Blogs sponsored by Piotr Chmielinski Canoandes.org
I have not been able to blog for some time now, so I would like to share a copy of the Q&A I did during lockdown via Garmin Inreach messages earlier this year with Piotr Chmielinski for an article in Nat Geo Poland. Piotr was the first person to complete a full descent of the Amazon river from source to sea, in 1985, and you can read all about his incredible expedition in the best-selling book Running the Amazon. He has been following and supporting my journey since its early days back in Brazil. Thanks again to Clive Maguire for putting up this blog. I am currently on a long complicated jungle crossing to Pucallpa with Pizarro, a member of the Kapanawa indigenous community, and don’t know when I will next be able to blog. The following is a full transcript of the Q&A, which I hope will keep you going for a while!
Also i will try to Tweet more often via my Garmin Inreach maybe once a day to keep you all updated.
Transcript of Q&A published in May 2020
Q1. Have you already decided whether to stay in Peru or return to UK?
I have decided it is better to stay in Peru, wait, and weather the coronavirus storm before continuing.
Q2. But you were thinking at one point of returning to the UK. Why?
Firstly, for money. I’ve always been financially independent and never borrowed, but now I find I have no choice but to borrow and fundraise (my plan is to launch a crowdfunding campaign on arrival in Pucallpa). Returning to the UK until the Coronavirus problem passed was an idea that grew in proportion to my increasingly desperate financial situation. I never took the decision, although I was offered work in the UK that would enable me to earn enough money to return maybe in a year to complete my mission. However, it would of course mean trying to make my way out of Peru during lockdown, putting me at greater risk of contracting the virus, and having to deal with the fact that most airports have stopped international flights anyway. I also knew it would also disqualify any record attempt, so I eventually abandoned the idea completely.
I have also had a lot of time to reflect. When I’m forced to stop for long periods, I have more time to think. I worry increasingly about all the time I am spending trying to achieve this crazy dream. I lost my mother a few years back while in Brazil, and now I am concerned about my father’s health. At times it feels incredibly selfish, using precious time and risking my life over and over. I hope to complete this and see him again as soon as possible!
These along with other issues – mainly the Coronavirus issue – were niggling me and tempted me to break from the expedition for a year and return to the UK.
Q3. How do locals react to seeing a European? Are you in any danger from them?
It depends how far inland I am from the main river channels. Most people are used to seeing a few gringos around (they use the term gringo to refer to all foreigners regardless of skin colour or ethnicity) but fair-skinned gringos are few and far between. In the most remote indigenous village I have passed through so far, many people were initially scared or suspicious of my intentions, although the Chief was fine. He was used to seeing gringos because he and a few others were invited to Pucallpa by missionaries a few years ago to study the bible for two months. It was quite a big deal, by all accounts, and they were transported by private float plane and had everything paid for them. It was certainly a good thing for me!
I discovered later that a European anthropologist had also once actually lived in the village for a year studying their language. All the young children are taught the original language as well as Spanish, I was told. They kept asking me when he would be returning! So most tribes and villages have had some contact with outsiders.
When I first arrived, I was slightly concerned about their reaction, especially those who get drunk on cheap cashasa or masato, but I knew my walking partner was originally from the same tribe and had relatives there he hadn’t seen for 8 years. This was one of the reasons I chose him to walk with me, and the association helped break the ice, as it were. A few whispers of Pela Cara (face peeler) did go round the village, but when the chief explained my mission, their fear I think disappeared
Rich and poor.
Many people of course think all gringos are rich, and in one sense most westerners are wealthy by comparison. However, I tell them honestly that I do not have a house or a car and only a little money plus my backpack. They laugh and clearly don’t believe me, of course. I also tell them that although they may be cash poor, they are wealthy with the endless fresh water, abundant fish, wild animals, and land to cultivate and grow food on to live independently.
To the north, further inland, but not so far from that same village (maybe less than 70km) and close to the river bordering Peru and Brazil, there are still un-contacted tribes apparently. I have no intention of seeking them out as we now know a simple cold virus could kill them.
Where I am now, I am helping harvest yucca to turn into farina, a base of the diet for many in the Amazon basin in both Peru and Brazil. One of the processes is called pela yucca (peeling the yucca). I was commended for my fast work, and a joke started to go round “Gringo pela yucca, no pela cara.”
Humour seemed to help dispel any initial fear we had of each other.
Q4 What is the situation with coronavirus in the Peruvian Amazon where you are now waiting and working?
Well first off I’m not officially working and earning a wage. I volunteered to help out as I was offered food and accommodation in return, which suited my situation. I couldn’t have spent months in a town hostel waiting out the virus, as I have little money and my chances of contracting Covid would have increased. I thought it would be safer for me to weather the storm here before either going home or continuing my journey. On an earlier blog I explain how I found out about the Covid outbreak among other recent events: https://www.ascentoftheamazon.com/2020/05/marooned-in-the-amazon/. In this area, people are very lucky, considering the State of Loreto has been hit hard. As far as I know, there are no cases of infections here or in any of the communities up or down this tributary. However, I don’t have radio, tv, internet or satellite phone – just two-way messaging. I pick up bits of information from family and friends in the UK and people here.
