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)