The International Journal of Sport and Leisure
(Some sport. Some leisure. Also, schistosomiasis.)
Galapagos Islands (5)
About Me (1)
Ecuador: Quito (5)
Honduras: Utila (4)
Rio de Janeiro (2)
South Africa (13)
Temporary Update (1)
* South of Durban
* Escape from the Cape
* Skydiving for Bacon
* Rage Against the Machine
* Bite Me
* Africa Cold
* Scum-Dodging on Long Street
* Cable Cars, Lentil Soup and Bart Simpson
* Cape Town
* Cape Drear
* Lows of Travel ("Welcome to Africa")
* High Entertainment
* Paradise or Miami Vice? (Part 2 of 2)
* Paradise or Miami Vice? (Part 1 of 2)
* Don't Make Me Cry, Argentina
* Hago el Vago en Buenos Aires (Part III: Final Week)
* Gloom at the Top
* Its The End Of The World As I Know It
* Perito Moreno Glacier
November 29, 2004
Monday, November 29, 2004:
Stephanie, Laura and I woke up at 7:00 and ate a simple breakfast of eggs, coffee* and bread on the balcony of the Limon Cocha hostal. In the light of the morning, we were able to see the rolling green mountains rising in a ring around Tena, fog and mist rolling down through the valley and illuminated sporadically in a brilliant haze by the sunlight. For the most part, it was a clear day and already it was growing humid and warm.
Our river rafting guide, Fausto, met us on the balcony as we finished our meal and explained the dayīs plan to us in Spanish (he spoke Spanish and indigenous Quechua, but over the course of the day I came to believe that he also spoke a good deal more English than he led us to believe). Stephanie, nearly fluent, translated the tricky parts for Laura and myself, though for the most part we were able to follow. In short, we would drive 45 minutes to our launching-off point and spend the day traveling some 26 kilometers down the river with stops to swim, eat lunch and do some trekking in the rainforest. The route he had plotted was considered Class III water, with occassional patches of Class IV water (the rating system runs from Class I to Class V, Class V being the most difficult).
We all piled into the ownerīs pickup truck, the large orange raft strapped to a rack overhead. Fausto sat in front, we sat in the back cabin and two younger men we had not met, both apparently somewhere in their 20s, sat outside in the rear of the truck. As we drove, the road became narrower and the conditions became worse. Tena gave way to long stretches of forest and jungle with only an occassional spattering of simple huts dotting the landscape. Cows, horses, chickens and dogs became the truckīs main competitors for space on the roadway.
Eventually, we found ourselves on a narrow dirt road running parallel to the river, which lay just down a steep hill on our left. The rainforest surrounded us. We had to stop and get out to move fallen trees and rocks obstructing the truck. After another several minutesī drive, we stopped and all pitched in to lower the raft from the rooftop. Then Fausto, Stephanie, Laura and I climbed slowly down the steep, rocky and muddy slope leading to the river. Fausto cautioned us to be extremely careful because a woman had recently broken her leg when she slid on wet rock and fell down the ledge. Looking back up when we reached the bottom, I could only imagine how they had managed to lift her back up and how long she had waited to return to whatever medical care Tena could provide her with.
We wandered along the slippery, wet rocks running along the edge of the river and saw, in the distance, where the two young men had lowered the raft down another part of the ledge. One was bringing the raft toward where we stood on the rocks. The other had positioned himself in a small kayak and was practicing his paddling and rolls. As we waited, Stephanie and Laura busied themselves with spotting butterflies. Fausto pointed out several varieties orchid. I fidgeted with my life vest and helmet, as well as the rain jacket I had been given to put on. It was at least 85 degrees out. Why did I have to wear a rain jacket? The life vest and helmet were hot enough. I wandered to the edge of the rocks and placed my feet in the water. Like sticking them in ice cubes. The life jacket suddenly made sense.
We boarded the raft after a quick briefing by Fausto. Once on board, he made us practice several emergency maneuvers. In one, the occupants of one side of the boat immediately lunge over to the other side. In another, all of the boatsīoccupants duck to the floor of the boat with their paddles tucked in. Whether we would need to perform these maneuvers or not was unclear.
Fausto sat in the center rear of the boat. Stephanie and I took positions in the front. Laura sat behind me in the middle, while the younger of the two other men --- I believe his name was Paulo (small, slight and 20 years old) --- sat behind Stephanie. The other man, Vladimir (25, small, but muscular --- where did a Quechua-speaking Ecuadorian get this of all names?), manned the kayak.
We set off. The waters were relatively calm, certainly no white water at first. Fausto had us practice forward and backward strokes. The river was wide and, he explained, quite deep in most places, one of the factors that made it such a desirable rafting destination. We passed under a narrow wood and rope suspension pedestrian bridge which wavered in the wind. It rose far over our heads from one hill above the river to the opposite hill. The river valley was all shades of green, with white and purple and pink flowers punctuating the mix.
