Wednesday, 16 June 2010

Windsurfing the Amazon

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There are certain activities which we do, not because they are fun, but because the bragging rights are just reward for the pain of enduring them: swimming in Scotland, reading Penguin classics, visiting Hadrian’s wall. All of them tick boxes and fill the awkward dinner party silences, but the actual time you spend doing these activities is sweaty and painful. Sometimes you think it will never end (Tale of Two Cities), sometimes you think you might die in the process (Cumbria in January). All of them are much cheerier in retrospect. Onto this list I will add windsurfing on the Amazon.

We arrived in Santarem six days ago. It is a city that has convulsed in a series of ambitious industrial endeavours: gold, rubber and now soya. We have been lucky enough to make the acquaintance of Gil Serique, an ecologist, guide and local celebrity. Gil is an anthropomorphism of popping candy. As our boat pulled into Santarem harbour, Gil was gliding along on his windsurf. We waved. Gil howled like a mad dog. And we have been lodging at his house ever since.

Gil’s celebrity stems from his unique lifestyle, a cross between Bill (from Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey) and Dennis Hopper in Apocalypse Now. His mornings are spent on his balcony drinking caipirinhas and emailing friends, whilst afternoons involve a rendez-vous with his windsurf. Stress is not a word that features heavily in his vocabulary.
In the week that we have been at Gil’s house, he has taken us canoeing in the flooded forests of the Tapajos, exploring the primary forest around Santarem, and foraging in Henry Ford’s folley of a rubber plantation at Fordlandia. His ecological knowledge is as incredible as his contact base, but both are surpassed by his ability to generate chaos and fun out of order and normality.

On our second day with Gil, whilst canoeing in the flooded forest, he dived in to the muddy waters, emerging several minutes later with a broad grin on his face and wisdom on his lips. There are five different species of piranha found locally, however their danger is much over rated: “I only know of one person who has been killed by piranhas”. Colonel Kurtz would have been proud.

Two days later we were bumping our way down to Fordlandia. A fuller description of our time there will appear shortly on the site, but it suffices to say it is a fascinating and eerie landscape. A haunted landscape of faded dreams and failing buildings. The rubber plantations have largely been replaced by cattle ranches, but the ghost of Americana lives on in the water towers and bright red fire hydrants that line the streets.

Since then we have been spending a lot of time with soya farmers, trying to understand the history, politics and economics of an industry that threatens so much of the remaining forest around Santarem. More on this later.

But now, on our penultimate day in Santarem, I am standing in a pair of heavily battered shorts with Gil shrieking in my ear. In front of me, the Tapajos river collides with the Amazon: muddy water crashing into the clear currents of the lowland Tapajos. The water from the Amazon is both faster-flowing and denser and the two bodies of water do not readily mix. A choppy boundary separates them, and it was here that Gil insists that we head.

I know this much. I am a terrible windsurfer. And I will never be any good. I grab the quivering mast and wobble precariously on the board. A gust of wind suddenly launches me from the bank and with Gil’s cat calling ringing in my ears, I embark on my mission towards the meeting of the waters. Thoughts of caimans, piranhas and anacondas surge through my mind as I totter into the main current. Just don’t cut yourself.

Too late.

The wind drops and I collapse backwards into the water, the boom crashing down on the bridge of my nose. A small drop of blood leaves my left nostril.

The future flashes in front of me. A snatch of clothing found of the river bank. A telegram to my parents. A brief piece on Scotland Tonight about a watersports disaster involving unseen fish. I slowly hoist the sail and edge closer to land.

Gil greets me with a howl. Apparently I looked awesome. I hide my shaking hands and sniff energetically. Do I want another go? No Gil, you have a go. I am all done.

I retreat to the house and immediatly draft emails telling people I have just windsurfed on the Amazon. Next month, I promise, we will be wrestling anacondas in the Orinoco.

By Will from Atlantic Rising

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