295- Por las Rutas del México Narco.

www.viajeros4x4x4.com

Por la rutas del México Narco. ©Pablo Rey. Publicado en su versión en inglés en la revista Overland Journal, Gear Guide 2015.

•••••

Hacía tiempo que no nos perdíamos. En realidad, sabíamos dónde estábamos, pero podíamos perdernos. Y nunca más nos volverían a encontrar.

El oficial de migración mexicano había sido tan claro como el agente de aduanas y el vendedor callejero de tacos de tripa. Los tres repitieron la misma frase, el mismo consejo, con la misma expresión severa en el rostro: No conduzcan de noche. Dejábamos Estados Unidos por la frontera de Caléxico/Mexicali y, en lugar de sentirme intranquilo por entrar a un país donde el narcotráfico provoca unos diez mil muertos al año, me entretenía pensando en que los nombres eran el resultado de un bonito juego de palabras. Caléxico venía de California-México y Mexicali de México-California.

¿Debía preocuparme? En realidad, no conduzcan de noche era una frase incompleta. Allí faltaba la aclaración que nos hizo una amiga en el patio de su casa en San Luis Río Colorado, al atardecer, entre tortillas de maíz, carne mechada, cebolla pasada por la sartén, chile jalapeño y mucha cerveza Tecate.

“Por la noche hay controles civiles. Hombres armados que detienen el tráfico en la carretera para pedir la documentación y revisar los vehículos.”

“¿Narcos?” sugerí sin recordar que esa palabra no se pronuncia en el norte de México.

Llevábamos 21 meses viajando por la seguridad del mundo anglo norteamericano y cruzar la frontera era volver a Latinoamérica, un mundo distinto, más imperfecto y espontáneo. Tenía ganas de cambiar el olor a hamburguesa y pollo frito por el olor ligeramente salado de las tripas envueltas en tortillas. Quería pasear por mercados de frutas y verduras que escandalizaran a las autoridades sanitarias al norte del Río Grande, hablar en mi idioma, escuchar unas rancheras y acampar en la playa. Quería volver a lugares donde no todo fuera predecible.

Era fines de 2012 y nuestro objetivo, además de llegar a Yucatán para el improbable fin del mundo tras el Año Nuevo Maya, era descubrir si el desierto de Sonora era tan hermoso como el desierto de Baja California. Sabíamos que en la ruta habría controles militares y policiales que querrían saber qué hacíamos allí y hacia dónde nos dirigíamos. Quizás querrían revisar la furgoneta, ver qué escondíamos en la cacerola, entre los cepillos de dientes y los libros que vamos vendiendo por el camino. Había que aceptarlo con paciencia y dar respuestas cortas, directas y cordiales. El único riesgo de estos controles civiles o militares estaba en los extremos, en el tedio o la tensión. No hay nada más peligroso que encontrarte en medio de la nada con un grupo de militares o narcos aburridos o nerviosos.

Pero al final del segundo día ya habíamos recorrido los primeros 600 kilómetros y, sorprendentemente, no habíamos encontrado un solo control. La policía se había vuelto tan invisible como en Estados Unidos. Los ‘mañosos’, los tipos malos, nos ignoraban. ¿Dónde estaba la guerra que anunciaban los medios de comunicación y que contaminaba nuestro estado de ánimo?

Supongo que por eso, y porque todavía teníamos un par de horas de luz, decidimos cambiar de planes. Tomar un desvío para llegar a Puerto Libertad y buscar una palapa con techo de paja para despertar en la playa era una tentación demasiado apetecible. Solo faltaba preguntar en la gasolinera Pemex si la ruta era segura.

“El camino es de tierra, mejor sigan por el asfalto hasta El Desemboque y luego toman la carretera de la costa. A la gente de los pueblos que están en el camino a Puerto Libertad no les gustan los vehículos extraños. Allí tienen sus sembradíos y dentro de poco será de noche. Mejor vaya a El Desemboque.”

No pregunté más. Ya sabía que lo que allí sembraban no eran tomates ni maíz. Tomamos el camino largo y aceleramos, mientras el sol empieza a bajar.

 

EL RETORNO A LOS MALOS CAMINOS

Si se pudiera desmembrar la tierra como un cuerpo –brazos, piernas, cabeza, pies, cadera– estábamos en el mismo corazón del territorio controlado por una de las bandas de narcotraficantes mejor organizadas del mundo. Y, más allá del comentario ocasional, no lo habíamos notado. La región dominada por el Cártel de Sinaloa parece funcionar con normalidad dentro del conjunto de México. Para nosotros, extranjeros, nada indica que estamos en una región peligrosa, tomada por un poder paralelo. Sin aduana oficial ni migración, con su propio ejército que viste de civil y una justicia que siempre salda sus cuentas.

Podía ser interesante descubrir tras una curva que la ruta había sido cortada por un control civil, un grupo de hombres con muchas armas manifestándose en contra de la curiosidad. Era posible, nos lo habían advertido. También era una buena historia si sobrevivíamos para contarlo. Por eso, a medida que el sol empezó a acercarse peligrosamente al horizonte, pisé el acelerador un poco más, abandonando la rutina de los 90 kilómetros por hora. En realidad pisé el acelerador casi hasta el fondo. Quería llegar a El Desemboque antes que la noche nos encontrara en la ruta y escondiera los detalles.

 

Si se pudiera desmembrar la tierra como un cuerpo –brazos, piernas, cabeza, pies, cadera– estábamos en el mismo corazón del territorio controlado por una de las bandas de narcotraficantes mejor organizadas del mundo.

 

Los 105 kilómetros de asfalto irregular y sin arcén, delgados, comenzaron a estirarse como un chicle usado. La ruta es recta, escuálida y ondulada cuando el cauce de un arroyo seco crea un badén que hace trabajar a los amortiguadores. Solo en ese momento bajo de los 120 kilómetros por hora, 40 más de los permitidos por los carteles de velocidad máxima agujereados a tiros.

A ambos lados de la carretera el paisaje se mantiene imperturbable, seco, áspero. A la izquierda, los montes de piedra roja se levantan sobre un desierto de arbustos espinosos. Es la primera barrera hacia los valles cultivados, una definición bastante imprecisa que puede incluir cualquier cosa capaz de crecer en la tierra –maíz, cáñamo, tomates, nopal, amapola, algunos árboles frutales. Hace tiempo que los narcos se convirtieron en inversores en tierras lejanas, agrestes y escondidas.

Quienes se encargan de las plantaciones son los agricultores más pobres, los olvidados por la economía y la política, hombres y mujeres casi siempre de bajos recursos y menos educación formal que ven cómo una cosecha de amapola o cáñamo da lo mismo que varios años de maíz. Los químicos suelen llegar escondidos en el doble fondo de camionetas con motores de ocho cilindros, mejores que cualquier caballo soñado por Pancho Villa. El producto terminado, paquetes de polvo blanco o fardos verdes prensados, atraviesa el paisaje escondido tras la mercadería de camiones de antecedentes intachables o en avionetas que vuelan al ras de la tierra. Avionetas que apenas se elevan para esquivar los cables telefónicos.

