The missed opportunity
October 2018, Huaraz, Peru
I´m sitting on the tiny balcony of the El Tambo hostel, looking out at the mountains of the Cordillera Blanca. Today it is sunny, maybe I should take a little bike ride. The last few days I was not very motivated to go out. I’m tired of cycling. Next to me is Juan, whom I met a little over a year ago on this continent for the first time. The last months we were traveling together. Although he also has a bike, we have crossed most of the country by bus.
“Hey man, today comes this girl I told you about,” Juan says as we drink the first coffee of the day.
“Dude, she wants to build this boat on the Amazon. She’s crazy!” Now I’m listening. Build a boat and go down a river with it. That’s one of my dreams. What an adventure.
Then she is there: Tinka,laughing loud, blonde long curls under a top hat, a leather vest made out of pieces, junk trousers. Her clothes a colorful combination of self-sewn and second hand, barefoot. “We build a boat and row down the Amazon. Quite simple! “, She says and laughs. “Have you ever done something like that?” I ask. “No never. And you, do you want to join in? “
Tinka doesn´t have more than the idea, but lots of energy and trust in life.
Yes, I would like to be there, but my plans are somewhat different. I´m on the mission to go back to germany. I had not been there for 7 years. It is time. The flight is booked and leaves me no time for this boat adventure. At least not now!
Dreaming is part of life. And life part of the dream.
Half a year later, April 2019, World Rainbow Gathering in the mountains of Santa Marta, Colombia
Back in South America. The three months in Germany were not easy. Forget about it, different story.
Here in Colombia I meet Tinka again. More specifically, on the World Rainbow Gathering. What exactly is that? This should be written in a separate article, but I’ll try a brief description. Rainbow is a worldwide movement. People from all over the world. Everyone can come. A self-organized community. For one phase of the moon. Without leaders, without hierarchies. Consensus decisions. In nature. Respect and love as the base of all action. No rules but guidelines: No alcohol, no drugs, no meat, no electronic devices, no .money trading. Hippis, freethinkers, philosophers, travelers, artists, healers. People who want to take their lives into their own hands. Love and Peace. A lived utopia.
National meetings are held annually in many countries, there is a European meeting and also a World Meeting, which will be in Colombia this year.
Here in the mountains of Santa Marta I am, sitting in a circle with 50 other people in a meadow while listening to Tinka’s story. How she built an eleven-meter rowboat in Peru with two other girls and a local boatbuilder. On this boat they did over 1000 kilometers on the Ucayali river. With oars and a crew of six travelers. For Tinka this is not just about adventure, it’s about connection, about sharing with people along the way. It’s about music, inspiration and art. And about ecological projects with children, schools, and entire village communities. And her dream has grown. She wants to build more boats, launch an entire boat caravan, and everyone here in this round is invited.
A talking stick is passed around and it becomes clear that almost everyone here had similar thoughts. A river trip. With a canoe, or float or larger boat. Not only to travel for the sake of traveling, but to make projects and exchanges. To bring something and to give back.
Some questions arise. Uncertainties. How is it with the money? And the security? Aren´t there pirates? And who can build a boat by himself?
But this is not the time for such details. Tinka assures that there is a solution to every problem. A meeting place is determined. Leticia in the Amazon. At the tri-border region of Colombia, Peru, Brazil. In about a month. Whoever will be there will become part of the project, where the dream will be created.
Tinka’s boat, the Yacusachawayra, is still in Iquitos and a new crew will paddle from there about 700 km to Leticia to meet there with the others.
I’ll be on board. Here is my second chance. The others are also recruited at the gathering. I meet two of them. There’s Robin, who, just like Tinka and I, was born in Germany. He has been in South America for a while. Robin loves the mountains and is a passionate climber and slackliner. We share our travel experiences, find out that we´ve been to the same places, and get along well from the start.
Then there is Aurelio. French is his native language. 21 years young, but somehow also old and experienced. He is one of those guys with seemingly infinite energy reserves and a very high frustration threshold. If something needs to be done, Aurelio does it. If it’s two things at the same time, he does it too. He doesn´t lack motivation and even if other people around him don´t put as much energy into the project as he does, it doesn´t bother him. Frustration only distracts from the actual goal, he says, it’s wasted time.
I am glad that the two are also there.
Preparations are in full swing
May 2019, Nauta on the Amazon, Peru
The last days were stressful. But now everything is ready. Tomorrow we start. The Yacusachawayra and their crew will begin the journey. Only 10 kilometers downstream from here, the Maranon River will flow into the Ucayali and the official Amazon river starts.
I’ve been here for a good week, getting to know the boat, repairing it, rebuilding it, watching the river, the boats passing by, tree trunks and plant parts that are drifting by. The others are all here too, we are all gathered here now. Tinka, Robin, Aurelio and Me.
There is also Anna. In her early twenties, she has already experienced a lot. She left home young, went traveling, she doesn´t see a future in Ukraine, she says. She would much rather see the world. This is also possible with little money. Street music is her source of income, with a didgeridoo she causes a stir in many parts of the world and makes one listening. Anna has worked on boats. She sailed across the Atlantic and in the Caribbean. A rowing boat is the next step.
