Authors: Yossi Ghinsberg
‘Look, Marcus,’ I said, ‘let’s go back to being friends like we used to be. I don’t know what’s come over us in this jungle. We’ll go back to La Paz, and everything will be all right. It’s not true. I didn’t abandon you just because of Kevin. We were all together for a whole week in La Paz, and Kevin didn’t come between us. Let’s try to pick up the pieces. Let’s be friends again.’
Words, words. Maybe I succeeded in cheering Marcus up a little bit, but we never were close friends again. We did talk to each other after that day, but it was forced, unnatural.
We bought the four dried balsa logs. Kevin and Marcus went across the village to fetch them, floating them down the river. They were soaking wet when they got back. Marcus was in a better mood.
Karl and I went out to cut more balsa bark
. We wove them into long ropes with which to fasten the additional logs to the raft. We went about our task with great energy. The new logs were dry and amazingly light. We attached them, two to each side, and the raft was now wider and far more buoyant.
Don Jorge told us the raft would be safe. We decided to set out the next day.
We kept on working that afternoon. Karl built a sort of raised platform in the middle of the raft. We would tie our food supply and the rest of our equipment down onto it the next morning and cover it all with nylon sheeting. That way everything would stay dry.
Our last evening in Asriamas we gathered up all our gear and provisions. We had ten pounds of rice. We hadn’t been able to buy more, as the village had run low. We bought about seven or eight pounds of dried beans. We also had a large bunch of green plantains and the rest of the supplies we’d been assembling in recent days: yucca, cucumbers, onions, and a lot of hot peppers, a little ‘honey’ derived from sugarcane, salt, and spices. Salt was measured out like gold dust in Asriamas. We had paid for all these goods with a variety of gifts, according to the preference of the recipient. Karl was in charge of our finances, and he made a lot of mistakes. He traded off almost all our spools of fishing line, leaving us with only a few yards. He did the same with the fishhooks; he gave all but three away. We had had ten cigarette lighters with us when we got to Asriamas. We had only one when we left, and it was only half full. Even the insect-repellent spray, which was so essential, he left with Don Jorge, and we had only a small amount.
That evening we had a festive going-away meal. Don Jorge had borrowed the shotgun and succeeded in killing an enormous boar. We wanted to pay him for the raft, our purchases, and his wife’s wages. He asked for only 1,450 pesos (less than 50 dollars): 800 for the sheep, 600 for the raft, and 50 for the rice. He didn’t want any remuneration for the food we had eaten in his home, for the chickens that had been slaughtered especially for us, for the fresh vegetables we had received each day, for the game he and his family had hunted, and for the enormous quantities of
we had drunk. He also refused payment for the dozens of papayas we had eaten. We were his guests, he insisted, and he wouldn’t take money for his hospitality or for his wife’s work. After a quick huddle we decided not to take anything from him for the things he had bought from us. And we added 800 pesos to the amount he had quoted. Don Jorge was satisfied.
‘OK,’ Karl said, getting organised, ‘who’s the captain? Me or Kevin?’
‘You, Karl, you’re the captain,’ Kevin said.
‘OK, then I’ll be in the bow with an oar. Marcus and Kevin, you will each take a corner in the stern, holding a long pole. You’ll push us along with the poles. Lower them down to the river bottom and give a push. Yossi, you sit here by me holding a pole. Whenever we come too close to a rock or the bank, you use the pole to push us off and keep us from colliding. Understood?’
‘Captain,’ Marcus piped up. ‘The poles are too long and heavy. They’re hard to handle.’
Karl picked up one of the long poles that the villagers had prepared and agreed, ‘Yes, you’re right. They made them too long.’ He took out the machete and hacked off the ends, leaving the poles shorter by about a yard. Then he put on my small backpack and tightened the straps. He had spent the day before cutting chips of dried balsa, filling the pack with them. He was the only one of us who couldn’t swim and was afraid of falling into the river and being carried away, so he had made himself a life preserver.
Another shove, and heave-ho! We were caught up in the Tuichi’s current. The river, which had appeared fairly calm from the bank, did not feel calm at all. The current was extremely swift. Karl pulled hard at the water with his oar, trying to keep the bow pointed straight forward. He yelled instructions back to Kevin and Marcus.
‘If she pulls to the left, Kevin has to push her back from the right, and if to the right, then Marcus pushes.’
That quickly proved to be impossible. The poles were now too short to reach the bottom of the deep river. Marcus had turned ghostly white, Kevin wasn’t displaying any emotion, and I was very excited. Karl was uptight.
‘If you can’t reach the bottom, row, row, pull hard!’
‘This is a round pole, not an oar. You can’t row with it,’ Kevin said.
‘Do as I say. Is that clear? Do as I say!’ Karl yelled.
