Guidebook (Kind of) Digression
Destination: The Amazon River Basin, Columbia and Venezuela
Book: Along the River That Flows Uphill: From the Orinoco to the Amazon (2009), by Richard Starks and Miriam Murcutt
Adventure travel competes with luxury travel in a daily race to stuff my mail box and Google Reader. An occasional luxury adventure trip–to Manchuria in a luxury yurt or the Arctic in a build-it-yourself igloo–hits both the popular themes at once.
What makes it luxurious? More comfort. Less risk. What makes for adventure? Facing a totally new experience which y the very fact of being unknown holds the promise of risk. But as Starks and Murcut point out in Along the River That Flows Uphill, most risk is foreseeable and therefore preventable. Or as the precisely scientific Starks puts it, ‘Risk = Probability of an Event x Time Exposed to the Event x Adverse Consequences.’
I could not help wondering if a risk that is foreseen and prepared for is risk at all. And therefore, by preparing, have you removed the adventure from adventure travel?
The river of the title is the Casiquiare, a river that, canal-like, connects the two major rivers of the Amazon basin–the Amazon and the Orinoco.
Richard Starks is a fan of early explorers, those guys in the 19th century who traveled into really unknown territory and had real adventures.
As they strode across plains or hacked their way through jungles, these explorers would affect a sweeping contempt for any setback or danger. In surmountable obstacles necame ‘a bit of a setback,’while spear-throwing tribes of screaming natives were routinely dismissed as ‘not awfully keen to see us.’
Starks particularly identifies with Henry Morton Stanley, the man who found Dr. Linvingstone and when he found the doctor after months of life-risking travel over darkest Africa, allegedly introduced himself with the veddy British, “Dr. Livingstone I presume?”
(Last year we talked about Julian Smith’s recreation of a trip by a Victorian adventurer in Africa. That book illustrates the difficulty of recreating the hardships of the past.)
When Starks gets a writing commission to travel to the Casquiare, his partner, Miriam Murcutt reacts the way I might:
“There are insects.
Plus, we’ll be stuck on a boat.”
Well, yes, a gazillion insects and 1000 miles of river!
But she goes, perhaps because she is curious about the Yanomami, who are reputed to be “the most violent people on Earth.” Well, who would NOT want to meet them??
While riding up 1000 miles of river on a small boat, one has plenty of time to think, and most of this book is about Starks’ thoughts. Since he is a trained scientist, but not in the natural sciences, those thoughts lead in some complex directions and generally deal with abstractions.
Descriptions of things along the way include a missionary village, a miner’s settlement, which is nothing like the Old West that the writers had imagined, and two Yamomami villages. All these sites are unattractive for various reasons. While the Yamomami might be the most violent people on earth, the experience of Starks and Murcutt with the Columbian narco-terrorist group, FARC, shows that all violence is not owned by primitive people.
The natural world gets scant attention. They see one monkey, but don’t mention any other animals. Only a giant catfish warrants attention out of the river life. Insects are plentiful, but not identified beyond the most common.
But really, with a river cutting throught the endless samesness of jungle, there is not a lot to describe. Few settlements exist along the river because of the region’s history (which the book explains). So we follow the rambling route of thoughts through Starks’ mind–distribution of atoms, probability, creation myths (scientific, Christian and Yamomami), geogrpahy (how does the Casquiare run uphill?).
On the other hand, I could feel what it was like to be there from passages like this:
We’ve been in jungles before, but none as dense as this. It’s dank and surprisingly ool, like a burrow. Lucho pushes ahead and hacks a hole in the creepers with a sharp, wide-bladed machete. He can’t cut a path, but he can make a tunnel. We follow him through, into a dim world of lurking danger. Bent double, we weave our way around screens of lianas and vines, step over roots that cut across our path, and sink ankle-deep into the spongy mud. The mosquitoes land and bite. It’s not raining, but it might as well be. Water drips from the canopy above, plopping onto thick leaves armed with stickle-back spines that claw at our eyes.
The biggest risk they face, and the one they are least prepared for, comes not from the jungle or the indigenous people, but from the violent politically-motivated FARC. After their encounter with the group who kidnaps travelers for income, Starks seriously questions the kind of risk that is desireable.
A lot of people use travel to inject excitement into their lives and to see how they measure up when the road ahead develops a few bumps and throws in some unexpected curves, he says.
I think that is a valid definition of the popularity of adventure travel. I also agree that adventure ain’t what it used to be. Today’s travelers will never experience the challenges faced by those salwart Victorian adventurers, although many seem to buy into the idea that if they a) strike out alone where they personally have never been before, or b) pay lots of money to someone to orchestrate an adventure… they will have truly tested themselves.
Along the River that Flows Uphill does not tempt me to go exploring in the Amazon basin. But you may feel different. Guidebook? Not quite. While it is not the kind of guidebook that explains how to rent that boat to go down the river, it does explain what you must take as gifts for the Yamomami and other useful information. I am, however, delighted to have the opportunity to read an account of such travel. And I am curious enough about any number of things, that I thoroughly enjoyed learning about some of the misdeeds of not just people who are in the extraction business (gold, trees) but also serious scientists who took serious ethical detours in their dealings with the Yamomami. That background information helps make this an excellent book to add to your traveler’s library, on the shelf belonging to lesser-known areas of the world.
Next week we’ll explore how to have adventure ON the beaten track, as this series on guidebooks (or kind of guidebooks) continues.