El sol continúa descendiendo mientras acelero, todavía no sabemos dónde vamos a dormir ésta noche. Tomar este camino es una forma de retornar a la ruta más incierta, sobre todo porque no puedo imaginar cómo es El Desemboque, nuestro destino. No vi una foto del pueblo frente al mar, nadie dijo ‘bonito’, ‘feo’, ‘sucio’, ‘vacío’, ‘peligroso’, ‘tranquilo’, nadie le puso un adjetivo. México es un país demasiado grande y El Desemboque es demasiado pequeño como para aparecer en la guía que Anna revisa sobre la marcha.

Movernos por el impulso básico de avanzar, sin saber lo que encontraremos al final del camino, es el viaje más puro. Hay que romper los planes y dejar un espacio libre a la espontaneidad, a la sorpresa. Tirar los dados, que el caos encuentre un orden, y caer de pie, otra vez, como un gato viejo que ya perdió la cuenta de las veces que salvó su vida. No podemos dormir a un lado de la ruta, no debemos tomar cualquier camino de tierra para acampar en lugares sin nombre o con nombres que es mejor no conocer. “Algo encontraremos” susurro convencido en uno de mis mantras preferidos, invocando a la magia de las coincidencias. Sincronicidad, es la palabra que inventamos para darle nombre a esas casualidades que ocurren sin que puedas explicarlas.

Dos luces blancas aparecen en el espejo retrovisor. Son intensas, puras como una aparición religiosa, y avanzan a toda velocidad hacia nosotros. Intento acelerar un poco más, la furgo alcanza los 135 kilómetros por hora y el volante comienza a vibrar. No es el suelo irregular, es el límite antes de que la carrocería comience a desarmarse, a dejar trozos de viaje a lo largo de la carretera. Las luces continúan acercándose. Alguien con más temor, o más prisa, o más motor, nos adelanta dejando una estela plateada. Entonces aparece la sombra de un techo oscuro y triangular, recortado contra el cielo rojo del atardecer. Un cartel verde plantado junto a la ruta anuncia ‘El Desemboque’. El sol acaba de desaparecer, la noche se derrumba y el asfalto es reemplazado por una calle de tierra. Ahora tenemos que encontrar dónde dormir.

La Vuelta al Mundo en 10 Años - www.viajeros4x4x4.com

 

SINCRONICIDAD

Con la oscuridad, El Desemboque se convierte en un pueblo habitado por fantasmas. Las calles de tierra agujereada están iluminadas por las luces de las casas. Los enjambres de sombras se giran al escuchar el ronroneo del motor. Un grupo de hombres bebe frente a la puerta de un almacén con un gran cartel de Tecate. Sus rostros enseñan una mueca extrañada, curiosa o sorprendida.

Frente a la mayoría de las puertas hay botes de unos diez metros de eslora pintados de blanco. La popa está vacía, los motores duermen en casa. La calle toma un desvío hacia la izquierda, luego gira hacia la derecha y sigue junto a la línea de construcciones viejas levantadas frente a la playa. En algún sitio está el lugar donde dormiremos esta noche, donde nadie nos espera.

Casi al final del pueblo, después de un desvío confuso marcado por un penetrante aroma a perro muerto, aparece un patio iluminado frente al mar. Una bombilla amarilla cuelga sobre la cabeza de dos hombres sentados, que comen con las manos algo que sacan de una cacerola. Dejo el motor en marcha y desciendo. Cuando estoy cerca, saludo.

Sus primeras palabras me ofrecen comida, alguno de los cangrejos recién cocinados en la olla. Luego me preguntan si soy de Texas. Cuando les explico que venimos del sur y buscamos un lugar donde dormir me ofrecen una cerveza. Al segundo trago me dicen que aparque en el patio, que podemos dormir allí, y que me siente en su mesa.

¿Qué pasó con el México peligroso que aparece en los medios de comunicación? ¿Dónde estaban los narcos con sus cadáveres colgando de los puentes? ¿Y la guerra permanente entre bandas? Yo no la vi, pero estaba allí. No porque lo digan los periódicos sino porque la misma gente me lo contaba. En verdad, ellos eran quienes finalmente sufrían esta guerra no declarada, los propios mexicanos,

Tras un año recorriendo México de punta a punta, aprendimos que solo hay que tener cuidado con los delincuentes comunes, como en cualquier lugar del mundo. Los narcos no se meten con los extranjeros. Ellos tienen otro negocio, algo más importante y que da mucho más dinero que el turismo.

Esa noche cenamos cangrejos y cervezas con nuestros nuevos amigos. Al día siguiente les acompañaría a recoger las redes repletas de caracoles en el Mar de Cortés y aprendería a pelar lenguado imitando los movimientos precisos de su cuchillo. Daba igual si estábamos en el DF, en Michoacán, Cancún, Monterrey o Sinaloa, en la costa del Océano Pacífico o en la costa del Océano Atlántico, en territorio narco o en un temascal en las montañas. México es grande, y volvía a recibirnos con los brazos abiertos.

•••••

Consigue los libros de Pablo Rey con las historias de casi 20 años viviendo en la ruta, en las mejores librerías de viaje de España, en Amazon.com y en Kindle, o descarga las primeras historias en PDF.

Viaja con nosotros cada día en InstagramFacebookTwitter YouTube @viajeros4x4x4

•••••

El 20 de junio del año 2000 partimos de Barcelona para dar la vuelta al mundo en 4 años en una furgoneta 4×4 que con el tiempo terminamos bautizando como La Cucaracha. ¿Por qué? Porque se mete por todos lados y porque es capaz de sobrevivir a una bomba atómica. Desde aquel momento recorrimos el sur de Europa, Oriente Próximo, África de norte a sur y América desde Ushuaia hasta el Océano Ártico, en el norte de Alaska y Canadá. En el año 2008 compramos una balsa de madera para descender un río del Amazonas del Perú y en 2015 compramos una moto en Vietnam para recorrer el Sudeste Asiático.

Desde el año 2007 compartimos datos e historias en el blog (o la web) de La Vuelta al Mundo en 10 Años, en www.viajeros4x4x4.com. Pablo ya tiene escritos 3 libros en castellano (El Libro de la IndependenciaPor el Mal Camino e Historias en Asia y África) y uno en inglés (The Book of Independence) y escribe regularmente artículos para revistas como Overland Journal y OutdoorX4. Anna edita los libros y hace collares y pulseras de macramé que venden en las ferias de 4×4 a las que asisten para dar charlar y conferencias.

Han participado de la Feria del Libro de Guadalajara (México), de la Feria del Libro de Guayaquil (Ecuador), de Sant Jordi en Barcelona, de la Overland Expo de Arizona y han dado charlas y conferencias en muchísimos lugares, entre los que se encuentran el Club de Creativos de España, la Universidad Carlos III de Madrid y el Museo de Arte de Puerto Rico.