After a few minutes, Fausto began to explain rescue procedures in the event that a person fell overboard or otherwise landed in the river. The "victim" would lie on his or her back and clutch his or her paddle lengthwise in both hands. The nearest occupant of the boat would use his or her own paddle to reach out to the victim. The rescuer would pull the victim toward the boat, the victim would hold a rope on the side of the boat, and the rescuer would then take the victimīs paddle aboard. Finally, the rescuer would grab the victim by the life vest with both hands (in much the same way Lyndon B. Johnson would have clutched one of his own victimīs suit jackets by the lapels) and, on the count of three, pull them up over the relatively high side of the raft. The victim would assist in the effort by pulling with his or her arms.
As he wrapped up the explanation, Fausto gestured to Stephanie.
"We need to practice this," he said. He motioned for Stephanie to throw herself overboard into the icy-cold water.
Stephanie was surprised. Laura and I were also a bit surprised, although the request was hardly absurd.
Stephanie hesitated. "You want me to go in?" she asked. It wasnīt fear talking, so much as the unexpectedness of the request.
"But I donīt know if..."
At this, Fausto smilingly threw Stephanie overboard. The look on her face was shocked... and priceless. The move was far more of a surprise than the request to jump in had been. She waved her arms at the surface for a minute, then came to the side where Paulo helped her back into the boat.
Fausto turned to me. My turn. I threw myself in before anybody had the chance to "assist" me. It was cold, very cold. But it was also refreshing after being in the vest and rain jacket in the heat. Fausto pulled me back on the boat. He turned to Laura and, of all things, asked her if she wanted to go in.
"Sheīs going in!" said Stephanie and I at almost exactly the same time. In she went. Out she came. Satisfied, Fausto returned to the back of the raft and we drifted further on down the river. Looking behind us we could see the mountains rising far above the river bed and into the fog. Strange birds chirped strangely. Odd unidentifiable bugs made odd, un-reproduceable buggy noises. And so it went. Hot, sunny and beautiful, it was not quite a Heart of Darkness experience that day.
Our first experience on "white water" was brief and, though it gave us a bit of an adrenaline surge, it was far from a dangerous experience. Fausto gave us orders to paddle this way and that and after a while it became evident that he was trying to steer the raft in the direction of the biggest waves, rather than away from them. Water crashed over the gunnel and soaked me. We paddled. The boat luched back and forth. We were back on calm, smooth but quickly flowing water again.
We swam for a while, next to the boat. Fausto stayed in his place but Stephanie, Laura, Paulo and I jumped in the water and floated along with the boat. After a minute of initial shock, the water did not seem unbearably cold. The rain jackets trapped a bit of heat in them, which helped. Eventually, we stopped the raft on the side of the river and waded in the water there. Fausto and Vladimir brought us fresh guava that was growing nearby in the rainforest. We watched birds and strange insects that swam on the surface of the shallows.
After 20 minutes or so, we continued on our way. This time around, Vladimir sat in the raft and Paulo took the kayak. It didnīt take too long before I noticed that Vladimir seemed to have his eye on Stephanie. During a long stretch of calm water, he said something to her in Spanish and pointed. She turned in the direction of his finger to see what he was gesturing at. At this point, Vladimir laughingly pushed her off of the boat. Stephanie floundered about in the water in shock. She swam to the side of the boat where Vladimir prepared to pull her in. Then he began to pull Stephanie aboard. As if pretending to be too strong for his own good, he yanked her over the gunnel and threw her back over the opposite side of the raft in one swift, continuous stroke. Laura and I found this riotously funny and could not stop laughing. Stephanie found this funny herself, up until she began to swallow river water as a result of laughing so hard.
Some jokes get old quickly and some jokes take more time to grow old. Throwing the Dutch gringa off the boat over and over again did not seem to get old in the slightest for Vladimir, however. He could do it all day and possibly did (with a new gringa each time). I lost count of how many times he tossed Stephanie in. He also had a few turns tossing Laura over as well. I was left alone of course.
We had lunch on the side of the river in an open-walled hut next to a small settlement of Quechua-speaking indigenos. As we finished our meal, a group of 15 or 20 children (about 4-8 years old) who had been watching us from afar the whole time came up to accept leftover sweets and pieces of bread. They werenīt dressed in anything resembling "traditional" or "Indian" garb. The boys wore shorts and t-shirts and the girls wore plain, simple dresses or skirts.
I was starting to notice a number of insect bites on me at this point. They had nipped up my ankles and arms during the meal because I hadnīt thought to reapply repellant after soaking in the river over the course of the last few hours. On the way back to the boat I stepped on something with my bare feet. It hurt. It was a large, spiny and very dead caterpillar. Some of the "spines" were lodged in my foot.
The next hour or two of rafting included more rapids than we had encountered before. Vladimir and Fausto took turns commanding the boat and, we realized, seemed hell-bent on steering us directly into the biggest, whitest waters they could find. Nobody fell overboard, but it wasnīt for lack of them trying. Several times, they had us paddle directly for a large smooth boulder sticking out of the middle of the river, perhaps in the hope that a well-timed wave and our momentum would combine to catapult us over the top. It didnīt work, but did get us soaked.
