We were lucky it was raining…
It was nearing 3pm, and I was looking for a suitable place to make camp. Diego and I, and Diego’s young son-in-law Liacon, had been walking through the heavy rain for the last few hours. We climbed a steep forested bank, cutting vigorously to reach the top, all the time slipping and sliding, grabbing hold of the spindly newer trees to stop ourselves falling back. The torrential rain battering the canopy was more like some sort of power shower, whose droning, effortlessly drowned out the sound of all our laborious cleaving and cursing. As we reached the top of the bank, Diego, taking a spell up front, suddenly fell to the floor, turning to us making frantic gestures for us to go back. What he had almost stumbled on top of – just 20 meters ahead – was a makeshift campsite with a blue plastic tarpaulin roof and 5 guys armed with shotguns. “Cocaine plantation,” Diego hissed.
I had planned the route using recent satellite imagery to try to avoid any of the suspicious clearings dotted throughout the region, but Diego said this was probably a new site. We had to backtrack rapidly to avoid being detected by the main group or any other people who might be around. Diego was worried they might have actually seen him, so we ended up running and scrambling through the forest in a wide arc around the clearing. We stopped after about a 40 minutes, catching our breath and hoping we had not been seen or heard at all. If not, it was only thanks to those heavenly torrents of rain. It was getting late, so we decided to quietly make camp without any cutting, or making fire or food – no talking, no washing, no using our head torches. We just strung out the hammocks quietly in the dimming light and hoped we wouldn’t get any visitors during the night.
This was not the only close encounter on the last section. On another occasion we had to cut through kilometres of tangled, low-lying Buriti palm swamps to avoid crossing higher ground where I had seen clearings on the satellite images.
A few days after this, we arrived at a small, friendly community next to a river I had marked on my GPS. Predictably, the villagers all told us we were crazy to have walked where we did.
By the time we arrived at the next, larger community near the main Amazon riverbank, Liacon decided he had had enough. He wanted out, so I paid him with the little cash I was carrying, and he jumped on the first passenger boat that passed going down river to Tabatinga. I then had to put his pack on another boat bound for Iquitos for storage…but that’s another story. After saying goodbye to Liacon and buying supplies, Diego and I set off on the next 80 km leg – a traverse the events of which will be recounted in the eventual book I carry as digital notes, emails, satellite messages, photos and in my memory.
“You want to die, do you, you crazy gringo?” Diego shouted when I calmly I suggested the only way forward was to traverse 7 km of deeply flooded forest (‘deep’, as in ‘way above head height’). We were scouting a black-water river, and moving in and out of the varzea in a canoe borrowed from a friendly community. We were looking for any viable path across the area, either on foot or swimming – but the flooded forest seemed endless, and this was only the first of at least 7 biggish rivers that lay ahead. It took hours just to get back to the community, alternately arguing or brooding, as the rains poured down most of the way. To me, the dreaded flooded traverse seemed inevitable – I had to move forward, that was the only way, so that was what I had to do – but I already knew how absurdly difficult and dangerous it was. I forced myself to try to remember just what it was like when I had stretched my luck to breaking point near the Rio Purus back in Brazil, in remarkably similar circumstances. I guess we easily forget our brushes with death, especially when we confront our own mortality every day in so many ways. In spite of Diego’s protests, I remained determined.
When we arrived back at the community in the late afternoon, Diego started drinking. We had bought a two-litre bottle of home-brewed Cachaça as a gift for the chief, and Diego got stuck into it with a vengeance. By nightfall, he was blind drunk, and so were most of the community.
“Why are you drinking yourself stupid?” I complained. “You’ll be in no fit state tomorrow when we set off.”
I knew I was wasting my time, so I lay back and tried to get some sleep. The drinking went on all night and the noise rose and fell as everyone laughed, shouted or argued about whatever it was. It was impossible to sleep, and I lay awake thinking about things. It was a bit of a shock to see this side of Diego, who was normally cheerful and composed, and it made an impression on me. Slowly, my resolve began to weaken…
It seemed insane to risk life and limb when the risk could be greatly reduced simply by waiting a few months. Would it make any difference? Let’s face it, I was hardly in a rush, was I? I had a responsibility for my guide’s life, too, as well as my own. I also realised that even if I got through the next traverse, I would probably have to wait in Nauta (further upriver) for two to three months – the topography suggested a vast impassable (on foot anyway) wilderness of flooded forest surrounding the area where the giant Marañón River meets the Amazon (the Marañon is so big, it was once considered to be the Amazon itself – check out Nauta on Google Earth). Eventually, as the morning light crept in through the trees, I relented.
I informed a predictably hung-over Diego, and he seemed much relieved (if no less hung-over). At one point, he recovered enough to bravely offer to attempt the crossing with me, although he added in a smaller voice that “we would probably die”. I appreciated the effort, but I was content with my decision, gut-wrenching though it had seemed a few hours earlier. I said I would pay him for his time and his journey back home, and he could return here with me in a few months when the water starts to recede. I knew this would cost me more time and money but it felt like the logical thing to do.
I consoled myself with the thought that polar explorers sometimes have to wait out the season for the ice to melt or the ice to form, and Everest climbers have waited patiently at base camp for the right conditions before attempting the summit. I was frustrated, but I kept telling myself it was ridiculous to take on an impossible flooded crossing when all I need to do was wait (again!!!) for the water levels to start to drop.
So, my plan now is to wait before I return to the last point of walking, during which time I must renew my visa AND my passport, as well as visit the Asháninka tribe headquarters in Pucallpa to get permits to cross Asháninka indigenous land (and to arrange to drop all my spare gear there). I will probably base myself in a cheap room somewhere in or near Iquitos for the remaining time, and use the time to try to improve my poor Spanish and start a crowd-funding campaign while waiting for a new passport to arrive and the river levels to start their descent.