¿Cuándo terminará el viaje? El viaje no termina. El viaje es la vida.

www.viajeros4x4x4.com




244- Cómo evitar que te coman los osos (Historia para la Revista Altaïr, España)

Valdez Alaska Estados Unidos USA

©Pablo Rey. Publicado por la Revista Altaïr, 2012.

El método más común para espantar a los osos en los senderos de Norteamérica es agitar una campanita, que suena como una llamada a la mesa. ¡Tilín-tilín! ¡Aquí estoy! ¡Tilín-tilín! ¡Soy grande y sabroso! Es absurdo. Personalmente, prefiero caminar por la montaña entonando canciones austríacas. Asusta más y es menos embarazoso.

–          ¿Sabes cuál es la mejor manera de evitar que te coma un oso? –me preguntó Anna, mi compañera de viajes, poco después de ahuyentar mi primer oso negro esgrimiendo amenazadoramente una cuchara y la taza plateada del café con leche.

La auténtica Anna, de espíritu sagaz y levemente malvado, volvía a la superficie.

–         Para evitar que te coma un oso hay que salir a caminar en grupo… ¡y correr más rápido que el más lento!

Entonces miró a mi espalda, y echó a correr.

En los últimos años de carretera habíamos visto montones de animales salvajes. Llamas, ciervos, camioneros, serpientes, conductores de autobús y algún cocodrilo en Sudamérica. Monos, perezosos y taxistas en Centroamérica. Pero carnívoros capaces de usar tus deditos como escarbadientes, solo en los zoológicos.

Por eso, a medida que devorábamos kilómetros por ese túnel verde que es la ruta que asciende hacia el Ártico por el oeste de Canadá, comenzamos a recopilar los folletos acerca de cómo reaccionar si te encuentras frente a un oso. Todos recomiendan avanzar haciendo ruido. Luego dan una serie de consejos prácticos, sin duda escritos por un oso infiltrado.

Si te encuentras con un oso y se te acerca gruñendo y salivando, mantén la calma. Está estresado por tu presencia. Aguanta el tipo.

Je-je. El que comienza a estar estresado soy yo. Y eso que estoy en la naturaleza…

Te pones de pie sobre una roca o un tronco caído y mueves despacio los brazos hacia arriba y hacia los lados mientras le hablas en tono suave y amistoso.

–          Eyyy… tooodo bieeen. Tranquiiilo. Paaz, paaz y amor. Yo voy por mi lado, tu vas por el tuyo, y como si no nos hubiéramos visto… ¿Entieeendes? No me digas que solo hablas inglés…

Si el oso corre hacia ti lo más probable es que sea una carga defensiva para amedrentarte y se detenga a pocos centímetros de tu rostro. Tienes que aguantar tu posición ya que si corres, tienes miedo. Y si tienes miedo, eres una presa.

Eso, eso, que sepa quién es el jefe. Como en África, si caminas por la selva y ves un león tienes que quedarte quieto esperando que se vaya. Funciona al mediodía, que es la hora de la pereza. Si te lo encuentras al amanecer o al atardecer, la única opción es volverte invisible. Lo sugestionas diciendo ‘soy un arbusto, soy un arbusto y no me ves porque soy un vegetal y los leones no son vegetarianos…’

Si el oso solo quiere hacerte saber quién manda, podrás comenzar a moverte despacio y alejarte. Nunca le des la espalda.

Recuerda que lo tienes resoplando a menos de un metro de distancia. Si aún no te has cagado encima, eres mi héroe.

En cambio, si el oso te mira fijamente y mantiene sus orejas erguidas, prepárate para defenderte.

Tú mírale las orejas. Y si las tiene tiesas recuerda que los osos también necesitan proteínas. Cazan ganado, cabras, alces, ciervos y, ¿cómo era que te llamas?

En ese caso tienes que pelear por tu vida. Tu mochila te protegerá la espalda. Debes disparar el aerosol anti osos a la altura del suelo porque los osos cargan corriendo a cuatro patas. Vigila la dirección del viento.

¡El aerosol anti osos! ¡El viento! ¡¿En qué bolsillo dejé el aerosol anti osos?!

Si no tienes aerosol y te ataca un oso negro, golpéale los ojos. Si te ataca un grizzlie hazte el muerto, déjale que te zarandee un rato hasta que se aburra y se vaya.

Solo morirás de un ataque al corazón.

Casi siempre, si un oso te escucha (o ve tu taza de café con leche) se esconderá en el bosque. Nosotros somos el animal peligroso. Si estás en su camino tienes que dejarle espacio para que pase. Pero si tienen hambre o te perciben como una amenaza para ellos o sus crías, prepárate.

Vuelve a la página uno. Sal a caminar por los bosques del Yukón con alguien que corra más lento que tú.




243- La Terapia del Insulto (Historia para la Revista Altaïr, España)

Passenger eject

© Pablo Rey. Publicado por la revista Altaïr, España 2012.

¿Estás planeando un largo viaje por regiones remotas y no quieres ir s[email protected]? ¿Crees que lo más difícil será sobrevivir a los animales salvajes? ¿A las tribus? ¿A la comida que provoca diarrea? ¿A los ladrones? ¿A la malaria? No. Lo más difícil de un viaje largo es sobrevivir a tu pareja.

“No se cómo pasó… Se soltó el freno y la furgo lo aplastó cuando buscaba ese tornillito que siempre se le pierde.” “Me levanté por la mañana y ya no estaba, seguro que acumuló gases y ¡tuvo combustión espontánea!” “Lo juro, ¡yo no lo empujé!”

Viajar es el sueño de todos los lectores de Altaïr y una de las formas de vivir en la ruta es en furgoneta. Pero, ¿alguna vez consideraste las consecuencias de convivir en un apartamento de 4,6333 metros cuadrados con tu pareja, las 24 horas del día, los 7 días de la semana, todos los meses del año, sin un momento de descanso? Duermes allí, cocinas allí, te lavas allí, discutes allí. En solo un año cumples tus bodas de plata, oro, diamante, platino y kriptonita. En 12 años, hombre o mujer, te has convertido en un proyecto de Dalai Lama o Jack el Destripador.

Todo comenzó en 1999, cuando le propuse a Anna abandonar nuestros trabajos para dar la vuelta al mundo. “¿Vuelta al Mundo? ¿Cómo? ¿Estás loco? ¿Con qué dinero? ¿Hacia dónde? ¿Con qué te golpeaste la cabeza?” Hacía menos de un año que nos conocíamos, apenas habíamos comprobado que quien amanecía a nuestro lado era un ser humano y no una calabaza. Partir juntos podía ser más arriesgado que viajar a Afganistán.

La primera gran crisis ocurrió 40 días después de salir de Barcelona. Sabíamos que la falta de amigos confesores y rutinas individuales mezcladas con la convivencia en un espacio extremadamente pequeño provocaría problemas. Que en los cruces de caminos uno señalaría hacia Marte y el otro hacia la Luna. Si queríamos viajar juntos no teníamos más alternativa que hablar de todo lo que nos molestara. Todo. No podíamos callarnos nada. Pero hablar no es lo mismo que ponerse de acuerdo. Por eso comenzamos a insultarnos.

