Captain Marielle and the Raft Race

Marielle

BUENOS AIRES – This is my friend Marielle. No, not the monkey, the other one. You may have read about her in some of my previous posts, but if not allow me to introduce her.

I met Marielle in Iquitos, Peru, when I went there for the Great Amazon River Raft Race. Marielle is from Holland where she left her job as a teacher to volunteer at a wonderful non-profit organization in Iquitos called Hogar Arco Iris, which in Spanish means "Rainbow Home." She's a great friend and an amazing role model to a lot of kids.

Arco Iris is home to about 50 children from Iquitos who are orphans or come from broken homes. Thanks to wonderful people like Marielle these kids have a real opportunity to make something of their lives in a place where it is so difficult to do so. They go to school, learn social skills, and are taught self-responsibility. They are even responsible for growing some of their own vegetables. During a year in South America I have seen a lot of charities, and this is a really good one.

Which is why I am writing this post.

Marielle has decided to enter a team in this year's Great Amazon River Raft Race at the end of September. She is using the event to raise money for a children's project in Iquitos, and I am asking everyone who reads this post to help out. This is a great opportunity to help some kids who have not been as fortunate as most of us, and I guarantee that with Captain Marielle at the helm the money raised will make a differnence in their lives.

Arco Iris Kids

Growing Vegetables (image courtesy of Hogar Arco Iris)

Everything helps, and in Peru a few dollars go a long way. If all you can afford is $10, please make a pledge. However, I know a lot of you can afford more – maybe $50 or $100. Heck, some of you spend $10 a day at Starbucks. (You know who you are...) So if you can pledge more, please do so. And don't let the numbers I mentioned be a limitation if you feel really generous!

I know we all get tired of being asked to support one cause or another, and I wouldn't ask for your help unless I was sure it would make a difference. You will probably never meet these kids, but through Marielle you can make a difference in their lives.

For information on sponsoring Captain Marielle's team visit http://www.challengemenow.org/ and look for Marielle Pepels.

UPDATE: The Challengemenow website is very difficult to use and does not seem work most of the time, so you can make your pledge by posting a comment at the bottom of this page and including the amount of your pldege! (Your email address WILL NOT appear on this site!) I will provide you with either an address in the U.S. where you can send a check or information on how to send your pledge to me via PayPal, whichever you prefer. I will then deliver all of your pledges to Hogar Arco Iris in person when I visit later this year. Marielle reads this site and will see your pledges and any encouraging comments you leave for her!

Thanks for your help!!!

New Year at the Beach

HUANCHACO, PERU — What better way to celebrate the New Year than at the beach? After spending the better part of two months in the mountains I was ready for some warm weather, so along with my new friends Cedd and Emma from the U.K. I decided to head for the oceanfront town of Huanchaco, along Peru's north coast, where sun, sand, and surf awaited us. (Hopefully...)

Huanchaco is famous for the tortora reed boats used by local fishermen. These boats have been employed here for generations, and if you arrive at the beach before dawn you can watch fishermen head out to sea much as they would have done hundreds of years ago. Built of tightly packed tortora reeds, the boats are flat in the rear, with a bow that tapers and bends upward. Fishermen battle through the surf with nothing more than a wide paddle made from split bamboo.

Shortly after sunrise the tortora boats begin returning to the beach, met by groups of kids in bright clothing and the occasional fish buyer. You can usually tell which boats have made a good catch by the number of kids gathered around them. Fish are sorted into reed baskets where they make a short trip up the street to the local market.

Sorting fish...

On New Year's Eve the beach lit up with hundreds of campfires surrounded by thousands of people. We found ourselves sharing a fire with a group of young Peruvians and some tourists from Mexico. The Peruvians provided beer, the Mexicans provided rum, and we provided fireworks. A riotous combination, I assure you. By 3:00 AM I couldn't stay awake any longer and went to bed, but was impressed that when I woke up at 8:00 AM the entire town was still in full party mode, complete with live music and dancing. Partying is never done half-heartedly in South America.

Sunset on New Year's Eve: The party is about to begin...

A day later I rendezvoused with my friend Marielle, a Dutch woman I met when I was in the jungle for the Great Amazon River Raft Race. Marielle is volunteering at a great home for children in Iquitos, Peru called Hogar Arco Iris; she also happens to be one of my favorite people in South America. Taking a well-deserved vacation from her work, she couldn't pass up the chance to lie on the beach en route to a holiday in the Galapagos Islands.

Not wanting to pass up nearby cultural opportunities, we visited the mud pyramid of Huaca del Luna (Temple of the Moon) and the mud-brick city of Chan Chan, the largest pre-Columbian city in South America. It's pretty amazing what these early civilizations were able to build out of mud. Covering 20 square km, Chan Chan is so big that even today you can clearly see its outlines from aerial photos - for example, here on Google Maps. You may also notice that the Peruvian government had no qualms about building a highway right through the middle of it.

Back a the beach we had mixed luck on the weather, but managed to get enough sun one afternoon for me to get a nice sunburn. And we did luck out with a couple of really spectacular sunsets.

