About every two to three weeks during the beginning of the rainy season, I start waiting for a couple of sunny days in a row and then hike the two and a half hours out to the river to see if it is low enough to cross. Two weeks ago when I did exactly this, I really wished I had not.
I left Maragua around 7:30AM, following the path around the mountain tops before plunging in switchbacks down to the river valley. From the beginning, the roaring rapids below spit warnings thousands of feet upwards, reverberating through the canyon walls, to my crumbling trail. It gave me a sinking feeling in my stomach but I needed to get more food and supplies from the city, and the community phone had knocked out by the storms, so I had not talked to anyone outside the village in over two weeks.
At the river crossing I sat down to scout the river, and take off my socks in preparation. The river was running red from the eroded soil upstream and the rapids threw up standing waves that looked marginally surf-able. Like a beach bonfire in the breeze, it jumped and danced unpredictably. I went up the bank and broke off a huge walking stick from some drift wood, synched and strapped my backpack as high and tight as I could, and set out. I decided to cross directly downstream of some rapids and a bend in the river, because I thought the combination of the two would produce a slow crossable flow of water.
The water was slower, but the slow water had deposited quick sand mud on the river bed, enveloping every step I took half way up to my knee. I had to keep a steady pace forward, as slowing down would cause me to seep too deep into the consuming riverbed, and a rushed pace might lead me to take a bad step, sweeping me away. I got about a quarter of the way across and was up to my waist in water, and continually sinking deeper into the mud as it took longer to feel out my next step with my walking stick. Suddenly my walking stick sunk into deep water and I had to turn around and retreat diagonally back to shore.
I had seen the river downstream and there was no better place to attempt a crossing so I turned my attention west, past the rapids and chiseled cliffs, towards the mountainous source. My side of the river was enclosed by sheer canyon walls but I managed to scramble along some ledges and feeling like John Muir, dropped down onto a grassy bank on the other side of the cliffs. Here the river was much wider and I thought maybe this was good because the water was running slow and the great width might make the middle shallower. I tried crossing in a few more places without any success. This embankment also had cliffs upstream, which appeared impassable.
Lacking options and becoming impatient I decided I would try to cross the river through the rapids. The really big rapids sporadically sent boulders rambling into others, producing a sickening skull cracking sound underwater. However, I figured at least there would be a rock bottom I could stand on, so I could take my time. I slinked forward in a more tranquil part, and feeling very concentrated and alert, I started understanding some of the swirls and bubbly pits on the river. I steered towards swirls created by big rapids and was actually able to take breathers in these havens where the water was not tumbling downstream. Waves made pits and I avoided them.
I made it three quarters of the way across, and sweating in swirly resting place, surrounded by the roaring rapids, I thought, I’m finally going to get across. The red foam of the river encircled my legs and I let myself smile in this oasis of calm, in the middle of such destructive havoc. In the eye of the tornado I leaned on my stick enjoying the moment. I pushed on out of my haven and back into the punishing rapids. In no more than two steps my giant walking stick, the thickness of my forearm, failed me.
I was only about thigh deep and I speared it through the rapids a little upstream so that by the time it sunk into the river bed it would be a little downstream of me and I could brace against it. Well, before it sunk into the bottom, the current swept it away downstream and I almost lost it, or myself, trying to hold onto it. I tried again but the current was running so fast I could not even stab my stick in for a brace. I started trudging downstream with the current looking for a better place to proceed.
From the back of my mind, the unconscious part, I heard a faint whistling. My concentration had made me oblivious to anything non-river. I looked up, and on the other bank, high up on a hill top, were two little boys waving their hands over their heads attracting my attention. I side stepped over to another slow water area and attempted to communicate with them.
Although they were close, the river´s voice was impossible to supersede. I raised my walking stick above the surface of the river and pointed directly across to the nearest point of their bank and nodded. They conferred for a minute and then simultaneously shook their heads “no”. I pointed my stick diagonally downstream towards their bank and further upstream, both received the simultaneous shake of “no”. Then it started to rain.