Fue un éxito rotundo. Insultar a tu pareja y que no se ofenda sino que te replique, es una terapia espectacular. Al principio las recriminaciones subían poco a poco de tono, ninguno cedía, los dos teníamos razón. Estábamos marcando el territorio como dos perros meando ruedas nuevas.

La lista comenzaba por los clásicos de siempre, idiota, cabrón, imbécil, gilipollas, pero cuando se nos acababan los estereotipos comenzábamos a improvisar. Y la cosa se ponía buena. ¡Burra cabeza dura! ¡Orinal viejo! ¡Diarrea de sapo! El cabreo se estaba convirtiendo en un concurso en busca del insulto más original.

–          Si queremos sobrevivir tenemos que llevarnos bien, ¡cerebro de mosquita!

–          Si no te quisiera no te soportaría. ¡Mancha de semen!

Y volvíamos a comenzar. ¡Error! ¡Almorrana de metro y medio! ¡Pedo atravesado! ¡Burro del sur!

–          ¡Repetiste burro! ¡Perdiste!

Estábamos inventando las reglas y ese era el giro que le faltaba a la Terapia del Insulto: no vale repetir. A partir de ese día fue mucho más fácil resolver nuestros problemas como pareja en viaje permanente. ¡Accidente de una borrachera! ¡Espantapájaros de carne! Cuando empezamos a improvisar, olvidamos las diferencias y comenzamos a reír. La rabia mezclada con un poco de ingenio nos deja mansos para hablar sobre el auténtico problema. ¡Rata de restaurante chino! ¡Ano ortopédico! ¡Corazón de segunda mano! ¡Ornitorrinco!

Sabíamos que para vivir viajando teníamos que estar preparados para lo inesperado, sobre todo si nos movíamos con nuestro propio vehículo y en pareja. Y que debíamos armarnos de humor, mucho humor. Es sencillo, siempre puede ocurrir algo peor.

¿Roturas de motor en medio de la nada? ¿Guerrilleros armados con AK-47? ¿Helados caseros de agua contaminada? ¿Pulgas salvajes? ¿Policías corruptos? No. El mayor peligro que puedes encontrar durante un gran viaje es… tu pareja.

Canyon Chelly, La Cucaracha, vanlife, adventure, aventura




239- Adrenaline | story for OVERLAND JOURNAL

© Pablo Rey. Published on Overland Journal Magazine, Spring 2013.

WALKING ON THE WILD SIDE OF MANA POOLS

Few travelers know of Mana Pools, one of the most spectacular national parks in all of Africa. At first glance, it appears to be just another patch of protected bush land, scarred by seasonal flooding, then sprinkled with every species of wildlife. It was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site, but boasts no outstanding geological features. It’s not located inside a silent volcano like Ngorongoro; it doesn’t have facilities for wildlife observation found in Etosha; nor the endlessly seeping plains of Masai Mara or the Serengeti, where the epic migration draws tens of thousands of visitors each year. Nope: Mana Pools National Park, lying south of the Zambian border in economically-ravaged Zimbabwe, doesn’t have any of that. What Mana Pools does provide, and in copious quantities, is adrenaline.

Here, you can partake in an activity that is forbidden in the rest of the African national parks –stroll amongst lions, hyenas, and elephants without the escort of a park warden. Nobody will keep you from parking under the shadow of a baobab tree and straying unarmed in any direction, wherever your steps and common sense –or lack thereof –take you. It is a place where personal decisions dictate your freedom to roam, where your actions can reap great rewards… or cost you your life. Your most beautifully crazy deed of the day, walking with the lion, is possible.

You walk to the shore of the Zambezi River, imagining the steps of the first men here. Looking down, you find your foot rests in the fresh casting of what looks like a family-sized pizza. A group of 15 elephants lumbers slowly towards the river’s edge. There are two large males, a few females, some adolescents, and a couple of calves. To the left, a group of zebras hide amongst gnus and antelope, trying hopelessly to appear inconspicuous. Hippos, their eyes and massive nostrils barely above the water, clear their throats in chuckling grunts. You are there, amongst them, standing far from your vehicle, dead still. You are armed only with a Swiss penknife.

On the opposite shore, in Zambia, a soft carpet of trees covers the foot of the mountains. The view is broad, the landscape impressive. It is October; the rainy season is coming and the air remains warm. You then let yourself go again, following slowly behind the group of elephants and towards the wind. Scanning the tall grass that surrounds you for lions, you hope not to find any. Your eyes fixate on the river’s edge; you are well aware of the river’s healthy crocodile population. Occasionally, one pokes its little eyes out of the water. Adrenaline surge through your veins. Is this an ingenious suicide scheme? No. It’s an escape from the mundane, the return to a wilder life of real adventure. It’s pure excitement.

Camping sites are not of the incubator-type found in Kruger national Park, partitioned from wild Africa with a labyrinth of wire –to keep the humans in. At Mana Pools, it’s common to have elephants breaking branches near your tent, buffalos scratching their backs on a Land Cruiser, or lions and hyenas moving in close at nightfall, drawn by strange smells. White meat, raw, must be a delicious meal.

———————————————————–

IT IS A PLACE WHERE PERSONAL DECISIONS DICTATE YOUR FREEDOM TO ROAM, WHERE YOUR ACTIONS CAN REAP GREAT REWARDS… OR COST YOU YOUR LIFE.

———————————————————–

Vervet monkeys, which run and scream like mad children, climb on top of the ablution block, urinate from high branches in what seems like spontaneous rain on an otherwise dry day, and send their young to inspect the supply crates of travelers –in search for soggy bread, cake-flavored plastic, or a dented Coca Cola can. Watching them is always quite a show. They hop onto the roof of our van like a gang of deranged acrobats, and spy the interior through the windshield. Then they contemplate the situation while scratching under their arms, as if they had their brains in their armpits. One of them, standing on the rearview mirror, thrusts its arm inside the slightly opened window. Nothing is within its reach. The monkey scratches its armpit again… he’s thinking. In frustration, he hangs from the glass and starts shanking it violently.

In Mana Pools it’s easy to feel free. The fairness, the opportunity to walk amongst wild animals (who can kill and devour you if you make a mistake), make it a unique experience. In this environment you’ve got to trust your instincts. All of your senses must stay alert, even those that most humans put aside centuries ago due to our dull lives. Recalling a Frenchman who died a few weeks prior, the park ranger reminded us, after reciting the park rules several times, “ You must think to stay alive”. He continued, “He was walking absentmindedly to a public phone, there, near the toilet, and came across an elephant. The elephant got scared, held him in its trunk, threw him on the ground, and stamped on him with its front legs. Then it kneeled on him.”

Nothing can stop an upset elephant, and the best place to hide is always somewhere else.

“If you want to see a dead elephant, follow the tracks to Vundu. We found it yesterday, shot by poachers who crossed the river at night. But this time the elephant walked away, wounded, before going down. We already cut the tusks, feet, skin and tail and sent it to Harare. The park sells everything. We also cut out some meat and shared it amongst the park staff”

“Meat? Elephant meat? Would it be possible to get ourselves some? We have a braai, but no meat. An empty barbecue is always a sad sight. Maybe, could we buy some meat from you?”

