A guest post by Barry Brett
One of a series of short humorous stories of life in Iquitos.
Each article is a portrayal of actual events, written from the perspective of a Californian living in the Jungle City of Iquitos, Peru.
The Great Amazon Raft Race 2009 Barry Brett
I’ve often wondered what kind of person would set about navigating the River Amazon on a raft. There was that nut back in the fifties who crossed the Atlantic on a raft. Then there was “Ben Hur” on that raft with the Roman Consul, “Row-well and Live”. But the Amazon? All those crazy piranhas swimming about. Aren’t rafts held together with rope or something? Gnaw-gnaw! My good friend Mick had invited me to join the “Great Amazon Raft Race.” It was his creation. Now I know why they call him “Mad Mick!” Having organized raft races in England many years ago he promotes the annual “Great Amazon Raft Race” here in Iquitos, Peru. This year fifteen foreign teams would be competing with twenty-four Peruvian Teams.
City of Nauta. Early afternoon. “It’s time to leave Barry. We’re going-out to watch them construct their rafts.” “But I’ve been bitten by something, my head aches.” “It’s swelling-up”. “Don’t worry Barry it’s just an “Angochupo”. “It’s going to get worse before it gets better” “She’s laid her eggs under your scalp. After a few days the worms hatch-out and leave!” “But I need to rest” “Barry, we have to go over to the Island to watch the teams construct their rafts now.” “We need to determine the odds!” “The odds!” “What is this place?” “A betting parlor, a floating Casino on the Amazon?” “Miguel’s holding the pot Barry, do you want in?”
As I watched the teams constructing their rafts I wondered what qualifications are required to man them. Do they have to pass a test in a swimming pool or a bathtub? Would they need a “Rafting License”, or a “Diploma and Smog Certificate” from the Admiralty? Could contestants cheat? What about gigantic paddles and hollow logs! Could they lash-out at each other with horsewhips whilst shredding their opponent’s logs with revolving can-openers? Or maybe there just aren’t any rules at all!
But what’s that? Coils of metal wire, a Black and Decker Chainsaw! Hammer and nails made in China! I thought contestants were supposed to construct their rafts using only local materials. Neanderthals used a stone on a stick. Maybe Neanderthals had primitive brains but at least they were smart enough not to race rafts on the Amazon.
Life jackets were to be worn at all times and no alcohol or drugs were permitted “on the rafts.” Teams were allowed to hire local labor to aid in the construction of their rafts. A minimum of eight logs were required, but according to Mick, any configuration was permitted. The most common combination (commanding the best odds) was four logs in front linked to four behind. Linkage was everything. Some teams employed large screws, others used overlapping timbers bound together with metal wire. Three cross-beams were bound with rope to the main logs and plastic chairs with foam seating were common. Teams had numbers (for easy betting), and names. This would be “Gringa Linda’s” third Great Amazon Raft Race. Her team called themselves “Vamos Ya” (Let’s Go right Now). The favorites (5 to 1), were “Los Invensibles de Padre Cocha”. An all Peruvian team, they had won several races before. There were teams named “Coca Loco”, “Amazon Quest”, “Los Titanes”, “Los Increibles” (the Incredibles), “Amazonia” and “Las 4 Virgenes de Ivalu” (Four Virgins of Ivalu). Are there some left? In the Jungle!! As a non-swimmer my favorite was “Don’t Drown!” There were all-male teams, all female teams and mixed teams. Some team members volunteered to join only days before the start. Drinking a few beers in a London Pub, Tim overheard three crewmen crying in their beer. They were one member short. “Count me in!” he exclaimed. After a few more beers they carried him to the plane!
City of Nauta on the Amazon, eight in the morning. “Barry, there’s going to be a short delay.” “The Chief Harbor Master wants to start the race!” “He wants the glamour!” “But he’s drunk” “Wasn’t he at that fiesta dancing with a hooker?” “Can he shoot straight?” “Does he have any ammo?” “Can I trade my lifejacket for a bullet proof vest?”
City of Nauta on the Amazon eight thirty in the morning. “It’s number 18 at the gate, and they’re off. 23’s in the lead and it’s “Vamos Ya” followed by “Coca Loco” and “Timbercreek.” As they round the turn it’s the “Four Virgins” followed by “Amazonia”. The “Amazonians” are standing up! Californian surfers no doubt. “Hang Ten Guys, Surfs-Up.” Oh gosh, are they flashing it? Coming into the final stretch it’s “Coca Loco” followed by “Vamos Ya” and “Kindred Spirits,” and now it’s “The Titans” and the “Four Virgins” followed closely by the “Four Flashers”. The “Four Flashers” are gaining. The “Flashers” are Down! Now they’re up – way-way up!!! Neck and neck! They’re coming “up from behind“, now they’re “up on the inside!” As they approach the finish line it’s the “Two Virgins” followed by the “Four Flashers” and “Vamos Ya” (Let’s go Right Now!).
