Map of the Race (ok, race only for some...)
Dawn broke drizzly and cool with water pooling in our tent to dampen not only our pants and belongings but our spirits as well. I didn´t think the race was going to come off after all. Some rafts still needed to be finished, there weren´t any paddles and the steady rain wasn´t helping. Steph and Felix were still sleeping off their hangover and I didn´t want to rouse them so I wandered over to the breakfast tent. Fat chance of the promised fresh orange juice, rice, bread and fried eggs. What we got was a huge stew of condensed milk with boiled water and rice - kind of like a hot liquid rice pudding - and 2 pieces of hard bread. Get used to it buddy... Tim was out there finishing up the raft and we all waited for paddles, which were insufficient for all the boats, surprised? Lifejackets were lacking too but by 10 am all was ready and we were sitting on our rafts in the water ready to go.
Porvenir - Improvised lodging
I have a mental picture of Michael Collins with the Peruvian rafters gathered around him, drawing lines in the sand and explaining to them in his heavily British-accented Spanish how the rafters would all line up. It was seriously comical and I laughed all the way to the raft.
The wide expanse of the Maranon river looked challenging with the windswept and rain-dimpled waters stretching to the far shore. At the sound of ¨Listo, Vamos!¨the rafts set off with the Peruvian teams surging ahead quickly directly across the river on a course for the far shore. They were making a beeline for the current but we didn´t know that yet. Hard experience would teach us that finding the current would be the number one priority on the river.
But when we saw the difference in speed when the Peruvian rafts, and one raft manned by Canadians, a Dutch and a Mexican who had all been training for months before the race too, hit the current and quickly started to move against the far bank, we realized that there was a current there and that it made a serious difference. We struggled just to get across and by the time we hit the current we were second to last, just edging out a boat with a saucy quintagenarian from the south self-titled ¨The Mississippi Queen¨, the kayaker AJ who was the brains in the raft, and two other girls, one of whom was suffering from diarrhea. It wasn´t really heartening then that we were in front of them. There was nothing to do but paddle, and paddle and paddle, and then paddle some more as we slowly made our way down the river.
The rain started to clear and after an hour or so we saw only a few rafts ahead of us. All the others had pulled out of sight. That was not a comforting thought either. We tried to make sense of where the current was on the river but it was maddening because the rafts seemed to be scattered. Who should we follow? We opted for AJ´s raft since he had all that experience kayaking a thousand miles and he had by now pulled ahead of us. We had some company around us with Ayahuasca Rick´s raft, a group of Tasmanians on their ¨devil raft¨ and a couple others. It seemed like the path was to the far bank and we laboriously dug our misshapen paddles in to get to the other side. When we arrived it was a joy to feel the strong water pull us along quickly and to actually see terra firma move by us at a quicker pace.
The skies had cleared even though it was still gray, and it was cool enough that we weren´t sweating all that much. Time to stop paddling and break out lunch.
We enjoyed having the current pull us forward at a nice pace while we munched our tuna sandwiches, ritz crackers and little sweet bananas, but after the short break we had to pick up the paddles again or risk being totally left behind. By this time of the day we realized that the pipe dream in Iquitos of lazily floating towards the finish line was a cruel illusion. It was either paddle or fall dangerously behind. It was clear that 40 miles was a long, long way to go in one day.
Mess hall and bunkhouse...all improvised
We struggled the rest of the afternoon, including a frustrating loss of time where the Ucayali river meets the Maranon to form the Amazon. The whirlpools and collision of currents left us in the middle of the river sitting in a dead calm and it seemed that anywhere we paddled didn´t get us into a current. We moved around listlessly for what seemed an age and the fact that the river had grown into a wide behemoth didn´t help our progress. The banks seemed so far away and we felt like we were becalmed in a huge lake with no idea where to go. A consolation were the grey dolphins that we saw breaking the surface, some very close to our raft, and watching the birds, the river banks and sky and clouds that had now broken up ito form a fine late afternoon.
Lots of mud
But that also meant that we had only a couple hours until dark and there was no way of knowing how far along the river we were or where our destination lay. Rick´s boat had pulled up somewhat by this time and we made conversation before they pulled away. They were barely paddling and we began to realize that our raft was probably one of the heaviest of the fleet, and that it made a real difference. That frustration, added to the late hour, and all of our uncertainties didn´t improve our mood and we struggled to stay positive. Finally we caught a current on the left bank and having questioned some women washing clothes by the river bank where the town was, we learned that it was around the bend. The only problem with that answer is that bends on the Amazon can take two hours or more to negotiate and as the sun began to slide towards the far horizon there was still no site of the town.
Setting off early
Sunset came and lit up the sky and we were still in reasonably good enough spirits to enjoy it. Rick was ahead of us and we just followed him in. Finally, in the failing light, we saw the launch up ahead. By the time we pulled in darkness had fallen and it was dinner hour for the mosquitos. Squelching through calf-high mud we pulled the raft in and slipped and slided our way over to lug our gear towards the boat. My only thought was to rinse off the mud and get some long pants on. The ravenous insects were having a feast. The mud was so bad that I could barely make my way up the steep hill, even though they had scared wood shavings to try to make the passage more secure. On top of the hill there were a few bulls laying down for the night and a light at the end of the pasture.
Already nearly last again...
The news that all the food had been eaten and that the improvised bunk house was full put us in a foul mood and we were full of black thoughts and I swore that heads would roll if they didn´t correct the situation. A local man offered his house to us and we picked up all of our things and followed him in the darkness, across a bridge and through another pasture to where the local people had a row of houses. Tim and Steph were uneasy and by the time we got to the house they were refusing to go along with it. So we retraced our steps and dumped our things at the main building where the other rafters were congregating. The woman there said she would make some food and they cleared some space in the back rooms to accomodate about fifteen of us, some on matresses, Tim and I with hammocks we had brought, and the others on the wood floor with barely anything between their backs and the planks.
It would be a tough night even with the hammock. First we shared the only two cold beers left and then had a meal of oversalted fried fish, plain rice and beans. None of us ate more than half, nor could have if we didn´t want to be reaching for the water bottle all night. Par for the course for so much of Peruvian food, especially in rural areas. Overseasoned, oversalted, undersalted, bland food. But we were hungry and tried to at least eat some of the rice and beans for energy. We all settled in after I asked the Peruvians in the front room to turn down the ever-present cumbia music and leave us with some peace.