“I can’t sell it,” answers the ranger before nodding his head towards another man in the office. “But he can.”

Thus, this carnivore (who is now writing of the wilds of Mana Pools), and his friends got hold of 3 kilos of elephant meat, already stripped for biltong. We bought some cold beers at the park ranger’s shop and off we went to have an elephant barbecue.

At the Carnivore restaurant in Nairobi, Kenya, we had dined on zebra and crocodile. Those were true T-bones an experienced butcher has carefully cut, removing tendons and fat, and taking into account the size of the plate it would be served on. That was nothing like our strips of elephant meat, salted, with a little water, and now on the fire.

———————————————————–

“ELEPHANT’S READY!” I ANNOUNCED A BIT LATER.

———————————————————–

Pablo Rey article about Mana Pools National Park, Zimbabwe, for Overland Journal Magazine. Around the World in 10 Years

“Elephant’s ready!” I announced a bit later. Anna and our Belgian friends, Jorick, Winnie, Ronald and Sophie, who were also crossing Africa en route to Cape Town, sat down at the table. Elephant meat is tough and has a strong gamey taste; this must have been an old elephant. A hundred meters from us, a group of water buffalo sipped silently from the river. A secretary bird ran down the shoreline, then took flight for the safety of the trees. The sun was setting and there was time to go to the toilet before dark, before we became supper for other carnivores.

It wasn’t hard to find the remains of our extraordinary dinner the next day. By the main trails, three fallen tree trunks framed a large bloodstain that marked the kill site. From there, a new track dodged a few trees, terminating at a vulture-covered corpse. I returned to the van for my camera and Swiss Army knife, then approach carefully, one step at a time. I scan my surroundings for shadows, for lions, shaking bushes, golden stains on the grass, but all is clear. I draw close; the vultures moan and fly away. Intestines as thick as the leg of a football player lie like a tangled anaconda on the dry soil. The skull bone appears brownish, the legs are missing, and the flesh has turned black. As I walk around the carcass and a toxic sour clud surrounds me, I hold my breath. I see an old green Land Rover pull up and park beside our van. The rangers approach us, rifles in hand.

“Are you mad? Don’t you know there’s lions around?” asks one of them.

“Yes. That is why we’re here. We want to see them, but it looks as if they’ve already left,” I answer.

“Nope, you don’t see them, but they’re there. Shouldn’t be doing this but… follow me.”

The rangers, wearing green shorts and knee-high socks, march in a single-file line in front of us. A short distance out, the leader points to a spot in the bushes. We were just 40 meters from the rotting elephant corpse, and there was the lion. To his right one could make out the outline of a female lying in front of two young ones. They just stared at us with curious bewilderment as they had been watching me while I’d strolled like a dumb tourist around their lunch.

Spectacular. Beautiful. Dangerous if one is not careful. Leaving the safety of my van to walk amongst Africa’s wild animals, to descend from my top rung on the proverbial food chain, was a primal impulse to take risks and find new personal limits. Since then, when I don’t dream of elephants lumbering around the Zambezi forests, I daydream of returning to this lost world. Pure adrenaline –this is Mana Pools.

Related link: 3 Gringos, 10 Days and a 6 Log Raft

•••••

On year 2000, Pablo Rey (Buenos Aires) and Anna Callau (Barcelona) quit their jobs and rented out their apartment in Spain to travel around the world during four years. Four somehow turned into fifteen. The couple, living out of their small 4WD van, a.k.a. La Cucaracha, has travelled more than 220,000 miles, passing through 60 countries, with no end in sight.

After leaving Southern Europe, these committed nomads have driven through the Middle East, Africa —from North to South, the entire American continent —from Tierra del Fuego (at the Southern tip of Patagonia) to the Arctic Ocean in Alaska, before settling in for a couple of years of discovery in North America. Getting here was no small feat. They crossed the Atlantic Ocean from South Africa to Argentina in a fishing vessel, survived elephant and Kalashnikov attacks in Africa and paddled down an Amazon river in a 6-log wooden raft. Their engine broke down in the middle of the Sudanese Sahara and froze at 15,000 feet during a very cold winter in the Bolivian Altiplano, and that’s just scratching the surface.

In 15 years they have met, shared food and stayed with some truly amazing and hospitable people. Whether in a house, hut, tent or under the stars, the take away is the same, in whatever culture, remove the dogma and indoctrination and you realize that we are all the same, one big human family living in a beautiful, albeit fragile, Earthly home.

Pablo has written three books in Spanish; one has been translated into English, Around the World in 10 Years: The Book of Independence, available at Kindle and Amazon.com. Follow the latest adventures of Pablo and Anna on Instagram, Facebook and YouTube @viajeros4x4x4




3 Gringos, 10 Days and a 6-Log Raft | OVERLAND JOURNAL

Winter 2011 Manu Biosphera Reserve

© Pablo Rey. Published on Overland Journal, Winter 2011.

Overland Journal Winter 2011, Adventure in the Amazon Basin

© Pablo Rey – (Lee esta historia en castellano en 3 Gringos, 10 días y una balsa de 6 troncos)

ADVENTURE

Adventure is starting something without knowing how you are going to finish, and usually comes with a large dose of adrenaline and a small measure of fear. It is to venture down a new and unfamiliar path, often without being completely prepared. It is quitting your job to star a new life. Adventure is about abandoning self-doubt and personal fears, leaving doors open to chaos as it may come, and walking to our final appointment with death, feeling that life as we lived it was worth the price.

Many of the world’s greatest adventures have begun as a casual suggestion, a few words between two sips of beer, a recessed thought that slips out from your memory files, or a farfetched idea picked up by a stranger who was close enough to overhear a conversation. “What if we did this…? And why not have a… And then we’ll climb the…”

It is a pivotal moment of an adventure: when an idea morphs from an absurd and nebulous fantasy, to intention. This is minute zero –you are not yet away from home but you have already mentally checked out (in my case, I’m probably already getting into trouble). When you realize you have an accomplice, and that your private delusion is shared by another (this is Anna, my traveling partner for eleven years), any thoughts of backing out, or (God forbid a verbalization), and you would be eternally labeled as a city-slicking chicken.

The details of the vision don’t really matter –It could be getting lost in real Mexico (further south than the North American colony of Baja), sky diving with skis into the crater of a snow-covered volcano (better if it is active), or pointing your dual-sport towards the far reaches of the Dempster, the Dalton, or Pan American Highway. Wherever your end of the world is, Tierra del Fuego, the Cape of Africa, or the Moon, the important thing is committing yourself to finding it.

In our case, the words that slipped between a glass of beer and my lips, an inconceivably ludicrous thought that I’d regurgitated from that foolish part of my body called the mouth, had become an insane but semi-plausible plan. At first thought, the idea was so simple that it seemed possible. We simply needed to drive our ultimate overland machine, a Mitsubishi L300 4×4 we call La Cucaracha, to the last village on the most remote muddy two-track in the Amazon jungle, and keep going –on a wooden raft.

