15-21 February 2017
According to Lenin, Putumayo was once the most dangerous and most active zone in Colombia for guerrillas and cocaine production. It’s also very religious, and our host, Monica, was possibly the most devout person we stayed with. She didn’t have a job, but she spent more time at her church than most people spend working. Monica lived in a small apartment just a block from Puerto Asís’s main square with her 10-year-old sister, Carolina. Their mother lived in another apartment around the corner and was also very religious, but subscribed to a different religion than Monica. They were all very nice and welcoming to us, and Carolina and Monica shared Monica’s bed so that Lenin and I could sleep in Carolina’s bed, which was tucked into a corner of the kitchen.
When we arrived in Puerto Asís, we had a vague idea of trying to hop on a river boat to the Amazon. It was Wednesday night. On Thursday, we walked with Carolina to the nearest dock to ask about taking a boat. The walk was inky about fifteen minutes, but it felt like we had walked to a completely different country. After a stretch of nothing but guava trees were houses of a simple wooden construction between the dirt road and the river. They were decked with banners advertising Colombian lager, and the ambiance was more Caribbean coast than jungle.
Our options for taking a boat seemed limited. There was a passenger boat that we could pay $100,000 each to take us to another town in one day, but then we would have to get onto another passenger boat (for who knows how much $) to take us the rest of the way to Leticia, the capital of the Amazonas. That second boat would take about 5 days or so to get there. Our other option was to go to the bigger dock on the other side of town and inquire about hitching a ride on one of the larger cargo boats. These were slower, however, because they stop at the small villages along the way to unload and load stuff and could take anywhere from 2 to 4 weeks to get to Leticia. We borrowed Monica’s motorcycle that night to get to this dock, which was a bumpy ride down a long dirt road. We arrived just around sunset and saw three large cargo boats at this dock. After asking around, we learned that it would be hard to get a ride with a cargo boat without a special license or certificate to work on a boat, but it was not impossible. One person told us that sometimes the owner of one of those boats will take passengers, but it really isn’t allowed, and there are quite a few control points along the way. Since none of the owners of the boats were actually there at the time, we had to come back the next day to speak with them.
The next morning, we packed up our belongings and rode our bikes to the big dock. It seemed to be faster and easier to bike there than it had been by motorcycle. We spoke with the owner of one of the cargo boats, who informed us that he could only allow us to ride with them if we first got permission from the navy, or someone in charge of fluvial transportation. So we rode a short distance to where several naval officers were standing guard and inquired with them about getting permission. Their captain explained that we actually had to go to an office near the airport to ask the fluvial inspector. When we went there, the security guard informed us that she was in Bogotá until Monday.
That afternoon our duck died. He was never quite strong enough to hold his head up, and feeding him was a challenge since he hardly ever opened his mouth. He probably would have died sooner if we hadn’t tried to rescue him, but I still felt like I had failed him. I didn’t want to give him a name until I was sure he would survive, so it wasn’t entirely unexpected that he didn’t make it. We threw him to the river behind Monica’s house, and he made some vultures happy, at least.
We decided to hang out in Puerto Asís for the weekend and try to get permission from the fluvial inspector on Monday. Meanwhile, I had received news that I was accepted to take part in a documentary called Project Y, which I had applied for while we were in Fusa. This documentary is investigating what makes people do crazy things, like ride their bikes hundreds of kilometers around Colombia, for example. More specifically, they were looking for endurance athletes who appear to have an appetite for torturing themselves via extreme physical challenges. Apparently, I fit their requirements. The first step in participating requires all the athletes to meet in Portland, Oregon for an evaluation, to receive equipment (including a new bicycle!), and be given individual goals and personalized training plans. It meant that I would have to leave Colombia at the end of March instead of the end of April, as we had planned. This did not make Lenin happy, and while I was ecstatic to have been given this opportunity, the mood of our journey was never quite the same after receiving this news. We only had a month before I had to board a plane, and spending three weeks on a cargo boat may not have been the most appealing way to spend my time in Colombia. I also had to either leave the country by March 14th or ask for an extension to stay longer, since my tourist visa only allows for 90 days at a time. I still thought the experience of riding a cargo boat down the Amazon was worthwhile, and I could fly to the US when we got to Leticia. If we couldn’t figure out a way to make the Amazon trip work, we would continue south to Ecuador.
We totally weren’t planning on staying more than a night or two in Puerto Asís, but Monica and her family were happy to have us. We cooked all our meals in their abandoned kitchen, using up whatever food would have otherwise gone to waste. We tried to share with Monica, but thanks to her religion she was fasting for a month and could only eat one piece of fruit after sunset each day. Lenin taught me how to scale and clean a fish, and then proceeded to clean all of the fish he brought home while I worked on one of them. Lenin does everything fast, but I could use more practice for sure.
On Monday we rode back towards the airport to talk with the fluvial inspector. The street was blocked off a block or two before we got there, and we learned that the president was in town, meeting with one of the last guerrilla groups for negotiations. We were still able to bike through, and upon arriving at the office, a group of school kids surrounded me, sensing that I was a foreigner. They bombarded me with questions, tried to speak English, and asked me to speak English. It seems that everywhere I go, outside of major cities, the children are fascinated by me. It makes me very self conscious and uncomfortable, but as they keep questioning me, it gets easier. I imagine that these kids in Puerto Asís were more interested in taking to me than they were in meeting the president, or at least it was easier for them to get close enough to talk to me. They invited me to come to their school and talk the next day. Apparently, the English teachers in most schools are not native English speakers. When people hear a real foreigner who speaks English, it is enchanting. They want to listen to us speak, or ask us to look at their homework assignment for them. During my time in Colombia, I have corrected a fair number of class assignments or projects people were working on in English.
Anyway, when we finally met with the inspector, she told us that she could give Lenin permission because he is Colombian, but I would need to have a work visa in order to be granted permission. Without a work visa, I would need a visa to enter Brazil, which, for Americans, is not a quick or cheap process. The cargo boats pass many check points along the way, where they are inspected thoroughly. They also pass into Brazil briefly before coming to Leticia, which is on the Colombian side of the border with Brazil and Peru.
Leaving the fluvial inspector’s office, I mentally prepared myself to ride to Ecuador instead. Lenin hadn’t given up quite yet though. He had heard that sometimes the cargo boats drop people off before going to the checkpoint to pass into Brazil and then come back to pick up the people to continue down the river. He was still thinking about going anyway, without the fluvial inspector’s blessings. I thought it was too risky and didn’t want to do anything that might get me kicked out of the country or banned from traveling there in the future. In the end, Lenin was not happy, but we decided to ride to Ecuador.