Kevin rowed indifferently, not making much effort, and it did seem to be pointless. The Tuichi was straight and smooth, and so far we were cruising along without any problems.
After about an hour we came to shallow waters where large rocks jutted out.
‘Watch out! Now pull to the left, Kevin, to the left!’ Karl pulled at the oar with all his might. ‘Yossi, get ready to push us off that rock with the pole,’ he said to me, as we rapidly approached a boulder. We all rowed. Marcus tried to push off from the rocks on the bottom. His pole snagged on one of them and was torn from his hands.
‘I’ve lost my pole!’ he cried. ‘I lost it!’
,’ Karl swore.
‘Here, take this pole.’
I handed our only spare pole to Marcus.
‘Get ready, Yossi... push!’ Karl cried.
I stuck the long pole out toward the rock that the raft was approaching. I pushed but didn’t have enough strength to prevent the collision. The raft took a severe blow and tilted up on its side for a moment, but then straightened out.
We were moving along again but no longer passing through smooth waters. Every few minutes we approached another rock, and Karl was on the verge of hysteria. We somehow managed to smash into every one of them but suffered no serious damage. I lost a pole, and Marcus lost his second one. Things weren’t looking so good. We finally managed to pull over to the shore.
‘We can’t go on like this,’ Karl said. ‘It’s terrifying. Not one of you has the vaguest idea how to handle a raft.’
‘Take it easy, Karl, take it easy,’ Kevin said. ‘Nobody learns how to do it in an hour. We’ll get more practice. We’ll catch on. Everything will be all right.’
‘This isn’t child’s play, Kevin,’ Karl retorted angrily. ‘We don’t have time for lessons. I could be killed. You have to follow my instructions quickly, without hesitation.’
‘All right, Karl,’ Marcus said. ‘We’ll do just as you say. Tell him that you’ll do what he says, Kevin, please. Say it.’
‘All right. I’ll follow your instructions,’ Kevin conceded reluctantly.
Karl took the machete and went into the jungle. He swiftly lopped off a few long branches and made four new poles. Then he sketched a raft in the sand and explained how we should deal with various situations. He showed us how to paddle with the pole, and how to use it to push off from the river bottom without letting the river take it away. He showed me how to hold the end of the pole under my arm when absorbing a blow so as not to risk breaking a rib from the impact.
Back on the river there were fewer rocks, and we were getting used to it.
‘Right!’ Karl yelled, and we all rowed, the raft nudging over to the right. ‘Good. Now left.’
We practiced until we thought we had the hang of it, but whenever we came to a difficult pass or a bend in the river, Karl started yelling like a maniac, Marcus turned white, Kevin got angry, and I hid my fears under a mask of absolute indifference. Fortunately none of us was hurt or slipped into the river.
‘Yossi, come trade places with me,’ Marcus said. ‘You should get some practice back here in the stern.’
Good for you, Marcus, good thinking,
I thought sarcastically.
Any minute now and Poppa will give you a nice pat on the head.
But I did as he said. He took up my position near Karl, and I went aft.
‘He doesn’t know the first thing about white-water rafting,’ Kevin said to me. ‘Believe me, we’re doing everything ass backward. Whoever heard of trying to row with a round pole? Is he putting us on?’
I suspected Kevin of holding a grudge against Karl for having yelled at him. I still believed that Karl knew what he was talking about.
That afternoon the river was serenely beautiful. We grew accustomed to the pace. Karl had calmed down somewhat. ‘It’s so magnificent,’ he said with a sigh. A family of monkeys was leaping from one treetop to another, and Karl imitated their cries. ‘There’ll be plenty of game downriver,’ he promised. ‘No one has ever hunted that area before. This river is loaded with fish, too, huge fish. They can weigh over a hundred pounds.’
We came to a slight turn in the river. Karl ordered us to row in the opposite direction, to keep away from the bend.
‘That’s all wrong,’ Kevin said to me. ‘We should just let the current carry us along.’
We made it safely around the bend, and Karl began yelling excitedly, ‘To the left! Hard! Everyone, row left, fast! We’re liable to go into the Eslabon Pass.’
About two hundred yards downriver we could see a profusion of jagged rocks jutting out of the river. We lost two more poles trying desperately to row but finally made it safely to the riverbank. It had been raining lightly, and now it started coming down harder. Drenched and shivering, we decided to look for some kind of shelter. Karl made a little clearing, and we helped him set up camp.
Kevin and I returned to the raft to tie it securely to the shore, unloaded the equipment, and took it all to the camp. The rain let up and finally stopped. Karl took a wet log, cut it in half lengthwise, and used the machete to chop off chips of the inner wood, which was still dry. We were soon warming ourselves around a fire. Kevin called me to help him carry more firewood, and I was again amazed at his strength. He lifted entire tree trunks and carried them on his back. We had chosen a lovely campsite on a hillside in the jungle. At the foot on the hill was a nice little beach.
