Jungle Rafting

As she left I looked down and noticed she had grabbed my camera and left her own. An honest mistake but I panicked, jumping up I started in the direction she had gone. I didn’t even know her name, we had just sat and talked for a few minutes. Frantically I searched each cross street looking for the girl in the black dress. I got to the end of the street and noticed a bus loading up to leave town, I bounded onto the bus and there she was. As soon as she saw me she realized her mistake, we swapped cameras and I stepped off the bus with a huge sigh of relief. As I walked back up the hill I heard a familiar voice coming from a house, Jack Murphy’s Morning Show. Wow Murphy in Nauta Peru?  Drowning out Jack and Michelle I heard a rooster crowing as I popped awake; one of those vivid dreams where you wake up sweating and wondering where you are, still half in the fantasies of the mind and reality. As the sun peaked through the window I came back to the unfamiliar surroundings of the Nauta Hostel and the purpose for my visit.

I had come to the little hamlet of Nauta to observe the beginning of one of the longest raft races in the world, The Great Amazon River Raft Race, 120 miles and three days of grueling heat, paddling, mosquitos and smelly teammates. I had heard all about this loco act of physical exertion and wanted to film it. The day before I had started my adventure in Iquitos headed out of town on the only road from Iquitos that goes anywhere . I loaded into a beat up Nissan with four new Peruvian friends and headed towards the jungle city situated on the Maronon River, 80 kilometers from Iquitos, the end of the road.  A sleepy little town with a small plaza complete with cement dolphins, monkeys and alligators. The restaurants don’t need menus, they all served the same thing, pollo, chaufa and papas (chicken with rice and French fries), the only choice was whether you wanted 1/8, ¼ or ½ of a chicken.

Late in the afternoon I jumped into a peki-peki and crossed the river. As we neared the beach the sound of chopping and chainsaws filled the air that was normally reserved for the hoots of monkeys and squawks of macaws. Forty teams from all over the world working on their rafts, each four person team is given eight balsa logs and with very few other rules set out to build their naval masterpiece. Everybody had a plan, some with rope, some with rebar, some with tarps for shade, some fastened plastic lawn chairs to their raft for comfort others just used a piece of foam rubber to sit on. One thing was for sure, three days padding down the Amazon was going to be hot, sweaty and extremely uncomfortable.

Raft building went on into the night, each team shaping their logs, putting last minute touches on their masterpiece. I was following one team in particular, a group from Canada, husband  (Martin, great name), his wife (Kate) and her best friend (Karen). The team was led by a friend everybody calls Kat0o (because he has climbed the great K2 in Pakistan.

Kat0o is an interesting dude, from Brazil and a partner in a hostel in Iquitos (the Green Track Hostel) with a good friend of mine. His past includes some unique adventures, last year he was leading a film crew from Germany into the Brazilian jungle to visit a remote tribe that was known for their manhood ritual called Tucandeira, where a shaman puts a cane mitt on each of your hands stocked full of bullet ants. Bullet ants are said to have the most painful bite of any insect known to man. The ant’s bite injects a venom that continues to work for 24 hours.

The host of the German show was invited to participate in the ceremony but when it came time to step forward, he stepped back and Kat0o filled in for him. The ceremony was long and painful, the bullet ant’s bite gets worse as time goes on and the poison seeps into your body. Two mitts full of bullet ants, his body painted and the elders chanting, Katoo kept the gloves on for about 30 minutes, afterwards wandering around in the jungle for  the rest of the night in severe pain ignoring all the other insects feasting on his flesh.

I asked him how the bullet ant would help him with the raft race, he replied, “the experience taught me not to fear anything in life”. Katoo is one tough dude. I knew that he wouldn’t have a problem with a couple days on the hard wooden raft, I wasn’t so sure about his Canadian friends.

Many of the rafters were from the Peace Corps teams around Peru. I even ran into a guy from Durham who went to the same high school that I did, the second person I have run into in the Peruvian jungle who went to Jordan High School. I have been all over the world and never run into an alum, maybe the Amazon jungle is like a magnet for Jordan grads.

I had been anxious all night, The Great River Raft Race is a major event for Iquitos and I wanted to catch the start of the race. I jumped up and headed out; back in my peki-peki crossing the river with the sun coming up over the river. I could see all the rafters scurrying around making last minute preparations like someone had just kicked an ant hill.

The time came and they called for all rafters to put their rafts in the water and head towards the starting line. Once everyone was ready and lined up the red flag changed to green and they were off. Everyone paddling as hard as they could but all I could hear Katoo singing out a cadence for his Canadian teamates as they disappeared down the river. Good luck Kate, Martin and Karen because you are going to need it…