The sloop

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balandraThough we lived three blocks from the port, my father wasn’t a seaman. They were hardly any seamen in town. My father was a tailor, or rather, a “journeyman”, at Gally Tailor Shop. He only went to the river on Sundays with the whole family, and enjoying a day at the beach was the closest he ever came to any kind of nautical activity.

Stranded at the end of the beach, chained to a willow tree so that the rising waters wouldn’t carry it away, there was an enormous canoe without any seats or other accessories. The words “The Sloop” were written on the rusted metal. It had always been there, at least as far as I could remember; at that time, I was ten years old, the fourth and second-to-last child.

I went with my father the day he bought it from Urreta, the Basque man. Now that I think about it, I never heard my mother complain about how that money was squandered, money that surely could have been put to better use —for example— in buying me a new pair of shoes.

A month later, more or less —as a young boy, I had a different appreciation of time—, my father bought an old industrial engine, not a marine engine, as one would expect, but a combustion engine, which I think had been used to fuel a generator. With the help of Rodríguez, the Spaniard mechanic at the corner, who owed my father a favor having to do with a suit that he had tailored in a rush to fit the mechanic’s deformed body, by the following summer,

he was able to install the engine on The Sloop, along with a propeller and an elemental rudder.

From that moment on, we started to take short trips down the river, which got longer and longer, until we finally got to the mouth of the river. We sailed at a slow pace, subdued to the monotonous rhythm of the ever-steady engine. The vegetation along the coast crept around us, giving us time to appreciate its smallest details. We watched as the tropical king birds plunged tightly against the wall of the canoe, only to fly away with a  bream in their mouths, and we also saw the heads of the turtles that floated around us.

My father added elements to the boat as necessary. An anchor, a small structure with a tarp to give us some shade, a 50-gallon tank to store fuel. He never worried about painting it or installing seats or any other comfort. We had to take along chairs or boxes to sit on, containers for bailing out the canoe, and the inflatable ring of a car tire as our only buoy and element of fun.

The Sloop expanded our horizons. We got to know different bends in the river, little beaches, beautiful sunsets. My mother and sister provided us with lunches, drinks, and a few everyday elements from the kitchen to make our excursions a bit more pleasant. We would also take with a few buckets of manure with us, which I had to get from the slaughterhouse down the road; we would let it dry out under the sun and then burn it, scaring off the mosquitoes, which, at times, could be unbearable.

At the end of the second summer, my father said: “We’re going to Buenos Aires.” For us, Buenos Aires was the place from which all the goods, novelties and comic books came, and where all the most important people went to study, where there were radios, movie theaters and television. We only received vague news on that last point, since there was no signal in town. None of us had ever been to Buenos Aires, none of us had ever traveled anywhere. Only my father had been to the city, where he had spent a few years during his youth, and he must have been somewhere else, somewhere we had never and would never talk about, a place called Dresden, where he had been born, a place from where, for the first few years after he got married, several cards arrived, which he curiously decided to ignore, though my mother saved them, and no one ever knew to read them. It took me until the day after he told us the news to realize that my father wanted to take us all out on The Sloop.

For me, at that age, Buenos Aires was located to the west, and you had to take the highway to get there. It wasn’t until after that trip that I understood that it was located to the south, and that you could also get there by boat. The clear sky, dotted with a few pink clouds, foretold the sunrise as we walked down the winding cobblestone street on our way to the port. And so began our adventure. Luis, who, as the oldest sibling, acted as my father’s right-hand man, lifted up the anchor, the little engine sputtered a few times and shot a puff of smoke out through the rudimentary exhaust pipe that my father had sent off to be welded, and which now served as a chimney. The midday sun appeared overhead halfway between the port and the mouth of the river. Mom took care of distributing the first round of food, which was all measured out, and made it clear that, from then on, everything would be rationed, and that we would have to make it last.

