I sat on the boulder amidst a vast, green, mountain gorge, and felt faint. The adobe house, roofed with rusted corrugated tin, faded in and out of my vision. My head felt light, disconnected, and warm. A tingling sensation crept across my scalp, and slowly, the scene began to white out. Immediately, I shook my head, and grabbed the boulder, as I cleared my mind and remembered that I was 12,464 feet above sea level.
That morning, I left San Mateo, a small town set high in the Andean Cordillera of Peru, determined to conquer the biggest fear of my journey. My challenge was the half kilometer long tunnel inside the mountains on the way to Chicla. But I finished that challenge, faced my fears, and relearned how capable I was in dealing with difficult situations. It didn’t come without a price, because as I gripped the rock, I fainted from overexertion, and the extreme altitude.
The route from Lima to Huancayo is the most difficult part of my 6 month journey to Brazil. There are several perils I have to face in the Peruvian section. First, and practically omni-present are the reckless peruvian drivers. With little to no shoulders on the roads, they were a constant threat. 2nd was the large drops on the side of the road; some were over 1640 feet. 3rd was the climb, from sea level to 4800 meters (15748 feet) in altitude.
At such a high elevation, I’d have to contend with the danger of high altitude sickness, locally known as soroche. The last and most dangerous challenges were the long tunnels. These tunnels were high in elevation, unlit, and narrow. Mixed with carbon monoxide poisoning, crazy drivers, a steep incline, pitch black, and soroche, created a death trap for an unprepared cyclist.
I wasn’t unprepared. Assessing a challenge, determining the level of risk, and reducing it to a manageable level is my specialty. The first step was to locate the tunnels, and plan a rest stop for the night before. I didn’t want to get nailed with soroche while cycling through the tunnel. This gave me time to recover and adapt my body to the high altitude. The biggest tunnel was located 3600 meters (11811 feet) above sea level.
The mobile threats were the omnibus drivers, who drove giant 6 or 10 wheeled, double deck buses. They were fast, reckless, and often drunk. So, the 2nd step was to leave early in the morning, thus avoiding the bulk of the traffic. Finally, I was equipped with standard lights, front and back, and I cycled as close to the edge as possible. These actions dropped my risk level to a point where I felt confident that I’d survive.
Still, it wasn’t a cakewalk. There were 4 tunnels; the last two were the shortest, and the first, the longest, was the worst. That morning I left San Mateo feeling prepared. I cycled for three days before, and each day I managed to make 25 kilometers (15.5 miles) of progress due to the steep incline. That day, I expected the same amount of progress.
After a half hour of cycling, the incline increased, so it became prudent to get off and push. Mile after mile I pushed my 110 pound bicycle, until I finally came to the big, dark, gaping maw of El Tunel Cacray. It was 9 AM, and the chirping of the birds barely hid the foreboding feelings of the area. The morning mist rolled up the sides of the mountain, and moistened my face as I looked into the horizontal abyss. ..
“This is it.” I turned on my camcorder light, my mounted flashlight, and my red blinker in the back. With a deep breath, I rolled in. Within the mouth, the darkness closed in like a jaw slammed shut. I didn’t even look back, because if I did, I’d chicken out and I’d never get through. I had to move forward. Not once in my life have I ever felt trapped in a tight space, but the moment the pitch dark enveloped me, everything inside began to scream.
The only light was the dim, barely perceptible beams from both the camcorder and my flashlight. The flashlight began to flicker, and then dim. Dammit! That was a new light with new batteries! I cursed as I pedalled harder, and the tunnel nullified my senses. Suddenly, a bright flash reflected off my glasses, and a truck engine roared by me, as its red lights cast a beacon. As I followed it, I was blinded by the high beams of a speeding car. My survival instincts kicked in, and I swerved to the side as I pedalled harder through the inky depth. Soon, it was quiet, and the sound of my breathing, the grinding gears, and wheels echoed inside the tunnel.
I felt a creeping sense of despair at the length and depth of my dark isolation. My knees cried in pain, and I felt a bite on the side of them. My spin cadence was too high, and my knees paid for it. I thought I went in circles in the night, without stars or a moon to guide me. I kept moving. To the stop the fear, I thought of the rewards in store for me once I got through: sunlight, fresh air, green grass, flowers, rain, water, and food. I kept thinking about food, since it’d been days since I had a decent meal.