The last night before leaving town I surprised Marielle with a box(!) of sangria and plastic cups on the beach at sunset. I'm sure she would tell you that I 'forced' it on her, but I'll let you look at the picture below and decide for yourself!

Santa Claus Found Me

CHACHAPOYAS, PERU — I arrived in Chachapoyas on Christmas Eve, following two brutal days of travel through the boondocks of Ecuador and Peru. (Read about it here.) Exhausted beyond belief and not knowing anyone in town, I was fully prepared for a lonely Christmas highlighted by an early night's sleep. But somehow the spirit of Christmas wasn't going to let me off the hook that easily, and everything turned out merry and bright.

This was going to be my Christmas dinner - a Panetón purchased at the store.

As soon as I arrived in town I checked into the Hostel Revash, a family-run hostel across the street from the Plaza de Armas. An hour later as I walked through the lobby I was stopped by the owner, a genial man named Carlos.

"I noticed you arrived alone tonight. Do you have plans for Christmas eve?" he inquired.

Conceding that I didn't, Carlos extended an invitation that I wasn't expecting.

"I hate to see anyone spend Christmas alone. I would be honored if you would join my family for our traditional Christmas dinner tonight," he said.

I was caught off guard; I wasn't expecting to be invited to Christmas dinner by a total stranger. Gathering my thoughts I quickly accepted. Carlos responded with a large smile.

Shortly before midnight there was a knock on my door. Carlos, smile still on his face, led me toward the back of the building where his family lived. I found myself in large room with a table decked out in full holiday cheer, a blazing fire in the fireplace, and Carlos's immediate and extended family there to greet me. Carlos explained that his family had owned the building for over 150 years, and it was tradition to have important gatherings in this room.

Over a steaming hot dinner of turkey, scrumptious vegetables, fresh bread, and abundant champagne, Carlos and his family made me feel like one of their own for the evening. Following dinner the entire party moved to the fireplace where Carlos had another surprise in store. Pulling out a guitar, he proceeded to play folksongs while the rest of us drank wine and did our best to sing along for the next several hours. By three or four in the morning we finally gave in and returned to our respective homes.

A blurry photo of an after-dinner toast.

It was a small gesture that Carlos made, but his unexpected hospitality really brightened my Christmas. For one evening I really felt like I had a family right here in Chachapoyas, Peru. My Mom and Dad sent me an email on Christmas Day asking if Santa Claus found me this year. Yes, he found me. Except instead of a read suit and a bag full of toys, he sported a sweater and a guitar!

Merry Christmas, everyone!

Crossing the Border the Hard Way

(Note: For a variety of reasons I wasn't able to get any photos to go with this post.)

CHACAPOYAS, PERU — "Are you sure you want to go that way?" asked the woman at the tourism office for the third time.

The fact that you keep asking me the same question makes me want to go that way even more, I thought to myself.

The way in question was a remote border crossing between Ecuador and Peru. There are officially three land-based border crossings between the two countries; one at Huaquillas, one at Macará, and the third at a seldom visited outpost known as La Balsa. The vast majority of travelers cross at the first two locations, largely due to the fact that they are near places that people actually want to go to. The crossing at La Balsa, however, is extremely remote and difficult to get to. Heck, the border crossing didn't even exist until a few years ago when Ecuador and Peru ended a 60-year border dispute that resulted in more than a few instances of armed conflict.

At first the tourist office official wouldn't even acknowledge that I could cross the border at La Balsa. Pushing her a bit harder she gave in and changed her story.

"OK, you can cross there, but I don't recommend it. It's very remote and takes a long time. Tourists don't like it. Lots of things can go wrong."

Little did she know that she was talking to the Accidental Explorer. Remote places where things can go wrong are what I'm looking for.

A few days later I embarked on my journey from the quaint town of Vilcabamba in southern Ecuador. My destination: Chachapoyas, Peru.

At 6:30 AM I flagged down a southbound bus in Vilcabamba. In typical South American style the bus didn't actually stop, and I had to execute a flying leap through the door while wearing my pack. Once aboard I discovered that there were no open seats left. I settled in for a long, bumpy ride standing in the aisle.

Shortly after departing Vilcabamba we left paved road behind; it was the last pavement I would see for quite a while. Winding its way along steep mountain valleys the bus bounced and pitched through every pothole of the one lane dirt track, flanked on one side by a sheer wall, on the other by precipitous Andean cliffs. The horrendous conditions didn't deter the driver from passing cars on blind corners or accelerating to alarmingly unsafe speeds. Each bump sent a shockwave up my spine and it didn't take long to get a bus-induced headache. Six hours later we finally pulled into the remote town of Zumba, just north of the Peruvian Border.

In Zumba I transfered to a ranchero for my next hop to the border proper. A ranchero is basically a flatbed truck with rows of wooden benches and a roof mounted over the back. Designed for about 35 passengers, the driver had no qualms about loading us up with close to 60 people, including the ones hanging onto the roof. For the next two hours the ranchero bobbed and weaved over precarious, washed out roads that in places are seemingly too narrow for a compact car, let alone a flatbed truck. My prime seat along the side insured that I could look straight down into empty space, particularly when the outside tire was hanging into thin air. Two hours of this punishing ride brought us to the border town of La Balsa.

