Thursday, June 8, 2017

Upon Amazon’s Current: Disease, Drug Cartels and the Challenges of Exploration with Adventurer Marcin Gienieczko

Marcin Gienieczko, a Polish explorer that made a Jungle Survival Training Course with Amazon Explorer in Iquitos, Peru, before the crossing along the Amazon River.

By: Adam Zmarzlinski (Poland)

Guinness Record, Marcin from PolandThere is a saying in Brazil that goes, “At the blacksmith’s house, only wooden skewers” (Em casa de ferreiro, espeto de pau). Its meaning is a bit on the nose: focus too much on one thing and everything else is bound to fall apart, bound to be of a lesser quality than everything else in one’s life. Marcin Gienieczko, a Polish sportsman, adventurer, explorer and the first person to cross the Amazon River via canoe, is a living antithesis to that statement.

While on his 6,800-kilometer (4,225 mile) journey down the Amazon River, he maintained constant contact with family, focused on overcoming the struggles associated with the force of nature that is the largest river in the world, and above all else, kept—as well as he could—sane while encountering disease, fickle weather and gun barrels pointed at his face. I sat down with Marcin to understand what it takes to challenge a force of nature and win.

The idea for his 2015 adventure, which took him from San Antonio District, Peru to the Bay of Baia de Marajo off the Brazilian coast, came to him while on an expedition through the Yukon River in Alaska and Northwestern Canada. “No one’s taken on the Amazon via canoe before,” he explained.  “It appealed to me. In my youth, I hoped to undertake the challenge of the Congo River in Africa. Unfortunately, war broke out in that inflamed part of the world between the Tutsi and Hutu tribes.” Traveling the depths of the Congo, and the borders of Rwanda and Burundi, was too dangerous. “So I settled on the Amazon,” he exclaimed with a smile.

Beside the Yukon, Marcin had a lifetime-worth of adventures under his belt: canoeing the rivers Mackenzie, Lena, Vistula and the Baltic Sea from Bornholm, Denmark to Darlowo, Poland. He rode the northern regions of Mongolia on horseback during an expedition to reach the Tsataan tribe, one of the last remaining native tribes of Mongolia. Traveling through Tibet on foot and ski along the Kolyma River, he felt the cold of negative 53 °C (-63 °F) nip at his face. Traveling with the Polish Press Corp through China, he aided with research on the Shaolin monastery. During his stay, he learned kung-fu and studied Zen philosophy. He acted as camp photographer for US-Canadian expedition that ventured along the north-east ridge of Mt. Everest. His life is a kaleidoscope of adventure, but as he says, “None were as challenging as the Amazon. None.”

A jungle survival course with Amazon Explorer in Iquitos, Peru
Marcin training with Amazon Explorer, Iquitos, Peru
“The first person who beat the entire Amazon alone was a Swiss, Mike Horn, a legend of exploration,” Marcin began. “He’s one of my heroes. I studied Mike’s trip along with that of Ed Stafford—an Englishman, who was the first person to walk the length of the Amazon. It was important for planning. I had to understand what I was getting into before I began. In 2011, two Polish kayakers were murdered on the Ucayali part of the river. Another Pole, Alexander Doba, was attacked twice. A South African was shot; thankfully he was found before he bleed out. I studied these tragedies, but as is often the case, you can’t plan true adventures.”

Marcin began his journey on May 17th 2015 in Peru. First, he cycled 670 km (416 miles) through the Andes at the height of 4,700 m (15,420 feet) reaching the village of San Francisco. From June 30th until September 1st, the Amazon River was his home. The last part of his journey began in the town of Belem, Brazil and, after an 80 km (50 miles) run, ended on the beaches of the Atlantic Ocean. In sum, Marcin’s journey took 111 days. His whole route can be explored at the his Polish-language Solo Amazon site.

