Down River

The author, Michael, taking a river nap.

The author, Michael, taking a river nap.

Around the 20th of May, 2006, I left my abnormal life in Quito, Ecuador to explore the enormous continent of South America before time consumed the opportunity. I had been living and traveling in indigenous areas of the Amazon for the previous 3 months, and as much as I loved it, my bag slowly began to pack itself, my mind became full of dreams and my maps covered in ink. I decided to head down to Peru on an Amazonian tributary known as the Rio Napo. For around 1000 kms, it snakes its way through some of the most remote rainforest in the Amazon basin before spitting into the river Amazon just below Iquitos, Peru. A Danish guy who heard I was doing this trip asked if he could join me. I knew that there were no scheduled boats, and that one could be stranded for weeks, or be forced to pay exorbitant sums for short rides on leaky boats, so after a bit of hesitation, I agreed.

Upper portions of the Napo, where it descends from high in the Andes, there are fantastic stretches of navigable white water that can safely be rafted down with the proper equipment and team. I had completed the accessible sections of this a month earlier, and was now focused upon where it meandered through the upper basin. After stocking up on supplies in the frontier town of Coca, Ecuador, we took a boat to a town on the Ecuador-Peru border known as Nueva Rocafuerte (New Strong Rock). After inquiring about boats heading downriver, everyone seemed to stubbornly remain on the price of $50 for a 30 minute boat ride. As money was a greater factor than time, we decided to weigh our options or try to hitch a ride with a military boat doing a patrol. Sitting on the riverbank, cooking in the sun, clothes drenched in the humidity, I was flipping through my SAS survival book...'Keeping busy in camp keeps morale high'.. one sentence stuck out. I saw a log floating down the muddy river at a reasonable speed and looked over at my travel companion wondering how much of an adventure he was prepared to get himself into. I marched up to the town's general store and bought their entire reel of rope, around 40 meters. As I began to hike off into the jungle with my rope, water and machete, the locals scratched their heads and murmured.

Cecropia trees are known for their ability to grow extremely rapidly in newly cleared areas. They have a symbiotic relationship with a species of ant that lives within its hollow trunk. On the bottom of their leaves are miniscule droplets of sugar that the ants feed upon, therefore room and board are offered in return for protection from invaders, or in other cases, machete wielding gringos. I figured that our raft would need to be at least 10 logs wide, and would be 4 meters long. We would steer it with long sticks somewhat like a punt. As we began chopping down these trees, you could see the trunk at the top change from white to red, and the wave of miniature guardians rushing down to attack whatever nuisance had decided to alter their lives. Some trees crashed down onto hornets nests, others into swamp. Our arms, backs, necks, legs, hair, all covered in the corpses of smeared hornets, ants, meshed with sweat, pollen and dirt. Every few trees we would have to return to town and have the machete sharpened. After about 7 hours of grueling labour in the midday Amazonian heat (a full day of local manual labour seems to be about 90 minutes, broken up by sleeping, drinking and smoking), we started to look for a good place to assemble the raft.

The beginnings of the raft.

The beginnings of the raft.

The military boys already warned us once that we could be shot in the jungle if we weren't identified properly, when we were looking for bamboo (a much more suitable raft building material), but they seemed friendly enough and had a great little drop down to the river. We asked if we could assemble our raft here and they thought it was a great idea. A few of them even followed us to help carry the logs. On the last trip to the launch point, there was a steely eyed man in full uniform who looked agitated as he pulled on his cigarette and stared off into the river as we approached. The military boys seemed to pull back once we lowered the logs, no longer standing upright with shoulders back, but hunched over looking at the ground.

