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Gratitude for the Adventure

I felt a long, deep sting of sadness, the day I arrived in Manaus. After many intense months on the river, the adventure had come to an end and it was time to say goodbye to the raft, goodbye to the adventure, goodbye to each other. All the freedom of the raft would be gone and it would be left as a memory. I learned to understand that the melancholic sadness about the raft was a good sign; it was good that I was sad to leave this adventure. It proved, vividly, how much the adventure had moved me.

It was time to celebrate the end of the adventure: The intrepid construction process, the many friends we had made, the long list of places we had visited, the excitement of all the hard times, the curious indigenous people, the storms, the damages, the nonstop proximity to nature, the access to untouched jungle, the serene river beaches. It had, in so many ways, been an unforgettable experience and it felt natural, almost required, to be sad when such an adventure comes to an end. Now, the feeling of accomplishment started to encroach on me: We had made it to Manaus after 3000+ km through 3 countries and the vast Amazonian Wilderness on our own homemade bamboo raft. Time to relax, enjoy Manaus and celebrate our experiences.

Like most other Amazonian settlements, big or small, Manaus was a strange place. It is located, more or less, in the center of the Amazon Rainforest, with jungle expanding for thousands of kilometers to each side. There, deep, deep inside the jungle, man had constructed a city with more than 2 mio inhabitants. I spent days walking around town, getting lost, photographing, eating street food and visiting museums. Walking around town, through great parks and dimly lit side streets. Jumping on local buses to be carried to the outer rim of town. Browsing the markets, tasting traditional soups. I was happy to be in Manaus and happy that I had invested the last 5 months of my life in the Amazon Raft adventure.

Manaus had thrived during the Rubber Boom: An economic wave that washed over large swaths of South America when the colonizers realized the many uses from the sap of a certain jungle tree. Money poured like rain, while slaves and indians worked the plantations. The huge tide of incoming funds had helped finance some extravagant buildings in Manaus. The most famous and splendid, and nowadays the landmark of Manaus, was the Teatro Amazonas: A huge neo-classical Opera house. Like a monument to human audacity, the fine art of Opera was brought to the middle of the untamed, rough, jungle wilderness of the Amazon. Detailed ornaments, puffed chairs, high balconies. It now hosts an International Opera Festival once a year.

The World Cup in Football is coming up, and it is on the lips of all the Brazilians around town. The conversations tend to be diverted equally between the sport and the political aspect: Who’s strong, who can win, can Brazil win? And then: Who is paying, Brazils economy is in ruins, FIFA is cheating us, inflation is double-digit, what happens with the empty stadium, why didn’t they built the infrastructure that they promised, World Cup is a disaster. I attempt to balance my views to not get roped into a, apparently long-lived, national discussion about the legitimacy of hosting the largest sport event on our Planet, while poverty is rampant. It did, however, make me cheer for Brazil to win it: They are playing at home and the country seems to need something to unite them. And strongly need something to “defend” their own role as hosts; a World Championship will likely make the people forget the billions of dollars and shady deals, at least for a while.

Fresh coconut juice

Fresh coconut juice

I meet a German Journalist who is there to frame a story on the “Broken Promises” of the Brazil 2014 World Cup. We go out for some beers one day and bump into some friendly local Brazilians. They suggest that we go to a big club in the outskirts of town. I am reluctant to go: It is Sunday, so I don’t foresee any real party happening.  “Live Brazilian Music” they enthusiastically add and then “many people, and girls, dancing”. I am going. We enter a huge roofed complex with, literally, a thousand people. It looks more like a concert venue: 10 musicians are playing on a large stage in front of a gigantic crowd of dancing Brazilians. The high roof and the lack of walls keep the fresh, tropical breeze flowing into the huge, happy Brazilian dance party. The live band plays Brazilian dance-music on brass instruments; we order beers, attempt to talk to the locals and dance the night away with the flirty Brazilian women. It’s all right on a Sunday night in Manaus.

The last day, I walk around Manaus and pass our raft. It is dismantled and the bamboo is laying on the quay, like a dead relic of a great adventure. It had done its duty and carried us to great experiences. I didn’t photograph these sad “leftovers”, in my mind the raft is still a brave, floating bamboo vessel.

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We all parted from Manaus. Peycho was out of money and headed back to Bulgaria, scheming on work while brewing on some further adventure ideas: Mongolia on a horse? Misha bought the remains of the raft: the engine, the solar panel, our small boat, and headed back to Peru, where he intends to run some tourist activities.

I caught a plane to Colombia and quickly found myself at the quiet Caribbean coast. I will be spending 1-2 months here, writing a book about this Amazon raft-adventure, while the memories are fresh. To explain the experience, first and foremost, to myself and, hopefully, I will build the courage to actually publish the book. I will then return to my bicycle and finish what I set out to do, more than 3 years ago: To cycle around the world.

Do me a favor: Next time you are having drinks with your friends, raise you glass and bring a cheers to possibilities, positivity and persistence. Those three concepts, combined, is an extremely potent cocktail.

And go on, live your life! You might only have one.

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Melancholic in Manaus

Our adventure had come to an end.

We had already made up our minds, before we arrived: Manaus will be the last stop of our raft. It didn’t make sense to continue down the Amazon River for another 1500km: The Amazon was now a gigantic river with lots of ship traffic and large cities to come. Farms and towns were all-too-common along the riverbank. The intimacy with nature seemed lost and to continue down the Amazon River seemed almost pointless. It also felt too monotonous: sitting on the raft in the middle of the river, waiting for days to go by. The physical challenges, the indigenous people, the virgin jungle and the isolated river-sections seemed to be a thing of the past. Now, it felt more like transport. Life on the raft had gotten almost too easy. And when life gets too easy, it is time to do something else.  Complacency kills the mind.

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We did consider to continue upstream the Rio Negro in our own motorboat for 1800km, connect with the Orinoco basin and the large Orinoco River, float into Venezuela and arrive at the western-most part of the Caribbean Sea. There is no way of denying that it would have been an intense adventure but it somehow wasn’t something that draw us in: Our raft is too heavy to push upstream the Rio Negro, so we would have had to continue in a smaller boat, motor driven: It would have been noisy and far less comfortably but we would have had the option to go where we wanted and explore the small tributaries. However, in wasn’t the raft, La Balsa, that we had built ourselves and lived on for the last 4 months.

Motorboat adventure? Maybe some other day. For now, if the raft stops, we stop.

I’ve felt it before, the anti-climax. It is such a frustrating feeling, I have to admit. You’re supposed to experience a rush of feelings from all angles: The Good, The Bad and the Ugly. Instead, you feel nothing. I tend to think that our minds can’t deal with the turmoil of feelings in these anticipated climax situations. So the mind is experiencing a ”stage-fright” and simple collapses into a black hole: it overloads and closes down instead of processing. So that’s how I felt when we arrived in Manaus: nothing. And I know that I felt nothing because I felt everything.

Our Raft, in the port of Manaus

Our Raft, in the port of Manaus

So I sat there on our raft and drank some beers. Staring at the absurdity of the scene and our damaged, lovely raft. Our home for the last 4 months had reached its destination and was now parked in-between wooden, brazilian cargo-boats and poor families on houseboats in dire conditions. Captains and crew, homeless and drunks were our neighbors. Somehow, we fitted in. The feelings slowly encroached on me: We are done, that is outright amazing and painfully terrible, I want to cry and scream. That cocktail of sadness and happiness began to cook and I wanted to be alone. The “feel nothing” of the anti-climax was dissolving and I could feel the emotions gaining ground. A smile with a desire to destroy something, maybe myself, maybe the world. More than ever, I wanted be alone.

I checked into a cheap hostel, which felt more like a castle: There were showers, toilets and real mattresses. Rocket-fast internet, free breakfast and tourists from foreign countries. TVs. I felt good and I felt alive. I didn’t feel like talking to anyone. And surely did not want to talk about the Raft, as I barely understood it myself. I walked the dimly lit streets of Manaus to buy some food before I, instinctively, swung around and headed towards the raft. My legs carried me towards the dubious area around Manaus Port where our raft was parked. The area where the guide-book tells you not to go after dark. Image where my life had been if I had followed the many “guidebooks” of life: what to do and what not to do. Finally, I smiled. A big, honest smile for everything that the raft had taught me and a smile for the intensity of life. I felt extremely happy and privileged to have been through the adventure that we had now finished. And I smiled because I knew that I would never, never ever, forget these months on our raft. We sat there, the three of us: Misha, Peycho and Henrik. I understood that my emotional turmoil was centered around these two individuals, just as much as it was centered around the raft. Together, we had invested a lot of effort in this raft-adventure. Our lives, actually. We talked and smoked and drinked and laughed and somehow said goodbye to eachother that evening, without knowing it.

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We had built a bamboo raft with an indigenous family in Ecuador and floated 4 months and 3000km through 3 countries, sucking up everything that the adventure had thrown at us: Amazon tribes, untouched jungle, an unpredictable river, complete isolation, violent crashes in the black jungle night, fear of pirates, machineguns and tropical storms on the largest river on Earth. A wild idea had been transformed into an adventure that was now behind us. I stood to take a cup of water from our watertank on the raft. Our own harvested rainwater from the skies of the rainforest. Soon, water would be coming from plastic bottles. We would be absorbed back into civilization. The Raft would be only a memory. That was probably the hardest part to accept.

And, finally, I gained the clarity to understand that I was happy, not despite of, but because I was sad.

 

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Approaching Mythical Manaus

The Amazon River continues its course through the jungle, but civilization is starting to show its clear signs. More and more towns are appearing on the riverbank and they increase in size. In between the towns the riverbank is inhabited by smaller communities and farms. The jungle wilderness is replaced by human development, meter by meter, as we slowly drift down the increasingly large Amazon River.

Beautiful wooden passenger ships are pushing their way upstream with noisy engines. Huge barges with construction materials and oil are fighting their way upstream. The current is softer close to the riverbank, so most vessels heading upstream are transiting here, to avoid fighting against the stronger current in the middle of the river. A collision with a 100m bulk-carrying barge could be seriously dangerous for us and prove highly risky for the barge if he had to make some emergency maneuvers to avoid a collision with our raft. So we keep away from the shore and try to float in the middle of the river. If the wind and current pushes us close to the shore, we have to start the engine and escape this “highway” of ship traffic, heading back into the middle of the river where we “belong”.

 

We are approaching Manaus, the largest city in the Amazon Basin with more than 2 mio. inhabitants. Manaus is road connected to Venezuela with a modern paved road and somewhat connected to the rest of Brazil via the Transamazonian highway, a gravel road with some paving, notorious for muddy sections throughout the rain season. Manaus has an international airport, sprawling urbanization, an international opera festival, a huge port that accommodates ocean going containerships, historical buildings from the rubber-boom era, fiber optic internet connection and the usual social despair common to all large cities. A new stadium that will host World Cup matches in a couple of months, England vs. Italy, for an example. Manaus is the largest city in the Amazon Basin, a gateway to civilization. Green, insect-infested jungle replaced by gray concrete and noisy streets. Nature replaced by humans.

The Forever Unforgetable Amazonian Sunsets

The Forever Unforgetable Amazonian Sunsets

We pass the city of Manacapuru, which is the first city that is road-connected with Manaus. It was a strange sight to see cars and buses transiting through the jungle: since we started the adventure, riverboats have been the only connection between towns. Now, we are connected to a road that leads to another road and, eventually, connects the entire continent of South America. Pathetically, it hurt me. We had been living on and with The River for months, and now it felt like The River was triumphed: The road represented an alternative form of transport, rendering The River less important.

The high-rise buildings are visible from far away. A large suspension bridge spans across the Negro River as a monument to human development in the middle of the jungle wilderness. Large ships are anchored in front of the city and industrial complexes are occupying the riverfront. It is a stark contrast to the eternal sections of nature that we have seen for the last couple of months. We push our raft upstream across the Negro River and get closer to the busy riverfront of Manaus. Zig-zagging in front of heavy oil-barges and a myriad of ships in all sizes. A long line of ships are anchoring to a huge concrete wall in what appears to be the center of Manaus. We follow suit and park our raft on the concrete wall, while local eyes are staring curiously, dubiously, at our unconventional vessel. Cargo boats staffed by overweight, male, macho Brazilians are the first to break the conversation. Within long we are known by most people in “the port”. The vessels around us are of varying quality: Beautiful, large wooden river-boats in 2 or 3 levels. Older vessels that function as a permanent, moveable home for a family. One boat struck me as particularly peculiar: an old rusty engine mounted on 3 floating refrigerators. Guess that works. The concrete wall also accommodates the less privileged inhabitants of Manaus: The homeless, the hungry, the junkies and the drunks. The raft had arrived, from wild jungle to concrete jungle.

Our raft in the Port of Manaus

Our raft in the Port of Manaus

It was an intense feeling: arriving in Manaus. An ambiguous feeling. A mental storm was processing in my head. We had all decided to stop the adventure here in Manaus for reasons I will explain later. 4 months of memories were exploding in my head as my heart couldn’t decide what to feel. A murky mixture of happiness and melancholy seemed to be the end-result as I sat there on our raft and drank a beer, staring into vacuum.

More than anything, I felt humble. Humble of nature and, mostly, humble of life. And grateful for the option to have ventured through Amazonia on our own homemade bamboo raft. So I smiled and waited for the emotional storm to gain momentum and hit me. It surely did.

The last sunrise

The last sunrise

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My love for life

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.

PIRATES !

PIRATES !

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.

The dawn of a new day

The dawn of a new day

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.

Love your life !

Love your life !

I love life and all the people in my life. And I am eternally grateful to have life.

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Mesmerizing Monotony and Terrific Tefé

One day takes the other and time have long ago stopped existing. There is sunrise and sunset and in-between there are changes in the weather: Sun, wind, rain, clouds, more rain. The Amazon River has swelled to an impressive size and we often float for multiple hours without getting close to the shore. It actually get’s quiet monotonous but I know from experience that it is part of a sailing trip: The monotony of time and the isolation of a ship in the ocean. Except, we are not in the Ocean, but on the largest river on Earth. It leaves you time to think. About life, about time, about prioritizes, happiness, joy, everything and nothing. Read books. Cook. Write. Sleep.

