Seeing this abundance and clearly thinking the same thing, the German sitting next to me leaned over and shouted above the engine: “Ist enough for the lifetime!”
Diverse river traffic continuously passed us. Motorized barges pulled rows of canoes piled with bamboo and wood. Cargo launches carried plastic petrol containers and hardware supplies. Rough-cut pirogues paddled by; women squatting at the bow moved passengers and groceries.
After four hours travel, Wheel Man assured me that we were only two hours from Battambang. Apparently, in that calculation, he did not account for two engine breakdowns and a monsoon storm that would have materially raised the level of the Mississippi River.
The first engine failure coincided with a monsoon burst. We were dead stopped with Pole Boy holding us off the bank while Wheel Man and Engine Man took turns clobbering the engine with a steel pipe like they might a dog that had stolen their lunch.
During this episode in creative mechanics, the skies opened to such a savage rainstorm that I couldn’t be certain if we on the river or under it. But, throughout the storm, to my lasting admiration, Pole Boy held us clear of the bank.
Pole Boy was as defiant as Lieutenant Dan atop the “Jenny” cursing his Creator as the hurricane wiped out the rest of Alabama’s shrimp fleet in Forrest Gump. He was as obsessed as Captain Ahab lashed to the foremast as the white whale crushed the Pequod in Moby Dick. (Well, okay, maybe I was a little too close to the action to be objective). But if Pole Boy had failed, we would have had to chainsaw our boat out of that mud bank.
Eventually, though, as always happens in Southeast Asia, the rain suddenly stopped. Then, for no reason that can be discerned from mechanics or nature, the engine finally responded to the beatings and cranked up.
From there, we entered a narrow, twisting, dangerous-looking stretch of roiling brown water where the vegetation on both banks was so dense and so high that it blocked the light and obstructed all views to the land beyond. I imagined the scene in Apocalypse Now when the Indians attacked Martin Sheen’s patrol boat and speared the skipper. And I worried for Wheel Man.
We couldn’t have been making more than two knots against the current there. Broken plants, dead animals and other debris surged past us as the engine began to struggle again. And then, with a single fuel-scented puff of gray smoke, it just quit. In seconds, the current overcame our pitiful forward momentum and we were heading backwards fast.
Until then, I only had a passing admiration for Pole Boy’s tenacity against a raging deluge. I had seen nothing. Now, as Wheel Man rushed back to help Engine Man smash the engine into submission, Pole Boy sprang to the bow, bit down on the tow rope and leapt off our boat across five feet of river to a slippery bank three feet above the deck.
He somehow gained his footing, controlled the boat, and tied the rope to a tree. We jerked to a halt, my armchair toppled back, and I lost my last baguette to the sloshy bilge.
We clung precariously to the tree for nearly an hour while wizened grannies paddling hollow logs with broom handles passed us like we were standing still. (Which, thanks to the acrobatic heroics of Pole Boy, we were.)
Since I lived to record this account, you will know that the engine again cowered from its beating and restarted. That the river widened and calmed. And that our trusty boat limped up to the Battambang pier, at last completing our nine-hour “three hour luxury speed boat ride.”
When we tied up, I was amazed to be accosted by the same hotel touts we’d encountered at our departure dock so long ago. “How did you get here before us?” I asked one of them. “Easy, sir,” he said, “We took the speedboat.”