Saturday, 24 November 2012

Queensland Intermission - 1968

It was late November 1967 and Viajero and the Amazon River were already a lifetime away. I had flown from an icy New York a week earlier to a cold and wet Britain where I had enjoyed a few days in the company of my dear aunt and uncle in Nottingham.  Now I was aboard a Qantas 707 for the long flight home to Sydney and then 2,500 km north to Cairns where I was going to meeting my brand new niece and enjoy a North Queensland Christmas with my family.  
It was two years since I had last seen them.  Two years since I had waved goodbye to them from the deck of Baron Jedburgh and set off to conquer the world. There was of course, much more to conquer, and we'll come to that in due course, but it was good to be going home; to settle back in my seat and listen to some classic Strine as the PA system crackled to life and a voice from somewhere up the front said, "G'darfa noon folks, sit back and relax an we'll be outer ear and on air way in a garbler mince" (and my humblest apologies to the late Professor Afferbeck Lauder).
One of the benefits of long sea voyages, and there are of course many, is that a 36 hour plane trip, including refuelling stops at Teheran, New Delhi and Singapore, a lengthy transfer at Sydney and a three hour trip to Cairns, is really quite a stroll in the park. It was just nice to be going home.
My parents had separated a couple of years earlier and my mother was now living in another town with the new man in her life. Dad was in his early fifties and still working at the local council where he was the workshop superintendent. Dad was a real artisan. When he wasn't tinkering with car engines (you could do that then), he was restoring an old clinker-built boat he had bought for a song, or building a caravan from a few drawings he copied from a 1950s edition of Popular Mechanics. Whenever I think about my father, I'm reminded of a quotation which has been incorrectly attributed to Mark Twain, "when I was a boy of seventeen, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have him around. But when I got to be twenty-one I was astonished how much the old man had learned in four years".  

I enjoyed his company, and we all had a splendid Christmas in the sun. I'm quite sure I was already developing a rolling gait, and with it a penchant for telling long-winded stories - but I had an attentive audience

