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From Cup to River

Down the Jatunyacu

by RICHARD WARD

So the Germans are champions.  I have heard the b-word slip out a few times around Germany’s shocking World Cup dismantling of Brazil in the semi-final match, and thought of it myself during the game, but these are not your Schindler’s List Germans and reference to Nazi blitzkrieg tactics is a generational, if not historical, fallacy.  The 1,000-Year Reich is still the 1,000-Year Probation, and Germany deserves the world’s scrutiny for the next millennia, but a fair-minded look at this German squad reveals everything you want to see in sports, skill, selflessness, intelligence, determination, and a partial and agreeable mix (or partially agreeable), at least to the eye, of nationalities and cultural types, something we saw a lot of in this World Cup, on the pitch, that is, but disgracefully not in the stands.  Instead, what we saw, or what the cameras allowed us to see, was a preponderance of pudgy, light-skinned fans, team-colored painted faces melodramatically reflecting the fortunes of their heroes.  Neo-liberalism’s children in the throes of high drama.  The only black faces visible besides the occasional odd Afro-Dutch or other were the handful of African fans rooting for their teams and the bizarre spectacle of a Nubian guard in business suits lining the stairs as the finalists trekked to the victory stand.  Contrast this with crowd shots of the final World Cup game in the new documentary about Uruguay’s stunning defeat of Brazil in 1950, Maracaná.  Here, if the footage is genuine, one sees stands filled with black Brazilian faces wildly cheering their team—64 years ago.  Oh, yeah, we’ve come a long way, baby.

Particularly loathsome was FIFA’s official TV opening, an animated fantasy showing a dark-skinned Neymar type skillfully dribbling a ball in some sanitized favela, many of which no longer exist having been destroyed to make way for the shiny new stadiums that took eight worker’s lives in the mad-making and displaced a quarter-million poor people, most dark skinned like the boy in the animation.  In the scene the boy casts a starry-eyed look in the direction of the Maracaná, as if to say, yes, we too can make it to the corporate Land of Oz if we have the skill of a Neymar, never mind the chances, perhaps one in ten million.  A princely piece of corporate neo-liberal chutzpah this.

In the same ruthless and blinding corporate limelight that puts impossible pressure on its anointed, one almost felt sorry for Lionel Messi, despite his millions, another kind of victim in this corporate-media spectacle.  Messi played well, if with curious dispassion, helping his team reach the final, but bound by certain human limitations was unable to attain the mythical status of his countryman, Maradona.  Given the Golden Ball award as the tournament’s best player, a controversial selection, Messi slunk around the victory stand clutching his trophy with the expression of a man holding a dead cat.  Arjen Robben would have got my vote, playing with brilliance, joy and indomitable energy.  As for the Germans, split the Spanish word for their country roughly in half and this is what you had in the Vaterland the night of their victory.

* * *

But now I quit Quito for more involving matters, a half-day rafting trip on the Jatunyacu River, and after the usual five-hour bus ride find myself in the Oriente, in Rukullakta, visiting my Kichwa friends, Edmundo and Irene, husband and wife, and Chris Jarrett, who is living with them.  I stay in the little blue house in the same little room with the moldering mattress, listening this night to a torrential rain with vivid dreams of waterfalls and flooding, an army of trolls stamping their feet on the metal roof.  It is still raining heavily in the morning and there is discussion about canceling the rafting trip.  Our guide, Luis Zapata, Irene’s cousin, is not answering his phone.  We decide to take our chances and go to Tena anyway, the small city nearby where Luis has his business, hoping the rain will subside, and indeed on the way it does.

Selva Verde, Luis’s guide business, is on Avenida José Antonio Santander, whoever that esteemed gentleman might be, off one of the main streets of Tena in a typical storefront enclosure protected by one of the metal roll-up garage doors that every business in Ecuador seems to have.  Luis is not there but his assistant, Álvaro, a friendly, well-built guy of about 18, says he is expecting us.  We stash our stuff and come back a few minutes later and Luis, an immediately imposing figure in his mid-thirties with a strong mestizo face and a mouthful of smiling white teeth, his powerful body wrapped in spandex, is there.  The first thing Luis does when we shake hands is pointedly squeeze the biceps of my right arm with his left hand by way of gauging my strength and likely what position I will occupy in the raft.  I have no illusions of being an imposing physical specimen but I am not exactly a weakling and this little reconnoitering squeeze miffs me more than I care to admit.  But Luis is the boss and he’s got a business to run that depends on these sorts of physical calculations and I don’t begrudge him, though I am put off by his intimate appraisal, this touching.  I have done my share of river paddling, certainly a lot more than my three companions, though about this Luis knows nothing.  But I am not here to prove anything and I know I can take care of myself despite being considerably the oldest of the group.

An hour later we are at the end of the road next to the Jatunyacu River unloading the raft and the gear.  The Jatunyacu is a couple of hundred meters wide, clearly an energetic bit of water, surrounded by jungle.  Upstream, to the west, green mountains dominate the horizon.  The sky is overcast, a bit of a mist.  A big old rusty suspension bridge crosses the river here, passage to the communities on the other side.  I take a walk on the bridge about halfway across, carefully stepping on the motley collection of planks, the river 50 meters below.  Some Indians with large bundles walk past, ignoring me.