Now stranded three quarters of the way across the river, in the middle of the rapids with two little boys as my only support system, and the falling rain meaning that the river was going to grow significantly starting at any time, with flash flooding also possible, I knew I needed to commit and make a move. The little boys were still conferring, and I wove my stick in the air to get their attention and pointed it to the nearest embankment on their side of the river and nodded. I felt like Babe Ruth. They responded simultaneously again shaking their heads “no” and this time drawing their fingers across their necks in the universal symbol for, “you will die”.
It was either give it a try anyways or turn around re-cross 3/4 of the river, rescale the ledges on the face of the cliff and then hike back home where I was almost out of food and supplies. There, I would have to wait for an indeterminate amount of time for more sunny days and the river to go down since the rain falling on my head at the time meant that crossing the next day would not be possible. I felt as if I could smell the flowers of the other bank, and I cursed the birds flying overhead from bank to bank not even noticing me below. So I pushed on, and the boys on the hilltop dropped their arms to watch. I had made up my mind, I had to take this risk.
Well, I do not even think I made a step of progress. The force of the current was too great. I wove my way back to my embankment and sat down defeated. The boys were now gesturing that I should try and scale the next cliff upstream which I had already scouted and decided was impossible to get down the other side. More importantly I had noted that that was where the River Pilcomayu joined my river Ravelo, creating a ferocious caldron of muddy rapids.
My adrenalin left me and I realized how cold I was from the river and the rain. I felt so alone, isolated in a cove, trapped by cliff faces on both flanks and an angry growing river straight out in front. I hiked back up to the top of the cliff to scout the situation again, and the two little boys disappeared into the hills on the other embankment. Now I was alone, but the anger of being left fueled me forth.
As I surveyed the face of the cliff, a glimmer of hope started to warm me. It might be possible, just maybe. It was a steep cliff that had been formed by what looked like a fairly recent avalanche, which piled rocks all the way into the river itself. I traversed down to the top of the avalanche and pushed a loose rock with my stick. It raced all the way down plopping into the river and taking quite a few other rocks down with it. Great, steep and unstable. So I dug my stick into the rocks downhill and braced myself along the upper ridge of the avalanche and down to the waterline, grasping the stable ground with my free hand just above the top of the landslide.
At the waterline I re-synched my backpack and dropped waist deep into the river to wade alongside under the next cliff. I made it about 20 feet and the river started to deepen lapping the bottom of my backpack so I tucked my stick into the back of my shorts and free climbed up onto a ledge on the cliff and then traversed down onto another embankment and safe at last. I crossed a small tributary and continued on the sandy bank to the next bend in the river. I had now gone about half a mile up the river, and past the confluence where the Pilcomayu joined the river, meaning the river was now much smaller.
Turning the bend I saw the two little boys from earlier squatting on the other bank grinning. “Come here” they motioned, and I set out into the water for my eighth attempt at a crossing. I felt sand beneath my feet and the water was running fairly slowly. I made it across without a second thought. Their grins grew as I approached, and I shook their hands upon arrival. I felt light and at large like an unjustly jailed prisoner finally escaped. I sat down to pour the wet sand out of my shoes and they told me the river is also called the, “Matador de Maraguaños (The killer of Maraguans)”.
I realized that I had missed the last truck into town and would have to hitchhike now, but that did not bother me. We walked back to their village and had to cross the smaller Pilcomayu to get there. We interlocked arms and crossed it together walking diagonally downstream for quite a while before reached the opposite bank. So this is why they ran off so quickly before, I thought, I was so relieved to have friends now.
In their pueblo I bought some cookies and we shared them while recounting the adventure and laughing over my insistence that I thought they had left me to fend for myself. After the cookies were done walked out to the main road to wait for passing transport. I would end up waiting for five hours for a car which took me to the city. Before I left I took a picture of them and asked the older brother for his name, “Ángel,” he answered – how appropriate.
The next blog in the Bolivian Blaze Series is, Carnival from the Campo to the City.