Calm waters

Calm waters, alone on the Amazon

Ship traffic has slow but steadily increased and huge barges are drifting upstream with a patient speed. Beautiful passenger and cargo ships made from wood are striding fast and elegant through the waters. When we drift closer to the shore, we hear the loud concert of insect sounds. And during the day we can hear echo of the screaming howler-monkeys, the loudest land animal on the planet. The nights are spent anchored to the river-shore among aggressive swarms of mosquitos and hundreds of singing frogs.

Since we lost our roof in a storm, we are very much subject to the rain. It is annoying, honestly, as everything gets soaked when the rain appears. Sometimes the rain stays for days. But there is also something wonderful about the roofless raft. We are left at the mercy of nature and can not hide from the wet sky. Life becomes more immediate and it leaves you humble.

The floating houses that surrounds all towns on the Amazon. I love their concept of living ON the water

The floating houses that surrounds all towns on the Amazon. I love their concept of living ON the water

We are approaching the largest town for a 1000km: Tefé. Like many other towns along the Amazon River, it was founded by missionaries to convert the indigenous tribes of the Amazon Basin. 60.000 people are living here and we want to stop to resupply with some food. And to do something else, to look around town and get a dose of civilization: Nice food, interesting markets, cold beer, painfully slow internet and some interaction with the local people.

We arrive in the late afternoon and land our raft at a little sandy beach close to the center of town. The locals are staring at the phenomena of a roofless, damaged raft and three foreigners, unshaved and dirty. Behind us is a huge old building, that appears like a cross-over between a cathedral and a haunted house from a horror movie. It looks abandoned except for a yellow light spilling out of one of the windowless windows that punctures the rough, dilapidated brick-walls. I jump unto land and are anchored the raft as I sense a man approaching me. I look up and a man with a funny hat and a big smile is looking at me. I return the smile and extend my hand for a handshake. He takes my hand and pulls me into a large, affectionate bear-hug.
“Welcome to Tefe!” he says and explains that he is the caretaker of the “ghost-house”. Perfect, because I would really like to visit it. “What is it?” I inquire. “It is a priest-school” he says and continues: “We also run an orphanage for homeless kids, a rehab-clinic for drug-addicts and an asylum where elderly poor people can enjoy their last days”. “And that block there houses a theological and philosophical study-unit with classrooms and library” he concludes. His name is Jaoquin and he informs us that Tefé is a safe place and that he is happy we are visiting. “So am I” I genuinely reply.
I arrange to visit his religious and social “ghost palace” and two days later he shows me around the entire facility. I do not subscribe to any established religious beliefs, but carry a great respect for them all, as long as they refrain from absolutism and intolerance. I loved the social tasks that this establishment had taken on: helping kids, drug-addicts and elderly people. “You can tell a lot about a society by the way they treat their weakest” someone once said.

The next morning we wake up and realize that the beach that we are parked at, is where all the local boats are parked during the day. Hundreds of eyes are staring at us and we need to move to another spot to gain a little bit of privacy. Within long, the local kids have located our new position and swarm the raft to fish and play with us. A local man sails up to the raft and discreetly opens a box for Misha to see the content. It is full of guns and the local man raises an eyebrow to see if we should have an interest in buying some of his hardware. Fast but politely we refuse and he sails off. Hmmmm.

I drift around the fish markets of Tefe, eat at the chaos of the food-markets and patiently try to use the internet that is almost as slow as it is expensive. Spend a day at a plastic-table-bar at the river-side drinking cold beer with Peycho, sorting out the world situation and laughing with the locals.

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After 3 days we drift out of Tefe and very slowly through the quiet backwaters that takes us back into the Amazon River again. We are 600km from Manaus, the largest city of the Amazon Basin with more than 2 mio. inhabitants. We are also drifting into some wild areas: there are hardly any signs of villages on the shore and when there is, they seem very poor and in decay. The river shore is teeming with birds and insects. Dolphins have never been so abundant.

The police doesn’t patrol these waters and piracy is rife. Our map is packed with warnings and we are a little cautious of where we sleep. Surrendering ourselves to the uncertainty of life, what else can we do?

PIRATES !

PIRATES !

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Ruthless Rainstorm = Roofless Raft

We stroll around the town of Jutai, shopping a bit of food to re-supply our raft before we continue the river journey. The eyes of the locals are following us, the presence of foreigners is clearly a rarity. They are friendly, as always. Back on the raft, we unleash our anchor ropes and drift into the eternal current of the Amazon River.

Stunning Dragonflies. And they eat the mosquitoes!

Stunning Dragonflies. And they eat the mosquitoes!

The weather looks a bit grey. In hindsight, I could almost feel something dramatic was about to happen. The horizon is packed with dense rain and the deep dark color of the clouds tells me that a rainstorm is approaching. Nothing we haven’t seen before, actually. The wind starts to pick up and we start to secure all the loose items on the raft to avoid losing anything when the storm hits us. It is a situation we have seen many times before: The front of the rainstorm hits us violently, but once we are inside the rainstorm, things are more calm. We just have to get through the first 5 minutes and then things calm down.

"That long black cloud is coming down" - Bob Dylan

“That long black cloud is coming down” – Bob Dylan

The front of the rainstorm hits us and it seems more violent than we’ve witnessed earlier. Large waves of more than a meter is also informing me that this rainstorm is, indeed, a bit different. We have secured all our things and are anxiously awaiting for the front to pass us. The wind-gusts drown any attempt of a conversation. Then it happens: Our entire roof is blown off.

That image will stay with me for many years to come: A loud, angry noise rips through the wet, stormy air as I turn my head. Our entire roof, a 25m2 zinc-sheeted roof is lifted from our raft and flies 20 meters into the air and crashes against the white-topped waves of the raging Amazon, 50 meters downwind from our raft. I look in terror at the spectacle. In some way it was a mesmerizing beautiful sight, nature demonstrating its total control and leaving us at its mercy. Then it dawns on me: “We lost our fuckin’ roof! Our roof!”. I look around and see the shocked, surprised yet calm faces of Misha and Peycho. It seemed like we all needed 5 seconds to really understand what had happened. “Let’s get to the shore” is our first conclusion, just to gather ourselves and discuss our options, or lack of same.

A roofless raft

A roofless raft

What do we do? The wind is raging around us and the waves are still increasing in size. Our spot at the river-shore is not safe, as the waves are growing larger and slams against the vertical mud-banks which collapses around us. A large mud-slide would be dangerous, potentially trapping us or inflicting further damage to our already amputated raft. We have to make a decision, now.

2 options are worth considering: 1) Try to sail back to Jutai and see if we can purchase something that will replace our roof. It could prove expensive and we might not find the right materials. 2) Simply continuing downstream to the next city, and try to sort out the problem there. It’s 300km to the nearest city, that’s around 5 days without a roof. We choose the last option and drift back into the storm, which slowly is easing its grip on the river. The waves are still rolling high, but at least it is safer in the middle of the river than it is at the collapsing mudbanks. We fight a bit, as the three of us didn’t all agree on the idea of continuing. I guess it is natural to “open the valve” and get some of the frustrations out of our system. We quickly shake hands and regain our team-spirit, we can’t afford to fight each-other;  instead we have to fight our problem: We are in the middle of the rainseason in the middle of the largest rainforest in the world, without a roof. Essentially, it isn’t critical, it just means that we will get wet. Without a roof, we can’t harvest rain-water, which seems to be our biggest problem, other than the obvious comfort-problems.

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The wind eases and 2 hours later the river is back to its normal state. We put up our tent and try to gather various pieces of plastic to form a make-shift roof. It seems to be working fairly ok. The sun peaks out through the clouds and at least our roof gives some shade. Another rain-shower shows us that the plastic roof is leaking like a sieve due to overlaps and holes, it doesn’t work too well. We do manage to guide the rainwater into our harvesting-system, so at least we sorted our drinking-water-problem. We start to laugh at the situation.

Then 2 days of constant rain hits us. The only dry spot is the tent, so matresses and electronics are stored there. We take turns to hide in the tent, but one guy has to stay in the rain to monitor our raft and route. It is a weird feeling sitting in the pouring rain in the middle of the largest river on Earth. It leaves me humble of nature and reminds me how simple life can be. “What the hell am I doing here?” I am thinking, as my soaked face is smiling in the lonely grey rain. “Luckily, I am waterproof “ I conclude. A bit of rain is not going to harm me. Or a lot of rain, for that matter.

Our life on the raft had almost become too comfortable after we got an engine and solar panel. It was like nature’s way of saying: “I am in absolute control and you guys are forgetting that. Boom! I take your roof, how do you like that, you arrogant humans ?!”.

“I am happy we lost our roof” says Peycho. “So am I, it was just what the adventure needed” I laugh.

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The Middle of Everything

It did have an impact on us, all the warnings about pirates. A negative impact, because we can not do much to prevent an assault by pirates, so the warnings just leave us scared without any means to avoid the possible dangers. The first night in the “dangerous pirate-waters” we drift past some large tree-trunks that are grounded in the middle of the river, a good isolated spot to camp for the night. We watch a movie, but generally try to keep our presence hidden. I don’t like this limitation and atmosphere of fear.

Luckily, our “state of paranoia” quickly dissipates. After a day or two in Brazil, we hardly think about it. We can’t do much anyways, so I don’t want to ruin the experience by the constant feeling of fear of the Amazon River Pirates . If they rob us, they rob us; as long as they don’t harm us physically. Things are back to normal, we continue our journey with smiles. Listening to Portuguese language courses, trying to expand our vocabulary. Luckily, there are many close similarities between Spanish and Portuguese, it seems like half of the words are the same but simply pronounced differently. Portuguese “sings” more than Spanish, I think it sounds more beautiful. But Spanish is easier because of the “rough” pronunciation, or maybe simply because I’ve spent more than a year trying to learn it and am accustomed to the way of pronouncing it.

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The rain pours for hours and it is a magic rain in the middle of the Amazon. Some days it keeps on going, hour after hour of vertical silent rain, it is deeply atmospheric in a hypnotizing manner. I can sit for hours under our dry roof and enjoy the show of nature while I read and write. Other days it comes in violent stormy bursts and it seems like someone turned the Amazon river upside-down. Those days can be more chaotic as we attempt to secure our things before the storm takes it.

The area is teeming with tribal Tikuna people and some of them come to visit us on the raft, like the tribal people of Ecuador and Peru did. But mostly the Tikunas seem way more shy, almost afraid of our presence. Like some outsiders did something bad to them, which I sadly guess might be the historical fact. We wave to them, but they rarely wave back or venture close to us. Safer to stare at us from far away. But when they do interact, they seem friendly. At least we share one characteristic with them: None of us speak Portuguese very well.

The Tikuna People

The Tikuna People

We spent the days floating and I can hardly separate one day from the other if it wasn’t for the change in weather. Or the change in rain, I guess I should say. We now have good military maps of the Amazon River and know exactly where we are at all times. And the Amazon is huge, several kilometers across and with huge islands in the middle, 10-20km long. We stop at the river-shore for the nights and I walk around with a machete, exploring tiny pockets of the vast Amazonian wilderness in the evenings and mornings. Stopping at a random shore and walking into the jungle leaves you with a wild, intense feeling: I am likely the first human to ever step on this square meter.

An incredible amount of plants, trees and insects dominates the jungle. Many birds are advertising their territory or maybe they just sing because they like it. They are hidden in the trees and difficult to spot. River dolphins abound, they have been around us for the last 2 months. And some giant creatures are lurking in the muddy waters, sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night to loud sounds of water splashing around our raft. I seems like a hunt: Something large bumps into the raft that makes our floating house move and schools of smaller fish jump out of the water in a frenzy to escape. What is it? Giant Caiman crocodilles? Dolphins? Or huge 100kg fishes? During the day, we often jump in the river and swim a bit to bathe ourselves, but it does leave you with an awkward feeling when you know the size of the river-monsters that patrol the deep, murky Amazon. Bull sharks are among them, too.

The dragon of the flies

The dragon of the flies

Throughout my years of travelling, I have often been in places that people call “the middle of nothing”:  The high Himalaya-mountain plateaus of Tajikistan, the bushy, red, empty center of Australia, the endless flat pampa of Argentina. The intense nature and explosion of plant and insect life makes the Amazon feel more like “the middle of everything”. Because in the Amazon, there is never nothing, there is always something.

We approach a large town and choose to stop to explore a bit and re-supply. Jutai is the name of the town and the locals find our raft funny, like they always do. But it is a different kind of people than in Peru. They seem far better off economically and the first guy I talk to happily informs me that he have purchased two tickets for the forthcoming World Cup in football, 200 dollars a ticket. The houses are beautifully painted and have large balconies. It is something different than the poor tribal people. Fishing seems to be the main industry here. Jutai still has its share of indigenous people, but it seems that they don’t live in town.

Mushrooms are a everywhere on the dark, moist junglefloor

Mushrooms are a everywhere on the dark, moist junglefloor

Peycho and I pack our little boat with a bit of supplies and do a 2 day trip around the surrounding rivers. We are deep into the rain-season and the river is almost at its highest: There are hardly any firm ground, but the entire jungle seems to be flooded. We paddle silently into mysterious black waters of flooded forest and sit in the relative silence of bird song and teeming insects. It is a compelling though almost scary world, these flooded forests. We sleep on the floor of our small boat in the middle of the wilderness of black stagnant waters. I would panic if I fell into it, I am sure a lot of weird things hide there: Electric eels, crocodiles or creepy parasites. Howler-monkeys scream into the vast rainforest that continues for thousands of kilometers in all directions. It’s the loudest land-animal on our planet, I haven’t seen them yet, but we hear them almost daily.

So life is good, life is beautiful. We haven’t been attacked by pirates yet. Knock on wood, I am in the middle of the largest rainforest on Earth, there should be lots.