The commandante stood up, paced back and forth and went off into a furious speech in Spanish waving his arms and pointing at the logs and the military jetty. He did have a bit of a point. I mean, technically... it was a national park... and military outpost, and for 2 foreigners to go off chopping down trees, and hauling them to HIS military jetty, we were crossing barriers of insult and illegality. I pulled out a pack of cigarettes, handed one to each of the soldiers, and then gave the rest of the pack to the higher brass (cigarettes are the only true currency of the Amazon). “We are sorry sir, we offer no disrespect. We're not tourists nor clergy”, I started. “We do not have money with which to extinguish our problems, we're seekers of adventure! These Cecropia trees have the botanical value of weeds. As individuals armed with nothing but machete's, perhaps this exercise could be of value to your troops as a training exercise. Imagine a circumstance where your troops are trapped upstream and need to be transported downstream. Building a raft integrates skills useful for both military and survival purposes...” I kind of trailed of in my broken spanish... but hoped my positivity and enthusiasm would spill over.

It turns out buoyancy is not a leading property of the Cecropia tree, and although it could keep both of us afloat, as soon as our gear was piled upon it, the raft cozily sunk to about 4 inches below water surface.

After a minute of silence, and El Capitan staring off into the water, deep in contemplation, eyeing us up, and looking at the logs, he burst out into a fit of laughter shaking his head. “You're absolutely crazy” he said. And that was that. Apparently in the morning, his men were to watch us in our raft construction, in case they ever had to undertake such an activity in times of emergency, and the whole episode turned into a military drill. He told us that where we took the trees from is an area infested with snakes, and that the waters were filled with 6m Caimans and millions of piranhas that would easily chew through the tasty ropes that we would knit our raft with.

That night the town held a “Bingo” in the main soccer field beside the school. As we tried to sleep on desks we assembled together in a classroom (no hotels) all we heard were shouts, screams, music blaring on the blown out PA system, and firecrackers/ gunshots. The army boys stayed up all night engaging in bad karaoke and fights with broken bottles, and when we walked down the misty muddy paths at dawn towards the outpost, drunk and sleeping soldiers littered the landscape. El Capitan was outside the infirmary with bottle still in hand, wavering back and forth, cigar in mouth, laughing, shouting, happy, angry, glossy eyed and volatile. The infirmary was filled with comrades being stitched up, the entire episode had a haze of cheap Amazonian moonshine cast upon it. 'Bingo' in the Amazon is a war with many casualties, between man and his vices.

Riverside hut

Riverside hut

We tiptoed past the madness to our cache of logs at the military jetty. Being an international border crossing, the Port Captain (as well as the entire town) also became interested in what we were doing. Crossing a border checkpoint technically made our raft an international vessel. So to cover his bases, he told us that we would be accompanied with a vessel downstream until we crossed into Peruvian waters, to an area where if our raft disassembled itself or we had an accident, it was of no concern to Ecuador. We sat there weaving and stitching the rope amongst the logs until it was complete. The Balsa Madre (mother raft) graced the banks of the Rio Napo with its beauty. A part in the clouds illuminated it in a ray of light... and imaginary harps and choirs were playing in my head. Its yellow fronds, held together with cheap yellow rope, looked majestic in the brown muddy waters. It was a masterpiece, a work of art... but in terms of buoyancy... there was a lot to be desired.

It turns out buoyancy is not a leading property of the Cecropia tree, and although it could keep both of us afloat, as soon as our gear was piled upon it, the raft cozily sunk to about 4 inches below water surface. This was not ideal for the swift Naponian current. As the sunbeam disappeared, and the choir disbanded, the rain began to fall. Behind curtains of rain, I spotted a Peruvian military boat headed upriver to load itself with supplies. “Johnny... Peru Army boat!” We frantically began chopping the ropes with our machete's and hauling logs back onto shore. We grabbed our gear, and before heading to the main landing area by the general store, I surveyed the area.

The 'Balsa Madre' was a wonderful experiment that kept us busy in camp, kept morale high, and gave us first hand experience on all the reasons not to build a raft out of large woody straws. We hustled to the boats landing, exchanged some cigarettes with the Peruvian military, and were whistling downstream to Peru in no time. Now sure... we could have paid $50 right up front for a boat to take us 30 minutes downstream. But this was the first step in a long river journey of unscheduled boats to unnamed villages.