All things must come to an end and it wasn't long before the need to earn a living again became important.  My old friend, Ian Fraser, partner in crime from school and our apprenticeship days (see Class Reunion) had decided to move south to Brisbane and since there was plenty of work around in that part of the world, I agreed it was a good idea. So it was, that early in the New Year of 1968, at around the same time searchers were giving  up on finding the body of our missing leader Harold Holt, and the Liberal Party were electing John Gorton as their new leader and Australia's 19th Prime Minister, we said our farewells, loaded everything we owned (which in my case was very little) into the boot of Ian's FB Holden and headed south. 
For anyone not familiar with the geography of Queensland, a quick look at a map will show that it is much more than a few hours' drive.  It's about 2,000 km along the Bruce Highway and in those days, there were long stretches which had to be negotiated on poor quality roads where broken windscreens and roaming wildlife were the norm.
We shared the driving and when too tired to continue, we pulled to the side of the road with one of us sleeping on the front bench seat, the other on the back. We broke a windscreen a couple of days into the trip, somewhere between Sarina and Marlborough at about the same time that horizontal rain started falling. Fortunately, and who knows why, I had a pair of motor cycle goggles with me. The sight of Ian behind the wheel, wearing leather goggles that would have looked good on Rommel, belting down the highway avoiding potholes at 70 miles per hour will have scared a few people - it terrified me.  Late one night, too exhausted to drive further, we pulled off the road and as usual, I climbed over on to the back seat, and Ian stretched out in front. It was a desolate part of the country, maybe 100 km from the nearest settlement, and the rain had stopped. It was as quiet as a mausoleum and we both fell into a deep sleep.
An hour or so later, we were shaken out of our slumbers by bright lights and a loud whooshing noise.  The car was shaking, the rumbling turned into a roar, and blazing light began flashing from one side of the car to the other. Indiana repairman, Richard Dreyfuss's experience on a lonely stretch of road in Close Encounters of the Third Kind was probably no more than a twinkle of an idea in young Steven Spielberg's mind, but that's the image that comes to mind now as the two of us bolted upright and awake.  Ian looked around wide-eyed, "What the f..k's happening?" 
Our eyes stopped rolling and our heartbeat slowed to a dull pounding as the flashing beams resolved into the passing lights of the Brisbane to Cairns express train - The Sunlander, as it rocketed past, our vehicle shaking in its wash. Unwittingly, we had parked right next to the railway line - a few feet more and it might well have been a different story.
There were no further memorable incidents and we arrived in Brisbane a day or two later where we were soon sharing lodgings at the home of a nice landlady who took in boarders at her Camp Hill home for students and young working men. Ian had already organised employment as a design draughtsman and trainee engineer with Evans Deakin and Company in Charlotte Street. 
A day or two later I found work at the same establishment as an engineering estimator, helping to put together proposals for projects which included process refineries and power stations in Gladstone and ferry berths on the Brisbane River.  Each day Ian and I would catch the trolley bus or the tram from Camp Hill to the city and each evening we'd find our way home the same way.  We had a short diversion a few months after we arrived in Brisbane when Ian took some time out to marry his long-time girlfriend, the lovely Ellen. A pleasant affair, and one in which I had the privilege of participating as best-man. This was in itself no difficult task, but one which I was able to carry out with appropriate dignity thanks to a hasty sewing job by Ian's sister, Beryl who was more than a little concerned that in hiring me a dress suit, the local formal wear shop had neglected to provide me with cufflinks to go with the borrowed shirt. The day was memorable and has provided me with numerous opportunities to remind Ian that he still owes me $20 that I was able to find to help pay for the event.
Most days during the week, I would walk down to the river during my lunch break and usually find myself wandering past the offices of H.C Sleigh Ltd, owners of the iconic Golden Fleece petroleum brand, but also owners of Dominion Far East Line. In the window, inside a glass case, was a model of the pride of the fleet, the SS George Anson inviting passers-by to consider the merits of an ocean voyage.  As much as I was enjoying the challenges of being an estimator, the hospitality of my landlady and the company of her boarders at Camp Hill, there was something missing - and not just because Ian had gone off with Ellen to find their own accommodation elsewhere in the city.  I wasn't yet ready to give up the life of a ship's engineer and one day I didn't walk past the office during my lunch break - I went inside, and asked for a job. The timing could not have been better.  Francis Drake, sister ship to George Anson was due to depart Sydney for Brisbane and the Far East in a weeks' time - they were a man short - was I availableWas I? Does Dolly Parton sleep on her back?
Thus ended my brief career at Evans Deakin and so began my career as an engineer officer aboard my first steam ship.  SS Francis Drake was 7,500 ton, 440 feet long and carried about 150 passengers and I'm looking forward to telling you about my year with H C Sleigh and passenger ships and tankers in a later blog.  

Monday, 19 November 2012

Black muddy river, roll on forever...

I don't care how deep or wide, if you've got another side,
Roll muddy river, roll muddy river, black muddy river, roll.

