Updated: Nov 10
We set off on Stage 3 at 1030 on Sunday the 18th of June. We were refreshed and glad to have the complications of Stage 2 behind us. Importantly, we were armed with paperwork, signed and stamped by the police of San Lorenzo.
As we paddled away from the small port, which was essentially a collection of shacks on stilts and a few jetties, we had that familiar feeling; the joy of being on the move again. We all stood up in the canoes and had a pee together, hidden by the long rushes from a peke peke that we could hear near by. The reeds didn't stop the wake though and as it hit the canoes we wobbled and cursed spraying yellow fountains around as we attempted to regain control in comical fashion.
We paddled down the last 20 miles of the Pastaza River which had slowed and widened considerably, eagerly anticipating the Marañón and its faster flow. There was minimal traffic on the river and when we did see local boats, we felt an uneasiness due to our temporary abduction in Topal. We did our best to keep ourselves away from the boats we heard and chose to go behind islands, shielding us from villages, hoping to avoid being spotted.
As we rounded the southwestern point of one of the many large islands, the community of Santana appeared on the far bank, the houses just specs against the green to my eyes with the sun glancing off of corrugated iron rooftops. Even at this distance on the flat open water, noise travels easily and we immediately heard the sound of two dugout engines starting. "Here we go again!" I thought, rolling my eyes and hoping that they were heading another direction. But they came right for us and within 15 minutes we had three angry men shouting at us that we must immediately go to the settlement. We were polite and kept repeating "Tenemos documentos policiales de San Lorenzo!! Podemos mostrarte!" It was no use, we looked at each other and decided to go them, paddling the boats over the 1km wide river. By the time we were across, the situation had developed to one very similar to Topal. The entire village had amassed on the riverbanks, around 200 people gathered in an angry mob, some recording us. I asked the lads to stay together with the boats whilst I would go to find an elder and explain the situation but they wouldn't allow it. The mob wanted all three of us out of the boats and in the village. We gathered our grab bags which contained the expensive equipment and documents and made our way onto a hard packed dirt street. At this point the crowd completely surrounded us, getting very close, I could feel people pressed against my back as I tried to pick out a face worth talking to. Numerous different angry men demanded to know what we were doing and where we were going in Quechua and Spanish. I remember one guy in a black t-shirt, perhaps 25 years old shouting aggressively, pointing his finger, I decided to stare him down until he was finished and show that I wasn't afraid, but I could feel myself shaking and knew my voice wouldn't be great when I eventually used it.
Stressful doesn’t quite cut it. I was fairly confident that we wouldn't be harmed, having experienced the same thing a week earlier. But then again, we were now very close to Mushacarusha, the armed community that we were told would kill us and each community has their own set of local laws. An older man silenced the aggressive young man and I turned to meet his gaze. His eyes were red and glazed by extensive alcohol use but I could see warmth in them. He and two other older men did their best to quieten the mob and I could now see that they were the authority that I'd deal with. One had long hair and a head band that I assumed made him some kind of spiritual leader. Even when they'd successfully quietened the mob, their own questions were coming too fast for me, Yan or Jake to understand and reply to. I showed the documents and explained as best I could that we had permission to pass through and would do so peacefully. I also apologised for any upset we'd caused. I could hear the boys making similar statements to other questioners in the ruckus.
Eventually one man began clearly and loudly reading out the police document and the crowd hushed to listen, occasionally exclaiming an "Ahhhn" in unison and nodding. I felt the pressure life as the attention was diverted from us. The crowd seemed to loosened up considerably. Once he'd finished reading, he became angry and addressed the crowd, loudly shouting something like: "Do we respect the police here???" The on-mass response from the men in the mob was "Noooooooo!" My temporary feeling of security immediately disappeared. This community did not respect the police and were clearly not impressed by our paperwork. The man continued to rile them up for a further few minutes and we just stood and listened and tried not to react as we were justled from the rear. I clung to my bag and watched Yan and Jake trying to catch an eye to reassure and be reassured. Eventually after more questions that I answered on Google translate on my phone the dynamics suddenly changed.
The man who had been riling everyone up suddenly turned into a joker and began making fun of Jake calling him Hollywood because we'd explained that Jake was from the USA. To be fair, he was wearing quite an 'American' hat, obviously I wouldn't describe my cowboy hat that way!
