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Texas duo paddle Amazon to raise awareness about decline of rainforest

Pair encounters rain, crocodiles, dysentery on their South American journey

Pam LeBlanc
pleblanc@statesman.com
Joseph Hochman, foreground, and park guide Genaro Mendoza take an afternoon rest on the Marañón River. Alongside them is a local fisherman.

When you get down to it, the physical act of paddling isn't what makes a trek down the Amazon River so challenging.

It's the rain, the amoebic dysentery and the harsh reality of sitting on a hard wooden plank for days on end.

Or so say two Texas men who toted little more than carbon-fiber paddles, a stash of Gatorade, a change of clothing and camera equipment to Peru, with a plan to canoe 1,000 miles from Chazuta to Leticia, Colombia, then travel by passenger boat on to Manaus, Brazil.

Their mission? To learn about the people of the Amazon and raise awareness about the declining rainforests, which are disappearing at the rate of almost 15 million acres a year, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. That's about 23,000 football fields per day. They teamed up with an Austin-based nonprofit called the Rainforest Partnership to help them spread the word.

"We wanted to put a face to people being affected by the problem of deforestation," says expedition leader Joseph Hochman.

Of course, Hochman, 19, of Austin, and photographer Tim Hawkins, 32, of San Antonio, already were fit. Hochman, who took a semester off from studies at St. John's College in Santa Fe, N.M., stays in shape by snowboarding, snowshoeing, rafting and kayaking. Hawkins canoes and has run four marathons.

After they arrived in Lima, Peru, in September, they traveled to the small town of Chazuta near the Huallaga River, a tributary of the Amazon, the largest river in the world. They took a lumbering, 15-foot blue beast of a canoe and shoved off.

They paddled an average of 50 miles a day over 33 days, including 16 days in the Pacayas Samiria Reserve in Peru, where they enlisted the help of a 65-year-old guide named Genaro Mendoza for a portion of the trip.

Their boat was cumbersome on the upper stretches of the river.

"Every time we took a turn, the stern would swing into the opposite bank and I would get raked by branches and palm spines and vines. It was hot, the going was slow and by noon I had spines in my back, twigs in my hair, dirt and ants everywhere else and a nasty temper," Hochman wrote in an online journal.

Mendoza, the guide, had his own leaky dug-out canoe, which Hochman took turns paddling.

They got good at finding the current in the swift-moving river. They ate canned goods bought from riverside stores, or shared home-cooked meals of rice, fish and plantains with people they met. They played soccer with locals, pitched in to help build a house, and washed their clothes in the river. At night, armed with flashlights and machetes, they hunted sleeping fish along the riverbanks.

"As the river widened, we slipped into the rhythm of waking early, taking a long breakfast, and spending the day on the river, listening to the rich din of shrieks and growls and squawks of the rainforest, and listening to Genaro tell stories about (his long-ago catches) in the reserve," Hochman wrote in his journal. "We saw monkeys and guacamayos (macaws) in the trees and turtles on the banks and were followed for days by pink dolphins surfacing feet away from us, diving down and blowing bubbles under our boat."

Four days after they launched, Hochman got feverish, running a 104-degree temperature and vomiting over the edge of the boat. He went to a hospital for antibiotics and recovered a few days later. Even at his worst, curled on the bottom of the canoe while Hawkins paddled, he says he remembers thinking he wouldn't want to be anywhere else.

They marveled at fat crocodiles and noisy howler monkeys. By chance one day, they stopped at a park station where they helped rangers release bucketfuls of baby turtles as part of a repopulation effort.

They said goodbye to Mendoza, the guide, when they exited the reserve.

The Huallaga River led into the Marañón River , which ultimately meets the Negro River and forms the Amazon. They spent about a third of their trip camping, a third of it in the homes of people they met along the way, and the rest in hotel or hostel rooms.

A few hours outside the city of Iquitos, they got a scare when an aluminum boat with an outboard motor buzzed upriver toward them.

"I tried to turn the boat out of their way, but they turned with me. As they approached, I saw that it was a boatful of men with AK-47s and pistols out and aimed at us," Hochman wrote in his journal.

The boat was filled with police, not robbers. After determining that Hochman and Hawkins weren't doing anything illegal, the police offered the duo a tow into port.

From Iquitos, Hochman and Hawkins paddled another five days to Leticia , at the border of Peru, Colombia and Brazil, the end of the paddling leg of their journey. There, they gave their boat to a man they met in the port and caught a ride on a passenger boat bound for Manaus.

"The actual physical feat (of paddling) was really, really easy," Hochman says. "But what made it challenging was the mental thing."

That and the weather. During the day, temperatures climbed to 110 degrees. Black flies bit their ankles. They floated through fog and slogged through driving rain. The sun baked them.

"The sun out there was pretty unforgiving," Hawkins says. "It starts at 8 a.m., and you better have sunscreen on."

Hawkins returned Dec. 7; Hochman stayed a few more weeks, spending time in Guatamala and El Salvador before returning to Texas.

Hawkins says he learned that life in America is overly complicated, and Hochman says he learned trust in people. "It still amazes me that we could paddle into communities unannounced and they'd welcome us," he says.

They say they learned how valuable the rainforest is — but also that many of the people who cut down trees there are only trying to make a living. "They don't want to destroy what they have, but the global economy forces them to," Hawkins says.

That's where the Rainforest Partnership is trying to help.

"The Rainforest Partnership works with communities in Latin America to develop ways of making an income that allow them to keep the forest standing," says Niyanta Spelman , executive director of the partnership.

So far, they've had some success, helping one community create a sustainable business that makes brooms using fibers harvested from living trees — instead of cutting them down.

pleblanc@statesman.com; 445-3994