La Balsa isn't much of a town, just a small outpost along the eastern slopes of the Andes. The migraciónes (immigration) officer there sees so few foreigners that he wasn't even at his post when we arrived. The town's lone police officer tracked him down, wearing a dirty white t-shirt and smoking a wilting cigarette. After giving my passport a cursory inspection he placed a completely illegible exit stamp on one page and handed it back to me, gooey ink dripping from the paper. I walked across the bridge to Peru and repeated the process on the other side.

The trip was just starting to get interesting.

On the Peruvian side of the border transportation was limited to colectivos, Toyota Corolla station wagons that essentially function as shared taxis. The driver of my colectivo was Mario. His name was appropriate because he drove like Mario Andretti - really fast. Before leaving, Mario crammed nine people and all of our luggage into his car. (For those of you who believe it is impossible to fit nine adults plus luggage into a Toyota Corolla station wagon, I suggest that you expand the limits of your imagination.)

Mario put pedal to the metal and we spun tires before careening down a dirt track that made the crater-strewn roads of Ecuador look like a superhighway. Mario's odometer read over 300,000km, though since it was no longer functional there's no telling how overdue he was for a tune-up. At one point we blasted through a village without slowing, livestock fleeing in every direction. Mario ran down a large chicken (apparently it really was trying to cross the road!) but didn't even bother looking in his rearview mirror to see the carnage. Not that he could, given that there were no mirrors remaining in his car. Three harrowing hours later we screamed into the lonesome town of San Ignazio, tires smoking, where I checked into the only hostel I could find. Sweeping the cockroaches off the bed with my arm I settled in for a depressingly short sleep.

At 5:00 AM I boarded a combi, a Toyota minivan that doubles as a bus in rural Peru. Before leaving San Ignazio 21 people had joined me for the ride to Jaen. College kids trying to stuff themselves into Volkswagen Beetles have nothing on Peruvians. (Lest you be impressed at 21 people in a Toyota minivan, I should point out that my record is 25.) For three hours we pounded over barely recognizable roads, my face pressed against a glass window.

At Jaen I took a three-wheeled moto-taxi across town where I caught another colectivo for the trip to Bagua Grande. I was pleasantly surprised to find only seven people along for the ride. Sometime between Jaen and Bagua Grande we hit paved road for the first time in as long as I could remember.

After a relatively short 90-minute ride we arrived in Bagua Grande where I took yet another moto-taxi tricycle across town and jumped in yet another combi for the trek to Pedro Ruiz. At least we finally had paved road, making the 90-minute trip tolerable for the 22 people on board.

In Pedro Ruiz I made my last transfer of the day to another colectivo. It felt relatively roomy with only six people stuffed inside the metal box. The rear doors had no windows, which turned out to be a blessing in disguise as everyone but me smoked like volcanos. My driver, the aptly named Jesus, stopped midway to refuel. As gasoline pumped into the tank I noticed that everyone was still smoking. My fellow passengers were smoking. Jesus was outside smoking at the gas pump. The man from the filling station was smoking as he pumped gas. Having sudden visions of a large mushroom cloud, I rapidly developed a 'cramp' in my leg and exited the car to stretch. About 50 meters away. Somehow Jesus managed to fuel the car without blowing up northern Peru, and three hours later we finally arrived at my destination: Chachapoyas.

Trip Statistics:

Hours in transit: 20.5
Total vehicles: 9
Vehicle types; 5
Ibuprofen (Advil) consumed: 2000mg
Cockroaches in hostel: at least 100
Run-over livestock: 2 chickens
Near-death experiences: countless

Street Kids of Iquitos

IQUITOS, PERU — Over the past few weeks I've gotten to know quite a few people here in Iquitos, including a number of the street kids.

Many visitors consider them to be pests, nuisances, troublemakers, or even criminals, but the reality is that most of these kids were born into unfortunate circumstances.

Many are trying to make money to support their families, usually by selling items such as t-shirts, jewelry, or handicrafts.

I thought I would introduce you to a few of these kids to put a human face on things.

Meet Antony. He's eight years old and spends his days making the rounds between tourist restaurants and bars along the waterfront. Antony sells handicrafts that he makes at home with his mother and siblings, including woven bracelets, necklaces, and earrings. Sometimes he sells t-shirts. Like any good salesman he knows how to turn on the charm, and when he approaches you it's almost impossible to turn him away. Before you know it Antony has become your fashion consultant and is finding an item to match your taste. At about $1-2 per item he's able to make a number of sales, but at the end of the day it's not much. Antony doesn't attend school regularly but hopes to join the army when he gets older.

Jackson is 13 years old. Most days it's not hard to find him around the Plaza de Armas or along the river walk selling t-shirts. Unlike a lot of the street kids here Jackson is still in school, though working keeps him from attending full-time. Once a week he returns home to the town of Nauta, a two hour ride away, to attend school for a couple of days, after which he returns to the streets of Iquitos. He says he wants to graduate if possible and even wants to learn English, though given his educational opportunities the prospects don't seem great. Jackson aspires to be a police officer and hopes to one day join the ranks of the Policía Nacional.