As usual Karl prepared our dinner. We were having rice, some yucca tossed into the embers, and a little meat from the slab of wild boar that the Don Jorge had given us. Marcus got up and went over to Kevin, who was concentrating on eating. Marcus nimbly flipped his little portion of meat onto Kevin’s plate.
‘Happy holiday, Kevin,’ he said. ‘Today is Thanksgiving Day in America. I thought you might like a little surprise.’
‘Thanks a lot, Marcus,’ Kevin said, obviously moved, ‘but I can’t take the only piece of meat you’re going to get.’
With a stubborn smile Marcus refused to take it back.
Karl started lecturing on rafts. ‘This is a really unpleasant surprise. I’m the only one here who knows how to handle a raft. I can’t do it on my own. We’ll all be risking our lives unless we learn to handle it together, quickly. I think it was a big mistake for me to have taken this upon myself. We would have been better off walking back – ’
‘Don’t rush it, Karl,’ Kevin interrupted him. ‘It will take some time, but we’ll soon be doing it like pros.’
‘But time is what we don’t have, Kevin,’ Karl replied vehemently. ‘Don’t you understand? We don’t have the time. There are treacherous rapids in the pass where the Eslabon empties into the Tuichi. The Eslabon is right here. It takes a team of skilled raftsmen to cross it. I have no intention of attempting it with the three of you. Instead we’ll have to secure long vines to the raft and haul it down the river.’
‘Good idea,’ Kevin agreed.
‘Yeah, it is a good idea,’ Karl went on, ‘but we won’t always have that option. A day or two down the river we’ll come to San Pedro Canyon. They call it the Mal Paso San Pedro; it’s an unnavigable pass. Waterfalls, white-water rapids, rocks sticking out everywhere. No one has ever made it through the canyon, and neither will we. Even before that canyon there are other treacherous passes, and you have to know how to control the raft, how to stop it when necessary. The risk is tremendous otherwise – we could get swept into the canyon. If that happens, we’ve had it. Just the thought of it scares the shit out of me. We have pulled over twice today, but both times it was only by dumb luck that we managed to stop the raft.’
‘What do you mean, Karl, we can’t go through the canyon?’ I asked. ‘You said that you’ve already rafted the length of the Tuichi more than once.’
‘I never said that. I’ve gone down the Tuichi many times to a point a little farther on, to property belonging to Don Matías, the Swiss. From there I went by foot to Curiplaya, which is on the other side of the canyon. I’ve rafted from Curiplaya on down to Rurrenabaque many times too. It’s smooth, easy going from there, but no one has ever gone through the
‘Then how are we going to go on?’ Marcus wanted to know.
‘That’s the point. We have to get as close to the opening to the canyon as we can and stop. There we’ll take the raft apart. Two of us will bypass the canyon on foot, while the other two wait. At an agreed-upon time the two who stay behind will set the logs of the raft adrift in the current. Beyond the canyon, at Curiplaya, the river widens, and the current is very mild. The two who’ve gone ahead will swim into the river to retrieve the logs. By the time the other two get there, the raft will have been reassembled with
. From there it’s a breeze, but before we reach that point, the dangers are great. You don’t know how to use the poles. A real
can make excellent use of a pole, just like a paddle.’
‘So why don’t we just make some more oars?’ Marcus asked.
‘An excellent idea,’ Karl agreed. ‘Tomorrow we’ll look for some balsa trees and cut a few oars.’
Later that evening Kevin and I sat together talking quietly.
‘Believe me,’ Kevin insisted, ‘Karl doesn’t know what he’s talking about. It’s obvious that he knows nothing about rivers. He’s making such a big deal out of this bad pass, like it’s so dangerous. You wait and see, we’ll take the raft through tomorrow with no sweat. If you’re willing, the two of us could take it through. No problem. Besides, I don’t trust him. Why did he only now suddenly remember to tell us about this San Pedro Canyon? There’s something fishy about the whole thing. Karl is a strange guy.’
Right after breakfast Karl and Kevin went to look for balsa trees to cut oars and soon found some a little way upriver. Balsa trees are very tall with lots of branches, but their trunks are so brittle that it only takes a few machete chops to fell them.
‘We’ll cut each one down the middle lengthwise and get an oar out of each half,’ Karl said after they’d returned to camp and set about measuring the branches.
‘I’d like to know how he thinks he’s going to cut them right down the middle,’ Kevin whispered to me sceptically, but Karl proved his skills. He fashioned a wedge from the branch of a hardwood tree, made a small slit in the middle of the balsa log, fit the wedge into it, and pounded on it with a heavy rock. The log fell into two pieces like a charm.