People have been asking me, “How was your trip to Jamaica?!?!” I struggle to come up with the proper response. It was much like my trip to New Zealand last year. Fly in and get whisked to a remote location far from the known tourist attractions. Jump into a mad project that, by all standards, should not be doable in the time allowed. Finish it anyhow in time for a quick river trip. And fly home. So I answer, “Awesome.”
Tom had sent me a postcard of a wacky-looking bamboo raft trip years ago. When he asked what I might want to do on my visit, I said I wanted to play with the mosaic stuff and do that goofy trip. Check. Check.
We have Paco pick us up and drive us through a few hours of drizzling rain to the Martha Brae River. It is running high, fast, and orange with run-off from the storm. Could be interesting.
Here is the construction site at the put-in. It needs a few more cross struts to flatten it out, and it needs the chaise lounge for the two passengers.
We are told that due to high run-off, launches have been suspended until a couple guys can raft through and check things out, clear debris, etc. Maybe an hour or two. As a longtime raft guide, this meant to me that they really didn’t know if they should do this, but they hated to turn away any money. Paco advises us against going. Cool. I’m in.
Here are the rules for boatmen. Among them–own at least two rafts, wear your captain’s tee-shirt, and refrain from bad language. Getting as bad as Grand Canyon.
We wait in the bar, which has the following sign posted. Tom points out that a lot of bars have run signs like this for decades. Apparently the Spirit License Authority Session has not happened yet.
The test pod apparently made it down the river. The boatmen prepare to launch. The Martha Brea has dropped a bit and is somewhat less orange by now.
Oh oh. This couple must be a bit too heavy. The raft begins to sink.
A somewhat bigger, newer, less waterlogged raft is brought in for a quick transfer.
The next couple boards the sinker with visible qualms and is dispatched.
You have to pay for a whole raft whether you are a party of one or two. I go solo. Somehow I won the lottery and got the old man of the river. Derik, an aging Rastafarian, who has been guiding raft trips since he was a teenager, is my guide. We bond instantly and trade tales and philosophy.
Derik loves his job. Although things may not always be that smooth with boss and management, he tells me, everything is fine once you launch. I laugh and agree. On the river, everything is good, he says. Nod. To be a boatman you have to have a CPR card, pass a boating test, and build your own rafts. They last maybe five months before they are too waterlogged to use. There are about 70 guides. You show up at put-in and wait your turn. On a good day you may get two trips in. On a slow week, maybe only three or four trips a week.
Here come Tom and JC.
Food for thought. A wrecked raft wrapped on a rock. Derik assures me it probably got away in the night.
It begins to rain again. Derik takes off his pack and takes out a crinkled old plastic bag with a raincoat in it. He takes the raincoat out and sets it on the floor. He puts the plastic bag on his head. We proceed.
Once we get below the fast turns and obstacles, Derik hands me the pole. I am beaming. This is f*!#ing awesome.
I take it about a mile and hand it back. I could get into this, I tell him. You wouldn’t like the pay, he says, and laughs a big Rasta laugh.
Due to the rain, the riverside Tarzan Lounge is closed. Damn.
They serve to locally concocted favorite.
Martha Brea is a bastardization of the old Arawak name for the river, Matibereon. Legend says Spaniards kidnapped an old Arawak witch and made her lead them to gold. She led them into a cave near the river. Then she vanished and rerouted the river to flood the cave forever. “I tell that story over and over and over and over,” laughs Derik. “And over and over.” I nod and smile in solidarity again.
An explanation, just in case you reencounter a sprout. Or a fizzle.
Sigh. The journey ends after only about an hour and a half. The boatmen all supplement their income by selling passengers carved calabash cups. Derik inscribes mine and, after a long, smiling handshake, heads into the loading zone.
It’s thirty bucks a seat, or sixty for a raft. A bargain. I highly recommend it. Don’t forget to tip your boatman.
Just upstream are the last green Mexican fields before the river is sucked dry.
To the north, the Imperial Valley and Salton Sea.
Into Los Angeles, then back to Phoenix where a large sign greets me. Oh boy–it’s gonna be a busy summer at Diamond Creek take-out.