And there's Willy. At ten years old he no longer attends school in order to sell t-shirts full time. Willy is a very persistent and energetic salesman; if he were born in the U.S. he would probably be a millionaire by age 21, but unfortunately for him he wasn't. His family lives in Nauta, but Willy lives with the owner of the company that makes the shirts he sells. Each shirt costs 20 soles (about $7), and for every shirt he sells Willy gets to keep 1 sol (about 30 cents). He only sells a handful of shirts each day, but his income provides essential support for his mother and siblings back in Nauta. For this Willy has given up his education.

These street kids always refer to one another with reference to their "profession." You will hear things like "Carlos is a lustrino (shoeshine boy)," or "Jorge is a vendedor de camisetas (shirt salesman)." These kids are too young to have professions, but they do.

The biggest thing these kids have going against them is luck of the draw on birthplace. Had they been born somewhere like Seattle, Toronto, or Paris their lives would no doubt be quite different. And it's a sobering thought to realize that the single most important factor which allows me to be an international traveler instead of street kid is that I was lucky enough to be born in the U.S.

(Note: photo of Willy courtesy of The Iquitos Times.)

The Great Amazon River Raft Race – Part II

(To read Part I of this article click here)

Day two. I wake up early with the idea that I can make a few improvements to our raft, but quickly realize that it's a hopeless cause; we simply have a crappy raft. I discover that a few of the Peruvian teams are dropping out of the race. No longer in contention to win prize money after the first day they are throwing in the towel to return to their villages. With a sudden stroke of genius I take the quintessential American approach to solving our problem – I buy a better raft.

It turns out I'm not the only foreigner with this idea, and other teams are trying to do the same thing. For a brief period this remote bank of the river becomes the Amazon version of a used car lot, buyers and sellers haggling over prices and options. Fifteen minutes later I am the proud owner of a new raft and a primo set of paddles. Price? Raft: $3. Paddles: $5. Not having to use our old raft again: priceless.

Pushing off from shore we instantly feel the difference our new balsa makes. It's stable, travels straight, and feels like a sports car. We finally have our Ferrari.

"Now all we need is an engine," Montana John muses.

For ten hours we paddle. Banana trees along shore tempt us throughout the day. We watch monkeys move through the trees and brightly colored birds flitting about the jungle. Entire villages turn out to wave at the crazy people on the log raft floating down the river. Occasionally we even discover a tarantula that has taken up residence aboard our balsa.

Mid-morning we meet a man fishing from a canoe. He shows us a basket of fish including a couple piranha, confirming our suspicion that they lurk below us, ready to strip flesh to the bone in mere seconds.

The most Amazing thing about the Amazon is how big and remote it is. You can read about it or see photos, but you simply can't appreciate how vast and isolated it is without traveling it. To put it in perspective, the Amazon has more water flowing through it than the next six largest rivers in the world combined, and is responsible for a fifth of all the fresh water entering the world's oceans. It has multiple tributaries larger than the Mississippi, and during the high water season can flood to over 100 miles wide in places. In short, this is one big river.

Throughout most of our journey we see no signs of human existence. Not even another boat. On either side of the river is thick jungle, full of wildlife that has never seen a human being. You could enter that jungle and walk for hundreds of miles without encountering a road. It is the definition of the middle of nowhere.

Food and water supplies run low, and hunger and thirst begin to set in along with exhaustion and fatigue. Norma spies a peki-peki, a motorized river canoe, passing in the other direction and waves it down. An old woman riding in front grins and waves back; the old man at the helm of the sputtering engine turns in our direction. The peki-peki is so overloaded with fruit that I'm amazed it even floats.

"¿Cuanto cuestan las piñas?" asks Norma.

How much do the pineapples cost?

Moments later the old man, whose rough life in the jungle clearly shows on his weathered skin, is passing pineapples across the water to us as we pass coins back the other direction.

The media hard at work aboard the Dawn on the Amazon.

For the next hour we eat pineapples while watching a storm move across the horizon like a wall of black. Realizing too late that it's on a collision course with us I glance towards shore, knowing right away that we can't make it in time. Minutes later the storm wraps itself around us and we lose sight of everything else on the planet; for all practical purposes we may as well be in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. Winds howl and water turns to whitecaps. Lightning surrounds us on all sides and we are tossed about like a bathtub toy. Anything not tied down is lost.

I am simultaneously terrified and exhilarated. Here we are in the middle of the Amazon River on a log raft, in a lightning storm, completely isolated from the world, with only wooden paddles and our own muscles to move us. How many people will ever experience this and know what it is like? I have never felt so alive.

The storm passes and with our remaining strength we paddle the last few miles to the riverside town of Tamshiyacu, arriving just as the sun is setting. It feels like a veritable metropolis after the isolation of the jungle.

Dragging my battered body up the hill and into town I discover a festive atmosphere.

"¿Vengas a la fiesta?" a young man asks me as I cross the central plaza.

Are you coming to the party?

