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Adventure in the Amazon

An Amazonian adventure, I thought. A visit to the Ecuadorean highlands, white water rafting on a mountain tributary of the Amazon, and visits with the indigenous people. I signed up.

The reaction was not positive. “You are going to die!” shrieked my daughter, “the piranhas won’t leave anything to bury!” To prepare for my adventure, I gritted my teeth for the tetanus, yellow fever and hepatitis injections, started my course of the anti-malaria drug Lariam, and gathered the long list of equipment that the adventure company suggested. Prepared or not, my traveling buddy Bob and I touched down in Quito after a full day of flying.

After a stay in Hacienda Guachala, and great shopping for crafts at the Otavalo market, we returned to Quito and flew across the Andes to Macas, a small town in the eastern Andes.

Once the truck successfully crossed the spindly angle iron suspension bridge leading out of Macas, Diane, our river guide with the big California smile and strong arms, whooped merrily as our boats pushed off from the bank into the swirling current. She was a geologist by background, and the sight of Volcano Sangay venting as our oar boat drifted into the current had her feeling euphoric. I was nervous. The three oar boats were loaded with six day’s worth of food, tents and gear for five river guides and eight guests.

The river level was lower than expected, so we wound our way through a maze of rivulets with the guides selecting the deepest channels. On the flight to Macas, I had seen the Rio Upano from above, and the first section of the river looked like an unbraided rope within the surrounding sea of deep green jungle.

Early in the first day, we ran aground. Bob and I hopped out to push the boat free. The rest of the group waited, but the boat remained stuck. Finally, Tsunki, our guide from the indigenous Shuar people, whose chest length jet black hair and peccary tooth necklace immediately set him apart, joined Bob and me to help shove the raft off the rocks. The three of us pushed together, and the heavily-laden oar boat drifted downstream once again.

Back in the main current, the river ran faster as the river bed narrowed. Small rocky limestone cliffs contained the river, and the brownish green water rose white and boiling from the rapids. Diane picked the right channels, and we made swift progress downstream. The river gathered its strands, and we approached a narrow rocky stream bed where white water swirled swiftly left downstream, past a large rocky cliff, then deepened.

Our oar boat pitched and bucked, but as we left the rapids once again, I began to relax. This was a mistake. I was surprised to hear Diane yell, “Rock!” Suddenly, I was no longer in the oar boat, I was in the water, the next moment I was snagged and pinned underwater with a smooth, slippery, very hard rock smashing against the left side of my back, and the heavy oar boat squishing my stomach. I squiggled free as best as I could, felt a massive dull pain in my lower back, and as quickly as it all started, I was once again floating free, face up hearing the golden sounds of Diane calling frantically. The air, pain and light told me that I was alive, “Yes, I gasped, “I’m OK but I’ve hurt my back.”

I grabbed the T-handled oar that Bob extended my direction, and Diane and Bob hauled me into the oar by my life vest. I lay in the bottom of the boat, stunned, and in pain. As we tumbled through the next set of rapids, I endured a big dull pain in my left side with occasional sharp jabs of pain zinging through the right side of my body. Rocks, it now appeared were a much more real concern than piranhas. The relief of breathing gave way to concern. The giddy bubble of adventure traveling bursts rather quickly when you get hurt: pain grounds you fast. I now understood why the elderly Ecuadorean man who had helped us launch the rafts seemed concerned and sad. He didn’t expect to see us again. The local people don’t call river rafters “gringos locos” for nothing. The river is a savage beast that drowns the foolish children who swim in it. They avoid the river. I wondered why so many people with wealth willingly place themselves in harm’s way. Why do we hurl ourselves down snow slopes, climb high mountains, raft near waterfalls, in search of another thrill? Why once thrilled, do we need another brush with the void, so quickly? What siren had seduced me into this mess?

After I hobbled on to the beach where we would camp, I was impressed with how well the river guides handled my injury. The river guides can’t prescribe medicine, but I was able to find the medicine suggested amongst my fellow travelers. I was able to move around, and I didn’t have to lift anything, and that really helped me to continue. The river guides had maps and had hiked all the foot paths leading to roads at every river bend, so if I had been seriously injured, I could have been carried out to a road within 4 to 6 hours.

When you examine your urine for traces of blood from kidney damage at 3:00 AM on a tiny beach swirling with insects surrounded in complete darkness on the edge of the Amazon, you quickly become aware of the precious balance that our lives hang in. You also find out very quickly whether or not the travel company you are with has the necessary experience to handle emergencies. I strongly suggest that you ask any adventure travel company how emergencies are handled before you sign up. Ask for references and about how many years of experience the guides have had. If you don’t get clear answers, don’t sign up.

On the evening of the accident, a heavy oar supporting the tent canopy fell while I was eating dinner, and missed my head by a few inches. Kevin, a senior river guide with over 12 years of river rafting experience, noted the odd sequence of events. The river now held an eerie sense of foreboding for me. I crawled into my tent, and tried to sleep. As I lay on the one area of my back that wasn’t swollen or sore, I discovered that I’d also lost my watch in the river. It had somehow become unclasped as I’d squiggled around underwater, and my watch had become a gift to the river god. The next day, we continued down the Rio Upano. I set one goal for myself: stay in the boat. The fun of first day was replaced by fear, my mind knew that the risk of more injuries was unlikely, but my body carried the pain. The white water was exciting, thought my mind, my body was not interested, it wanted to live. I hung on to the raft in the raging white water so hard that the skin on my knuckles scrapped off, and like all other small cuts, got infected immediately .

