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
Colorful t-shirt, loose pants, flashy sunglasses–preferably Ray Bans–and bleached hair. That’s the look of a typical pirate on the Brazilian Amazon between Tefe and Manaus. Nothing like Johnny Depp of Pirates of the Caribbean or even Captain Hook from Peter Pan. Not looking for a chest of gold, Amazon pirates are interested in a slightly different kind of booty–drugs.
Guest home – God home
After Christmas spent with Colombian friends in Tabatinga, the brothers had a new verve of life and jumped on their bikes and stormed the Amazon. On the first day they beat their record by covering a distance of 100 km. Facilitated by the rapid current of the river, they soon achieved another success: 130 kilometers in one day.
The first days in Brazil, however, the brothers longed for the hospitality they’d experienced in Peru. Accustomed to amiable meetings with local people, in this border region there is outright hostility between Peru, Colombia, and Brazil. Somehow it backfired at the Poles, too.
“The first night we spent at the beach,” says Dawid. “The second night, we see a nice village, so we got to the bank and asked a man we encountered if we could spend a night there. Immediately, he started yelling: Get out of here! Shove off! Get out right now! For the first time in four months we were met with such a response. We continue pedaling and soon there is a barge at the bank of the river. We asked the owner if we could spend a night on his vessel. He responds in Spanish, of course, ‘No problem.’ It turned out that he was Peruvian.”
According to Dawid, an unpleasant attitude stems mainly from the fact that they were perceived as Peruvians. They speak Spanish, Dawid wears a Peruvian hat, and he is very tanned. “I don’t know how they think he’s Peruvian,” laughs Hubert. “He’s nearly 1.90 meters (6’3″) tall.”
Farther into Brazil, the meetings with locals became friendlier, and the level of hospitality was growing every mile forward. The brothers have even started to get used to the routine that crowds of residents greet them on the shore, and residents argue over whose house the travelers will sleep in, who will give them dinner, and who will have them over for breakfast.
“We would rather sleep in a tent, especially at night that the heat indoors is difficult to bear,” says Dawid. “I live in Arizona, so I’m used to the heat, but Hubert wheezes half of the night trying to catch his breath. In addition, it is difficult to leave the hosts early in the morning. W want to start at 6 or 6:30. We’re already on the way out, but here in the morning, you get a call: ‘Gentlemen, have some coffee with us, maybe some cookies’ and by the time we say good-bye it is already 8 o’clock.”
Nevertheless, when they see how people spray mosquito repellent in the room where guests are supposed to sleep, prepare different varieties of fish dishes and Farina or dried yucca, how they are proud that they have “Polones” under their roof, the brothers cannot bring themselves to refuse that hospitality remembering the traditional Polish saying: “Guest in the house is God in the house.”
In each village in the Brazilian Amazon the main topic of conversation was the brothers’ safety. Or rather, threatening them with the river dangers. Residents themselves are afraid to venture farther than 20-30 km, fearing encounters with pirates, so they do not hide their amazement that the brothers traveled such a long part of the river and … still are alive. Therefore, they shower them with stories of fatal and tragic events, which they have heard about, or had seen, or even … invented. In almost every village, Dawid and Hubert learned about how last week, a group of Peruvians was killed, another group robbed, another injured in a cruel way. One story was even about pirates who three weeks ago met on the river “three Poles on bicycles” and … trrratatatatata … had shot them all!
“In these conversations you could feel that people cared about our safety,” Dawid says. “Sometimes though, I had enough of these warnings, they depressed me and actually I didn’t want to listen to them any more. What could we possibly, do at this stage of expedition? We had to cover that part of the river.”
Even before the start of the expedition, the brothers were aware of the risks the Brazilians were talking about; they learned a lot about unpleasant experiences involving pirates from reports and stories of other adventurers. When in Tefe, during preparation for crossing the dangerous zone, they packed their electronic equipment and other valuable items in a package, with the plan to send it somehow to Manaus. Luck would have it in the hotel they met Wlodek, a Pole who in a few days would fly to Manaus! So, he took the package, and Dawid and Hubert equipped only with a small camera, cell phone and DeLorme–a device indicating their current location–hit the river to get to know another face of the Amazon.
Not long after leaving Tefe, the brothers were approaching a village where they intended to spend a night, when out of nowhere, a boat suddenly appeared next to them. On board were two young men. They didn’t say anything; they just stared. One spit constantly in the water. The fishing net at the stern of their boat was completely dry.
“Hey guys,” Dawid says. “Are you from this village? We’re heading there to take a nap.
“And what are you doing here?” Dawid tries again.
A long pause, and finally an answer:
The brothers know that they might be in trouble. They make small talk. The convesation stalls.
“So… do you care for a cigarette?” Hubert says.
