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Stage 3 - Humans in Amazonia

Updated: Dec 6, 2023

The next morning Yan was up at the crack of dawn, boiling water for a breakfast of freeze dried porridge. By 0700 we were paddling down river having had a quick encounter with a family, who'd stopped at the cabin to pick up their dinner; one of the unfortunate ducks that we'd spent the night with. We stopped in at Libertad, as promised to the two men with rifles the night before, and were permitted to pass down river. Around 1500 after overing around 50m, we saw a cleared area in the forest on the outside bend of a massive meander and decided to have a look. By standing up in the canoes we could just about see above the small vertical cliff of packed silt that made up the bank. We tied the boats to a fallen tree and climbed onto the land.

We'd struck gold, a beautiful camping area that had been cleared for a plantation but, there were three trees perfectly spaced for our hammocks. We set up enthusiastically, still flinching at the sounds of engines passing on the river though.

Soon two men approached and we were glad to see they were friendly. They owned this spot and had cleared it for a platanna plantation. They were happy for us to stay and told us about the crop, a tree would take 11 years before being fully productive and they fruit all year round. We then watched them hunt small birds in

the canopy with nets but without success. They offered us some bananas which we gladly accepted before they left, around an hour before sun down. We then washed off the days sweat and grime in the muddy river, had dinner and managed to get into the hammocks before the bugs came out.

Around 1930 Ian and I decided to check the canoes and put another line on them in case the river decided to rise. Our torches attracted the largest amount of insects I've experienced in my life. Within about three seconds of turning on a head torch, there were moths and mosquitos and god knows what else bouncing off your

face, invading your nostrils, mouth and flying up inside sleeves and collars. We hastily did our best to fling a rope around an old stump of what would have once been a giant, majestic tree of the Amazon Rainforest, then retreated to our hammocks. There was no option but to sleep with a good amount of biting creatures inside the hammock that night.

The following day (21st June) we were in high spirits and were optimistic that the locals along the Marañón were becoming much friendlier. We stopped at Naranjal where I went to search for drinking water as we were running low. A kindly woman, heavy set woman with a wide smile and bouncing curly hair took me to get water as Ian and Jake waited with the boats. Her curly hair was in contrast to the straight, shiny black hair of the indigenous people and I found out that she was here to teach the villagers Spanish. I explained to her that we were peaceful tourists and then later used the word explorers. She insisted that down river we must always use the word explorer and never say that we were tourists, to avoid danger. I didn't fully understand this but decided to take her advice. We stopped at a shack that was used as boarding accommodation and she said I could use the shower to fill up our two 10 litre water bags. The water looked clear which was better than silty river water, but it was certainly not good for drinking and would have to be chlorinated. Back at the boat the locals had given us two big bags of delicious stubby bananas that had a slight apricot flavour to them. We each ate one in front of them, a crowd that was now around 100 people, then pushed off and waved them goodbye fondly.

The morning was spent in a good flow, covering roughly 7 kmph. Around lunch time we reached the point where the Huallaga joined the Marañón. When my dad was on an expedition in Peru to climb Nevada Huandoy, he had travelled back to the East Coast of South American via the Huallaga River. I'd grown up hearing tales of his adventures as he came down to this exact point on a balsawood raft transporting pigs. The thought of him travelling through here all those years ago was uplifting and a brief break from the heat and toil of our own current adventure.

Unfortunately, that afternoon we lost the flow which resulted in us putting in a hard paddle under a fierce equatorial sun. The temperature rose to 38°C and there wasn't a breath of wind. I was in the front seat that day, the sun was beating off the water into my face and it took its toll. Also, due to the exertion of paddling, I though it was a good idea to eat a few more bananas which were by now almost hot and mushy due to exposure. By the end of the day I felt utterly spent, dizzy and achy, and my stomach was churning.

We made it to our goal of Punta Arenas and met a very kindly man who allowed us to sling our hammocks in a building opposite his house. He turned out to be the Apu and also a devout Christian. He was a man with a constant smile on his face and gentle demeanour.

The Chiefs son and his pet monkey.

His father took a special interest in us and insisted on helping us put up our hammocks. He had a large plaster on his face over a flat area where his nose had once been. I really felt for him but was impressed by the way he went about his business, dealing with what must be a horrendous issue in such a climate, so far away from good medical care. He had a poster promoting Christianity put up next to our hammocks and we made sure to pay it respect. Although I'm not religious, I'm sure that the kindness and hospitality we felt in Punta Arenas was in part due to the teachings within the Bible.

Once we were settled in, the three of us took a walk through the village, over a potholed football field, and down to the river to wash. I was feeling extremely woozy but more urgently, I needed to relieve my bowels. In the communities we had passed so far, the locals would do their toilet business in the river and let the flow take any waste away. Most places didn't have showers, so of course, they would also wash in the river. We hadn't figured out if there was a system in place, E.G: times of day set aside for washing so that no one was going to be shitting up stream of your bath. Either way, it was completely normal to shit in the river and I desperately needed to go.

