Posts Tagged With: travel

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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