Saturday, April 5, 2008

Comments, Travel and Risk

Sitting in Internet cafĂ© in Porto Velho, Brazil – teenage boys playing video games, a feral dog with red sores lying in the doorway – contemplating the nature of travel and risk – and life and risk, for that matter.

I figured out how to add comments to this blog and the very first came from an anonymous someone castigating me for taking my daughter on the bus from Lima to Ayacucho to Cusco. “What the hell were you thinking?” she or he wrote.

I’ve asked Lily to comment and we’ll see if she does. It’s her choice.

The world is big, rich, complex, sometimes dangerous, always interesting. You can hide from it or explore it, embrace it in all its complexities. I’m hoping The Lunatic Express does just that.

My children have grown up in the city, not the suburbs. They take buses all over the city by themselves; they attend DC public schools where they walk through metal detectors every morning. An Op-Ed piece in the Washington Post called their high school a war zone. Lily read it from Cusco, in fact. She laughed, shook her head. She’s almost 18. She has traveled to Italy, Mexico, Nicaragua and driven across the country at least ten times. She is finishing AP Spanish IV this year. She drank a Mojito overlooking the Plaza de Armas in Cusco.

Are we, her parents, corrupting her, scaring - or scarring - her? Or are we teaching her how to feel safe and confident, strong and self-reliant in a wondrous yet turbulent world?

What do you think?

We imagine travel will transform us in some way. We go somewhere else and leave the old us behind. But travel is like therapy, or maybe even a good Ayahuasca trip. It just shows you the real you, there’s no escape from yourself, ever. Your fears, anxieties – how you embrace the world; it’s all exposed on the road. The Lunatic Express will ultimately, I suspect, be a pretty personal journey, a tale as much about my own psyche as the buses and boats and planes and trains on which I ride.

I’d like to think Lily learned and saw much on her short but intense journey across the Andes. She was, yes, scared and uncomfortable for certain periods. So have I been on this journey and others. But she never flipped out. She smiled, kept her cool, learned to trust her instincts and to open herself to experiences beyond her usual boundaries. She was being transformed only by learning the strengths she already had, who she already was: someone capable and confident, and sometimes scared and happy, even at the edges of the world.

Speaking of which, I’m sick of buses. At 2 pm I’m climbing on a riverboat in Porto Velho for Manaus – two and a half days away along the Madeira River. It is big and wooden, with a beautiful curving sheer-line, with cargo stacked high on the first deck and hammocks strung on the second. Very slow and hot and crowded. A similar boat hit an oil barge and sunk five weeks ago, killing 13.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Carretera Transoceanica

From Cusco, Peru, my plan had always been to travel by bus to La Paz, Bolivia, there to ride the world’s most dangerous road and then a train to the Brazilian border known as the Train of Death.

Both sounded pretty tempting. But a new route bypasses the World’s Most Dangerous Road, which is now a staple of tourist mountain bikers. And in Cusco I ran into a stringy-haired British computer programmer who’d just taken the Train of Death. “It was nice, dude,” he said. “No problems at all and there were a couple of other backpackers on it.”

Which made the road to Puerto Maldonado, in the Peruvian Amazon, sound like heaven: “According to Peruvian road engineers, this is Peru’s worst road between two major cities,” warned my guidebook. “It takes two and a half days in the dry season and longer in the wet. Don’t take the trip lightly; the journey requires hardiness, self-sufficiency and loads of good luck. Fatal accidents are not uncommon.”

Expresso los Chankas didn’t seem worried. Seventeen hours if it didn’t rain; $20; we leave daily at 3 pm.

The road is the last key piece of the Carretera Transoceanica – a 2,500 kilometer highway linking the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans from Brazil to Peru. More importantly, though, it will tie one of the last great remaining pristine rain forests of the Amazon basin to ports on the Pacific coast. Gold. Mahogany. Uncontacted tribes. Puerto Maldonado was said to be a seething boomtown on the banks of the Madre de Dios River; only two weeks ago a researcher was shot after reporting on an illegal load of old growth mahogany.

All started well. The bus was old, but clean, and I had an aisle seat with no one next to me. And the road was newly paved in December, two lanes of smooth blacktop snaking up the Andes into a cold, largely treeless world of Llamas and smoke pouring from adobe houses with thatch roofs.

The clouds were ominous, though. And a couple hours out, as we started descending the Andes’ eastern flanks, everything changed: the pavement ended. Harsh white lightening ripped through the skies and torrential rains came pouring down. The bus filled; the air turned humid and thick. My seatmate had a three-year old on his lap who coughed and puked into a plastic bag and pissed out of the window throughout the long night. The rain fell in heavy, big drops and the driver, 32-year old Juan Luis, fought to keep us on the road. All through the night in pitch blackness we jerked and bumped and slid. We forded rivers so deep I thought we’d get swept away. We stopped, backed up, waited, inched past trucks and cliffs so close you could touch them out of the window. “It is heavy,” Luis confessed to me during a bathroom break, during which 40 people pissed on the side of the road in the rain. “And very tiring. The road is clay and very slippery.”

The journey was 20 hours of torture. But hardship brings rewards: Puerto Maldonado might be the beginning of the end of Peru’s rain forest, but I liked it the minute I stepped off the bus. It’s all jangly prosperity and dynamism; dirt and mud streets filled with motorcycles and Indian bemos, and wooden clapboard open-air restaurants dishing out thick soups, against the banks of two big khaki-colored rivers. Immigrants are pouring in from the Andes to work its timber and gold, the road is slowly improving; two concrete pilings are in place for a bridge across the Madre de Dios, which now can be crossed only by ferry.

Two hours down the Madre by longboat I found Rudolpho Munoz on one of five gold-mining dredges rafted together, hard against the banks of the fast moving river. Munoz was Bolivian, small and wiry and leprechaun-like, with green eyes and a helmet of black hair, and he’d been going after gold for 24 years, since he was 16. His boat was sun bleached wood on two hulls – two simple beds, a kitchen, outhouse and grinding, hot diesel pumping sediment from as deep as 45 feet into the riverbed up onto a king-bed-sized sluice.

Six days a week, 20 hours a day, Munoz worked the river, stopping at 4 am on Sundays until nine on Monday morning. “On a good day,” he said, scooping up a day’s sediment from a blue bucket into a rounded gold pan, “we get one gram an hour.” He swirled the mud and flicked water into the pan and pointed: a speck of gold so small I would never have noticed it. “A bad day is eight grams in 20 hours. Now, gold is 84 soles ($31) a gram; in a good week I get 120 to 140 grams.”

As big-headed and long beaked Banded Kingfishers dived and swooped overhead, I noticed the sluices sparkling with round balls of mercury. Munoz brought out a plastic jug of the toxic metal and showed how he poured it into the bucket, mixed it with the mud and squeezed it all through a cotton sieve – the water and mercury washing out into the river, leaving gold behind. From his bunk he fished out a small piece of paper wrapped around a silvery ball: five grams of gold.

Two men worked each boat and shared a cook; someone owned the mining concessions for every section of the river. “Every day is for us,” he said, “except Saturday, and that day’s gold goes to the men who own the concessions.” The engine was loud and the day humid; this was his life. “What else can I do? It is peaceful here and with my boat I can go to town, and here I make 800 soles a week instead of 800 soles a month like I would if I had a job in town. We take a risk,” he said, “and hope for buena suerta.”

When the road was finished, whenever that would be, Puerto Maldonado would grow even faster. More timber. More gold. More tourists to see the rapidly disappearing jungle and its monkeys. I liked it now; soon it would need all the luck it could get. And me, too. Heading into Brazil tomorrow, to Rio Branco and beyond.