aquaphile // essays from the field A funny thing happened on the way to the Cotahuasi. The author gingerly prods his laden burro.
I hadn’t eaten since my last Incan birdseed bar eight hours earlier. My temples thumped from prolonged dehydration. I slumped over, burying my face in my hands. I was done.
Dude, Where’s My Donkey? by joe jackson I pushed the broken rock aside and settled into the scoop of the rumbling bulldozer
with a strange sense of elation. Perhaps my giddy mood was the result of hunger, dehydration or residual adrenaline from the most-recent dog attack—the second one that day. Maybe the idea that “this is what adventure is all about!” hadn’t been thoroughly beaten out of me, yet. Most likely, though, it came down to the delusion that this strange misadventure was finally over. I had come to Peru to become an international whitewater rafting guide. It had such a nice ring to it. By Week Six, the $15 daily wage, nonstop diarrhea, and the busted up face from safety kayaking (not well), had worn away that luster. I needed to assign importance to my journey. I was not leaving Peru as just another turista on the Plaza de Armas, bargaining for Che Guevara T-shirts. My lifelong trouble buddy, Kyle “Porque No” Allred, had two weeks left in the country. We had given up on the promises of our Peruvian paddling friends to show us down the nearby worldclass rivers, so we decided to go it alone. An epic expedition, on my own two feet, would make me more than a failed guide. I was spry and confident, 22 years wise. Kyle and I decided to boldly raft Peru’s Colca and Cotahuasi canyons—the worlds’ two deepest—in a week and a half. Alone. ¿Porque No? The first red flag should have been our local friend Gian Marco trying to talk us out of the super-committing, Class IV-V Cotahuasi, especially because we planned to use his gear. No problemos, Kyle assured Gian Marco. 34 canoekayak.com
“But why must you go alone?” Gian Marco asked. “Because you won’t go with us,” Kyle answered. “It is not safe for you to not know the canyon,” Gian Marco said. “We aren’t worried. Are you scared, Gian Marco?” The rhetorical trickery still didn’t change the facts. For instance, the “small hole”—by which Gian Marco meant a 5-inch gash—on the front right tube of his 14-foot self-bailing raft. Gian Marco assured us that was the least of our problemos—just stop by a hardware store and pick up the epoxy to patch it. Surely the two long bus rides, plus the eighthour slog into the canyon down a steep, unmarked trail with two donkeys and the burro driver Eduardo in tow, would give our caveman patch job plenty of time to cure. Not the case. At the put-in, Kyle pumped up the raft, all the while drilling me on the importance of holding onto our paddles if we swam, because we only had one spare. A telltale phwoooopf interrupted his lecture. We barely lost spirits. We stripped the patch and tried again. And again. All part of the preparation for three days of Class IV-V whitewater, multiple mandatory portages, and day hikes to barely touched Incan ruins. The next day, we gave it one last shot. I secretly rejoiced when the patch blew, because it meant we could go home. Leaving the canyon, however, meant we needed two donkeys to get Gian Marco’s raft and our gear back to the rim thousands of feet above us, not to mention the two long bus rides to get back to Arequipa. Eduardo had mentioned that he lived in a village we had passed on the way to the put in. After an hour-long trek and a few enquiries, we found
the old burro driver and secured his help for the next day. To lighten our load, we drank all our pisco rations, then decided to eat the pasta and Snickers stores. That left us two Incan energy bars, resembling small bricks of concentrated birdseed, for the hike out. Eduardo wasn’t feeling as festive the next day, especially when we low-balled him by 30 soles—approximately $10 in those days. We didn’t have enough cash for busfare back to Arequipa, as we had planned on a shorter, cheaper ride home from the takeout. When things really go wrong though, you find out more about yourself, especially things you can’t control. Things like landslides. A few hundred tons of rock had slid down the hill the previous day, while we were gorging ourselves in the bottom of the canyon. The rockslide presented the perfect opportunity for Eduardo to terminate his discounted services. He dropped our gear at the base of the slide, about four miles below the nearest road where, with luck, a small combi bus could potentially carry us the 20-some miles to Cotahuasi, where we could catch another bus home to Arequipa. We needed donkeys. Stealthily approaching remote canyon farms, I’d tiptoe to the fence, hollering six or seven nasally “Permiso, tiene burros?” Then, I’d jump the fence and a knock on the door. The first guard dog nipped my heel as I retreated over the fence. The second one’s chain jerked it four feet short of my neck while I backed into a mud wall. Then I spotted the bulldozer heading back to town from the rockslide barrier. The driver stopped the machine when he spotted me, the frantic, bright red-faced
gringo limping toward him, hoarsely repeating “permiso….per-permiso?” He told me that there was no way he could clear the rockslide, and if I thought I’d get a donkey, I was dreaming—every man and burro in the village was out working. He did, however, offer me his scoop. The dozer dumped me out in Cotahuasi, where a guy at the bus depot told me that without dinero I’d never get back to Kyle, who was still back at the landslide surviving on epoxy glue and Zuko mango drink mix. I hadn’t eaten since my last Incan birdseed bar eight hours earlier. The sweaty 10-hour hike from the bottom of the canyon, in river sandals, had stubbed my toes and burnt my throbbing feet. My temples thumped from prolonged dehydration. I slumped over, burying my face in my hands. I was done. Rock bottom on the floor of a dusty bus depot. In that broken moment, and in part because of my broken Spanish, I discovered something. All I could muster to the depot owner was, “I am broke and my friend is broken. And a boat in the canyon.” He immediately swung into action. We tried so hard, traveled to the far ends of a foreign continent, we’d pushed ourselves to our limits to break away from other tourists, and even from the locals, to explore the remote unknowns away from civilization—an adventure on our own terms—only to discover and to rely on the kindness of complete strangers. The depot owner’s pre-pubescent son gave us a ride, a campesino threw our raft on his already laden burro, and a hostel owner in town let us crash on her courtyard that night. The depot owner even gave us a discount on our silent ride home to Arequipa the next day.