I was planning to make the previous posting, Take me back to my boat on the river... my last story about Viajero. But there were a couple more things I wanted to tell you, and yes, I needed an excuse to use those Grateful Dead lyrics from Black Muddy River which is playing in the background as I write these words.
I consider myself extremely fortunate to have been a young man in the 1960s and the 1970s with the opportunity of travelling the world at someone else's expense and for the most part being able to choose which part of it I next wanted to see. Of course, it is always easier to look back with affection on the happier moments, rather than the long periods of discomfort, occasional (but not often) danger, and days of boredom brought about by endless cycles of watch-keeping on extended sea voyages; frequently with so called "Board of Trade acquaintances" that under ideal conditions I may not have chosen to spend long periods banged up with, nor they me for that matter. 
It was generally a time of full employment, and engineers and deck officers even in the better companies, were in short supply. So I was in the position of deciding where I next wanted to go, finding which shipping company serviced that region, and giving them a call.  That's certainly what happened with Booth Line and how I got to South America. But the reason why "Maggie Booth" and her sister company Lamport and Holt were so good is that there was never a time - whether on stand-by in Liverpool during the seamen's strike, or limping into Rio de Janeiro on three cylinders on Devis (Cruising down to Rio) or doing five round trips from New York to Peru on Viajero, that I felt my shipmates and the crew were anything but the best. 
Of course we all had our moments - the second engineer on Viajero, Frank Stinchcombe (The Saint) could be a cantankerous old s.o.b. when he was woken for the 4 to 8 watch after a few too many of his special cocktails (The Perfect Cuba Libre), but I would have sailed with him anywhere on the planet, and I hope he had a long and enjoyable life after his days at sea were over.
John Needham was our skipper for almost all of the time I was on Viajero. It was his first command, but he had been with the company for many years and had travelled previously on the river as first and second mate in previous voyages.  He was a jovial, moustachioed fellow - who enjoyed life, was fond of good food (maybe a little too fond at times) and was always ready to share a cerveza or a cuba libre once the day's work was done. On one occasion when we were in one of the larger river ports, a few of the crew were caught partying with some ladies from a local cantina who had somehow found their way on board.  Unfortunately, their bacchanal coincided with a visit to the ship by one of the marine superintendents who had flown in that morning from New York. Captain Needham was on probation and could not afford to be seen as a weak disciplinarian. He had no alternative but to sack the offenders who were all discharged at Port of Spain in Trinidad a week later.  From there, the ship continued north to New York, loaded fresh cargo and headed south again.  We were back in Barbados within four or five weeks and most of them were re-hired.  I feel it's safe to tell this story now, forty five years later.
What can I tell you about big GeoffHe arrived in Brooklyn to join Viajero a few days after me and no more than an hour or two before the ship sailed. He had travelled in style from Southampton to New York on Queen Mary. I on the other hand, not knowing any better, had allowed myself to be rushed on to a BOAC VC10 from Heathrow and I was on my way from JFK Airport to Brooklyn and in my working gear while Geoff was probably sipping sherry on the Promenade Deck and enjoying shipboard life as only he knew how. Geoff was from Keighley. He was a big Yorkshire lad and had he not chosen a life at sea, I am sure would have made a great prop forward for the local rugby league team if he had been just a little more fit.  He had been with the company for a few years, but this was his first trip on the river.  He was the third engineer and I was the fourth of four. The second engineer, Frank had been on Viajero for six months when we both joined and later when he went on leave, Geoff took over his role as second engineer, and I moved up the ladder a notch and became third engineer. The small increase in pay barely made up for the impact on my social life of taking over the midnight watch, although I'm pleased to say that we did not keep sea-going watches while the ship was in port.
I've already mentioned that Geoff liked the music of our on-board Caribbean steel band. Most evenings after dinner Geoff could be found on the poop deck in his oversized white T-shirt and slightly grubby shorts, perched against the capstan, a glass of rum and coke or a Pabst beer nearby, banging away on his claves keeping time to some of the best music I've ever heard. In the year I sailed with Action (as he was somewhat ironically referred to by Skipper Needham), I don't think I ever heard him raise his voice, or say a word in anger. He was a good shipmate and I enjoyed his company.
Although I have not mentioned it so far, we did actually have a Chief Engineer on board as well. He was in his early sixties and I am not sure that I ever saw him in the engine room during my whole time on Viajero.  He spent much of his time in his cabin reading and was known by the other three engineers as Seldom Seen.  The skipper referred to him as The Guarano Kid, an unkind reference to Venezuelan berry which was regarded as a strong substitute for caffeine. Looking back, these comments are all probably most unfair; for all I know he may have had a wonderful career and we caught him at the end of it. He was certainly not an unpleasant individual and someone had to sign our overtime sheets.
As small as the ship was, we also had two or three passenger cabins, and so it was that on most trips we had a couple of supernumeraries on board.  Sometimes we might have a couple of missionaries on their way to an Amazon outpost - we took quite a few down to Brazil, but I never remember bringing any of them back. Hmm, I wonder.
On my first voyage on the river, we were accompanied by a delightful couple of retirees from Greenville, Ohio who were doing a round-trip holiday. Mac and Suzie were in their late seventies, and they were doing something, which may be common now, but was certainly not in the 1960s.  Mac was very fond of his corn-cob pipe and he would join us most evenings on deck where he would sit puffing away on his pipe and telling us tales of his war years.  He made the pipes himself, and had brought a few with him to share and it wasn't long before we were all smoking corn-cob pipes and staring out across the ship's rail like Sanders of the River. Suzie told us that they didn't have a modern car, or any fancy household gadgets, but what they did each year, was go off to some far corner of the world and do their best to learn more about the world outside their rural corner of the US. I exchanged Christmas Cards with Mac and Suzie for many years after I left the river, and they would tell me of trips to China and Nepal - what great ambassadors they were.
I'll go back their one day soon.  It won't be the same, I know - but the river is still there in all its steamy magnificence.  I would just like to see it before there are too many more roads and bridges carving their way into the rainforests.