“The stake is not only the fight against a powerful river, a tropical climate, violent storms, but also illness, interpersonal conflicts, dangerous snakes and insects,” Marcin explained. “Before the journey, I had to take the appropriate vaccinations at the Institute of Tropical Diseases, regularly did stamina training to adjust my body to the harsh conditions. I’m a triathlon participant, so I’ve got a higher physical stress level than most. And while the physical aspect of it is hard, the reality is that the mental aspect of the adventure is much more demanding. Mental strength is a struggle. In the town of Tabatinga, I burst and broke down but I had no other choice, and pulled myself together. The beginning was the worst, but with each meter of the river conquered, my perseverance increased.”

Guinness World Records certificate for Marcin, who trained with Amazon Explorer in Iquitos, PeruWildlife bloomed in the jungle. Often the animals were impartial to Marcin, but on a few occasions curiosity got the best of them. “Twice, a snake fell from the Brazilian trees and into the canoe. Several times snakes slithered into the tent and I was quick to show them the exit. I heard distant monkey howls and the roar of the jaguar, but nothing more. However, somewhere around the town of Orellana a boil appeared on my neck. After two days, it turned into a big lump the size of a fist. I couldn’t move my neck, couldn’t survey the river.

“I contacted Dr. Leszek Mayer—who kept me healthy, supplied me with the malaria tablets and vitamins, which I took every day—of the Institute of Tropical Diseases in Gdynia via my satellite phone. I explain what had happen and he diagnose that it was either an infected mosquito bite or my body reacting to a mosquito toxin that it never encountered. He prescribed some antibiotics, which I bought at the first town that I found with a pharmacist.”

Each day began at 6 AM and, depending on the weather, at around 5 PM Marcin scanned for a safe place to camp, rest and eat.

“I was afraid that they might murder me in the night,” he said stoically. “Where I had to cross through is very dangerous. This area is in the middle of the VRAEM (Valle del Rio Apurimac, Ene y Mantaro) region—the Valley of the Three Rivers: Apurimac, Ene and Mantaro. It’s dangerous for many reasons: cocaine trafficking and the remnants of the communist terrorist group, the Shining Path, hide out there. They’re the most dangerous because they kidnap people for ransom or kill without any compunction. In addition to their political considerations, they cooperate with the drug cartels, using violent methods to spread fear throughout the region, which gives the cartels a greater freedom of action. The Shining Path act as hired guns, making their living that way.

“Gadiel Sanhez Rivera accompanied me through the drug traffickers lands,” Marcin recalled. “He’s a mestizo Peruvian, medium height, broad shoulders. Once a drug courier but he quit because he wanted to keep on living. He was a great asset, knowing the land, the customs and most important, the language of the Asheninka Indians. He walked on foot along the banks of the Amazon River with Ed Stafford and helped him logistically.

“We reached the Pongo, whose rock walls narrowed into the Ene river. The natives call this place ‘The Passage of the Seven Devils’ because of the seven giant craters. Without paddling, the canoe flowed at about 11 km/hour. The river began to undulate and surge. It was there that natives shot at us. In Europe, strangers approach each other with a sort of cautious optimism. In South America, they takes care of such things very differently—if you don’t stop, they shoot.

“The river flowed faster and faster,” Marcin continued. “Suddenly, I heard a shot and turned toward Gadiel. Another shot. ‘Gringo, gringo!’ someone shouted from the clay slopes, waving his hands. ‘Not good. Ashaninka,’ Gadiel said terrified. We tried to turn back but the rapids hijacked the kayak. Again, someone shot in our direction. I heard the swish of the bullets near the canoe. Men appeared out of the thicket and steered their motorized boat toward us. ‘Come out!’ they shouted in Spanish. Their faces were painted red, three lines on both cheeks: a jaguar’s mustache. ‘These are the aggressive ones, warriors,’ Gadiel said in a low voice.

“They steered their boat up to us, guns raised, and pointed for us to move toward the shore. We did and continued on, showing them our equipment. ‘You’ve got drugs?’ they asked. ‘No, we don’t,’ Gadiel answered. They thought we were cocaine trafficker, so the distance three shots—one warning and two at the canoe, weren’t senseless; the Ashaninka had their reasons to do so.

