My most recent adventure was a trip to the Peruvian jungle to participate in four day rafting race down the Amazon River. Each team consisted of four people and had to build their own raft (or, in our case, pay some Peruvians to make it for us) out of eight logs and some rope. I was on a team with three other people from my training group, Kim, Kelsi, and Erin. We joined 51 other Peace Corps volunteers to paddle down the Amazon.
Go Team Gladys
There was some obvious signs of disorganization before the race even started. Thursday was dedicated to building the rafts and the promised, and necessary rope, wasn't delivered until sunset, water didn't show up until 4, and supper was served at 10:45. There weren't any bathrooms and our race-issued tent flooded.
On the up side, cold beer was available all day.
So going into the first day of racing we had our concerns. I knew that this race was going to be hard work but I underestimated the effort necessary to paddle 112 miles on the Amazon River. I expected that paddling would help move your raft but that if you didn't paddle you would still make forward progress on the river. Not true. If you stopped paddling you stopped moving. The Amazon River is so wide that it's more comparable to imagine paddling across a lake.
After 6 or 7 hours of rafting, we reached the first check point. All 50-some teams slept in a school in the same village and there was a timed start the next morning. Despite some tension amongst team mates, we were feeling pretty good. I spent the afternoon drinking jungle beer, playing frisbee and was sleeping by 8:30.
The next day my team started out with the slow group and were on the water by 9am. The weather reminded me of a hot, humid Wisconsin summer day except hotter and more humid. I continuously drenched myself in refreshing river water.
The best (and probably only) safety feature of this race was the promise that the coast guard would come pick up all the teams that were still on the water at 4:30. Well, 4:30 came and went and my team was still on the water staring down some ominous storm clouds. Behind us was a beautiful sunset but in front of us the sky was full of black, huge storm clouds.
We rowed on.
An hour later, there still wasn't a boat in sight and the storm was moving closer. The sun had almost disappeared and the sky above us was now full of clouds. The thunder was booming closer and it seemed like the lightning was flashing right in front of our face. The wind had picked up and the water was getting rough.
It was time to be a little concerned. We put our life jackets on.
Around 6pm, it was almost completely dark and we saw a group of people standing on the top of a two-story cliff. We rowed over to them and yelled up to ask how close we were to the checkpoint. They said we were still at least an hour away and on the wrong side of the (very wide) river. It was time to abandon ship. Some of the townspeople came down to help us tie up our raft and scramble up the side of the cliff.
We were in a small jungle town with only ten families. They welcomed us into their school and lit some kerosene lamps since there wasn't any electricity. Almost immediately after we stepped into the school, the wind really started roaring and the sky opened up into a torrential downpour.
Eventually, we started to see lights scanning the shore searching for rafts. The coast guard boat saw our raft and hollered for us to put our life jackets on and get down to the boat. The waves were crashing into the shore and they were having difficulty keeping the boat still. We slipped and slid back down the cliff, which was now pure mud, and boarded the boat. After climbing down a ladder, we entered a small cabin that was already crowded with other rescued teams.
I was relieved to find myself in a seat next to one of my good friends, Kyle. For the first time I realized how close we had been to disaster and I started silently crying – both from relief and anxiety about other teams that might still be on the water.
Thankfully, everyone made it to the checkpoint. Seven teams had to be rescued and were unable to finish the race because their boats had to be abandoned. It was horribly disappointing to not be able to do the final six hours of rowing after completing the first 16 hours. Cheering on other teams while they crossed the finish line was bittersweet – I was proud of my friends for finishing but hugely sad that I wasn't out there with them. I know that if we had been picked up at 4:30 like we had been promised they would have been able to tow our boat and we could have completed the race.
So I’m planning on going back. I need to finish that last day. If you're interested in joining my team, fill out the application form in my next blog entry. This time we're going to conquer the Amazon.
This is more or less what our raft looked like.
That is more or less a complete lie.
This is what our raft actually looked like.