When my mother told me the plan was to raft to Puerto Maldonado I nearly laughed in her face. Not really about the sailing down the river part; that didn’t bother me. But more the Madre de Dios part. Allow me to confer: scientists are doing experiments currently to try and prove that the mercury levels in the river are poisoning the people living along its banks. Much of the river itself is grown over, being taken over and swamped in by the jungle. It’s not exactly an easy or safe trip. I’m not exactly Jill of the jungle.

Never the less it was the chance of a lifetime and I can’t refuse things like this; it’s a dishonor to science. So with a group of my mother’s scientist pals and a couple of guides from Cusco, we set onto the river with two motorized rafts and three canoes.

The first day down the river wasn’t bad. The water was smooth; we all worked pretty well as an oar team. We passed into the jungles and ran through our first patch of muck. In the beginning we seemed hopeless, trying to dig our rafts out of a sandbar (or rather, mud bar) with paddles until we figured out a rhythm that pushed us right on ahead. Atkins, that was his last name, but the one that everyone used for him, was sort of the captain, he had done this before many times; this river was his laboratory. At any rate he was good at knowing the tiny bends in the river and so he and the guides stayed up front in the canoes while the rest of us manned the rafts. They weren’t huge rafts, two people could easily steer it in good currents. Four people rode on my raft, including my mother and I, and three were on the other. Dr. Barry Manilow (yes, that is his real name) and Pedron, a grad student at the Universidad de Cusco made up the other half of my rowing team while two professors from Berkeley and another from U. Cusco staffed the other.

We made it more than twenty five miles down the river in the first day, a positive gain for a first days worth of rafting. We slept on an old beach that hadn’t yet been consumed by the jungle. In the morning we ate fish that Pedron and Atkins had gotten up extra early to catch. All I could think of was the mercury levels. It didn’t settle too well with my stomach.

The second day and we're lucky enough to have deep waters so that we could run the motors on the rafts and not oar. This gave me plenty of time to just watch the water and think and the main things that kept crossing my minds were the animals that inhabited those waters. Piranhas, electric eels, poisonous snakes, alligators, all the classically terrifying reptiles and water creatures. Which needless to say got me thinking about the mercury, which led to allowing myself to conjure up images of highly deformed, mutated carnivorous creatures lying just beneath the waters surface. You know, there really are carnivorous otters that live in this river? Thanks, Discovery channel.

Dr. Manilow apparently has a problem with silence, so when he grew tired of listening to the lapping of water and the hum of the motors for hours on end, no voices, he decided to break out his rendition of Copacabana, which was horrible, but hilarious. Given, it was a break from the thoughts in my head about the fish and the jungle and how scary I can imagine it if I try.

The third day kept us rowing most of the morning but the afternoon had us out on easy waters again, free of the jungle’s portion of the river. The jungle receded back to the shoreline and let us have the water back, but the sun became almost unbearable. The heat and fact that we were running out of drinking water set everyone in a grumpy mood and found us all staring at the water, wondering about those damn mutated mercury fish.

Suffice it to say that I never saw anything in the water except regular, harmless fish and a few little water snakes here and there. By the early afternoon of the fourth day, we had made it to the banks of Puerto Maldonado and tied our rafts and canoes up at the docks and headed into the city.

Just climbing up the bank is a challenge. There is a lovely beach but the jungle is still thick even though there is a city behind it. These places are some of the last places on earth left untouched by the oppressiveness of modern technological society. There are no wireless connections here. There are no ATMs. There are no traffic lights. There is an airport, with a single, unlit runway. All the streets are still dirt.

Many archeologists now believe that Puerto Maldonado may very well be at least a part of the mythical El Dorado that the Spanish so wistfully dreamed of. It’s geographically correct for the historical city, and the river has its fair share of gold deposits resting at the bottom. Not only just nuggets and bars, but gold transformed into art—statues, jewelry, coins. Atkins had long dreamed of diving into the piranha-infested waters but had never been granted the opportunity. Regardless, the city is now, by most standards, a perfect prototype for poverty.

But that doesn’t stop it from being wonderful. We spent three days and three nights in Maldonado and each night we were invited out for the festivities, in our honor, at the town square. The locals came out in full dress, some in their nicest ragged polo and too-short pants, some in traditional costume, all of them looking wonderful. There were those who looked as if they were ready to jump into western society, others who terrified by the idea of it, but charmed by the eight westerners who had come to visit them. Their hospitality is overwhelming. Truly. You think you’re doing a favor to a bum by dropping a nickel in his guitar case when these people would build the guy a hut.

On the fourth morning we had the choice to make of either using the rafts to return back down the river or to take a small plane to Cusco. We unanimously voted for the river. Rafting back had a different feel to it than the ride up. Something had changed about the river over the course of our stay in Maldonado, and we all could feel it. Suddenly, I wasn’t afraid of the mercury levels or mutated fish, and Atkins wasn’t so concerned about the gold that he’d never get his hands on at the bottom, and Dr. Manilow was even okay with just hearing the quiet hum of motors. And somehow to all of us the lapping of the water seemed louder this time than before.

We all took our eyes off the water this time and concentrated on the banks. The jungle, coming right out to the edge, the beaches, with drift wood and dead snakes and the flowers, the most wonderful and beautiful and even dangerous flowers any of us had ever seen. Mostly colors. None of us had noticed all the colors the first time around; we had failed to see anything but green and muddy brown before. We missed the spectrum of reds and oranges and blues and purple. This time they caught our attention and this time we were not afraid to point out to each other this tiny things along the river that made us all think hopeful thoughts.

We couldn’t explain it; Pedron and I even tried discussing it. We both felt the change but why? Maybe it was an inexplicable connection from Puerto Maldonado. Maybe we weren’t all wondering if we actually could make this trip, but now felt at ease, floating down the river. The same river was not the same river twice. The second time around felt a little bit different, more was seen and experienced and mostly, absorbed, as compared to the first. The river seemed a little bit less cloudy and so did our minds.

At the campfire on the last night before we docked, we all sat around drinking some wine that Atkins had bought at Maldonado and telling stories. These professors with their worldly travels—my mother and her adventures in the jungles and in China. Atkins and his obsession with this river; the Berkeley professors with their stories of Africa and Asia. Even Pedron, sharing stories of his childhood, spent on the streets of Lima. And me, the newest explorer of them all. Oh I had expected travel to change me, I said, but I had not figured this much. And they all agreed, shook their heads and threw back swigs of wine. Dr. Manilow leaned in and said, it does that for all of us, darling, every time without fail.

I caught my mother’s eye from across the campfire and knew why she had chosen to float me down this river after all. One of the Berkeley guys raised his cup and said, a toast, to the Rio Madre de Dios- the Mother of God. We all drank the sweet wine of Maldonado. I slept on the cold sand of the riverbank for the last time flanked between my mother and Pedron. I had lucid dreams of El Dorado.

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