After an eternity, I saw a bright dot ahead of me. Was it a star? I couldn’t tell. I kept moving towards it. It grew larger, and the light began to flood my vision. Like a moth to the light, I ignored the growing light headedness and cycled harder. The tunnel was on an incline, and the pain in my knees indicated the strain they were taking. But the light grew, as well as the strange buzzing inside my head. Finally, I was blinded as I felt the sun’s warmth on my back.
But I didn’t stop there. My body was on autopilot, and I charged up the mountain until I collapsed in a parking lot near the mouth of the exit. I looked at my watch as I lay there, and noted that it took 15 minutes to get through. 15 minutes felt like forever. An elderly man came over, looked at me, and asked me a question.
Don’t you care if you die?
Because I’m doing my dream. If I die while doing what I love, I’ll die happy. I don’t want to die without doing my dream. I want to see the world.
What about your family?
I love my family, and I hope they’d understand that I have to do what makes me whole.
The old man grunted, and stared at me. I fumbled with the camcorder, and cursed when I discovered it was off. It was a good conversation, and I lost my chance to record it. “Crap”, I mumbled.
I sat up, and asked the man if there were any more tunnels. He said there were two, but they were smaller than Cacray. The two tunnels weren’t long, and I cleared each one in under a minute. They still took a toll on my body. I had to climb another 300 meters (984 feet) to get to them, and the rapid elevation change made the buzzing worse. When I finished the last two tunnels, I stopped on a grassy area with a boulder to rest.
So there I was, fainting on the boulder, staring at a crudely built adobe house, and trying to keep my spinning head from getting worse. “This isn’t right,” I thought, “my body should be adapted by now.” Unfortunately, the 984 feet was enough to put my body into chaos. My heart beat rapidly, as I forced my lungs to pull in more air. It wasn’t enough, and I realized to push further was reckless.
I had to find a place to sleep, and I needed time to adapt. Small mistakes compounded into life threatening errors at such a high elevation. Unfortunately, I was several kilometers from the next town, so I took a few deep breaths, picked up my bike, and pushed up the road. As I pushed, I knew that each meter in ascent meant I was at risk for acute altitude sickness.
Finally, I made it to the village of Chicla, and there were no empty hostels. The only ones available were in Casapalca, a mining colony, which was higher at 4000 meters (15360 feet). As I pushed up the mountain, an imaginary vise grip progressively squeezed my temples.
When I got to Casapalca, I checked into a dirty hostel, which had no hot water, and collapsed into the bed. An excruciating pain kept me from sleeping. It felt like I had a hangover multiplied by 10. I rolled over in bed moaning, and my attempts to sleep were interrupted with the sound of my heart roaring in my ears. Nausea rocked my stomach, and I wanted to vomit.
Finally, I got up, and went next door to a café where I drank coca tea, known as maté de coca. Made from an infusion of hot water and coca leaves, the primary source of cocaine, the locals used it to combat altitude sickness. Two cups later, I felt better enough to sleep, but it wasn’t enough. I awoke in the middle of the night with a grinding pain against my temples, until I finally listed into a deep slumber.
I got up the next morning, and grabbed my head. The pain was gone! My body adapted faster than I thought, and I checked my heart rate. It was rapid, but not as fast as the night before. As I bathed myself with a pot of boiled water, I thought about the challenge that I’d face for the day.
This was the last obstacle before I entered the altiplano. It was the high mountain pass through Ticlio, and consisted of an ascent of 4800 meters (15744 feet). Was I adapted enough, or would I succumb to soroche? I had another 2624 feet to climb, and I knew what I had to do. Due to the risk of altitude sickness, I’d take my time pushing my bike up the winding series of roads that made up the Ticlio pass. But there was a new factor, and as I made my way up the road, an abrupt, explosion warned me of yet another risk.
At the sound of the loud “thump”, I looked up to see a landslide of several tons of dirt fall off the side of the mountain onto the road. The traffic slowed as several 18 wheelers gingerly made their way down the road. I chose to take a rest, and rethink my strategy. What would I do now? In addition to altitude sickness, I had to deal with land slides! As I stood on the corner of the curve, a solution came right up to me.
- Hey buddy, you need a lift? asked a mountain highway patrolman.
- A lift?
- Yes. Given the conditions, I don’t think it’s safe for you to go up pushing your bike. How’s your head? Did you deal with soroche yet?
- I got nailed last night in Casapalca. It hurt like hell.
- It’ll get worse for you going up to Ticlio. Put your bike in the patrol truck, and we’ll drop you off a little bit below the peak.
