An Amazon Story

The first thing that you realize when you head out into the Amazon, is that it is big. Really big. Spread out over 8 countries, its physical land mass is nearly 8 times the size of Texas. And Texas is pretty damn big. Then you get into it, and you realize that maybe the size isn't the impressive part. Maybe the impressive part is how wild it is. An endless labyrinth of waterways weaving through thick rainforest vegetation and constantly pulsing with the din of birds and monkeys and bugs. The river itself churns and slurps, creating eddies and whirlpools - "remolinas" as the locals call them. That's a word that you've learned to hate. And that's just the edge, the part accessible by you in your little boat. But you've seen the maps, you know that beyond the river's edge is endless jungle, stretching hundreds or thousands of miles on into the unknown heart of Amazonia.


The rivers are plied by dugout canoes and other vessels, the basin is home to some 400 different indigenous cultures and millions more who have flooded in for the wealth of natural resources. But it's so damn big, that beyond the 400 known indigenous cultures are unknown numbers of "uncontacted" tribes, living in some of the few dark parts of the world map. The indigenous people that you meet are pretty good to you, but you start to hear stories that make you wary. Narcos moving drugs through the unenforceable expanse of the jungle. Pirates who murder the narcos and steal their guns and drugs and money. They make a living off of stealing from the drug trade, but on a slow day, they'd probably be willing to see what you have to offer. 


And there you are, out there on the river. Alone in the endless expanse of the Amazon wilderness. You think you see a small canoe across the river, but he is over a mile away and you can't be sure. You're out there alone, and it would be deafeningly silent, if it weren't so god damn loud. 


So I'm about 100 days and 3,000 kilometers into this solo trip through the Amazon, and my contacts in the Brazilian Navy and Federal Police suggested that I take a small side river to avoid a notoriously dangerous section of the main Amazon. This side river is wild and remote - winding its way through a deep and almost unpopulated section of the rainforest. The first day passes quickly as I work my way down the river system. I spend most of the second day enjoying the jungle, walking around in the forest and fishing in the river. 


On the second night, I tie my boat to a floating house in one of the few tiny communities in the area, and prepare for night. Some guys come by and tell me that there are pirates at the mouth of the river - I get this warning daily and I deal with it by leaving very early, and being vigilant and ready to fucking run like hell if pirates show up and come after me. Then they say that 6 pirates attacked this community 3 nights earlier. This was something I hadn't heard before - an actual, verifiable incident. This isn't good. 


That night I hear the person in the floating house lock the door from the inside, and notice people up on the hill scanning the water with flashlights. They're scared. So am I. I call my mom and my girlfriend on my satellite phone and make small talk and tell them that I love them. I get out of the boat and scout how I would get out of there if anything happened, and decide that I need to stay awake overnight to keep watch. After about 4 hours laying in my hammock, I hear an outboard engine out in the darkness of the river. The local fisherman in the area can only afford a pekepeke engine or no engine at all, and no one could confuse the droning hum of an outboard with the staccato sound of the pekepeke. I get out of my hammock, and put on my glasses. A handheld spotlight comes on out in the river. It is pointed at my boat, blinding me with the bright light. Slowly, the light turns and scans the shoreline and floating houses of the community, and then turns back to my boat. I can't see what they are doing, so my plan is to listen and hear if the boat is coming closer. To my horror, I watch as the bow of their boat swings around the stern of mine and shows the midsection of six people, all of which are pointing single barrel breech shotguns at me. As planned, I jump out of my boat, let out a yell to alert the community, and run across the deck of the floating house. They fire and I hear something whiz through the air, but I have already turned a corner and I'm running fast through the darkness. I fall into the water and swim under another house as I hear them firing into the water. I hear them running around above - yelling in Portuguese and firing into the air. I wait a long time under that floating house - so focused on the danger above that any concern about treading water in the deep Amazon night never really crosses my mind, never even thinking about the 4 meter black caiman that I had seen about a kilometer up river earlier that day.


Eventually, I figure that it's time to come out. The locals must think that I'm dead and I'm quite sure that they will be very happy to know that I am alive. When I swim out, someone shines a light in my face and ushers me up the hill. At the top of the hill stands the male population of the village, twenty people or so all armed with shotguns. In the darkness, I can't see their faces, but their moonlit silhouettes begin yelling and pointing at me. My Portuguese isn't very strong, but I understand the gist of it - they are saying that the pirates attacked because of me and that someone from the village is dead. As the tenor becomes more hostile, I don't feel comfortable with them behind me, so I move back to the edge of the group. Feeling the need to say something, I try to defend myself by pointing out that the pirates had already attacked the village a few days prior and so I didn't bring them here. They don't acknowledge what I say, and continue to point at me and yell.


Eventually, one of them invites me to go back to his hut to sleep and I accept. When we got back there, he asks me if I have any drugs or guns. The odd part js that he doesn't seem to be asking out of anger and it isn't an accusation. He seems to be asking if we could do business. I explain to him that I am an American traveler and that I don't have any guns or drugs. He just smiles.


Soon, the rest of the men come in and resume their pointing and yelling. I hear the words "Peruano" and "Colombiano". So that's it - because I am speaking Spanish and the only outsiders that they had ever encountered before were narcos or pirates, they think that I must be a Colombian or Peruvian smuggler. The pirates must have made the same assumption. I stand up and very deliberately explain to them that I am in fact not a narco and instead an American traveler. I alternate slowly between Spanish and English, and explain that I am speaking Spanish only because I don't speak Portuguese. Everyone freezes and the room is silent. Then, everyone is smiling and the man who had called me a Peruano is patting me on the back. I still feel terrible that someone had been hurt though, but when I ask someone about it, they are puzzled. Apparently I had misunderstood someone saying "someone could have been hurt". 


They slowly file out, but I can still see them through the spaces between the wood slats in the hut. They stand guard on top of the hill, armed with their shotguns and slowly sweeping the water below with a low powered flashlight. Later that night, the pirates do come back but they never made landfall. They just drive around in the river and fire a few times in the air. I don't sleep very much that night. 


The next day, I went down to my boat and basically everything was gone including all of my photo and video equipment. Holes were punched in all of the seats where they must have hoped to find drugs or money. On top of the rubble of slashed bags and discarded items sat my passport, face up and open to the photo page. 


I waited in that village for four days, until a boat came by that could give me a ride to Coari. During that time, I promised the village elders that I would speak with the Navy and police to send help. While this was met with enthusiasm by some and scorn by others, everyone seemed to be interested in the idea of police visiting the village. At some point during my stay there, I took notice of the fact that each day, the majority of the men would walk off into the woods, armed with a shotgun and some cane liquor, only to return in the evening without any meat or sign of a successful hunt. I didn't ask any questions. This time in the community was very tense - there was palpable anxiety each afternoon as the sun began to set, not knowing what the night would hold. The pirates did return on another night, driving around in circles and firing into the air. On the morning that I left, some of the community women asked me to attend church with them. At church, they prayed for safety to return to the community, and they prayed for my safe passage back to my family. When they prayed for me, they referred to me as "our friend". I hugged each of them and then departed. 


In Coari and Manaus I met with several branches of the police as well as the Navy. They were concerned and sympathetic, but I have reason to believe that they ultimately did not take any action. I gave my contact information to the captain of the boat that gave me passage from the community to Coari, and a few weeks later his wife reached out to me and told me that the boat had been attacked and that their son had been shot and dumped into the river. Luckily, he had survived and he was in Coari recovering. 


The Amazon is a wild place. If you don't believe me, you should go see for yourself.