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The Brazilian Job

We approach the Brazilian Navy that will say “sim” or “nao” to our vessel entering their waters. I am optimistic. I think you have to be an optimist to find yourself floating on a homemade bamboo- raft down the Amazon. We go to the military base and ask permission to enter the compound. “Nao. Something-something. Siesta. Something-i-don’t-understand. Dois” says the friendly teenage marine armed with an AK47 and points to his watch. “Does dois mean twelve or two?” I ask Peycho. “I heard it as two, I think that’s what he said. Something about siesta and come back at two o’clock”. It is also painfully obvious that we need to learn some Portuguese. We have all spent more than a year in South America and now speak fairly fluent Spanish. Obsolete, almost, since Brazil speaks Portuguese as the only country in South America. Time to learn.

Giant butterflies in the Amazon

Giant butterflies in the Amazon

We return with military precision at 14.00 sharp, to conclude that the Brazilian military are not on military precision. Wait a bit. Then we enter and are equipped with a formal “Visitante” badge and pointed in the direction of a door across the military base. Then we wait a bit. A uniformed man appears. We speak to him in Spanish and he understands most of it. He leaves, we wait. Several other guys appear and we repeat our desire to enter Brazil with our own vessel and to get the necessary documents. We show our own impressive stack of documents from Port Registry and International Sailing Permit to Safety Inspections and legal Documents of Ownership. Issued by the Ecuadorian Navy, the Brazilians doesn’t have much option to deny our entry. They look through it all, say something fast in Portuguese that we didn’t understand and drift back to their back-offices. We wait. 20 minutes later a man appears with his right thumb pointing upwards. That’s a universal signal that can not be misunderstood. My optimism is being rewarded

We talk to him for 10 minutes and manage to extract enough information to understand that a) we can maybe, maybe not, probably, likely enter Brazil b) we need this-and-that-and-this documents, stamped, photocopied, 3 sets and a legal entry stamp into Brazil from the Immigration-office of Brazil and c) they want to do their own safety inspection of our raft. We produce all the formalities they require and return 2 hours later, armed with more paperwork. Then we wait. He appears with a check-list of items we need to have on our vessel. Dammit. I am sure he has some expensive, silly, useless stuff on that list that we don’t have or need. We have almost everything on the list. But, a VHF-radio, we don’t have. “Can we make an exception? We know what we are doing, I am certified to navigate vessels, we have everything else on the list, bla, bla, bla”. Nothing would have convinced this stern officer that we should deviate from the requirements and hence transfer responsibility to him in case something happened. I understand him completely. He is not making the rules, he is just making sure that we are following them. We spent 3 days scouring the tri-border for a cheap VHF-radio, it was actually fun in-between the frustrations. Talking to boat-taxi-drivers, shop-owners, pawn-shops, repair-shops, all shops really. One place had a radio. 450 USD. It has absolutely no use to us, other than putting a check in a box on the military safety form. A terribly waste of money for our small budgets.

Optimism, Optimism, Optimism

Optimism, Optimism, Optimism

Back at the Military Base, the guards know us by now. “We are ready, we have a radio” we say. We wait. An hour later an officer appears and ushers me to lead him to our raft. He sees it and laughs abit. I am not sure that is a good start for a safety inspection. It was, actually. The officer and his 6 marine-friends stand around laughing and cracking jokes with large machine guns slung around their shoulders. We are inside the military area and our raft is anchored to a huge, abandoned, rusty ship that carries a large sign that says “No anchoring”. One guy has a checklist and calls out various items that we need to demonstrate: GPS? Maps? Flashlight? Satelitte phone? VHF radio? Sim, Sim, Sim, Sim, Sim, we have it all. It is raining and he appears afraid to board our raft, as it involves stepping unto a wet, slippery bamboo and then jumping 1 meter. “He is a marine soldier, you can’t be serious”, I am thinking. It seemed to me that the safety inspection didn’t really involve any inspection of safety.

I walk with them back to the military base, to sign some forms and hopefully complete the last paperwork.
“Mulheres? Nao ha?” they inquired. ”Women? There are no women?”
“no, sadly we don’t carry any women” I say and laugh cautiously
“haha, very bad, you should carry some women” the officer says ,while moving his hips back and forth with his fists next to his hips.
“yes, you are right, haha, you are right. But we don’t have any, sadly”, I try
“Your country? Good women?” the officer says while bouncing his open palms in front of his chest to signal the apparent main attraction on women.
“Yes, My country good women. All over the world, good women. Brazil nice women” I say.
“Brazil women are good women. They have long hair, so you can hold her hair tight while taking her from behind”. The officer stops his stride and displays some sex positions that instantly makes everybody in the group break into deep laughter.

Gotta love our knife collection !

Gotta love our knife collection !

There is something about this continent that makes you take life a bit less serious. Armed marines that can’t really perform a safety check but much rather talk about women. I sensed it the day I arrived in South America, more than a year ago. The immigration officers at the airport were more busy tickling and flirting with each-other than inspecting my passport. Friendly, warm, funny yet slow, dis-organized and inefficient South Americans, I love them, I really do.

We could easily have transported a ton of cocaine and weapons to fuel a minor civil war across that border at daylight, no-one would’ve noticed.

“Everything is ready” an officer informs me. Really? 2 hours of patience pays off. I receive some documents, signed and stamped. An elderly officer appears who is wearing many emblems and have an aura of authority around him. He is friendly, shake my hand and wishes us good luck. “You have to be careful. There are pirates and assaults down the river to Manaus” he says. 1600km of piracy risk, that’s something to consider. They make me sign a form that releases any and all responsibility from them. I understood almost half of the form, when I signed it.
We have heard the warning before on other parts of the river and are aware of the risk that some sections of the Amazon River are not entirely safe. What can we do? Stop, go back and pack up the adventure? No. I am not doing that. The risk is simply too small to justify it. I have been warned about the dangers of the world many, many times throughout my life. I have spent more than 3 years cycling around the world through countless “dangerous” countries and regions. Nothing has happened, luckily. I am not trying to be Rambo, to be naively brave or prove anything, I just don’t believe the world is as dangerous as most people tell me. I take certain precautions, but also accept certain risks. Like you do, when you casually jump on your motorbike and ride to work.

An amorous couple of grasshoppers.

An amorous couple of grasshoppers.

“If there are pirates, then fuck it, let see what happens, let them rob us” seems to be the conclusion between the three of us. A simple Danish proverb sums it up for me:  ”let fall, what can not stand”. I know what I am going to do: Keep most things hidden, especially passports, photos and credit card. Co-operate as necessary and don’t risk any physical harm to any of us. I have nothing on this raft that is really important, other than our lives. And it is not hostage-type pirates that hold us ransom, just poor, opportunistic, jungle-people with a hunting-rifle who wants some cash, something. It’s more like a “river robbery” and that makes it sound a bit less scary than Pirates! Some say that the pirates are mostly interested in raiding the drug-traffickers to seize their valuable goods. Dog eat dog. It’s a jungle out there, literally.

Brazil, here we come. Pirates or not.

Entering Brazil...

Entering Brazil…

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The Three Borders

After 3 days and nights of river-isolation we see some giant pylons in the far distance. Telecommunication towers, that is. Clearly visible for 10km in this endless flat jungle. That must be the famous tri-border. Two-and- half cities are situated at the tri-border. Leticia is Colombia’s input with some 30.000 souls, Tabatinga is Brazils enclave with some 50.000 people and Santa Rosa is a town in Peru, located at an island 15 minutes across the river in front of Leticia/Tabatinga. With the massive military presence and a busy set of drug-traffickers that probably aren’t counted, the tri-border hosts almost 100.000 people. The biggest city our raft has ever seen.

Our raft and your expedition boat

Our raft and your expedition boat

We arrive as the sun is setting and choose to land in the Peruvian town of Santa Rosa. We have several things to do here at the tri-border and one of them could prove challenging. Convincing the Brazilian Authorities that our home-made bamboo raft is adequately secure to venture into Brazil. With the endless isolation, violent storms and the widespread problem of piracy on the Amazon.

So first things first: Stamp out of Peru. Ask for immigration office, but are guided to the police station. The police guide us to the correct immigration office. The immigration office informs us that we need to go to the police first. “We were just there, and they took us here”. “No, no, no stamp from police. We go back to the police, get the mythical stamp and return to the immigration office. Passports, stamp, stamp, done, smile, gracias, de nada.

It is the second time in 6 months that I leave Peru, I have spent a total of more than 4 months here. From Pacific surfing beaches to Andean peaks soaring nearly 7km into the azure sky. Cold, high, mountain-plateaus, immense Amazon jungle and ancient, remote Inca cities. Some part of me are deeply annoyed with Peru, almost hates Peru. That’s maybe why I love Peru so much, because that part reminds me of something inside myself. Peru has taught me something, something that I don’t dare to bore you with in length. I do want to tell you, that it is an impressive country in so many ways and you will never forget it, if you were to visit Peru. You might even like it, though that is not guaranteed. Most people do, though.

 

We had some nice days at the tri-border. Maybe it was just the thing about getting back to civilization again with all its comforts and lures. Maybe the thing about reaching the border with Brazil. I splurged a bit of money and went to sleep in a cheap hostal for 3 days to get my dose of civilization, cold beer, internet, a shower . And loneliness, to be honest, the raft gives you a bit of cabin fever. I craved loneliness.

Mesmerizing rainstorms

Mesmerizing rainstorms

We spent some days drifting around Leticia and Tabatinga. It is a funny place, as it is basically one city with an imaginary border between it, marked by some rusty road-blocks on the main road and some sleepy cops. No check-point, totally open border.  Spanish on one side of that rusty road-block, Portuguese on the other. We drop into a typical South American “water hole”: Ice-cold beer served at plastic tables while local music is played at a noisy level that makes you comfortably forget any idea of a conversation. Shut up and drink, seems to be the concept. But you can’t be a Gringo here, without talking, because quickly someone will start to talk to you and then you talk back. So we make friends quickly.

The image of one guy is burned into my memory forever: It is midday as he enters the bar. Messed up face, spaced-out look on his face, flickering eyes, few black teeth, spitting and no t-shirt as this was being used as a cloth to wipe running blood from his cocaine-swollen nose, dripping steadily. “Soy trafficante” he proudly informs us. “I am a drug-trafficker”. No shit, Sherlock. He was a man of my age. In dire condition, double-trapped by the drug that also financed him, heading quickly towards death. I really felt bad for him. I think that is a legitimate feeling.

Most of our worries at the tri-border evolved around the permission to enter Brazilian waters with our raft. Getting paperwork ready to enter Brazil with you own homemade bamboo raft is a story in itself, stay tuned.

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Nights on the Amazon

Our expedition up the Ampiyacu and Yahuasyacu rivers was a deeply engaging experience. To meet these semi-modernized tribes and go hunting and fishing with them. To visit the local “Chief” of the tribe in his traditional Maloka house, socializing with them on the dirt floor, enjoying local jungle foods and drinks, sharing coca-powder and questions about his and our cultures. Applying genuine interest in their society and being met with a similar honesty and interest.

Now, we were back in the ancient and cute jungletown of Pebas. A colorful gateway in the center of town says “ Bienvenidos a Pebas. Tierra de amor” = Welcome to Pebas. Land of Love.  It surely is a lovely little place.

Pebas. The land of love.

Pebas. The land of love.

We leave a great thanks to the family in Pebas that looked after our raft for the last couple of days while we were on our upstream-expedition in our small boat. They also belong to the Bora tribe and have been helpful in allowing us to use their land for some boat repairs and afterwards guard our raft. We have made friends with them in the process and especially their kids find us immense entertaining. A floating house with some weird-looking foreigners that speak a mysterious language but yet communicates in understandable Spanish. We invited them for popcorn on our raft the first day. Then Peycho bought a slingshot from them and afterwards awarded them a nominal payment if they gathered him some ammunition. The funny, friendly, full-bearded foreigner: Peycho, an attraction in its own right, now “the sling-shooting playful-uncle”. A sure way to guarantee the daily return of the kids.

Serving popcorn for the kids, normally wins the friendship of the locals

Serving popcorn for the kids, normally wins the friendship of the locals

I gave them some Danish adventure-travel magazines with photos of foreign landscapes, animals, cities, culture and people. They gazed through the pages, fighting for the right to “control” the magazine and decide which pages to look at. We did a bit of business with the local family as well, buying some wood materials, a handmade palm-leave bag  and some fruits. We left behind several things that we didn’t really need, and they accepted it gratefully.

Foreign Magazines

Foreign Magazines

“No es muy seguro de aqui hasta la frontera. Tienen que cuidarse” the locals warn us. “It is not very safe from here to the Brazil border. Be careful”. Ok, I will try to float “carefully”, don’t really know what that means or what else to do. It wasn’t the first time that people warned us about the safety on the river. It for sure wasn’t the last.

We were floating down the Amazon for the last 400km out of Peru to reach the tri-border between Colombia, Peru and Brazil. It is a legendary border. 30 years ago, a weapon-, human and drug-traffickers hub without much police presence. Today? A weapon-, human- and drug-traffickers hub with a massive police and military presence. But it is simply too attractive to traffic here: You can easily hide in the Amazonian vastness and the river-system leaves endless open, remote corridors of access between Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Brazil. A traffickers paradise, one could say. It is nearly impossible to patrol it.

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The Amazon night is approaching

We leave Pebas behind us and float into the huge Amazon River again. We decide to just keep on floating throughout the night and to take turns to watch. The Amazon is so huge, that you are often far away from the shore and hence safe. If wind pushes you to the shore, you pull the engine alive with a roar and easily escape the dangers. And it is beautiful to float in the night. All Alone. Alone in this giant unpopulated region, floating in total serenity, total silence as the stars pack densely above me and some soft sounds of water-swirls from the Amazon reminds me that I am actually moving downstream with up to 10km/h. Think. Read. Gaze. Dream. Wonder.

