After crossing the Andes Mountains and finding the source of the Amazon on bicycles, Polish brothers David Andres and Hubert Kisiński are piloting their floating "Amazon Bikes" down the world's largest river toward the Atlantic Ocean. Amazon explorer Piotr Chmielinski is in touch with the expedition and provides this report as the brothers continue their journey.
By Piotr Chmielinski
That part was just great! The brothers David Andres and Hubert Kisinski agreed after finishing another segment of their biking on the queen of rivers, the Amazon.
As soon as they pass Iquitos, where they stopped for a few days to get some supplies and some parts for the drives that have a very annoying tendency to disintegrate too often, they noticed a huge difference in the character of the river itself in comparison with recently pedaled Ucayali. There weren’t that many turns, and talking fish were replaced by the company of dolphins, which happily swam around checking the Amazonian bikes. The color of the water wasn’t brick red as before, flowing smoothly, without high waves, but the current became so fast! Bikers with pride and great joy recorded a top speed of about 10-14 km/hr on average. Sometimes there was no need to pedal because the bikes moved at a good pace on their own, heading to their next destination, at the Peruvian-Brazilian border.
David jumping up and down
Children from the settlement of San Carlos Mariage playing soccer on the bank of the river were astonished, when two gringos asked if they could join the match. For a moment the kids were speechless and even their parents stopped their activities staring in disbelief. The arrival of white people from a distant country of the unfamiliar name Polonia, and in addition traveling on the river to who knows where, on their funny vehicles. The soccer match with them sounded like a great attraction!
Six boys, one girl, David and Hubert split into two teams, with of course the visitors on opposing teams. As befits a decent game of football, the players were accompanied by a substantial group of supporters consisting of almost all the residents in the settlement. Probably even on the other side of the river could be heard chanting “David! David”and” Huberto! Huberto”expressing not so much admiration for the sheer technique and skill rating of the visitors as recognition for the sake of their participation in a communal party.
After extra time, and then a penalty shootout, victory belonged to the team of Hubert. The defeated players had to do 40 jumping jacks each. The children did not hide their amusement watching the white guy leaping up and down who greatly earned himself their sympathy like his brother.
The residents of that small Peruvian village will long remember this football match with the Amazonian bikers.
Amazonian French fries stand
Not just with a game of football did David and Hubert win the friendship of local adults and children. In the village of San Alberto kids have grown to love them … for introducing them to yucca fries.
– When we prepare our food, usually we share it with children who come to watch us – says Hubert. – Of course, this time also few came running just in time for dinner including fried yucca. So, we offer them some. Oh, boy! They enjoyed it! Well, most of these kids live on plantations of yucca, so I ended up frying these chips for over half of the night. They liked it, as David sprinkled and mixed the fries with salt. The feast was first class!
That time the children’s parents did not join the party because the television aired a reality show similar to American "Fear Factor", where participants have to complete a task requiring extreme physical and mental strength. The village was almost deserted after the sound program’s music theme. Adult inhabitants parked themselves in front of their TVs, while their children enjoyed a late party with their own “fearless” bikers.
Welcome to the new Promised Land
– Traveling on Amazon is not just pedaling on the water, moving from village to village, from town to town. Sometimes it feels that our Amazonian bikes are the time machines allowing us to return to the past. Recently, for example, we got to experience biblical times – tell the brothers.
The biblical village called El Alto Monte de Israel is hidden in the Amazon jungle. It forms a community -Los Israelitas – that lives strictly by the teachings of the New and Old Testaments.
Reaching settlements, David and Hubert were welcomed by a group composed of several women with coverings on their heads similar to those that nuns used to wear and several men wearing what David called “sluggish beards”. Initially a little distrustful of strangers, they quickly overcame their possible prejudices and invited these guests traveling on the “strange inventions” to the village. After meeting with the guru of Los Isrealitas and hearing the fundamental commandments, the brothers had a chance to taste the food and experience the atmosphere of the biblical New Promised Land. They spent the night on a barge with Jose.
And two days later, and some 150 km down the river, they were transported to the days before the invention of electricity.