Muito obrigado pelo seu tempo...

Monday, 12 November 2012

Take me back to my boat on the river...

… and I won't cry out any more.
We have left Manaus and are on the way to Iquitos in Peru. Now we are really on the river and its wilderness for the next two thousand kilometres. This is going to take us at least seven days or more depending on customs delays and whether the river is in flood or not.
By the way, now would be a good time for me to say that if you are visiting this site for the first time, welcome.  However, you might prefer to read my river ramble from the beginning, in which case I urge you to first visit A really big river and then read Big wheel keep on turning. I'm sure my meanderings are confusing enough without reading them in the wrong order! 
This sense of connection with the river from here on is palpable. More than any other time since we first ventured on to the river more than two weeks ago, we are aware of the need to be constantly on watch for debris coming down the river or shallow sandbanks which could leave us stranded for days. There are two times during the year when this is particularly relevant, when the river is in flood and when it is not!
During the river flood, as snow from the Andes melts and finds its way into the Amazon basin, the river is fouled by large branches and tree trunks picked up by the floodwaters. During these times there will often be three or more extra pairs of eyes on the bridge looking out for logs or any other fugitive items of floating or semi-submerged debris, which if large enough can be quite destructive. Because they are often so hard to spot in the dun-coloured waters of the river, we are frequently hit and it can be a disconcerting experience below decks when one of these fellows comes into contact with us.  The amplified clang that is heard and felt in the engine room space is like being inside an empty oil drum while someone outside is hitting it with a sledge hammer - only not quite so melodic. On one occasion we were hit by several logs in succession, and one or more of them finished up striking the propeller - this by the way is the main reason we try to avoid them. The resulting damage was serious enough to require a detour to the nearest dry-dock for major repairs, and since the nearest one was at Curacao, in the Netherlands Antilles, we spent a long time travelling at reduced speed that trip - a career-limiting exercise for a ship's master.