Soon, we will arrive at the tri-border. And hopefully getting through the bureaucratic loophole with the Brazilian Marine Authorities to allow our home-made bamboo raft to enter their waters. 3 months before the World Cup:  They don’t want any bad publicity and to allow a homemade bamboo-raft with foreigners to float through pirate-infested waters could be deemed too risky for them.

“Please don’t let papers stop us” I am thinking. Because we will continue “under the radar” without papers,  ifnecessary, I sense.

Feshly made bread, baked on the fire. A daily ritual, actually

Feshly made bread, baked on the fire. A daily ritual, actually

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Visiting the Bora Tribe

The tiny town of Pebas is looming ahead, we drift past the many floating houses that occupies the river banks around Pebas. Our raft lands on the public floating pontoon and hundreds of eyes are staring at us. It is a little bit too intense, so we decide to “park” the raft 100 meters away from town to get a bit of privacy.

Pebas, seen from our raft

Pebas, seen from our raft

It’s a legendary town, Pebas. It features in Jules Vernes classic book “800 leagues on the Amazon” and it is officially the oldest Peruvian Amazon town dating from 1735 and established as a Jesuit Missionary town: To convert the “primitive savages” of the jungle into God-fearing Catholics. And “primitive savages” abound here: Tribal people occupy the tributary rivers in this region: The Boras, The Huitotos, The Yaguas and the Ocainas. In our day and age, “The Primitive Savages” are now a respected demographic group and their culture is studied, praised and protected (somewhat, at least, though oil and logging companies are eyeing an opportunity in their region, creating the usual tensions). They still live on the fringes of society: Physically and economically. They are semi-modernized, as it is called: Wear “normal” clothes, have refrigerators and Colgate toothpaste. But they still speak their own language, fish, farm, hunt and forage and are culturally strongly tied to their roots. An elderly man has the role of the “Curaca”, a cultural chief of town. He performs ceremonies, celebrations and other communal gatherings important to the tribe.

In Pebas we have a mission: To prepare our 8m boat for a multi-day adventure,  venturing upstream the Yanayacu River to encounter some of these semi-modernized tribes. We ask a local family who live on the rivershore close to Pebas if we can use their land for some days while we construct a roof on our small boat. The family also belongs to the Bora tribe and are friendly, the kids quickly gain interest in us and as we serve them popcorn they loose all fear of us. We spend 2 days putting tar on the boat, to seal it completely. Misha paints it, and drift into his spiritual zen-world with each stroke of the brush. The calm process of painting: stillness and a focus on the task, the present now.

Putting tar on our boat

Putting tar on our boat

The roof is coming along nicely, but we are a bit concerned that it might be too heavy: We have used traditional palm-leaves for a roof, it looks beautiful but it is heavy and are de-stabilizing our boat. Then our boat sinks. It turned upside down and capsized, a sad, sad sight. It was empty, so no big deal: we didn’t loose anything, but time to rethink. We salvage the boat, bring her onshore with the help of the locals and quickly agree that she needs a lightweight plastic roof instead. Next day, we buy the plastic and install it, we are ready for the expedition. I sunk a boat, haven’t done that before.

We receive various information from the locals about the communities further upstream. Some say we need permission to enter the region. We consider ourselves very respectful to the local communities and do not want to drown our adventure in meaningless bureaucracy. So we just go, quickly sailing past the big house outside of Pebas, said to be the “Presidente” of the area. The Yahuasyacu River branches off into Yanayacu River and we continue our little side-adventure: Our boat is loaded with food and other necessary stuff for an expedition. The River gets smaller, quitter, denser and greener. Wilder, really. We arrive in the community of Brillo Nuevo after 6 hours of pushing upstream. Are we welcome here?

A local man shine a light on us and we end up landing our boat at his “house”. It turns out to be a perfect place to stop: The house is a check-point, to prevent illegal logging and oil-exploration up the river. It is built by the Peru government but staffed and run by the Bora people themselves as they are strongly reluctant to “sell-out” on their natural resources. The man is super friendly as he realizes we have no resource-intentions, but simply want to meet his people and see his nature. He signs us into a book, where there is one other entry, it looks like another Gringo have ventured up here a long time ago. He takes us through the magical village located in the deep, insect-teeming jungle. The other locals are friendly and curiously asks us questions. They speak Bora and Spanish, so we can communicate with them. “You’ll have to meet the Curaca” our local friend says. ”He is the Chief of our tribe and lives in a traditional Maloka up the hilltop”. Sounds exactly what we’re looking for.

Two large Bora figures are carved out of the pylons next to the main door of the Maloka: A man and a woman. “They protect our Maloka from evil spirits, they explain us”. Entering the Maloka is an intense experience: Sunlight trickles through openings in the roof and cuts fine lines through the dusty air in a mystical manner. The entire extended family is using the house and random people from the village drops by now and then. We are friendly received and ushered to sit down. The women is weaving bags out of palm-leave fibres and preparing a huge piece of yucca-bread on the indoor fireplace. The senior male member of the family is known as the “Curaca” and it is his duty to facilitate the ceremonial and cultural gatherings, important to the Bora people. A huge hollow tree-trunk stands in the corner of the Maloka, I ask what it is. “A summoning drum. Each member of the Boras have his own sound-combination, so I can summon each individual to the Maloka, by drumming his sound. I summon for ceremonies and celebrations also”. “Like the church-bells in Christianity or the prayer-calls in Islam”, I am thinking. Women serve us a thick, orange, warm drink with a distinctive taste and texture: Pifaiyo, they say. It tastes good and seems to be more than just a drink, it is as thick as a soup and it fill me up together with the freshly fire-baked yucca-bread. I love the setting, so would you.

The Curaca talks and explains about his culture. We sit on the floor and take coca-powder with him. It tastes awful and have a small effect, like smoking a cigarette for a non-smoker. He also asks lots of questions about our culture, genuinely interested in his new visitors. He hears our interest in exploring a bit of the nearby jungle and suggests we take a couple of the younger guys of his family and venture for some days into the jungle.  Perfect, we are going on a hunting and fishing expedition into the jungle with the Bora People.

Our Bora Friends

Our Bora Friends

We load the boat and our 3 members of the local community. They only brought with them a bit of food, machetes and an old riffle and 5 full-caliber shots.  I love the cultural setting, mixing with these local warm people, the “ice” is quickly melted and we share stories and jokes as we go even further upstream, into the wilderness. There are no settlements beyond here, only jungle. We stop to fish and our local friends quickly produce 5 “fishing rods” from some wood. We all fish, but the score says it all: 3 Bora guys catch 20+ fish in 1 hour. The three Gringos catch nothing. Absolutely nothing.

After 2 hours of sailing, the locals point to the river-shore and says we need to stop there. They have a tiny “hunting camp” there where we cook the fish for lunch and intent to stay for the night. We go walking the jungle with them, hunting. We don’t shoot anything, though the youngest member had a shot at a monkey. And they catch a huge toad, the size of a human hand: Breakfast. I mainly hunt with my camera: Giant butterflies and weird insects. And enjoy my opportunity to rub shoulders with these jungle-experts.

Just what I had wanted: To interact with some tribal people and explore the deep jungle. The Boras, a peaceful, welcoming, sincere people.

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Arriving at the Amazon

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“Think I saw a ship passing in the far horizon” Says Misha. We keep staring and within long something gigantic appears on the horizon: An Oil Tanker, by far the largest ship we have seen for the last 2 months on the river. So that must be the Amazon, The Mighty Amazon River, “our planet’s super-river” as BBC Earth calls it. Dig some of these facts:

The Amazon River collects rainwater from an area of 7 mio. km2. That’s nearly half the size of South America or the size of Australia. Or 163 times larger than Denmark. No wonder it is dwarfing all other rivers on our planet.

It carries more water than the next 7 largest rivers combined. Combined, mind you. That’s a discharge of 209.000.000 liters per second, a fifth of the total riverflow on our planet.

Oil tanker at the Amazon

Oil tanker at the Amazon

The Amazon river is between 2 and 10km wide for the most part. That means you barely can see the other shoreline with trees. Downstream, as more tributary rivers join it and wet-season is pouring rain, it swells to more than 50km of width: an open sea with waves, storms, tides and all. At the mouth, an estuary, The Amazon spans an impressive 250+km wide. The River Sea, it is rightfully called.

It hosts more than 3000 different species of fish. That is more than the entire Atlantic Ocean.

The longest river on Earth? Maybe.  They are still arguing this, as several independent geographical researchers claim that it is up to 6900km long, and not 6400+km as is commonly accepted. The Nile is generally considered the longest river and runs for about 6650km. Most Brazilians would likely claim that Amazon is the longest, while Egyptians will stand their ground with their current “longest river” claim, The Nile. Something to do with different measurement technics apparently. I don’t think they’ll ever agree, and to me it doesn’t matter much: The Amazon and the Nile are both two staggeringly long rivers

More than 1100 tributary rivers flow into The Amazon. 17 of those are more than 1500km long. Rio Negro, the biggest tributary, is wider than the Amazon itself and would be in the top 10 of rivers in its own right. Her black waters merge with the brown waters of the Amazon at Manaus in Brazil, creating a “watercolor-mix” visible from space.

Our Home

Our Home

And the darkest, deepest, weirdest fact of them all:
In 2011 it was discovered that The Amazon has an gigantic underground twin-river, equilly as impressive as the Amazon itself: The Hamza flows in a similar pattern as the Amazon but 4000 meters deep inside the Earths crust. It spans an astronomical width of 200km to 400km but flows with an eternal peace: a mere millimeter per second or 4 meters per hour. Imagine floating down The Hamza…

There is surely something otherworldly and magical about this Mother of all Rivers, The Amazon.

So we very gently float into the Amazon River at slow, slow speed. That’s fine. Say goodbye to Rio Napo, the river that has transported us for a thousand kilometers from Ecuador to Peru and now are about to merge with the largest river on Earth. The mouth of the Napo River flows extremely slowly into the Amazon and we are excited to see how the Amazon it self flows. Drifting into the middle of the Amazon and we can see the shore flying past us from far away. Our GPS says we are doing 9 km/h and sometimes even 11+ km/h. We are flying, and flying very safe indeed: The  Amazon is so incredibly wide, at least 2km, and we are perfectly safe from the dangerous shore. Should we drift near it, our newly installed engine can quickly get us out of trouble: a “right” we have painfully earned after floating un-engined only with oars for the first month to reach the Amazon.

And we have electricity. It is a hugely magnificent discovery, a commodity that has been scarce for the last 3 years of my life, cycling around the world. For the last month, we haven’t had any electricity and it’s all fine. But when it is there, it is nice: A bit of light in the evening, maybe music, charge camera batteries, write book on laptop. We have a beautiful 100W solarpanel and some car batteries to store the sun’s rich, warm waves. We considered buying a generator, but here is our conclusion: a) An engine-generator is noisy, no beautiful quite evenings if the generator is running. b) It’s much cheaper than a solar panel, but if you run your generator just 2 hours per day, the solar panel will pay itself off after just 6 months. Gasoline for the generator is a constant, permanent cost, the sun isn’t.

Misha, with our new engine.

Misha, with our new engine.

So with our engine, our solar panel and a huge, fast Amazon River, life is really wonderful. We progress fast and in our happy situation we insist on floating through the night, all night, all safe, for sure. It was safe. I got a weird fever and didn’t assist very much in the night-floating, I was fairly convinced I had contracted malaria or dengue-fever, but a day later everything was fine. Misha and Peycho took turns to watch our night-progress and as I woke up at 6.00 in the morning, we are arriving in the oldest Peruvian Amazonian Town: Pebas, a Jesuit-mission town from 1735, deep inside the green, wild jungle. Surrounded by Tribal people that the Spanish Jesuits were there to convert to Catholicism. They succeeded to some extent, but most of the endless green jungle that you’ll find here is inhabited by tribal communities: The Boras, The Huitotos, The Yaguas, The Ocainas and the Tikunas. They are semi-modernized, but still speak their own language, fish, farm, forage and engage in their ceremonial traditions when called for. An elected mayor is the official representative to the national government, but they operate with an elderly member of a certain family to be the “cultural chief”, known as the “Curaca”. The Curaca lives in a Maloka, which is a huge traditional, communal house. Sounds like something I need to see.

We are out to meet these people: To venture upstream some smaller tributary rivers to look at nature and these semi-modernized tribes.

Our new floor and Solar Panel

Our new floor and Solar Panel

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A River of Gold

We have spent a week in Iquitos and though I loved the city, I am now craving to go back to the raft, back to nature, isolation and adventure. We head back towards the port with all our new equipment: An engine, a solar panel, fuel and food for a month.

A local family in Mazan have been guarding our raft while we were in Iquitos. We had also engaged an elderly man to construct us a 8 meter wooden boat, to enable us to venture upstream and do some multi-day trips into smaller rivers and communities. We thank and pay our local friends for their services and prepare for our next mission: To venture up the Mazan River, a 400km tributary river to the Napo River, where we want to change our the floor on our raft. Sure, we could’ve done this in Mazan, but Misha knows some local people in a little community and suggest that we go up there to do it: For the adventure and to bring a bit of work to these impoverished river communities.

Our new 8 meter boat, built in 5 days by a local man.

Our new 8 meter boat, built in 5 days by a local man. We tie it to our raft when we are floating and can use it to explore smaller rivers and to go upstream.

We install our new engine on our raft and start to move upstream the Mazan River. It moves slowly and it takes us 10 hours of noisy sailing to reach the community of La Libertad. The jungle isn’t the same with this engine noise and I am happy that we only intent to use the engine for special purposes and to navigate out of danger once in a while.

La Libertad is a wonderfull place. Joey is a local man that lives in the community of La Libertad, 20km upstream the Mazan River. We have asked him to provide us with some wooden planks, so we can change our floor on the raft. Our current plywood floor is in dire condition and has several large holes. It was the worst decision to use plywood, we did it to save weight, but it isn’t strong enough. As a civil engineer, I am embarrassed that we didn’t asses this correctly, some simple static calculations would have illuminated the weakness of the plywood. You live and you learn.

