Tuesday, June 23, 2009
All Terrain Vehicle (ATV)
Warning: This post is not safe for mothers to read.
This trip was hard for me. I think it was the hardest thing I've ever done. I just wanted to say that upfront. I think if I had been a different person there would have been several meltdowns along the way. Instead, I just dealt with it. A major reason it was hard was the road from Yawpasi to Baixao Novo, a garimpo in the middle of nowhere Amazon. The road coupled with the ATV almost broke me in half.
So, an ATV is like a magical 4-Wheeler that never gets stuck in the mud, can walk on water, can climb vertical mountains and not flip over. Well, it almost never flips over. Hedley at one point said "I've seen them do things that shouldn't be possible with the laws of physics." At one point on the road, I noticed a warning sign on the ATV. It read:
Never carry a passenger. (insert picture of just one person on the ATV)
Always wear eye protection and a helmet. (insert picture of googles and helmet)
Never operate while intoxicated.
There were some other rules, but I can say these first three were all broken right away. Three was the minimum number of passengers, sometimes four and when ATVs popped a tire sometimes five people rode up and down the mountains on these machines. We had life vests unless the canoe sank, but no helmet for the ATV. And our drivers, awesome though they were, didn't think anything of whiskey and beer before taking our lives in their hands. One even filled up the ATV with gas with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth.
The ATV was fun when it was just three people and for the first few hours. But it went on for hours and hours and people got added to each vehicle as one lost a tire. And the mountains got steeper and the mud thicker. And then it wasn't fun at all, it was hellish. I don't know how long the ride was, but it went on forever. We were nowhere. It isn't even on a map. At one point during the trip I was introduced to the man who had built the road. Someone pointed to him excitedly and said "He's the one who built the road from Yawpasi to Baixao Novo!" I didn't know whether to be impressed or angry. I don't think God meant for those two sites to have a road between them. Frank turned out to be really cool, he's Surinamese and speaks 6 or 7 languages including Portuguese. But the road is not a work of great engineering; no effort was made to prevent erosion, to zig-zap instead of plow straight up and down. The road went right through streams, no bridge or anything. Why build a bridge? ATVs were built to swim! It was work to ride, sometimes we had to get off when the road was too steep and muddy; but how the driver decided what was too steep and muddy was beyond me, I felt like at any moment we could have slipped backwards or flip over completely. And what would we have done if it had flipped? If someone had broken a leg? I asked Hedley. "We would call in the plane." But a plane isn't going to come get you on the side of a mountain. You still would have had to ride the hellbeast to the nearest airstrip miles and miles away. All you could do was not think about it.
It helped that no one else seemed disturbed by the situation. No one complained or asked about safety. It made it easier for me not to be scared. But of course I was scared. I'm American and Americans think a lot about risk. The CDC makes everyone take malaria meds when coming to a pretty-much malaria free country. I've been trained to wear seatbelts my whole life. And now I was clinging and balancing and just hoping I wouldn't fall or fly off. By the end of the trip though, I understood how to balance on the ATV- you didn't really have to hold on that tight to stay on. By the end I was having fun again.
Risk assessment. Brazilians risk a lot to come to the garimpo. Malaria, isolation, deportation, robbery, alcoholism. In one garimpeiro camp in Baixao Novo, we met a woman who was 5 months pregnant. What was she planning on doing? There was no mid-wife in the little camp, certainly no doctor. She isn't a native to the area with centuries of traditional medicine behind her. To go anywhere she'd have to take the road to hell we'd just been on. The garipeiros are already risking so much to be there that riding an ATV straight up a mountain can't be the worst thing they do every day.
This part of the trip was hard for another reason too. Helena stayed in Benzdorp with the other half of the group- which meant Hedley was really the only person I could talk to. The rest of the team spoke Dutch, but mostly they spoke Surinamese with each other. The little English they knew had long ago been exhausted by "What is your name?" type questions. I'd never felt so alone. When out in the field, talking to the garipeiros, I felt good. But back at the camp we were staying at, the night full of stars and no one to talk to...so sozinha, I can't even explain. Language is so important for human beings. I'm so used to being able to talk to many types of people, that to be unable to talk to anyone, to understand any of the laughter and story-telling going on around me...it was very, very isolating. But the trip would get better.