Finding a steaming-hot river, and other discoveries (Book Review)

Title: The Boiling River – Adventure and Discovery in the Amazon; Author: Andres Ruzo; Publisher: TED Books/Simon and Schuster; Pages: 144; Price: Rs.350

Fancy a cooling dip in a pristine, predator-free river in a tropical wilderness? Never try it in this river running deep in the Amazonian rainforests in Peru, for its water will not be refreshingly cool but scathing hot enough to burn you. And its story shows how even in our advanced technological era, nature still has its capacity to surprise.

Finding such a singularity of nature and plumbing its secrets is a tale that combines the urge, especially among the young, to explore and understand the inexplicable, with the importance, usually among their elders, of knowing and living in harmony with nature, and the limitations of science and technology in providing all the answers against the backdrop of our unfortunate treatment of our environment.

And it is told here with verve, with plenty of unique characters, twists and cliff-hangers, nearly unbelievable details, and passages of rare beauty by geoscientist Andrea Ruzo, who grew up in the US, Nicaragua and Peru, which not only gave him “a bit of a national identity crisis” but also see “that the world’s problems are not confined by borders, but rather share a common root in energy and resources”.

He tells us he was a twelve-year-old in Lima when his grandfather told him a story about the arrival of Spanish conquistadors in the region in the 16th century, their boundless hunger for gold and how the Incas whom they supplanted and exterminated took their revenge – with a huge boiling river in the jungle featuring prominently in their plans. But it was over a decade later, when he, a doctoral student in geophysics in a US university and back in Peru to do fieldwork, he suddenly recalled the story, and decided to see if there was any truth in the legend.

His quest was fraught with difficulties – his grandfather was no longer in a condition to give further information, and academicians he approached for help made light of the tale, noting that while ‘boiling’ rivers do exist in the world, they are usually associated with an active volcanic or magmatic system which didn’t exist in Peru.

As a senior geologist advised him: “…you’re a bright kid. But as a friendly recommendation: I’d stop asking stupid questions. It makes you look bad.”

Considering whether he should drop his quest, Ruzo had a stroke of luck – in a farewell party before he left for field work, his aunt confirmed the existence of the river which she had seen and even swum in. She even gives him the address of a healing centre there, and its email and phone numbers. He tries calling the number and sends several emails for months, but gets no response. Back in Lima before flying back to US, he tells his aunt of his failure and she tells him what he has done wrong – and also has a solution.

And after some adventures, hillarious and thrilling, Ruzo, accompanied by his aunt, is in the area but anxiously mulling what if the river really exists, and if so, does its explanation reside in nature or is manmade but finally prepares himself to accept whatever outcome he finds for “science is not about the story we want to hear – it’s about the story the data tells us”.

What he finds in Mayantuyacu in the jungle and how it changes his life is the story Ruzo tells us here. As he notes: “At a time when everything seems mapped, measured and understood, this river challenges what we think we know” and for him, it has “forced me to question the line between known and unknown, ancient and modern, scientific and spiritual. It is a reminder that there are still great wonders to be discovered”.

But the book is not merely about exploration for natural wonders but how their continued existence and discovery may not be possible if we don’t become more aware of our environment and take active measures for its protection.

(Vikas Datta can be contacted at )

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