What madness impelled me to join such a venture? I don´t know now if it was good or bad luck that I decided to walk into the ¨Mad Mick´s Bunkhouse and Trading Post¨on a Tuesday afternoon to check it out, but either way, I walked out having signed up to participate in what was billed as ¨The World´s Longest River Raft Race.¨ My own damned nature is responsible I suppose as I just couldn´t pass up something like that. The romantic in me jumped at the chance to participate and I didn´t need much prodding to sign my name on the dotted line. The famous ¨Mad Mick¨himself was there and he built up the experience so much that I just couldn´t refuse. I was only one person though, I protested, but he said he´d find three others to form a team with me. ¨Just show up at the meeting tonight and you´ll find out more,¨he reassured me.
So at 8 pm I met the rest of my team that Michael Collins had found for me, a young German couple traveling the world over the course of a year, Felix and Steph, and Tim, an American journalist for Outside magazine here to participate and write up the adventure for publication back home. We chit-chatted and they all signed on to my philosophy of lazily floating down the river and having a grand old time. The name I chose for our team reflected those thoughts as we were to be named, ¨Los Mas Perisosos¨or ¨The Laziest Ones.¨ We discussed what was needed and agreed to meet up the following morning at the welcoming ceremony at the mayor of Iquitos
´chambers. The following morning we were welcomed by the young mayor of Iquitos and there was lots of local press in attendance who were eager to capture the thoughts of the foreigners participating.
Press interviewing Mike
They were noticeably unhappy with many of the replies that deflated their notion that we were there to provide competition for the hungry local teams. They just didn´t understand the philosophy of non-competition. We were just happy to be there and didn´t have illusions of beating the locals who were training all year to win and capture the several thousand soles purse, a large sum of money to these boys.
The next morning, after a sleepless night in which I tossed and turned, terrified I wouldn´t hear the alarm I set over the noise of the fan, I awoke bleary eyed to walk to the plaza where we were to meet the bus to take us to Nauta, up the river and the starting point of the race. On the ride over, packed in like sardines with equipment and a group of young girls who were going to be dancing a tribal dance in Nauta for all the participants, I got to meet some of the other foreigners.
We were a mixed crew from many different countries and with many different reasons for ending up in Iquitos and getting involved in the race. AJ, the Mexican-American next to me, had already kayaked 1,100 miles through Peru before being attacked by pirates on the Brazilian border and being relieved of his belongings. But here he was today, back for more punishment, this time in a raft. Once in Nauta, Steph, Felix and I ate some street food, empanadas, snow cones and flan before meeting up with Tim who had taken the boat with other foreigners the day before. What was supposed to be a 10 hour trip ended up taking an incredible 21 hours due to an electrical storm and then a hole in the boat when they were docked by shore waiting it out. This bad omen was to set the tone for the entire four days of the competition but we didn´t know that at the time.
We were all high spirits and excitement and anxious for everything to begin. All the captains were called up on stage and as captain I observed the opening ceremonies. The mayor of Nauta spoke, the local beauty queen was in attendance, the youngsters danced a spirited tribal dance and masato was shared around (fermented yucca juice, masicated and spit out and then sealed for a few days. It tasted a bit like alcoholic soured orange juice but wasn´t really all that bad.)
After ceremonies, we milled around waiting for direction and information. That was also to be a constant over the next few days. Hungry, we decided to go eat before anything else. At lunch I met ¨Ayahuasca Rick,¨an Australian who was all peace and love and harmony with the universe.
Monkeys at the festivities (Robyn's photo)
His spirit was contagious and he preached the healing properties of ayahuasca at great length and told us how it changed his life. His beaming smile and nonchalant attitude was a beacon for many of us when the going got tough later on. The American boys from the Peace Corps in Ecuador were also at our table wearing their identical aquamarine shirts with holes in them exposing their hairy chests and sporting many days growth on their faces. They looked a lot older than their tender years and were vowing to win the whole thing. Also accompanying us was a young local boy who went around introducing himself proudly as ¨Hangry¨to all the foreigners. He had appointed himself as our local guide and trailed us everywhere. We bought him lunch and he led us through the market suggesting things to buy and insisting on carrying things for us.
