The Raft Race Continued:
Building a raft is much more difficult than you may think. First, you need to make sure it is going to float. The right sized logs are everything. Each team was given eight logs; this to be our “home” for the next three days. The whole process was a mad-grab for logs by each of the 48 teams; some fighting broke out, “that’s my log!” It got a little ugly. I for one knew nothing of raft building. A couple of Peruvian women approached us and offered to help us lash, nail, and get our raft together for the price of S. /100 (Soles). My three team members (all strapping young lads from Oregon) said nah, we can do it! So we tried, and tried, and three hours were still hacking out notches for the crossbars (on either end) with a dull machete, which instantly gives you blisters. While all this was going on, it was upwards of 95 degrees, humid as a bathhouse, and lunch was simply not arriving. We were all starting to lose it.
While the boys struggled with the machete, I tried to secure some rope for lashing. This was supposed to be provided for us by the organizers of the event, but there had been some problems, beginning with the fact that the president, a woman in her sixties, was in the town on the other side of the river, getting plastered. She had apparently given cash to an “assistant” to supply all the participants with rope, but this person (maybe seeing an opportunity?) never showed up, pocketing the cash. This little fiasco would set the tone for the rest of the event. Despite all this, our team of four kept plugging away. With the generous help of our neighbors (a team of locals who would end up winning the race), we got our raft notched up for the crossbars, found rope (also thanks to a generous team), and with much help, got our raft lashed together, and the legless chairs nailed down. By this time it was dark, and finally “lunch” arrived-alleviating some of the stress-then it began to rain.
Also thanks to the above mentioned negligence, drinking, etc. on the part of the organizers there weren’t enough tents for all the teams. We ended sleeping in a makeshift covering that originally had served as a shade structure. Others, were not so lucky, they ended up sleeping (or not) on their raft, good god. Thankfully, the day’s events (which had started with leaving Iquitos left us exhausted enough to catch some shut eye until dawn). Side note: dinner arrived at about midnight.
The next morning was the big day, all the teams launched into the water, ready for a long day of paddling. We got our raft in the water, at this exact moment realizing that it didn’t really float too well. The back right hand seat was basically submerged, but in the moment we didn’t think it would be too bad. They sounded the bullhorn and off we went! The minute I dipped my paddle in the water for the first push I knew this was going to be a trial and a half-the water felt heavy and thick as mud as it resisted against my paddle-I was sore after a few minutes. We paddled and paddled, even passing a few teams, and were feeling pretty optimistic despite our rafts defects. Then it started to rain. I was soaked through in about 5 minutes. About this time the currents started to convolute us, you can see them snaking through the enormous river sashaying this was and that. At one point we were dead center of the two banks, not moving at all. We crossed back over, heaving our half sunken raft that we had affectionately named “Zoolander,” because he had a hard time turning left. We were all tired, having paddled about five hours at this point; I had an emotional outburst at one point exclaiming, “We should have spent this money on a jungle tour!” (I told my team, “I am allowed one emotional breakdown per day”). Then we saw the docking point, thank God. We arrived, at about 3:30pm to a small jungle community named Nueva Esperanza. This was nice; to see what a tranquil Amazonian village is like, as it gets invaded by 300 foreigners.
The next morning our team, sleep deprived, sunburned, and mosquito bitten, and sitting in a sinking raft incapable of steering to the left, was not so eager beaver. But a wave of calm washed over us. We knew we had no chance to dominate this river, so we opted to go with the flow. Our strategy: stay to the left bank, paddle as little as possible. For most of the day this worked quite well. We had fun; we saw pink river dolphins, birds, and a crocodile. We ate oreos and shared funny stories. The sun was relentless, we got a little dehydrated, but overall we stayed positive. Our safety net was that we could get towed in by the coast guard be it that we didn’t make the next post.
The sun began to set, and a large dark cloud was building on the horizon. We had been on the water for ten hours, and really had no idea how much farther we had to go. We passed a man sitting on the side of the bank who said that we were still far away from the end. We started to get a little nervous, just then, we saw the coast guard boat, and in a final push we paddled to the boat. The main organizer, who had taken the place of the drunken lady, welcomed us on board. We lashed on the rafts and took off. Man we were happy to be off that raft! The sun started to go down, and a light rain started, thunder and lightning clapping in the distance-nature was now in full force. That’s when we found out there were still at least ten other rafts still on the water. What a disaster. By now it was dark, the river looming large and languid, its two banks separated by at least a half kilometer. Where were the boats? The rain was obscuring the spot light from the coast guard’s boat, the crew began to yell orders and a sense of urgency and fear fell over us.
The first team we spotted was stranded on the side of the bank, their camera flash going off and on frantically, their raft floating in the increasingly choppy water. Then there was another team, and another, our rafts were abandoned as the scared wet participants clamored on board. We made it to Tamshyaku, the medium sized town serving as our refuge for the evening. Tired, recovering from our scare, we ditched the refugee-style camp in the school gym to look for accommodations elsewhere. We met a man who offered us a small but dry room in his home for a very reasonable price. We took bucket baths and slept as soon as we hit the mattress.
This was the end of the race for us. Our raft abandoned, our arms and spirits exhausted, we rode on the crew’s boat back to Iquitos the next day, sipping beer and chatting with the rest of those who had to be rescued the night before.
We arrived to the last marker, watching the amazingly fast local teams come in first, nearly as quickly as we had on the boat. A man who had been taking photos for the event approached our team with a newspaper, “check this out,” he said. To our surprise, there we were on the cover of El Comercio, the most widely distributed newspaper in Peru. The last team, on the front page, ha! At least we survived.The Dense Jungle
Raft building in Nauta