His name is Cesar. As he talks his friends share fresh pan de yuca, a soft bread made from the starchy root of the manioc plant, with me. It's delicious. Cesar explains that today is the anniversary of the founding of Tamshiyacu. Tonight there will be a party so loud it will rattle your teeth. I promise to come.

The Over the Hill Gang taking a "multiple-beer tow" behind the Dawn on the Amazon.

Later, aboard the Miron II, Mick announces the race standings for the first time. I am completely floored to discover that among the international teams we are in first place. Despite finishing dead last on the second day, our combined time has put us into the lead by 49 minutes, ahead of the Lady Vets and the Rasta Boys, but still hours behind even the slowest Peruvian teams. With a bit of extra spring in my step I head back into town as I hear the music start.

It doesn't take long before my buddy Cesar spots me, and the next thing I know I'm drinking beer in the town plaza and listening to music that can probably be heard hundreds of miles away in Lima. Beer eventually gives way to aguardiente, and in due course I walk, stumble, and crawl my way back to the Miron II. The music is so loud that every thump of the bass creates tiny ripples on the glassy surface of the river.

My teeth are indeed rattling, though I'm not sure if it's from the noise or the aguardiente.

Day three. There is a mad rush to leave early. Crack-of-dawn early. Mick has decided that each team can leave today whenever it's ready. Wanting to take advantage of the cool morning air and calm water, rafts begin leaving shore at 6:30 AM.

We are not one of them.

Montana John is missing, and nobody seems to know where he is. I sit on the edge of our raft munching soda crackers to ease my queasy stomach, teeth still numb from the previous night. Norma is peeling a papaya she picked up along the river somewhere. Mirta just sits quietly; she is her usual staid self. It occurs to me that in two days on the river I have never seen Mirta eat or drink anything. She's superhuman.

At 7:15 Montana John materializes, having spent the night at a hostel in town, unable to pass up the prospect of a bed and a shower. We wave him over, but he shakes his head and points at the Dawn on the Amazon, a luxury riverboat that has been following the race.

"Where are you going?" I yell, giving myself a headache in the process.

"To eat breakfast," he replies nonchalantly as he disappears up the gangplank.

Lying across our raft I stare up at the clear blue sky. It's the only thing that doesn't spin when I look at it. As I slowly chew the last of my crackers, John is putting away bacon, eggs, toast, fruit salad, and coffee. Hell, for all I know he's probably washing it down with a couple of mimosas.

At 7:45 he reappears, looking significantly more nourished than the rest of us, and we push off.

We are the last team to leave.

Two days on the river have not been fruitless. We have learned to read the current and predict where it will be fastest. It's like free energy. It takes only ninety minutes to overtake the Over the Hill Gang, still guarding the cooler strapped to their raft.

A couple of hours later we spy more teams, mere pinpricks of color, miles away on the opposite shore of the river. We've placed our bet on a different channel, and through cunning observation – or more likely dumb luck – we are in the faster one. One by one we slide past them until only the Rasta Boys are ahead of us. Excited by the prospect of starting last and finishing first we motor past them and never look back.

The Rasta Boys dining on ripe jungle melon.

We reach the outskirts of Iquitos, drooling in anticipation of the finish line, our hands raw from the rough wood of the paddles. It occurs to me that Mick never bothered to tell anyone exactly where the race is supposed to end, and I am briefly struck by the horror that we might have gone too far without noticing. My fears are allayed when a boat directs us into a side channel and we see the Miron II a scant quarter-mile away.

Suddenly, we are confronted by the cruelest twist of the entire race: the side channel we are entering is not, in fact, a side channel, but a tributary of the Amazon called the Rí­o Nanay. The last quarter-mile of the race is upriver, against a current.

Driving our paddles into the water we push forward with every ounce of remaining strength. Minutes of work result in mere inches of movement. Conversation is reduced to grunts and profanity in two languages. Translation is unnecessary.

After what seems like hours the Miron II is so close we can almost reach out and touch it. Standing on the stern, beer in one hand and cigarette in the other, Mick has a giant shit-eating grin on his face as he watches every painful stroke. Spectators lining the shore cheer madly as we struggle to keep going.

Our balsa finally touches shore. Half walking, half crawling, I make it onto dry land and immediately stub my toe, grimacing as I stifle a scream. Examining my quickly bruising appendage I discover that it's broken. Someone hands me a bottle of Iquiteña beer, which I down with alarming efficiency.

As the remaining rafts struggle against the current we wait along the riverbank with new friends from the last few days. There are no longer teams, just fellow racers who have stuck it out long enough to finish, the distinction between international visitors and local residents having mostly disappeared over 142 miles of Amazon River. Now there is just a sea of people from all over the world, drinking cold beer, sharing stories, slapping backs, and exchanging email addresses. Yes, even Amazon River villages have the Internet.

Gathering for the awards ceremony Mick presents the first place prize to "The Invincibles," a team from the nearby river village of Padre Cocha. Their time of just over thirteen hours blows us away by almost twelve hours. I'm more than a little bit embarrassed when my team is called up to accept the first place trophy for the international division. It's like icing on the cake; winning was never really the point for us. Like summitting a high peak, just finishing is a victory.

