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Win some - Lose Some!

A former partner of mine had gotten himself into trouble trusting the wrong people and believing the Ecuadorian businessmen to be easy game. Some heavy construction equipment which his company owned was under embargo near Tena, in the eastern jungle area of Ecuador.

 In the time I am writing about – 1972, Tena was the end of the road, the provincial capitol of Napo but little more than a village. It was named after the river which ran by it and was surrounded by dense jungle. Frank, my partner in another venture, had been involved with a mixed Ecuadorian/American group who were hoping to extract asphalt from the jungle in this area but there had been a falling out of partners. As he was in Chicago, he asked me as a favour to organize transport to retrieve a Caterpillar bulldozer, which was at the campsite not far from Tena. 

I had never been to the jungle before, so I persuaded Steve, one of his nefarious American partners to come with me. We reached the town of Banos from Quito without problems, but driving became extremely difficult when we followed the Rio Pastaza canyon.
The road, which for part of its way clings precariously  to the canyon wall, with drops of up to 500 meters on the other side, was in bad condition. Due to recent heavy rains,  waterfalls were flooding across the road and causing landslides. In parts crucial meters of the road had been washed away. Fortunately we were in a 4 wheel drive vehicle and were able forge our way across slowly moving landslides. It was hairy to be sitting in the passenger seat, trying not to look down at the raging torrent of the river Pastaza, hundreds of meters directly below us. This appalling leg of the journey took us a nerve-wracking eight hours and it was dark when we arrived in Pastaza. We were fortunate to find a room at a motel owned by Joe Brenner, an American ex-pat and friend of Steve’s. Unfortunately we stayed up most of the night drinking vodka and coconut milk with him.

The following morning and feeling none too healthy, we crossed the border separating the provinces of Pastaza and Napo. Steve made a point of being particularly friendly with the police at the control post. It was not until we were on our  way again that he broke the news to me. The documents for the bulldozer were being held in the municipal offices in Tena and we were going to illegally move the tractor from Napo. He told me not to worry, once we had it across the border and into Pastazo province we would be home and dry.

The seemingly incessant  rain made it another tough four hours drive but we eventually made it to the encampment. It was obvious that no one had been there for some time as the jungle had encroached on the campsite. The wire fencing was overgrown and the yellow bulldozer was  barely visible through a covering of foliage. The wooden building, which had been used as the company office and bunk house had been securely locked and the shutters closed. Steve had the keys and on entering commenced walking around the place with a stick knocking on skirting boards, looking for snakes. I thought he was doing this just to scare me as a newcomer in jungle. But I realized he was not taking the Mickey, when a meter long snake slithered out from its hideaway. It was a bushmaster, one of Ecuador’s many poisonous reptiles. Before I could jump onto the nearest chair, Steve had clobbered it with his stick and finished it off with the heel of his boot.

That was scary enough, but when I found that the walls of building were crawling with tarantulas, I was ready to drive back to Quito immediately. Obviously accustomed to having a room full of spiders, Steve took a cane broom and started sweeping them off the walls and out through the door. Fortunately he also  found some incense-like spirals, which when lit, smelled bloody awful but cleared the place of the spiders and other insects. Regardless of the fumigations and half a bottle of Scotch, I did not sleep well that night. I was not at all impressed with the jungle.

Our preoccupation was that the flatbed truck driver and his two assistants needed to transport the bulldozer would not make it because of the deteriorating road conditions. But next day while were waiting, Steve took me further into the jungle to the area where the asphalt had been discovered. I had always believed that asphalt was a derivative of oil but I was amazed to see the stuff oozing, like black mud, out of the jungle floor. I discovered something else to put me off jungle life. You cannot find anywhere safe to sit. The ground and any seating  possibility I found to be teeming with insect life. We did not come across any more snakes but Steve, giving me a crash jungle survival course, pointed out a snail the size of an inverted bucket, which he said was edible. I tried in vain to imagine it served with butter, garlic and fennel.

Fortunately by the time we returned the flatbed had arrived and we put the driver and his men to work clearing and preparing the tractor for transporting. The three of them  being from Quito were clearly as unhappy as myself in the tropical environment. One of them, on going to relieve himself, almost fell into a pit which was concealed by foliage. In the pit was a two meter boa-constrictor - fast asleep.

Steve had forgotten its existence but explained that it had been captured by the previous workers. He said that they had fed it rats and chickens and that, after eating it would sleep, sometime for weeks. He said we should put a long thick branch or tree trunk into the pit and it would crawl out when it was ready. We did – but only just before we left.

It took another full day to get the tractor into shape and onto the flatbed. Our presence had alerted the locals and the police had visited the site but we convinced them that we were re-starting work on the camp. So as not to attract any undue attention we drove out of  the compound early on a Sunday morning and headed back down the road toward Pastaza. I was getting increasingly nervous and wondering why I had allowed myself to get involved in this dubious caper.

No one attempted to stop us and we arrived at the border control post. The police Steve had been cultivating a few days before were not on duty and the new shift asked for our documents. It was a nervous few moments but fortunately one of the policemen was originally from  Quito and even distantly related to our driver. I breathed a deep sigh of relief when the barrier pole was lifted and we drove out of Napo into Pastaza. We had made it and we were home and dry. At least I thought we were.

The  episode had taken longer than we thought and Steve had urgent business to attend to in Quito. I foolishly suggested that as I was in no rush, he should leave with the car and I would remain with the  bulldozer until it reached Quito. I watched his car disappear and jumped aboard the flatbed. A few hours later and before tackling the tough stretch of the road to Banos, we stopped at a road-side stall to get something to eat. Feeling quite chuffed with  myself for a job well done, I bought  the crew some beers to go with our rice, beans and fried egg lunch.

It could have been the state of the road, which had no camber - or the three beers that the driver had drank. But some time later as he was negotiating a tight corner with the cliff wall to the right of us and a drop to our left, something went wrong. The two crew were on the road in front of us, directing the driver. He was pulling at the wheel, when suddenly and in slow motion the  flatbed tilted at a 45⁰ angle. There was an awfull crashing noise and then it righted itself and crashed back down on its four wheels. The driver and I were slammed against each. Thinking something had ran into us or a falling rock had hit us, we jumped out to inspect. The bulldozer had disappeared.

The left side of flatbed was crushed and the iron hooks to which the bulldozer had been anchored had been ripped off. We moved cautiously moved to the edge of the road. The Bulldozer was not there. But peering down through a veil of mist we saw it, a large lump of twisted yellow metal – three hundred meters below us.

So much for doing things illegally.  I was to spend ten days - most of them in the rain, on that God-forsaken road, keeping an eye on the crew of mechanics and labourers required to dismantle and manhandle what was left of the bulldozer up to road level. I later discovered that the bulldozer was never under embargo and the papers had been in Quito all the time. Ah well!

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