This blog has been painstakingly recreated by a friend from 74 separate satellite text messages. Apologies for the lack of new photos – although I have many, I can only send text.
Now, where to start… Well, so much has happened since I last posted that I could probably write five new blogs trying to explain it all. However, the obvious overriding event has been the global pandemic Coronavirus. Who would have thought that a virus that started in a farmers market China would affect the deepest darkest jungles of Peru? So I will only write about a few events leading up to the Peruvian lockdown, and the rest will be saved for what’s looking to be a rather big book. I was ready to start the long (possibly 25 day) jungle-crossing to my next big landmark town, after preparing meticulously, organising rations, route planning, and training the new guide. Everything was shipshape, I was feeling strong and confident, the weather had been dry and sunny for the past week, and I was looking forward to a successful section crossing.
The morning of the departure from a tiny, almost-abandoned pueblo had arrived. After a string of agonising problems and delays, what could possibly go wrong? Now, a phrase a friend of mine was fond of comes to mind. “Expect the unexpected,” he would advise with monotonous frequency. Where was he on that day?
The chain of unexpected events I failed singularly to expect, began innocently enough, when the wind picked up and the sky turned from blue to black on the horizon. It ushered in one of the biggest storms I have ever witnessed along this trek, and my new guide Kayo looked up at the incoming storm, looked at me, and then climbed back into his hammock and didn’t surface until midday. The torrential rain, wind, thunder and lightning was relentless. You could hear branches crashing to the ground in the forest close by and see the river level rising.
“Kayo!” I shouted above the noise of the pounding rain to Kayo. “Es mejor que comenzar mañana” – it’s better we start tomorrow.
The rain continued the rest of that day and all through the night without respite. The next morning Kayo, a young indigenous chief whose ancestors had practically lived and worked every day in the jungle, to my utter surprise said he had changed his mind and wanted to return to his own community three days walk away. He had a wife and three very young children there. Now he seemed quiet and upset – maybe feeling guilty, I thought – and to make him feel better (though I was pretty darn upset about his decision myself) I said
“Kayo, I believe things happen for a reason.”
He responded by clutching his bible and nodding.
“I can’t explain it,” he said, “but I have a bad feeling about what lies ahead. My leg is aching, too,” he added, showing me a scar that ran from his knee to his hip.
“What happened?” I asked.
“A tree fell on me 5 years ago when I was clearing land to plant yucca. My upper leg broke clean and the bones were showing. I had to go to the city and have metal rods inserted. They’re still there, and my leg aches when we have a big rainstorm.”
In spite of my soothing words to him, I did try to reason with him and persuade him to walk, but it was to no avail. Reluctantly, I paid someone to take us back downriver to his community, and then paid him for his time. It left me with little cash, for I had planned to withdraw cash on reaching the end of this leg, so I was stranded there for a few days hoping to find petrol and a means of getting further back downriver to where I had stored my spare kit and emergency cash. I also knew of somebody further downriver who wanted to walk with me.
Despite, over the years, the intervention of missionaries and rubber barons, and a lack of immunity from outside diseases, the indigenous and mestizo (mixed race) people in Kayo’s pueblo are still surviving living independently on the frontier where their ancient method of sustainable living battles an all-consuming, unsustainable, modern civilisation. Cash poor, they live hand-to-mouth, hunting and gathering as their ancestors have done for millennia. These are surely the meek of Kayo’s bible – inhabitants of a forgotten world who tread lightly and have little if any impact on global warming. The light tread extends convincingly to their footwear, for the most part either absent or unused, a fact that would shortly forge another link in the chain of events.
On the second day, Kayo and a few others left their houses early to work in the yucca fields, avoiding the hottest part of the day. It was a blisteringly hot, sunny, humid day and I decided to stay in the shade of the wooden house overlooking the river, catching the intermittent but welcoming breezes coming off the river. I was settled into this, when suddenly, at around 11am, Kayo came running into the house where I was staying, carrying his friend on his back. He was sweating profusely, out of breath, and his eyes were wide with panic.
“Ayúdanos Ayúdanos! Tienes medicina para la mordedura serpiente?” Help us! Have you any medicine for snakebite?
He explained that his friend had been working barefoot and had been bitten by one of the most feared, venomous coral snakes in the Amazon.
“He is losing his vision already, and he could die soon.” He said. I asked for a description of the snake and how many hours had passed, and I knew from what he said that this was a potentially fatal bite. I remembered there was a medical outpost about an hour and a half further down river in a community I had previously passed, so I suggested we take him there. The last of my cash was just enough to pay for two canoes – one for the guy’s mother, sister and brother, and the other for myself, Kayo, another sister and the young indigenous guy I’ll call Jake (I missed the exact name in all the confusion). Kayo carried Jake to the canoe, we made him comfortable, and off we went. Out of habit, I carried my medical bag with me, just in case.
“This doesn’t happen often,” Kayo lamented. “Maybe once every few years. I remember three years ago a family member was bitten by the same type of snake and died after 8 hours.”.
As we rushed downriver, Jake’s sister was rubbing salt and lemon juice into the bite wound on his now badly-swollen foot. Despite the canoe’s old motor, and our hearts stopping a few times in the mad dash, we arrived in just an hour.
It was our good fortune that there was a medic at the run-down facility who cleaned the bite wound and put Jake on a saline drip within 5 minutes. He knew from Kayo’s description the type of snake that had poisoned Jake, and we were relieved to hear that there was a stock of dried anti-venom capsules. I sat in the waiting area where his worried mother and sister had just arrived.
“He’s okay – he’s in there,” I said, directing them to the room.
