Updated: Oct 27
The feeling of heading into the unknown, into a wilderness that is unmeasurable in European terms, is indescribable. An attempt would be to use words like excitement and apprehension. Those feelings were there and they should have lasted for days but they were only momentary. Five miles downstream we passed an indigenous Quechua community called Topal. We smiled and waved at the women and kids on the red muddy banks and passed by. As the village waned from view behind us, I do remember hearing children shouting at us, possibly trying to get our attention, but we thought nothing of it.
Approximately two miles later, or after roughly 20 minutes, we are caught up to by 11 fighting aged males wearing dirty football tops, some with machetes in hand, in two dugout canoes with motors. They are angry! They throw lines round our canoes and haul us to the side in their bigger boats. We peacefully let them; we try to explain we mean to cause no trouble. But as we approach the side over the river, I can’t help feeling the adrenaline inside me, are we about to be in a fight for our lives? The bank at that point was thick reeds and rushes and I have a fleeting thought of us making our escape through the thick vegetation on foot. Our machete sheath clasps are delicately opened as we move closer, and we assess the men closest to us through sidelong glances. We are bigger and they don't have firearms, but 11 against 3 is a tough ask. All of them look stern, most are athletic, and some are shouting "Indigenous". Thankfully there is no sign of open aggression, only hateful looks in some eyes. We reach the bank, and no one makes an aggressive move. There are multiple, fast conversations and accusations directed at us in Spanish and Quechua and we understand bits of it. We can't pass, we don't have documents, we are in indigenous territories. We try to explain we spoke to the military and were permitted to pass but they don't buy it. This was one of our first realisations that most people in Peru are mad for a piece of paper. If you have a document with the right stamp and signature, it can be more valuable than gold. We don’t have the right paperwork and most of the men are still angry, but one elderly gentleman has kindness in his eyes and a level voice of reason. We yield to him and agree to be towed back to their community. When we arrive, the entire village of Topal is on the bank; men, women, and children. Some are shouting, others just seem content to watch. Many of the women look hatefully towards us which is very unsettling. Normally, the kindness in a woman’s eyes is a reassurance and helps in deescalating this kind of situation, but many of them shoot looks of pure venom at us. We are taken into a big hall and sat in the middle behind a long table. It's a snap tribunal, the entire village comes in and a man in his 50s with a red face and eyes that suggest he's spent three weeks in a drunken chicha stupor begins the questioning. We're wondering if this will be fair or if there’s a chance that we're about to be severely punished. I hear Jake mention us being stoned to death, it’s a genuine question mixed with a tad of humour. At this point we’re all thinking anything might still be possible. I take my phone out to use google translate to communicate with the village leader and he immediately confiscates it. They empty our pockets now and then men start bringing in every piece of equipment from the canoes, down to the air bags.
We are asked to explain ourselves and I stand and do my best to explain who we are in broken Spanish. They stare on with judgemental eyes, again the women seem especially hateful here. I explain that we are travelling to the Amazon from Ecuador, and this is the only route that we can take, that we mean no harm and have respect for the indigenous people. I then humbly ask permission to pass through their lands. Before I am finished, I add that we are sorry for the offence we have unknowingly caused, two men then start to debate over us. It seems to me that the original man in his 50s speaks in our favour, he is standing in the centre of the room and appears to be the less respected of the two; the women and children sat around the fringes of the hall talk loudly over him. The other man, angrier and more imposing by a long way, has more of a native look with long, jet black, silky hair and a fair complexion that has seen less alcohol in its years. He seems to command the room from his place to our right at the edge of the hall. There is dead silence when he talks, and everyone looks at him respectfully or studies us. The discussion last around 20 minutes and we have no idea of the outcome when it becomes apparent by mass agreement from the whole room that a decision has been made. We are drained by this point; next we hand over passports and they are studied and passed round every single villager. The stress mounts, we certainly can’t afford to lose our identification out here, it’s a legal requirement in Peru to carry it. Then some of the people start to smile and joke and the sinister feeling in our guts begins to dissipate. The kids come up and touch us and we smile and the atmosphere becomes more relaxed. Everyone on the planet, regardless of differences in culture, can recognise genuine kindness in someone’s eyes when they smile. They we’re slowly realising we were not the villains that they had initially suspected us to be.
At this point a woman with those kind eyes we’d been craving arrives. She’s in her 30’s, pretty and she speaks perfect Spanish which was much easier for us to understand. She introduces us to her husband who is very friendly and seemed keen for her to help us. She explains that she is the local teacher, and I'm able to explain to her in detail what we are doing. She seems to believe us and attempts to pass on our information to the men. In these communities they have a habit of ignoring the women, it seems to me that they shrug off what she is saying and continued to make up their own minds through a haze of chicha. She’s very concerned for us and explains that there is an armed community down stream called Musakarusha that will kill us.