I thought about his offer, and weighed the risks of continuing up on foot to the Ticlia pass. A line of traffic wound around the mountain side, and I wasn’t the only one affected by soroche. He was right, so we put my bike in his patrol truck, and drove up to the Ticlio pass.
They dropped me off beyond the summit, and my head started to squeeze again. The sickness came back with a vengeance, so I quickly descended down the road to La´Oroya. It was a drop of almost 1200 meters, with 60 kilometers (35 miles) of pure downhill.
I cruised down at an average of 35 miles per hour, grinned at the exhilaration of the ride, and felt relief that there were no more ascents. I finally made it to the altiplano, and the worst of my 4000 mile journey was over. On the way down, I realized that in tackling the challenges, not only did I have to face my fears, trust, and have faith in my abilities, but I also learned to endure. Whether it was altitude sickness, the pain in my legs, or the sudden surprises, somehow, a solution appeared. It didn’t matter if I came up with it or if someone else did. All I had to do was trust and flow with it. I got to La’Oroya safely, and prepared for the trip to Huancayo. My adventure through South America was just getting started.
And, you can live vicariously through the author’s documentary shorts! Enjoy!
Mud splashed and splattered up my black, nylon bicycle rain pants as I pedalled down the rocky, wet, road from Huancane along the northern route of Lake Titicaca. My bright orange, mountain bike panniers from Arkel Overdesigns were muddied and battered from a rough fall, but they´re the kind of bags that can take a blow from a speeding truck, and still look new. Unfortunately, my beefy JANDD expedition racks were bent out of shape, and I had to secure it to my bike with a piece of rope. I was headed for La Paz I chose the contraband route.
Expedition cycling is similar to bicycle touring, with one fundamental difference. Most of the touring is in places that are unpaved, often unknown, or unmarked on the maps, and often in uninhabited zones. It´s dangerous, risky, and if you´re injured or killed, sometimes no one will even know. Naturally, you want equipment that works, survives, is easily repairable, dependable, and if it ever gets lost or stolen, replaceable. So let´s get started on the things you need to undertake an insane trip like mine.
Obviously, Expedition Cycling isn´t expedition cycling without the bicycle. Forget the traditional road touring bike with 700 cc wheels. Stick with a mountain bike. The last thing you need to happen in a back country environment is to have a bad spill, and your rims bent out of shape. Mountain bike rims have the thickness to deal with almost any bad bump, fall, or crash. The frame itself is designed specifically for abuse. Let´s say that again. On this kind of trip, you are going to beat the $h!t out of your bicycle, and you want a frame that you can BEAT THE $h!t out of. Now, some touring bike manufacturers make touring bikes that take the 26 inch mountain bike wheel. But, if you´re ever in doubt, stick with a mountain bike frame. When choosing a bicycle, don´t choose a packaged bicycle, ie. one that´s already fully assembled. Because of the unpredictable nature of an expedition, knowing your equipment, how it works, how to repair it, and how to maintain it can mean the difference between life, and a life full of lots of unnecessary pain, or even death. That means purchasing a separate frame made of solid 4120 or Reynold´s steel tubing with strong drop outs, and tough welds. My bike frame came from Bike Nashbar, and is composed of Reynolds for the triangle, and 4120 for the dropouts. Sometimes the frame doesn´t come with braze ons for the racks. I had a set welded on at Bilenky bicycle works in Philadelphia. Other excellent steel mountain bike frame makers are Soma, Salsa, and Surly. Now, I chose steel because in the areas where I´m traveling, it´s impossible to find anyone who can weld aluminum. Steel is real, and it´s easy to fix. Stick with it. While you´re at it, ally yourself with a good bike shop to inspect it properly and give it a once over. When you take on a trip like this, have the experts grill you and the bike. Now, considering that I lived in the Philadelphia metropolitan area, I had the best grill me and the bike. Danzeisen and Quigley I used to work there, and got to know the mechanics well. They´re the best, particularly Dave and Stanley.
For components, Shimano LX is the gold standard. It´s tough, and unlike XT or XTR, which are made of lighter materials for racing, LX has the strength and robustness to withstand wear and impacts. LX cassettes, chains, bottome brackets, derailleurs, hubs, and brakes must be part of the bike. Choosing good components, again, makes a huge difference when your trying to go up that dirt hill with 100 pounds of food, water, and gear on your bike. Don´t skimp on the components. For the front fork, to reduce the number of mechanical problems, headaches, and weight, don´t use shocks. The bags, when full, will absorb the majority of the road shocks.