The crowd laughed and we began to nervously laugh with them. The man then insisted we follow him to try 'Masata'. We were led down the main street, away from the boats and our equipment. The older men had all of our documents and it was difficult to keep an eye on them amongst the crowd. We were completely at the mercy of the people of Santana and we had no choice but to do what we were told. 100 meters down the road we stopped at a house where we were asked if we wanted "Masata". We turned to look and then saw the familiar vats containing chicha. Having travelled out of Achuar territory, the people here were Quechua, though not the same line of Quechua as those who live under Chimborazo. The Quechua here spoke a different language too. We readily accepted so as not to be rude and each drained 2 full porcelain bowls of fermented saliva and yucca. The bowls here were not nearly as beautiful as the ones in Copataza had been. Then some ginger whisky that was brought out which was honestly delicious and we were told to finish a bottle and pay two soles for it. It was clearly a test which I think we passed because afterwards we were greeted warmly and invited to watch a football match being played against the neighbouring village.
We put our hammocks up in a big empty hall and our equipment was brought in, including the boats. A crowd then watched us as we arranged our bags, trying not to show off anything too expensive. This quickly turned into another full search of our kit. They were mostly interested in the light pine paddles donated by Tiso that Ben had brought from Scotland, strapped to the outside of his backpack. The pine wood was far lighter than their traditional hard wood paddles and they seemed very impressed. I gave out a few plastic compasses to the kids and then we went to watch the football game. Pretty soon we were tired and hungry and returned to to the hall. The stress of the last few hours had taken its toll and we had no idea if we were prisoners, we just knew we were going to be there for the night. What we needed was a plan; how to how to navigate past the native communities politely, without being subjected to forced accommodation and searches. That night there were two men guarding our door with clubs which added to our suspicion that we might not being going anywhere fast. We weren't sure if they were there to keep us in, or to keep drunks out. It was a Father’s Day festival in the village and we all agreed we much preferred Mother’s Day in Copataza. All that night we were kept up by drunk shouting and people imitating cockerels, which in turn set off the piercing shrills from the birds themselves, echoing through town. Some noises in the night really agitate me, snoring boils my blood and I literally can't sleep with it going on, cockerel calls, I found, have the same effect. People came to peep at us and ask for things and there was constant loud chatter from outside our door. I remember Jake asking "Do you guys think we're in any danger here?" To which I answered "Nah mate, I don't think so." Although I wasn't exactly sure.
Throughout the night we were a spectacle and the villagers enjoyed it. In hindsight, who could blame them considering the look of us and our alien equipment. But I was cursing the lack of hospitality from Peruvian Amazonians through the dark hours. How were we to make our timings work when communities behaved like this to peaceful travellers?? The stress caused by these situations was exhausting, we were all visibly shaken during the day and it took a good while to shake that off.
The choices were: get a guide, or go into every community and beg permission to pass, potentially losing hours if not days depending on how each community reacted to us. We couldn't find a guide that we could afford and so agreed on the second option. Our only hope was that the indigenous people along the Marañón were more chilled out than those of the Pastaza who had clear issues with our presence. We would hear, on more than one occasion, that we were there to steal their children's organs. We were also told that people downstream would want to take ours.
At 0400 the three of us awoke to indigenous music being played at full volume from a very grainy loudspeaker in our big shed. It was almost deafening and in my confusion it felt like some kind of noise torture. This was followed by a 20-minute announcement then more music. To be completely honest, Peruvian music is torturous at the best of times although I'm sure they'd feel the same way about the bagpipes. From what we could hear, the entire village was being woken and told to come to where we were. There was a lot more information said which I couldn't understand. I got up and began another long negotiation with two older gentlemen, completely sleep deprived and now very angry. They were asking for money and then we'd be released. As mentioned before, we had very little money to go on but by this point I was ready to hand over 50 soles and get moving. Thankfully, after a while Yan and Jake emerged from their hammocks, Yan apologising that he'd not heard our conversation. He was not happy with handing over so much money and asked if we could part with 10 soles each. This was immediately accepted by the older of the two men and thankfully the deal was done.
As the pale light of a new day touched the horizon, we lugged our boats and equipment back to the river with the help of a few men. As we pushed off from the bank, the entire village stood to watch us leave with fond looks on their faces. I'd be lying if I said we weren't completely bamboozled.
We couldn't afford to continuously pay for enforced community stays and hoped our luck would change.
The journey: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_-O5cA22-Xs