South of the Border
Otto glanced over at Bob. He was attempting a landing west of Mapire on the Orinoco River, and it looked very tricky. The FBO reported calm conditions, but when they made a low pass over the ramshackle building that served as a trading post and supply depot, from what Otto could tell from the right seat, it looked very tricky. They had both noticed tell-tale signs of higher water than expected, pushed by upstream winds. Neither of them had much experience with landing on choppy rivers. Bob took over after Otto had flown most of the mission so Otto let him have the landing.
“You want me to take this?” he asked.
“Nah, I got it.”
Not only was the river running high and fast, there was considerable debris that had washed in with the night’s rains. Otto saw branches of trees, small buildings, and even a couple of dead pigs and a bloated cow.
“Do you think we ought to abort?”
Bob shook his head. “Nah. We’re bingo on fuel and can’t reach any place else. This is it.”
“All right then. Everyone make sure your seat belts are good and tight.” In the rear view mirror, he saw Luis and Jerome cross themselves. If he had been Catholic, he might have done the same. On second thought, he wouldn’t. He had supreme confidence in Bob’s piloting skills, and didn’t want to do anything to rattle him.
“Call out any debris you see,” Bob muttered. “We’re going in!”
Bob flew upwind beside the river, about 400 feet up, then turned on the downwind leg. He positioned the Cessna along the middle of the water and lowered the big amphibian gradually toward the surface of the raging river. “Hang on guys!” he called. “Here we go!”
“Vaca al la derecha!” Luis exclaimed. Otto looked over to see the carcass float by two hundred feet below them.
“Tree branch dead ahead,” he said calmly.
“Got it. One hundred feet.”
“Chicken coop at two o’clock.”
“See it. Fifty feet. Keep your eyes open.”
“Wooden beam to eleven o’clock and closing fast.” As Otto said this, Bob chopped the throttle and the aircraft settled toward the water. With a tremendous metallic tearing sound, the beam speared the left pontoon. The Cessna slewed around, shuddered, and then wrenched free from the post and listed to starboard. Bob revved the engine, and they made a sort of crustacean sideways progress toward the dock, which looked like it had been through a hurricane recently and not been fixed. Four men ran from the trading post and clambered down the side of the, three of them with lines in hand, while the other carried a gaff about ten feet long. He reached over and put the hook around one of the starboard pontoon struts and pulled. As he slowly and carefully drew the airplane to the dock, his compadres lassoed various parts of the craft, pulled it to the dock and secured it. It looked to Otto that it wouldn’t be torn away by the river.
Otto was the first out the door. “¡Muchas gracias, becarios!” he exclaimed fervently. “Estamos en deuda!” The men smiled and laughed. One of them rattled off something in Spanish that Otto couldn’t follow. He turned to Luis and Jerome.
“He wants to know if you will do your trick with the airplane again,” Luis laughed. “They have not had such entertainment for a long time.”
“Tell him I’d be delighted to oblige,” Bob mumbled, “but I have an airplane THAT NEEDS TO BE FIXED before I do.”
One of the men who had helped them spoke up. “Rodriego, who works on such things, is not here. He has gone up the river to visit his family. In any case, we are out of fuel for the welding torch. He can fix it, but he cannot do it without proper materials. Only God can create something out of nothing.” He crossed himself.
“When do you expect a delivery? And your name is?” Otto hesitated.
The man bowed from the waist. “I am Señor Carlos Blanco at your service, señor. And you are?”
Otto returned his bow. “I am Señor Otto Kerchner, and these are my amigos, Señor Donovan, Señor Viera and Señor Hernandez. We are happy to know you. So, when do you think the supplies will be delivered?”
Blanco shrugged. “It is hard to tell. Maybe mañana, maybe the day after. Only God knows.” He crossed himself again. “The man who drives the boat he is fond of the, how do you say, distilled spirits. Sometimes he is drunk for days. It just depends.”
“Is there a way we can get upriver?” Donovan looked thoroughly exasperated.
“Sì. I am the captain of the proud craft, the Santa Maria.” He crossed himself yet another time. I don’t see how this guy gets anything done, crossing himself all the time. Otto smiled.
“The sainted Virgin protects me and all those who are in my boat when we go on the river. There are many dangers, but you will be in safe hands with me. I am very trustworthy.”
Sounds like a sales pitch, Otto thought.
“I know what you are thinking, Señor. You are thinking I am going to charge you a big expensive price. Do not fear, mi amigo. I will charge a modest sum, payable in gold, American dollars or chickens. But I do not think you have bought any chickens. At least they could still fly!” He dissolved into helpless laughter. Donovan looked like he wanted to punch him.
“How much to take us upriver to the settlement at Tres Cascadas?”
“For you, my friend, only 500 American dollars.”
“We’ll give you 300.” Donovan frowned.
“Señor…I must feed my wife and my little family. But I like you, and I will take 450.”
“Señor, you are a man who knows how to bargain. I like that. 425.”
Blanco raised his eyes heavenward. “May the sainted Virgin help me deal with such a determined man. Four hundred.”
“Four hundred it is, then, hombre.” Bob stuck out his hand and Blanco shook it. Otto nearly laughed when Blanco crossed himself for what might have been the fiftieth time since they had landed.
“Very well, it will take me about an hour to prepare my humble craft. In the meantime, I hope you will enjoy the hospitality of mi pobre restaurante. Come this way, por favor, and my nephew Julio will be happy to help you.”
I wonder what the menu will be like. Otto had never had the opportunity to eat in a restaurant situated in a place that looked like something out of Thimble Theater. Now that he had a chance to look at it more closely, he wonder how it withstood a gentle rain, much less a tropical downpour. “We need to unload our equipment from the aircraft first. Then we’ll eat.”