Yes, a wooden raft. The same type of rickety, hand built craft that Tarzan used to ply the rivers of Africa, and similar to the tatty and unstable lashed-log vessels used in the Yukon during the gold rush. It had been 470 years since the first white man, Spanish explorer Francisco de Orellana, navigated the Amazon River from the Andes to the Atlantic Ocean. With Orellana in mind, our sortie would need to be on a traditional craft: no fiberglass or carbon fiber here.

It would be undoubtedly be safer to do this trip in a modern kayak or canoe; to have a detailed map of the region rather than a photocopy of a free tourist pamphlet (folded in fours so it can fit in my pocket); or to delay the trip until we found the appropriate equipment. Any of these might be acceptable cause for most people to nix the whole idea.

But it is now or never, and from time-to-time it is good to do something crazy. How else could we consider stepping onto a wooden raft, in a remote jungle, on a river that we don’t know (though we do know it is full of caiman and anaconda)? We are without a guide, satellite phone or any chance of being rescued if things go wrong. Armed only with an African-made machete and a Swiss-Army knife, crazy… yes, we must be crazy.

There are two fundamental reasons to continue on with the plan. The first is that we have mentally committed ourselves to the vision. The second is that if we really want to explore the depths of the Amazon jungle, short of joining an expensive tourist boat cruise, this is the way. Anna and I will park La Cucaracha, the place we have called home for the last eleven years, and take a waterway less traveled.


Adventure, raft, wooden raft, river, amazon, jungle, perú, Manu Biosphera Reserve

THE PRICE OF ADVENTURE.

This is our fifth month in Peru, one of the most fascinating countries in South America. During our time here we’ve explored 2000 kilometres of coastal deserts, flown over the mysterious geoglyphs of the Nasca lines, and walked through the ancient Inca ruins of Machu Picchu. In the process we’ve followed railroad lines across the Andes several times on roads over 5000 metres abouve sea level (yes, that’s 16.500 feet). All were exhilarating and breathtaking, yet one of our greatest adventures was yet to come.

It was in the city of Cusco, ancient capital of the Incan Empire, where we met Mauro, a Uruguayan volunteer who had been helping with the educational needs of children in the Peruvian Amazon. Mauro had invited us to visit him in Salvación, a village of about 700 inhabitants in the state of Madre de Dios. It didn’t look so distant on the map, about 300 kilometres; but the line identifying the road, became thinner and thinner before disappearing in a massive area of green –perfect. It ended up being a 12-hour trek on a tortuous dirt track full of combis (passenger vans) and trucks driven by kamikazes who apparently believed in eternal life.

Mid trip we crossed an invisible border into a land of settlers in permanent struggle to conquer the jungle and convert it into their vision of civilization. These were rough men, hungry for a plot of land to extract timber, produce maize, raise cattle, and mine for gold. What was left of nature resembled a decaying and mutilated corpse of what had been. The once-thriving aboriginal tribes of the region were now hollow-eyed and dispirited, decimated by alcohol and other imported vices.

The raft idea arose in the second afternoon in Salvación as we sat on the banks of the Río Alto Madre de Dios. This was moment zero. The river’s cool waters flowed fast, like an artery into the heart of South America. Though its final destination is the Atlantic Ocean, the river’s course meanders to the north and south as it drifts towards Bolivia and Brazil. There it becomes Rio Madeira, one of the most important tributaries of the Amazon. But we were not aiming to go that far. Our quest to see a private slice of the Amazon would need to be done in just 10 days, ending in the mining town of Colorado. Once there, we hope to find a truck to bring us out of the jungle and back to Salvación. As the crow flies, the distance is about 200 kilometres, not counting bends of the river, accidents or occasional piranhas -10 days should be enough.

“Mauro, have you ever driven a raft? I guess you have a driving license…” I asked, “It is important that someone knows where the steering wheel and the brakes are.”

“Yes, I’ve driven a raft in a cocha… once…” Mauro replied.

This was not a confidence builder. Cochas are long lakes surrounded by jungle; old watercourses carved out by the river during the intense rainy season, then abandoned as the waters ebb. A cocha is calm with no current… there are no submerged trees or boulders to run into. It is the perfect place for a contemplative drift on a sunny day; however, this wasn’t what we had in mind.

Two days later we arrived in Shintuya, a small village of the Harakmbut tribe. Though Shintuya is only 40 kilometres from Salvación, it was a two-hour drive on a road that again, does not appear on any maps. The entire village is comprised of about 40 houses constructed from branches and adobe brick. There is also a Christian mission, a bar, and three stores that sell rice, oil, cookies and sundries.

This is where we meet Leoncio, the official raft builder of the town. He wanted 24 hours and 100 soles to do the job. About $30 U.S. dollars, this was the high price for the specialized gear we needed. He would build the raft with trunks from a tree called topa, an extremely buoyant white wood, and assemble it with nails, or spikes, made from the chonta tree, a very hard and dark wood. The design (patent pending we were sure) included a small table built of reeds, placed in the centre of the raft to be used as a storage trunk. Our craft included two tanganas, long poles used to propel and steer our classic Flintstones vessel. We added two paddles, which we rescued from an old and decaying kayak, and that was it. A raft is a raft. You can’t choose the color, the extras, or the leather upholstery. You can only pick the piece of raw wood that will serve as your seat.

The following morning we found our brand new raft anchored in a nearby stream. It was four metres in length and just a metre in width. In one word, it was small. While we were loading the equipment (a tent, sleeping bags, food for 10 days, a bottle of rum, clothes, Anna’s grandmother’s pot, a bundle of bananas, and a gallon of mosquito repellent), some of the villagers came out to see us off. They pointed at the raft, whispered to each other, and shook their heads from one side to the other. It felt like they were saying good-bye… forever.

The priest asked, “Well… if you are not back in a month I inherit the van, right?”

“This raft is not okay, you should tie the trunks with wire. If you’ve never driven a raft you are going to hit many large stones in the river.” says Miguel, the person in charge of (sometimes) watching out for illegal deforestation.

“You have to better secure the storage trunk, the bark strings normally get loose when they become dry.” Miguel’s assistant points out.

“Wouldn’t it be better to have one more log?” commented Laia, a volunteer from Barcelona.

“Thanks to you all for your supportive words and optimism. I appreciate it. It is not a boat, but it floats. How do we name it?” I ask, while Mauro and Anna paused from piling our provisions on the sand. Silence… Everyone looked with skepticism and concern at our new overland, (well, not really) our overwater vehicle. We had exchanged a 4WD for a log raft, and dirt roads for an aqueous conduit into the unknown. Suddenly, Anna starts laughing. “What if we call it Titanic?” Never before was a project undertaken with such questionable odds of success.

Adventure, raft, wooden raft, river, amazon, jungle, perú, Manu Biosphera Reserve

 

IN THE AMAZON, THE CARNIVORES ARE SILENT.