Miles is also in the crew. He´s a white water rafting guide, the Amazon will probably be rather boring for him. At least he doesn´t have fear of the water, was capsizing in his old job in the States probably something completely normal.
Rather coincidentally, the second Robin finds the group, for the purpose of distinguishing him from the other Robin we call him Captain Robin. It´s his second time in the Amazon. In Iquitos he had started his own initiative, a trash collection operation in the poorer district of Belem. With his savings and the help of a local friend, he bought two boats and motivated the population to days of action. Tons of garbage they collected from the water and thus exerted pressure on the local government to do something about the garbage problem. Captain Robin has his own boat which he has roofed and rebuilt for the trip.
And finally me. A long-time cyclist, tired, a lonely wolf, but still always looking for the group experience.
This is not a trip, it is an expedition. We have enough food on board for a few weeks. Almost 100 kilos have come together. Mainly rice, pasta, lentils, beans, oatmeal. Raisins and peanuts, farinha, panela. Packed in watertight buckets Onions, garlic, ginger, potatoes, carrots. Bananas. We want to buy more fruits in the villages.
A large box of Tokai mosquito coils, fishing hooks, candles, nails, hammers, tools, life jackets, machetes, ropes.
There are kitchen utensils, hammocks and mosquito nets, a medicine box with chemical and natural medicines. Copaiba oil, sangre de dragon, dragon’s blood, the juice of a tree which is well suited to close wounds. Other herbal medicine is included. Rape, coca leaves, mambe, mapachus, the strong cigarettes from the black jungle tobacco.
Solar panel, cameras, a paper map. We have four oars, a spare paddle, and one for steering. And a gasoline engine, for emergencies.
The boat is fully loaded. Our personal belongings are stowed under the platform and hopefully will stay dry. The last picture is taken to say goodbye to Angela, who had kindly hosted us in her house right at the river.
A stormy beginning
And finally we take off. The current takes the boat, there is no turning back. Captain Robin is close behind us in his smaller boat Saskia. Miles accompanies him on the first day, because Robin was never alone on such a big river. Same like us. Only yesterday he tried his engine for the first time and sealed the last holes in the boat.
We are rowing to get in the current in the middle. The noises and sounds from the shore are silenced. No motor taxis, no screaming children, cackling chickens. Tranquility surrounds us and the horizon is divided between river and sky, in the corner of the eye a green strip of shore in the distance. Leisurely we go there. Take a deep breath. The stress of the last days falls away from us. All missions are done, now the fun part begins.
We are all not so familiar with the river yet. Somewhat uncertain. Only cautious I once went for a swim from the shore. And got out quickly. Water has never been my element. Here it is a brown broth, impenetrable with eyes and lukewarm. And all the beasts in it, piranhas, snakes, and crocodiles are supposed to be here. The first crocodile I had met at the fish market in Nauta, with cut off head and slit body, the meat is sold here as a delicacy. Then people also told me about the candiru fish. Legend has it that the fish falls on people who pee into the water, it should also have the property to jump up the urine stream of a man peeing in the water and penetrate into the urethra. With barbs he hooks then there. Sounds nasty. I googled. There is only one clearly documented case. And loads of stories from the locals.
It is hot. The tropical sun burns from above without mercy. Aurelius takes off his clothes. With a brief hesitation, he jumps into the river. I don’t think long. Down with the clothes and follow straight.
Wet, and even refreshing. In the middle of the Amazon. Naked. Ouch, there was something biting. I do not feel so secure yet. But it is only small fish that nibble one lovingly.
Peaceful, we grin at each other and are in a good mood.
What a day. But on the horizon the clouds gather. The storms are quickly brewing up here, but they quickly pass by as well. It means some cooling down. But also a risk if you believe Tinka. You have to have that in mind. Not ten minutes later, the sky has darkened menacingly. The wind blows strongly upriver and slows us down. The first raindrops fall slowly and heavily. Captain Robin’s boat has caught up with us by paddling. Tinka proposes to start the engine and quickly go ashore. She is the only one of the group that was already on the river and in such weather. Miles in the other boat shrugs and laughs. “Why then? It’s just a bit of rain.” I’m also confident. How big can the waves be on a river? And we aren´t sitting in a small canoe but in a twelve meter long boat. Wet we will get, but what else should happen. At least that’s what I´m thinking about. There is also fear somewhere, an instinct. To Capsize. To lose everything. Being in the middle of the river. I can swim, yes.
Tinka starts the engine and heads for the shore. We were pretty much in the middle of this two kilometer wide stream. The weather has worsened further, the waves got white tops and the wind can be described as a storm. The rain comes suddenly. Like a gray wall and with a sound he pulls up. In seconds, we are completely soaked and the sight continues to deteriorate. Tinkas eyes are narrowed and her face tightened.