Ceremony complete, beer consumed, we say our goodbyes. Everyone asks if I will be back for the race again next year. I nod my head and feign surprise that they need even ask. I don't bother mentioning my secret fantasy is that ESPN will decide to cover the event next year and, as former champion, hire me as color commentator.

My improbable team has one last high-five before going our separate ways. Mirta disappears into the crowd as enigmatically as she appeared three days earlier. In a few days Norma will return to Lima. And Montana John? Well, the next time I see him it's in a smoky hut deep in the jungle with a shaman performing the ancient ayahuasca ceremony. But that's a story for a different time.

Our prize for winning the race is a three-day trip to the Amazon Rainforest Lodge. My teammates, all having spent enough time on the Amazon to satisfy their needs, elect not to go, but my new buddies the Rasta Boys are more than happy to stand in for them. Together we head off into the dark, foreboding jungle, where we finally get to meet many of the wild creatures that have haunted our thoughts in recent days.

(Note: Some of the race images in this article are courtesy of Bill Grimes/Dawn on the Amazon Tours and Cruises)

The Great Amazon River Raft Race – Part I

Pilsener Beer

IQUITOS, PERU – Like many great adventures, this one begins over beer. Specifically, the local Ecuadorian brew called Pilsener. There are no thoughts of Tarantulas. Or piranhas. Or 40-hour bus rides, corrupt policemen, sugarcane alcohol, broken bones, lightning, or intestinal parasites. Not yet, at least. That will come later. For now there is just adventure. Or at least the prospect of it.

"The World's Longest Rafting Race" teases the hand-drawn poster on the wall of the South American Explorers Club in Quito. Sitting around with a few like-minded adventurers the poster makes great fodder for alcohol-induced conversation. After one beer it's a running joke. After two it seems like a good idea to enter. After three we have formed a team and my fellow travelers are forking over money to pay the registration. Looking at the poster for fine print we discover there is none. Only a warning that "The faint of heart need not apply" along with the location: the remote city of Iquitos, Peru.

The Great Amazon River Raft Race is the brainchild of Michael "Mad Mick" Collis, a British ex-pat living in Iquitos. Mick has been putting on raft races for years, but this is by far the longest. On paper it sounds remarkably simple: paddle a log raft 142 miles down the Amazon River, arrive at the finish line three days later, and avoid being eaten by the local wildlife en route. Think Huck Finn, except that you're surrounded by piranhas, tarantulas, and swarms of malaria-infested mosquitoes.

The following day while preparing to leave, my team drops a bombshell; after sobering up they have all decided that maybe this isn't such a great idea. They've bailed on me and I'm flying solo. I decide to go anyway, even if the rest of my team never makes it beyond the Quito city limits.

I fire off an email to Mad Mick informing him of my plight. "Don't worry," comes his nonchalant reply. "There are tons of people down here looking for teams. You'll have no problem."

But first I must get to Iquitos.

The Amazon

Situated in the Amazon jungle in northeastern Peru, Iquitos lies just below the confluence of the Rí­o Marañon and the Rí­o Ucayali, where the Rí­o Amazonas, the mighty Amazon River, officially begins. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century the city was a boomtown thanks to the plentiful supply of rubber trees in the surrounding jungle, not to mention an indigenous population readily available for virtual enslavement by the rubber barons. Everything was just groovy until a British entrepreneur managed to smuggle some rubber seeds out of Brazil, giving birth to the industrialized rubber plantations of Malaysia. The economy has been in the doldrums ever since.

Iquitos has the distinction of being the largest city in the world that is inaccessible by road. To get there you must either fly or spend several days lying in a hammock aboard a riverboat. And unless you can afford to fly, it takes a long time to get there from almost anywhere else on the planet. With less than a week before the race starts I settle on a compromise strategy: a 40-hour bus trip to Lima, followed by a plane hop to Iquitos. With luck I'll arrive with hours to spare.

Huaquillas, Ecuador

Following an all night bus ride to the Ecuador-Peru border, I find myself in the treacherous frontier town of Huaquillas, wandering through a crowded market selling every black market good from pirated DVDs to fake Duracell batteries. I do my best to avoid the many hands that seem all too familiar with the zippers of my backpack, and eventually make it across a pedestrian footbridge into Aguas Verdes, Peru, where I repeat the process a second time.

I commandeer a taxi for the 20km ride to the coastal city of Tumbes. En route I am stopped by an overweight Peruvian police officer wearing mirrored sunglasses who could easily play the bad guy in any number of movies I've seen. He concocts some story about a problem with my passport and tells me that I'll have to leave the country immediately, then kindly offers to look the other way for $100. Another all night bus ride across the coastal deserts of Peru brings me to Lima, where I make a mad dash for the airport in hopes of catching the last flight of the day to Iquitos.

Crossing Peru

Arriving exhausted and teamless, I make my way to Mad Mick's Bunkhouse and Trading Post to find the man in charge. Mad Mick is a larger than life character who is hard to miss in a city like Iquitos. I find him at the aptly named Gringo Bar, a beer in one hand and a cigarette in the other, along with an impressive collection of empty bottles. I get the distinct impression he has been there since breakfast.

