The Hotel in Puerto Neuvo Part One
By: Steve Carr

Disclaimer

The Hotel in Puerto Nuevo was written in November, 2019, months before COVID–19 was known to the world and had become a pandemic. Locations cited in the story where major outbreaks of the pandemic arose is strictly uncanny coincidence. Pandemic stories and novels have been around for a very long time, this one just happened to be written only shortly before a pandemic broke out.

I may be the last chronicler of these times.

In mid–afternoon there were several villagers standing on the pier keeping watch for Jaleandro. A fewer number than the day before, but still a few, the last of the hopefuls that his boat would be seen rounding the bend of the river, his boat loaded with supplies, or even more importantly, news of what was happening in the outside world. They had gone to the pier early, some taking fishing poles to catch catfish or perhaps an eel for their evening meal. While they waited they snacked on fried plantains and mangoes. The toddlers who went along with their mother or father played games in the soft dirt on the riverbank. They alone among the villagers seemed unaffected by the village's palpable collective anxiety that coursed through the adult population of Puerto Nuevo. They had heard only enough to make them worry, not for themselves, but for their school–aged children who attended and lived at the mission schools a hundred miles up the Amazon. No boat or canoe from the closer villages, twenty and thirty miles away, had come by in the past two weeks.

Puerto Nuevo wasn't on any map and was two hundred miles from the nearest airport, a very small one further up the Amazon river, deep inside the rain forest that was used mainly to carry botanical scientists and researchers in and out. When I arrived the population of the village numbered one hundred and sixty–four. This didn't include the five outsiders who were staying at Sam's Hotel. Everyone simply referred to it as "the hotel" but it was owned by my old friend, Sam Hobart, an American expat, who had come to Peru ten years before and bought the hotel for practically nothing from a New Zealender who had grown homesick for the streets of Christchurch. The hotel catered only to the most adventurous, or desperate, who usually arrived with little more than the clothes they had hastily packed in backpacks. It was a ramshackle two–story structure, the only two–story in the village, built entirely of wood from trees in the surrounding jungle, with rooms for nine guests. There was no glass in the windows, only shutters. The generator kept the lights on and ceiling fans turning as long as there was fuel that Jaleandro brought in on his boat. The combined dining room and parlor served as the community center where mostly the older men of the village spent their days smoking homemade cigars and playing dominoes.

I sat in a rickety chair in the rock garden outside of the hotel watching the villagers on the pier. From where I sat I could also look down the dirt road that cut through the middle of the village, serving as its main street, bordered on both sides by huts with thatched roofs. There was also a small market and the Catholic church that was no larger than a three car garage. The priest, Father Kerr, was from Edinburgh and lived with one of the village women in a small hut on the perimeter of the jungle. The small herd of goats owned by Carmelita, who also owned the market, were grouped together eating from a pile of garbage near the end of the street that continued on as a path through a grove of mango trees. The tiny bells that hung around their necks tinkled musically. Dozens of scraggly chickens and roosters scratched in the dirt in front of the market. Sam's cat, Beelzebub, sat in my lap licking the fish from its paws after being chased out of the hotel with a broom by Sam. The fish had been intended for a soup for the guests, not for the cat.

I looked up at the sky, trying to recall the last time I had seen an aircraft of any kind. The plane that I had paid a very high price to catch out of Lima had crashed on the runway as it landed at the airport. Only the tires and one wing were damaged, but its pilot was slumped over the wheel, his face that same shade of mustard yellow that tainted the skin of anyone with the plague just before dying. The co–pilot saw the dead pilot, took a pistol from under his seat and blew his brains out. It had been over a month since arriving in Puerto Nuevo, after hopping from one boat to another down a long distance of the Amazon, finally brought there by Jaleandro. Every day I expected to come down with the ring of rash that encircled a person's throat, indicating I had been infected by the virus with a one hundred percent mortality outcome.

Miranda Cole, the daughter of a famous Canadian neurosurgeon, who was stranded in Puerto Nuevo while traveling the Amazon River when the plague shut down most air travel in and out of North America, spread the strings of beads in the entrance way to the hotel and stuck her head out. "Do you have any Tylenol left?" she asked. "Pauline has a really bad toothache." Pauline was Miranda's girlfriend.

I had a half bottle remaining but didn't want to give even one tablet away, not for a toothache. I had already concluded that it was unlikely that I would see a manufactured medicine anytime soon, if ever again. I shook my head. "The locals use a herb that they turn into a gel. Just apply it to Pauline's gums."

"Where do I get it?"

"Carmelita would most likely have some or know how to get it," I said.

She stepped through the beads and gazed down the street toward the market. "I've already traded with Carmelita everything I owned to get the things Pauline and I need just to survive. Besides, that horrid woman hates me."

I had learned that Miranda had traveled the world, yet she seemed to have no idea that being able to survive got much harder when conditions were primitive. It was getting more–so on a daily basis. "Sam may have some whiskey left to help dull the pain," I said.

"Thanks, I'll go ask him." She turned and started to go back inside but stopped before stepping through the beads. She looked at the villagers on the pier. "Still no sign of Jaleandro?"

I shook my head. "At some point everyone will figure out that like most of the world's population, he's either sick or dead."

"Do you think its really gotten that bad?" she asked. She glanced northward, squinting, as if seeing the sunlight glinting off the windows of Montreal's Tour des Canadiens.

"Lima was like a morgue by the time I got out of there," I said.

She turned and went into the hotel. Beelzebub jumped down from my lap and dashed off across the road, chasing after a small, bright green lizard.

