Thursday, January 9, 2014

Canoeing down the Amazon

This is a copy of the first of a series of entries that will tell the story of Bill and Heather during their CUSO days in Guyana SA. Here we are canoeing down the Amazon and hoping to get back to Guyana to begin our new assignment in the Rupununi district where we will be teaching and running a hostel. Rather than place these amid other material here in Dragongate, I have established a new blog called Dragonish. So please come over there to read the exciting story that eventually comes to an abrupt end in the aftermath of a failed revolution.
Find the link to Dragonish down to your right among the companion blogs.

Canoeing down the Amazon
Guiding the canoe through the snags

Moonlight sparkles on the Amazon River, the high banks and overhanging trees are inky black and the current sighs and ruffles the smooth surface. All is silent in the perfumed air as our long dugout canoe drifts sideways downstream very close to the high river bank. Lovely, yes, but oh so dangerous!

Two days earlier we had arrived in Iquitos by plane from the coast of Peru only to find that the only flight further down river to make connections with Manaus had just left. That was it for a week, and we needed to begin teaching in Guyana and my wife Heather’s mother, Ruth, travelling with us on a holiday trip around South America, had a ticket for her flight home to Canada. We found an English speaking person who arranged for this long canoe ride down river to Leticia where we could catch a flight on to Manaus. Two Amerindian men, a canoe with a big Swedish outboard engine perched on the stern and a banana leaf covered shelter amidships were to get us there in time. We paid some money to our fixer and negotiated how much to pay at the end of the trip. We roared down river all day, stopped for lunch at an Amerindian house for smoked Peccary and carried on.

Occasionally the engine stopped for a while, but eventually started again. Ruth also desperately needed 'rest stops' as she had picked up an intestinal bug. 'Es necessario', I would beg as our crew showed great reluctance to stop their outboard engine yet again.

Into the night we rushed and then the engine stopped; on purpose this time. SHHH, our crew said and pushed us gently down under the shelter. We drifted silently through a riverside town; barking dogs, but no calls to HALT, no flying bullets, as we slipped past the military check point. Again we rushed down river, and then another break down. Another day passed, pretty much a repetition of the first. Another night!

The crew came forward to ask me about the MONEY. The river was dark, wide and lonely, we were very vulnerable here. My Spanish was of the sort that comes from failing it miserably in University, but I was able to explain that yes they would be paid at Leticia, and that we were CUSO volunteers who would be teaching at a school for 'los Indios' in Guyana, far to the north. Phew, back to working on the engine.

This latest breakdown however has us drifting towards a newly slumped section of the river bank, leaving branches and tree tops sticking up out of the swiftly flowing water. The crew, heads down over the engine on the stern, seem oblivious to the danger so I pick up a paddle in the bow, take a few strokes to turn us stern foremost and begin to weave us through the labyrinth of snags. The men glance back, nod and resume work. Paddling a canoe is a skill I learned as a child. Who knew that it would come in so handy! We edge back out into the wide river and eventually the engine roars back to life. This would be a high point in most adventures, but by now it is just another moment of adjustment to the needs of the day in what is turning out to seem an eternity.

The next morning is our date with Leticia and the scheduled flight downriver to Manaus. At each bend the crew smile and call “Leticia”, but of course it is just another jungle covered bank of vegetation. We are all very tired, mosquito bitten and feverish. “Yeah, right!” we think even as we smile back. Eventually though, it does appear and quickly we pay off our crew with many thanks and hurry into town. We change our money ( we are now in Columbia), take a taxi to the dirt airstrip and immediately jump on board our DC3. A near thing, but with a roar we are off. We spend all that day hopping in and out of jungle clearings all the way to Manaus.

The next morning it turns out that the scheduled weekly flight direct to Guyana is full of tropical fish, - no room for us. Another problem to solve. We are sick from a tropical fever that will remain our weekly companion for the next few years. We do not have enough money for the long way around via Belem at the mouth of the Amazon and then the Pan Am flight north along the coast to Guyana. The Brazilian currency devalues that day! The banks are closed! Prices remain fixed at the old rate. We exchange our last US travellers cheques on the black market! Now we can just pay for our flight!

We do eventually get to Guyana on time and in one piece and see Ruth off on her plane home to Canada. We then rush about making plans and buying groceries for our next teaching assignment in the Rupununi District of the remote interior. Looking back to those years in our early twenties it is interesting how experience played such an important part. After a year teaching on the coast of Guyana we were well acclimatised to tropical conditions and to living in a 'developing' country. We could get along using lots of smiles and good will with people of all stripes. We had our camping and adventuring background from Canada. We had visited our next assignment twice already. Now we had our travels around South America, including our trip by canoe down the Amazon to add to our portfolio. We were not really prepared for the responsibilities we would face but were confidently ignorant. We were ready as possible to begin our next assignment.

Perhaps ignorance would turn out to be our best defence in the turbulent months that lay ahead.

No comments: