Living with intent, social engagement, learning, growing, giving
Sebastian Snow journeyed to Peru in 1951 at the age of twenty-one. He accepted a job to collected readings from scientific instruments at the source of one of the Amazon River’s tributaries, the Marañón River. He spent two months living in a shack, helped by a local boy and with a local cook, on the shore of Lake Santa Ana. It was cold and lonely and he diligently collected his readings of the weather, soil, movement of the glaciers, and estimate the depth and dimensions of the lakes despite his difficulties adjusting to the altitude. His work formed part of an attempt to prove that Lake Santa Ana is the source of the Amazon River
While at Lake Santa Ana, Snow came up with the idea to travel along the entire length of the Amazon River from its source at Lake Santa Ana (4,752 masl) to the Atlantic Ocean in Brazil. At the end of his contract he returned to Lima to drum up support for his fanciful idea. After a lot of time and effort he managed to raise some funds and secured interest in a top London newspaper in buying the story of his adventure.
Through the help of many people he eventually began his journey, he signed a contract with a former international football player named Pacchioni from Peru to travel with him beside the Marañón River from Lake Santa Ana to Bellavista. He couldn’t afford to buy a horse so they had to walk and carry about 27kg each. He estimated it would take them six weeks at most. Pacchioni wore rubber boots and was soon unable to walk due to severe blisters. Fortunately they walked into a village with a general store and he was able to buy some gym shoes. They had a very long and very difficult journey through rough terrain, cold mountain mists and hot desert. They ate an unbalanced diet of primarily tinned or when they reached plantations beside the river, fresh fruit and cancha.
Beset by amoebic dysentery, Snow was in poor health when they finally arrived in Quiches, only about halfway to Bellavista and Pacchioni collapsed with a fever. He suffered for at least five months after that with verruga. I was angry with Snow for exploiting Pacchioni’s poverty by convincing him to go on this journey and exposing him to the disease. I cannot even imagine how Pacchioni supported himself and his family while so ill.
Snow continued on his journey and was helped by many more locals. Snow attended Eton, an exclusive and extremely expensive all-boys boarding school in England. I mention this because I think it is relevant to the negative aspects of my comments about the book. He was helped immeasurably by many Peruan people and he exploited people outrageously by trying to travel on a shoestring. He would pay farm-hands 5 times their day wage to walk long distances carrying his extremely heavy gear in a poncho because he didn’t have a bag, or to risk their lives piloting a raft through rapids. At one point he stays with a landowner for 4 months without paying a cent and had the hide to complain about being expected to play chess every evening with the landowner.
I wonder if Snow’s wealthy family in Devon would return the favour if the landowner’s son turned up on their doorstep? Despite the generosity and kindness of the Peruan people he was childish in his disparaging, negative writing, complaining about tardiness, sparsely furnished homes, a meal of beans and rice and so on. I understand that he underwent immense hardships, starvation rations, endless walking while weak with dysentery, sleepless nights in hovels and covered with fleas and mosquitoes but his lack of empathy, gratitude and understanding of the local people upset me. After-all, he chose to enter into a perilous journey without adequate planning, equipment, money or language skills. I cannot fathom how Snow persisted on his journey in his weakened state. In my forty years I must have had over 20 attacks of gastrointestinal purging (I grew up in the forest with an untreated water supply) and I always found it difficult to stagger back to bed, let alone hike 12km per day with a heavy bag!
It is inevitable that I will compare Snow with the great travellers that I have lately been reading: Wilfred Thesiger, Fred Burnaby, and Gertrude Bell. He shared in common with those adventurers a privileged upbringing but he didn’t have the wealth of Bell or the unwillingness to complain except in the case of extreme hardship of Thesiger or Burnaby. Unlike Bell, Burnaby and Thesiger he did not learn the language (Spanish nor Quechua). Unlike Thesiger he did not respect the locals nor try to emulate them. More like Burnaby he was patronising and dismissive of the local people. At one point Snow met some ‘wild Indians’ and was disappointed that they wore shirts and were not completely ‘wild’.
Despite my complaints, I did enjoy reading the book. It was very interesting to read about the people, the topography, the villages and the clothing, dancing, food and drink. I first went to South America in 2003 and spent one month in Peru. It was nice to read about places I had visited in Lima and to reminisce about chewing coca leaves and eating chirimoya and more.
I will leave you with a passage that made me laugh; Snow and Pacchioni were lost in mountain fog:
Then the fog began to lift, and suddenly a phantom-like figure of a woman appeared out of the swirling mists a hundred yards to our right. Pacchioni shouted at her for directions to Parobamba. She did not reply, but began to run. Pacchioni ran after her with all the speed of an international footballer. Fearing assault, the woman fled like one possessed with ten thousand devils, but Pacchioni ran faster.