The Madre de Dios River, flowing from Peru into Bolivia, is a perilous journey of over 800 miles and is the setting for this month’s blog post.  I recently came across the following diary entry and, after reading about the extraordinary trip of two Maryknoll priests, I knew that I needed to share it.

In January and February 1956 Father Richard McMonigal (the author of the entry) and Father Walter Valladon were traveling back to Bolivia after a visit to Peru.  The mode of transport they chose was a boat along the Madre de Dios River – no easy feat in 1956 (or even today for that matter).  The river is a tributary of the Amazon and the journey can be perilous if you don’t know what you are doing.

Read along with Fathers McMonigal and Valladon and get a first-hand look at life on the river…

Fr. Richard McMonigal

Father Walter Valladon [pictured right] and I leave Lima to return to Maldonade, Peru where the boat Hermanito is waiting with the crew to take us down the Madre de Dios into Bolivia.  We will visit all the settlements on the way….

We arrived in Maldonado and since we were way behind schedule we started at once to get our papers ready to leave…We tore around town trying to find food for five people for six weeks and managed to do fairly well.  Then with the Dominicans’ truck we get everything down to the boat and got away about 3PM.  It was good to be back on the river again.  We passed the Peruvian frontier without any trouble and then crossed over to Bolivia.  When we crossed the line we took down the Peruvian flag with glee and we were all glad to be home again, although we were still some 800 miles upstream.

Father Walter Valladon
Father Richard McMonigal

The Fathers make stops in Chive, Santa Rosa, Umaitá, Puerto Cuzco and perform baptisms and confirmations along the way.

Father Walter Valladon

Life on the river falls into a steady routine.  Get up to say Mass on board or in the barraca if we are anchored.  Clean up the boat, try to think what we will fix for lunch if we haven’t been invited to the barraca.  There is so little food on the river that we have to eat most of our meals on board and we are going through our food at a great rate and we are beginning to wonder if it will last…

We are all in good health.  Pablo, Rosalino, and Napo, the mechanic, are a lively affable bunch and the boat rings all day with their jokes and laughter…In the late afternoon we clean up, eat our supper and sit around listen to snake, tiger, and river stories until the mosquitos get too bad.  Then we move into the little cabin, light the gasoline lamp and Fr. Valladon and Pablo play chess and Rosalino and I play cribbage and we both get beaten often enough to have their shouts of exultation rock the boat.

Father Valladon on the water

Father Valladon fell into a muddy arroyo just after changing into clean clothes and of course got no sympathy, just laughter.  Then yesterday while I was searching around in the thick jungle for a bird I shot, I suddenly dropped out of sight into a big ant hole and scrambled out just as quickly and began brushing off thousands of biting ants.  Up to now, we padres have provided the comic element.  But we are biding our time.  One of the crew is sure to fall into the river or off of a log or down a muddy river bank, and the quadrangle at Maryknoll will shake with our raucous laughter…

There are hours of boredom when no one talks, just goes about their business.  There are hours that pass rapidly, talking, reading or writing.  There are moments of consolations with baptisms, confirmations and marriages.  One sets up the altar for Mass against some scabrous looking building and for a half hour centuries roll back and a small mean looking barraca in the middle of the jungle is transformed into a soaring cathedral as God comes down upon the altar to visit His people.

The journey continues with stops at Monte Verde and Arroyo Carmen.

I go out fishing and hunting with Rosalino, our cook, but we have no luck.  I walk through the jungle like an elephant with four left feet.  His is always whispering, ‘Ssh, don’t make so much noise.’ And there I am hung up on thorns, twisted up in vines, slipping off logs, just trying to stay upright to say nothing of trying to be quiet…And after plowing around the muddy jungles we return covered with mud and dirt…We took an inventory today and find out we have enough cans for 20 meals and we have 28 meals coming up before we get back to Riberalta.

Having enough to eat wasn’t the only difficulty the fathers encountered over the course of their journey.  The water itself is a dangerous foe as we will soon see.

The flood water can be treacherous too as we soon found out.  One day we decided to go hunting on an island on the other side of the river.  We entered with the small canvas kayak that we had.  Rosalino and I went one way and Pablo the other.  We crossed down into some low land and arrived at a small lake…After we hunted an hour we started to turn back and we became conscious of the roar of the water.  ‘Let’s get out of here’ said Rosalino, ‘the island is flooding.’  We had to make several big detours to get around the water that was rushing in.  When we approached the stream coming out of the lake, the roar was deafening.  It was now about 12 feet across and roaring furiously.  Rosalino took a running jump and grabbed a big vine that was swinging across the middle and got across.

I was wearing rubber hip boots and couldn’t jump that far.  So I started wading across.  The current almost knocked me off my feet several times.  I finally reached the middle and was able to hang on [to the vine] with both hands.  But then I couldn’t move it in either direction.  I stayed there about five minutes struggling and then the water came up and filled my boots and I was practically rooted with gallons of water sloshing around in each boot.  Then Rosalino ran back in the jungle and found a pole and stuck it out and grasping that I was able to inch across to where I could grab his arm and he pulled me out by brute force.

I emptied out the boots and we hurried on and we could hear Pablo shouting to us.  We came to a low spot that had been dry when we entered but it was now sixty feet of water.  We started across it and it got deeper and deeper until it covered our chests and we struggled along holding the guns high above our heads.  We got out and got to higher ground where we could relax a little…

We got in the kayak and paddled out to the boat.  Pablo and I got out and Rosalino paddled around to tie the kayak on the stern.  There the swift current caught him and dumped him over.  His feet were caught inside and the current was pushing him down.  I was struggling to get out of the hip boots to go in and help him when his feet came free and he was able to swim to the boat and we all had a good laugh as we dragged him out.

The journey begins to wind down, with stops at Sena and Conquista, before Father McMonigal and Father Valladon make it to their destination.

About 2PM we came around the bend and there was Riberalta shining in the sun, and our long trip of two months was over.  It was a wonderful experience and it was especially good to have the benefit of the long experience of Father Valladon on the river and his genial good company.    

Stretch of the Madre de Dios River, traveled by Fathers McMonigal and Valladon

Stretch of the Madre de Dios River, traveled by Fathers McMonigal and Valladon