Joey cuts down a tree in the jungle and start to fabricate our wooden planks from the fresh, red wood. Industrial IMG_2292alogging is prohibited, but the locals can use their wood for house and boat-construction, as these small isolated communities hardly consumes much resources. Besides, it’s their land and they wouldn’t have an interest in over-logging their surroundings. Still, it was a bit sad to see this magnificent tree being cut to pieces. I take comfort in the fact that a new tree is now being made room for, as the wild jungle quickly regrows: the dead tree leaves an open spot of sunlight on the junglefloor and initiates a race-for-survival among the young competing trees: Who will make it to the top and claim a place in the jungle?
Joey operates his chainsaw in a confident manner and shapes the planks in beautiful, thin 20mm pieces. 2 days later our planks are ready. The locals transport it to us, and we engage a couple of the villagers to help us carry and install the floor: Not because we really need it, but because we want to contribute something to their community, bring some work. The locals have been very friendly to us, and as I wander around town, the men ask me if there is any work they can help us with. I love that: They don’t beg or ask for money, only offer their services to make a bit of much-needed cash.

One morning, 5 middle-aged men come to our raft. One of them presents himself as the “Alcalde”, which translates as Mayor. The others also hold some official positions. They tell us that they are the representatives of the surrounding communities and I think they just wanted to see who we are and make sure we have no bad intentions. Friendly men, they really liked the idea of the floating raft down the Amazon.

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Our freshly cutted planks

The kids of the community find our raft extremely interesting. They keep their distance, but slowly approach us. The second day, we make a huge pot of popcorn and invite them all unto the raft. They are doubtful, but when the oldest girl boarded, the rest followed suit. They appear a bit nervous but after 5 minutes they are chillin’ and trust us.

Yes, they came back for popcorn everyday, not much else to do in their community.

We invited the local river-kids for popcorn on our raft

We invited the local river-kids for popcorn on our raft

With our new floor, we drift downstream the Mazan River and continue our journey. The police in Mazan see our raft and arrive in a speedboat. They thought we were doing illegal gold-extraction from the river-sediment, as Mazan River apparently carries a lot of minerals down from the Andes Mountains. The gold-extraction is illegal as it involves many polluting chemicals. The police laugh when they realize that we are just an innocent raft and don’t have any gold-extraction equipment with us. Wow, a river of gold, the Mazan River.

We are still on the Napo River, but are approaching the confluence with the Amazon River. In 80km, we will arrive on the Amazon River with our raft. That’s a milestone.

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Iquitos and Civilization

Taste the word: Iquitos. Sounds crisp and tribal.

I was attracted to this place from the first time I saw the city on my map, deep inside the Peruvian Amazon jungle. I quickly learned that it was the largest city on our planet, without road connections to the outside world. Half a million souls live on the shores of the Amazon River, 3700km upstream from its mouth at the Atlantic Ocean. They have an airport, but the vast majority of people and goods arrive here with boats.

I knew I had to go there. I didn’t know why. Iquitos had a mythical status in my universe, a place I wanted to visit for reasons I didn’t really know other than the fact that is was remote and I liked the name. Like Vladivostock in the far-east of Russia, I really want to visit that city also. Or Alice Springs, Australia. Or Fairbanks, Alaska. Or…

Peycho and Misha, kickin' it at a rustic rooftop in Iquitos

Peycho and Misha, kickin’ it at a rustic rooftop in Iquitos

After 800km on the Napo River, we are approaching a large river settlement called Mazan.  We have a fairly easy time landing our raft in Mazan and from here we can get some alternative river transport the remaining 30km upstream the Amazon to arrive in Iquitos. We can’t go to Iquitos in our own raft, as it can’t go upstream.

It was the first time I saw the Amazon River, in the speedboat that took us from Mazan to Iquitos. Indeed a monster of a river, I could hardly see the other shore. It was full of debris: huge amount of water hyacinth flowing silently down the river, mingling with large floating treetrunks. The speedboat arrives in the port of Iquitos and we make our way through the chaos of boats, passengers, stalls, smells and noises and unto the street. We have 5 Peruvian Soles left and spend them on a little motor-taxi that takes us to the center. Misha have lived here and knows a little cheap hostal near the central plaza. We dump our things in our shared room and I take a look at myself in a large floor-to-ceiling mirror. Haven’t seen a mirror in a long, long time. My skin is tanned, my hair is pale and bleached by the sun, I have a beard and my clothes are smothered with dirt. I am sure that I smell, but can’t sense it myself. I look around at my two explorer-companions and they are in similar decay. “I need to take a shower and get my clothes washed, I can’t hardly walk around town like this”. The washing of my clothes takes half a day and I wander through Iquitos in my bum-uniform, like a symbol of my transition from rough isolation to comfortable civilization.

I loved Iquitos. 9 out of 10 vehicles is a “mototaxi” as they call it, a three-wheeled large scooter, similar to what you find in India, Thailand and in many other developing areas of the world. People complain that they are noise, but they are much more quite than the honking, noisy cars and trucks throughout the rest of South America. They are cheap to use, so it’s the standard way of transport for all the locals. They are all taxis, so there is no parking problems as people don’t haul their own vehicles around town. They are much smaller than cars, which means that the road-capacity is dramatically increased. It has a trunk in the back, where people can carry their belongings.

Imagine that, a city with 500.000 inhabitants that doesn’t have parking problems and, practically speaking, no traffic jams. Maybe the mototaxi could be deployed with great success as a fast, green and cheap alternative to taxis in many cities throughout the world.

I have visited many markets in South America but rarely find them very interesting. The markets of Asia are more smelly, cracy, chaotic, wild and busy and thus far more funny to visit. But Iquitos have a market that is worthy of comparison to even the vivid markets of Indonesia or Kyrgyzstan. The Belen Market. From crocodiles and armadillos to screwdrivers, t-shirts, pets and paint, Belen Market has it all. Luckily, we had to buy many things in Iquitos, so I had plenty of excuses to go there. Getting lost between cacao sellers and tobacco traders.

We have another mission in Iquitos: To upgrade of raft. We want to buy an engine and a solar panel. It is far cheaper here in Peru than in Ecuador so we have patiently waited with these purchases. Roaming around town, negotiating prices and discussing specifications. At the age of 32, I became the owner of my first engine: Honda Aqua, 390cc, 13 horse power. It is a “peque-engine” as the locals call it and it is by far the most common type of engine you’ll see on the Amazonian Rivers. Outboard engines are only operated by speedboats, the Peque-type is what everyone has so we can easily get spareparts further down the river. It is a really nice piece of mechanic, our engine.

We also purchased a solar panel. 100W panel with necessary inverters, regulators and 160Ah of battery capacity. We now have the comfort of electricity: to charge our cameras, have light in the evening and listen to music. Electricity is a pleasure of modern society that I strongly appreciate, I have to admit.

Iquitos was like a giant village. I am happy that I got the chance to visit this remote and huge settlement.

Roasted giant larvae, straight from the jungle. I love to try foreign food, but I didn't find these larvae very tasty

Roasted giant larvae, straight from the jungle. I love to try foreign food, but I didn’t find these larvae very tasty

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A New Year in an Old World

We begin to stir at 05.30 in the morning as the sky slowly starts to grow lighter. Quickly, we are all awake, Peycho, I and our 3 passengers for the night. Coffee and breakfast is prepared as we loosen our anchor ropes and drift into the current again with the help of a couple of paddle strokes. By now, we have confident control of the raft. “Pantoja is on the left side of the river, so keep left if possible”. We have to land our raft in the Peruvian bordertown of Cabo Pantoja, without an engine, and it proves to be much easier than we expected: calm waters in front of the military checkpoint and river town of Pantoja. We drift along the military base that oversees the border and casually anchor ourselves on their floating pontoon.

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Our Floating Home

The officers are already present with curious questions about the nature of our homemade raft and if we have the correct papers. “Yes, we have all necessary documents” we politely inform them. The officer looks at our 3 passengers. “Y los pasejeros ?” he asks. “The passengers just came along for 2 days, they are disembarking here and on their own” we say.” “Bueno” he says.
He sees our papers and are welcoming us into Peruvian waters. He is friendly but appears a little confused, as he doesn’t know what to do with our raft. Should he register us? Should we pay tax? He calls various people on his cellphone and shrugs his shoulders: “You don’t have an engine so you don’t have to pay any tax, you are considered a rustic vessel like a canoe”. He appears a bit disappointed, I think he had hoped that we needed to pay some tax, and then offer us a “cheaper deal” with him and share the profit among friends. He let us park our raft at the military base and allows us to walk with him through the base the 200m into town.

Peycho and I pay a visit to the Peruvian immigration officer and get our officially needed stamps in our passports.

Flutterby butterfly

Flutterby butterfly

So now we are 3 guys on the raft. It is a welcomed set of helping hands, for there is often things to do around here: repairs, cooking, fishing, cleaning and rowing. Especially rowing, nice to have an extra person to help move our giant raft out of danger. Misha decided to join us for the coming 2-3 weeks to the rivertown of Mazan and maybe longer.

The days go by slowly and we attempt to float all day if the wind allows it. The Napo River continues its relentless path deeper and deeper into the jungle as we are drifting close to Peruvian Amazonian river-communities, watching them watching us. We wave and the parents wave back and so do some of the kids. Other kids are left silent, their gaze firmly locked at a little floating house with some foreign people on it. We are white. One of us has a huge beard. Local kids are starring. Shocked by what they see. The bypassing river traffic is scarce and consists of traditional dug-out canoes, a tree trunk shaped into a canoe by chiseling out a hollow section. I find them beautiful but extremely uncomfortable to sail in, as they appear unstable and have less than an inch of freeboard, the fine line between floating and sinking. The locals comfortably fit 10 people with kids playing and sleeping various places on these simple wooden canoes. They visit us a lot. Rarely does a local boatman see us without venturing closer to us and see who we are, talk and trade with us.

The wind keeps causing us problem and we have several collisions. Damage the roof a bit, damage part of the raft-structure, nothing critical but enough to keep you entertained with repairs, practicing your carpentry skills. We are running out of good quality thick wood, as our oars keep breaking. Usually a chaotic situation in itself, the oars tend to break when you are pushing the hardest to avoid some oncoming dangers, at the mercy of the river. No control, drifting straight towards the very dangers you were trying to avoid and at least 10 minutes to repair the oar. It is an intense stress-cure: To be able to laugh when you know you are heading directly towards trouble and can do absolutely nothing. Learning to accept life and its random course and accept that nothing really is that serious for lucky little me playing around in the jungle.

We encounter some strong, gale-force winds one day. We are on a fairly open section of the river, maybe a kilometer wide. The wind is raging behind us and we are doing 9km pr. hr., it’s good fun. But for a limited time only, because within long we will collide violently with the river-shore. We spin through several soft tree trunks that luckily takes some of the impact and we manage to collide without any damages. Then a giant floating tree is colliding into our anchored raft and get stuck: underneath and in the structure. It breaks part of the structure and with time we manage to release it from its stuck position underneath the raft. A strong wind can easily push us into danger and we can do nothing but to witness our forthcoming misery and laugh. In the end, everything will be alright.

A Gathering Storm

A Gathering Storm

The mornings are magical. Sometimes I would wake up before dawn, put on my jungle-boots and grab my mid-size 16” machete. Going for a jungle walk, alone in the morning. Chopping through bushes and vines, birds singing around me in the tree tops, I can’t see them. I am encircled by a wall of green.
In the jungle I can’t really see that much and I’ve learned to focus on the details: Walk slow, look at every little leave and you will notice the insects that inhabit this rainforest that covers a third of South America. Stand still and listen: there are millions of sounds from everywhere. Smell:  the sweet, organic odor of the decaying jungle floor and newly produced, rich oxygen-laced air. Devil’s in the Details.

The 31st of December, the last day of the year 2013. We are drifting along a quite, serene section of the Napo River, blue skies, no win, 28 C, fishing and photographing from the raft, birds and insects the only sound you hear. “It’s the 31st today”, someone says. We stop our raft in a quite little cove, make some drinks, swim and enjoy the river and our lives. What a wicked place to be for New Years: isolated, serene Rio Napo on our own raft.

2013 brought me many experiences and have left memories for years to come. I welcome 2014.

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New Crew

We have happily celebrated a bit of civilization and a great X-mas. It is time to get back on the river, back into solitude and adventure.

Anchored for the night

Anchored for the night

Before we leave the Ecuadorian border-town of Rocafuerte, we have to get passport stamps and pay a visit to the “Capitania”, which is the military office that oversees the marine regulations. We need an exit permit for our raft, with a passenger list to get cleared.  10 minutes, no problems, no payment.  In Rocafuerte, we also met an interesting professor from Catalonia (dare I say Spain?) together with his Chilean photographer friend. They were doing an anthropological study and documentary on the local people on the Rio Napo and the influence of oil-exploration in the region. They want to join the raft for a day, sailing with us to the Peruvian border-town of Pantoja. “We want to record a day of your adventure. Include it in the documentary, maybe some interviews”. Sure, why not, they seem cool.

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We also bumped into an interesting man from South Africa. His name is Misha. He had lived in the Amazonian state of Loreto in Peru for several years. Recently, he had lost a very important bag with camera, passports and electronics into the river, as a local boat capsized when he was being transported. Misha wanted to come with us to Pantoja, maybe longer. He decides to join in a split second and jumps our raft in the last minute before departure. He moves in an agile manner as he balances himself across our neighbouring boats, unto our raft. A slim, caucasian man dressed in a shirt, politely communicating with others. Turns out he is a Buddhist, this 38 year-old polite, young man. Most girls would find him attractive, I would say. Misha would soon be absorbed into the Amazonian-project, a thing none of us knew, when he casually boarded the raft that moment. He believes in karma.