For handle bars, I´ve become a big fan of the moustache bar. When I took my first trip in 2001, the straight bar with bar extensions only offered me two hand positions, both of which resulted in injured nerves inside of my palms. The moustache bar offers several hand positions, which alleviates any prolonged stress on the hands. In addition, the moustache bar offers one other advantage for expedition touring, which is the use of bar end shifters.Bar end shifters have the option of index shifting and friction shifting. Should anything happen to the index guides, a quick turn of the key permits friction shifting. Mis shifts, due to the wear and tear of the chain and cassette will happen, and unlike thumb shifters, the switch to friction shifting will save you many headaches out in the wild.Brake levers for V brakes are the next consideration. Almost any road brake lever should do the job when used on the moustache bar with V brakes.
For treads, I swear by the GEAX dual terrain tires. These tires are made of a kevlar compound, and the GEAX Evolution tires have, for me, lasted several thousand miles in South and Central America. They´re good for both on the road and off road terrain, and extremely durable.All of the components should be assembled and put on the bike by you. This exercise of assembling your own bike will familiarize you with your components, essential tools, and how everything works. You will need that knowledge when, not if, something breaks down.
The Bags and Racks
There are two options for carrying your gear, which is either with a trailer or with panniers. Getting into which is better often turns into a religious war, so, to put my opinion into the fray, I´ll state right now that I´m a pannier man. I´m not a big fan of big, heavy equipment, and a trailer counts as yet another large item I have to lug around. So, if you´re looking for the advantages of the trailer article, don´t look here. I´m a fan of keeping everything together as one unit.
For racks, the JANDD expedition racks served me well for the last seven years. They´re made of aircraft aluminum, and they have mounting platforms on the top for extra items. This is extremely important when properly balancing your bicycle, especially in off road terrain. Mount points use commonly available screws, which is a lifesaver, because if you lose some, you can get a replacement in any back country town or village.
Now, the most important item after the bike, are your bags. Imagine your bicycle is a horse, and you´re going into the wild west. Obviously you don´t want to get Gucci bags, or something snazzy, or anything poorly made. You want to go with bags that can endure the following, all of which I´ve experienced: get hit by a loaded logging truck at 30 miles an hour, flung off your bike at 35, slammed into the dust, gravel, mud, slime, cow manure, horse manure, lama manure, lake water, cactus spines, thrown into old developing world bus racks with a crate of dead chickens on top, and tossed into a luggage compartment with rotting cow parts dripping on it. On top of that, it has to be narrow enough to fit through doors when fully loaded, stay fully attached to your rack, and carry lots of gear, food, and water. There´s only one company I know of that can do that.
Arkel Overdesigns, and specifically, their mountain bike specific pannier bags. To say that their bags are overdesigned is an understatement. I´ve come to the opinion that these bags were designed for survival during a nuclear blast. That´s how tough these bags are. I´ve seen, and experimented with other bags, but none have EVER come as close to form, functionality, and pound the $h!t out of em as Arkel Overdesigns. These bags are truly designed for punishment that only a masochist could love. The best part is, whenever you´re in town for more than a few days to rest, recuperate, and repair, just soak them in laundry detergent, rinse twise, and they´ll look almost new.
Expedition touring is a lot like back woods camping, with the exception that you´ve got a bicycle and repair equipment. Here´s the general list of what I carry. This list is specific to my needs and requirements, so your mileage will vary. For women, obviously feminine hygene will be added to your list.
- 4 pairs of underwear
- 4 pairs of socks
- 2 undershirts
- 1 long sleeve button up shirt
- 1 set of silk/polypropylene long underwear
- 3 pairs of bike shorts, 2 short, and 1 long
- 2 bike shirts
- 1 pair of bike arm sleeves
- 1 short sleeved collared shirt
- 1 pair of short finger gloves
- 1 pair of long finger gloves
- 1 pair of water proof pants
- 1 wind breaker, water resistant and stuffable
- 1 stuffable inner liner cold weather jacket, synthetic
- 1 baseball cap hood combination (Columbia designs hat) – looks like a Lawrence of Arabia hat
- 1 medium sized towel
- 1 face towel
- 1 bandanna
- 1 tie
- 1 pair of dress pants
- 1 formal dress shirt
- 1 pair of khaki pants (no jeans!)
