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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