Almost every night it was raining. After a hot day, the rain was bringing a nice refreshing and cleansing feeling, not to mention the humming sound that pleasantly helped falling asleep. However, it drenched everyone “to the skin” and made it difficult to prepare meals, so it was particularly attractive for the brothers to spend a night under a roof.
The next evening again, was going to be rainy. David and Hubert reached the village of Caballococha when they decided it was time to finish and set up camp for the night on the shore. They were moving a little bit against the current when on the hill they saw a tiny hut. Soon, they met the fisherman, as it turned out the owner of the hut. After a short conversation, he invited them to his farm. The place was a completely different world, hundreds of years away from the present. For people dependent on the comforts of modern human civilization it is hard to imagine their life here. At the same time, more and more of them often miss this kind life style.
The hut consisted of a room, measuring about two by three meters. In the middle was a place to sleep for one person and nothing else could possibly fit. On one of the outer walls the roof had an extension, under which the brothers pitched their tent. Faint lights of candles brightened a darkness – that’s all. The brothers were not only fascinated, but also charmed with the incredible simplicity, and even primitiveness of that place.
About 50-year-old Tito keeps a few hens, grows yucca and fishes. That’s it. He lives a bit like a hermit: silent, introverted, lost in thought and almost mechanically performing any activity. And that wraps it as something mysterious and intimidating. – It was a man who did not ask any question, and actually he did not talk with us – says David. – There was something about him that I could not even talk to him about, why he lives in such a manner and under such conditions, since he is only a 30-minute boat ride from a town, where there are people and modern conveniences.
The answer to the question he dared not ask unless he found himself, stating:
– It was incredible for me to be able to experience such great primitive life.-
Brazil begins here
The closer to the border with Colombia and Brazil, the more noticeable became the changes in the coastal landscape of the Amazon region. Houses were getting prettier and more colorful with glass windows, neat and trimmed grass, and with better boats near them.
– What caught our attention is that it is a different attitude to life of the ordinary people here compared with those seen in the depths of Peru. You can see a more substantive approach leading to a more comfortable life, homes, improving social status and quality of life – noted the brothers.
With the advent of the first patrol of border guards, still on the water, it’s time to say goodbye to the hospitable and friendly Peru, where they had spent the last four months. A day later, they reached the border crossing at Santa Rosa. Thirty years ago there were only military barracks and one guard booth, whereas today it is a town. In December 1985, at the same border point, while kayaking I was shot at by the military guards and then for a long time had to explain who I was, where, and why kayaking the Amazon. This time, it was enough to simply "talk with the guards" and the brothers found their passports stamped making them eligible to enter the territory of Brazil. Smoothly and without problems, using some creative talking, but in that, the bikers are darn good, they were on their way!
With the small Christmas trees decorated with light strings bought in Iquitos, but to their surprise, “Made in Poland” on the Amazonian bicycles, David and Hubert joined the crowds and festive atmosphere of the town of Tabatinga. It felt so good that they decided to spend the holidays in Tabatinga. Some Colombians helped to make that decision too.
Already more than once David and Hubert noticed that, their joyful approach to life, enthusiastic attitude to the people, friendly eyes and constant smiles on the faces of kindness greet them almost everywhere. The brothers developed the sense of having some kind of “Scanner” that was capturing friends among the people encountered along the way. In the same way they found a Colombian family who are living on the Brazilian side, the barge owners Martha and Jorge, Martha’s daughter Nicole, and her boyfriend Jesus Fabian. Since their first meeting, all six seemed to be joined in some inexplicable metaphysical bond.
– These are the coolest people I have met during our trip – says David. They invited us to spend the holidays with them. We could not and did not want to refuse.
Preparations for Christmas relied primarily on shopping to buy some gifts, but mostly fireworks. Christmas trees, lights, music, as elsewhere, put everyone into a festive mood. But not like in Poland, because Poland smells like pine – said Hubert somewhat nostalgically. The smell of pine awakens memories of Christmas Eve and Christmas spent with the family. Pierogi made by Hubert, mixed with the smell of cakes baked by his mother and red beet soup. The home was shrouded in an atmosphere of joyful anticipation of meeting with loved ones.