Unfortunately, due to us being (as always) the only gringos in town, we were beginning to gather a crowd. As normal as it may have been, I didn't fancy being the subject of their dinner time conversation. "The palest bum in Punta Arenas." And if you can imagine, a churning stomach, heat exhaustion and one too many hot bananas... This wasn't going to be pretty. The crowd was growing on the bank above as I paced the muddy shallows waiting for them to leave.

The easiest thing to do would be to swim into deeper water and just let go but there was another problem. In this part of the world there is a tiny barbed fish called the orifice fish and if you pee under the water, you run the risk of one swimming up your urethra. Once there it will open up barbs, making it impossible to remove without an operation. I wasn't fully aware of the facts regarding these demonic fish, but I didn't want to risk one of them swimming into my arse! Point to note, they can only enter your body whilst you are in the process of doing the business. Eventually, I couldn't wait any longer, and the solution suddenly popped into my head. I was wearing tight under armour, I'd just have to go for it with them on, then when finished, get them off and have a thorough wash. I treaded water and let it happen, wondering if the on-lookers could tell by my facial expression, or even cared. I had to laugh, dignity was something we'd all left behind. We all then had a great wash up stream.

That night I was on fire with a fever one minute and then freezing with chills the next. I wasn't quite deluded but I wasn't all there either. I remember finding the thought of the expedition hilarious and laughing my way through the early hours. What's more, the diarrhoea didn't stop and it seemed like every time I was about to drift to sleep, my stomach would have another movement, forcing me out of my hammock. Fortunately, Jake had found out that the village had an outhouse which I then frequented, trying my best to aim my explosive rear end through a tiny square hole, into a crawling cesspit beneath, whilst craning my neck upwards to make sure none of the large brown spiders on the ceiling fell into my naked lap. It was a wretched night, I reminded myself of the creature Gollum. Thank god for the hospitality of these people because I would have been even more miserable under different circumstances.

Waving goodbye to the kindly Chief of Punta Arenas. (Left)

Thankfully the next day I had improved enough to risk taking to the water again. I hadn't slept much and was severely dehydrated, but Ian had plied me with electrolytes and antibiotics from the med bag and I felt I was past the worst of it. We were hopeful that, should we need a stop short, a community would take us in, or at least allow us to hang hammocks somewhere. We tied the canoes together and I lay in a feverish sweat in the front of one whilst Jake and Yan paddled from behind finding good flow all morning. As the day went on, I improved and by 1400 we found a lovely sandy beach. (This was the first we'd seen as it had all been thick silt and mud up until that point. It is worth noting that the Amazon Basin is situated on an ancient ocean bed and later on we'd encounter white coral beaches from reefs that would have been there millions of years ago). It felt like a perfect place to take a sound recording for Moira.

Unfortunately, every time I took a recording a bloody noisy engine would start up from across the river somewhere, potentially ruining the quality of the data. We were collecting important sound data on a key indicator species of frog, something that hasn’t been done for the entire length of the Amazon. I felt that the work was incredibly important, it gave us an environmental purpose for being there, so these interruptions were increasing frustrating. Obviously we had far less right to be there, praying for silence, than the local farmers buzzing up and down the rivers to their plantations, but I still cursed them under my breath when they showed up during recordings. We then took a dip in the river to lower our body temperatures and cracked on. Two or three afternoon dips were now part of our daily routine, essential for maintaining good paddling.

Maipuco sunset

We made a fantastic distance of 57km despite being down a man and arrived at Maipuco, an established town on the south bank. The people here were fantastic and we were invited to sleep in a floating gasoline store, just off the riverbank. Our canoes were tied to the jetty within sight, there was a cool river breeze and the sandflies where nowhere to be seen. Despite us sleeping amongst the gasoline fumes, this was luxury. Unfortunately, that night it was Jake's turn to have his guts fail on him and I could hear him squatting off the back of the floating shed throughout the night, squirting into the river. Medication was given and he was able to get some sleep despite a few noisy dogs. I must have been tired because I didn't hear one woof. In the morning I noticed a old man coming down the bank with a brand new, traditional carved paddle. I called out to him for a swap which he agreed to. Our pine paddles were twice as light and had a better surface area, but for some reason I think he thought he was getting a raw deal!

On day 6 of Stage 3 (23rd June) we set off for Concordia. We'd didn't have much information on the settlements and just selected them based on distances we thought we could achieve. We kept the canoes tied together and Jake, who was dehydrated, was able to pass out under an umbrella in the front this time. With good flow we achieved the 75km to Concordia and passed the last hour paddling hard to an album of old sea shanties from Yan's music collection.

Concordia sits on the east bank as the river moves northward on a giant meander. If Maipuco was a bustling town trying to 'westernise', Concordia was the opposite with a much more traditional look. I preferred how it looked but without question we felt much less safe here. We were taken to the village Apu who stumbled out of his house bleary eyed at around 1600, looking like he'd been on hard liquor for a week straight. After we produced our documents, he allowed us to hang our hammocks under some coconut palms but all in all it was a frosty reception.