After another 30 minutes, we are asked to show the contents of our bags. Maybe they think we are drug smugglers because we have so much equipment stored in big black bags. As we open each bag they look at and study every single thing, without exaggeration. Our equipment, rations, even underwear is strewn all over the hall being handled by a hundred hands under curious gazes. All of our carefully packed safety equipment, electrics and cameras, boat and climbing gear is littered on the ground. It's impossible to keep an eye on everything and although it’s stressful, I start to enjoy it, they are intrigued.
We show them how things work, what things are for and hand out small plastic compasses to the kids who snatch at them with beaming smiles then run away. With every bag opened and no cocaine or firearms inside, they loosen up. I notice that the adults are very careful, ensuring the kids don’t make off with anything. In fact, the drunken man who I assume is the village Apu (territorial authority), makes a point of asking me if everything is still there when the search is over. I look at the pile of kit all over the hall floor, I have absolutely no idea if anything is missing, “It’s all here.” I reply. We are in fact extremely fortunate that they did not have light fingers like city people, or we would have certainly lost half of our kit. Later on, we discovered that we’d lost two carabiners and Yan’s maritime compass and they had cut through our bungee to remove the airbags in the canoes. Very frustrating but it could have been a lot worse The bags are repacked after, not badly, but not thoroughly either and that really stresses me out. I tell myself - When we get going again, we’re going to have to have a kit muster and make sure we know where everything is. That’s how you survive the jungle, you make things easy for your future self. We are then put at ease as they tell us our fate; we will be returned to Andoas to obtain permission documents from the indigenous police chief. It’s late in the day now and impossible for us to paddle up stream so this means money and they want 10 times the normal price to take us back. (Baring in mind we have about 1000 soles (£210) to last us a month. We offer a much smaller amount and say that's all we have, and it’s accepted. We needed to leave the majority of the equipment and canoes in Topal with a family as we hoped we’d be returning the following day. We are eventually taken back to Andoas by two men in a peke peke, which is roughly 7 miles. We each take our grab bags containing only our essentials.
Back in Andoas... did I mention there is nowhere to withdraw cash in Andoas? We arrive just down river from the main town and the wild goose hunt begins, to find the "Indigenous President" who can give us the permission to pass. The two men from Topal demand more money and we refuse them with a laugh, they then lead us into town. Finding the President actually just means following different groups of indigenous people round town, all of whom seem keen to help before then getting side tracked at random houses and speaking with someone who sends us somewhere else. We have no idea if we have come across the President or not. By now it's dark and we are being swarmed by merciless mosquitos and sand flies who make the most of our bare arms and legs because we are still in our day-canoeing clothes. We lose faith in our "helpers" and walk back to the main town. Finally, we check back into the same accommodation and make a plan for how to regain the expedition the following day. That evening we find out there is a fast boat to San Lorenzo, leaving on Sunday. It's currently Wednesday the 7th of June. We desperately want to paddle this section, as it’s going to be the most remote part of our trip, but we need to seek permission first in order to safely pass the communities. Ideally, we can get some permission paperwork and get our kit back between Thursday and Sunday. If we can’t get permission, then the fast boat is our way out.
In this part of the world, the rivers are the only highways. Roads stretch like brown spiders legs into the green jungle from most towns, but they rarely go for more than a few kilometres. If you want to travel long distances you're in a boat or a plane. The fast boat we'd heard about was public transport (once a week) but there were other industrial barges that passed up and down the river delivering goods. These flat hulled tugs are designed to skim over the top of the shallow water carrying anything from barrels of fish to 4x4 pickup trucks. The travel between the large towns that are isolated but they often stop at smaller communities to make deliveries. Indigenous communities rarely have aggressive contact with the bigger boats on the water because 1: the fast boats are too fast and 2: the barges are normally crewed by armed men and 3: the people working the fast boats and barges are mostly indigenous anyway.
That night we had a few beers to destress and charged up our devices. The final insult to injury was that the entire town shuts off electricity at 23:00, but somehow the loud bar across the street continued to go strong into 04:00...
