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Hospitality, Hostility and Hard-Science.

It was Sunday the 9th of July and for the second day in a row Jake, Moira and I were making our way to Puerto Ganzo Azul in an overloaded tuk-tuk full of camping gear and science equipment. Thankfully, this time, we made it to the port without incident. Yan and Cara were spending another day in Iquitos before they would make the trip upriver to join us. The plan was for Moira and I to head to a village called Tacsha on the Napo River to meet with a barge that was delivering our canoes. We’d then wait for Cara and Yan to arrive before heading up the Rio Tacsha (a small meandering tributary of the gigantic Napo) into an area of pristine rainforest, run by Green Gold Forestry.

On the Tacsha, Moira would be able to gather sound data that would enable her to identify the frogs we were looking for (Rantiomeya ventrimaculata). Once we had the data, we’d return to Iquitos and the girls would fly home. Yan and I would sort our visas out, build a catamaran, and then continue down river to complete the expedition.

At the port, Jake kindly helped us take the oversized bags down the precarious wooden steps that allow access down the 20-meter high, slippery mud slope. Plastic bags and bottles littered the bank, reminding me of the verges next to most UK motorways, whilst metal wire and broken concrete protruded through the silt where old flood defences once stood and had since sunk. After navigating around a few broken steps, we arrived on a floating passenger jetty where many fast boats “pongeros” were tied up, waiting to ferry crowds of impatient Peruvians and shell-shocked tourists up and down the river. Locals push through the throng with bags of exotic snacks, fruits or cakes, shouting about their products in an effort to make a last second sale. We gave Jake a final hug and I strapped our bags to the roof of our Vichu boat. The captain charged us an extra 25 soles each due to the number and size of the bags we brought and then, before we knew it, the boat was pushing off and Jakes smiling, tanned face was fading into the crowd on the shore. Jake flew home without incident the following day. He’d be sorely missed but I was also really happy that he was gone because it meant that another team member was now safely back with their family having contributed so much under the risky circumstances!

Let me attempt to describe the geography of the area. The Napo is a tributary of the Amazon that begins 1130 kilometres to the northwest, in Ecuador. It enters the Amazon about 65km downstream from Iquitos, however one if it’s meanders comes within about 3km of the Amazon River, much closer to Iquitos. At this narrow strip of land between the two rivers, the town of Indiana sits on the banks of the Amazon, whilst the town of Mazán is to the Northwest, on the banks of the Napo. They are connected by a narrow, winding, bumpy road of about 4km, suitable for tuk-tuks. So, it is much faster to take one boat to Indiana, travel across land by tuk-tuk to Mazán, then jump on another boat to continue travelling North on the Napo.

That was our plan, and it would have gone swimmingly had the road between Indiana and Mazán not been closed for repairs. The representative of the travel company (Vichu) who had booked our journey and taken money for it, just told us to deal with it. It’s probably important to explain how I was feeling mentally at this point in the expedition. The day before I had an outburst in Western Union, in my opinion it was out of character. Normally, I don’t think I show much reaction of anger or happiness on the outside, at least not to strangers. My open frustration was sign that I was cracking. My mindset was completely wrong, if we encountered a problem, I quickly became seething. There had been a build-up of negative encounters and bad luck during Stages 2 and 3 and with the added stress of leading the expedition, I had lost my way. I was boiling inside, and I think because of that I was irritable and unpleasant to be around. I should also explain that even if you are travelling along the best paved tourist trail in Peru, you will encounter numerous delays and problems. So, leading an expedition through the borderlands, in the fringes of society, had additional challenges.

