“Call home.” The jungle’s oppressive torridity instantly chilled.
In this remote Peruvian province, far from roads and transient-backpacker haunts, lost in a paradise that fully stoked my wanderlust flame, I suddenly felt alien and alone. Shaky fingers sifted through emails of prayers and messages of hope as I pieced the information together. Then, the jungle’s languid cadence faded as I understood.
My father’s sailboat had been hit by a hurricane in the Indian Ocean. Two men were lost at sea. One of them was my father. A rescue team was attempting to approach the wreck, but challenging weather was delaying their operation. Having logged thousands of nautical miles with my dad, I knew this incident sparked one of those metamorphic moments that realigned stars, or in this case, threw one completely off orbit.
Numb with fear, I hurried to find the Captain.
I was on my way to Yurimaguas, Peru via the Eduardo V, a cargo boat that had long ago tamed the Amazon River’s tenacity and now frequented its tributaries with a commanding grace. We were another two days from any telephones or airplanes, but knowing I should return home immediately, I tearfully asked the Captain for help. As the sole Westerner on his ship, the Eduardo V’s Captain watched over me with paternal care, often stopping by to secure my hammock’s knots or allow use of his pilot’s computer.
Now, though his eyes softened at my plight, he gestured to the jungle’s incessant landscape, remarking that only boats passed through this area of the Amazon wilderness. I would have to wait until morning when we passed a larger village.
Night fell, and the fireflies began to waltz. Wrapped in the Amazon’s flat embrace, I paced the deck, staring at water the color of ground coals. Later, the Captain offered a cigarette, and we listened to the discourse of animal shrieks as our smoke drifted over the river’s muted topography.
It was a sleepless night.
The following morning, in the hushed glow of a beckoning sunrise, we approached a group of shacks woven into pleats of foliage. As I jumped dockside, the Captain thrust a torn paper in my hand.
“Find Pedro,” he said before casting his lines and leaving me in a cloud of diesel fumes.
There was only one Pedro in the village. He had deep-set eyes and a tangle of children at his knees. After reading the Captain’s note, he simply clucked his tongue, pulled me by the hand, and put me on a donkey.
For the next fourteen hours, I surrendered myself to the kindness of strangers. Pedro led me into the deepest of the jungle’s clutch until a hut appeared through a veil of claustrophobic vines. After a brief exchange with the hut’s occupant, Pedro handed me over to Juan, who greeted me with a bottle of warm Coca-Cola and a duct-taped motorbike. We were soon motoring off on a rocky, rutted lane. I lost track of time as I clung to Juan’s waist, but we rode until the thick jungle finally relented and gave way to leveled ground and electric wires.
Upon reaching a paved road, Juan flagged down a derelict bus bound for Tarapoto, kissed my cheek, and pushed me on board. Pedro, Juan, and the rest of my saviors waved away any offers of money, and in frantic, tear-choked haste, I pressed silly gifts into their hands: my army knife, a pair of shoes, a bottle of vitamins – anything to express my gratitude.
By midnight, I was curled on a guesthouse bed. Exhaustion threw me into a tormented sleep filled with nightmares and cold sweats. I dreaded the worst and tried to assuage my fears by watching Spanish-dubbed reruns.
I spent the following day organizing flights and obsessively checking the maritime news for updates. My anxiety peaked after reading that the rescue teams were unsuccessful, and further rescue efforts were called off. I sobbed in my room and then walked restlessly through a melancholy rain that cloaked the city streets. I spent that final night careening wildly between fierce emotions and silent prayers. Hopelessness gnawed at my stomach, and I cursed my vagabond lifestyle that had lured me so far from home.
Sixty-eight hours after opening that two-word email, I boarded a plane for Lima followed by flights to Dallas and Chicago. Numb with grief, but finally home, I flung myself into my sister’s waiting arms. The worst of the journey was over.