- 1 balaclava
- 1 pair of sandals
- 1 pair of boots
- 1 wool sweater
- 1 journal book, pen, pencil, colored pencils, with pencil sharpener
- 1 pad of airplane paper and envelopes
- 1 compact film/digital camera with memory cards, computer cable, batteries and charger
- 1 SLR/digital camera and film
- 1 LED headlamp
- 1 back up flashlight
- 2 boxes of matches, 3 candles
- 1 dagger/survival knife with sheath
- 1 machete
- 1 leatherman´s tool with sheath
- 4 bungee cords, 2 long, 2 short
- first aid kit with spare medicines, including the basics of ciproflaxin, metrodizole, and mylanta, all of which you can get without a need for a prescription in latin america
- 1 compass
- 1 bug repellent spray
- 1 bug killer spray
- MSR firefly gas cannister stove, and 3 gas cans (get the gas cans in Latin America, don´t carry them on the plane)
- pot with utensils (mess kit), and a fruit peeler
- 1 head net
- spare pair of glasses with case
- 1 water filter, I use a Katadyn hiker pro
- 1 set of motorcycle goggles
- 1 iodine water treatment set
- 1 money belt or neck pouch
- 1 3/4 season 0 degree sleeping bag (polarguard filler preferred) with compression stuff sack
- 1 z rest pad
- 1 tent (Eureka Zephyr II)
- 1 roll of toilet paper
- 1 toilet kit (toothbrush, dental floss, paste, razor, shaving mirror with a porn star on the back, nail clippers, zit picker, tweezers, nose hair clippers, and soap)
- 2 nalgene bottles with duct tape wrapped around them
- 36 lubed condoms with spermicide. Lifestyles are my favorite, with Trojans taking second. I love the value packs. Do not buy these with your friend in the super market while picking up 10 pounds of bananas that your mom wants to prepare for a picnic. That just looks bad at the cash register.
- 1 deck of handwriting analysis cards
Tools and parts for the bicycle
- 1 combo hex and screw driver wrench kit
- 1 multi tool
- 1 pedal wrench
- 1 crescent wrench
- 1 piece of spare chain, 10 links
- 1 set of spanner wrenches
- 4 spare brakes
- 1 spare inner tube
- 1 spare kevlar tread
- 1 patch kit with extra patches
- 1 long kryptonite cable with separate combination lock
- spare rack parts and nuts
- 1 old toothbrush
- 1 bike pump with duct tape wrapped around it
- 1 helmet
- 1 red blinker
- 1 bicycle computer
- 1 small internal frame backpack that can be used for trips up to 5-6 days (for side trips and expeditions)
- 1 courier day bag
- 1 camcorder with batteries, 10 tapes, charger, and cables to connect to the TV
- 1 tripod
- 1 cell phone and charger
- 1 set of practice nunchakus
- 1 set of real nunchakus. ***NOTE: I consider personal self defense extremely important when doing this sort of activity. Laws vary per country regarding a variety of personal defense weapons, so you either comply with the laws, make do, improvise, or smuggle. I listed the machete as part of my kit, and that alone makes for a formidable defense weapon, as well as an excellent all around tool for excursions. I know some people are squeamish about this, but if you seriously take on what I do, then it’s something that you MUST consider. ***
- 1 mp3 CD player, headphones and batteries. I do not use an ipod, or any other massive mp3 storage device because the conditions I go through will trash the hard drive permanently. A CD player is far more robust, and in changing countries and conditions, flexible.
- 1 40 CD booklet
- spanish-english dictionary
- portugese-english dictionary
- The Elements of Style, by Strunk and White
- The Dream Dictionary
- El libro de los formulas para ciencia y ingeneria
- Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance
- Marte 2056
- 1 booklet on nunchaku technique, attack and defense theory
- 1 folder with notepads and documents
It looks like a lot, but I´ve carried all of the above for months, even a year during my last expedition. And there´s extra room for food too. Usually, I carry the following as my standard 2-3 day rations through the wild wild mountains or rain forest.
- 1 pound of rice
- 1 pound of lentils
- 5 bags of noodles, or 1 large bag
- 6 packets of powdered juice mix
- salt and sugar
- powdered milk
- powdered hot chocolate, nestle, or nutritioncal drink mix
- 1 pound of oats
- 5-6 liters of water
- vegetable boullion packets
- sushi seaweed paper
- 1 small bottle of rice vinegar for sushi (Hey, I gotta have some luxuries)
On a trip like the one I´m taking, you have to be ready for anything that can, and will go wrong.
The author hard at work, fixing a flat in the middle of nowhere.