The surprise road closure and lack of responsibility taken by Vichu to help us reach Mazán fuelled me with anger. It was also an opportunity for young local lads to crowd around us and offer to take our bags for a fee. We were running the expedition on limited cash now and as a Scotsman, I didn’t want to put my hand in my pocket anymore. Despite that, I wasn’t willing to let our bags out of my sight in a place where I didn’t trust anyone except Moira. So, there stood Moira, buried under her large backpack containing personal and science kit on her back and a daysack on her front. I was ridiculous. The bergan boat bag which is roughly twice the width of a bergan was on my back. It contained personal kit and team expedition equipment. I then had a full bergan (which contained our field kitchen and rations) on my front. My heavy grab bag (slightly smaller than a bergan, containing the essentials) was balanced on top of the bergan boat bag, up on my shoulders. The good thing about being in such an angry place mentally is that it really helps you yomp. It was the first yomp carrying over 60kg that I had done in flipflops. We must have looked ridiculous, and some of the Peruvians laughed as we trudged past. The gringo tourists with far more than they need, we’d given up on trying to explain the concept of an expedition at this stage. Usually the word “gringo” is used without disrespect, but you could hear subtle changes in tone when it was meant condescendingly. They laughed at us, more so because I’d refused their help. They laughed, until we overtook them. “Gringo’s got this…”

Fortunately, about halfway into the walk we met a tuk-tuk style truck that could take our heaviest bags and I was now tired enough to decide to trust someone to deliver them. Then we all jumped in the back of a second tuk-tuk-truck.  Crammed in like sardines, standing in the back, Moira stood about an inch taller than the tallest Peruvian, I was almost a foot taller. My head stuck out through the cargo bars that most people were reaching up to hold on to. We passed multiple groups of workmen fixing the road. One might be working whilst up to ten man would be watching and laughing. All of them would shout mister and wave and I'd shout "Buenos” and wave back. I thought that one group wasn’t happy with my first greeting, and they increased their intensity, shouting "Mister, Mister!!" jumping up and down waving at me. I thought "yup, cheers guys, its really not that exciting, I'm just another gringo" as I looked back at them with my thumbs up. Suddenly I felt a whack on the back of my head! I’d been struck by a low branch that we were passing underneath. I realised they'd been warning me. They all erupted with laughter immediately and I burst out laughing too. I'd sweated out most of my anger on the yomp and I was just happy to be in a moving vehicle. Strangely, that moment of confusion and hilarity was a huge turning point for me. I lost my anger and from then onwards my mood slowly improved. Or maybe it was just the knock to the head.

Relieved, we made it to Mazán in time to catch the second boat and Moira had found us a seat with leg room at the front. As we built up speed the wind poured in through the open front and began to dry my saturated t-shirt. My mood had lifted, the toxicity of Iquitos was behind us and the wilderness awaited. When we arrived in Tacsha, we found it to be a picturesque village surrounded by narrow strips of buffalo pasture that were sandwiched between the river banks and the dense forest. Colourfully painted shops and houses stood on both sides, along a narrow-paved road that ran for about two kilometres before ending abruptly at a small plantation. Everything was made of wood, in the Amazonian fashion, apart from a concrete square and Christian monument at the centre of the village. Tacsha village is situated where the Tacsha river meets the Napo and was just down stream from Green Gold Forestry science camp.

The children in town surrounded us as we stepped off the boat. Jose, a boy of around 10 or 11 was the ringleader and I immediately warmed to his cheeky face and curious nature. It was nice to be back amongst country people again. He deadlifted one of my bags, then in an effort, swung it onto his back trying not to show signs of its weight. Then he set off staggering up a hill, looks like we would be staying with him! We followed him to his family Hostel and we checked with his mother. Jose demanded a sole which he received but we'd also brought some gifts for kids so he and his pals each received a different coloured plastic carabiner compass. For the rest of our time in Tacsha, Jose and his pals would be our shadows.

Our canoes were due to arrive by barge at 0200 that night so Moira and I got up to wait. We had received a brief by Green Gold Forestry staff in Iquitos a few days earlier and they had told us not to travel at night due to pirate activity and narcos. As we waited for the barge in the depths of the night there was nothing but the quiet hum of insects and the occasional distant rumble of thunder which would set off a barking dog or anxious rooster. After two hours of swatting sand flies, I began to give up hope. But then, we began to hear a far off guttural growl of an engine, working hard against the current. Pretty quickly I was aware that it wasn’t the deep rumble of a barge engine. Moira and I both stood in the shadows, keeping very still as two peke-pekes and around 10 adult males murmured past us travelling up stream. They appeared to have rifles, although I was looking at dark silhouettes, highlighted against the glow of the moon on the river. Occasionally a torch would flash on as they scanned the dark bank. They passed by and I breathed again. By 0430 we managed to find some locals who said maybe the barge would arrive at 0500. Although my mood was improved, my optimism hadn’t fully returned, and I was now convinced that we'd never see the canoes again. Thankfully, at 0700 they did eventually arrive and later that day, at 1300 Cara and Yan arrived by fast boat. The team and equipment had been successfully relocated from The Amazon to The Napo, now it was over to Moira to lead the data collection!

