Lost in the Amazon
On day 315 of Stafford's trek along the Amazon, he encounters a flooded forest near Pevas, Peru.
Credit: Peter McBride
The Amazon has a keen sense of irony. Mention how easy it is to cross a log bridge, and you will do a gainer into a stream; praise the quality of the trail, and it will disappear into a swamp; comment on the fine weather, and a Wagnerian thunderstorm will ensue. Stafford has gotten used to the frequent mishaps and come to see them, afterward, as a kind of comic relief. One afternoon he left the map behind when we stopped for lunch.

Mario, far faster than any of us and more certain of his direction, dashed off to retrieve it and returned at nightfall. Months earlier Stafford dropped his only machete during a river crossing and had to push on to the next village with his bare hands. Self-deprecation seems to be a key to his success so far, and he has the ability to take the expedition seriously and recognize its absurdities at the same time. Plunging up to our necks in a creek crossing, he mutters, "Bloody silly expedition," and soldiers on.

For days we continue slogging along the contours of the chart, different only in scale from the columns of leaf-cutter ants that march alongside us. It is exhausting, dirty work, and I am covered with mud, scratches, and bruises. The prospect of doing this with no clear end date would be daunting. Stafford stops periodically to check our progress with the GPS. Mario looks on politely, though he has no idea how to read a map and the GPS is an impenetrable mystery to him. Stafford defers to Mario's local knowledge but likes to double check against modern technology. "I know with this I'd be able to make it without a local guide," says Stafford, "but it would be much slower, and much more work." The GPS shows that Mario has taken us almost exactly along the planned route.

It's disheartening to see indisputable data on how slow our progress has been. On a good trail, two or three miles an hour is reasonable, but in trackless jungle, scrambling over or under fallen trees, hacking through vines or wading through mud, forward movement can slow to an agonizing crawl. After struggling with the frustration of slow progress for much of the trip, Stafford has finally reached some sort of peace with it. In the slog through the Napo delta, he noticed that in chest-deep water his heavy pack became buoyant, and there was a "bizarre sort of serenity" as he made his way through the silent flooded forest. "For some reason my default mode is military, 'we've got to get there,' " Stafford explains to me. "Cho takes his time walking through water. Suddenly, I wasn't getting frustrated walking only 2.5 kilometers a day. It was tranquil, and I realized it's going to take as long as it takes."

Although Stafford has become accustomed to the physical hardships of the jungle, encounters with tribes remain Stafford's greatest challenge. Many villages speak unique dialects, using only rudimentary Spanish. There is a long history of exploitation of tribes by oil and gold prospectors, and thousands of indigenous and rural Peruvians were murdered during the years of insurgency by the Maoist Shining Path guerrillas. So it's for good reason that many indigenous communities harbor a deep suspicion of outsiders.

One of the most pervasive fears is that white people are pela cara; literally it means "face peeler," but the term has become a myth among many native communities that outsiders will steal their organs. "The last thing you want after an exhausting day of walking is to arrive someplace and have the whole community be scared of you," Stafford says, but he has learned how to stay calm, how to deescalate tensions.

Once, upon entering a village back along the Apurímac, Stafford was immediately confronted by an angry mob of Indians. They poured water on him, shoved dirt in his mouth, and smeared his face with red paint. He was scared but did his best to stay calm. "I just shook hands with their chief, turned around, and walked out of the village," he recalls. Not long after that incident he and Cho were crossing a tributary in the pack rafts. Cho looked over his shoulder and saw that they were being followed by five canoes filled with furious Ashaninka Indians. The men were armed with bows and arrows and shotguns; the women carried machetes. "I was pretty sure we were going to die," says Stafford. Even Cho, normally unflappable, thought they were done for. They were surrounded, and the leaders of the tribe approached them, screaming, blind with rage. Stafford showed them their permits from the regional authorities, but nothing helped. The women seemed ready to hack them to pieces. Finally, speaking slowly and quietly and holding his hands open, he managed to get them to calm down. Andreas and Alfonso, the leaders of the tribe, ended up joining them as guides for six weeks. Stafford was astonished. "The people I was most afraid of on the entire expedition turned out to be the most kind, helpful, and loyal people I've met."

That experience has convinced Stafford that he'll be able to handle whatever situation arises downriver. But Brazil presents even greater risks. When Stafford applied for permits through a fixing agency in Manaus, he initially got no response. "When I finally reached them," he says, "they said they didn't respond because I was going to die. 'It's a suicide mission. The indigenous reserve on the other side of the border in Brazil is the fiercest in the Amazon basin. Colonial Brazilians don't even go there. You're white, don't speak Portuguese, and are wandering around with a video camera.' " All salient points, he thought, but decided he'd "just go in and be very friendly and very calm." He still believes that with the right guides and the right approach, he'll make it. "But I have yet to meet a Brazilian who thinks it's possible," he concedes. "The only people who say 'Yeah, you'll be fine' are your friends back home, who haven't a fucking clue."

While Stafford measures the risks rationally, Cho has a more mystical outlook. A deeply religious Christian, he believes that God is protecting them. Stafford is more fatalistic. "I am either going to make it, or I am going to die trying," he says in a way that is almost cocky, confident that he can manage the risks and come out the other end alive and victorious.

We stay in a Yawa village for a day, where I entertain the children with my Buster Keaton antics, smacking my head on five-foot-high door frames and falling out of hammocks. A boy in a dugout paddles us across the tributary Rio Apicuyu, loaded high with our gear. Drifting, watching toucans and scarlet macaws alight in the trees by the riverbank and huge iridescent blue morph butterflies rising on the breeze, I am struck by the folly of Stafford's "bloody silly expedition." The Yawas paddle up and down the river on dugout canoes, slipping easily with the current wherever they wish. All the cultures in the Amazon make use of the thousands of miles of waterways. Walking the Amazon seems analogous to crossing the Sahara on snowshoes: You could do it, but it's certainly not the way the locals go. There's a reason nobody has ever done this before.

I bring this up to Stafford, and he laughs. "A friend of mine once said, 'I fucking love your expedition because it's pointless.' It's a real British mentality: It's fucking pointless, but we'll do it anyway." Like Livingstone and Scott before him, Stafford has completely bought into the stiff-upper-lip masochistic absurdity of his endeavor, and he's proud of it.