Full disclosure: I was approached by a missionary, a local priest who was taking his own boat, with his clergy downstream, all the way to Iquitos, visiting the indigenous villages that dotted the riverbanks along the way. He offered Johnny and I a place on his boat. I thanked him, but turned down the offer. The purpose of this trip was to experience the people in the areas we were visiting, and I felt that by going alongside a missionary, we wouldn't have had any authentic interactions with the locals. We would have been attached to a power dynamic that praises locals to act out loyalties with material possessions. I find the best interactions and friendships are ones that are forged on equal footing, not out of compensation or expectation.

The dugout canoe.

The dugout canoe.

Pantoja, Peru, was the town just downstream from Nueva Rocafuerte. Apparently this is where the waiting begins. Once a month a cargo boat makes its way up here from the next town with electricity, Santa Clotilde. Apparently it hadn't been long since the boat had left, meaning that it could be 7-9 weeks for the boat to reappear. Nobody really seemed to know, and there was no true schedule. We walked around the town that evening, getting pulled into huts and having drinks with locals. There was an election going on, and we got to hang out with both candidates, discussing what's best for the town, while trying to find out how to get further downstream. When I awoke the next morning, my groggy mind recalled a transaction that my empty wallet confirmed. There was a wide headed Kitchwa-style canoe paddle next to my bed, and when I walked down to the river's edge, there it sat. Our very own 6 meter canoe, dugout from a fallen tree. I shook my head and laughed, the locals shook their heads and laughed, and our transportation became less (or perhaps more) of a problem. Our local friends asked us how we would find our way, how we wouldn't get lost going down the river. I simply explained that the river flowed in one direction, and unless we were paddling upstream, there was only one way to go. They seemed somewhat convinced that this strange brand of reasoning might actually work and they watched as we loaded our gear into the slowly leaking ancient vessel.

Lunch with a local family.

Lunch with a local family.

In the year 1540, the Spaniard Francisco de Orellana, under orders from Pizarro, took 50 men on a mission to find his way by river to the Atlantic. Indians chased him from port to port until he found himself heading East on a small Amazonian tributary known as the Rio Napo. 466 years later, 2 estranged gringos, armed with paddles and tins of tuna were aboard the 'fantasma blanco' (white ghost, blanco was a bird we named that seemed to follow us along the entire journey), retracing Francisco's steps in a timeless fashion, in all ways similar but that of massacring the indigenous locals. The river was at times a kilometer wide, but our paddles struck the bottom. At times beaches emerged as islands in the middle. We would get off, stretch, and explore these strange ecosystems that erosion had allowed. The first time it rained, we cursed our luck. Other days it didn't, and we prayed for it. We learned that rain is life, and in the open under the cruel sun, any form of cooling off was heavenly. I saw about 50 rainbows a day, some hovered in the sky as a perfect circle. At times the river had a steady current, and at others was a complete quagmire. Massive islands broke up the rivers sections, and if one chose the wrong way, one would have to get out of the boat and pull the canoe through reeds in ankle to waist deep water. This happened on numerous occasions, and I was excellent at keeping my mind off of the plethora of creatures that called the river home. I was beginning to understand the locals line of questioning but stuck to my paddles and powered on.

In the evenings, when the indigenous huts on the river's edge began to condense, a flotilla of dugouts would steer its way towards us. Everyone was curious what these weird white beings were doing with paddles on their river. They would come up alongside us and offer us Chicha (old-ladies chew fruit, spit it in a bowl, it ferments and becomes alcoholic), I would offer them cigarettes and Tang.

We would talk about the bends of the river and the animals on the banks. Sometimes they pulled out dried fish, others insisted that we spend the night with them. Each night, with the exception of one, we slept in the stilted huts of our indigenous brothers. They always offered us food, meat from the jungle, yucca, plantains, rice, and sat with us into the odd hours of the night around a smoking chunk of a termites nest (indigenous-style mosquito coil). Our gear was never looked at, our possessions always safe. Nobody wanted anything in return, and as amazing experience it was for us, our hosts seemed just as excited for our interactions and conversations.