I remind Mick of my need for a team. He responds with an extra-long drag on his cigarette. "No problem," he bellows, his strong British accent seeming out of place in the Amazon. "If you visit some local bars it should be easy to recruit people."

As I am to discover over the next few days, Mick is a guy big on ideas but decidedly small on details.

Mad Mick's

I have been reduced to bar hopping. All I need to do is find three people who are willing to cancel whatever plans brought them to this lonely corner of the planet in order to spend three days floating down the Amazon River on a log raft while dodging piranhas, tarantulas, and swarms of malaria-infested mosquitoes. I decide that I will conveniently fail to mention any prospect of intestinal parasites.

I come close a few times – a young doctor from Holland; a German woman too far gone to remember whether she's really from Germany; a couple from Boston on their way to a jungle lodge – but never manage to close the deal. Then I find Norma.

"I'm going to join your team," she announces in Spanish before I can even make my pitch. Norma is a student from Lima and has already met one of the other teams. She's dying to get into the race and makes me promise her a spot.

Claro. No problema.

My team is now officially bilingual.

After Norma my luck runs dry. The bars close and I retreat to my hostel to sleep for the first time in three days, still missing half a team, too tired to care.

Amazon River Boats

Morning comes all too quickly and teams gather at Mad Mick's Bunkhouse for transport upriver to the town of Nauta where the race will begin. Despite a clear lack of marketing prowess, Mick has somehow managed to recruit teams representing Ireland, South Africa, Russia, Australia, Canada, the U.S, the U.K., and of course Peru.

Teams will compete in two divisions, a necessity owing to the fact that most of the Peruvian teams come from villages along the river. For all intents and purposes they have had unlimited time to prepare for the race; some have been engineering rafts and practicing for months. They are competing for cash prizes of 6,000 nuevo soles ($1850) – the equivalent of half a year's salary for many.

In contrast, international teams arrive one day prior to the race and will use rafts built for them by local crews. We are competing for bragging rights and a three-day trip to a jungle lodge. And to demonstrate to all of our friends back home how truly twisted we are.

There is an eclectic mix of international teams. Among them are the Lady Vets, a group of women veterinarians doing volunteer work in Peru. Then there are the Rasta Boys, a team of dreadlocked snowboarders from Lake Tahoe and a baker from San Francisco. There is even the Over the Hill Gang, a crew of American and Canadian retirees led by a crusty 74 year-old guy named Mort. And, of course, there is my own bilingual half-team.

Balsa Rafts

Arriving in the town of Nauta we see our rafts, or balsas, for the first time. Made of six to eight fire-dried balsa logs lashed together with jungle twine, they are surprisingly small; roughly sixteen feet long by eight wide. I find myself wondering what it was that Huck Finn saw in this mode of transportation, anyway.

Local teams have an impressive collection of balsas, some of them months in the works. Narrow and svelte, built with perfectly balanced logs tapered at the ends to reduce drag, they are the Amazon equivalent of Ferraris.

Balsas for the international teams are large, ungainly, asymmetrical contraptions that are still under construction as we arrive. They look like they were built by someone who has no intention of actually floating down the river on one. Assuming they even float. I conclude that we are about to ride the Amazon version of my parent's 1979 Chevrolet Caprice.

Late in the afternoon Mick pulls me aside. "I found another person for your team!" he says, never missing a drag on his cigarette. He introduces me to "Montana John," a 59 year-old American ex-pat who lives in the jungle outside of Iquitos. I'm usually a bit wary when I meet someone named after a state, especially when he has no last name and his house is miles from the nearest road in the middle of the Amazon Jungle. With less than twelve hours before the starting gun fires I don't have the luxury of being choosy and Montana John joins my increasingly motley crew.

Hammocks

Hammocks are a way of life in the Amazon.

That night Mick gathers the teams – 88 people from seven countries – at the only bar in Nauta large enough to accommodate us. "This should be a really easy race," he explains. "Even with minimal paddling you should be able to complete each day's leg in about five hours." He ceremoniously hands out hand-carved wooden paddles for us to use the next day.

Beers are passed around and a pre-race celebration ensues. Any excuse to drink cold beer in the hot, humid Amazon is greeted with enthusiasm.

We will be accompanied downriver by the Miron II, a classic Amazonian riverboat that will serve as our floating headquarters and bunkhouse. Designed to accommodate 20, it will house 40 people in hammocks and berths, less than half the complement of racers. The remainder will need to find accommodations in villages along the river. To boot, we will be shadowed by a Peruvian Coast Guard launch that has been assigned to monitor the race and provide emergency assistance.

The Miron II

The Miron II. Designed for 20, it will sleep 40. The toilet is a hole in the floor.

Paddle in hand, I traipse off to the Miron II and lay claim to some precious hammock space, falling asleep to the flashes of a silent lightning storm on the horizon.

Race Day

Race day. I wake up in my hammock aboard the Miron II at dawn and look down to see a crowd already gathering along the shore. Grabbing my gear I jump off the boat and track down Norma and Montana John.

