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Peace Corps Storyteller: Rafting the Amazon by Charles Brennick:
Peace Corps Storyteller: Rafting the Amazon by Charles Brennick:
Iíd been traveling for about a month since I finished my service with the Peace Corps in Paraguay. I was with my Chilean girlfriend, Pali, and our hope was to reach Venezuela, by land. We had already explored Paraguay, Bolivia and Central Peru. We had left Huancayo and after a long, bumpy bus ride, had arrived in a town called Pucallpa located in the Peruvian Amazon.
things to come
We were going to catch a riverboat in Pucallpa and float down the Ucayali River to Iquitos, located on the Amazon River. Pucallpa was a muddy, bustling town that reminded me a lot of other flat and dirty towns I had visited in Paraguay. We walked around town a bit and found an inexpensive hotel near the river. Once we unstrapped our backpacks and toweled off sweat, we decided to explore the city. We walked to the river port and looked at the dilapidated boats and people selling fish and produce. As we strolled through the port area we saw a long, yellow and green canoe. Pali and I had joked about floating down the Amazon in a canoe during the bus ride to Pucallpa. So, just for the fun of it, I asked the man who made the canoe about its price. It was too expensive for our budget and it was so large that it would have been difficult to navigate with only two people and no outboard engine. I questioned the canoe owner, George, if there was another way to go down the river, besides the public riverboats. He said another option is to float down the river on a raft. Ironically, as he talked about rafting down the river two farmers floated up to the shore on a raft full of bananas. As they unloaded the bananas I asked them if they were interested in selling their raft and their price. They quoted $2 for the raft and a $1 for the oars. Iím sure they would have discarded the raft if I did not buy it, but I obviously could not complain about the price.
I debated about buying the raft. I had no idea what to expect on the river, had no experience at navigating a raft on a river and did not know how long it would take to get to our intended destination, Iquitos. I suppose since the raft was basically free, and since I was encouraged a bit by Pali and George, I purchased the raft and the oars. George even offered to help us modify the raft and make it sea worthy for our adventure. The raft was a bundle of logs, probably cork wood, that was lashed together with the logís bark. It was about 7í wide and 10í long. I paid two kids 50 cents to take the raft to Georgeís house.
We walked to a hardware store and looked at life vests for the trip, but they were too expensive so we did not make the purchase. I still worried a bit about the idea but as Pali and I ate ice cream and talked, we convinced ourselves that this was a once in a lifetime opportunity.
II. Building the Raft
I woke early and met George at his house. We had breakfast and than took a long walk to a saw mill on the outskirts of town. We went to the mill to find scraps of wood that could be used to refurbish the raft. The wood would be used to build a platform on the raft and shelter. We found a sawmill with a huge pile of long planks and slats. I climbed the pile of wood and began to dig for appropriate pieces. The day was hot and I sweated as I pulled pieces from the pile. We finally had a large pile of good pieces of wood. The next task was to figure out a way to get the wood from the sawmill to Georgeís home. I talked to man who was loading wood from the scrap pile for firewood into a small, blue pickup. Unfortunately, he did not want to help us. We decided it might help to bring our pile of wood closer to the road so we carried the slats and planks to the sawmill entrance. George walked down the road looking for people to ask about hauling the wood. We finally found a man in a white pickup that would haul the wood.
We unloaded the wood and carried it to the raft. George lived in a house built over the river. We had to carry the wood through Georgeís house, down a ladder and to a dock that was alongside his house. George began to cut the wood and I nailed it to the logs. We used the planks to create a deck over the logs that would provide a place to sleep and store goods. We used the slats to create an A-Frame like structure that would be used for shelter. The roof for the A-frame shelter was made of coconut tree leaves. I cut the coconut leaves from the trees growing in the patio of our hotel. The leaves had to be dragged from the hotel, through the downtown streets, to Georgeís house. It was bit embarrassing and everybody starred at me. Iím sure people wondered what the gringo was going to do with a bunch of coconut leaves.
The leaves were nailed to the A-frame shelter. We bought 8 meters of blue plastic to cover the leaves and make the shelter waterproof. We finished the work in the evening. To celebrate, we drank a few beers with George and his family.
III. Getting Permission
In the morning we took a bus to the port Captainís office. I was told that we had to get a permit to make the river journey to Iquitos. As part of the permit process, Pali had to type a letter that explained the motive of our trip and the final destination. The captain requested that one of the port inspectors look at the raft before he gave his permission. I was a bit worried because the Captain said that life jackets would be required for the trip and we did not have any. Before the inspector looked at the raft Pali went to one of the nearby riverboats and convinced a staff person to lend us three life jackets. The inspector looked at the raft and the life jackets and when I told him that George was going to be our guide, a small lie, he signed the papers for the trip.