At the other end of the scale, when the river is at its lowest, our challenge is to navigate a safe channel without running aground.  Even with our shallow draught there were many occasions which required the presence of an able seamen (known as an AB) standing on the foc'sle swinging a lead line over the front calling out the depth as we nosed our way forward (no fancy depth sounder on board in 1966 I'm afraid).
There were horror stories of sister ships being aground on the river for weeks, another career-limiting event for a ship's master particularly if he has to start jettisoning cargo in order to get the ship floating again.  We were fortunate. Although we scraped bottom a few times, and sometimes took detours through parts of the river which didn't appear on the chart, I don't think we ever spent any time actually sitting on the river bottom.
There are three national borders which converge on the river (Tres Fronteras).  We cross into Peru, just west of the Brazilian border post of Benjamin Constant, but at the same time we must briefly travel through Colombia (at least on the North bank) where a tiny pan-handle sliver of that country branches down to the river at Leticia.
The border crossing is always an exciting experience since it involves a day of travelling around the border posts in the ship's small speedboat, while Viajero sits patiently at anchor for the day.  This involves the purser, an engineer (usually me), the First Mate and one of the ABs.  The engineer goes along for the ride in case something goes wrong with the outboard motor. I'm pleased to say it never did, since I was then (and still am) much more capable of repairing engines that you can climb inside, than I am of tinkering with a four horsepower Evinrude.
We left at dawn with our first stop being Benjamin Constant, the Brazilian customs post about a half hours' run up a small side stream of the river.  This is quite a sizeable settlement, named after one of the founders of the Brazilian Republic. The most remarkable thing about BC was its boardwalks connecting buildings and streets. I was sure that if the river rose high enough this part of the town would tear itself loose and just float down the river.  

It was a beautiful day and while John the purser and the mate headed off to the prefeitura to do whatever it was that they had to do, about two dozen children clustered around the shoreline while Hutchy, our St Vincentian AB and myself cooked breakfast – a couple of pans full of sausages over a blow-lamp.  
From BC, we headed back up the river to the military post at Tabatinga, where more formalities were dealt with and then across to Leticia to pay our respects to the Colombians. Leticia is a fascinating town in its own right.  We once visited the port to discharge cargo, and while there had the pleasure of spending an evening with a few of the local townsfolk at one of the annual religious festivals. On that occasion, a house a few streets from the cantina we were celebrating at caught fire, and we all became part of the local bucket brigade involved in putting out the fire, which if it had got out of hand may have caused quite some damage.  Leticia was also regarded as a well-known drug centre at the time, and I've since been told that the local ganja was openly sold across the counter, although it is not something any of us were aware of at the time.
Our final call of the day was to Ramon Castilla another hour up river, and at last we were in Peru.  Altogether we were away about eight hours, a most enjoyable diversion from the daily routine of watch keeping.
A day or two later and we were in Iquitos, where we would stay for at least a week. During my time on Viajero, I made four trips to Iquitos, and each time I think I enjoyed it more. It was (and I'm sure still is) a remarkable place.  A city of nearly half a million people (a few less in 1966 of course), it is only accessible by boat or by aeroplane and yet, here in the rainforest was a city which was remarkable for its Italian, Portuguese and Spanish colonial architecture and a diversity of culture, food and music that even as I write these words, I feel as though I am being transported back there and I can smell and taste the tacacho con cecina and hear the distinctive Amazonian Spanish, that I struggled to learn until one morning I woke up having spent the night dreaming in pure castellano.
Iquitos has always had an Honorary British Consul, and no visit to Iquitos was complete without a function on board ship with local folk and the consul joining us. Our skipper, John Needham would spare no expense with our albeit limited resources and it was always a great night with our Caribbean steel band under the leadership of Francis one of our Bajan stewards, big Geoff the third engineer on claves and third mate John Longford-Lewis, Sparkie and myself hard at work improving our previously mentioned Perú españoles.  This would invariably be followed a few nights later by dinner at the home of the consul. Sadly, I can't remember his name, but I have not yet met a more sociable and hospitable diplomat. He was a wonderful raconteur, and his dinners would provide a great stage for him to tell us some (in hindsight) quite incredible stories about Peruvian Amazonian social history.
A most memorable event which took place on my first trip on the river was Christmas Day.  This would be a good moment to tell you about the role of Chief Steward/Purser on a small ship like Viajero.  As well as feeding and catering for the officers and crew (and I can tell you that a more complaining bunch of individuals would be hard to find than merchant navy ships' officers), the purser also has the task of  dealing with customs and immigration, acting as the de facto ship's doctor and as I mentioned in an earlier posting - handing down cans of beetroot and the like to eager canoe children as we travel along the river.  However on Christmas Day 1966, John Cullimore excelled himself. Admittedly, at times he was inclined to describe a tin of mixed vegetables as légumes macédoniens but on this day we were treated to feast fit for royalty, complete with party hats, Christmas presents (most of which were handed over the side to the canoe kids) and late night choruses of all our favourite carols, accompanied of course by Francis and his Bajans
As I said at the introduction to this blog, "Take me back to my boat on the River!"