Rick bought him a soccer ball and he was just thrilled. This was his big day. At 2 pm we got on the boat to be ferryed over to the other side of the river where there was a beach and the site of the raft building and the overnight camping. The race would begin on that beach, just beyond Nauta. Time passed and finally a boat showed up with the balsa logs necessary for construction of our rafts. I really didn´t know what was going on and our team missed out on getting some logs. The Peruvians swarmed the boat to select the best logs (white balsa instead or red, and the smallest and lightest ones, with cuvature too) leaving some of the foreign teams with nothing. The organization had underestimated and the boat had to go back to collect more logs and return.
We waited and waited and when the second boat came there still weren´t enough logs. The ones we were able to salvage were fairly thick and heavy and if only we had known then how much that would impede our raft we would have attacked them more vigorously with machete and ax to chop them down to size and reduce the drag and weight. But this is all from hindsight. The Peruvians were already furiously attacking their logs with machetes, hewing pointed fronts to face the water with the least resistance possible. They trimmed far up the log to reduce weight and when they bound the whole together with a twine-like bark that was provided, they used the natural curvature of the logs to raise the front out of the water for least resistance. How I wish we would have imitated them! But we were late getting our supplies and dusk was falling as well as threatening skies.
Masato for everyone!
Sure enough, the rain came soon and we were faced with constructing our raft in the failing light under stormy skies. We finally got the promised help to construct our raft, but not before much questioning and searching. And it was too late to construct it properly. Night fell and I was starving. I have to admit that I didn´t do much to help construct the raft and I think Tim was not too happy with that. They spent hours out near the water with the locals hewing and binding until finally it was finished. Dinner was served and we had to pay for it although it was supposed to have been included in the price of the event. The meat was tough and by then my hunger had diminished due to a wolfed down tuna sandwich I had on board the support boat where Michael was lounging with a beer eating chicken and rice with his girlfriend and the local crew.
¨Hangry¨ and his friend
We were somewhat miffed with him for sitting on the boat all day watching us go down in flames wondering what we were supposed to do, and when and how, and a thousand other questions. It seemed he was washing his hands of all responsibility and we didn´t like it. The local authorities responsible were not helping at all and that was also a bad omen and the way it was going to be the whole way in to Iquitos. After dinner we shared beers and rum and coke with the leftover rum I had bought in Yurimaguas
to celebrate Felix´s birthday. We had already stached our stuff in a tent but despaired a bit at the rain that we weren´t able to keep out. It looked like it was going to be a tough night on the hard sand in a leaky tent, so maybe having a few beers wasn´t a bad idea.
A woman doing all the work...ahh, this is going to be a great trip...
Everyone eventually went to bed but we stayed up and hung around with the teenagers at their bonfire and then went back near the food tent when we heard music emanating from that direction. The locals in charge had hired three dancing girls in their cumbia orchestra outfits to shimmy and shake to karaoke cumbia songs. In scandalously scanty outfits, about what a stripper would wear in the US, the girls performed for all the assembled group and it was a strange sight. The men gawked and I didn´t think about it til the next day until some of the other foreigners commented on what was probably really going on. They had hired some local putas with the entrance fee monies. That thought just sickened all of us even more, especially in light of the terrible lack of organization and support and general failure on their part.
The engineer who was later bitten by a stingray
The mood was getting a bit uglier... We called it a night and walked away from the scene and laid down in the tent hoping not to notice the hard sand and chill wind and rainwater pooled in the tent. Mercifully, sleep overtook us quickly.
More Travel Blogs on the Race:
www.mytb.org/weltvagabunden (Felix & Steph, my raftmates)
http://kayakaj.blogspot.com (AJ and the Chollos)
http://veenwolfjes.web-log.nl (Dutch blog and photos)
blogspot.com (Mark´s Blog)
Support Boat Engineer (Robyn's photo)