The only white skin that they had seen before was usually whipping by on a noisy motorboat, or trying to force them to abandon their traditional spiritual practices in exchange for machetes. A cultural exchange that no tour-package could parallel. At daybreak we would explore the slash-and-burn farms of the locals. The indigenous method of slash-and-burn farming is actually sustainable, and has been going on for thousands of years without detriment to the rainforest. (It is the western method of slashing and burning the entire forest that destroys everything and deserves its horrible reputation) We would follow our friends on outings, along paths that used fallen trees to bridge Caiman infested swamps, from one resource to the next. At times I was offered children to take home to educate. Other times I was offered wives (yes, plural), usually a 13-16 year old girl.

The days were full of sweating, burning and paddling, and the nights with conversation and feasts. Our progress was good, around 60-90 km per day. The days were usually 11hrs long on the dugout. After a while, my Danish counterpart (Johnny Jensen) actually began to paddle, and not just let his paddle float back with the current. Once I even saw little whirlpools flow from the back of his stroke. I didn't blame him. The Vikings were obviously sailors. We learned never to chase the current. It turned into a life philosophy. Before, we would foolishly traverse the kilometer wide river where the current would look stronger only to have it dissipate upon our arrival, just when the current would look to pick up where we had come from. We would decide to stick to one way, powering ourselves with our arms when times got tough, only after hard work would the current ever come to us. It was like the river would only reward us after effort, like we had to fight for its respect.

One day an army checkpoint waved us over. The river was at least 1.5 kms wide at this point, all swamp. We fought our way over. When we got there, we realized that it wasn't necessary. I wasn't in the best of moods. This was valuable paddling time and some private just commanded us to work for 45 minutes through swamp just because he wanted to know what we were doing. I asked if they had any supplies we could buy. Nothing. Eventually we asked where the commandante was, they went and woke him up. On seeing us, he ordered cold water, cigarettes and food for us. We sat in the shade and talked of the bends in the river, the politics of war in the area, and how the jungle provided an inadequate amount of women for him and his troops. We departed in good spirits, each with a package of crackers, a delicacy we could only dream of days before. We decided to paddle into the night, despite the lack of moon, in the hope that our progress could be recaptured. It seemed like a good idea at the time until we reached a point where I couldn't see my hand in front of my face. Johnny had relayed that we had surpassed his comfort zone, and as we could hear the rapids behind unseen beached logs, we decided that we should make landfall. The fact that an enormous storm was approaching was also a factor.

We looked for flickering fires on the river’s edge for the sign of an indigenous hut. We approached one and hit land. The man greeted us and said his hut was too small and to go downstream to his brothers hut which was much larger. We asked if we could put our hammocks up under his hut with the livestock. He looked at us like we were crazy and agreed. After 15 minutes in manure infested with flies we left. We pushed back out into the blackness and the skies opened up. The boat leaked about 2 liters per hour on a normal basis, absolutely fine. When it really rains in the Amazon, it is unlike rain as it is known. It is as if there is actually less air in the sky than water. With my flashlight proving to be useless, we were left to the mercy of the Rio, unable to see land, fires, or even each other.

Flashes of lightning offered our only hope as we eventually had to make an emergency landing. We pulled the boat out of the water and dragged our bags onto the swampy land. We looked for a few good trees to string our hammocks to. There was nothing. Trekking deeper and deeper in the swampy jungle in absolute darkness, we eventually found a sufficient place for the night. Covered in sunburns and bites, drenched from the skies, one could only laugh. This is why we were here. We didn't embark down such a river to bask in the luxury of easy life. We did it because it was difficult, for the challenge. So in the midst of an experience where comfort was but an ideal, we were finally in our element, in the cruelest of elements. I slept like a kitten, and awoke with a smile, stiff and soaked and smelling of the bog I had made my home.

Completion of their 12-day adventure down the Rio Napo.

Completion of their 12-day adventure down the Rio Napo.