When we arrived at the mouth of the river, we encountered our first problem. The prefecture unit stationed there forced us to get off the boat. My father hadn’t considered the fact that The Sloop wasn’t registered, nor that he didn’t have a helmsman’s license. On the other hand, the boat didn’t have any of the required security features, and we hadn’t even brought any of our documentation along to the border zone. My father was finally able to convince them not to impound the boat, and to allow us to disembark on the opposite coast to set up a provisional campsite to last us until the following day. Absolutely all of us were overcome with disappointment. The trip had ended before it had even started, and our only consolation would be spending the afternoon and evening in an inhospitable place. We grudgingly began to unload our belongings onto the small vacant lot. Several times, Luis insisted that we go back home, or that we at least look for a nicer place to spend the night, but my father stood firm. That afternoon, not even the generous portions of cake and turnovers were enough to make us overcome our bitterness. Dinner consisted of nothing more than a few cold beef sandwiches. My father did not let us lower the awning, something we would do whenever we stayed the night. He insisted on loading everything as soon as the sun went down. Then, he put out the fire. The mosquitoes were merciless, but he remained intransigent, there would be no more fire.

Around two o’clock in the morning, in total silence, we boarded the boat. My mother stayed at the helm, while Luis and my father rowed. The Sloop slowly glided towards the mouth of the river, hidden by the night’s shadows, accompanied by the sweet splashing of the paddles. By sunrise, we were drifting down the Uruguay, and my father finally turned on the engine. I don’t think I had ever felt such joy in my entire life.

The flowing Uruguay River was wide, slow and brown in color. We sailed far from the coast to avoid the sandbars. I made binoculars with my hands, observing every detail of the banks of the Uruguayan coast and the wild mountains of the Argentinean coast, two notions that my father took care of teaching us, as if this knowledge were a measure of the importance of our journey. A timber boat appeared behind us on the horizon; at first, it looked like nothing more than a husk against the sun’s reflection, which slowly grew until it passed us, but not before greeting us with a gruff blow of the horn. Before arriving at the fisheries, we passed the sunken dredger. In fact, The Sloop passed by, almost brushing against the inverted shell that protruded from the water like a beached whale. That would have been exactly the comparison I would have used, if I had known what a beached whale looked like.

We docked at the fisheries. Plural, but really, it was just a singular, extensive sandbank which carts used to make their way to the river to catch fish with nets. The smell of boiled, rotten, greasy fish filled the air for miles around us, but my father decided it was a good time for the women to take care of their business. Then, we stuck around for a few hours to eat and enjoy the warm water and the never-ending beach. We didn’t think —my father, who didn’t know anything about these things, didn’t think— that the river was falling, but when we decided it was time to go, we found The Sloop unequivocally sitting on the sand. It was useless to try to mitigate the weight by getting in the water up to our ankles to push the boat; we had run ashore.

That night, we slept on the beach, hounded by a cloud of mosquitoes and horseflies that ignored the manure fire. The next morning, we searched for the only help we would be able to get, walking an hour down the beach until we arrived at spot where the carts with rods in the sand were located. There weren’t any horses or fishermen, the low water level had driven them away. We had to keep going until we found the “kitchen,” a few enormous outdoor trashcans where fish was boiled, generic material that ended up as a type of flour. The locals who received us were nicer than they were surprised, as if they gave no importance to what the river gave or took away. They gave us nothing but water (my mom had not calculated the proper amount to bring with us) in a large demijohn with no handle, which my father and Luis took turns carrying back to the campsite, and since they were familiar with the area, they promised that the wind would change that afternoon, which it did.

The south wind was serious. A cold, southern wind started to blow. First, it was a relief for our hot, tense bodies, but once goosebumps started appearing on our skin, we realized we didn’t have any warm clothes. The Sloop floating on the ever-growing waves, and the small engine was unable to stay on course. Although we had lowered the awning and put it on the deck like a blanket, the wind pushed us, forcing us backwards. We didn’t realize this until later, as the rain kept us from seeing the coast, and the storm clouds darkened the sky. I couldn’t stop thinking about that sunken dredger, nor could I stop bailing out the boat, as waves of water made their way inside. Despite my mother’s comforting, Laura and Amanda continued crying; us boys stayed strong, but we would have cried, too, if we hadn’t been so busy throwing water overboard. My father’s face was stern, willing to do whatever it took to survive, which wasn’t much; he would never give up. The rain made things even more difficult; the water rose up and, despite our efforts, made its way into The Sloop, so much so that it ended up drowning the engine, leaving us adrift.

