Belén Journal - LEWIS MUIRHEAD


When the prospect of heading to South America first came to my attention at an informal meeting held at the family home of Tamo Campos I committed to helping the cause, but was unsure if I could make the trip happen for myself. As the year progressed with more fundraisers and meetings discussing how we would make the greatest impact in the community of Belen, where we would be working, I built up the resolve that this was a trip I could not pass by. Beyond Boarding become the name of our group and our group became a force. We raised several thousand dollars and built awareness through our fundraisers. Our hope was that people would follow our journey along with us through a live blog. Prior to leaving I was working 12 hours a day, sometimes 16, on a project for the Ministry of Forests in the mountains outside of Chilliwack. I spent a lot of time alone in thought of my upcoming adventure. I made the goal of taking it all in and doing the best I could to bring the story of our trip back through photography and video.

Upon arrival to Lima the familiar hustle and madness of a Latin American city hit me right away. Smog filled air, insane drivers and urban sprawl as far as you can see. We toured the next day and saw the breadth of what Lima has to offer from the somewhat sketchy area around the church we were bunked at, to the ritzy, Miraflores where skyscrapers and movie theatres abound. I was excited to get out to the jungle and the next day we took flight to Iquitos where we would be spending the next three and a half weeks.

Right away I could tell this was a place unlike any I had visited. The moto-taxis were relentless, the heat was extreme and the smells hit like a wet burlap sack. This trip was my first time volunteering in a third world country and I was excited to be able to give back. I have travelled to 28 countries in my life, many of those in Latin America where extreme poverty is hard to ignore. I saw this as an excellent chance to go beyond the barrier of just being a shocked tourist to being an active, albeit small, part of the solution. Descending into Belen from the main part of Iquitos a stark change was instantly noticeable. The houses went from concrete to almost exclusively wooden, many more children were out in the streets, and the streets themselves were more earthen pathways. The sewage system consisted of stagnant ditches with wooden outhouses perched with stilts overtop. It was not a pretty sight. This all being said, I quickly developed a strong like for Belen. There was a sense of community brought about by the constant presence of kids and people in the streets, and the fact that the homes were all built by the residents themselves.

Over the next 3 and half weeks we journeyed to Belen via moto-taxi almost everyday. Through HOPE International, the aid group Beyond Boarding partners with in Canada, we were working with La Restinga, Iquitos’ community development group. We found out that the people behind La Restinga all took on quite different projects in an effort to stay cover the wide range of issues affecting Iquitos. Our guy was Carlos. He had raised money from the Spanish government for a large-scale project including multiple floating garden rafts for the flood season in Belen. This money having fallen through with the economic downturn, we, along with HOPE came in with the money for one raft and the rebuilding of their community centre.

To start off we helped the local kids rebuild the raft from last year. It had been fairly badly damaged from last year’s rainy season. I was excited to get into it and was taken under the tutelage of one of the teenagers. He showed my proper machete and hammering technique for installing the fence around the perimeter of the raft. I was having a great time, Jorge was a character, he wanted things just in the right way and would let me know with no mincing of words. When we finished Sileny, one of the older members of the community, had a great lunch prepared with fish, rice and plantains. They made sure the gringos were eating well. A lot of the time was spent hanging out in the shade finding relief from the sun and heat. I don’t think it was possible to work more than 30 minutes out fully exposed before taking a water break and Sileny’s juice mixes were always appreciated.

By the end of the second week we had gathered all the material for the new raft and began construction on that project. We had Carlos there on occasion but more often a man affectionately known, as ‘the Master’ was our guide to constructing the raft. The team working hard, carrying hardwood beams across a soccer field is not the easiest task in 35° degree heat. But the kids showed us how it was done. They provided cardboard for our shoulders and led the way with energy. Most of them wore only flip-flops while doing the same work as guys 5-8 years older than them. As the days and weeks went by we connected with these kids more and more. One of them, a boy named Jean-Pierre, took to my camera and I ended up lending it to him on the daily. We learned that his parents couldn’t afford to put him in school and that really shook us because he seemed so clever and eager to learn. Stories of the inequalities and hardships were told and learned of on a daily basis. Sileny shook our idealized view of Belen being such a tight community. She told of instances during the floods where people rob each other, charge exorbitant rates for using the essential services of a boat and just the circumstances that come along with having your floor underwater for 2 months a year.

Throughout my time in Iquitos and Belen I came to know the group of people I was travelling with on a deeper level. We saw each other struggling with the heat, the different food and really just being completely out of our elements. The support of the group was essential for the success of the trip. We all had our strengths and pulled through for each other.