Here’s a quick explanation of how she had managed to come up here data collection plan on the Napo: She had been chatting about the expedition with my dad in a coffee shop in Portobello, Edinburgh some months ago. A man had overheard the conversation and introduced himself. Coincidentally, he was an ayahuasca shaman, married to a Peruvian and had spent a lot of time in Iquitos. He forwarded Moira the details of Joe Plumb (British Consulate in Iquitos) and Joe put Moira in touch with a man named Gareth Hughes. Gareth was Welsh man who owned considerable amounts of forested land here, designated for conservation. His company was called Green Gold Forestry. He had told his staff to do everything they could to help us with our scientific goals and they were incredibly accommodating throughout this section of the trip. There was one slight difficulty with finding Green Gold staff though; When the locals asked us if we were looking for Green Gold, we thought they were calling us gringo…

The four of us had one evening in the village together and Jose saw fit to take us on an adventure to his favourite fruit trees. We walked toward the end of the village where he and his friends climbed into the canopy to grab seed pods that dangled down and jostled in the stagnant breeze. They looked like gigantic, dried out, green beans but as long as your arm. Inside was a candyfloss like substance that surrounded black seeds which were about the length of your thumb. The white, candyfloss flesh was delicious and unique in flavour. We gorged on the sweet fruit as the boys clambered about above us gathering more.

On the 11th of July, our guide met us, he was a local man who had been contacted by Adrianna, an employee of Green Gold, back in Iquitos. She had been very helpful in organising the canoe transport and our own personal transport, we were fortunate to have her services. The Rio Tacsha is a brown, snake like, meandering river, perhaps 50 meters wide and surrounded by lagoons of black water. It moves at 1 or 2 noughts and at points seems to stand still. Occasionally, when the Napo is running faster, the concentration of water at the mouth creates a back flow changing the direction of flow on the Tacsha. The vegetation on either side was thick with creatures that called out as we passed. We were in real wilderness, away from the big rivers that are used more commonly for human transport. Birds of every kind flew over head, dolphins and other creatures of the deep splashed in the water and the canopy trembled with mysterious movements. Of course, the insects were abundant too which meant there were numerous webs containing black and yellow Shelobs or large brown spiders clinging to trunks just above the waterline. Waving a stick or paddle out in front of your face was the best way to walk or paddle through the vegetation.

We found a beautiful campsite above an inlet on a small, cleared hill with enough trees spaced out perfectly to house our hammocks. There was a fish drying rack nearby that we could dry our clothes on, a shallow bank for the canoes and a log for sitting on. What more could you want? Over the next three days and two nights this would be our base, using it to resupply and rest between paddling up and down the river taking recordings. Moira had brought two 24-hour recorders that we set up on either side of the river and retrieved each following day, before travelling downstream to repeat the process.

Between locations we'd stop every 500 meters to take 10-minute recordings on the smaller recorders that we'd been using once a day throughout the whole expedition. As afore mentioned, the sound data that we gathered and would continue to gather until the Atlantic Ocean, would be used to identify the calls of the poison dart frog ( that could be used in turn determine the state of the health of the river. This particular area of the Tacsha was pristine, so we could compare the data here with that which we found in areas more affected by agriculture, industry and other forms of human disturbance.

On day two, I set up the rope kit on a tall tree overlooking the camp site. I climbed up to take pictures as Yan and Cara went for a swim then instructed Moira how to climb safely. She was a natural and made it to the anchor point in a fork in the tree with ease, before abseiling down on the zig-zag.