Next day we we’re up early and visit Aldhair who is shocked to see us after our departure the day before. He wants to help and takes us to the local authorities. The building is one of the more modern looking ones in town, painted green with Peruvian colours on the corrugated ceiling. In my foul mood, I notice that the wooden struts are not aligned to the corrugated sheets. A superiority complex kicks in as I decide I’d have never done such shoddy building work and then I quash it, I don’t want to approach the authorities with a bad attitude in my head. The stairs lead up to a second floor with no walls allowing for a nice breeze. Essentially, it's an unfinished building with open sides with three comfy chairs for the main men behind a desk and a long bench for us to sit at opposite. We are seen to after an hour waiting on the stairs whilst three young lads with a rusty machete are questioned and requestioned. Finally we are permitted to go up, we sit in front of three men, who are the first in town that we've seen with polo tops tucked into jeans, it must be official! We explain the issue of passage and they ask why we are only speaking with them now. "We didn't understand the rules before, but now we do." I explain. This is only half true of course, we had been told on numerous occasions to visit officials and ask permission, but in Peru it seems that every time you get someone else involved you part with a fistful of cash and we simply couldn't afford that. So, we had chosen to go by ourselves and paid for it the hard way.
The officials eventually agreed to give us a stamped document and insisted that we hire a guide to get to San Lorenzo and told us we could only travel there using the public transport. We agreed however we had no intention of hiring a guide to sit on a fast boat with us. The friendlier of the 3, was the indigenous President. We had definitely not met him the previous night. He told us that indigenous people would kill us if we went in our canoes and that there are also human organ traffickers who would try to kidnap us and steal our vitals. We understood their reasoning for telling us to pass through this area quickly and with a guide, but we had also been told about 30-meter man-eating anacondas. (The largest ever recorded was 10 meters). It is classic scare mongering to persuade the ‘stupid gringos’ to part with their endless supply of cash. The problem is a lot of the people genuinely believe these rumours and the horrible thing is, the organs stealing rumours have come from true events, with some indigenous people losing their lives.
The three men then demanded 100 dollars tax. We had had enough by this point. We'd already agreed the night before that we needed every penny we had. We'd exchanged our dollars for soles the first day in Andoas and there was nowhere to withdraw cash. We declined, saying that we have no money. In truth we barely had enough to purchase tickets for a fast boat on Sunday. Side note: I really didn't want to take the fast boat, I didn't mind hitching a ride but if we purchased tickets, I felt that we were cheating, and I didn't want that form of transport to be part of the expedition whilst we were following the watercourse. It seemed that we had no choice though. When they then asked for a smaller amount it confirmed a valuable lesson that we had already learned. On the Peruvian frontier, almost everyone is a chancer. The official tax of $100 could be bartered. "Is that because it’s just a made-up number aye?" From now on we'd be quartering prices if we paid at all and in this case, we refused outright until the request was dropped. We received the stamped and signed document by late morning and were grateful of that. We thanked them and warmly, we now had some official paperwork. The men then set the local police an order to collect our canoes and equipment from Topal and at 1400 we were taken to buy 5 gallons of fuel and two stroke oil for their engine. This was an acceptable expense but we were still forced to argue when they tried to trick us into buying twice the amount of 2 stroke oil than we actually needed. We then arrived at a boat upriver from Andoas with the President who was going to drive with us to Topal to collect our equipment. Unfortunately, the tell tail on the outboard engine was spluttering and the engine overheated so we had to abandon that idea. After more waiting around we were taken to an industrial dock where the entire police force was waiting and we all went aboard a rusty old ambulance boat with dual engines. We made it to Topal in under 10 minutes.
On arrival we looked over the boats and equipment and it was a this point that we noticed that the bungee cord had been cut and there were carabiners missing along with Yans boat compass. The Andoas police had a discussion with some of the women and older men who greeted us, they clearly respected the uniform in Topal. Many of the younger men who had initially captured us actually made themselves scarce when we arrived. I was asked by one of the police to give the woman who had watched our equipment some money and my irritation started to rise again. I carefully pulled out the smallest note I had which was 20 soles and she seems pleased with it. I understood why she felt like she was due cash for watching our equipment, I was just annoyed by the fact that this would have all been fine if they would just let us float past minding our own business.
We loaded everything onto the long narrow ambulance boat with one canoe parallel on the roof and the other perpendicular strapped on the front in a T shape. At this point the ambulance driver said he wanted 10 more gallons in order to make the trip back to Andoas. A 10-minute trip. This was the first time the frustration got the better of me and I lost my cool. "What the fuck is this guy on about? You've had 5 fucking gallons to do a 10-minute drive." One policeman was trying to explain to me that due to the dual engines it takes more fuel. They showed us the empty 5-gallon tank we'd brought down. "Look mate," I continue, close to shouting. "See this picture?" I show him a picture of me driving an ORC from my time in the marines. "Yan and I drove boats for 10 years! We know what you're up to!" The driver had clearly poured the 5 gallons into his own tank when we were loading the equipment. They were trying to squeeze us any way they knew how, and they knew we were out of options. "No tengo dinero! Comprende?!"