About 20 minutes passed and then I was approached by the medic, Jake’s sister and Kayo. At first I couldn’t understand what they wanted, until finally Kayo pointed urgently to my medical bag. He knew I carried some more-or-less generic anti-venom, an act of optimism that requires one to be bitten by the right type of snake in the right place at the right time, and he asked if they could see it. The medic checked the information on the bottle and to my amazement nodded and smiled.
“We’ve run out of the anti-venom for this type of snake, but we can use what you have here!” he enthused. “May we use it?”
“Of course,” I said.
“Thanks to god” his mother added, listening to the conversation.
A few hours or so later, everyone breathed a sigh of relief when Kayo came to tell us that Jake should survive now.
“His mother and sister and the medic will stay here with him tonight,” he told me, “But we must return to my village before nightfall as the river is flowing fast and has many obstacles – and we have no lights.”
So Kayo and I went back up the river in the motorised canoe. The previous storm had turned the once-calm river into a swollen, turbulent rapid, full of newly-fallen vegetation, branches and even whole trees. It made our journey back upriver perilous, and the motor whined at full throttle as we zig-zagged around the debris. It is amazing to think that gravity will eventually push all this water 4,000km east, to the mouth of the Amazon and into the Atlantic Ocean.
As we sped along, getting slowly closer to our destination, I watched the setting tropical sun turn the horizon purple and red, and listened to the loud hissing chorus of the nocturnal insects. I imagined the sun hissing and sizzling as if it were dipping below the horizon into the water. Then, as we neared Kayo’s community, the petrol ran out, so we had to paddle the last 200 or so meters. We eventually climbed the steep bank and were able to give a hopeful report to the people waiting for news of Jake.
As we walked further into the village, we saw that one of the houses had an old box-tv set and a satellite dish setup powered by a solar panel and what looked like two 24 volt car batteries. Most of the community were huddled around the tiny TV and Kayo called me over to see the news.
It was about the Peruvian lockdown, and I realised how lucky we were not to have started on our crossing. Kayo would effectively have been out of communication with his family – not just for the crossing, but potentially for months at our final destination. I remembered Kayo saying he felt that something bad lay ahead before we started, and it gave me pause for thought. Coincidence or not, if we had proceeded, it could have been disastrous not only for Jake, but for the expedition. I might conceivably have been arrested at the next town for travelling during lockdown (many indigenous communities understand only too well the way infectious diseases have been spread by wandering foreigners). Arrested and sent to Lima, the expedition would be over and I would be at risk of contracting Coronavirus, stuck for weeks in overcrowded hostels in Lima waiting for rescue flights to the UK.
So the next day, after bribing people to buy petrol, I said my goodbyes to Kayo and others and left hurriedly to go back to find my spare gear and emergency cash (no lockdown had yet been declared here). As I was leaving, Jake’s mother and sister arrived back at the community
“Thank god he did not die. He is recovering, and we are very happy. He won’t be able to walk for a while, and he’s on antibiotics to fight further infection, but he will be okay.”
Twelve hours later, I arrived back at where I started weeks before. Now, nearly two months on, I’m still here. For various reasons I have not made public my exact location. I was invited to stay in a tiny isolated and uninhabited farmhouse downriver until the Covid lockdown has passed and to avoid any issues with the people in the community nearby. It seemed the best option considering the circumstances. Fortunately there has been no Coronavirus here, but nobody is allowed to travel up or down river, and there is a curfew from dusk to dawn.
I’m helping the owner out where I can, in return for food and a place to hang my hammock. I’ve learned how to plant, harvest and process sugar cane and yucca, how the locals fish, and also how they construct their houses with materials all sourced from the forest. Just as it has been done for many hundreds if not thousands of years.
Being alone in the open-plan farmhouse most days and at night can be somewhat unnerving. The locals say a phantom haunts the house, although he (or she) hasn’t graced my with an appearance yet.
And so here I am – on a remote tributary, weathering the Covid storm and living on yucca, plátano, sugarcane, fish and fruit. Some supplies from the village have been given to me too, and the occasional coconut is welcome. Drinking and washing in the abundant flowing waters here in deepest darkest Peru is not as much fun as it may sound, and until lockdown is over I guess I am well and truly marooned in the Amazon.
When I eventually get to Pucallpa I will add maps, photos, videos and more info to this blog, but I can’t see messages, email, social media or anything else until then.
How long all this will take who knows, and what the consequences will be for the economy are also unknown – Peru’s tourist economy will certainly be hit hard with long term effects. Let’s hope a vaccine is developed and made available to all as soon as possible, and that people will come back to Peru to see all the amazing and ancient places here and do (sustainable) jungle and other trips from the Andes to the Amazon!
Keep up to date with what I am doing on my Twitter account, or on the left panel of the homepage here.
If anyone would like to help me out with a donation to my Paypal account to keep things going – and I can tell you, I could use the help!! – please see the Paypal link below, which will take you to my support page. Any donation over £25/ $30 will earn you a signed sealed and delivered Amazon calendar with exclusive photos from the trek (when I get back!). Any technical problems donating, please make contact through the site to let me know, and someone will get back to you as soon as possible.
Thank you and stay safe everyone!
FOOTNOTE: Some of you may remember that there is a superstition among the indigenous Indians about the Pela Cara – the dreaded gringo ‘face peeler’ who comes and steals your face. I have been accused of this a few times, and it no doubt contributed to my temporary imprisonment earlier in my trek. Well, here I am currently helping harvest yucca to turn into farina, the base diet for many in the Amazon basin in Peru and Brazil. One part of the whole complicated process is called pela yucca (peeling the yucca), and I was commended several times for my fast work, until a joke started to do the rounds and people now say “Gringo pela yucca, no pela cara.” Some sort of vindication at last!
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