Lockdown has stopped anyone travelling into or out of the pueblos to the bigger towns or anywhere up- or down-river. It’s causing issues now as people can’t sell their harvest in the town markets to make money to buy other food essentials or buy petrol for their canoes. The people who do have a little money have cleaned out the supplies in the local shop by panic buying. Fortunately, people can get by with the food they grow and catching fish, but there are curfew restrictions on people here leaving their houses, so even working the fields or fishing is difficult.
These people here have no money to pay fines. They live hand to mouth surviving mainly off the forest, river, and land, just as their ancestors have done for thousands of years. Who would have thought a virus that started in distant China would affect people in the remote Amazon basin? It just goes to show how we are all connected globally.
Q5 Who are the people who are helping you now in Peru, and how did you meet them?
I first met these people a few months ago. When we (my previous guide and I) arrived on foot hungry, weary and bedraggled, we found a little shop, so we stopped and bought biscuits and water and guzzled it all down. The couple who own the shop looked on amused and didn’t believe where we had walked from. They kindly offered to make us food and give us a place to hang our hammocks, and told me they have a small farm and asked if I would like to see it. I said that although I would love to visit it, we didn’t have time. Well, I sure have time now!
I have made friends with a few of the local indigenous Indians who have been showing me where to source the specific leaves and wood to build a house and weave a roof with palm leaves, all with just a machete, but as you can imag
ine I am fairly isolated here most of the time due to restricted movement.
Q6. If you stay in Peru what do you want to do and what could you do?
My plan now is to wait for the lockdown to be lifted before continuing, and maybe even wait until the country is open for tourism again. I’ve no idea how long this will be, however. In the meantime, I’m trying to learn as much as possible about the hunter-gatherer lifestyle of the people here, and I’ve been harvesting and planting sugarcane, banana and yucca and helping construct a new house from scratch using natural materials from the forest. It makes sense not to waste this opportunity, and I’m not spending money, which is good, so this seems to be my best plan now.
Obviously I want to continue and complete this expedition. I’m ready to go now but I must be very, very patient and wait. I’m keeping as fit as possible. I always hated exercising in a gym, or jogging – I’d rather run somewhere for a purpose or do something labour intensive and practical to stay strong – so my current situation is perfect from that perspective.
Q7. Do you know whether your relatives and friends in the UK are healthy, or if someone is suffering because of Coronavirus?
Staying in touch with everyone has been difficult since I lost all my contacts when my iPhone broke and I couldn’t retrieve my Apple ID account, so I’m not sure about all my relatives or friends, but I do know of a friend’s mother who is currently battling the virus and someone in the house next to my sister is recovering from it.
It sounds like people are beginning to worry more about losing their jobs as well as about the CoV risk now. Societies will suffer, especially the poor, as a result of the long-term effects not just of the virus but of the economic fallout. Here in Peru, many people depend on general tourism and eco-tourism, and the chain reaction following lockdown is already affecting people in the local communities.
Q8 How are you dealing with the isolation where you are now? How do you manage to keep your Inreach and other electronic devices charged, and how are you cooking your food?
I’m not entirely isolated. The farm owner visits a few times a week, and a few other people help harvest and plant new crops. They need to keep the food production going during lockdown otherwise people would probably starve.
However, I’m on my own at night, as the local community believes the farmhouse is haunted, so perhaps I have some company after all (and at least I know there’s little chance of being robbed at night by anyone from the community).
Crazy wild cat
I also have a crazy wild cat that visits, two pigs and two chickens – and hundreds of parrots and different birds arrive every evening and tweet like mad. I also see dolphins every time I go to wash or get water from the river, and monkeys in the trees, – oh yes, and of course bats, mosquitos, flies, fleas, and a dozen types of other bloodsucking parasites. I’ve already been bitten by a bat and had to remove nine larvae from my feet with an orange spine.
I keep myself occupied and I have a daily list of chores to do, starting very early sometimes. I sometimes walk a few kilometres into the forest and back, collecting firewood. There is so much more wildlife here, including an incredible variety of tropical birds – I just wish I had a pro camera! A few days ago, I nearly stepped on a beautifully-coloured harmless boa constrictor about 5 meters long. Its head was the size of my boot.
Thankfully there is a small solar panel and battery here so I can charge my Garmin Inreach. Without this, I don’t think I could manage, as it’s my only contact with the outside world. I can charge all my devices, but it’s very slow. If some kind company or person would like to sponsor my Garmin Inreach account (£50 or $60 per month) it would be a weight off my shoulders, as I’m not sure how much longer I can keep it going – or better still, I desperately need a new small Alpaca Scout packraft and another Hennessy hammock Deep Jungle Zip (small) & rainfly (both went missing presumed stolen a few months ago). I can offer advertising on the site for any company interested – get in touch via the contact page on the website.
I am using the farmworkers’ open plan (no walls) building. The cooker is basically a recessed wooden table with a 200mm dried mud base. I can light fires on it with dry wood collected from the forest and use my saucepan to cook yucca, fish, plátano and sometimes rice from the community, when the farm owner brings some. I also find the occasional chicken egg but I have to hunt around – the chicken lays its eggs in different strange locations, and one morning I found one in the middle of the cold embers of the previous night’s fire! Who needs a local supermarket or an expensive gas stove eh?