Living on the river for over month, what an incredible experience. Getting to know a unique group of people, visiting remote peruvian villages and watching the diverse landscapes change as we dropped down from the Andes towards the Amazon. A beautiful river with diverse landscapes that would change every few days. The Upper section having more challenging whitewater in a steeper gorge . The lower passing beautiful riverside villages, canyon walls lined with jacaranda trees and farms bursting with fruit and veggies.
A unique part of the trip was when we took a Peruvian news team, Quarto Poder (akin to 60 minutes) down the river for a few days. They were there to capture the story of what is happening on Rio Marañon and put together this report which aired in Peru a few weeks ago. Stopping to conduct interviews with local people along the way, we really got a feel for the place, I guess you could say we ‘got the inside scoop’. This is the report that went to air, you probably won’t understand too much of it, but it gives you an idea of the place.
Villages of Mendan & Tupen Grande
The highlight for me was visiting the riverside communities of Tupen Grande and Mendan. Tucked into fertile side valleys of the Marañon, they were like something out of a book. Coconuts, Cacao and coca plentiful, no shortage of delicious fruit. The village was clean and inviting, the people incredibly welcoming. While the news crew conducted interviews in Mendan we explored the village and the locals treated us to fresh coconut, cacao (it’s a really delicious fruit on the outside, on the inside is where chocolate comes from!), oranges and other fruits. We sat in on a village meeting, where the people discussed how they didn’t want to move, had not been approached or informed (despite construction due to start in a matter of months), and how some had vowed to die before they moved elsewhere.
For a better perspective; these people have unique, from what I could see and what they were saying, happy lives. They must have been on these lands for generations. It is 4-6hours walk to the next town which has road access. They have a very strong sense of community, no need to lock doors at night. Kids play in the village square, walk a long way to school each week, where maybe they stay with family in other towns to attend classes. They are not completely isolated, there was TV, mobile phone service and some electricity. There is room for improvements, new technologies, better access to education for sure; but the main thing is that they had what they needed, and were very happy with it. I think it’s interesting that now in our western societies there are many ‘alternative’ communities springing up, trying to live a more sustainable, self sufficient way of life. It seemed to me that these people are already living that dream. They are fully, and painfully aware of what they are losing if these dams go ahead. They will have to move to a bigger, busier town. Different sense of community, completely different way of life. Possibly not compensated for what will be taken from them (how can a dollar value be put on a beautiful way of life?), how will they start somewhere new?
It simply doesn’t make sense to me. Here we have communities living simple, happy & fairly sustainable lives- essentially what the first world is crying out for, what we *wish* we could do- and we’re destroying it in the name of progress and development. Where is the development? We’ll it’s not for the Peruvian people- their power needs are met by current supply, and not forecast to exceed this for at least 10-15 years. The development will be seen in the mines of the region, then passed on to us first world consumers; with a tidy little development in the bank account of every foreign investor along the way. Prices of power in Peru for the average person will actually increase due to the state paying for these gigantic projects, which will almost entirely benefit large, foreign owned big business.
Later that evening we arrived at the stunning village of Tupen Grande. Written on walls all though the town were anti dam messages, it is clear how these people feel. As Valery from the Quarto Poder news team conducted more interviews, we had a friendly game of soccer against the local kids. It was often 8 or 10 kids onto 3 or 4 of us, but we gave them a run for their money. So much fun, everyone was so friendly; the sense of community here was almost tangible. At some point in the afternoon a big basket of fruit was produced, I’d never seen it before in my life and I still have no idea what kind of fruit it was, but it was delicious.
As darkness approached a messenger came running into town. Three hydroelectric company engineers had been sighted coming into the area. They had not contacted the village, or asked for permission to complete their studies in the area. The villagers rallied, armed with wooden batons and lengths of garden hose; they formed a kind of local police force called the ‘Ronda’. They set out on a march to find, apprehend and detain the uninvited intruders. If this study could be stopped, it will slow the construction & approval processes hence buying the villagers a few more months. This was not the first time they have apprehended engineers, telling them that if they wanted to conduct studies in the area they need to consult with the community first, obviously those instructions were being ignored. The engineers were detained overnight, phones and other electronic items confiscated until they were sent on their way in the morning with a clear message to Odebrecht (the brazilian hydroelectric & construction giant): If you want to come back consult with us first.
A month might seem like a long time for some of you to spend kayaking down a river, but I could easily go for another. Sitting here in Lima under grey skies with cars bustling, people jostling and construction noise hammering I am wishing I was back on the river. But this is where I need to be, at least for the next month in order to progress my PwP project.
It was similar to any other river I have paddled really, just longer with more time to relax into a rhythm and get to know everyone. Water always flows downhill; there were exciting bits, dangerous & scary bits, difficult bits and fun bits. It was interesting joining up with a unique and diverse group of people from a range of backgrounds. There were some challenging moments, but we got through them in the end. It was evident that we had a pretty good group when after the trip we all stuck together for another few days to visit Chachapoyas and the ruins at Kuelap.