Our time in Belen came to an end and we said our goodbyes. The kids threw us heart-warming and tear-inducing goodbye party in the new community centre complete with music, dancing and cheezies. We exchanged emails, drawing and kind words of returning sometime soon. I will never forget their faces and hope I can make good on my wishes to return. To see Belen in the rainy season would be amazing. We finished the raft to state where it was ready to go into service but to see it floating with a full garden would really be the completion of the mission. It was hard to leave Belen but looking forward to the next section of the trip I couldn’t help but be filled with child-like excitement. I was going to CHILE to ride POWDER in AUGUST!

I opted to take the bus down. I figured Lake Titicaca was on the way so 26 hours later I arrived and was quickly slapped in the face with a case of altitude sickness. I was okay most of the time but was hit with waves of dizziness and headaches. I quickly decided to depart the next morning and after a less than enjoyable sleep I was onto my next stretch of 48 hours of bussing.

I arrived in Santiago with a grin on my face. It was raining. That means snow. The rising sun revealed that, yes indeed, this was a cool place. A glistening city surrounded by snow-capped mountains. I felt at home. Sure people were speaking Spanish but so do a lot of people at the Cambie bar on any given weeknight.

Within 2 days I was riding a fresh dump of 40 cm at El Colorado, just an hour and a half out of Santiago. We spent and couple nights before heading back down and rounding up the crew for our real mission, Volcanoes in the south and Patagonia. We made splitboards for the crew and rented a Toyota diesel van, outfitted with chains we were ready for the storm approaching Chillan. We packed it up and headed for it. Ended up spending 4 days riding some of the best snow I’ve ever felt. Got amazing shots, ate superb BBQ, and just got into the Chile vibes. We rode Valle Hermosa 2 days and Valle Tres Marias. It was all such new terrain that I was awestruck pretty much every moment. Having the splitboards was essential. We were able to get up early enough to get to the top before the resort opened so we could get through the resort out into the backcountry before the patrol was around. Everyone rode so hard. Tamo, Tomas, Matias, Jurgen, Dave, Jen, and Sam all got some banger shots expertly filmed by Marshall, Ian and myself.

It was hard to leave but the weather turned and helped make our decision for us. It was like spring when we left for Pucon. The drive was stunning. Handbuilt cabins surrounding by lush forests. It felt like a piece of Canada but with a Latin twist. We arrived in Pucon and found accommodations at El Refugio, a little hostel run by a friendly Kiwi. The next day we got right on it. The weather was good and we had the summit of Volcan Villarica in our sights. We were able to make it about halfway with just the splitboards but after three and half hours the crampons came into play. I felt like a true mountaineer. Toehold after toehold we crunched our way up. It felt dangerous and I loved it. For two hours my thighs burned and I pushed on with the summit just over the horizon I split off from Dave, who I had been side-by-side with most of the last pitch. I pushed off the left on a little ridge and peeked over to see Matias resting on the edge of an active Volcano. It was unreal. It was spectacular. I gave Maty a huge hug and he warned me of the toxic gas seeping from the crater. I approached the crater casually, eating a sandwich I was hit in the lungs by sulfuric smog causing me to eject the half-chewed cheese and bread from my mouth while my lungs struggled to clear themselves of the toxic gas. I quickly dubbed the crater, mother earth’s ass.

The ride down was something else, for a good 10 minutes we made our way down an icy pitch. Sam commented it felt like being in a plane because looking out all you could see was clouds and sky. It was wild. Once the snow softened up it the terrain was just a playground, perfect transitions and cliffs everywhere. We all had a blast, not making it out until past dark we were elated that we had climbed a live volcano and lived to tell the tale.

Next we checked out Volcano Lonquimay and managed to ride into a crater that time. With ~100 km/hour winds the climb was dramatic with a few close calls on the way up. Almost getting blown off a mountain is not the best feeling in the world. The wind and clouds at the top made me feel alive that’s for sure. I could have hung out up there for a couple of days and appreciated the beauty of that view.

It was time to head back to Santiago so we packed the Van, 9 people deep, and headed for the coast. Along the way waves were surfed, seafood was eaten and it was a good wind down for the crew. We got some true Chilean parties in, the ones that don’t end until 8 in the morning when you’re wobbly off Piscolas! The adventure came to an end in a hurry; I returned the van and the next thing I knew I was on a plane back to Vancouver. Of course, I get home and within a couple days I see pictures on Facebook of the crew in 80s gear still shredding snow! Ah well, the next season is around the corner, and I’ve had the shortest off-season of my life!