Time to be
I still can’t adjust well to the luxury of having spare time. I always feel guilty and somehow unworthy. I feel I should be working to earn money or something. I feel I am wasting time if I am sitting doing nothing practical for more than 20 minutes, but I suppose I am learning at times just to ‘be’. Sometimes my head rattles with Andrew Marvell’s “…and at my back I always hear, time’s winged chariot hurrying near”, but perhaps it is another lesson I need to learn.
The first day arriving in a city is a little overwhelming to the senses after being in the forest for so long. Founded in 1757, Iquitos now has a population of 500,000 – and over 25,000 motorbike taxis (basically a motorbike converted into a 3-person open taxi, or TukTuk), racing around the hot, tropical, crowded city roads. It is the biggest city in the world with no road links, and is only accessible by air, or river (or in my case, on foot!). Iquitos is also the best place in Peru to go on organised visits to the many respectable tourist jungle lodges in the area, accessible by motor boat and frequently visited by specialist scientists studying the various different aspects of the tropical Rainforest.
Rubber boom and bust
Looking out over the now flooded but tranquil bay here in Iquitos, it is hard to imagine that during the frenzied rubber boom years of the mid 1800s to early 1900s, giant steam ships built-in Europe passed here collecting and exporting the rubber worth millions of dollars, sourced (or stolen) from the forest. The indigenous people, including Asháninka, Shipibo and mixed-race Mestizos and others were kidnapped from their communities and used as slaves to collect the rubber. Enslaved, abused, displaced, murdered, and sometimes tortured to death, many people – including indigenous children – paid with their lives to line the pockets of wealthy rubber baron migrants from Europe, many operating under the umbrella of the long-defunct Peruvian Amazon Company. I can imagine some at that time would probably have gloated over their new-found wealth to colleagues and friends back in Europe, all the time reinforcing the dangerous and damaging Victorian myth of indigenous people being ‘savages’ of an inferior race.
Now the developed nations of the world are starting to look and realise that the indigenous peoples of the Americas and other continents have been very effective as natural guardians of the forest, living there sustainably, successfully, for many thousands of years. Unfortunately, most of these people are now gone.
The many old, solidly constructed, colonial buildings here are little more than a relic of the wealth of that boom-and-bust era. It is hard to visualise the place a few centuries ago as a pristine jungle eco-system with ancient tribes living off the forest and river. Right now, it is a bustling jungle metropolis, with a city waterfront that overlooks the currently flooded, dark water bay fed by the Itaya river, where I can see reflected the temperamental sky and forested banks on the other side. There are boats coming and going, and tourists and locals walk up and down the riverfront to visit the restaurants, bars, souvenir shops and jungle tour operators. The evening atmosphere is calm along the front, and the formal economy is now dependent mostly on tourism and eco-tourism, including that developed from the lure of the shamans’ infamous Ayahuasca drink. But as I sit here overlooking the Itaya bay, I can’t help feeling uneasy about the “colonial genocide” and horrendous suffering the rubber barons caused the indigenous people during that period. One estimate puts the loss in the Asháninka tribe at that time at 80% of the entire population (Wikipedia). I am also troubled by wondering how many wealthy families now living an easy life in modern affluent capital cities in Europe, owe their family´s wealth to the horrendous suffering of the indigenous Indians and mixed-race Mestizo’s of Peru and Brazil. The smooth dark water in the bay in front of me hides a disturbing history that we need to pause to remember from time to time. As the saying goes, ‘still waters run deep’.
For me personally, apart from the obvious (money), this expedition would have been inconceivable without the existence of the World-wide-Web. Being able to plan most of the expedition and study the geographical & topographical data of the Amazon Basin, the logistics, flora and fauna, the language, the weather patterns, seasonal flood data, indigenous peoples and relevant economic, political & historical information, has assisted me immeasurably with the project – so many thanks to Tim Berners-Lee!
We are living in a supposed age of enlightenment. A large percent of earth’s population now has access to all the world’s knowledge, and has the ability to share information at the speed of light like never before in the history of humanity. This should be a good thing. I believe that the more we all learn and understand how the vital, intricate, interconnected web of life works on our unique planet, the better the chance we have of turning the potentially catastrophic tide of species extinction currently happening.
“I’ve always believed that few people will protect the natural world if they don’t first love and understand it” – David Attenborough.
Dipping into the deep ocean of electronic information, I fished out a couple of videos I liked (see links below), one of which is on ‘size comparison’ – from subatomic particles to the Laniakea “immeasurable heaven” supercluster of galaxies. The other is from the Netflix Our Planet website. ‘How can we save our Jungles’.
Happy Easter/Spring 2019 Y’all.
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Diego (front) and I, walking through relatively clean un-touched jungle. 18km inland from Rio Amazon. Peru
Header photo: Indigenous community member down river from Iquitos, demonstrating blow pipe. “This is the traditional dress people used here. Everything we used was from the forest”
Girl from the village with a pet monkey sleeping on her head.
View of the Itaya River and some of the colonial buildings constructed during the rubber boom years. Iquitos.
Moto-Taxi! One of 25,000, constantly tearing around the city roads in Iquitos. Peru.
Satellite view of Iquitos Peru. You can see the Itaya bay Middle Left. Top left of the city is Belen the floating village where most of the poorest people in Iquitos live. Iquitos, Loretto, Peru.
Old Lady making cord sourced from the bark of a tree “ I am making a hammock. It takes me three months to make one.” Rio Orosa, Loretto, Peru.
Pan and zoom map to see more detail