One says he does not smoke, but the other takes a cigarette and the lighter. They continue to gaze at the bikes and bikers. The boat drifts away a bit. One of the youths suddenly grabs an oar, and swiftly strokes toward Hubert’s bike. The pirate reaches out and … returns the lighter. Dawid thinks to himself, relax, this isn’t bad.
“You know what, guys, we’ll get going,” he says. “The village is still about two hours, and it will be dark, soon. Maybe you could bring some fish for dinner?”
Another moment of silence, then:
“O.K. We will bring.”
The boys saw neither them nor their fish in the village that night.
Gun as for an elephant
Manaus was still about 330 km away. The brothers passed Coari and thought that they had already passed the danger zone. Soon, though, they became aware that the territorial scope of pirate activities is much broader.
In three hours it will be dark. Dawid, lagging behind as usual, catches Hubert when he stops for his designated rest break. “Typical kid brother,” Dawid thinks. “The brat made a faster bike for himself.” When Dawid caught up they pedaled together, talking about why the pirate activity stops after Coari.
“Maybe it is because here is an open space and everyone can easily see them, especially since the river is completely empty,” wonders Hubert.
In fact, the river was empty and the banks were empty. Only two bikes are moving with the Amazon current. Or rather, two bikes … and one boat.
“Look Hubert, the pirates,” says Dawid looking at the approaching boat.
It was supposed to be a joke, since often fishermen or others came close to talk or take a photo of their strange vehicles.
The boat drew closer–red, with an awning like a tourist boat. Two figures can be seen on board. It coms closer and closer until, when it’s less than two meters away, three armed men jump out from behind shouting: Stop! STOP! Hands on your head!
“Five people were aiming their guns at us,” Dawid says. “The one aiming at me had a huge shotgun, as if he planned to kill an elephant.”
In their characteristic way, the brothers started a conversation. They talked about the expedition, about the river, and about their special bicycles. One pirate, with a lush head of hair and three musketeer mustache, began to inquire why and where the brothers were going. He was probably the leader. And most importantly, he asked what was in that Peruvian bag on Hubert’s bike. He reached to show them. Again screams: Hands on your head! Do not move!
The younger of the attackers jumped into the water, diving under the inflatable runners of the water bikes to inspect them. He ran his hand along each tube; luckily it did not occur to him to cut them open, looking for drugs. Next he checks other bags and pockets. In one, there is a stove, some gasoline and some wires. Growling, he asks what is underneath the Peruvian bag. Hubert with his foot pointed to the drive of his bike–there are spare drives in the bag! Finally, the swimmer returned to the boat. It’s not bad, thought the brothers, nothing is destroyed or tossed to the water, and they stopped aiming their weapons at us.
“Do you have any beer, maybe?” asked Dawid, causing consternation not only among the pirates, but also in Hubert, who never suspected his brother of such audacity.
The boaters laughed, saying that unfortunately they did not have. So, Dawid went all out:
“Or maybe, you have some drugs?”
They do not have them either. They only laughingly cried out “Obrigado” (thank you) and departed.
“Obrigado!” the brothers responded, in unison.
The next day the waves on the river were huge; they carried the bikers even without pedaling. So they drifted around, enjoying scenery and reminiscing about yesterday’s events.
Around noon a boat appeared again. The boat stopped in the middle of the river and didn’t move from there for a long time. Maybe it broke down, thought the brothers, trying to convince themselves of that possibility. Intuitively, however, they sensed something different. And rightly so, because as soon as the waves calmed down and the bikers began pedaling straight towards the boat, it glided swiftly, across the water to stop at the left bank.
The engine on the boat had been running all along. Now it drifted with the current, together with the brothers, correcting its course occasionally. During that time, men on the boat watched them with binoculars.
Damaged by water, the brothers’ binoculars were not suitable for satisfactory tracking. They came up with an idea to look at the boaters through their camera lens.
“Dawid took out his camera and began to take pictures; at this point the boat went vrrroooom! And took off!” Hubert says. The boat pulled away about 500 meters, then again came closer, and moved away again.
The boat kept coming close to us and moving away for the next four hours. The distraught brothers thought it would have been better if the pirates just “did what they wanted”, and didn’t torture us with not knowing what was to happen next”.
Unexpectedly, there was a ringtone on their mobile phone. They had entered an area where a phone signal became available. The phone started ringing like crazy and the water was resonating the sound. This was the time when I finally was able to reach the brothers after receiving the alarming message they sent to me some time previously from DeLorme. The boat stopped and stood there, disappearing behind the moving bikers.
“It was a real mental anguish,” Dawid says. “It was the worst experience of our trip.”
With a bit of relief, and without any more pirate incidents, the brothers docked two days later at the town of Manacapuru where they replaced the pontoons on their floating vehicles with wheels and arrived in Manaus overland.
–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.”
—READ Biking the Amazon Part 4 on CanoeKayak.com
–Digital Feature | True Source: Discovery and Rivalry on the Amazon River
—Learn more on the expedition’s website: bikingtheamazonriver.com