The most interesting and entertaining part of floating down the rivers of this region is watching river commerce in full swing. Humans on board are secondary to food, produce, tools, spare parts and pretty much everything else. Cargo is name of the game. In Yurimaguas, the port where we boarded, there was a flurry of activity as several small boats were unloaded and a couple of larger barges were loaded. Livestock, motorcars, and mountains of produce were being maneuvered onboard, some heading below deck and some neatly stacked at the front of the barge.
As we made our way down the river, we stopped at 5 different towns and well before we pulled up to the muddy bank, hoards of people were gathered ready to jump on our barge as soon as we were within jumping distance. First came the kids and women with fruits, smoked fish and small plates of cooked meals anxious to sell to the passengers in the upper decks. Next came the men eager to earn a few soles helping to carry off cargo or load. I wasn’t quite sure how things were kept in order and I didn’t see any money being exchanged so there must have been another system to track the swapped goods. Despite the quantity of stuff that was loaded and unloaded our stops were very efficient and quick. Before long the horn was honked a few times and all of the sellers still onboard started to rush down the stairs to disembark and any passengers who’d stepped offshore were running to get back on. At each stop there was always somebody who ended up in the wrong spot or a box or bundle that didn’t quite make it off the ship. That’s when the little motor boat tied up along our barge came into play. The food vendors who were trapped on the ship were shuttled back to shore along with any remaining cargo and any passengers were brought back.
While we had only 5 actual stops, there was commerce and trading happening all along the way. Tiny towns that didn’t get a full stop were still able to zip their goods out in a boat as we were cruising past, tie up alongside us, and swap wares. Most impressive were the middle-of-the-night swaps. With a conversation consisting entirely of flashing lights, small boats were able to rush out to meet us, despite the hour.
Passengers also came and went all throughout the journey. I have no idea how they knew when it was time to get off because the shore looked pretty much the same to me the entire time. But somehow, they could recognize their particular patch of trees and all of a sudden someone would get up, take down his/her hammock, pack up their things and head downstairs. Sure enough, a few minutes later a small motor boat would zip out to meet us and the passenger would hop in and sail away towards his destination.
It truly was fascinating for me to watch and with all this activity, I didn’t have time to get bored. For all of the villages and clusters of homes we passed along the way, the only way for them to interact and trade within the region is using this system of river commerce. In the land of no roads, a barge full off essential goodies and a way to sell your products is a very welcome thing!