#

Later that day, Sam finally ran out of gasoline for the generator despite being very frugal with its use, so after dinner, as nightfall began to set in, he lit the kerosene lamps and placed them around the parlor. Antonio, Mr. and Mrs. Reynolds and I sat in the bamboo chairs circled around the coffee table and sipped on tea brewed from a small amount of the leaves of the ayahuasca plant. The tea was strong enough to make us all very mellow without bringing on the hallucinations caused by the tea being too strong. They had all arrived in Puerto Nuevo shortly before me and even after a month they still treated me like a newcomer who had fresh news to share.

"What do you think is happening in Milan or Rome?" Antonio asked in his thick Italian accent as he sipped his tea. He was from Sicily, but he had stopped asking questions about it when he didn't complete answers. While still in Miami just before leaving for South America I had read on the internet that most of Europe was in varying stages of quarantine, but I knew nothing specifically about Italy other than that the pope was very ill. Although all of us in the hotel were refugees, having escaped certain death up to that point, he seemed contented with the situation that went beyond being a survivor. He had arrived in Puerto Nuevo by way of a canoe he had gotten in a village many miles away, but despite being asked numerous times, he would never say what he was doing in the middle of the Amazon Rain forest.

"No information was coming out of Italy by the time I reached Lima," I answered him for the hundredth time since my arrival.

Mr. Reynolds lit his pipe, sending the fragrance of sweet smelling tobacco into the air. He and his wife were retired teachers originally from London but had spent the past three years establishing schools in the villages along the Amazon River. They had no relatives even before the plague, only each other. They always sat near each other in whatever room they were in.

Her chair was pushed against his and she kept one hand on his forearm as if to hold him in place. Beelzebub was curled up in her lap, purring contentedly.

"What do you think brought the plague about?" he asked me, blowing out a puff of smoke that curled in the air before dissipating.

He and everyone else had asked this before, of me, of each other, and there was always the same answer. "No one seems to know." Although like everyone else I had no means of contact with the world beyond Puerto Nuevo, my lack of updates about the origins of the plague was always met with disappointed sighs.

Sam came into the room, went to the window and opened the shutters. A balmy breeze filled the room, clearing it of the pipe smoke. Cries from howler monkeys echoed out from the jungle. Sam had been an Olympic triathlete and his muscles bulged through his white linen shirt. Being in the midst of the dense jungle fed into his fantasies of being Tarzan–like. I met him while we were in college and we became fast friends, drawn together by our mutual love of travel. We spent every summer backpacking across one continent or another. He had heard about the rise of a pandemic from his friend, Jaleandro, and sent me a telegram advising me to get as far away from civilization as possible, that the world was on the way to an apocalypse. It took me three months to believe him during which I witnessed first–hand death and carnage on an unimaginable scale, and on the eve before North America closed its borders, I left the dying world behind me, or so I hoped.

Sam had changed since I the last time I saw him some five years before. He was more remote, less communicative. He stood at the window, looking out at the moonlight reflected on the river's currents. "This jungle, the river, will still be here long after humanity is gone," he said. "The world is becoming one gigantic ghost town."

"What a morbid thought," Mrs. Reynolds proclaimed as she gripped tightly onto her husband's arm.

"You don't believe we're safe here in Puerto Nuevo?" Mr. Reynolds asked me after taking a drag on his pipe.

"Possibly, if the sickness isn't carried by the winds or it hasn't already been brought here and isn't just incubating."

"Pauline is in bed with something," Mrs. Reynolds added with alarm in her tone.

"She has a bad tooth," I said.

Quiet, almost withdrawn prior to this, Antonio placed his empty tea cup on its matching saucer, and stood up. "This wouldn't be such a bad place for the world to start over."

"Or to end," Sam added.

#

The next morning I awoke to the calls of hornbills and the screeching of macaws that were perched in the nearby trees. I had left the shutters open and a steady humid breeze blew in. I pushed aside the mosquito netting that hung on all sides around the bed and climbed out. The aroma of coffee wafted in from under the door. Coffee was one of the staples that Sam had stocked up on when he first heard of what was happening. He also had Jaleandro pick up and deliver large orders of sugar, flour and whiskey. I was dressing when there was a tap on the door. When I opened it, Miranda was standing there. Her hair was disheveled, her eyes ringed with dark circles.

"You look like crap," I said. "What's wrong?"

"I've been up all night. Pauline's tooth is abscessed. She has a favor and is in so much pain. I need penicillin."

I already knew that medications of any kind for anything serious were non–existent in Puerto Nuevo. I considered handing over my Tylenol but handing it over would have revealed that I had been hoarding it. "Did you give her whiskey at least to help her rest?"

She nodded. "I woke Sam in the middle of the night and he gave me an entire bottle. It helped her sleep but this morning she's in twice as much pain and her entire jaw is swollen. She's burning up."

"What about giving her some full–strength ayahuasca tea?"

"I thought about that, but I don't want to kill her," she said. "I've tried to remember everything my father taught me about medicine but he said nothing about what to do under these circumstances." She ran her hand through her hair. "Could you please go see if Carmelita knows of something we can try?"

"Sure."

She turned, went down the hall and into her room. I put on my sandals and went down the stairs. Mr. and Mrs. Reynolds, Antonio and Sam were seated at the dining room table. A plate with a small stack of flapjacks intended for me, Miranda and Pauline sat in the middle of the table. They were each holding a cup of coffee, their hands wrapped around the cups as if they had a million bucks in their grasps. In that moment I would have given my right arm to have a cup, but feeling guilty about not sharing the Tylenol with Miranda, I told them I was going out, and left the hotel.

To Be Continued…

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