When Aldo, a relative of my Peruvian host family, asked me if I wanted to serve as translator aboard a 20,000 ton Chinese cargo ship docked off Puerto Malabrigo’s coast and carefully stressed the potential dangers, I didn’t hesitate at all before saying “yes”. Living two years in a sleepy town on the northern Peruvian coast unfortunately tends to have that sort of effect on you. Aldo told me we’d board his friend’s small lancha “soon” and head out to the mammoth vessel that had been forced to drop anchor a mile or so off shore; and having lived in Peru for over a year at that point, in typical Peruvian fashion I assumed it wouldn’t be for awhile.
But it actually was relatively soon after that aboard a small, 20-foot ship equipped with an outboard motor and not much else, Aldo’s normally jovial face abruptly turned serious in the mercurial Peruvian tendency to amazingly shift full-blown from one emotion to the other. “Eesac”, Aldo said with soft spanish accent and his liquid brown eyes arresting mine, “escuchame, es muy peligroso la subida al barco (listen to me, boarding the ship is very dangerous)”. He brought one hand up and held it vertical, then the other and said “este” – he shook his left hand – “es el barco, y esta” – he shook his right hand – “es nuestra lancha”. Because the cargo ship is so much bigger than our vessel, Aldo explained, we’ll need to get as close as possible to their side and then they’ll throw down a rope ladder. The tricky part was climbing on the rail of our ship, and then grabbing the ladder that was hanging off their edge. “Si te caigas, (if you fall)” said Aldo, “then you get caught between the two boats …” he clapped his hands sharply together to crush the imaginary person. As we approached the gigantic cargo ship, Aldo then figured it’d be the proper time to tell me that he had witnessed someone die in that same exact manner he just described.
We got to the tanker and pulled along its immense side. I had been on a large cruise ship before, but docilely trotting up a large gangplank to a ship docked and tied up to a pier was very different than trying to catch a rope ladder dangling between two ships that have dropped loose anchor in the ocean, with one easily 10 times the size of the other. As our pilot hesitantly pulled near but not alongside the behemoth next to us, Aldo threw curses at him to bring the ship closer.
I could tell Aldo was worried as he surveyed the situation. Ocean swells were making both ships pitch and heave, and earlier he told me he had almost called off the trip due to the restless wave conditions. The two boats rubbed their sides together, and then broke apart in tune with the swells. The first guy went to the rail and shakily stood up, while several men stood on the deck behind him with their hands up to catch him if he fell backwards. As Aldo made painfully clear, if this man fell forward without grabbing the ladder, there would be no one to catch him and he would get crushed between the two ships as they alternately crashed together and broke apart. The man coolly waited until the ladder leaned close, grabbed it, and immediately began climbing; just as the two ship sides crashed together a little below where his feet had landed on the ladder.
Aldo went second, and despite his generous gut nimbly scrambled up after the first man. Next came my turn, and a multitude of hands grabbed me and quickly boosted me on the ship rail, steadying me from behind. The immense side of the cargo ship loomed dozens of feet above and yawed toward me, and as it approached the inescapable thought entered my head wondering if this were the situation and place that would produce my untimely death. My heart hammering, and adrenaline shooting through me, I stepped to the rope ladder, set my right foot on a rung, leaned forward off the rail and grabbed for dear life the rungs facing me. Immense relief flooded through me as I clutched onto the ladder for half a second – then I remembered I needed to climb as quickly as possible and so I immediately began to do so. I didn’t look back the whole way up, and at the top Aldo grabbed my arms from the deck and pulled me up with a relieved grin on his face. I then finally turned and look down on our small ship below, and saw a wide gap of frothy ocean now between the two ships, as our ship gunned away from the cargo freight to wait at a safe distance from the large tanker for our return.
Several Asian crew members escorted us through the ship to the captain without saying a word. We walked down long bare iron corridors, up several rusty flights of stairs, and I marveled at the immense iron labyrinth contained in this ship, of which we were only seeing the outer levels. Finally our guides brought us in front of a door, and knocked.
Aldo had told me we’d be talking to the captain, to get a list of provisions he and his crew needed before their vessel left. Aldo brought me along because, as he explained, often times the ship captains barely speak spanish and so he thought perhaps my english would come in handy.
The dirty figure who we came before in a small room filled with blinking old machinery was not at all who I had envisioned speaking with. I thought at first perhaps it wasn’t the captain, that maybe this was their person in charge of provisioning; however Aldo respectfully called the man captain, and small man stared back at us, expressionless.
Aldo, seemingly nervous, rattled off in his poorly-accented english a list of what was available in town for purchase – rice, tomatoes, onions, lettuce, and the like and the captain said “yes” or “no” and ordered by the kilo while looking at his own sheet. A few times they got stuck on a word, and Aldo turned to me while the captain obviously irritated would repeat the word several times. However most times I couldn’t understand a single word of the captain’s so-called “english”, and was unable to help. I realized later that at no point did we explain to the captain that I spoke english, so for all I knew he could have still been trying to communicate with us in poor spanish. But fortunately Aldo had brought pictures of foods that the two resorted to several times when it was clear neither knew what the other wanted.
After what seemed like a very brief and overall very halting attempt to speak with us, the captain finally waved us away, with one last request. “What?” I asked, leaning forward and the captain repeated it again to me, louder and angrier. I looked at Aldo, unsure of what to say to the captain’s request and since now the meaning was clear in either language – so Aldo didn’t need translation. He stepped forward and shook the captain’s hand. “Prostitutas?” he said, now his face expressionless. “No problem.”
We followed the Chinese shipmen all the way back through the long metal corridors and down several flights of stairs to where we had climbed up. The sky was rapidly darkening, and I could see in the fading light why Aldo had been so nervous and wanted to hurry along their negotiations. We waited a few minutes for our small boat to pull up along the cargo ship, and then hurriedly climbed down the rope ladder while we could still see. When one person reached the level of our small Peruvian boat, the last part of the ordeal consisted of looking over your shoulder while your body faced the immense side of the cargo ship, and then when the ocean pitch brought the railing close you had to half-jump and half-fall back on the rail, where a crowd of hands were there waiting to catch you and reel you in quickly off the railing. As my heart slowly stop palpitating during the boat ride back to shore, Aldo told me that ship captains sometimes requested the strangest things. For instance, he said, he learned to give Asian boat captains (cargo ships from Europe, North America, and Asia all came to the small town of Puerto Malabrigo, Peru to purchase and load tons of fishmeal that then made its way to other factories for processing into pet food) gifts of dried seahorses, because they considered it an aphrodisiac. “De verdad (it’s true),” promised Aldo in response to my practiced look of skepticism that often came after the latest outrageous story told to me by a Peruvian. “They put it in their bottles of alcohol and drink it. I swear!”
I disembarked on the pier happy to be alive and not crushed between boats or drowned, happy to be on solid land, and wondering what the hell just happened … was Aldo really going to deliver some of the local prostitutes? The town did have a whorehouse – Puerto Malabrigo is a port town after all. If so, how would they make it up the rope ladder? How much was Aldo charging for any of this?
These questions nagged at me for days after my adventure. A few days before the tanker was scheduled to leave, Aldo went back out to deliver the supplies to the ship. He didn’t ask me to go, and I didn’t ask to go with him.