"We have a problem," I tell them. "Every team is required to have four people, and we have three. Unless we find someone else to join our team in the next 45 minutes we're going to be watching this race from the deck of the Miron II."

Norma smiles and disappears into the crowd lining the riverbank. Thirty minutes later she reappears, a small local woman named Mirta in tow. With minutes to spare I am finally el capitán of a full team.

Standing on the riverbank Mick raises his megáfono and simply yells "Go!" Twenty-two rafts – six international teams and sixteen local ones – splash madly into the river, jockeying for position to get into the current.

It quickly becomes apparent that our balsas are even heavier and more awkward to maneuver than we anticipated. Compared to the finely tuned rafts carrying the local teams they are poorly built and border on disaster. A corner of our raft is permanently submerged, leaving one person constantly sitting in the muddy Amazon. Another team's raft lists severely to one side. Others have logs coming loose and disappearing downriver within the first few minutes of the race.

Peruvian Team

The Peruvian crews paddle with the precision of a championship rowing team; they have been doing this all their life. By comparison, we are trying to find a rhythm while attempting to hold our raft in one piece as we flounder down the river. It takes 15 minutes for most of the Peruvian teams to pull away, and within an hour all of them are out of sight down the river, leaving the international teams in their wake.

Not that any of us really care. True, we have traveled halfway around the world to race, but all we really want to do is finish. For us this adventure is about discovering a remote corner of the world and testing our own limits in the process.

I survey my fellow teams. The Lady Vets have lashed plastic garden chairs to their balsa for the ultimate ride-de-luxe. The Over the Hill Gang is guarding a giant foam cooler strapped to the center of their raft. We suspect it is stocked with Molson beer they have smuggled down from Canada. The Rasta Boys are lying on their backs and smoking something.

In short order we learn a few facts about life on the Amazon. It's hot. Really hot. Just a few degrees south of the equator, the sun blasts you like an oven, and humidity averages 85%. It doesn't matter how much sunscreen you apply because it simply washes away in the muddy water. At times it seems inviting to jump overboard and cool off, until you remember that the river is a soup of piranhas, alligators, intestinal parasites, and raw sewage dumped from boats.

Caimans

It seems like an easy thing to paddle a log raft all day, but it's not. Logs are heavy, even balsa ones, and over the course of the day they absorb water. You have to paddle hard to move, and despite Mick's assurance that this would be an easy jaunt down the river, it becomes clear that we will have to paddle constantly if we harbor any hope of reaching our destination before nightfall. We study the current, watching for lilies or other floating debris in a futile attempt to find fastest part of the channel.

On the River

As we cruise along I size up my improbable team. I can't decide if Norma spends more time paddling or lounging, but her bubbly personality keeps us in good spirits. Montana John regales me with larger than life stories ranging the gamut from knife-wielding chases through the streets of Lima to psychedelic ceremonies with jungle shamans. I'm not sure how much to believe. All of it I suspect.

Mirta is an enigma. Even when I speak to her in Spanish she replies with little more than a grin. But she never stops paddling. She's a machine.

Except for a couple of passes by the Coast Guard launch in the morning we see no other boats all day; eight hours later we round a bend in the river and spot the Miron II pulled along shore next to the small village of Nueva Esperanza.

Nueva Esperanza is a fairly typical Amazon River village: a collection of thatched-roof buildings and freely roaming livestock surrounding a soccer field. Several Peruvian rafters have joined some local kids in a game of pickup fútbol, and with looks of amusement they grab me as I meander past. The next thing I know I'm playing soccer on a not-so-level field with a bunch of Peruvians. And these guys are good. Really good. I'm about to curse my Teva sandals when it registers that most of them are playing barefoot. They still kick my ass.

Rainstorm

Midway through the game I experience my first Amazon storm. It arrives quickly, wind tearing through the trees. Lightning appears in every direction and thunder is instantaneous; the river turns to froth. We rush en masse to seek shelter under the thatched roof of a small bodega.

My new friends are curious about where I'm from, and while we wait out the storm they pepper me with questions. What is it like where I live? Is it cold? They are captivated by my description of winter, of snow in particular. None of them have ever seen snow except in pictures. What is it like? How deep does it get? I have difficulty explaining in Spanish the concept of building a snowman.

As we chat someone passes around a bottle of clear liquid – aguardiente

. Pure sugarcane alcohol, it is the local firewater. It burns like gasoline as I choke it down, and everyone breaks into riotous laughter when they see the grimace on my face.

Back along the river somebody realizes that amidst the storm one raft is still unaccounted for, yet for some reason the Coast Guard boat is pulled up on shore, its crew in serious chill-out mode. They don't seem to know how many teams are in the race, so they have no way of knowing that a raft is missing. At the urging of other rafters they head back upriver in search of the missing team. We learn later that the storm had ripped their raft to pieces, the Coast Guard plucking them from the water as they clung to logs in the middle of the Amazon.

The storm dissipates as quickly as it appeared, leaving the river calm and serene; perfect conditions for a night on the river.

(To continue reading Part II click here)

Sunset on the Amazon

(Note: Some of the race images in this article are courtesy of Bill Grimes/Dawn on the Amazon Tours and Cruises)