In camp, I sought out Tsunki, and asked him about my accident and the loss of my watch. What could this mean, if anything? Tsunki thought carefully, and determined that the river god had stolen my watch, and that I would receive a gift in return: the strength and power of the Anaconda. OK. Not a bad deal, I thought.

For a Silicon Valley middle manager, the loss of a watch is a serious matter. I must glance at my watch a hundred times a day, it provides me with instantaneous comfort, orientation, and stability. Now my Western compass, symbolizing reason and the tyranny of science, was gone. Insomnia promptly set in. The pitch black nights grew enormously long, and I started to have odd, intense, short dreams. As I lay in my tent, the familiar chorus of cicadas was joined by an unfamiliar insect, and that in turn was joined by a third sound, disturbingly like achromatic music. I was unhinged. Was it me, the river or the Lariam?

Lariam delirium, the river guides called it, and it struck me with vengeance. The guides said that Lariam had a host of side effects, one of which was intense dream sequences. Another was psychosis. The guides argued hotly about whether the area surrounding the river unleashed demons of the mind that suburbia keeps tightly shackled. Or was the anti-malarial drug the culprit? Before dawn, I’d lapse into dreams in which silver patterned triangles would align themselves in a row down my spine, and I’d begin to swirl into the darkness above my mat. My consciousness weaved back and forth in undulating ribbons. When I wasn’t swirling, patterns of prehistoric animals would flash in front of my closed eyes with an intensity I’d never experienced in a dream before or since. These dreams had an intense, but de-personalized nature, as though the dreams were being sent to me by someone else. The night before the most difficult and dangerous rapid above Namangosa Falls, I was terrified. I had felt the power of the rocks in the water, and it hurt. Just before dawn, I awoke from the slumbers of ordinary consciousness to the power of the dream given as a gift from the river god.

I dreamed that I was a child again on one of my family’s beach vacations. I felt the sand of the beach under a child’s soft feet, and the warmth of the Hawaiian sun in my face. My perspective was child size, upright, and by turning my head I could see the horizon of sand. Facing the sandy beach, I felt an enormous wave coming up behind me, and I froze in place. It was my dying time, I knew, and I stood in place awaiting the wave. Before it hit, my perspective changed from horizontal to vertical and my consciousness was in the water as a different species of being, low and powerful. I turned from side to side in the water, I gained Anaconda consciousness for a moment, then jumped off my mat in my tent on the Rio Upano shore in wonder. The dream could have seemed like nightmare, instead, it was profoundly reassuring. It showed me that traumatic events like death aren’t an ending at all, they cause a tearing of the fabric of time and space and we are transported into something altogether different.

The next morning, I knew that everything would be alright. I had an incredible sense of peace and clarity. As I cleaned out my tent, I discovered several small, translucent yellow and brown beads under my sleeping mat. I showed them to Tsunki, and he looked surprised for a moment, and identified them as shaman’s amulet. I’d been Amazon dreaming upon a shaman’s amulet. I carefully cleaned out my tent, and gave all the beads to Tsunki. He accepted the beads and my pantomimed story without a flicker of emotion.

That morning, I paddled my heart out through Namangosa Falls as we wove our way around the massive boulders in the center of the falls. The low water level provided more surprises. Kevin nearly wrapped the lead oar boat around a razor sharp boulder that had been submerged on a prior trip.

Finally, when we reached the calm deep green water safely, below the churning white water waves and down-sucking boils that had tossed our heavy oar boat like an insignificant leaf on its surface, I sighed in relief. The Rio Upano had joined the Rio Paute and the ever increasing river was now called the Namangosa. I had stayed in the boat.

With my fear taken away, I enjoyed the sights of the river. The limestone cliffs became much steeper on the Namangosa, and large red tufted trees in the verdant jungle clung tenaciously to the cliff sides. Small cascades gave way to larger waterfalls, and the two most spectacular, King’s and Queen’s, plunged hundreds of feet into the river, pure white ever-changing ribbons that spilled down slippery green cliffs into pristine pools at their base. As I gazed up from the boat, I’d often see a giant blue morpho butterfly with iridescent purple-blue wings fluttering its way across the water.

Once I was back in Macas and then Quito, it was clear that adventure travel is a big business in Ecuador: numerous volcano climbs, desert motorcycle trips, paragliding, canoe trips to see sacred waterfalls, and 800 ft. rapels into caves on cliff sides filled with oil birds. I’m willing to bet that most of these trips are fun and exciting, and very inexpensive, but Ecuador has few of the safety and licensing requirements that we take for granted in the United States, so I’d be very careful before I’d sign up for local trips. Our river guides were careful and experienced, they would portage any rapids that were too dangerous, and they simply rolled their eyes at the prospect of taking folks with no experience on 800 ft rapels.

The river guides on my trip also took great pains to protect us from dysentery by triple filtering all our water, trading for food with reliable locals, and setting up hand washing stations at all bathroom and food areas. It worked for me, I went home with much soft tissue damage, but healthy otherwise, and I sleep quite soundly upon my down pillow.

I believe that each trip has a moment or two that remains crisp in the mind’s eye, sheltered from the withering passage of time. I have two such memories. On the last day of our river trip, we saw three clouds of butterflies, each circling separately high above the river between the cliff walls. They hung in the calm warm air. Around the next bend, a large flock of lorakeets burst out of their nests on the cliffs walls, shrieking loudly as they flew away. I saw the very face of Nature, and I took those precious memories back to my suburban world. I had my Amazonian adventure, but I’ll look more carefully before my next leap.

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