When we reached Sta. Clotilde, we knew that they had motor boats. We were back in society and all of the towns further down the river would be nothing like where we had come. We had passed through the heart of darkness and enlightenment, through the needle unto the other side. My ass was scarred from my bones stabbing through the diminishing layer of fat into the rough wooden seat. My legs were getting weaker and weaker through inactivity. Our food rations had come to a minimum so when we pulled 'fantasma blanco' into the town’s port, I knew that our dugout days had come to a close. 450-500 kms down the most remote stretches of the Rio Napo left me content, now we just needed to find an honourable way to pass on the glory of our boat. I learned that the town’s doctor was from Winnipeg, and was also the town’s priest. I ran up to the hospital to give him the papers to our boat and was met with confusion. Padre Jack McCarthy came to greet me, pulling his blood covered surgical gloves off while reaching out for a handshake.

“Hi..... Ummmm.... So you want to sell a boat?” he asked.

“I'm extremely sorry, but I've very little time, we have a motor launch leaving in 10 minutes, I have a 6 meter dugout you can have for free, so I need someone to come down and take possession. We can only give you one paddle as I am taking mine, but it's a good boat. I don't care what you do with it, perhaps you could give it to a family with bad luck, but time is of the essence”.

He looked at me with a little confusion. “Who are you?.. and what are you doing here?” he asked.

I kind of forgot that a white foreigner with a 6 meter dugout in the middle of nowhere might be a little out of the ordinary. We exchanged greetings, he came down to take the boat, and Johnny and I departed the shores of Sta. Clotilde, leaving a very confused surgeon on the shores wondering exactly what had just happened. By that evening we were in Iquitos, a city of 300,000 in the heart of the Amazon, also only accessible by boat. Many lessons were learned along our journey. The most important being the extent of the river. I cannot say that if I had taken the cargo boat that I would truly know the river, or its length. But finding yourself travelling down such waters on your own steam, you personally get to know each quagmire, each bend, each island and current. You put yourself in the same aquatic shoes as the locals, and open yourself up to great interactions. Spending 12 days and over 1000 kms while eating the world’s largest rodents, maggots and drinking the saliva of toothless old ladies may not be for everyone, but it is for some. Check it out!

45k ms outside of Iquitos, in the hut of a Shaman in the middle of the jungle, I was given a black liquid. I wasn't allowed to eat all day, and had a special diet ordered for the previous days. It was 8 pm when I was told to drink, so I tipped back the glass of boiled bark and dirt and laid back on the floor. The drink is called Ayahuasca, or 'vine of the soul' in its translation. Rainforest shamanism has been based upon the bark of this forest liana for thousands of years and is a way of communicating with one's self. The chemicals identified with the plant were explained to me as those which induce dreams.

The truth to this I cannot confirm. The indigenous claim that the actual world is not the real world, in order to get to the real world, you must open your inner eye by drinking ayahuasca. Only by doing this will all of the relationships of man be visible.

It tasted horrible, something I was expecting. I laid back on the floor and closed my eyes. The Shamana began to sing. The cinema began. As the origins of the universe and the creations of the cosmos were unfolding in front of me, I realized that the singing Shamana was not actually human but a creature of some sort of elfin race that mankind had somehow overlooked, guiding my visions with her elfin songs and mysterious noises. The history of the universe, of man, or wars, of my own creation, ancestors traveling across the seas in boats, over psychedelic waters, I watched every answer to every question unfold before me. The theatre was amazing. After about 6 hours of the Shamana singing and the cinema in full swing, the vomiting began. It was the most horrible, and the best vomiting I have ever known. For the next 5 hours I lay there, my mind content, the choices of my future revealed, half asleep, half awake. I doubt I will ever find the urge to drink such an elixir again, but felt it was necessary to understand the spiritual element of the rainforest peoples that I had spent so much time with.

The night turned into day, and my mind knew what to do. As much as I love the deep, dark, mysterious jungle, I had been deep in it for 4 months and it was slowly losing its mystery. I felt time pulling me west, out of the heat, up into the cold inhospitable Andes, where other exotic ancient culture, adventures and stories awaited.

Contributed by Michael Grime

Michael recently moved to Peterborough. After seeing our Lunatic event at Market Hall in the fall, he felt inspired to share his story from the Amazon. We welcome Michael to town and thank him for his contribution to Peterborough Explores.