The beachhead at the Pueblo of Nueva Esperanza, end of day two. At the top of the muddy hill a welcoming band playing Amazonian Drums greeted the arriving rafters. First one in, number 33 “Keepin’ off Rio.” Losing my foothold, trying to get closer to Mick and the VIPs, I slipped and rolled down the embankment into the mud-bath below. “No I didn’t, you sick SOB.” “It’s mud!” What’s that, a Mud Freak?” – “I’m a VIP.” African Cheiftains smother their bodies with mud – If it’s good enough for them.” “Anyway it’s got medicinal properties.” As I peered through the mud I could see “Los Increibles”, “Gringa Linda with Vamos Ya” and “Lobo Marino de Nanay”. Rafters arriving in high spirits, spent the night dancing in the small discotheque and sleeping in the encampment above the cliffs.
Day Three. The Race to Tamshiyacu. This would be the longest and most difficult stretch. Rafters could be seen desperately searching for the current. Without the current they would suffer unbearable pain and exhaustion with the sun beating down on them. From the VIP boat we could see rafters, adrenalin pumping through their veins, as they tried to maintain speed. “Los Invensibles” were in the lead for the second day in a row, but who was that flying the Jolly Roger? “Piratas del Amazonas’ (Pirates of the Amazon). On an adrenaline rush, the rafts-men paddled at lightning speed as the “Coca Leaf Tea” and “Bark Nectar” kicked-in!
We reached the junction in the river. Rafts were to proceed through the short-cut. No-one told them. Mick and other VIPs left the boat to establish a traffic control spot further along the beachhead. “We’ve got a red flag Barry, someone’s in trouble.” We have to leave now.” “No time to pick-up Mick.” “But they are without water in all this heat,” I exclaimed. “We’ve got to leave now” Ed screamed, as the Captain started the engine. But where were the Peruvian Coast Guard? They were to patrol the river to aid distressed rafts. Lunch break. They had left for the day! Doubling-back some twenty minutes, a raft could be seen bobbing up and down while the rafts-men tried desperately to outmaneuver the strong current and bring-it alongside. The crew were exhausted. Suffering from dehydration, finally they realized they needed a tow.
“We’ve got another red flag” someone shouted, as the VIPs raced up-deck for a photo-shoot. “Everyone’s rushing to the same side” Ed shouted, as the vessel lurched. “ She’s going to capsize.” “Capsize!” “But I’m a VIP” “I can’t swim“. “At least I’d have a chance on a raft. Logs float.” “Put your life-jacket on Barry” “The boat’s caught in a strong current” My mind raced-back to that day-trip at Niagara Falls. “Good bye life jacket, I need a barrel!” “But where were the rafts?” “Oh they’re way behind us now.” So that’s it. The race was fixed all along! The “VIP Boat’s in the lead now.” “We’re going to Win!”
Later that evening, in a Tamshiyacu bar, one of the female team members shared her diary with me. Desperately trying to take their minds off the pain and exhaustion they sang and paddled to “Christmas Carols“ and “Queen’s” “Bohemian Rhapsody.” A song about a poor boy about to die. “I’m just a poor boy, nobody loves me.” “Too late, my time has come.” “Sometimes I wish I’d never been born at all!” What about, “We are the Champions!” “No Time for Losers”. There were other notations. The desperate need to propel the raft with long deep strokes, and the struggle to maintain speed in the wake of passing vessels. The routine of constantly changing sides to relieve the pressure on one arm. Bathroom breaks that involved standing or squatting at the rear of the raft. There were unforgettable moments such as when a young boy rolled a water-melon down the embankment to help quench their thirst. The kids sitting on a riverside bank shouting down to them “They make motors now!” “Then there was the realization that for them, it had nothing to do with coming in first, or even last, but everything to do with not being towed! Towing was the ultimate humiliation.
Day Four. The last lap was grueling. Facing a fierce current along the Nanay River, rafts inched along toward the finish line. Crewmen who failed to paddle in unison found their raft going backwards as the current dragged them back toward the Amazon. “Didn’t someone say The Current is Your Friend?” “With friends like that?” As the local saying goes, “The Amazon has the River but the Nanay has the Current.” Three crew fainted and others found themselves towed-in. Is that the “Pirates of the Amazon” being towed? Ran-out of Coca Leaves and Bark Nectar? Good thing they don’t have to “walk the plank“! Rafting Teams were totally exhausted as they crossed the finish line. Team members posing for photo-shoots collapsed on their decks or suffered humiliation as they fell from their rafts into the water, only to be dragged onshore by young boys. The revenge of the Incas I thought as Los Invencibles de Padre Cocha, the “Peruvian Victors,” crossed the finish line.
At least I now know what kind of person races a raft on the Amazon looking for the ultimate “Adrenalin Rush.” The same kind of person who climbs Mount Everest, Explores Antarctica or walks on the Surface of the Moon (or lives in the Rainforest!). A Crazy Human!
Adrenaline Rafting, The Great Amazon Raft Race 2009
Barry Brett Copyright October 2009
Barry Brett has spent three of the past five years here in Iquitos, Peru. Growing-up in England, he emigrated to the U.S. as a young man and has lived almost forty years in Huntington Beach, California.
If you enjoy Barry’s style of writing, follow these links to his other articles;