'OK vamanos" we left and returned back to Andoas, and we unloaded the boats and kit refusing help from anyone, entirely disillusioned and fed up with the sly comments, hand gestures and laughter from the police force. We were in a right old huff, all three of us. We carried everything back to the hostel and brought the boats through town on our shoulders and were relieved to have everything centralised and ready to be mustered. Later that evening we were called down to the square and the police force were sitting there with the ambulance driver. It was to be another stand off and we had to hold firm. We had some money, but we needed to hold it in reserve in order to make it to San Lorenzo. We had decided we'd eat our Adventure Nutrition rations, drink water and part with exactly nothing more! The man was clearly disgruntled, but he'd asked for 10 times what he was due and because of that he got nothing from us. His finger sliding across his throat as he looked me in the eye, during our earlier argument on his boat, had confirmed to us that he would receive ‘fuck all’. For the next three days we didn’t leave the hostel. It's a dirty place with small sweaty rooms and graffiti with the names of male prostitutes all over the bedroom walls. At no point did I consider calling Adriano who'd written his number in my room. I hung up my ukulele, leather cowboy hat and the Summit to Sea flag to try to make a home out of the place.
The lounge area was open to the air thankfully and we sat out there cooking meals on the gas stove and smoking Jakes pipe. Over these few days I finished a great book, "The Lost Lady of the Amazon" a story following a similar route to our own, and then began catching up with my writing. Every night, the male only nightclub across the street would pump decibels into our ear drums from 2200 to 0400 and Yan and Jake had real trouble sleeping. We were thoroughly sick of Andoas and what’s more now knew we couldn’t paddle Stage 2 which was a real downer.
On Friday morning, the 9th of June, we went to purchase tickets for the fast boat to San Lorenzo and were dismayed to learn it was now postponed to Monday. Another 24 hours here seemed unbearable. At least that kick in the teeth spurred us on to do a circuit in the local square. 10 down to 1 pull ups then some body weight exercises. The town came out in force to watch this strange spectacle. Jake and I went for a run on Saturday morning which also brought significant interest. The most difficult thing about those few days, having done all the hard work getting our equipment back, was finding out where the fast boat was due to leave from. We'd follow directions to the industrial port, then back into town. The woman who sold the tickets wouldn't explain more than "15 minutes walking that way." We must have asked 30 different people and it was hopeless. We’d say, in Spanish: "Where does the fast boat to San Lorenzo leave from?" One answer that almost killed me was: "The future." We started to think that there was a town-wide conspiracy against us.
On Saturday night a restaurant owner (Shanghai) across the road got chatting to Yan and offered us a meal on the house which he gratefully accepted. During the meal we told him of the expedition and his wife insisted we come back for breakfast, lunch and dinner on Sunday and took our names so she could pray for us. Their two young daughters clung to us all evening and we threw them in the air and spun them around enjoying their cute, smiling faces and the warmth from their parents. Faith in humanity was being restored. Shanghai was former Peruvian army and had set up in Andoas with his family. He and his wife's restaurant was the best in town but we we're gutted to hear that his daughters were also struggling to sleep with the relentless nightclub music blasting through his thin walls. They all just accepted it for some reason!
In the morning Shanghai told us his friend (a barge captain) was due to leave Andoas, heading down river that day and we jumped at the chance to go a day early. The barge would be heading to Yurimaguas on the Huallaga River (right direction). It would be much slower and didn't go direct to San Lorenzo but the guarantee of leaving Andoas was enough for us to take the offer. We were still questioning whether the fast boat even existed. Plus, my expedition hope is that we don't have to purchase any transportation, if we hitch a ride with someone that's going our direction anyway then we've achieved the journey using our wits, not having to tap into the generous donations we'd received or our own money. So, we were delighted to take the offer. We got a refund for the fast boat tickets, minus 60 soles (15 dollars) and paddled the boats and kit 1km upstream to the big green barge. She was called the "Walter Junior 1".
The Walter Junior 1 was sandwiched between two other barges and there was a strong current moving past the port side of the outboard barge, so we tied on at the stern beneath an opening. We managed to squeeze everything through the smugglers hole at the back of the engine room, including the canoes which only lost a little red paint on the way in. We set up camp in our new HQ on the deck and made a cup of tea. There were smiles all round at the thought of finally leaving Andoas after 10 days of delays. We looked forward to pressing the reset button and watching the land slip past us as we progressed to the next stage...
Stage 2 in a Nutshell: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AsVxrIiFFmU