And here is my South America Bicycle Touring Expedition Adventure, in a nutshell.
I was half naked, and clothed with a colourful skirt made from the pounded bark of an Amazon tree. My face was painted, a large plumed necklace stuck to my chest’s perspiration, and on my head was a brightly colored headdress made of macaw feathers. Around me were brown colored people, men and women, who were clothed like me, except the women didn’t cover their breasts. I was deep in the Amazon River basin, near the river Nany, pronounced Na-ni, and if I didn’t know the location, I’d have sworn I was frolicking with my half naked relatives in the jungles of Vietnam. But I wasn’t in Vietnam, and despite the racial similarities, I was with the Bora tribe.
As I looked at my new identity through the LCD of my camcorder, the chieftain motioned for me to join his group. After a quick inspection of my dress and face paint, he guided me into the middle of a line of tribesman. We were about to dance a tribute to the Sacha Vaca, the amazon tapir. Sacha Vaca is a pidgin word, a mix of quechua and Spanish, which meant “It’s not a cow”. As I stood in the line with the men, we pounded our sticks into the ground, and sang. Suddenly, I felt the pull of a hand on my shoulder, and they tugged me into a run with their dance line, as we pounded our sticks in synch with the women’s voices. My feet gripped the rough soil floor, as I struggled to maintain the quick, changing rhythm of the line. Through it all, I marvelled at the tribe’s ability to maintain its traditions in the 21st century. How did they do it? That answer lay within the isolation of the Amazon Basin.
I was on my fourth trip to South America. Like the first time, I chose to bicycle across the enormous continent, but this time I was headed through the southern portion, with the intention of crossing the deep Amazon Basin in Bolivia, the upper half of Paraguay, and through Brazil. I’d originally planned to enter the Amazon through northern Bolivia, but a request from a Peruvian friend to accompany him to Iquitos was too much to resist. We were going to survey several enormous tracts of land that the Peruvian government put up for auction. The government wanted to settle the vast interior of Loreto, as a way to alleviate poverty, and my friend wanted to purchase, preserve, and create a research and eco lodge park. Since his interests clicked with mine, I immediately bought a ticket, stashed my bicycle at his house, and we flew to Iquitos.
Iquitos is either an hour and a half flight from Lima, or a five to ten day river journey from several low mountain ports in the southern Andean region.. There is no land crossing to Iquitos. It’s also the capitol city of the largest department of Peru. When we arrived in Iquitos, we were dismayed upon learning that the hectares were several days away up the river via boat. My friend’s poor planning forced me to extend my plane ticket until we learned that the next boat wasn’t available for at least two weeks. I took the entire line of inconveniences in stride, and with a block of time now available, I set out to explore Iquitos and the surrounding regions. I contacted another Peruvian friend who was a biology research graduate at Rutgers University in Camden. He recommended that I stay with his family, and meet his friend, Gilberto, an ecologist, to get a better sense of the Amazon environment of Loreto. Gilberto worked at a biological preserve and research park, known as the White Sands Forest. Here, I discovered that the forest settlement program, as a method for poverty reduction, was a disaster waiting to happen.
The Amazon forest ecology in most of the Loreto Department consists of highly efficient, ecological recycling systems on top of nutrient poor, sterile sand. Most of the vegetation depends on a horde of millions of species of insects, molds, and fungi which, in a matter of days and weeks, turn any kind of organic matter into high powered fertilizer. Most of the Amazon Basin consists of this type of environment, where almost all the organic matter is either alive and trapped in plants and animals, or is in the process of being ground and molded by something living. Almost no organic matter is sequestrated in the soil, and is the primary reason why the Amazon basin’s soil is among the world’s poorest. The moment the insect’s homes, the trees, are cut down and burned, the recycling systems are eradicated, and what’s left is a thin layer of ash on top of loose and sterile, white sand.
Consequently, anyone who moves into the forest, and burns it down to plant crops, or worse, to ranch cattle and livestock, finds himself in a cycle of poverty which never ends since the soil can barely support savannah vegetation, let alone crops or cattle. After three to four years, the land is wasted, and the peasant finds himself and his family poorer, and moves to more forest to burn. Unfortunately, especially in Brazil, all of the Amazon Basin countries have enormous deforested sections which appear on satellite maps as white blocks and stripes, where the land serves as a parcel of desert.