Luis gives a thorough run-through of procedures and techniques and then we are in the raft, into the choppy river, a big series of class three rapids ahead. Not impressed with my biceps or youthfulness, Luis has put me in the middle position across from Irene (I am with the woman!).  Chris and Edmundo are in front.  Luis is in the back with his paddle, barking instructions.  Álvaro, the assistant, is paddling alongside in a fiberglass kayak.  He plays in the waves like a duck.  It is marvelous to be on this wild river, the dark green mountains behind us shrouded in mist, the quiet jungle crowding both banks.

We hit the first rapid, larger than anything I have experienced on my little New Mexico Rio Chama, the raft wildly bucking up and down in the four and five foot waves generated by the powerful, fast-moving river, huge boulders everywhere, all of us shouting and yelling, paddling like mad, immediately soaking wet.  Getting through we rest for a few moments and then another rapid is upon us and we are swept ahead, churning, bouncing, twisting and paddling, pitching into the troughs of waves that threaten to engulf us, flip the raft over, Luis yelling like Ahab, and then we are clear for a moment, raising our paddles together in a triumphant salute, exhilarated, though my Kichwa friends look a little shaken and unusually pale, especially Irene, who does not seem to be enjoying this at all.

Noticing her discomfort we try to rally her spirits with teasing and laughter, to little effect.  But there is no time to ponder her condition because there are more rapids ahead, just as powerful.  Though rivers are an integral part of life in the Oriente they are considered extraordinarily potent and dangerous, an accurate assessment, and it is likely most of the people who live here are not expert swimmers, which is understandable.  This is not the sort of water in which to practice your strokes.  Even if you were an expert you would stand no chance in conditions like this.

A couple more wild rides, a short respite, and then we are into another rapid, the biggest so far, and suddenly a really big wave rises up and the raft yaws violently and Chris flies off as if an invisible hand has reached up out of the water and snatched him backwards.  We stare for a second, dumbfounded, another wave looms, the raft bucks, and the same thing happens to Irene, the same invisible hand, and off she goes backwards, poor terrified Irene, of all people, and she is quickly swept away.

Álvaro in his plastic kayak immediately gives chase to the small gasping figure bobbing in her life jacket.  Edmundo is shocked at seeing his wife in the rough water and helplessly watches, not knowing what to do.  There is really nothing one can do except hope that Chris and Irene remember to follow Luis’s instructions to float on your back and remain calm while the kayak and raft try to pick you up.

We dip into another big wave and suddenly, almost comically, Edmundo topples over and hits the water with a splash, rapidly floating away.  I suspect for a moment that he done this on purpose, to join his wife, but it could not be.  In less than thirty seconds we have lost Chris, Irene and Edmundo, in that order, with Luis and I furiously paddling, not so much to rescue our mates but to maneuver the raft through this stretch as not to be spun sideways and lose the raft completely or be pitched over ourselves.

While paddling we scan the river to see if everyone is safe.  Álvaro has caught up with Irene and she has pulled herself onto the kayak, obviously exhausted, as much from fear as physical exertion.  Edmundo is bobbing clear of the rapid and by now we are all in calmer water.  I don’t see Chris but then he appears next to the raft, looking rather pale himself, but all right.  I grab his life jacket and pull him aboard.  Next comes Álvaro with his enervated cargo flopped across the stern of his kayak and Chris and I pull Irene into the raft, where she more or less collapses, and finally we get Edmundo, stunned but okay, and Chris and I pull him over.  Thankfully we have hit an extended calm and have time to recuperate, most of our attention focused on Irene, who finds nothing of our humorous attempts to cheer her up the slightest bit bracing or amusing.  Chris excitedly recounts the adventure in Spanish, laughing manically, while Edmundo tries to laugh but is too freaked out and concerned about Irene to muster more than a grim smile, while Luis, who has remained calm throughout, scans the river.  Obviously he has had people go over before but I don’t think three at once.  I never felt anyone to be in imminent danger, perhaps it all happened too quickly, but there can be no doubt my attention was fully focused.

At length we arrive at a spit of gravel and stone jutting into the river and we beach the raft, Luis and Álvaro hauling out food from the cooler, bread, cold cuts, mayonnaise, mustard, ahí, pickles, olives, potato salad, soft drinks, fruit, cookies, brownies, arranging everything on the overturned raft neat enough to please king or queen.  For some time now the sky has been clearing and it is hot, the strong equatorial sun bearing down.  We are quickly set upon by biting flies but it is of minor consequence.  Hungry and tired from our efforts we each find our own warm smooth white cushion-sized stone on which to sit and eat our sandwiches, the wide blue river rushing past, jungle all around.  Irene gets some of her spirit back and receives our teasing good-naturedly.  Nothing would be better now than to take a nap but it is too hot and obviously we need to get going.

Back on the river we soon enter the Napo, larger than the Jatunyacu, farther downstream larger yet, eventually joining the Amazon in Peru, near Iquitos.  Throughout our trip we have seen Indians and their dugout canoes and also people with curious gas-powered machines along the shore, panning for gold.  We have been on the water several hours and we are tired.  Arriving at the tourist town of Misahuallí we haul the raft through the square and deposit it next to the road.  A handful of small monkeys cavorts in the plaza, stealing from tourists, partaking in one of the national pastimes.  On the way back to Rukullakta, Luis, behind us on his motorcycle, is stopped at a checkpoint and his bike is confiscated because he has left his license in Tena.  The police will not let him go.

Richard Ward lives in Ecuador. He can be reached at: r.ward47@gmail.com.