Technically, we are not allowed to bring any passengers across the border. Together with the Catalan/Chilean documentators and Misha, we are now carrying 3 passengers. Misha doesn’t even have a passport and is hence illegally crossing the border. “Your risk, your decision, come if you like”, we say.

We didn’t make it to Pantoja, as a rainstorm hit us and we crashed into the side of the river, a bit rough actually. It was wonderful to see the instinctive reaction of fear from our new crew members, a reaction I clearly recognize from the first days on the raft. Moderately crashing against the tree-trunks as a storm is pouring rain on our fragile floating house, losing control but harvesting rain-water calmly in the chaotic process. We know it is safe, but clearly our new passengers have reactions to the new, unforeseeable environment. I think they liked it. Who wouldn’t?

“Jaguars? Panthers?”. “Yes, they can enter the raft in the night from the tree trunk next to us” says the Chilean photographer and points out his concern. “I hope not” I say. Because those are seriously big cats.

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Pushing the border for X-mas

We have to make it. It will include a bunch of problems if we don’t manage to land our raft in Nuevo Rocafuerte, the Ecuadorian bordertown on the river with Peru. We need necessary exit stamps for our passport and, more importantly, we need some exit-papers for our officially registered home-made raft. It shouldn’t be a problem, we know the military and how they work, they are nice. But landing in the town could prove a challenge, as we do not have an engine.

Good Mooooooooooooorning Amazonas! The observant viewer will notice Venus hanging in the middle of the shot. Always close to the Sun, Venus is very strongly visible on most sunsets and sunrises

Like normally, we wake up very early. The sunrise is lurking 30 minutes under the horizon, but already showing the first signs of a lighter sky. It’s 05.30 in the Peruvian  Amazon, and we have slept the 10th night in a row on the river. We have gotten used to the life on the river: Navigating, bathing, cooking, sleeping, weather, crashes, storms and repairs. Yet another night in a stunningly, beautiful but isolated place on the Rio Napo, anchored to some giant driftwood next to a tiny island. Our water for the sacred morning-coffee starts to boil as I undo my mosquito net and Peycho are untying our anchor-rope from the stranded driftwood. “If you push from the front with a stick, I hope it will spin around with the current and if we are lucky we can avoid a collision with the next big trunk, over there” Peycho is speculating and pointing. The raft spins smoothly out of the giant pile of old, sweet, rotten driftwood and swirls along, tightly avoiding the tree trunk as we pull the oars. We “hang” horizontally in the giant paddles  to move our monster raft, and it works, we are controlling it. As long as there are no wind, we maintain control.

We are floating through the quite morning alone on the river and are expecting, if all goes well, 3 hours to reach Rocafuerte today. Hopefully we can make it before the wind picks up:
A bit of civilization, maybe some fruit, a pack of biscuits. And a large, cold beer and maybe some local new friends to talk to: Peycho and I are getting along in a great, respectful, fun, productive, practical manner. We are a very strong adventurous 2-man team. Still, you run out of subjects, “so let’s meet and talk to some locals and drink some beers with them”.

Fishing and sharing some beers with our local friends, Santiago and Paul

The current is strong as we approach our mythic city of Rocafuerte. We have talked about it for 10 long and hopefull days on the river. We try to throw our rope to a local man and I swear as he doesn’t catch it. “Fuck!”. He runs along the shore and into another boat where he manages to catch the rope and tie it to a roof-post. He became our local friend, Santiago. The ropes and the roof are cracking as our 2000kg raft is coming to a stand-still in the strong current. We are here, we arrived in Rocafuerte, floating without an engine, first milestone.
There is nothing there, just 1000 people and some poorly stocked local shops selling the most basic stuff. But it is “something” not just jungle. We hear you can buy ice-cream, for an example, amazing. To us, Rocafuerte is New York.
We quickly make friends with a local man, he sells cooking-pots together with his 20 year old son. We also bumped into another group of Gringos on the river, a fun team of 3 Aussies, a Canadian and a Brit. They had bought a 10m boat in Iquitos and were now sailing upstream the Rio Napo for the love of travelling and for the heck of it. “We thought we were crazy, but you guys are on a homemade bamboo raft, without an engine, without experience”.

I guess that what we are doing is a bit different, but I honestly don’t consider it to be crazy. Honestly. Spending 6 months fulfilling any schoolboys dream of a homemade bamboo raft floating unsupported through the wild Amazon jungle is not crazy. Living your entire life with a dream that you never even tried to fulfill is crazy. That, to me, is entirely exhaustively crazy. But that’s another discussion.

The Town of Rocafuerte

The other gringo-boat is super-fun and they are also in the bordertown for some stamps regarding their vessel. However, it is X-mas, and we can host a grand x-mas dinner on our giant 10x4m raft: Cook on the fire, get everybody together, the locals too, play some music, drink some beers.  Anette, one of the Australian girls from the other boat, sacrifices and slaughters her duck, which she had kept for a month on their boat for the special x-mas dinner.
On the 25th of December, my local friends Santiago and Paul arrive alongside our raft and quickly urges me to get into their tiny, traditional dug-out cano, a “casco” as they call it. I grap my camera as I now that something fun will happen. I sit dead-still in the middle of the overloaded and what appears to be, undersized “casco”. We are 4 people and a bunch of heavy pots in the “casco”, one single inch lower in the water and we would sink. So don’t move, at all. I understand that my local friends want to go and visit some of the indigenous communities to sell some of their cooking-pots. Or maybe “buy an animal to cook” as he says. However, he is also asking around for a big party that he wants to attend, probably to get insanely drunk. He is a fun man, Santiago: friendly but entirely disorganized. He can be insanely funny to monitor.

The curious, shy and helpful river-people

We visit the communities, but poor Santiago doesn’t manage to sell any pots. However, we manage to buy some smoked meat from a wild jungle-boar and some bananas. The locals also gifted us some dried fish. Spooky, small settlements, ghost-villages. Slow, shy, indigenous river-people. Friendly with an extreme relaxed relationship to time. The sun is roasting from a blue sky and the amazon insects are orchestrating a symphony. We often had to drink a cup or two of cold “Chicha” (an alcoholic, fermented yucca-drink), inside their house before we even start to discuss any purchases. I sat there listening to their discussions in indigenous language Kechua about buying some pots while intoxicating myself with the cold fermented Yucca drink, Chicha. Compellingly atmospheric: we sit on the floor of their wooden stilt-house, 3 meters above the ground without any walls under a neat hand-crafted roof of weaved palm-leaves. The kids are staring at the cooking-pots and the weird white man that has appeared in their house. A beautiful skin from an Ozelot hangs on the wall.

Ozelot skin

Back on the raft, the x-mas dinner is being prepared, as the Aussies follow British tradition of celebrating on the 25th of December, a bit foreign to Peycho and me from continental Europe who mainly celebrate the 24th of December. Delicious meal and evening, deep inside the Amazon Jungle at the border between Ecuador and Peru.

An interesting X-mas indeed.

The crew of Gringos, with whom we celebrated the funniest X-mas: Bryn, Jack, Anette, Saya and Jack.

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Goodbye again, Civilization

Short message, just to say that we are leaving Iquitos now. We won’t have connection for a looooooong time. Don’t worry, we are safe. Smiles from Henrik, Peycho and Misha.

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Alone Together with The River

Anchored for the night

On day 5, our two initial crew-members leave us: Jaime and Stephanie. They are our local friends from Ecuador, we met them in the town of Coca where we built our raft and they joined us for the first 4 days. However, they run a restaurant/bar and need to get back to run their business. A local man slowly pass us in his canoe and within 5 minutes Jaime and Stephanie have agreed on a price, packed their baggage and are drifting out of sight. We are alone.

The days go by slowly. We wake up to the beautiful, serene Amazonian sunrise at 05.30 and start to sail. In these calm morning hours, the wind is quit and we can progress without too much problems. The wind then picks up at around 10.00 and we are pushed into the sides of the river, where we try to anchor ourselves for some hours, until the wind calms again. We play chess, fish, photograph and talk. Cook lunch, read and sleep.

“Peycho, wake up, there is a snake on our raft”. I am calm but serious. “Where?”. “I think it is hiding in your baggage. I woke up a minute ago, as something was touching my leg, I turn my head and see this bright, fairly slim, green snake quickly crawling across me and unto the floor, where she is now hiding. It’s not aggressive, but let’s get rid of it”. All said, a snake could likely be the most dangerous thing we could encounter. Some venoms give you a couple of hours to get anti-venom, some less, and the nearest hospital is days away. Wear boots when walking the jungle, as 75% of all snakebites occur in feet or lower legs. However, some snakes are aggressive and hide in head-height, be alert, it’s the worlds largest rainforest. Unsurprisingly, the snake left on it’s own into the river, it didn’t want any trouble. In nature, few things are aggressive, most animals stick to themselves and leave if you bother them. To me, only our human-race appears to kill and disturb for fun.

Love the details and his green “trunk”

During our daily hours waiting for the wind, we do some repairs to our raft. We can find lots of driftwood on the beaches and we cut some nice pieces of bamboo and wood to replace broken parts. The front-railing has broken completely, a 12cm tubular piece of bamboo 5 meters long popped like a balloon in one particularly violent crash. When we crash, it is best to simply let life run its course. Don’t try to fight it too much, instead step back, accept it and keep yourself safe. The raft and everything on it is dead things. The whole vessel could sink: food, baggage, electronics and all my earthly belongings. I would comfortably swim to the jungle-shore to safety. I would still be a privileged 1st world, safe, happy man. So I have absolutely nothing to complain about, nothing to lose. Ultimately, I only care about our safety, our lives.

Misha and Henrik, staying happy on the raft

Local indigenous people are approaching us in their wooden traditional dug-out canoes. Normally overloaded, 10 people with food and goods are easily packed into their vessel, which sits deep in the brown water with an inch of freeboard: the fine-line between floating and sinking, flirted with. They stop and talk to us, look at us, visit us. And they trade with us, they want to know if we have anything that they might need. Interestingly, money doesn’t have the same power here on the river, people want things or food, not useless paperbills which they can’t use unless they venture for hours to the nearest town. The trading process is very slow, as social alignment is more important for these river people than time: They need to know who we are, if we are good, why we are sailing, where we are from. Then, we can start to talk business, though you keep your “cards closed”, don’t show too much interest in the trade or appear too happy about parting with you items. Negotiate a little bit, but offer a fair price and politely inspect their items. Slowly, after 30 minutes an agreement can be reached. “Two gallons of fuel and some fishing hooks in exchange for 50 bananas, some yucca, a live chicken and some homemade jungle-booze (Aqua-diente)”. “A gallon of fuel for a gallon of booze?”. Deal.

We have a very valuable commodity with us: Fuel, for their engines. They have several things which we take interest in: Freshly caught delicious fish, homemade alcohol called Aqua-diente, fruits (mostly bananas, though they come in 5-6 different variants here in the jungle: from sweet, soft ones to hard, cookable ones).

They also want to trade us a live-chicken, which we get. We name her “Negra” which is the female adjective for black in Spanish, because she is black! She quickly gain confidence in our raft and walk around everywhere. Now she has a name, we feed her, play with her, pet her. I can’t kill her now, I’ve developed a “reverse Stockholm Syndrome” towards her. Misha, a buddhist, won’t kill her neither. Peycho, the Bulgarian, is more pragmatic about the slaughtering process:  ”We don’t waste her, we eat her, there is nothing wrong about that”. I agree, but I ain’t cutting her head off. Problem is that “Negra” shits everywhere and it is getting really annoying. One morning, Peycho wakes up with his sleeping-bag covered in greenish, goo-ish, smelly chicken-shit. “That’s it, Negra is being transformed into dinner. Today” he says. Luckily, the same day some other villagers visit us and me and Misha quickly decide to gift them our chicken “Negra”. They’ll eat her, I know, but I don’t want to witness her head being chopped off. In my mind, she is still the happy chicken walking about, exploring, trusting humans. See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil.

Henrik with the pet-chicken: “Negra”

That’s me, with our cute pet-chicken “Negra”. Would you chop her head off? Only if I was on the very brink of hunger.

The Sunsets continue. The Famous Unforgetable Amazonian Sunsets. “Thou shall journey and witness them one day”

Sunsets of Amazonia, a miracle

 

We stop in small indigenous villages and politely ask permission to land our raft and enter their community. It is eerily other-worldly to visit these places. Simple, slow life, it appears that the village is abandoned. But if you look closely, heads are peeking out through low windows and from around corners. We are being watched very closely as we wander through the small communities. We ask to buy something, maybe some meat. “I hunt animals in the jungle with bow and arrows, but lately I haven’t had much luck”, a local man says. “I will trade you a turtle, it makes a wonderful soup” he continues.  “Shit, here we go again, I have to violently slaughter the poor, slow, defenseless, cute, live turtle”, I am thinking. “Thanks, but no thanks”. Other villagers trade us more banana while the whole extended family watches us with their curious, brown, Amazonian eyes.

“A fish out of water”

“A fish out of water” I am thinking, we are just as foreign to them as they are to us. And that’s why we came here: to experience something exotic, far away from home, surrounded by untamed, beautiful nature with the full independence of our own little raft. We found it. Floating.

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Learn to live, live to learn

It took some time to understand our new life. A 2000 kg bamboo raft that drifts to a melody orchestrated by the wind and the river-current. With our newly added oars, we had gained some control, but La Balsa is a heavy lady to dance with. 10 strong paddle strokes and she would reluctantly move 2 meters.  Time to re-think, observe and learn something new.

Yet another stunning sunset takes shapes and color

“Push, everybody”, we shout with our red, blood-pumped faces as we mobilize our entire physical strength to try to push the raft out of a shallow sandy area, where she is grounded. It is not the first time and I start to wish we had constructed the raft more light, more simple. She moves a bit, 1 meter. “Again”.  Slowly, we manage to push our raft out of the shallow areas and into deeper waters. One afternoon, we spend 3 hours pushing and fighting with the help of a local villager who assists us. My entire body is aching and I have no energy left when we finally free ourselves. “I thought it would be an easy relaxed journey” I complain, “Haha” laughs Peycho, “Cycling across the Andes Mountains is easy compared to this” and I agree. It is much, much harder than we had ever expected.