After cooling off in the river we headed out for the days work. In the early afternoon, Moira and I were in my canoe (The Laura) stationary in the centre of the river, waiting for Yan and Cara to finish a recording inside the mangroves. As we waited, a small peke-peke approached with four people on board, two men and two women. Our canoe was pointing up stream in the direction they were headed. As always I smiled and waved and to my surprise, an elderly woman began gesturing, flicking her hand as if to say “leave”. She looked angry and the gesture became of irate as we gawked at her. We remained stationary as they approached and as they got abreast of us, she raised a rifle from the bottom of the canoe, still broken and ready for loading. She pointed it towards our boat and I said, "OK OK, no problem" putting my hands up to show we were not a threat before turned our boat to face away from the direction they were heading. We continued to watch her as she closed

the rifle and brought it up to her eye pointing it directly at us. They were about 20 meters away and I felt my heart rate suddenly quicken as I winced expecting a bang. Thankfully the shot never came, and the situation ended as they slowly disappeared behind the foliage of a left-hand meander in the river. My worry continued because Yan and Cara were up stream but just as the noise of their engine was dying away, they emerged from the mangroves oblivious of the interaction.

I wasn't particularly phased by this interaction but at the same time I was very aware that I'd brought 3 good friends into an environment where some armed locals clearly didn't want us around. It was a warning and I decided that for the rest of our time in the region we should have our radios on and keep within sight of each other. Considering Moira’s age and lack of military training, she took the incident very well and brushed it off by daybreak. At 0500 the next morning I climbed the tree again to watch a beautiful sunrise.

The rest of the time at our beautiful camp went without incident and on the third day we paddled down to Bahia Forest Camp (run by Green Gold Forestry) collecting readings as we went. When we were approaching the camp, we were met by the Green Gold boat who roped up our canoes and brought us back the last few kilometres. In Amazonia it is common to have a tight line suspended about a foot above the water line to act as a suspension break for stopping boats. The idea is to drive the bow into, it'll stretch and bring the boat to a halt. As we approached it, I was sitting on the bow and naturally I lifted it over the bow expecting us to pass underneath, misjudging our speed. The boat slipped under but I didn't and I was clothes-lined by the rope, sending me backwards towards the others. The boat driver gasped as I was half pinned onto the canopy becoming a human break. Cara burst out laughing and then I did, slightly embarrassed and unable to pretend it had all been intended.

We brought our bags ashore with the help of an armed security guard then took note of the camp layout. It was a well-maintained area or about 1km squared, with a board walk leading up a hill to some neatly placed buildings. We’d be housed in airconditioned shipping containers complete with showers and clean sheets. The four of us spent the night in the camp, and once the generator was switched on at 18:00, we surfed the Internet in the lap of luxury. We were graced with hot meal of beautifully spiced rice and chicken, made but a larger than life, large local woman who laughed at us continuously until it was time for bed.

Yan and Cara left for Iquitos at 0500 the following morning, whilst Moira and I waited one more night to collect the final 24-hour monitor readings. After that, we went for a forest hike accompanied by the camp collie dog and briefly saw some monkeys before the darkness set in around 1800. With 12 hours of night and 12 of day, you need to organise your evening activities well and Moira had done just that. On her 5-inch phone screen we watched Indiana Jones 1 and 3 which she had downloaded prior to coming. She claimed it wasn't worth watching the 2nd one and from what I remember of it, I think I agree.

On the final day we returned to Tacsha village and dropped off the canoes at the house of the Bahia Camp manager, who would kindly load them onto a barge to be taken to Iquitos in 2 days time. On Saturday the 15th of July, at 0500, Moira and I travelled back to Iquitos on the Vichu fast boat, waving goodbye to young Jose who had got up early to see us off. I noticed he was still clutching his compass which was a nice touch, I wish I could have given him more. Thankfully the road between Mazán and Indiana wasn't closed this time. We took the second boat on the banks of the Amazon from Indiana at 0939am and were back in bustling Iquitos by 1100.

The science trip had been a real success and we’d experienced true Amazonian wilderness as well as both extremes of Amazonian hospitality. What’s more we’d enjoyed each other’s company greatly and lifted the mood of the expedition. I now felt ready for what was to come, thoroughly refreshed.



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Apr 06

As always your blog its great! I wonder how would I react to the same situation with the locals. I guess is part of the cultural awareness we need to have in mind!


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