A loud thud told us that The Sloop had hit the shore. Once again grounded, we were safe. My father ordered us all to evacuate the boat, and once we were on land with the help of a few ñandubays, he returned to The Sloop, fighting against the current and in up to his waist, until he was able to rescue it, tying it to a tree. We spent the rest of the night pressed against each other, sharing the heat of our bodies, covered with the awning as if it were a huge blanket.

The sky was still overcast, but it had stopped raining. The cold subdued over the course of the morning. We found a few branches on the beach and wet them with gasoline, allowing us to start a marvelous fire so that my mother could prepare boiled mate. We didn’t have any bread, the rain had ruined everything, but we had sugar, so we sweetened our bitter drink to the fullest. We all wanted to go home, but my mother was the only one to say so, thanking God that we hadn’t been killed. My father remained silent. While we were all overwhelmed with that uncertain joy of still being alive, he was overwhelmed with the sadness of failure. He walked away, toward The Sloop. He was sitting on the sand next to it when, at my mother’s request, I brought him a jug of boiled mate. He grabbed it without looking at me and starting to sip it. All of his attention was directed at The Sloop. I sat next to him. Nothing changed. “We’re going to be able to get back,” I said without thinking, since I wasn’t worried about that. He turned his face toward me and said: “I have to fix the engine.” His tone was curt, overpowering. I wished I hadn’t asked anything.

The rest of the day was long on useless attempts at starting the engine. Mom prepared a meal with rice and a few canned foods, our most precious reserves. I regretted having a small pot more than ever. After we finished eating, my sisters and I went into the forest, Luis had to stay and help Dad. We zigzagged through the thorny bushes, a slow, silent march. My sisters followed me, hoping that I would show them something interesting, but nothing could surprise us in that suffocating greenery. Nothing until we found a few prickly pear plants. The red fruits were ready to be eaten, guarded by hundreds of thorns. With utmost precaution, using a small pocket knife, I carefully began the harvest. The girls held the fruits in their shirts, and greedily shouted, “that one, that one!” Seated on the ground, we ate a few. Then, we took the rest back to the others. When we arrived, my mother began to worry. “What if you got pricked by the thorns?” I said I hadn’t. I was lying. I had pricks all over my hands. “The prickly pear can give you tetanus, you shouldn’t go near those plans,” she lectured. At that point, no one had taught me that tetanus was a mortal disease, nor that there was a serum that, if applied in time, could deter that incurred, painful, indisputable death. I still thought that death by disease was something that only happened to adults, to old people, really, so I kept quiet, and I was lucky, because not all prickly pear plants transmit tetanus.

It started the night when we loaded everything into The Sloop and headed home. The wind had changed, it was blowing from the north again, and The Sloop could hardly move forward with the counter current. We hadn’t slept much the night before, we were all exhausted, my mother included. We fell asleep quickly, forgetting the sound of our empty stomachs. My father was left alone at the helm. Alone, looking out into the clear sky, overcoming sleepiness and failure.

When we woke up, we were in the middle of the river again, the fisheries behind us. On the Uruguayan coast, we could see a city that my father said was called Nueva Palmira; on the Argentinean side, it was all dense forest. Throughout the night, my father had adjusted our route once more and, with the help of the current, we had made our way far enough south to realize that it would be easier to continue than to go back. I had never seen my mother so angry, only the indisputable fact that we didn’t have enough fuel left to go home at that very moment kept her from forcing us to go back. We at least needed to get to Paranacito, where we could buy fuel and provisions. If we stayed on course, we would get there around noon. But, once again, The Sloop had its own ideas about our destiny. The engine started to sputter. It never sputtered once it was running, only when it was starting up. According to my father, the fact that it was sputtering so much meant that there was still water in the tank.

We docked again. My father took care of the engine, while the rest of us went off to look for shade and take care of any bodily business. The forest at this point was taller, bleaker. My mother came with us on our walk. After the prickly pear incident, she wasn’t willing to leave us alone. There weren’t any prickly pears, only a few ubajay fruits that were very tasty, but that weren’t able to fill us up. We walked down a sort of path, which brought us to a stream littered with little pellets, capybara feces. When we arrived at the stream, we saw the capybaras sniffing around on the other bank. We stood paralyzed in their presence, which lasted only a moment, until they detected our scent and went up into the forest. Laura and Amanda were touched by the little creatures. We made a few more discoveries; a camoati on the fork of a tree summoned us to the base. We were looking up at that enormous nest made of solid clay when I discovered bones coming out of a bunch of branches and rotten hides. My mother explained that it was an Indian cemetery. She said that even though it was just a group of bones resting on an extremely old log. My mother didn’t know how to explain what had happened to the Indians. Meanwhile, I was surprised that our province had even ever had Indians, like the ones I read about in my comic books. We walked away in silence, also hurriedly, followed by the uproar of parrots that came from the forest.