The invasion doesn’t stop there. Like the Andean regions of Peru, the Loreto department is about 85% unexplored. Yet, after years of isolation, due to surging commodity prices, extensive exploration efforts yielded recent discoveries of large oil deposits. Consequently, the territory is quickly turning into the Wild Wild East of Peru. When I left the plane, I noticed personnel from an oil exploration company based out of Houston, Texas, who arrived to survey one of the many parcels of land the Peruvian government was auctioning.
As if this wasn’t enough, global warming was changing the area’s weather patterns. I spent part of the week questioning both the scientific station, and many of the locals about what they’d observed in the past five years of temperature and climate. In what should be “rainforest”, where the seasons are wet and wetter, there was a shortage of rainfall, and due to the porosity of the white sand, trees weren’t getting enough water, and the heat, amazingly, was hotter than usual. This compounded into a death sentence for most tree species, and after two years of blazing heat and lack of water, trees all across the basin were dying. A chain reaction was at hand, with both deforestation, and global climate change compounding on top of each other.
As we hiked through the preserve, and admired the areas where giant trees still stood, pristine, and watched the swarms of insects devour and grind fruit, organic detritus, and anything living in its path, I wanted to know if there was anyone who managed to live in harmony with the forest.
- You should visit the Bora tribe, if that’s what you’re looking for. Said Gilberto as we examined a large rubber tree.
- The Bora tribe?
- Yes, they’re unique.
- How so?
- Well, they’ve been able to maintain their lives, traditions, and culture in the face of globalization and deforestation.
- You’re kidding me.
- No, go visit them. You might observe some interesting things.
Gilberto just told me to give them a call, but this is easier said than done. To get to the Bora involved traversing one of the sources of the mighty Amazon, the River Nany. The Rio Nany serves as the channel for Loreto, with Iquitos as the primary port on the way to the Atlantic. The Rio Putamayo, which forms the borders of Peru, Ecuador, and passes into Colombia links to the Rio Nany. Approximately 30-40 thousand members of the Bora tribe live within this territory of the Putamayo, and typically a journey from their central homeland to the Nany takes ten days on the river.
The Bora are indigenous to the Northeast Amazon river basin, a giant territory formed from Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru’s Amazonian corners. The Bora are also notoriously shy about letting outsiders in to see their villages, homes, and culture. Yet, both economics, and global invasion were imposed on the Bora, and they had to come up with a solution to balance both their economic needs, and their desire for privacy in their villages. So, they came up with a display area solely for the use of ethno-tourism.
Joined with a new friend, Janet, a local Iquiteñan who showed me around her city, we took a 30 minute boat trip to one of the many green islands which dotted the horizon of the Rio Nany. As we got closer to the shore, several children dressed in just a white, painted cloth for a skirt came out to greet us. We waved to them, as we climbed up the rudimentary dock made of logs, and together we hiked to the tribal display grounds. There, a short, handsome, brown man who sported a macaw feathered headdress greeted us, and led us into a large house, called a “maloca”. We sat down and listened to the chief explain the basics of his tribe and customs.
According to the chief, the family structure is an extended set of families living in a “maloca”. A maloca is a great house made of wooden poles, roofed in palm fronds or thatch, and set upon the rain forest floor. The basic family unit is called a “curaca”; it consists of one man and several wives with their children. The society is a hunter gatherer society, and their belief system, customs, and language is based on the amazon rainforest plants and animals. All of what they eat and make is derived from the rich biodiversity of the rainforest, and their culture passes on its knowledge in the rich oral tradition of parent to child. Lately, missionaries from both Catholic and Protestant churches have made inroads into the society, and as a result, much of the native culture and especially valuable knowledge of medicinal flora is disappearing. Combined with the rampant globalization of every single culture, one would think that this unique ethnic group should’ve been lost in the homogenized, monotonized blur of globalization. Surprisingly, this isn’t the reality.
Obviously, economic realities have forced the tribe to make use of its unique culture and background as a means of income. Besides fishing, river boating, and tour guiding, the use of the site for ethno tourism permits the Bora to freely express their culture, customs, and rites, for a price. Because of the polluting effects of modern culture, the tribe chose to use the remoteness of the amazon to their advantage. They commute daily, walking one hour a day from the village to the display area, thus allowing them to show their culture, but without permitting the infiltration of their village and home lives. This was their secret to preservation, a long commute to work? I was both surprised and delighted in the simplicity and elegance of their solution.