As we paddled, we passed several small indigenous communities. Throughout the trip, we would see men, boys and small children working or playing by the rocky shores of the river, some of them fishing, some of them collecting water or just swimming. We also passed under a few more pedestrian suspension bridges. One of them was straight out of an Indiana Jones film. Its wooden planks were old and rotted and in several spots they had collapsed completely. Two or three narrow replacement planks had been lain vertically across the gap, bridges to cross the gaps in the bridge. The river ran more than 100 feet below.
We moved on, drifting under sheer rock and mud cliffs rising perhaps 600 feet or more above us. Fausto reassuringly informed us that a mud slide could bury us under tons of sludge and debris at any second.
Fausto and Vladimir stopped the boat on the river bed two more times during the trip. At the first stop, we climbed up a steep hill to where a small waterfall ran down in front of a crevice in a cliff, forming a shower of sorts. We climbed further up the hill and out onto the branches of a large tree that hung out over the river. We then took turns jumping the 12-15 feet down into the river. As I waited my turn to crawl onto the branch and jump, little red ants crawled up and down my arms and legs, biting me all over.
At the second stop we took a 45 minute walk in the rainforest. Fausto led us through a narrow ravine that ran between two cliffs. A shallow creek ran through the ravine and all sorts of exotic plants and flowers grew on either side. Fausto and Vladimir identified the different specimens and pointed out their medicinal uses by indigenous shamans/witch doctors. With a certain type of greenish-brown mud, supposedly good for the skin, he gave Laura and Stephanie makeshift facials. I declined the invitation to join them.
We climbed steep hills, we fell on our asses and hands, we bruised ourselves and were bitten by assorted bugs we could not identify. Upon arriving back at the boat, covered in dirt and crawling with bugs, we all but dove into the river to clean ourselves off. We had been thinking of spending the next day or two on a hike through the rainforest, but this little taste was enough for us. There werenīt pumas, leopards or caimans. There werenīt crocodiles, snakes or spiders. There werenīt any monkeys. Just plants and dirt and rocks and lots of little things that bit into you voraciously as you passed in the stifling heat. (All of that said, I havenīt given up on the jungle experience; I plan to visit the Amazon while in Bolivia.)
We set off again on the last leg of the trip. The late afternoon sun beat down and more indigenos were wading along the banks of the river, watching us as we passed. At this point, as at so many others, Vladimir hurled Stephanie and Laura off of the boat. He pulled them on. He hurled Stephanie off again. I began to wonder if some sort of novel arrangement with the natives hadnīt been worked out ahead of time with Vladimir and Fausto: In the absence of television, theater and radio, what sort of regular entertainment was available for the scattered, humbly agricultural inhabitants of the outer Amazon basin? What sort of show could they count on for laughs, day after day and week after week as they tended to their burdensome labors? Why, shocked, giggly gringas in silly outfits being tossed off of big inflatable orange rafts like little pink sacks of yucca, thatīs what. All that was missing was popcorn --- or perhaps I just didnīt see them with it. "Weīll be passing Condor Rock when the sun rises directly over Big Tree Hill," I could imagine Fausto telling a crowd of hushed, expectant villagers. "Vladimirīs been working out and we anticipate a hurling distance of at least 3 meters this time, a new record... So be there, for another exciting episode of... Gringas Overboard!" Cheering. Laughter. Sound of tickets being torn as beads and shiny rocks are tendered in payment. Something like that.
As a final event, Fausto had us practice the emergency exercises he had taught us earlier in the day. My side of the boat ducked over to the other side of the boat, bringing all of the weight to that side. However, Fausto had us do this not to prevent us from flipping over, but to cause us to flip over. He laughed gleefully as the boat flopped upside down and we all clambered aboard only to have him order us into another position that would send us flying into the water once again. If he wasnīt entertaining the indigenos with these maneuvers, he was clearly entertaining himself.
We finished up at about 5:00, paddling to a rocky shore that sat under what had theretofore been an unfamiliar sight on the river that day: a driveway. The owner of Limon Cocha was waiting with his truck and a cooler full of beer for us (that, ladies and gents, is class).
Back at the hostal the three of us decided on what we would do the next day. We agreed to go horse riding on a trail through the rainforest. Again, the owner of Limon Cocha would arrange it. Afterwards, Stephanie would catch a 10 PM bus to the town of Riobamba, where she hoped to spend 2 days before returning again to Quito (she has been living there for several months and needed to get back to her job as a bartender). Laura and I would take the 4 AM bus to Baņos, where we had originally intended to go.
We ate. We examined cuts and bruises. We applied generous amounts of anti-itch ointment. We called it a day.
* All references to coffee drinking in these posts will henceforth concern the author only. Other persons referred to in the post --- whether English, Dutch, or of other coffee-deprived origin --- may instead be drinking that Insipid Excuse for Dirty Brown Water that some prefer to call "tea." The author would prefer not to use the "t word" repeatedly in the blog, though he has no problem with repeat references to coffee... nutricious, delicious coffee. Coffee. Coffee.
Posted by Joshua on November 29, 2004 11:18 PM
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