“Who are you? What are you doing here? This area is Ashaninka,’ they asked, their rifles aimed at us. ‘Here are our documents from the President of the region,’ my companion showed them but they looked at the papers with agitation and confusion. They didn’t know how to read Spanish. ‘Do you have any gifts?’ they asked. Gadiel gave them some of our freeze-dried food and I produced a Swiss Army knife and a small flashlight headlamp for their chief, who examined our faces. He looked me in the eyes, ‘You have five hours to leave our region.’ We rowed away and as we disappeared around the bend of the river, someone gave another shot upwards.

“Fortunately no one was hurt,” Marcin concluded. “When I recall the story, it may seem a great experience in the style of James Bond, but truly, it wasn’t. In fact, it was a very extreme situation. Too much tension, too much adrenalin.”

But not all encounters were as tension filled, Marcin recalls the friendliness of the people of Atalaya, a shore side town where he officially began his kayaking journey: “The people were very friendly. I had a meeting with the town’s mayor. Because of an earlier murder of two Poles in the region, they wanted to help me a lot. Canoeists Celina and Radoslaw Frackiewicz were murdered in connection with the local cult of Pelacary. The native tribes thought the white foreigners abduct their children. Their bodies were never found and two murderers are still hiding in the jungle. They mayor informed me that they’ve been drawn into the ranks of cocaine traffickers, where they’re safe from persecution. The cartels are the law in those parts.”

Map of the Amazon River Source, Peru“Numerous people came out for the start of my expedition,” Marcin recalls. “I was surprised because my experience in Peru was such that the locals were much more distant. However, in Brazil everyone was very friendly, inviting me to their homes for coffee or beer. I’d particularly like to thank the Brazilian Navy, who were very helpful when I capsized.”

Being alone in the vast jungle, loneliness lay heavy on his shoulders. “I thought about my children and wife, to whom I’m very indebted for patience and support” he began. “I also thought about what I’m going to do next: a trip to the South Pole, a solo 2,260 km (1,404 mile) ski trip. Perhaps a double traversal of the Canadian Mackenzie Mountains starting at Ross River and then a return at about 1,200 km (745 miles). I’d like to take the starting rout solo and a return with a partner. Maybe someone from your readers wants to join my expedition? I extend an invitation to all,” he laughed and his mind turned to a topic of a higher power.
“Being alone in the jungle, I thought a lot about God. I realized even more that I am a believer,” Marcin reminisced. “From working on a freighter in the middle of the Ocean, I know that the sea is no place for atheists, now I know that neither is the jungle. Without God as council, I couldn’t accomplish anything. Every day, morning and evening, I prayed out there among the grand wilderness. It helped with morale and overcoming isolation.”

When asked about advice for young adventurers, Marcin remained silent for a moment before answering. “What counts is ambition and the desire to pursue a dream,” he began. “From the very beginning you have to want what it is that you set out to achieve. Experience matters. Every river gave me experience from the Yukon in Alaska to Lena in Siberia. If you think you can’t achieve something, think of this: I work on a ship as a sailor, I financed most of the trip out of my own pocket but also with support from such companies as Energa and Satfilm. I didn’t make the trip about myself, either. It’s important to help others. I collected money for and sent all proceeds to the Pomeranian Hospice for Children in Gdansk. During these expeditions I check what is humanly possible. I want to push the boundaries; I think that’s important. I also wanted to show my own children that you can do great things without being very rich, or knowing people in high places, all you need is a healthy ambition.”

Training with Amazon Explorer (Iquitos, Peru) for the jungle
Training with Amazon Explorer (Iquitos, Peru) for the jungle
After 111 days of more than 6,800 km of physical effort, thousands of mosquito and ant bites, 250 liters of electrolytes, two venomous snake attacks, one close encounter with a gun and one tip-over, Marcin made it to the shore of the Atlantic Ocean. And while to most such an adventure is one of a lifetime, Marcin is planning a solo ski trip to the South Pole. His ambition is boundless. If anyone is interested in the Marcin’s Amazon journey, they are welcome to visit the official GPS Tracking Site to see the full interactive map of the trip. Thank you for  help Amazon Explorer in Iquitos.

I’d like to thank Marcin for his time and am looking forward to his next big adventure.

Author’s note: The interview was conducted in Polish and all the above was translated into English.