Time stands still as I gaze in her waters
She eases me down, touching me gently
With the waters that flow past my boat on the river
So I won't cry out anymore.

Monday, 5 November 2012

Big wheel keep on turning...

...and we're rolling, rolling, rolling on the river.

 And so we were.  I've heard it said many times, (often by myself admittedly) that ships aren't supposed to be in harbour, they should be at sea.  That's where they belong and that's why they build them.
But there is an exception to this - and that is being on a river.  There is something very special about the gentle progress which is made as the ship slips through the still waters of a wide river. There are no waves breaking over the bow. The vessel doesn't roll as it makes a steady 10 knots headway, hugging one bank, and thus avoiding the risk of shallow sandbars in the middle of the river.  We have a pilot on board who will be with us from Belém to Santarém about three days from here.
 Being so close to the river's edge like this is part of the enjoyment. The rainforest is so close I can almost touch it - I can certainly smell it.  From time to time there is a flurry of activity as many-coloured birds wheel through the canopy from tree-top to tree-top. This part of the river is actually quite narrow, we're not yet on the Amazon proper, we're slicing across through some of the many channels in the delta that link the Pará River to the main river.  
Now and then we come across small clearings where stilted wooden huts balance on the water's edge. Rickety little jetties stretch out into the stream from which are tied frail-looking canoes that toss like corks as our wash breaks on the shoreline. We slow down to a walking pace and as we slide past, bare-chested children run from the huts to the bobbing canoes.  Perching precariously on the bow of their craft they propel themselves through the water and over our wash like Olympic kayakers. Our skipper, John Needham loves these kids. He's made several trips on the river before this one, but this is his first command.  Our Bajan crewmen throw lines over the side which the children expertly take hold, and our Chief Steward, known for some reason as Mickey Mouse, throws down tins of sliced beetroot and corned beef. I wonder for an instant whether they have can openers.
 From research I've been doing for this story, huts like this still appear along the river bank, although they are likely now to have a large satellite TV dish on the roof and moored alongside the canoes there is likely to be an aluminium framed dinghy with a powerful outboard motor hanging off the stern.
The local Indios appear all along the river.  As we moved further from the centres of population, the connection these folk had with so-called western civilisation became more tenuous, and though they never appeared anything but friendly, the sight of an attractive young lady smiling from her canoe, with face paint and filed teeth was sometimes a little alarming.  I do wonder however, what life is like for the Indigenous Brazilian people of that region in 2012 as the 21st century barges its way into the rainforest with super highways and increased logging - but that's a diatribe for another day.

