Maroa, Venezuela.— The accident which occurred when the boat unexpectedly hit a rock, rather than frightening, was a master class in resolve.
You need only look at the wide Rio Negro and its dark, murky waters to understand that it’s an act of bravery to instantaneously dive into the water.
In a few short strokes, Niky, the hard-working radiologist from Las Tunas, reached the wooden stopper. Swimming fast against the current he returned it to the skipper, finally stopping the leak in the stern of the boat.
“Thank goodness,” sighed the skipper; in a tone which revealed the severity of what would have happened if the Cuban hadn’t jumped in after the stopper.
Soaking wet from head-to-toe, Nicdael was still panting from the exertion.
For 15 minutes the boat, loaded with medicine and people, drifted backward with the current.
The motor wouldn’t start, so the skipper, notably worried, took off the cover trying to identify the problem - looking at the sky, calculating the time, and every now and then complaining about a minor injury on his leg, caused when the motor bounced up, and the propeller hit him.
Almost back at our departure point, the 40 horse power Yamaha motor finally started up again, enabling us, to the relief of all on board, to set off once again along the Rio Negro to Maroa, the most remote municipality in Venezuela’s Amazon Jungle, where Cubans are also working.
With a four-hour journey ahead of us, we weren’t going to make it before nightfall, and only because of our experienced skipper were we able to avoid the imminent dangers.
“Upriver the flow is slower and there are more rocks. The dangerous ones aren’t the ones you see, but the shallow ones with edges hidden in the water. If you look closely, you can see small swirls of water which show where there are rocks and you can avoid them, but you can’t see them at night.”
Gerardino, the skipper, with skin weathered by the sun, stated that he had worked his entire life as a fisherman on these waters.
“I leave for several days to go to the tributaries to look for kulirri (catfish), snapper, and peacock bass. I know the place like the back of my hand, but the drought is severe here and water levels have fallen dramatically. This landscape of rocks and sand bars is uncommon and makes navigating even more dangerous.”
From the middle of the river you can see a wondrous natural landscape all around, with Venezuela on your right and Colombia on your left.
Different indigenous communities are dotted along the two shorelines, offset against a backdrop of lush green vegetation which rises up on both sides of the water, only broken by white sand banks.
When the sky is blue, so is the water. If it’s cloudy, the river turns grey, the high mercury content in the Rio Negro turn its waters a blackish color, transforming the waterway into the perfect mirror.
“The Rio Negro’s current,” according to Gerardino, “is very strong, although up-river it looks as tranquil as glass. That’s how I can see the swirls and avoid the hidden rocks,” he states reassuringly, on account of the accident.
Almost immediately he is given the chance to put his skills into action. Rounding a bend in the river there appears a turbulent line of choppy waves stretching from one bank to the other, announcing the presence of dangerous rocks. There doesn’t seem to be a way around, and the radiologist from Las Tunas, still drying out in the sun on the stern, grips the side of the boat with both hands.
“Oh my God!” When we came we had to go ashore and carry the boat. “And now?,” asks Niky, looking toward the skipper, who continues on, his gaze fixed straight ahead, resolute at the helm: “Keep clam.”
He turns the boat 90 degrees starboard (to the right) maintaining the same speed, then less than 10 meters from the shore, cuts left, in a semicircle aiming the boat toward the rapids. “It’s the only place,” states Gerardino gaze still fixed straight ahead, as the boat bounces over the waves before finally entering clam waters once again.
After traveling for three hours, through captivating and unique landscapes, night falls fast, and shortly everything turns the same color. The beautiful scenery becomes intimidating, shapes merge to into the treetops, and the water is only distinguished by the stars reflected in it.
The jungle, at night and so far from anywhere, generates a certain tension, but the assurance of having Gerardino at the helm provides relief. Unable to see anything ahead, he quite literally steers with his eyes closed. Sticking close to the shore line, he navigates watching the outline of the treetops against the sky.
In situations of danger and unknown adventure, such as this, my personal pride in the Cuban radiologist, sitting on the stern of the boat carrying medicines, grows; a man who represents the dozens of Cuban colleagues, brave healthcare professionals, working for months on end at the service of the people of the jungle.
Up to that point, Niky was the one exemplifying Cuban solidarity but right away the entire boat filled with Cuban pride. “So, you’re from Bayamo, right?” asked one of the Venezuelan doctors, working in Maroa. “I graduated from the Faculty of Medicine in Holguín, and this guy,” pointing to his colleague, “from ELAM (the Latin American school of Medicine) in Havana.”
Suddenly Cuba becomes the topic of conversation in the front half of the boat: stories of grateful students, of the Havana Malecón, local festivals in the month of May…until rounding a bend in the river, a light appears in the distance.
“We’re here,” announces Gerardino, who had more than proven his skills by the end of the journey. “I don’t know how many times I have done this with Cubans.”
At the risk of being indiscrete, I ask him how much he charges for the trip.
”I only ask for fuel, but I don’t charge. My son, who is now a soldier, received free leg surgery in Havana,” he states.