The Paranacito was quite narrow, and we had to sail for a few miles to reach the town. We weren’t alone, crossing paths with several boats going in either direction, among them a speedboat stocked with supplies which provided us with food and drink. My father was forced to pay the price of desperation, and this time, my mother went at him with a cascade of criticisms. The food, however, included a good amount of candy, which we went through chaotically, among the mix of crackers, cold cuts and fruit, as if nothing could compensate for the deprivation we had suffered.

A few houses, almost all on stilts, surrounded the port. It was a small but lively port. The boats came and went through streams and shortcuts, they were all different, supply speedboats, small fruit and timber boats, trapper boats, passenger speedboats, everything floating, coming from or going somewhere. We got off to walk around while my father had them fill up the spare barrel with gasoline. From the port esplanade, we could see the prefecture unit, not at all worried about controlling the chaotic traffic that included boats in quite precarious situations —none quite as much as ours— but, rather, very entertained throwing buckets of water on the female passengers of a tourist boat, who were quick to return the Carnival game.

My mother’s mood had changed. My father was able to convince her that, the next day, we would arrived in Zárate, where we would be able to take a bus to Buenos Aires. For the first time, I realized that we wouldn’t arrive in Buenos Aires via The Sloop, that there was still lots of road left to travel.

We left around dusk and spent all night sailing; as the sun rose, we saw the port of Zárate in the distance, which my father avoided so that he could head for Tigre. We were on the Paraná de las Palmas River. For me it was all the same, one huge river that carried us through brown waters on our way to Buenos Aires. We passed another city, which must have been Campana, and the river grew much wider and stronger, huge ships passed by us, we were constantly bailing out the boat because of the waves, but we were expert sailors by then, and no one, including the women, worried about something so small.

When we entered a stream whose name I can’t remember, Tigre began. We passed by houses build on stilts, piers, all kinds of boats, and during long stretches of the trip, we traveled alone among islands that seemed abandoned. It was on one of those stretches that we found a canoe rowed by a man with just one arm, the other one wrapped up in bloodstained rags. My father didn’t hesitate to help him. The man asked us to leave him in his boat, but that he would appreciate any help rowing to the Tigre port. He lived alone and had injured his hand with a saw, so he was on his way to the hospital. Twenty years later, I ran into him again. He was missing four fingers on his left hand. The surgeon finished the saw’s job. The accident didn’t seem to have had too much of an impact on his life. He still lived alone, growing oranges.

We arrived at the Puerto de Frutos. It was market day, products from the islands were sold on the port esplanade. The Sloop was tied up quite far away, given the number of boats. My father and my brother helped the injured man get to the hospital, we stayed back, wandering around the market with my mother.

We never got to Buenos Aires. My father had miscalculated the amount of money he had, or maybe he had lost some along the way, or maybe he never planned on getting that far. Nonetheless, he took us to eat at a restaurant near the port, he bought us all a few k nick-knacks, and he bought my mother a leather purse that we saw in a nearby store.

We spent the night on the esplanade. We slept off and on, talking, no one seemed to regret not having made it to Buenos Aires. At one point, I sat down next to my father. We spoke about nothing at all, or maybe everything, it was the only time we spoke. Then, he lay down on the cement, and looking up at the sky, he said: “It’s done.” Soon after, he fell asleep.

On the way back, I don’t remember anything worth telling. When we arrived, my father docked The Sloop next to the same willow tree where he had found it. We never went out sailing again, little by little, we removed the accessories that my father had installed. When I turned 18, it looked just like it has when he had bought it from the Basque man, Urreta. The trip wasn’t a topic of conversation in our family; for whatever reason, every one of us forgot about it.

Twenty years later, my father died in his sleep.