A large crowd gathered and watched us set up camp laughing and throwing seemingly insulting phrases at us in the mixed Quechua and Spanish. We played along for a while but it was prime mosquito hour so instead of entertaining them we got into our hammocks and waited for the biting insects to disappear. Eventually both they and the crowd of locals melted away and we were able to cook using fresh limes from a nearby tree.

The night was filled with dreadful music on repeat on an extremely loud speaker. If you have a good imagination, try to imagine a wailing woman, imitating a dirt bike engine, an out of tune syth from an 80's pop band and a chimpanzee on an artificial drumkit. Ok it wasn't that bad, but imagine this:

Imagine listening to it every single night, all through the night and turned up to maximum volume on one of those huge 4 foot tall speakers. That was our reality in most indigenous towns. We were grateful of accommodation but longed to sleep in the forest. If we did find a chance to sleep in the forest, we were told it was unnatural and asked to come to the towns.

Anyway, that was played until 0300, then a group of 20 children began running around screaming and whooping under the hammocks from 0330 to 0500. Jake's guts had been bad for about 4 or 5 days but in Concordia he was especially bad. He'd had to get up numerous times in the night and squat down by the river. Each time that he frustratingly trapsed down to the waters edge and unveiled himself in a vulnerable state, he was lit up like a beacon of Gondor by bright head lamps on the bank above. They just watched him until he was finished and although Yan and I laughed our heads off in the morning when he told us, we understood his anger. The majority of the people in the Peruvian Amazon have completely different ideas to us about what acceptable behaviour is. In the morning we got up and left without exchanging many pleasantries.

The toilet palaver came to it's hysterical climax when we had to stop for Jake to go by the side of the river. It was desperate times so we pulled in and he hopped out immediately into knee deep mud. Being unable to move and weakened from illness he apologetically asked for permission to go right there. We averted eyes and tried not to listen to the splattering, I contemplated putting my hand on his shoulder... It's not often that three brothers get to share a moment as close as that.

At this point I was pretty disappointed in myself for not being able to empathise and communicate with the people of many communities. We were on a timeline that required us to get from A to B, under a hot sun daily. Making proper connections with indigenous people was very time consuming, especially with our limited Spanish abilities. Often, because we didn't speak well, we were taken as imbeciles, so men of a certain age would think they can take advantage of us. We learned this early on and went from being far too open and genuine, to very guarded, behind fake smiles that didn't touch our eyes. Soon we could spot these tricksters a mile off and cut the conversation early, but the frustrations and stresses affected our connections with most people. We met suspicious people who would want to hold and search us often and these situations could take a day and cause kit to go missing. This dynamic had led to a situation where we would try to avoid native people and that is the opposite of what I hoped to be doing throughout this expedition. I usually love a culture shock, but this one was very hard to navigate. Jake and Ian were much quicker to dismiss people but I tried a little more to connect, usually in vane. There were some fantastic, warm people who were forthcoming and respectful and we loved meeting them. We'd benefit for days from these great encounters. I hoped we weren't being too standoffish and missing out on good encounters.

Day 7 started with two boats full of men approaching us 6 miles after we had left Concordia. They told us we're under arrest and we needed to go to a near-by community. We explained that we'd spoken to the Apu in Concordia, we had no time to stop. "We are explorers!" We shouted confidently. Then they changed their tune and asked for money, and we laugh them off. "You've got more than us lads!" Eventually they gave up and continued up river. Chancers!

We decide to go to the community where the men had come from anyway, to see if we could get some well water. As we waited, three lovely older women gave us some early lunch but ask to watch us eat it. Lunch was three parcels of rice, chicken and olives wrapped in leaves and tied at the top by a piece of twine. We ate with our hands, scooping the rice from the leaf and nibbling on the chicken bone. We loudly exclaimed with "mmmmmm" and " es delicioso" and they all laughed from above us on the banks. It was beautifully seasoned, and we agreed it was the best local food we had had. Another positive encounter!

Continuing on for a solid effort of 65km we made it to Castilla where we managed to find a very simple hostel for 10 soles each. This still meant jumping in the river for a wash and the locals were aghast that we were considering this after dark. That night we enjoyed a rare couple of beers as the safety of an ATM in Nauta (large town down river) loomed ever closer. Over beers, the conversation turned to the problems we had encountered and quickly turned to down right bitching about the locals. We'd all been feeling the same stresses and frustrations, but I was fed up with the miserable chat. There was no way to get away from it, we were with each other 24/7 and it was infectious, I found myself joining in. I was in desperate need of a change of tune, thinking to myself "who wants to spend an entire expedition focusing on the negatives?"

That night, Jake was kept up again by local teenaged girls playing music on a phone and spent the first hour of darkness muttering and shouting at them to quieten down. He was exhausted from his illness and continuous sleep deprivation. His mood had lifted by morning but then Yan was cranky because we were running late. Without much persuasion, as we were loading up the canoes, Yan and I barked at each other. I basically said I was fed up with the constant negativity and he had a valid point too. We were aiming to reach Iquitos in time for his girlfriend Cara arriving and the delays were getting tiresome. Although it was a sour way to begin the day, we slowly started working well again. Knowing each others' concerns within a team is necessary and you've got to communicate them constantly, even if they seem trivial.


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