Another Crate of Cargo

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Finally, a chance to smoke some weed. For two days on this crowded cargo boat, it’s been impossible; too many people and very unfavorable wind. But lots of stuff got taken off the ship at the last stop and I have managed to procure a nice little nook far towards the front on the left hand side. The sun has set and there’s a nice cross-breeze. The conditions are perfect. If I’m gonna get stoned at all on this crazy journey, now is my chance. So I light up my fake cigarette and blow the smoke out towards the water. It carries away perfectly in the blowing wind. The first couple puffs are tobacco to hide the magic within. I’m anticipating that wonderous moment when the poisonous taste of unhealthy tobacco transitions to the sweet herbal taste of marijuana. But then, all of a sudden, the policeman comes scrambling across the crates towards me. I haven’t even tasted the weed yet. It’s not fair! He’s very polite about it. But he takes the burning cigarette from my hand and tosses it in the river. “I’m sorry,” he says in Spanish, “but danger here to smoke because of the cargo. If you want smoke, go back there.”

The second day on the boat journey is not as tormenting as the first. Many people got off at Puerto Pinasco so the interior of the ship has a bit more room. It’s still insanely crowded and sweaty but at least I can move through the passageways, sit for awhile in the stairwell between decks and occassionally get a little space on a bench. It’s also a good day because I have many interesting conversations with a great variety of humans.

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It takes me some time to realize this, but most of the people on the boat speak Guarani as their first language and Spanish as their second. They mix lots of Spanish words in with their Guarani and that confuses me into thinking I should understand them but I don’t. When they speak to me directly, they use Spanish but you can tell they have to think about it and they would more naturally speak Guarani. Nevertheless, good communication is possible between us. After all, most real communication is non-verbal.

The general attitude I get from my fellow passengers is a nice mixture of welcoming, kindness and curiosity. First there’s the three young tough guys smoking cigarettes and watching the ladies. I give them some water from my very big jug and we share a tirade’. I try to explain to them why I’m traveling in Paraguay but they don’t seem to understand my purpose.  Of all the places in the world to visit, why Paraguay? Because it’s there, the people are nice and the climate is pleasant. Next, I meet a young welder who is traveling with his new bride to visit family in Bahia Negra. He asks about my work building waterfalls and wonders if I know any welders in the United States. I meet an older guy who works on an estancia or ranch and he thinks I should buy him beer because I am an American with “mucho plata.” I have a heck of a time trying to explain to him how it’s possible for me to travel the world like I do and still have very little money. I don’t think he believes me.

Most of the people on the ship are traveling with their cargo. I’m not sure about the organizational structure but it seems that the ship is kind of like a floating market. No doubt, the crew of the ship loads and unloads the heavy stuff. But there also seems to be dozens of independents with crates of fruit and vegetables and beer and cigarettes and yogurt and soda and snacks and soap and anything else you might look for at a market. Every time we stop at a village or town, crowds of people get on and off the boat buying and selling their stuff. Again, I don’t exactly understand the organizational structure but its an amazing process to watch. Not only that, I get to have fruit and yogurt for breakfast each morning and it costs me only 5000 guarani ($1.25 US).

I meet the police officer at lunch time in the kitchen area. I’m not sure if he’s on duty because he’s dressed in regular clothes but after I tell him about my travels in general and my wish to see the real Paraguay, he tells me all about his life as a police officer. We don’t discuss drugs or weed but he assures me that I don’t have to worry about criminals in this part of Paraguay because everything is “tranquilo.”

Tranquilo yes… one of my favorite Spanish words. And I can’t think of a better word to describe the overall atmosphere on the boat. It’s crowded yes… and chaotic and hot and sticky and sweaty and uncomfortable. But it also is tranquilo. No one fights or raises their voice or even seems to get angry. The circumstances are difficult so humanity adapts. Everyone gets along and it’s a beautiful thing to watch. It’s a live action manifestation of tranquilo. It’s a bit like the metaphorical opposite of Walmart on black Monday.

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My second evening on the boat is both entertaining and exciting. Unfortunately, however, I don’t get much sleep. Early on I have the pleasure of meeting two very attractive young women. One is from Paraguay and her name is Andrea. With awesome enthusiasm she describes for me the amazing beauty of the placed called Tres Gigantes that I am on my way to visit. Like an angel from heaven, she gives me directions to the promised land.The other woman is Brazilian and her name is Samara. And if you don’t think that’s funny you haven’t read my novel. It certainly makes me laugh. Her name is very similar to the great love interest of the hero in my story. And to make it even better, my hero meets his love on a crowded Amazon cargo boat. But don’t get the wrong idea. I personally am not looking for romance because I’m in love with Ms. B.. Instead, I think it would be great if this beautiful and interesting Brazilian woman could somehow meet that young American peace corp. guy I met at the hostel in Asuncion. I have a hunch they’d really hit it off and imagining their encounter brings a smile to my face.

Anyway, shortly after sunset, the beautiful ladies return to their reserved hammocks and I find my nook among the cargo towards the front of the boat. That’s when I try to smoke my special cigarette and get stopped by the police officer. He’s very nice about it. And truthfully, he probably wouldn’t care even if he knew it was weed. Nevertheless, that element of uncertainty and danger adds drama to the moment. Oh well, I conclude, I guess I’m just not destined to smoke marijuana on this ship.

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With my fake ciggy in the river and the cop now gone, I settle into my spot and try to get some sleep. But my slumber only lasts an hour before I am awoken by the bright light and loud horn. And that’s how I learn about the biggest problem with sleeping amid cargo on a crowded ship. Every so often, the boat will stop and cargo has to be loaded,unloaded and re- arranged. On this particular night, the ship I’m on pulls into three different ports. At each stop, I have to awaken, get up and move from my spot and wait for a half an hour or so while the crew unloads, loads, and re-arranges. It’s an amazing process to watch. These guys work frickin hard and their organizational skills are truly impressive. If you add the strange background atmosphere of shining lights at port on a dark and mysterious river, the entire night unfolds like a surreal movie. I’m not sure if they do it on purpose, but every time we pull away,there is always another little nook for me to settle into. After all, I’m really just another crate of cargo looking for a place to be stacked. Nevertheless, three such transitions over the course of one night is enough to make me slightly crazy. Accordingly, I am more than a little bit happy when morning finally arrives and it’s time for my fruit and yogurt.

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