Intrepid Optimist is the place where I can share my stories; fact, fiction and thoughts from the past and present. It’s Written by myself for people who believe adventure knows no age
Joe Sheldon and I had been good friends since we first met in The Wildcatter Club in the early seventies. A former US marine and a Clint Eastwood look-alike; with a leather bush hat, toothpick permanently jammed between his front teeth and on occasions, Joe could behave like him. News of Joe’s latest adventure or whereabouts would always interest the regulars of El Pub Inglese, and that day was no exception. A British aid worker who had met him a few days earlier, in Esmereldas, brought us up to date. Joe had gone into the timber business.
Prior to this new venture, Joe was a gold-mining but this operation ended abruptly when a minor earthquake occurred in Ecuador’s Oriente region, where he was panning a river for gold. The ensuing landslide buried, not only his illegal mining concession but all his worldly goods with the exception of the clothes he wore and his water bed.
His latest money maker we were informed, was the salvaging of timber from the Rio Cayapas, in the province of that name, on Ecuador’s Pacific coast. His goal is to capture any sizable log or tree from the fast flowing current and haul them into the calm of the small inlet fronting his new riverside residence. As there is a considerable amount of illegally logged timber swirling by Joe’s he has strung a boom across his inlet and any unmarked lumber he brands with the initials, JS. When he has enough timber, he ropes them together and floats them downstream ala Huck Finn, to a sawmill near San Lorenzo.
It seems that his timber rustling is already infuriating the competition. At least that is the theory our visitor informed us. Apparently, there have been armed, Mexican type, stand-offs between Joe and his competitors but Joe had assured him, no one has been killed, as yet.
I for one could imagine Joe enjoying the danger more than the project. He was his own man, preferring to throw himself into his own money-making ventures – undertakings which somehow never reached fruition – rather than work for a salary. On the darker side, he had a reputation as a street fighter and he genuinely relished an occasional punch-up. One humorous example of this humorous episode – depending whose side you were on when Joe was in action. Shortly after I first met him, I was with him and a couple of friends drinking in Ray Johnson’s City Bar, which was then on the corner of Ave Colon and Ave 6 de Diciembre.
One member of a group of four drunken and belligerent locals with the sole intention of causing trouble took a bite out of a hamburger which Joe had left on the bar while shooting pool. Observing this, Joe looked first at the hamburger with its bite-size piece missing and then at the culprit who was standing there grinning. Without one word, Jow whacked the culprit across the side of his head, sending him arse over tit across the room in true, western movie fashion. A knife pulled by one of the others had the situation looking precarious. I can still see that look of pure exuberance on Joe’s face as he matched up to those would be heroes.
He required no assistance from the barmen or us observers; ordering us to keep out of it. After two more of the group suffered a similar and spectacular fate as the first; discretion became the better part of valour and the four made a hurried exit, fleeing down a steep flight of stone stairs and into an ageing Opel car, parked outside. Unfortunately for them, their car did not start on command and Joe did not follow them down the steps. He vaulted over the terrace wall and landed on the car roof. With his size fifty-two, work boots, he proceeded to stamp the poor car into something resembling a sardine tin on wheels. When done, he returned to the bar, mumbling about the bad manners of the locals, and happily finished off the rest of his hamburger. That was Joe.
Having heard about his latest timber project, I decided to take a trip to San Lorenzo to see for myself. Leaving my partner, Peter, to look after El Pub Inglese. At that time, an attractive couple of Sloane Rangers were passing through Quito and on being introduced to El Pub’s, Pisco Sours, they made our bar their home from home. Lady Virginia Fitzroy and her friend Sarah Colman were guests at the embassy residence and they leaked my planned journey to Ambassador Mennell. He, in turn, suggested that I might like to take his two VIPs along with me; on pain of my immediate deportation should anything happen to them. At first, knowing the journey would not be an easy one, I was not overjoyed being lumbered with two females. But after seeing how they handled themselves in the bar, I changed my mind and realized they would make spirited companions.
We took a bus from Quito to Ibarra, to find we had to wait until the following morning for the ferrotrain from there to San Lorenzo. It was not an auspicious start to our expedition. The next morning, following a night in a flea pit of a hotel, we bought our tickets and fought for seats in an already overcrowded train. The journey was interesting enough as the motorized vehicle traversed its way down from 2200 meters towards its proposed destination in San Lorenzo at 6 meters, with the weather deteriorating with each kilometre. The train was already hours late when, some five kilometres from San Lorenzo, it was brought to a standstill by a massive landslide.