Blanco shrugged. “As you wish. I will tell Julio to keep the food warm. He is a good boy and does as he is told.” I’ll bet he does, Otto thought. He doesn’t want to be taken out into the jungle and left there. Blanco reminded him of Benson. He supposed there were that type of men in every country, human nature being what it was. He stopped this line of thinking and hurried to help his crew unload the aircraft. Julio helped them, asking about every piece of equipment placed on the dock. The kid obviously had a natural kind of curiosity, and Otto thought he might be helpful to them by being able to reach the younger members of the tribes they’d visit. He didn’t know if Julio knew anything about local dialects: he’d have to ask him.
They had everything unloaded and secured within an hour and turned to the meal. Later on, Otto would say it wasn’t the most memorable meal he’d ever eaten, but it was the most unusual. The gringos had to keep asking what they were eating. And they weren’t sure they could trust what Blanco told them. He said one of the main dishes was chicken, but Otto had never seen a chicken with parts eight inches wide. It was hard to tell what it was—it tasted like a combination of chicken and fish, and Luis later told him he was almost certain it was anaconda. “These crazy Colombians will eat almost anything,” he grimaced, “and I think we have been, how you say, had.”
Otto had similar qualms about a bowl of fried crunchy things on the table. They looked like some sort of crustacean, but again Luis was of the opinion that they were fried grasshoppers. Otto thought it well that he didn’t know what he was eating since he wasn’t sure he would have been able to keep it down had he known. It indeed would be a meal to tell everyone about when they got back—if they survived the native cuisine.
The group went back outside to find Blanco steering his boat to the dock. The craft seemed more an elongated skiff than the transport boats Otto had seen in the army. Julio, who seemed to do most of the work around the place in general, grabbed one of several lines and tossed it to Blanco, who caught it and made it fast to a bow cleat. The four missionaries stood on the dock, and Blanco threw each of them a line in turn. He made all four fast and crossed himself when the boat was secure. They then began the process of loading their gear onto the skiff. With five of them working (and Blanco supervising), they had everything secured in a matter of minutes, taking care to balance the load. Weight and balance, Otto thought, just like an airplane. Except the medium a boat moves through is a bit more substantial than thin air.
“All right, mis amigos! Let’s jump on and head upriver!” Blanco was as animated as Otto had seen him, although he seated himself at the steering position at the stern of the boat and commanded Julio to cast off the lines. The missionaries loaded onto the boat and took their places, helping Julio as they did so. Blanco lifted his head toward Julio, and the young man came over and gave the big outboard at the stern a mighty pull on the starting rope. The motor sputtered but did not catch. Julio tried again…and again…for five minutes with no luck. Luis clambered over and looked the engine over.
“You get your gas from that tank?” he asked, pointing to a rusted tank 50 feet away. Luis sighed. “There’s your problem. I was looking at the tank earlier and there are holes in the cap. Water got into the gasoline and that’s why the motor won’t catch. We’ll have to drain the tank and filter the water. Otherwise, no one is going nowhere, mis colega.
Blanco looked stricken. “We will have to wait. In the meantime, you will be able to sample the luxury of staying at mi recurso. I welcome you as I would a brother. Please follow Julio and he will show you to your alojamientos.”
I can’t wait to see this, thought Otto. I would like to see Blanco get off his lazy derrière and do something for a change. The six men clambered out of the boat, four of them helping Julio secure it. “I will put my stuff in the room and then come back to help you with the engine,” Luis promised Julio.
“Gracias, Señor.” Otto saw gratitude in the young man’s eyes.
They moved their baggage to the building, where they settled into two rooms, Bob and Otto in one, and Luis and Jerome in the other. Otto had stayed in some seedy places in his time, but this one qualified as the seediest. Long strips of yellowing wallpaper hung from the walls while a door with holes kicked in it led to a small filthy bathroom. I’ll take my chances in the latrine around back, Otto thought. He and Bob plopped their luggage on their beds which looked like they were left over from World War I. Threadbare woolen blankets covered the stained sheets stretched over a thin mattress which had more lumps in it than poorly made gravy. “Well,” asked Bob. “What do you think?”
“I think I wouldn’t board my best dog here,” Otto observed mildly. “But, oh well, any old port in a storm.”
“Yeah, and we’ve landed in the midst of a heck of a storm.”
“I hear ya, friend.”
“Let’s go talk to the other guys. We’ll need to organize ourselves for an early start in the morning.”
“Yeah, I won’t be able to sleep for thinking about the delicious breakfast awaiting us.”
“I hope it’s not leftover anaconda.”
“You know, I think I’m developing a taste for snakes. I can hardly wait to cut me off a big old slice of Mr. A.”
“You can have my portion. And anything else you find lying around.”
“Well, I’ve had enough for one day. Time to hit the hay.”
“Me, too. Sorry about pranging the aircraft, boss.”
“I can’t think of anyone who could have done better. It was a difficult to impossible situation. You nearly pulled it out, so I’m not going to worry about it.”
“I wonder how the FMO is going to like my damaging their property.”
“These things happen, Bob. They know that. I don’t see any of them volunteering to fly for a sick pilot. They don’t know how. So it falls on us.”
“As usual, you make a great deal of sense. Good night and thank you.”
“Good night. Say, did you find your mosquito netting?”
“I’ll look for it before I go to bed. See you in the morning.”
Otto lay on his spartan bunk. He wondered what Betty and the girls were doing, and Mata and Tom and their brood as well. Going about their business, he guessed. Getting ready for bed and not thinking about having mosquito netting nor trying to identify animal calls in the night. Maybe he shouldn’t have gone on this trip after all. Who knows what could happen? Thinking of these matters, he quickly fell into a deep sleep.