Not the worst place to be spending the night…

Before departure, I had thought about the dangers of the river-life: Piranhas, Crocodiles, Electric eels and myths about tiny fish that swims up your penis and eat away you dearest friend from the inside. I find myself walking through the coffee-with-milk colored river with water to my neck, sometimes in the middle of the black jungle night. I feel tree-trunks against my bare feet as they walk me through the muddy river, and pray that I don’t wake up a 2 meter Cayman-lizard or some drowsy Stingray. We cannot afford to be afraid of the jungle, and luckily neither of us are. I can guarantee that all the rumors you’ve heard about the dangers of the Amazon river are comfortably exaggerated. Once you are here, the river is a wonderful, clean, beautiful and safe place to swim, play and enjoy life.

The Ecuadorian Silhouttes: our local friends Jaime and Stephanie are wandering the shallow waters as the night is approaching

But on day 4, we get stuck. No, seriously stuck. We push the raft, but to no avail. We start walking around the raft in the close vicinity and the river water reaches our angels. No chance, whatsoever, we are royally grounded. The day is aging and the daily mesmerizing sunset is starting to materialize. “Guess we sleep here and wait for high water ‘cause this thing ain’t moving”. A giant soup is being slow-cooked on our fire as the sunset give way to a star-packed sky, a vibrant moon and the orchestra of jungle sounds. “I wonder when we will get going, we have food for months but normally the river gains waterlevel every 2-3 days”. Patience.
At the dark hour of 22.30 in the evening we have emptied our remaining alcohol into our stomachs and are comfortably tipsy, preparing to go to bed. Then something happens. We move. Just a bit, but it means that the river is growing and it is a matter of minutes before it will have lifted us the 20cm that we need to get out of the shallow area.
First we are ecstatic, as we don’t have to wait for days. Then the facts starts to surface: We will be floating in the pitch-black Amazonian jungle night without a clue of direction. We can’t avoid the tree-trunks and the fast currents as we can’t see anything. It will be impossible to find a calm, safe beach where we can park for the night. On your toes, keep focus, here we go.


Within 10 minutes we drift into a surging current and crash violently with some tree-trunks, acquiring more damage to our poor raft. We fight ourselves out of it and continue. The moon glides beautifully above us and the night is amazingly serene, amazingly real. Life is now very real, a bit too real, as we both want to end our current dangerous situation. The moon doesn’t have the power to illuminate the topographical features around us and we can’t find anywhere to park, we have to keep on keeping on. Randomly, we float through small side-rivers with  roaring currents and back into the wide main river. We are tired, but cannot rest before we can park the raft in a safe spot. At 03.00 in the night, it appears that a beach is within our reach, 30 meters from us. “Is it a beach?”, “No. Yes. Maybe. We have to attempt it, this can’t continue”. We row and to our great relief a sandy beach emerges out of the black jungle night. We anchor ourselves safely, then laugh, jump and joke about the whole situation and collapse into deep sleep. “Don’t look for adventure, rest assured that adventure will look for you on this journey”.

Our Floating Home

We started to monitor the river and all the information that it was hiding: Where do the currents run, where is the river shallow, how do the tributary rivers affect the main current, what can driftwood and river-foam informs us, how does a high-river flow compare to a low-river. How do we avoid getting ourselves, and our  little floating house, into problems. And we indulge in the one and only advantage that our physically weak specie, the Homo sapiens, masters: Intelligent Analysis.

And we learn. From 500meters away we can predict where we are going, and with a timely application of the oars, we learn how to control our raft much better. On day 6 we have practically learned to avoid the shallow sandy areas and the dangerous river-coast where the current is raging through huge tree-trunks that protrudes out of the river. We are not just floating, we are navigating.

“An emergency will teach a naked woman to weave”, is a common Danish proverb. We are now dressed.

AMAZONIA

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A Journey Into Our Unknown

Just as wild, weird and wonderful as I expected: Pushing ourselves off the shores of the small Rio Payamino, where we have been constructing our raft for the last month. No test-runs, no nothing, just two explorers who are convinced that their idea will work: To float down the Rio Napo for nearly 1000km crossing the border into Peru on their homemade bamboo raft. Without an engine. “It’s half price in Peru, so we will make it the first month without an engine and then buy one in Peru” we logically conclude. Goodbyes to the friendly Amazonian tribal Shuar family that has helped us build the raft for the last month. Their 22 year old daughter with DOWN syndrome is exhaustively sad and refuses to say goodbye, I have only seen her happy for the entire month that we have been here, everyday. She sits calmly and watches us as we work and returns a smile with genuine warmth. I never said goodbye to her, as she refused to accept the fact that we were leaving and ran away.

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We slowly drift away from sight and are on our own. Things appear safe and calm, until a windy small rainstorm hits us after 1 hour. Chaotically, we gather our stuff and learn how to use your rollable plastic walls. The zinc roof is shaking in the wind, and the nails are coming out. I climb on the roof and we reinforce the roof with metal wire. 1 hour on the river and we are doing repairs, interesting start, what will happen?

Rain and wind stops and we get control again. No problem. We managed to harvest 70 liters of drinkable water in 10 minutes, strong intensive rain. We are leaving the “big city” of Coca, the will see nothing more than villages for the next month. The impressive suspension bridge hangs over us and we luckily pass through two of the pylons of the old bridge without crashing. Ignorance is blessed, as we didn’t have a clue about the danger we are heading into.

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We realize that we have little control of the raft with our simple poking-sticks, as it takes more power to stop and control a 2 tonnage vessel. We construct some simple, but large oars and within long we install them. Seems to be working, not very much, but it gives a little control. We are making progress, floating with 3-5 km. pr hour and a start to regain a little confidence in our project. “Maybe it is possible”.

Our local friends, Jamie and Stephanie, have joined us for the first couple of days. 4 people on the raft, and we are all learning how to manage our little floating house. We crash againts tree-trunks in the water and quickly accumulate several minor damages. “I think it is safe for the people onboard, but I am not sure that our raft, La Balsa, can survive these multiple daily crashes” I hear myself say.

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But for now, we are doing good. The first day was a limited success, but a success none-the-less. We progressed, we didn’t sink, we are comfortable and safe, the journey is beautiful and naturally engaging, we have food and cook a nice chicken on our fireplace from some drift wood laying around. A serene, lonely beach in the river is our spot for the night and the fire burns away with a mild sound as the full moon rises to illuminate our present moment and location. Beauty defined.

“It’s not easy, it’s not entirely safe for our raft, it is never boring, it is highly unpredictable and it IS super-adventure”. Love it. I really, really feel alive.

We are doing it. Floating down the River Napo on our homemade bamboo-raft from Ecuador until we reach the Amazon River in Peru, where we will buy an engine.

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A Song To Say Goodbye…

… is a beautiful song by Placebo, anyway:

Within a couple of days, we are leaving. Leaving our little hometown with newly acquired local friends. Leaving comfort, people and safety behinds us and replacing it with isolation, adventure and solitude. I am extremely excited. And a little bit scared…

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Yesterday, we ate breakfast at a little cornershop at 8.15am in the morning. Mango juice and a sandwich. Then walked to the military navy base and politely asked for permission to enter the encampment. “We are here to obtain the necessary licensing and permits for our newly built raft” we informed them. The Navy oversees the marine regulations and vessel registration here in our little hometown Coca. They are friendly and helpful, but are working a bit disorganized and inefficient, actually typical South American: Friendly, sociable but slow.

The rain is pouring down in a violent, windy manner and any suggestion of leaving the dry comfort of the Navy base is not welcomed by the Marine who has to do a safety inspection of our raft. “Lets wait till the rain stops” he says and I am thinking: “A Marine who’s afraid of water, are you serious?”.  After 2 hours even the South American patience runs out, and the Marine agrees to go. “We go in our boat” he says, and leads us into a small over-engined military supercraft. We make our way in the pouring rain upstream to our raft and the Marine smiles when he sees it. And laughs a bit of the entire idea: “You are floating for 5 months to Brazil on this thing?” he asks as he measures our vessel and takes notes. 2 life vests, a flotation ring, check. A fire extinguisher? Check, we have it, though I don’t understand what we need it for when we will be in the middle of the largest river on the Planet for the next couple of months, surrounded by water.

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We passed the safety inspection without a mark. Ok, he didn’t inspect us too hard but still: We passed the exam in front of The Ecuadorian Military. At 15.33 in the afternoon we return to the Navy base and witness some more paper-juggling and joke-swapping between the relaxed officers as the time ticks. 17.30 and we have a large pile of documents with International Sailing Permits, Port Registration, Certification of Ownership, Safety Inspection Report , Tonnage and other official document. 61.16 dollars lighter but we have a very solid documentation that can take us into foreign water on our own vessel. Issued by the Navy, not too bad!

Safety inspection performed and all documents issued the same day, I will revise my prejudices about South American inefficiency: In Denmark the process of certifying a homebuilt vessel for international traffic would take weeks, involve consultants and be ugly expensive. In Ecuador the military inspected our vessel and issued all documents the same day. I am impressed. Really. Guess the military doesn’t have that much to do here in Ecuador.

The last items are being installed at La Balsa: Our water harvesting, water tanks and sink system, tables. We need to put a bit of homebuilt bamboo furniture on the raft and we can sail. Today we bought nearly all our food. “20 pounds?!” the shopkeeper asked to be sure she heard correct. “Yes, we want to buy 20 pounds of rice” and 20 pounds of potatoes and 10 pounds of onions. She dances happily around her shop as we buy a huge amount of food, probably the biggest sale in a month. 60 kg heavier, we leave the local market in a taxi that takes us back to our poor neighborhood.

Nucanchi Huasi is the name of our “barrio” and it is so eerily atmospheric in the early evening: The sun is setting as the Ecuadorian lower middleclass drifts back to their dwellings, the kids are playing between dirt-piles and sun-faded wooden houses as the lazy streetdogs emerge from the hot daylight for another evening of fighting and barking.

Friendly Jorge comes home from work as we are carrying our vast food supplies to his house. I will never forget his family that has been so friendly, helpful, warm, fun and welcoming. An Amazonian Shuar Tribal family, somewhat modernized but with their traditional life well kept: Their language, customs, culture, knowledge, art. They used to live deeper inside the jungle but moved closer to town “to have access to education for the kids and some jobs for ourselves”. They still fish and farm, but supplement their income with a “regular job”. We built our raft on their land, they helped us built it and we became friends. On request from the family, we designed a simply 8x8m floating restaurant with rooms, as they are thinking of opening such a thing. We spend some hours discussing different ideas, prices, construction materials and methods, size and price. Then we say goodbye. I exchange facebook details with their daughter and walk away with a strong feeling that I will return again one day to revisit them and maybe be able to help them in a similar way that they helped us.

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Phonecalls to my closest. Goodbye for a month?  I have frequently thought about how it would feel to push ourselves away from the rivershore and start to float down the entire vast nothingness of Amazonia. Tomorrow it will happen and without any test-runs: We don’t have an engine as we plan to buy it in Peru, where it is cheaper. So we can’t make a testrun, as we can’t go back again. Once we start, we start.

We spend the last day installing the remaining furnishing items on the raft and loading everything. I think it will be a comfortable home:

Adventure lures and we are out to find it. Goodbye people.

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Photography !

Lots of shots at the photography-tab in the top of the page or click here: PHOTOS

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Jungle Raft, Constructed

The raft is finished!

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The barrels, the bamboo, the plywood and the zinc-roof have transformed itself into a beautiful little raft 10m x 4m. We are getting very close to the actual departure, floating into the “lungs of the World”, the huge green expanse of jungle-wilderness called Amazonia. I am anxious to get going.

Our friendly tribal landlord has been very helpful throughout the construction, we’ve been lucky to have him on our team. The father and his two sons in their mid-20s have been very helpful throughout the construction with tips, practical ideas and lots of actual work. His wife and daughters have prepared lunch for us while we, the men, have worked the construction. It has been a wonderful experience to get to know this local Amazonian family from the Shuar Tribe and I think they might have enjoyed the interaction very much as well. They have a 15 year old daughter with DOWN syndrome and she is monitoring our construction throughout the day and quickly bursts into a smile when I make eye-contact with her. “Comida, Comida !” she anxiously informs us, when her mother has prepared the lunch and the family summons in the little basic wooden house to eat together and talk.

One of the sons wants to come with us on the raft for a week to the border with Peru, as he thinks he can buy cheap fishingnet there. And because he wants to join the adventure, I guess. The father shows great interest in the raft-design and wants to build a larger permanent raft and make a little restaurant and flotel = floating hotel to attract local guests and tourist. “How much would the architectural plans cost?” he asks. He knows how to build it, but need some design, drawings, weight-and-buoyancy calculations and material-lists. “Nothing, we can design it for you” we reply and have engaged in the design of a 8 x 8m floating restaurant in 2 floors with some basic rooms.

We sleep in a bar in a somewhat poor neighborhood in the little jungletown of Coca, Ecuador. The bar owners, Jaime and Stephanie, have become our good friends and they take us on excursions around the area to show us the jungle. “Gotta do something else, can’t just work on the raft all the time” they say and I love their South American logic: Don’t work too much, let’s socialize, explore and laugh.
“Here!” Stephanie says as the bus slowly passes another curve. We get off in the middle of the jungle and walk 2 minutes to a little basic house, where their friend Leonel is meeting us. Handshakes, jokes and a huge machete: we are ready to explore the jungle.

Trees that bleed, trees that walk, the jungle for sure is a weird place. Giant flowers, weird insects, constant jungle buzz-noise as we venture around on trails that doesn’t exist and Leonel explains about the flora. We sleep in hammocks and set off into the jungle the next morning to reach a waterfall. Slippery muddy slopes and lots of things to photograph makes progress slow. Finally we arrive at a river, deep inside the jungle and spend some hours swimming and exploring, far far away from civilization.