August is at the middle of the dry season: the best time of year to ply the rivers of the Amazon basin. The morning is sweltering hot and heavy clouds shadow the hills of the opposite shore. It is 11 a.m. We push the Titanic to the main flow of the river and drifted away from civilization. Que sea lo que Dios quiera (May God’s will be done).

The first thing we notice is that a log raft doesn’t react like a car. It handles like a slow and heavy tanker sliding along a huge oil slick; you move at the same pace, but in different and uncontrollable directions. A familiar voice inside my head keeps asking me. “Where have you left your brain? With the enormous effort that men have made to send a vehicle to Mars, you are travelling as if you are living in the Stone Age…” The voice is that of my sedentary devil that never stops getting into my personal business.

After the first moments of excitement, the silence becomes overwhelming. No one speaks a word as we drift with the flow of the river. From time to time we dip a paddle to align our craft with the flow, and maybe win back a bit of navigational confidence.

On both sides of the river, trees dressed with green, yellow and red leaves obscure the rest of the world behind a thick veil of tangled vines. All that can be heard is the voice of the jungle: the chatter of howling monkeys and the sweet harmonies of the Amazon’s intensely colorful birds. Without doubt, we have entered another world. We’ve stepped into an ancient church, into the original and universal temple of humankind.

The river splits as we move ahead; it is not easy to guess which arm is the correct one. We are three people, and there are always three chances: right, center and left. If we veer to the right, the current will drive us against the sharp reeds and branches of the shore. If we stay in the center, we might get stuck on the shallow rocks; the left arm may lead us to a dead-end lagoon. A small gang of squawking parrots carves a path between the shoreline trees, seemingly to laugh at our dilemma; it is not easy to come to an agreement.

The first rapids come to sight at the next bend of the river. The sound is of a roaring beast charging wildly in our direction. What to do? The crystalline water reveals the bottom of the river moving at full speed, just a few centimeters under our feet. It is as if we are dancing over a horizontal climbing wall, our small craft pitching and rocking with every undulation of the current. The rocks follow one another like a violent horizontal hailstorm. We avoid branches and tree trunks, treacherous whirlpools, and frothing puffs of toxic foam (the result of human pollution). Flying over the river, we paddle to the right to evade a large rock; maybe the same one we eluded before. Then it appears in front of us to bite again (it must have been the first rock’s cousin). Water bursts into a foaming spray as it collides with the uneven bow of the Titanic. Anna and I paddle from the front in an attempt to align ourselves with the flow. Mauro, standing in the back, pushes the tangana against the elusive river bottom. The Titanic insists on offering its cheek to the current rather than its chin. Round rocks, the size of human skulls, scrape the bottom, catching the tangana and snapping it in two. But we have cleared the rapids and are safe. I sand up on from my crouched position on the bow to celebrate; slipping on the wet logs I fall into the river. We haven’t seen any caiman yet. Hopefully, this will not be the time of our first sighting.

Mid-afternoon, four hours after our departure, we pull out near the mouth of a dry creek. After mooring the raft on the shore and setting up the camp high enough to avoid a flash flood, I look for some dry wood for a campfire. It is not cold, but hot coffee helps to warm the soul, wet under a layer of soaked clothes. Midday coffee is a ritual that will be repeated over the next 10 days.

With evening comes the rain. It is a warm rain, but we retreat into the tent for shelter. I think to myself, “Isn’t it the dry season? Is the river going to rise?” We are close to the equator and the hours of daylight and darkness are fairly shared. But nights, full of lightning and noises foreign to us, seem longer. I think of nights in Africa. I miss the sound of snorting hippos, the roar of lions surrounding a baby elephant that cries hopelessly for its mother, and the hysterical laughter of hyenas beyond the edge of the firelight.

Half an hour before dawn, the natural alarm clock of the jungle sounds. Birds respond to the first light and begin singing as if in a choir. As each awakens and joins in, it transforms into a symphony. Monkeys stretch their loins and screech as if to celebrate surviving another night in nature’s food chain. The sounds of cu-cu and aak-aah, reach the point of ecstasy by the time the first rays of light kiss the upper reaches of the canopy. I step out of the tent to look around. We are far from anything that would be considered modern –we are in paradise.

It rained last night, but the river is still in place. Next to my bare feet there are fresh tracks in the sand. Somewhere in the night, the otorongo, tiger or jaguar visited. At this point, the nomenclature doesn’t really matter; the feet of a large cat made these. In Africa, at least you know where your enemies are; in the Amazon the carnivores are silent.

Adventure, raft, wooden raft, river, amazon, jungle, perú, Manu Biosphera Reserve

 

THE LAST STRONGHOLD OF THE INCAS

By 10 a.m. the sun hits us at full force. Squadrons of insects, looking for breakfast, fill the air. A tiny white fly seems to have a fetish attraction for Anna’s arms. Mosquitoes circle as if in a landing pattern, waiting for an unsuspecting moment to dive in for the kill. We swat away the blood-sucking Dracula flies, but they won’t surrender. In a calm spot of the river, a beautiful spider walks over the water like an eight-legged messiah. On the shore, a fat and lazy tapir, perfectly designed by nature for a barbecue, lumbers through the reeds and takes cover behind the first line of vegetation.

Although the river presents new rapids today, our advance is slow. A peque-peque, a small canoe with three passengers and some cargo, progresses against the flow, propelled by an outboard motor. It has just left the right shore, where empty petrol barrels mark the boat’s presence. About half an hour walk from the left shore we visit Shipitiari, a remote village where people still speak machiguenga, the indigenous language of the region. Shipitiari remains hidden in the heart of the jungle, quite possible one of the only places where the knowledge and tradition of this special culture might be preserved. It is also the home of Noemí, a wild-eyes, seven-year-old girl we met in Salvación.

Lovely and hyperactive, and with several of her baby teeth missing, Noemí holds the extraordinary skill of climbing trees, vines or people; up one side, down the other, sideways or upside-down and head first, she never falls. It is said that her father, the tribal shaman, gave her bear blood when she was a baby, and that she inherited the strength and agility of the donor.

Deeper into the jungle is Manu, one of the most impressive national parks in South America. Created in 1973, Manu, a World Heritage site and Biosphere Reserve, is a primeval paradise that protects sixteen different ecosystems. Somewhere beyond the last Machinguenga settlement and buried under layers of undergrowth, awaits the mythical golden city of Paititi. Hidden in this impenetrable jungle, Paititi is said to be the last stronghold of the Inca people. For four centuries beginning with the release of a report by Jesuit explorer Andrés López in 1600 AD, archaeologists and treasure hunters from around the globe have searched for this lost city of gold.

THREE GRINGOS TRAPPED IN THE RIVER

It is day four on the river and my body is riddled with swelling bites, red bruises and irritated lacerations. Some type of invisible insect has settled in and is nesting on my testicles. I can’t stop scratching. Our return to nature is turning me into a chimpanzee. But at this moment I’m excited and wouldn’t exchange my weary state for anything.

