Tuesday, 23 April 2013

Through the Mother of God

Chris Raven on the Trans-Oceanica, Brazil. Photo by Simon Raven
The Raven brothers catch a 36 hour bus journey along the ‘Trans-Oceanica’ in the Madre Del Dio. From the Inca city of Cusco in Peru in the Andes down through the Amazon rainforest to the border town of Puerto Maldonado. 

by Chris Raven

Extract from their book 'Carnival Express'

THE BUS JERKS and I'm shaken from my morning siesta. I feel hot so I wipe my sticky forehead on the bottom of my t-shirt. My brother Simon rocks backwards and forwards and nods his head in time to the unpredictable motion of the bus. I pull the red curtain to one side and slide open the tinted glass. Warm air hits my greasy face. I poke my head outside and smell the sweet jungle. Lush vegetation lines the roadside, a botanical garden full of tropical and colourful plant species all completing for space and sunlight.

We pass a billboard promoting the construction of the new ‘Trans-Oceanica’. It displays a picture of a luxury coach cruising down a paved highway. The modern world has come knocking on the door of one of the world’s most precious wildernesses, and it seems clear little can prevent it from ploughing down the trees and thundering right through. The deeper we penetrate the Madre de Dios the more trucks begin to appear, as they make the arduous journey over the Andes to the Pacific coast where their cargo of lucrative mahogany will be loaded onto ships bound for Europe and North America. It’s the first signs of deforestation we've seen so far and the first signs that the highway could be responsible for cutting out the lungs of the earth. Pulling over to allow cargo trucks to squeeze by, I look at the faces of the loggers and construction workers travelling between Puerto Maldonado and Cusco. They look like hard working Peruvian men, deeply weathered by the sun. I raise my hand to a group sat on top of their cargo of logs, some smile and nod back, others look suspicious or are simply too tied to respond.

We reverse and shunt in the depths of the Amazon jungle. I hear high-pitched squawking above and see a flock of Red-bellied macaws flying beside the bus. They’re so close I can practically see the detail in their striking green plumage. It’s an amazing sight to see, but I fear for the birds out here in the Amazon. Sadly, with habitat loss and trapping for the pet trade many species will soon be eradicated. I look to my right and wonder where the smart guy has gone who was sitting across the aisle from my brother. He was reading a translated copy of the popular thriller ‘The Da Vinci Code’ by Dan Brown. I look up and down the bus, but he’s nowhere to be seen. He can't have jumped out somewhere along route, we haven’t passed any settlements all day and he looked too smart to be a logger. I look to the front and I'm surprised to see he’s driving. Stripped down to his white vest, he’s covered in sweat and wrestles with the steering wheel. The muscles on his arms look tense, but I catch a glimpse of his face in the large rear view mirror and I can see he’s laughing and having the time of his life. It fascinates me to think that a few moments ago he was reading ‘The Da Vinci Code’ and possibly imagining he was in Paris or London, and now he’s behind the wheel of a bus battling along a dirt track in the middle of the Amazon jungle. The bus slows down in front of a wide river and the guy jumps out and chats to another driver. There doesn't appear to be a bridge anywhere in sight and the dirt track simply disappears into the water. Climbing behind the wheel, the guy cracks his fingers, exercises his arms and forces the bus into gear. It looks like we’re about to drive right through. The bus plunges into the deep water and the wheels immediately disappear below the surface of the river. We slowly head down stream and hit boulders and sink into potholes. The bus rocks from side to side as the driver battles against the flow, causing the vehicle to lean sharply to the right. A few people scream and then laugh. My buttocks clench the seat. Thrown suddenly to the left, a bag stored on the rack above the seats falls onto a woman’s head. She shrieks and tosses it to the floor. The bus leans to the right again and stays at that angle for twenty seconds before correcting itself. I grasp the armrests, and look for exits in case the truck tips over onto its side in the deep water. The bus is packed with people, they’ll be panic if it rolls. The windows only open enough to fit your head through and the main door is the only way out. I hate the thought of drowning with my brother sitting next to me. If I have to drown I’d prefer to do it in private. The water level reaches the luggage compartment, and I think about our bags sloshing around in a foot of water. Our nightmare river journey lasts an hour, and we thankfully emerge on the other side of the river and wheel spin onto the bank. I feel relieved to be back on dry land. Unfortunately  this isn't the last of our river experiences and we battle across many more flooded areas as we push deeper and deeper into the Amazon. In the late evening, we begin to pass the occasional wooden shack at the roadside.