After we got permission for the trip, we went to the market to buy supplies. We bought food essentials, like rice, potatoes, noodles, fruit salted fish and ketchup. We bought a 10-gallon container for water, a machete, a foam mattress, charcoal, kerosene, a lamp, and a bottle of rum. That evening Pali and I walked around town a bit and talked about our hopes for the trip. We were pretty excited and couldnít believe what we were about to do. Maybe because I was a little scared and as a precaution, I called my mom in the states. I told her we were going to take a trip down the Amazon and I would not be in contact for a few days. I didnít tell her about the raft but I did tell her what town we were leaving from and our intended destination. That night we slept in the raft for the first time.
Day 1 - Mosquitoes!
In the early morning we untied the raft from the dock and pushed off. George and his family waved as we floated away. We rowed between the network of houses built along the river and out to the riverís current. As soon as we reached the river people in outboard driven canoes came up to us and asked what we were selling. They asked where we were going and could not believe our intentions.
Waving goodbye to George and his family
Waving goodbye to George and his family
From the beginning I realized that navigating the raft was not going to be easy. The raft was wide, with blunt ends and almost impossible to steer. Pali had never paddled with an oar before and the first half-hour was a learning experience. We finally rowed away from the town and caught the strong current of the river. The raft floated along well and I was even able to use my line and hook that I bought at the store. Within a few minutes I caught an ugly catfish with long whiskers. I had hopes of eating it for lunch but it slipped away while it was being cleaned. I had to settle for rice.
My first impression on the river came from the strange sounds from the jungle. The variety of sounds indicated that it was full of birds, monkeys and other creatures. But, the thick vegetation hid everything. I could see branches shaking and leaves rustling from the movement of animals, but I saw parrots or monkeys only on occasion.
At midday the weather turned bad. It began to drizzle and get windy. As the wind picked up it blew us to shore. We had to wait for the winds to die down until we were able to free ourselves from the riverbanks. The raft was at the complete mercy of the winds and river currents. Our paddling would provide some direction to the raft, but most of the time it was up to the river to let us know our destination.
As it got dark we rowed to a small indentation along the river. The riverbanks were high and there were no beaches that would provide an easy port for the raft. We roped the raft to a tree that had fallen into the river. I made sure the raft was securely fastened to ensure that we did not float away at night.
The night turned out to be absolutely miserable. We quickly learned that we were not prepared for the jungle. Our biggest mistake was we did not bring an adequate mosquito net. I had a small mosquito net that was shaped like a miniature dome tent. It was large enough to fit over my head but it was not designed for two people. Mosquitoes entered through the head opening, they entered underneath the mosquito net, and they bit through my shirt and pants. They were voracious and nothing would stop them from their evening snack. I brought the cooking drum into the A-frame hoping that the smoke would drive them away. It did not. A cloud of mosquitoes surrounded me. They buzzed like a squadron of Mustangs. All I could do to get away from them was to get in my sleeping bag. It was extremely uncomfortable because it was a warm night and my sleeping bag was very insulated.
That night the mosquitoes did not allow me to sleep. I was also kept awake by the strange and eerie sounds that came from the dark jungle. At one point I thought I heard a jaguar. Of course, I had never heard a jaguar so I could not recognize its roar. We also had visitors late in the evening. Someone in a motor boat came along side us, with spotlights, to inspect the raft. They were probably crocodile hunters. I was scared because I had no way of defending Pali or myself if they decided to rob us or worse. Fortunately, the motor boat sped away and I was back to worrying about the mosquitoes giving me malaria.Day 2 - Pink Dolphins
The sun finally came up. We untied the ropes, pushed off, and continued our adventure down the river. It took a while to get away from the cloud of mosquitoes. They followed us for most of the early morning. As the day warmed other bugs came to enjoy the foreign food that was floating down their river. A small, black bug, about the size of a head of a pin, was prevalent. It would not puncture the skin to suck your blood like a mosquito, it would chew at the skin to create a bleeding wound. These bites were 10 times more irritating than a mosquito bite. Another pest was a green, metallic fly like bug that would land on my back and take big bites of my skin. I did not mind the heat, or the fruitless paddling, but the bugs drove me crazy.
As we floated down the river we saw small villages along the rivershore. Villages were not as common as I hoped. My expectation was we would easily find villages for supplies and maybe lodging. We would see maybe 2 or 3 a day.
The river did not flow along one straight channel. It constantly curved and split into networks of smaller channels. We did not have maps so we had no idea which channel to take. At midday we took one of the smaller channels and the water current slowed to a frustrating pace. Abruptly, I heard a whoosh of air and turned to see where it came from but saw nothing. I heard it again and out of the corner of my eye I saw a pinkish, white hump arch out of the water and than disappear. It was large and my first thought was that I had witnessed some type of strange, Amazon River creature. Two more of the creatures breached the water and I got a better look. They were pink, freshwater dolphins. Their size was impressive and the sound they made when they let out air was very distinct from the typical buzzing and chirping I usually heard. The dolphins did not follow us for long, only a few minutes. I would later see a stuffed, pink dolphin at a museum. They are the strangest looking animals that I have ever seen, an apparent remnant of the dinosaur ages.