The name of our ship, the Titanic, has almost faded from the hull. Leoncio, the architect of this fine vessel, failed to inform us of one important detail, logs absorb water. Though still floating, we are now receiving all-day aqua therapy on our feet and ankles. This aside, if fate were to deal us cards again, optimism would be ours. I remember the sense of safety we had with our wheeled home, La Cucaracha: abouve all, the feeling of being dry. In a raft you get wetter than riding a motorbike in Florida during a hurricane.

From the left, a twenty-metre-wide river joins our course. The transparent waters of the Alto Madre de Dios mixes with the red, sediment-rich flow of Río Manu. “Treeeeeee!!!” Mauro screams from the stern, catapulting me back to the moment. We paddle frantically to overcome the flow that is driving us towards the open jaws of a twisted and sunken tree. All is in vain; it is our Moby Dick of the jungle. The river is deep, flowing swiftly, and the impact is hard. The Titanic begins to lean to one side, threatening to flip over and discard us into the water. We are stuck between the fast flowing current and a tangle of dead trees and branches. We have no lifeboat. Well, on the other hand, we are standing on the lifeboat.

Mauro plunges the tangana into the water looking for a pivot point to secure the raft. Anna jumps onto the tree, half her body underwater, and keeps the raft from capsizing. In my usually helpful way, I stand up, turn on the video camera and begin filming. I think they both want to kill me.

Thirty seconds pass; they struggle with Moby Dick and I document the scene. Anna swears to drown me if we survive. Locating the machete we bought in Uganda, I hack off one of the branches to no avail. I grab a rope that is tied to the Titanic and leap into the water. Grasping a tree limb, I pull the rope to straighten the raft. Anna pushes desperately against the branch that is pinning us to the flow of the river.

Three children watch our reality show from the shore. What attracts their attention is not the risk and danger of the situation, but the fact that we are three gringos, in the middle of the river on a log raft, and without a guide. (It doesn’t matter is we were born in Europe or South America; if we are white skinned, or non-Indian, we are considered gringos to the Indians.) A few minutes later the raft slips between the dead trees like a small branch dragged by the current. We are free.

Adventure, raft, wooden raft, river, amazon, jungle, perú, Manu Biosphera Reserve

MINERS, THE WILD WEST, AND BEER.

We pull out at the village of Barrancas de Boca Manu, the midpoint of the trip. Rising from a sandy beach, small wooden cabins stand in scattered disarray, each of which seems to be a small store with sundries, food, and alcohol strong enough to start an engine. In a place like this, a small village far from a power grid or cell tower, we can feel the calmness. There is not much to do except lay in a hammock, watch the river drift by or observe the dance of the flies.

Boca Manu marks the beginning of a more difficult portion of the river. We have no rapids to deal with, but the river has become wider, deeper and slower: we now must paddle. Through the heat of the day, we navigate endless horseshoe bends; near-perfect circles of several kilometers in diameter, all of which seem to end not far from where they start. The hours tick by; today turns into tomorrow. In real distance we don’t seem to cover much ground.

The jungle presents new surprises every day. Overhead, a parrot passes by, sporting a rainbow tuxedo. Kingfishers carve turns over the river at full speed, in search of their next meal. There are herons on the shoreline, and plants that recoil when I touch them. A turtle pops its head out of the water and overtakes us. Next to the raft is a tree trunk that resembles the tail of an airplane; maybe evidence of another of Jimmy Angel’s wild South American adventures.

Day Eight: Today we see the first gold miners of the river. With dredges, water pumps and dragging belts, they work the edges of the river and adjoining creeks, turning them to a murky soup of brown. They do not see us as we silently drift by their chaos. At sunset we camp under an enormous tree, while the river continues to slip by like a silent mercenary in the night.

Day Nine: For the last several days we have been drinking the delicious but turbid water of the river, which has an almost smoky flavor. Now that we are approaching the town of Colorado, a significant mining area, this is probably not such a good idea. We know we are getting closer, as river traffic has increased. Peque-peques (small boats) ply the river, transporting supplies and laborers to different mining interests, which now occupy larger portions of shoreline. It was our desire to get lost in the pristine and untouched Amazon jungle, the real Amazon. We have done this, and it is a beautiful and wild place. We are disappointed to see the chaotic mess before us; how man is rapidly transforming paradise into a polluted hell.

Colorado itself is reminiscent of a Wild West town, but in deep-jungle South American style. Rustic wooden buildings line the narrow dirt streets, 24/7 signs hang above gold buyer shops, tuk-tuks speed by, kicking up dust which swirls through numerous Inka Cola stalls, and prostitutes wait for their workday to begin when the sun sets. Almost everybody wears a T-shirt, which they receive for free, of the political party that unites rubber tappers, loggers, miners, and farmers –the people who want to extract the jungle’s resources and leave nothing but toxic waste and deforestation.

After finding a hostel, we step into a local saloon for a cold beer, clinking our
bottles in celebration of our accomplishment –an obsurd and crazy plan to see the Amazon that became a reality. We contemplate the number of people who dream to live a life of adventure, yet are held hostage by fear: it is sad. Fifteen days ago we didn’t know this adventure was written in our destiny –An Amazon River on a six-log raft? Yeah, right.

We now need transportation back to La Cucaracha. Our trusty 4WD must be lonely without us, and anxious to continue north on the Pan American Highway towards Deadhorse, Alaska. There are no busses or taxis here; the only way out of Colorado is to catch a ride on top of a transport truck (Amazon taxi), then get on a river boat, followed by another truck ride. “Or,” I say between two sips of beer, “We could paddle back up Río Madre de Dios…” Anna sets down her beer and closes her eyes as I start talking again. “What if we….?”

•••••

On year 2000, Pablo Rey (Buenos Aires) and Anna Callau (Barcelona) quit their jobs and rented out their apartment in Spain to travel around the world during four years. Four somehow turned into fifteen. The couple, living out of their small 4WD van, a.k.a. La Cucaracha, has travelled more than 220,000 miles, passing through 60 countries, with no end in sight.

After leaving Southern Europe, these committed nomads have driven through the Middle East, Africa —from North to South, the entire American continent —from Tierra del Fuego (at the Southern tip of Patagonia) to the Arctic Ocean in Alaska, before settling in for a couple of years of discovery in North America. Getting here was no small feat. They crossed the Atlantic Ocean from South Africa to Argentina in a fishing vessel, survived elephant and Kalashnikov attacks in Africa and paddled down an Amazon river in a 6-log wooden raft. Their engine broke down in the middle of the Sudanese Sahara and froze at 15,000 feet during a very cold winter in the Bolivian Altiplano, and that’s just scratching the surface.

In 15 years they have met, shared food and stayed with some truly amazing and hospitable people. Whether in a house, hut, tent or under the stars, the take away is the same, in whatever culture, remove the dogma and indoctrination and you realize that we are all the same, one big human family living in a beautiful, albeit fragile, Earthly home.

Pablo has written three books in Spanish; one has been translated into English, Around the World in 10 Years: The Book of Independence, available at Kindle and Amazon.com. Follow the latest adventures of Pablo and Anna on Instagram, Facebook and YouTube @viajeros4x4x4