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Jaime’s good friend, Rafael, is a manager at the local zoo and wants to take us around on a little “backstage tour” that starts with a visit inside the caiman-crocodile cage. I like the concept of the Zoo: many animals just roam freely around in the jungle habitat and the visitors include several wild monkeys who seek to steal food from the “Real Zoo Animals”. We visit the nursing areas, talk to the feeders, hang out with the construction team who is building a new monkey cage and play with the Tapirs, great day.

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The Raft is coming to life!

???????????????????????????????Think, discuss, measure the bamboo, cut, install and tie with wire and rope. Piece by piece, the raft is being assembled and is starting to take shape. We have a fairly good design for the raft and know have to calculate and plan. But we still lack the experience with the practical work and the actual carpentry, especially with bamboo: A material that we have little experience with. Our local landlord has lots of experience and has proven really helpful with a practical approach and actual concepts of how to make a strong, stable, exact joint. He recently constructed a 2-floor house from bamboo and wood and knows what he is doing.

We took a day off to go explore a waterfall, hidden away in the jungle. A beautiful place to swim, relax and think of something else for a day. Together with a bunch of newly acquired friends and travellers, we had a lovely day exploring the jungle and photographing it. I am mesmerized by the overwhelming nature, the sounds, the colors, the shapes and the sizes of the jungle.

 

The local kids are swimming, screaming and playing on our raft, as we try to focus on measurements and the actual work. What is it? Where are you going? To Brazil?! For how long time? Why? Old and young, the locals are very interested in our raft and we take our time to talk, explain and listen to their suggestions. The materials for the floor and the roof have arrived and a day later the floor is cut into correct pieces and nailed to the raft: Things aren’t exactly perpendicular or straight, but we cut and fit the floor-pieces the best we can.

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We only need to install the roof and the actual raft is ready.  Then we need the furnishing: Mosquito net for walls, rollable plastic for rain protection for the walls, homemade bamboo furniture, a little fire/bbq place, simple toilet (read: a hole in the raft-floor), a rain-water collection system for drinking water, an engine and some sort of simple gas-based kitchen stove, fishing equipment. There are still a lot of things to consider before heading into the vast empty nothingness called Amazonia, unsupported.

 

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CONSTRUCTION

Hiddin jungle birds are singing some fantastic tunes while beautiful, poisonous insects are crawling on us. The coffee-with-milk colored river is slowly flowing next to us, without a sound. Our saw that cuts through the bamboo breaks the idyllic setting in a wonderful way. It is a lovely place to build the raft. We cut and measure the bamboo and start to make our first joints from rope and wire. Things are progressing slowly, but we are learning by doing. The first joints are not very strong or exact and we discuss other technics. Slowly things are progressing.

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On day two, our local landlords break the ice and their curiosity to go talk to us: They monitor our work for a little while. “Is it good?” we ask them. “Yes, it is good! But we have a different manner of tying bamboo together” they politely say. I translate that as “Nahhh, your work kinda sucks and we can teach you”. It is clear that they don’t want to offend us and don’t want to dictate how we do things, they just want to help.

We give them some rope and ask them to show us how they make a bamboo joint. 5 minutes later and the art of bamboo-tying has been proven: A super-tight bamboo joint entirely fixed in one position, no movement. That’s the work of a local who knows what he is doing. We can’t hide our enthusiasm and start to learn how the make the joints in a similar manner.

It turns out that our landlord family is tribal: They belong to the Shuar tribe, who have lived in the Amazon jungle for millennia. They have moved a bit closer to town to partake in a more modern life: education for the kids, jobs for the adults and the convenience of modern life with Colgate-toothpaste and a Honda motorbike. They still fish and farm, they have their own language but also speak Spanish, they still live in the jungle just a bit closer to town, the whole family lives under the same roof and appear proud of their cultural heritage. They are super-friendly.

With only 7 pieces of bamboo, the raft is already heavy. We have to consider a way to get it into the river before it gets too heavy to lift it manually. A simple ramp is installed into the river and more local people help us to move the 300kg bamboo monster. On day two, the raft is floating!

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Things have turned out really good. We found all the materials at reasonable prices, we have a place to construct the raft where we can leave our materials overnight, safely. The construction site is heavenly and it is a pleasure to work in the middle of the jungle. Our local landlord is Tribal Amazonian and teaches us how to tie the bamboo together. 2 weeks. In 2 weeks we might be setting off.

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The quest for materials

As mentioned earlier, Coca is a cute little city. With 30.000 inhabitants it is not very large, yet it seems to have most things. However, we are looking for some slightly odd articles: 18 plastic barrels with 200 liter volume, giant bamboo 9 meters longs, mosquito-net by the meter and a cheap engine that will push a 1500kg raft. 10 blocks from the city center some large hardware stores conglomerate and we start our hunt. Within long, we have located the bamboo: it seems that the local construction companies use them to build scaffolding, like they do many places in the World. The plastic barrels are a bit more difficult to come across, but we are sure they are around: Oil companies that operate in the nearby jungle use them to transport chemicals and other nasty liquids in. But to save money, we want to buy used ones. We keep asking around and follow various instructions around town, like a kid on a treasure hunt. It’s good fun, we speak to scores of people and they look very sceptical when we tell them that we need them to build a raft so that we can sail to Peru and Brazil. “Who? Only the two of you? It’ll take months and you might get lost. There’s snakes, insects, crocodiles, piranhas and untouched Amazonian jungle tribes”. Yup, that’s why we want to go !

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No shops can help us with the barrels, but a friendly customer overhears the Gringos weird desire for 18 large, used plastic barrels. He calls around and asks us to come with him in his car which flows fast and furious through town while the driver is on the phone. “Louis Grande” is the father-in-law of our newly acquired friend and he, basically, sells trash: Scrap metal, old rusty non-functioning engines… and huge 200 liter plastic barrels used in some dirty chemical industry. His shop is located in the same poor neighborhood that we live in. He has 5, but can supply more. Perfect.

We have made contact with a local house right next to the river. It is a fairly basic house made of wood and standing on stilts to avoid the flooding river, which rises up to 6 meters. No windows, lots of kids, surrounded by jungle.  Louis and Daniel are brothers and the oldest men in the house, so we approach them. “Can we use some of your land to construct a raft for the next 3 weeks?” Sure, but you’ll have to pay a bit of money and we will also keep an eye out for the raft, when you are not here. Perfect.

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4.50. No, we are buying 34 pieces of bamboo, we want them cheaper. Ok,  4 dollars each, but you can’t scramble through the pile to only take to good ones, you have to buy all. “Bueno” we say and start scrambling through the pile for some nice, long, straight pieces of bamboo. Biologically, bamboo is a grass, and a very impressive piece of grass: We find bamboo up to 12 meters long with a 15cm diameter weighing up to 70kg a piece. Durable, flexible, cheap and super-strong. Big macho jungle-ecuadorian wood-workers help us load it onto an undersized truck, that carefully transports our “grass” through bumpy gravelroads to the jungle. They all find it very interesting that we will attempt to construct a raft and float to Brazil.

We also find plywood and profiled aluminum roof for a competitive price, which we order. Next week it’ll arrive, they say. Knock on wood, we have lots!

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The rain is very impressive here in the Ecuadorian jungle. It starts within 20 seconds and pours like you’d never seen before. It can often complicate things a bit: Cars get stuck, entire neighborhoods get flooded.
Our bamboo and barrels are located at a small gravelroad where a tiny path leads us the last 300 meters to our construction site through jungle, flooded swamp-areas and a symphony of sounds. The rain is pouring. We start to carry the heavy bamboo on the muddy, slippery, wet path. A job from hell, but it has to be done. Two wandering Colombians who make a living by sharpening knifes on the streets helps us a lot, strong sturdy dudes, not afraid of physical, hard, heavy work. The local people and their kids at the house are curiously monitoring us. We manage to nearly transport all the materials on the first day, good progress. We are all tired and the Colombians deserve some beers for their effort: Time to head back to the bar and celebrate. We have started! On the construction of a large 10 x 4 m raft that will take us down the mighty Amazon River!

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Design, design design…

How to build a raft? We googled this a long, long time ago and have slowly, incrementally gotten closer and closer to how we want to make the raft. Since the idea started to turn into a real plan, we have both spend many hours cycling and thinking about how to make it. Which materials, which size, how to make the joints, how to make the raft durable and strong, yet a little hydrodynamic and not too heavy. The concept we are attempting will now be a 9 x 4m raft: spacious, with a front terrace, a back terrace and a comfortable 4 x 4 m roofed house.

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Yes, it is big, but so is the Amazon River. For 3 long months we will be floating down the river, and we want some space and comfort. With an Amazon River more than 2 kilometres wide, a couple of extra meters on our raft, doesn’t make that much of a difference. And the materials should be cheap: Plastic barrels, bamboo frame, wooden plywood floor and a simple house walled with mosquito-nets.

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Can’t wait to get started with the construction. Our own raft, floating down the largest river on Earth, The Amazon, 4000+km through 3 countries.

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The Jungle town of Coca

Coca. Taste the name. It is the name of a mildly intoxicating chewable leave, a world famous soft-drink, a widely spread urban drug, a large tributary river to the Amazonas River and a little town of 30.000 inhabitants in the very eastern part of the Amazon jungle. We arrive at sunrise and walk our baggage through town which is slowly waking up. Highway breakfast restaurants are open and truck-drivers are staring at us. We eat breakfast and roam around town to find a place to sleep or maybe a place to rent for some weeks, preferably close to the river.

Our accommodation-quest leads us to some local students to mythically talks about a hippie bar, close to a smaller bi-river. “A Chilean painter hangs out there and you can probably stay there for free. It is close to a river-beach”, they say. Sounds good to us. We roam through poor neighborhoods and ask for directions from curious local people, who is patiently hiding away from the hot tropical sun in the shade. We find it. It is perfect.

“CocoPele” is a little bar where the owner hosts the odd traveller, who passes through.” Just help out in the bar/restaurant, keep things clean and you can stay here”. “I am a project engineer and have helped others make a raft” the friendly owner, Jamie, tells us. Not bad. We are now 3 engineers on the project.
We walk around the neighborhood, and go to see the nearby river-beach. Also perfect. With only 2 local fishermen-houses, it is very secluded and safe. And some giant trees supply a comfortable shade. This is our place. This will be the birth-place of our raft.

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Research time at the Equator

We have spent some time drifting around Quito, the capital of Ecuador, to ask for prices and to research a bit about solar panels: price and technical specifications. A local family in the suburbs of Quito was hosting us, and from there we ventured into the capital with a local, busy, bumpy Ecuadorian city bus to do our research. The bus ride was often a nice little excursion: It took an hour and being the only gringo on the bus, the locals often started a conversation to understand what we were doing in Ecuador and in this local bus. “We will try to build a raft and float down the Amazonas river”, we explained in our mediocre Spanish, though I don’t think it made a lot of sense to the local people. “De donde eres?” seemed to be more interesting to them: “Where are you from?”

Our research into Solar Panels lead us into some industrial areas of Southern Quito were we wandered around some dusty streets to find the Engineering company that specialized in Solar Panels. Knock, Knock on the gate and their dog instantly and aggressively jumped at the fence, barking. Nice Welcome. The secretary greeted us with a smile and after a little while a polity 50-something year old Ecuadorian Engineer appeared.

We talk about our project and our requirements and he shows us around his company showroom, proudly announcing that their company had won a price in Germany for their technology. “Germany”, he proudly repeated.
Their products appeared professional and he promises to compose a small system for us that would meet our requirements. We both left the factory with a big smile, but a strong feeling that his soon-to-be-expected offer would be out of our price-level. 2 days later he emails us his offer of 1735 USD and we sadly have to turn it down. In the mean time we have established contact with some Peruvian companies that are much more competitive, and it is now our plan to procure the solar panels in Peru.

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A warm goodbye to Santiago and his friendly family, who hosted us in Quito. Two goodbye beers and a 20 minute walk through rain and we arrive at a busy highway at midnight, to catch an overnight-bus into “La Selva” = The Jungle. 6 to 7 hours, they say, so we expect a 9 hour bus ride. We arrive after 6,5 hours as promised, good start!

 

The Photo shows Santiago and his friendly family. Peycho is setting in the front and I am sitting to the right

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The Transition Period

It is a very, very weird time for me these days. After spending 2,5 years living on a bicycle with an idea of cycling around the world, I have decided to attempt to sail down the mighty Amazonas river together with my newly acquired friend Peycho. To venture deep into the jungle, attempt to construct a floating raft and then try to drift down the Amazon River. I have not abandoned my bicycle, I am simply up for a little break and some designated to a different type of adventure.

I have various feelings associated with this project. Excitement and fear are the dominant ones, and they overlap in a weird fashion. Excitement for the project to begin: the quest to find the right materials and actually building the raft, testing the engine, speaking to local people in the process, seeing things grow. And excitement for launching it into the Amazon, starting the adventure.
The feeling of fear is more complex. I am afraid of the total isolation, the rugged untamed nature and possible dangers that lure in the Amazon River and Jungle. It is a kind of positive fear, as it have made me think a lot about what we should do and how. But some “fear” also stem from the fact that I don’t know if we will make it. Maybe the “floating raft” idea isn’t feasible as it is too slow. Maybe the current is too powerful. Maybe we will get lost. Maybe there will be dangerous drug-traffickers. Maybe the authorities won’t let us cross borders on a simple, homemade raft. Maybe we will be miserable. Maybe we will fail.

But this fear of “failing” is also what draws me into the project, it is what excites me. I have been cycling 43.000km through 30 countries across 4 continents at the time of writing. I KNOW that it is possible to cross continents on a bicycle, I KNOW it is possible to cycle around the world. I don’t know if I can sail down the Amazonas on my own homemade raft. This evokes a fear of failing but also a strong excitement to attempt it. Fear and attraction of the unknown is an expected reaction, I guess.

“You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take” a famous hockey player once said. So I’ll take this shot.

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