If someone asked you, “What’s the craziest thing you’ve ever done?”, would you immediately have an answer? A month ago, I wouldn’t have, but today the answer is, the time I took a homemade raft on a 13 day, 308 kilometer adventure down the Rio Magdalena in Northern Colombia.
It should’ve been obvious before our adventure began how crazy it was, by the sheer number of people that told us that we were nuts. In hindsight, I think they were right.
I had wanted to document the adventure by video, but I underestimated how difficult that would end up being. In fact, I very much underestimated how difficult the entire journey would be. Just to be able to write about it afterwards, I needed a couple weeks to process everything. The first time I told someone the story in person, they told me that I looked traumatized. The emotions I felt during the trip needed time to subside. Or maybe they never will. Even now, three weeks after the adventure officially ended, I can still feel like I’m there. That’s good for writing this though, I suppose.
My favorite quote is, “In the end, we only regret the chances we didn’t take.” I guess I even live my life by it. That’s why I am one of only a handful of people in the world that have done some of the things I’ve done. And luckily, I have lived to tell the tales.
Let’s go back to when it all started. I was in Guamal, Magdalena – a small city in Colombia that sits adjacent to a smallish river (that flows into the much bigger Rio Magdalena). I was there on a Workaway volunteer experience teaching English at the relatively new LA English Institute, operated by Alejandro Vargas and his wife Leidy. I loved my six weeks there, and wouldn’t hesitate to go back. The other volunteer who started at the same time as I did was named Jamie, a really cool guy from England. Jamie and I hit it off from the beginning, despite us being from opposite sides of the world, and despite he being ten years younger than myself. When two people end up in the same place, at the same time, both doing the same things, there’s going to be other things they share in common. I can’t recall exactly when or where, or who made the suggestion. But I do remember it was something we both were on-board with, so to speak. At first, we didn’t even know which direction the river flowed. Or if it was even possible. I remember thinking that there had to be waterfalls somewhere on the river. Part of the Amazon is in Colombia after all. After some research, we knew that we’d be going north, and that the elevation was level all the way to the Caribbean coast- about 300 kilometers away. Now we just had to design a raft- something neither of us had ever done.
When people would ask us why we were going to Barranquilla by raft, instead of just taking a bus, I didn’t have a good answer. I just replied, “¿Por qué no?”. Many times later on, I would find myself asking the same question however.
The raft design we decided on would use two easily available and free resources- bamboo (for the frame), and plastic bottles (for added buoyancy). We had to buy rope to tie everything together, but fortunately that is very cheap in Colombia. To keep the plastic bottles together, we found some nylon bags from the garbage to put them in. The beginning stages of construction were slow, but as we neared our launch date, we moved faster- and many people ended up helping us. In fact, we probably had over a dozen locals help us by the end of it. It’s worth mentioning now, (and I’ll mention it again later) the people in Colombia are genuinely friendly and helpful. Without us asking for help, people were eager to assist us and expected nothing in return. Coming from the United States, I was initially suspicious. I have found out since it’s just the culture here. People only ever wanted to talk to us- out of curiosity, but never wanted anything more.