A great river journey never leaves you. John Gimlette has traced Mark Twain’s steps alongside the Neckar in Germany, and sailed down South America’s waterways on cargo boats and tugsby John Gimlette / July 20, 2011 / Leave a comment
My first night on the Río Paraguay, I slept on the wheelhouse roof. Every now and then, the skipper leant out the window, and fired into the swamps. What was he was after? “Capybaras,” he said, grinning, “Or alligators…”
A great river journey never leaves you. Anthony Burgess thought rail travel was perfect, because you slept as you progressed. But railways cut their way through the landscape. Boats ease their way along, doing the journey that nature intended.
So it was that, leaving Asunción, we clattered off midstream, causing the glassy surface to shiver. We passed a graveyard of rotting steamers, and then the river widened; a vast inert sea, sliding imperceptibly south. It was like vitrified sky. In its last 1,700km, the Río Paraguay drops only 30cm, maybe the length of a baby’s arm.
I’d paid $5 for the three-day ride upriver. The cargo boat looked like a long wooden dish, stacked with ugly sheds. On the top deck were the more refined elements of river society: cowboys, a horse-dealer, and a quack doctor who had medicines to cure everything from colds to jealousy. “Alligator fat makes excellent mosquito repellent,” he announced, “especially when it’s rotten.”
We spent the first afternoon dangling our legs off the roof, staring at the empty pewter world. Thick rafts of hyacinths floated past. “Big enough,” said the quack, “to float a man to Argentina—or a jaguar.”
On the lower deck were Guaraní Indians. Sometimes they fished from the stern. The piranhas were only small, but they eat you in shoals. To the Guaranís the piranha is the piraí, which is also their word for leprosy.
None of this was comforting. This skiff had already sunk once, and might easily do so again. The foredecks were heaped with cargo: ten palettes of cement and 98 leaky barrels of petrol. If we weren’t barbecued first, it would be a glutinous shipwreck.
At one village, two prostitutes got on. The skipper brushed his teeth, and selected the fatter one. Her friend joined the Indians in the galley, eating boiled pumpkin and pig fat. When they had finished, they wiped their faces on the tablecloth.
“Storm tonight,” said the quack, opening his Bible. He was right. The crew draped the decks in tarpaulins, and all night great sheets of static exploded over the river in a bewildering display of volts. By dawn the forge was spent, and…