That evening we found a low shore along the river where we decided to camp. We tied the raft and I entered the forest to look for firewood. I was surprised that the forest was so open. There was little undergrowth and the trees were far apart. Iím sure that the tree canopy allowed only the hardiest plants to survive. I saw trees with spines, red trees and a tree with dark black bark. I wanted to spend more time exploring the forest. But, the mosquitoes began swarming around my head and forced me back to the raft.
I tried to make my bed more mosquito proof. I hung a sheet on lines over my bed in hopes that it would serve as a mosquito net. The thick sheet was hot, I felt like I was suffocating. I made the mistake of trying to let some fresh air in and the mosquitoes took advantage of the opportunity. They zoomed in underneath the sheet and found their victim. My homemade mosquito net was useless.
To escape the mosquitoes, I once again got into my sleeping bag. I also put on a sweater, pants and covered my face with clothes. Only my mouth was exposed. I was hot and sweaty but I slept a little better that night, probably because I was so tired.
Day 3 - Whirlpools
At sunrise we got up and continued the journey. I was tired and my lips were swollen and numb from mosquito bites. Pailís legs were covered with bites from the day before. We had no idea how far we had gone but we hoped that we were near our destination.
At midday the wind picked up as we approached a bend in the river. At the arch of the bend I could see a large whirlpool that had collected a swirl of debris. As we approached the bend we were on the far side of the whirlpool. We paddled hard to try and stay in the main river current but the wind quickly forced the raft towards the whirlpool. I had seen smaller whirlpools earlier in the trip. But, this was the largest whirlpool I had seen and I was scared that we would get caught and not be able to break away from its current. We paddled harder but it was useless. The whirlpool grabbed the raft and added it to its collection of debris. At one point we were actually moving upriver with the swirling current of the whirlpool.
We tried to make the best of the situation. We knew that we could not escape the current until the winds died down so we made lunch. After about an hour the winds began to subside and we took another stab at breaking free from the current. Pali and I paddled hard. At one point I heard a snap and realized that I broke my paddle. Fortunately, I was still able to use the bottom portion of the paddle. We finally broke away from the whirlpoolís current. I was so tired I could not stand.
We rested as we floated down the river. During the day, when the bugs were less prevalent and the current and winds were good, it was an incredibly relaxing and scenic experience.
We eventually saw a small village along the shoreline and paddled towards it. We reached the village, and a group of villagers came out to see the strangers. A villager threw us a line and we pulled up along the shore. One yelled, "hey Mister". The speaker of the village, I assumed, talked to us, asked where we were from and where we were going. I was so tired that I could barely speak. His Spanish was mixed with a strange accent so I had a hard time understanding him. Luckily, Pali managed the conservation. As we talked the villagers and ourselves swatted at the mosquitoes. I was surprised to see that not even the locals are immune to the pests. I wondered how anybody could live his or her life around such a constant annoyance.
That evening they invited us to dinner. We had platano, a hard banana, and a fish the was charred over the fire. It was an ugly fish, with long scales, black and cooked with its head and tail. Luckily, it was dark so I could not get a good look at it. It tasted good.
We rented a mosquito net from one of the villagers. We slept in one of their shelters, a thatch roofed structure built on poles about 3 feet above the ground. I finally had a good night sleep.
Day 4 Ė Indigenous Village
The good sleep renewed my energy and I was more optimistic about finishing the journey. We said our good-byes and Thank Yous to the villagers and pushed off. The first hour or so on the water was perfect. There was no wind, the water was smooth and the current strong. Than the winds picked up again. We reached another bend in the river and the winds forced us against the shore. We paddled hard and made distance from the shore. A few minutes down river we were forced once again to the shore. Again we broke away and reached a very wide river bend where a smaller river converged into the main river. The open space gave the winds more fetch and quickly forced us to the shore and into a stock of reeds. We were stuck among the reeds for quite a while. The winds and swirling current kept us pinned to the shore. A few boats passed, Pali whistled to get their attention, but no one stopped to help. Finally nature gave us a break. The winds paused and we paddled through the reeds and to the center of the river. The rest of the day was a continual struggle against the whirlpools and winds. I was tired, my hands were sore and my back hurt from being hunched over the oar all day.
