fish. Then I sat on the cab where the driver was and watched the sun set. The sun there sent out these tightly defined pink beams, like something from animation or something from graphic design, these perfectly straight beams of pink streaming out from the sun like a lawnmower design in a field. Then when it got dark I played one game of backgammon with the Australian guy and went to bed.
I budgeted my reading so that I wouldn’t run out of books. I increased my sit-up and push-up counts daily. I waited until exactly three to shower. I listened to the Grateful Dead’s American Beauty exactly once per night, as soon as I got into the hammock. I didn’t want to run out my iPod’s battery. I played backgammon with the Australian guy exactly once too. But that one’s odd. Backgammon requires no battery. We could’ve sat there playing more. We could’ve talked more. But on that boat it felt more right to be silent and alone. It was like the Australians and I fell into a series of unspoken treaties. That we wouldn’t talk too much. That we wouldn’t complain. That we wouldn’t burst each other’s meditations. Like conversation for the sake of making noise, for its own sake, posed a threat. The forced meditation made our typical methods of passing the time—playing games, talking—feel undeserved. Like we’d be better served to endure this sensation of moving while being stuck rather than to fight against it. Like if we endured it, we would arrive somewhere new, despite the relentless intimation of the green wall that surrounded us, repeating over and over again, “This is all there is to see. You will never get anywhere.” We gave into this and we held out for it to break. Giving in was its own kind of holding out. No matter the vegetation, I could feel my own breakthrough coming. Like giving in I kept getting more and more stripped of distractions, of my own mental static.
I got stripped down because it was pointless to want anything. I couldn’t want a beer or want to call my brother or want to check my email or want to smoke a cigarette or want to catch a bus somewhere new. Everything we had was on this boat, everything we could see was already there, and hoping for anything new, any deviation, was pointless and became impossible.
And without these wants, without asking for anything, I was left alone and developed a clarity that these wants normally hide, these desires for life to be something other than what it is. And I sat up on that cab and I lay in my hammock at night and I thought about my grandmother who’d died nearly ten years before, and I thought about my brother who was alive but suffering and even now as I write this I can’t really stand it so I get up to pour another coffee, and I’ve been drinking milky sweet coffee to remember Bolivia and it’s not really working, but there on the boat, there was no getting away, like everything I thought led back to the two of them and to my mother and a girl I know and to sadness and tears and being on that boat made me think that thinking honestly, that truly thinking clearly, meant only to confront this crushing sadness that I spend the rest of my life trying in vain to outpace.
I didn’t want to abandon this though. I didn’t want to give up this clear view. I didn’t want anything except to stay purged.
Except that. Except there was one other factor. It was easy to want to stay this way, crushed but honest, because I knew that this trip would end. We were moving towards Brazil. The trip was supposed to take five nights and on the fifth night I went to bed and I sensed, against my will but not without pleasure, relief at knowing that soon I would leave this boat and get back my static. I felt, as I wrapped my towel around my legs and got into my hammock and placed my shoes beneath me, that I’d mastered my rituals, that I’d achieved something just by passing time, and that, now that I’d mastered my rituals, it was right that they would come to an end. The Australian and I played our game of backgammon and got into bed and we still barely talked to each other but I sensed that he felt the same relief I did.
In the morning I woke up and we weren’t moving. I couldn’t hear the rumbling engine. But I didn’t hear port noises either, and I knew something was wrong. I didn’t hear the hum of electric lights or the screeching of brakes or anything else, any signs of life on land, and I opened my eyes to find myself choked in a thick white fog. I couldn’t see anything. I couldn’t see the bank or even the water and I was confused and I hadn’t been talking to the Australians because there was no need to, but now I had a question.
“Where the hell are we,” I said.
“We’re stuck in a fog,” the guy said.
The three of us went down to breakfast of rice and fish and sweet milky coffee and admitted our frustration. The forced mediation was broken. We asked the crew when we would start moving again and they’d shrug and point to the fog which was everywhere. I wanted to drink fifty McDonald’s-sized coffees. I wanted to inhale empanadas and chug Coca Zeros, and now, we had nowhere to go, and without moving, without that rumbling engine, without the promise of delivery, we had no reason to contain our wants and gripes, to submit to anything but whatever we were actually thinking, our own vapidity be damned. We lingered at the table together. We communed in the heap of our broken poise. We asked the cook for more coffee. The cook had been gruff before but now she had nowhere to go either. I thought it was funny to want Coca Zero, like to want this was innocent, like something I would’ve wanted before I knew about beer, like I’d somehow gone back to some truer version of myself, rediscovered an interior that I’d lost underneath calluses. Coca Zero, of all things. I don’t even like it that much. Sometimes I get it now but put it down after a few sips. Those first sips are good but then it peters out. What I want is a world that supplies me with three-ounce cans of Coca Zero. I’d keep them in my pocket for times like these, for the next time I spend five nights on a riverboat, watching the green wall, corresponding with it, answering to its taunt, waiting it out, waiting for it to break, knowing it won’t, letting it break me down instead. I confessed my absurd desire to the Australians, my vision for my release, my first want from the port, a can of diet soda, and they confessed their desires too—an hour of mental stupor watching photos load to Flickr at the internet café; an opportunity to spend money just to spend money, just to feel the rush of frittered currency, and we sat there together and waited for the fog to break.
Tom Dibblee is Trop’s editor. His fiction has appeared in Glimmer Train and his nonfiction has appeared in Pacific Standard, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and the Point. He lives in Los Angeles.