Thirty-six hours have passed since we left Cusco and we haven’t had a pit stop for hours. As it begins to grow dark the sky opens up, and a hot tropical rain thunders down overhead. I feel physically and mentally exhausted. My body aches, my face is sore and my mouth is as dry as a bone. Si looks like he’s just fought a battle and lost miserably. Cusco seems like another trip, another month, another year. Fernando, Amy and everyone else we met in Cusco seem like friends from a time gone by. Bright lights appear on the horizon, as we approach the frontier town of Puerto Maldonado. The bus is on a tarmac road now and it truly feels like we’re driving over silk. People shelter from the rain outside the rows of tatty shops, and young teenagers on mopeds watch as our tank makes its presence known. It seems to be a fairly rundown place, which I kind of expect from a frontier town at the end of the line. People around us stand up and organize their belongings and the driver/passenger, who has returned to his seat, quickly finishes the last page of his book. He slams the novel shut and blinks at his reflection. We too gather our bags together, and release a sigh of relief when the bus jerks to a halt for the last time. The engine cuts out, the doors swing open and everyone charges down the aisle and pushes for the exit. I step down onto the tarmac road and slowly look around. It’s stiflingly hot and I’m instantly engulfed by a swarm of motorcycle taxi drivers and touts. They shout out to grab my attention and wave leaflets in my face. Everything seems to be in slow motion. I look down at the side of the bus and see our yellow sacks lying on the wet pavement. Simon falls off the bus close behind, and we drag our bags over to a three-wheeled moto-taxi parked up nearby. The guy fires up the two-stroke engine and we speed away from the chaos. Within five minutes of hurtling through the wet streets, the driver turns left down a small dark road. He stops outside a rundown building that looks similar to somewhere the outlaws Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid may have spent the night. Paying the driver with damp notes we stumble through the doors of the hotel. The reception area is very basic, with wooden white washed walls and a concrete floor. A naked light bulb hangs from the ceiling with a swarm of mosquitoes buzzing around it. A middle-aged man smiles and slides a large old registration book over the counter. He has a bronze complexion and black frizzy hair with patches of white either side of his temple. He looks more Brazilian than Peruvian with a broad nose and a square jaw. We drop our rucksacks on the floor and force a smile. The guy turns to three old men sat in a line on a hard wooden bench in the corner of the room and begins to laugh. The three old men also begin to laugh until we’re all laughing. We don’t know why we are laughing; it’s almost a way to overcome the pure exhaustion we’re both feeling. Once the laughter subsides, we somehow manage to scribble our details in the dusty registration book and the guy hands us a key. With a friendly smile he points up to the ceiling, which we guess is the room above, and we climb a rickety wooden staircase that leads onto a creaky balcony. A crooked sign with ‘Hostal Moderno’ written on it hangs over the quiet street from our balcony, and stepping inside we discover it’s anything but modern. It stinks. The mattresses are as hard as stone and the bed sheets smell musty and are heavily stained. There are no curtains, and the white walls are covered with little red bloodstains from where people have smacked the living crap out of the mosquitoes. At this moment in time the room could have no roof and a swarm of cockroaches living under the bed, and I’d still be too tired to care. On that note we collapse into unconsciousness. My last delirious thought is...the mosquitoes are going to have a field day.

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