The engine roars over the sound of the rain and the clapping of the waves on the boat. Shouted words are carried away by the wind. Everyone is tense and staring to the front. Finally, the shore comes into view, a small embankment and then directly overgrown with scrub and trees. Not the best place to land. But we find an opportunity to moor the boat and pull up the rain cover. Done. But what about the other boat, Saskia? Where did Robin and Miles go? They were just in sight, also heading for the shore, aiming only a little more downstream. It doesn´t matter. We can´t do anything now. We are sitting together in the boat. Huddled on the platform over which the thatched roof bulges like a cave and it is already a bit tight. The boat is shaking and rocking quite a lot. Sometimes even some water actually spills in. The thunderstorm has arrived in the meantime and lightning and rolling thunder make the doom and gloom perfect.
It’s over as fast as it came. It only rains a bit when we take off and look out for the other boat. We are close to the shore but nobody is to be seen. Until we suddenly hear the calls and quickly see two people waving on the shore. Very difficult to spot in the undergrowth. But no trace of the boat. We start the engine to help them. Even as we get closer no boat emerges.
But, something sticks out of the water, the keel of Saskia. They still have the boat. Even if overhead and underwater. Miles is soaking wet and muddy on the shore, on the upper body he wears a rice bag in which he has cut three holes for the arms and head. As mosquito protection, as he will explain later, because with the onset of dusk starts as usual the mosquito-wave. Captain Robin is waist deep in the water. Then he dives off and his red hair disappears in the churned up water. When he reappears, he has his completely soaked backpack in his hand and grins at us. Everything went well.
The two will tell later, they were on a course a little more downstream and the sudden onset of rain with the waves had taken them by surprise. Saskia is only about five meters long and not as stable as the massive Yasawa. In an attempt to make a U-turn to reach the Yasawa landing site more upstream, the first wave sloshed into the boat as soon as the boat lay to the side of the current. Then the second wave, laterally upstream. Then it was already clear that they will sink, says Captain Robin. So much water was in the little boat, and a third wave did the rest. Life jackets? Not on board. I remember being in Iquitos with Captain Robin only two days earlier to do the last of the shopping. Lifejackets were also on the list, but the only ones we could find were overpriced. Well, you should not overvalue life jackets, we thought and shrugged. We can swim anyway.
Fortunately, the two were close to the shore and were able to pull the capsized boat into an Eddi. An area on the bank where the current is not very strong or even opposed to the mainstream.
The relief quickly turns into anger and accusation for some. What did you think? That’s dangerous. Why didn´t you listen to us? That’s not allowed to happen. What happened anyway?
But there is no time to argue. It starts to dawn, the light disappears quickly and we want to avoid getting into the darkness. Captain Robin has taken almost all his belongings out of Saskia after a few dives. The two buckets were tied and waterproof. The other stuff completely soaked. We call another boat with two locals to help and together we manage to turn the boat over and remove by skillful shaking most of the water. The heavy engine is gone, of course. Just dropped out of the bracket as the boat sank and then toppled over.
We tie the resurrected Saskia to Yasawa and leave the scene. The twilight is already clearly advanced, the map tells us there is a village in 8 kilometers, on the other side of the river. While Tinka concentrated manages the engine, Anna sits at the front of the bow, equipped with a large battery-powered lamp. This boat is firmly in woman’s hands, you might think.
There is not much to see in the weak beam of the lamp, but at least other boats can see us like that.
Take a deep breath. The half hour drive through the dark feels much longer until some lights of the village appear and provide orientation. We land between a dozen of the locals’ small canoes. That’s exactly what we wanted to avoid, arriving in the dark. People are more scared and more suspicious. Tinka had heard stories told over and over again in the first few weeks of Yasawa on the Ucayali River. Of whites who come to rob the children, to steal organs. Or to rob their land. Anyone who knows a little bit about the history of the Amazon since colonization won´t be surprised by these stories and mistrust. With brutality, the European invaders have taken everything they wanted and the Indians got exploited and oppressed. Sugar cane, rubber, oil, gold, wood – all riches have been and are being exploited at the expense of the ecosystem and the original inhabitants.
Tinka and Robin go with the log book to look for the Cassicki of the village. We have to ask him for permission if we can stay and get a place with a roof. In the book are letters of recommendation from other villages, which have often proved to be very useful to break the ice or to let the mistrust fall off. The rest of the group is waiting by the boats and some are starting to prepare dinner. We are all hungry after this day.
We can stay. At school we can sleep. Curious glances from the open doorways chase us in the light of some naked bulbs, illuminating the dusty road through the village. But we have to take care of ourselves first. Food and then sleep. I wouldn´t have imagined the first day so dramatically.
How to continue
Crisis summit the next morning. We make a talking circle in the boat. The stick is passed in the circle and only those who have it are allowed to talk. What exactly happened. How we feel. What we did badly, what we can do better. How it continues now.
We are curious to see what Captain Robin has to say. For him, the thing is clear, he isn´t intimidated. He will dry all his things and buy a new engine in Iquitos. And two life-jackets.
Captain Robin is definitely more assured than me when we get into his wobbly boat the day after. I had agreed to paddle the second day on the river on Saskia. Nobody was so keen on that after what happened. As a precaution I take a waterproof drybag for my camera and in my thoughts as a floating device in case of capsizing. You never know what happens. And then we go again into the current. Always down the river.
To be continued…