– That was four years ago – says Hubert. – I lived then in Norway with my wife and young son little Dawid. My parents, Dawid and another brother Kamil came to our house for the holidays. It was during those holidays, I realized what a home is. Home is the people not a place. Family and loved ones make home wherever you are, any time. And though this thought may not be visionary or original, for me was a kind of solace, a reminder that I have someone to rely on, to share the joy with and that we are together. Those were probably some of the finest holidays in my life. Later, the times were different, but I never forgot this extraordinary closeness and always when I meet up with my Mom, Dad and my brothers, I know where is my home.
Therefore, here in Brazil, he has the taste of home with his older half-brother (hence the different names) and back in Poland where his parents are currently involved in taking care of his children asking constantly, when Dad is coming back home, and all of them cheering for both of us here to reach the Atlantic safely.
– For me, for several years now, the holidays at our home in Arizona are a combination of Polish and Filipino traditions – says David. – On the table there is a Filipino pancit (pasta with vegetables and meat), which is prepared by my Filipino wife Michelle, and pierogi, special stew, and poppy seed roll, which I bring from a Polish store in Chicago. Of course, we share the Polish traditional blessed wafer. The gifts for our children are given on Christmas Day morning according to the American tradition.
Not so silent night
On Christmas Eve, the sky over Brazil was covered with clouds. On the barge the Christmas tree lit up with many lights and on the table appeared roasted turkey, roasted suckling pig and a huge bottle of champagne. The place was filled with loud music and friendly chatter. On the barge, Martha and Jorge greeted family and friends coming to visit. After the last guest left, David and Hubert pulled out the wafer, brought from the catholic mission house in Iquitos. Suddenly it became quiet, almost reverent, because the circular wafer felt sacred and brought respect; for a moment time seemed to stop. With sounds of the splashing Amazon water at the sides of the barge and sounds of broken wafer, the heartfelt wishes: “todo lo mejor”, and “wszystkiego najlepszego” (all the best) were whispered around.
It was an unexpectedly tender moment for David and Hubert. Man’s adventure didn’t involved homesickness, but the magic of Christmas made us think about the loved ones thousands of kilometers away.
– I know I am often away from home and I do not know what I’m still looking for, but on Christmas Eve I always want to be with my family – David wrote to me while lying in his hammock on Christmas Eve. – No one and nothing can replace the family atmosphere for me, now I’m fighting with my thoughts, and I cannot wait until the day passes and we pedal away.
Still, David is extremely grateful to the new Colombian friends for the warmth, friendliness and hospitality they experienced at their house this Christmas.
– I know one thing, we will not forget these wonderful people even when I am old and maybe with Alzheimer’s – he adds with a laugh.
For Hubert, who according to his brother often has some silent days on the river, and spends time on contemplation, the laughing and joyful companionship of Hispanics accounted for a nice change. However, he does not stop to wonder how his sons Dawidek and Filipek spent their holidays. On the other side of the hemisphere it was nighttime, so the little ones probably were asleep.
– I hope that my boys were happy with the visit of Santa. He had asked his parents to persuade someone to dress up as the Santa and deliver the gifts to his little ones- says Hubert. – I hope they like their gifts. I miss my boys very much. Biking the Amazon is a great experience, which further enhances the joy of each day getting closer to me returning home.
At midnight, streaks of sparks shot into the sky with the fireworks on the Brazilian side only; in Colombia, fireworks are prohibited. And again it was no longer a silent night.
Happy New Year!
After Christmas, David and Hubert got back on their bikes and sped along the Amazon toward the Atlantic. Literally, they sped away, because they were able to cover up to about 100 kilometers a day. New Year’s Eve and New Year find them somewhere in the jungle.
A traditional New Year’s resolution of the two brothers is obviously reaching Belem and successfully finishing their expedition. In addition Hubert has promised himself that he will become more assertive and consistent. Undoubtedly, getting to the ocean on the bike will be one of the first signs of firmness and consistency.
The next stop is in Manaus. In the meantime, HAPPY NEW YEAR!
–Piotr Chmielinski is a Polish-American adventurer who completed the first source-to-sea descent of the Amazon River by kayak and raft in 1985/86. That trip was chronicled in Joe Kane's classic book "Running the Amazon."
–Digital Feature | True Source: Discovery and Rivalry on the Amazon River
—Learn more on the expedition's website: bikingtheamazonriver.com