The writing on our map is confirming what the locals have warned us. Pirates are abundant, known to patrol these waters.
A little boat sees us from far away and I hear them yell something to eachother. They change course and head directly for us. As they get closer I see a man in a military camouflage jacket sitting in the front of the bow. I wave to them but his gaze remains cold and fixed on the raft. Who are they? They sail all the way up to our boat and tie themselves to us, before they present themselves and the “ice” finally melts between us. They don’t seem to have bad intentions and no threats or weapons are being presented. We talk to them a bit, about fishing, about the raft and they bring up the subject of pirates. “Te matan” he says while his right hand is signaling a gun being fired. “They kill you”. We play it cool and explain to him that we are not worth robbing, because we don’t have much of value and we are not even trafficking drugs. “Your engine might be enough to rob you” he says and wishes us the best of luck. Was he a pirate assessing what we have and whether we are worth an assault? Or a friendly, local man, helpfully trying to warn us of the dangers? I choose to believe the latter. However, the map carries the unmistakable symbol of pirates: the skull with two crossed bones. The next 100km appears to be the worst section of it all.
Nothing happened, no pirates came. Maybe we are lucky or maybe the whole pirate-hype was exaggerated. Maybe word got around that we weren’t worth robbing as we didn’t traffic any drugs. Apparently, the pirates are most interested in attacking the drug-traffickers to seize their valuable white powders. With the World Cup in Brazil coming up, demand and prices for the “white gold” is soaring.
The Amazon River is now hugely wide, between 3km and 8km with giant islands and a cobweb of channels. We hardly see any signs of human life, no villages and very few ships. The map also informs us that not much is happening around here, towns are few and far between. We discuss our options and choose to continue throughout the night, taking turns to watch our progress as the others are sleeping. I loved those nightly hours alone on the raft in the darkness of the Amazonian wilderness. Stars above me, no moon. If it wasn’t for a compass, I wouldn’t know in which direction we were floating. Day becomes night that becomes day again.
Then it happened.
I am sleeping in the tent, as I wake up to the sound of violent voices. I peak out and see a boat 20 meters from us. A man stands in the bow with a machine-gun and points it directly at Misha while he is aggressively commanding him to put his hands above his head. I slowly move out of the tent, hands above my head and the machine-gun-man pointing the barrel straight at me. I stare into the floor and remain calm. He boards the raft, gather the three of us shoulder to shoulder sitting on the floor and frisk us to make sure we don’t carry any weapons. It is a man in his late 30s, civil clothes, bullet-proof vest, a machine gun that he points at us, mad face and aggressive tone as he speaks. 3 other young men are on “his” boat, all are dressed in normal clothes. One of them is wearing a huge gold-watch, I remember. They all look a bit shady.
Deep inside myself, I feel a huge sense of relief, I am happy beyond description. I have never loved life as much as I did in those minutes. Because the pirates didn’t shoot-on-sight, which probably means that we will survive. The fact that they gathered us on the floor, hands above head, means that they will spare our lives. I fully understood my love of life in that moment. I could’ve screamed my happiness loudly into the Amazonian wilderness, but luckily manage to remain calm. “Take everything, just don’t shoot us” I am thinking.
His companions tow our raft to the river-shore and they start to board the raft. They don’t seem to be in a hurry. “maybe it is the police!” I am starting to think. The dream-scenario quickly dissipates as I don’t see any signs of police in their appearance. Their wear normal clothes, no uniforms, signs or anything. Their boat bears no resemblance to any police or military boat. They are rude, aggressive and almost violent. They even look like bad-ass, gangster-criminals, if I am allowed to generalize. And why are they taking us to this hidden place at the river-shore? What are they planning?
“Armas !? Drogas !?” They yell. Weapons? Drugs?
“No, we don’t carry any weapons or drugs” we quickly inform them. We sit cramped together on the floor, hands above our heads, machine gun to our faces. Deeply intimidating, actually.
“What is in the barrels? How many barrels?” They ask
“We are floating on 20 barrels, they are all empty” we say.
“We know that you are sailing in the night? Why are you sailing in the night? You are trafficking!”
“We lost our roof in a storm, so we are trying to cover more distance per day to get to Manaus faster” We explain.
“Who built this thing? Where did you start from? What is the name of it? What the hell are you guys doing here?”
“We are adventurers, floating down the Amazon river. Tourists. We don’t have any drugs” we tell them. They don’t appear convinced.
They look through our bags and find Peychos camera. Then they put in back where they found it. They didn’t steal it, they put it back?! Shit, it actually IS the police, it’s not pirates. They continue their search and we explain that we have all necessary papers. Show me, they say and I stand to find our paperwork. I show them a card with our website and explain that I run a blog, take photos and intend on writing a book. Now, they start to smile and laugh a bit and the tense atmosphere eases. Except for the machine-gun-man, I think his job forever have robbed him of the ability to produce a smile.
“Someone tipped us off, that a raft was floating downstream in the middle of the night. That is highly suspicious” they inform us with an accusatory tone.
“OK, we promise not to float in the night” we reply. What else can we say?
And then they left. Just as fast as they had appeared. Alone again. “Wholly f***, that was intense for a couple of minutes” I say. We talk about the event and, in hindsight, it seems more clear that it was the Federal Police. On the Amazon River, they can not afford to take any chances. They have to treat you like you are guilty until you are proven innocent and have to move around in civil clothes and civil boats and shoot unless you follow orders. It’s a jungle out here: Pirates that attack drug traffickers and heavy armed police without uniforms. They all roam the waters, all intertwined into a chaotic mix of intentions, possibly blurred by some shady agreements. We continue down the river and quickly regain our calmness. “I guess police presence is a good thing” I say. “Maybe” Peycho says.
I love life and all the people in my life. And I am eternally grateful to have life.