We, passengers, were given two options; to wait in the train for God knows how long or to make our way on foot across the landslide and follow the rail track to San Lorenzo. We opted to walk as did most of the other passengers on realizing the magnitude of the landslide. We joined the line of people, some with young children and babies and all with some form of baggage, scrambling and sliding across the quarter of a kilometre of rock and mud to reach the rail line on the other side. Trecking; stumbling is a better word, to describe our four hours journey along that narrow, slippy and decrepit railway track to San Lorenzo. We three had a backpack each and enough food with us but feeling sorry for the hungry children, little by we gave all our goodies away to them.
Exhausted, wet, hungry and grungy we arrived to find no decent food available. The weather had been stormy and no fishing boat or the weekly supply boat had yet shown up. After a night in the only accommodation we could find; a shared room in a miserable and primitive pension. The owner, an enormously fat Afro/Ecuadorian woman, kept a pretty, young black maid busy brushing her mistress’s hair during the whole of the time we were there. The population of mainly of African descent were noisily celebrating one of their fiestas. The music consisted of a non-stop pounding of drums, making sleep impossible. The following morning I arranged for a motorized canoe to take us up-river to where I hoped to surprise my friend Joe.
Having nothing to eat for twenty-four hours, we eventually managed to get hold of a few tins of sardines, two papayas and a couple of bottles of the local rum. The rain had stopped and the heat and humidity were almost overpowering. Unfortunately, even in the few stores and bars where I asked, no one had heard of Joe (or José) Sheldon. It was a daft idea but I decided if we went up-river we would eventually find him. The journey through the mangrove swamps and up the river was in itself a marvellous experience. In those days there still existed large tracts of virgin jungle and in our search, our pilot took us up and down branches of the Cayapas river where the trees sometimes formed a canopy equivalent to passing through a tunnel.
Following hours of this enjoyable but becoming boring, journey, cramped together and burned by the sun above and its reflection from the river water, we were prepared to throw in the towel, when the pilot spotted a group of Cayapas Indians waiting on a sandbar and hoping for a lift. A price was arranged and the canoe filled up with the extra bodies. I was too lethargic to argue that it was us who hired the boat so the canny pilot cheekily pocketed a bonus.
But luck was on our side. The pilot, on questioning the Indians, learned they knew Joe. Don José had built on their land and lived near their settlement. An hour later, as we motored around yet another bend in the river, we had arrived. A small sandy bay with a wooden post and the name “Sheldon’s Cove”, painted on a crosspiece, welcomed us. Thirty feet behind and on higher ground, cleared of jungle, stood a primitive bamboo construction on wooden stilts, which we learned was Joe’s home.
Of Joe, there was no sign. On closer inspection, the deteriorating state of the property looked as though he had not been here for some while. Questioning an Indian who arrived out of the surrounding the jungle to meet the passengers, we learned that he had left some time ago on a tied-together bunch of logs. We gathered the Indians doubted he would have made it as at that time the river was running rough.
Despite our search for Joe being in vain, we were fortunate because the Indian females were fascinated by Virginia and Sarah and took us with them to their settlement. Nearby their primitive homes stood an immense wood and bamboo building on stilts and large enough to sleep at least a hundred people. This, their ceremonial house, was used only at certain times of the year. With no desire to have to overnight in Joe’s incomplete palace, and lacking the infamous water bed, I ordered the pilot to head to San Lorenzo as fast as possible, this time without picking up extra fares on the way. It was remarkably like a forlorn Africa town when we arrived back in the dark to renewed rain, the continuous drumming and the same awful but now decidedly welcome pension. Then came the bad news.
The railway line would not be cleared in the near future (it was still not in operation when I left Ecuador, twenty years later). There was an alternative escape route by sea, except the supply ship had yet to arrive. When it eventually did, two days later, we had to fight our way aboard. It was a filthy hulk, akin to what I imagined a slaver to have looked like, crammed to over capacity with hammocks slung and families struggling for space. We grabbed what little room there was on the top deck and a good job we did.
The boat had a 45⁰ list and without holding on to the mast, in the rolling sea, we would probably have been tipped overboard. Calling in at small settlements and landing stages in the mangrove swamps took most of the next day before we reached the port of Esmeraldas. There could not have been three passengers more grateful to set foot on solid land. In Esmeraldas, we found a half decent hotel, cold showers but great seafood and even good rum before we bussed the six hours to Quito where we learned that Ambassador Mennell was most relieved that we got back at all.
Where was Joe while we had been searching for him? He was in El Pub Inglese, looking for me.
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