That evening we saw another village along the shore. It was hard to reach the village since the current was strong and it was on the opposite side of the river. We reached the village and met only a few people at the shore. We followed a path to a cluster of shelters. I than realized that it was an indigenous community. They had the distinct indigenous face of the area, even though they wore Western clothing. One woman, however, preferred to go bare breasted. She quickly put on a shirt when she saw the strangers. The indigenous villagers were not as outgoing as the people we met the previous evening. They did not speak to us much and gave us only glancing looks. I felt like we were intruding on their daily routines, which we were.
That night we borrowed a mosquito net from one of the villagers and slept in the raft. The evening was a special occasion. Pail and I had known each other for two years. We celebrated with a shot of rum. In the middle of the night I made the mistake of opening the mosquito net to go to the bathroom. The mosquitoes flew inside the net and once again the little critters had a tasty meal
Day 5 - The Final Stretch
In the morning I returned the mosquito net to the villager, we said our good byes and pushed off. A majority of the locals were still sleeping when we left. I guess I assumed that rural people always wake up at the crack of dawn.
In the morning we drifted well. I had finally figured out the pattern of the weather. The mornings were usually calm and clear while the afternoons were breezy and would often get cloudy. We only had to row hard a few times to break away from the shore. I was actually getting a bit bored of sitting on the raft and just floating along.
During the middle of the day I took a nap. I asked Pali to keep an eye out and make sure that we stayed on the main river course and did not diverge on to one of the slow flowing channels. Pali was tired too and she took a brief nap. During that time the river forked and we drifted to the smaller channel. I awoke and realized that the raft had reached stagnant water. We could not rely on the current to carry us so we had to paddle to make any headway. I was mad at Pali. I think my tiredness, the mosquito bites and the constant fight against the river and winds had taken their toll on me. I unfortunately vented my frustration on her. We yelled for a while as we paddled until I did not feel like talking at all. We reached a point along the channel where we met fishermen. We asked the fishermen about the closest town. They told us that there was a large town called Contamana about 8 hours down river. By their estimates, we would not make it until midnight.
We finally reached the main river and its strong current. We decided that we would try and make it to Contamana. The river moved fast, there was no wind and we made good time. As we floated along I inspected the logs that made up the base of the raft. The bark lashings keeping the logs together were slowly breaking apart. We had lost two logs already. Other logs were barely held together. The raft was falling apart. We still had a good amount of supplies, plenty of dried fish for example. The only thing we really lacked was motivation. The mosquitoes had taken their toll on my psyche. I dreaded the thought of spending another night in a sleeping bag, covered with clothes during a hot tropical night. The river was getting wider and I knew that if the raft did break apart it would be difficult to swim to shore. As the river widened the riverboat traffic increased. We could barely paddle out of the path of a few riverboats. Some riverboats seemed to head purposely towards us. Maybe they were trying to frighten us or could not see the low profile raft. We also had not idea how many days it would take to reach our anticipated destination, Iquitos. All of these factors added up to make us decide to make Contamana our final destination. We knew that the town was a stop for riverboats and we could catch one for the final leg of the journey.
In the evening I made a fire in the cooking pot and set it at the bow of the raft. My hope was that it would allow other boats to see us once it got dark. I did not want to camp another night. Once we decided that Contamana was going to be the final destination, we were going to float all night until we arrived.
The low winds and strong current allowed us to make very good time. Fortunately the fishermen were hours off on their estimated time of arrival. We arrived around 7 PM at Contamana, just as the sun was about to set. We had to row frantically one more time to make it to the port area. We were on the far side of the river when we saw the town and had to row across the fast flowing, wide stretch.
We reached the shore and people helped us tie up. The smells and bustle of your typical jungle town were inviting. It was good to be around such development again. We left the raft and found a café owned by a very pleasant lady who sold us a good meal and beers. The next item I bought was a mosquito net. We returned back to the raft where we spent the night for the last time.
The End of the Journey
That morning we woke early to the sound of the market next to us. We began to sell our supplies including the machete, water container, plastic tarp and other items. The local children took what was left, including the oars and cooking pot. The raft was left at the dock next to the market. The people at the market said it would be their "recuerdo" of the crazy gringo and Chilean that floated down the river.
We later learned that it takes less than 12 hours for a riverboat to make the journey that took us 5 days. We spent the rest of the day exploring the town and making arrangements to catch the next riverboat to Iquitos. We eventually found a boat and loaded our gear. It would take us two days to get to Iquitos on the riverboat. I was told that it would have taken us 20 days to do it on a raft. Of course the fishermen were wrong about the time that it took us to get to Contamana. George, the man from Pucallpa who helped us build the raft, said it would take about 8 days to raft from Pucallpa to Iquitos. It was quite clear to me that no one rafts the river so nobody knew for sure how long it takes to raft distances.
I donít think I would ever float down the Ucayali in a raft again. I would prefer a canoe that I could easily navigate and a nice mosquito net. I immensely enjoyed the adventure. It was definitely an opportunity of a lifetime.