In the final dance, I joined the women as we danced a tribute to the Manguare, a type of aquatic bird similar to a heron. As I danced with them and smiled with their grinning faces, I felt at once transported back in time, to the time before Western contact with the Americas, and I was in another world, age, and place. When we finished the dance, in my custom, I thanked every single one of the villagers in their native language, and then I learned one other characteristic of the Bora peoples. They’re well versed in business and trade. After negotiating a price with me regarding their tribal dance and participation, I was immediately swamped with village women offering their wares and handicrafts. It took some creative use of language and polite hand movement to get out of the maloca. As I sat on the boat back to Iquitos, and watched them wave to me, I remembered that the Amazon is an ocean of green, with isolated islands of people, each with their own unique culture and customs that they’ve fiercely guarded through the millennia. And, I prayed that in the face of globalization, deforestation, and global warming, that it would continue to be that way.
The author hard at work dancing with the Bora tribe. You can tell who he is, can’t you? He’s that sunlight deprived fellow in the middle there…
A Video of Me Dancing with the Bora Tribe
A Fish in New Waters
If I could see through the eyes of a salmon, perhaps I´d have a better idea of my first week here in Peru. I left the fresh waters of Philadelphia, to land in the vast ocean of South America, in the sprawling heart of Lima. The moment I landed, the newness hit me in the lungs like a wave of brine to the gills. Thousands of diesel and gas powered vehicles clogged the streets, as they churned and cycled what little oxygen was left into soot and fumes. Dark, brown people packed into aluminum, and steel tin cans, surprisingly functional after decades of abuse, in their daily commutes. Cell-phones and pagers, hawkers and ravers, bums and maids, a cacophony of the city en-masse formed of eight million people greeted me with a neurotic pensiveness that infrequently smiled.
As I waited for a close friend to arrive, I stayed with a Peruvian friend, an expedition partner from years before, in the middle class neighbourhood of San Miguel. I woke up to roosters crowing at 2:30 in the morning, just before the early ones rose for work. Later, construction work in the 3rd floor above me rousted me again, and in the blinking, smog filtered sun light through my window, I got up. Ice cream vendors dressed in bright yellow vests pedalled their carts through the streets, blowing on high pitched horns, while traffic and fumes slowly built up into a fevered mid day pitch. I helped baby-sit Gabriel, a rambunctious three year old kid, while his grandmother fretted about his hyperactivity. Then I explored the city, or worked out in a local gym while flirting with the ladies in the nautilus room.
In the evenings, I wandered into Miraflores, where foreigners, usually middle aged or older white men, dressed in tacky black t-shirts that said, “FBI: Female Body Inspector”, negotiated with much younger, dark skinned women for their bodies and company in Pizza Alley. Other times I joined my Peruvian friends for some salsa dancing, or we walked through Baranco, an ancient part of town next to the Pacific Ocean, filled with old colonial walkways, restaurants, bars, and shops. We conversed about South American economics and politics, and it inevitably lead to the American foreign policies, neo-colonialism, and the incumbent effects within their country. After those conversations, I lightened the mood with jokes and changed the subject.
Interestingly, unlike the first time I was in Peru, I didn´t stand out. When I spoke, I was greeted with a customary salutation. When I asked the cabbies or the combis for the fare, I got the standard local price. The same happened in the markets. In the clubs, I was asked if I was from San Miguel, or Capon, or one of the other local districts of
Lima. As the days passed with my friend´s family, I was treated as one of them. As always, I was patient, smiled frequently, and I always said “Please”, and “Thank you”, even if it was clearly their fault for an errant mistake. Still, familiarity extends further than the basic concepts of courtesy, but courtesy helps tremendously. Whenever I hung out with my American friends, I sometimes distanced myself from their constant judgement of the locals, the conditions, the service, and the water. Few things satisfied them, and in turn, I observed as their grating behaviour sometimes boomeranged back to them, and often with interest. Of course, as the standard rule of a bicyclist about to head into the back country for an extended period of time, I drank the local tap water, and within a week I was acclimated to it with practically no ill effects. My simple action, which was designed to get me ready for my journey, was met with shock from my American friends.
It finally occurred to me that my high level of adaptability passed me off as yet another limeñan, one who looked asian like many other Peruvians, and that I was no longer a foreigner to them. When I first arrived, five years ago, indisputably, I was a tourist who wanted to be seen as a traveller. Now, I was a local, a traveller still, and with it came both the familiarity and expectations that a local had with the people. Still, I longed to be the extraterrestrial again, as the explorer into the unknown. But until then, I enjoyed my new found intimacy with the people of Peru.