After a day or so travelling through the delta, we break into the main river and are once again regaled by the splendour of this wide brown river where the opposite bank is so far away, it's as though we are back in the ocean or on a huge lake.  It was here that I encountered for the first time the fabulous pink dolphins (Inia geoffrensis) for which the river was richly famous. I learned that many folk believe that the dolphins changed into beautiful men and women at night (encantado) who mated with humans, returning to the river each morning. They were indeed gorgeous creatures, now heavily endangered, and I never tired of seeing them.
Santarém was a smaller version of Belém.  It was here that we changed our pilot and were joined by a new one who would steer us to Manaus. We always had a pilot on board while on the river and less there be any misconception that such a role wasn't critical take a look at this shot of the river, courtesy of Google Earth. It's like this most of the way.
   Our next major destination on the river, was to be one of my favourite ports of call.  Manaus has a wonderful history. It is the capital of the state of Amazonas.  Like Belém it has been settled for about 350 years, but its glory days were during the boom of the rubber barons in the 19th century.  
By all accounts these folk who may have been the equivalent of the oil sheikhs of later years, found increasingly more decadent ways to define profligacy. Perhaps one of the lasting monuments to their excess was an opera house, modelled on the Grand Opera de Paris. It is said that one of its first performers was the great Enrico Caruso himself.
At the time I was there it was no more than an abandoned pink elephant plonked in the Amazon jungle, a conspicuous monument to better times. How much better those times were is debatable. There is a story that several of the groups who visited and performed at the theatre fell ill with yellow fever and died whilst there. The boom was over when someone smuggled rubber seeds out of Brazil to Kew Gardens in England, where they were cultured and eventually transplanted to Malaya. The happy ending to the story is that the region and the port eventually became a free trading zone and opera was heard again at the Teatro Amazonas for the first time in 90 years sometime in 2004. And it truly is a magnificent building, so perhaps my comments about the rubber barons were a little harsh.
Manaus is not on the Amazon, it sits on the much slower and wider Rio Negro. Its confluence with the Amazon (actually at that point known as the Rio Solimões) is quite spectacular with the black slow moving waters of the Negro merging into the silty brown faster flowing water of the main river.
The river rises and falls dramatically at Manaus and at low river, boats sit high and dry and the wharves tower above the sandy soil beneath.
I can't complete a discussion on Manaus with describing the night (and day) life of this city with its huge number of cheap open air bars and dance venues belting out cumbia music which to this day, I find irresistible. We had a few favourite watering holes and it was a rare evening, when there were not three or four or more of us to be found in one of these spots, where for perhaps ten thousand cruzeiros (really just a few dollars), we would enjoy a few cuba libres and a bowl of spicy moqueca fish stew and bolinhos.
There was one particular event which took place while I was in Manaus which I feel I need to share. It was June 1967; the May flood was subsiding and the drier period was around the corner. Dry is a relative term on the Amazon and it was not unusual for four or five dry days to be followed by an absolute downpour. I had been ashore for a couple of hours and was having a meal on the wide balcony of Bar Rosas when our ship's Sparkie (the radio operator) came in waving a telegram. 
"Urgent cable for you, Oz!  Came down to the ship this morning, hand delivered from the Agent's Office."  This was unheard of, no one got cables, unless it was a summons from head office transferring you to another ship in some other part of the world, or if a family member was ill. This was a worry.  I remember, the sensation as if it were yesterday as I tore open the message to read:
...and that was it.  I was an uncle for the first time.  My dear sister Jean, had wanted me to know as soon as possible.  I was elated - and also puzzled.  I thought I knew something about our family history, but where had the name Bothwell come from?  Maybe it was a family name on my brother-in-law's side of the family.
It wasn't to be until many months later, that I was to learn that an errant telegraphist in one of the offices between Cairns and Manaus had omitted a space, and in fact the message was simply telling me that mother and daughter were indeed, both well.  It has served our family as a great storyline for many years, and I see no reason at all why you, dear reader should also not share in the mirth at my expense.
It did however, provide a wonderful excuse for much prolonged celebration and while I remember the cloudburst that came down on us late that night soaking us until our teeth chattered, as we weaved our way back to the ship, I'm not sure I care to remember much else.
After another pilot change, we left Manaus for Iquitos in Peru, our final destination - but since this involved a couple of border crossings there would be a couple of diversions along the way.
I'm looking forward to telling you about Iquitos, and Leticia, and Christmas Day on the river in my next bulletin.  I should also close with a brief caveat, particularly to any Brazilian readers of this blog (and I've noticed that there are one or two). I'm remembering events which happened about 45 years ago, and while I kept a few journals at the time, much of this is from memory so if any of the history is wrong, please forgive me. I am enjoying the sense of anamnesis that comes with writing and revisiting these days, but if challenged, I won't guarantee that any of it actually took place at all.