For everyone the toughest section was probably Wasson’s Landslide. A 1km section of dangerous, steep class V-VI which we had to line the rafts through and portage gear around. All in all this took a day and a half. For most it was the most difficult portage they had ever done, however having spent a bit of time paddling in South West Tasmania, to me it seemed fairly routine. One line snapped during the lining process, with the raft escaping downstream. This occurred right at the end of the day, with darkness fast approaching it was not possible to apprehend the escapee. Local fishermen found it later on; the paddles went up into the mountains to one village, the equipment to another and the boat to another downstream to Chagual. Most of the gear was retrieved, after some hefty hikes and bargaining with the locals. All the beer however, and a number of personal items were never seen again.
We would camp on sandy beaches in the evenings, sit round the fire, have a beer if you pleased. That was one aspect of the ‘Grand Canyon’ style raft trip that I was not used to. A seemingly endless supply of beer, chips and other little luxuries that would not normally fit into my backpack or kayak. I’ll admit it was nice to have these, but in a lot of ways I prefer the minimalist river journey; the bare minimum of equipment lets you completely escape the trappings of the world outside. I would love to go back and do the river with just kayaks; with minimal gear, buying local fruits and vegies wherever they are available. All that aside, it was incredibly easy to fall into the rhythm of the river and completely forget what day it was.
Along the way were a number of side canyons that we were able to hike up, until we reached a waterfall that was too big to climb. All these beautiful slot canyons could offer days of exploration to a group of keen canyoneers armed with the right equipment.
The trip came to an end, somewhat suddenly. In the last day there was a drastic change as we arrived into the jungle. The amount of water increased enormously as tributaries converged; the vegetation and character became much more Amazonian. It also became evident that we were not welcome. We learned by speaking to friendly contacts that there had recently been a campaign to make the locals very suspicious of outsiders, especially gringos. There had been photos posted on Facebook, and stories passed around of a local child that had been killed, his organs stolen and then money left in the carcass to ‘pay’ for what was taken. When we pulled up in some areas to speak with locals we could see they were scared of us, this was even before we had entered the full on jungle tribal areas. The native Awajun communities are known to be apprehensive of outsiders at the best of times, but in light of this information we made our departure a much more urgent issue; later that afternoon we were loading vans with boats and gear.
For the next month I am basing myself in Lima and focusing on getting the project together. This involves finding the people who will join me on the river later in the year and who will go about creating news stories and publicity of this issue in Peru. Additional to this, logistics need to be arranged, a full assessment of the risks made and how these will be managed. There’s a lot of challenges in all of this, the biggest being in how I go about finding and choosing participants; it would be much easier if my Spanish was better…
It’s difficult being in Lima, grey is the first word that comes to mind. I haven’t seen the sun in a week, and don’t expect to anytime soon. At times it feels like a concrete prison, so much noise and pollution, especially after spending so much time in the open, relatively untouched canyons of the Marañon. I foolishly rented a room for the month that doesn’t have a window to the outside world, it only has a window that looks into a ‘light well’ and windows of the opposing apartments. I had no idea that this one fact would make so much difference in my day. No sun to wake me up in the morning means I am struggling like never before to get out of bed in the morning. It’s a nice place, don’t get me wrong, I’m living with a friendly Peruvian family; I guess I am just realising that this is how people can become so disconnected with the whole other world that is out there. I don’t think I could do it; i’m counting down the days until my months rent expires and I can hit the road or the river.
That said, this forced ‘work time’ is good. I need it to get everything done, and sorted out, otherwise the project will never happen. The other thing that I am realising is how great an opportunity it will be for the people that do come on this river journey. A lot of Peruvians I have met have not had the opportunity to travel much, due to economic constraints and also probably some cultural constraints, even within Peru itself. Rafting down the river & camping out for 2-3 weeks will be an incredibly unique way to experience their own country, I hope it will be inspiring and eye opening.
Saying bye to Laura from the official Paddling with Purpose project. Due to professional responsibilities, she isn’t able to see the rest of the project through. She has however offered her help, perspective and advice into the future, something I find extremely valuable. She has also eluded to having some pretty cool ideas for future purposeful paddling projects.
Best of luck Laura! Thanks for all the help getting this far, couldn’t have done it without ya!
If you read this far, thank-you very much I am very impressed. You can check out this video entry I made for a video competition hosted by the Melbourne School of Land and Environment. The competition was to say something about the environment, which is fairly open ended. I think its’ a bit tacky but hopefully it will reach a few more people through their website. The music isn’t exactly what I would have liked, but its all that I could find with open copyright laws. The last two minutes of the video feature a lot of scenic footage from Rio Maranon. Check it out here if you are interested – Paddling with Purpse MSLE Video Competition