We live in an era where reality TV takes us naked and alone into jungles or pits humans against one another in faux settings of castaway islands eating roasted rats and raw fish. With cameras recording ‘adventures’ for mass consumption, we the consumers watch with wide-eyed fascination while everyday people seemingly test their skills, wills, and physical well-beings against nature and all its might. It is, of course, a modern day farce. It isn’t real – it’s TV.
On September 27, people packed the meeting room at the Mattapoisett Library to hear a true-life survival story by Dartmouth resident and author Holly FitzGerald as she discussed her memoir Ruthless River: Love and Survival by Raft on the Amazon’s Relentless Madre de Dios, published this year by Vintage.
FitzGerald’s story is the real deal. Her delivery belied the terror they felt when, in 1973, she and her husband were lost on the Madre de Dios in the Amazon River Basin for 26 days – days of torment, dehydration, starvation, and hope.
Of course we know the end of the story – they made it out. But how it happened, their experiences leading up to and after being found near death as told by the author, was thrilling and suspenseful, to say the least.
FitzGerald is a petite soft-spoken woman with a sense of humor that creeps up on you as she talks about how she encouraged her newly minted husband to cast all caution to the wind, put their 9-to-5 lives on hold, and head out on the “adventure of a lifetime,” traveling from Colombia to Brazil along the Amazon River and its tributaries. It was to have been part of their plan to circle the globe while unencumbered by professions or children.
What ensued was a journey deep into their inner reserves of youthful optimism, physical stamina, and their love for one another.
After arriving in South America to begin their “year-long honeymoon,” they took some time to enjoy impromptu meetings with the indigenous people. They also met a couple of anthropologists who were studying the Iscabacabu, a tribe that had been almost completely annihilated except for 26 souls.
FitzGerald sprinkled her story with endearing anecdotes about how they enjoyed and experienced the colors, textures, cultural differences, and the people, especially the children they came in contact with.
“Fitz made up a game of hide and seek,” she explained, pointing to a picture in the PowerPoint presentation that showed children lying on the ground, thinking they were invisible as Fitz finds them. The audience was charmed.
Then came the challenge of securing transportation to the Madre de Dios River where they were to catch a boat that would take them on this journey of discovery.
Throughout her presentation, FitzGerald spoke in a calm, careful manner with a smile that seldom left her face as she explained that the trip and the itinerary she crafted from guide books were her ideas of how to get the most out of this chapter of their lives. Fitz was happy to oblige his bride. As a reporter for a newspaper in Danbury, Connecticut, he would be documenting the trip for his newspaper while she would be the photojournalist. She also kept a personal diary or log that would turn out to be their story of surviving what was to come.
There was a plane crash into a penal colony, of which she told Fitz, “People will not believe this at home,” with her lilting laughter. Then there was the rafting.
FitzGerald often referred to their youth as a major contributing factor as to how and why they took chances to try and complete the trip, even after learning they had missed the boat they planned to take. There wouldn’t be another opportunity for a motorized trip for three months, and the rainy season was upon them.
Why not attempt rafting? They were encouraged to travel as the locals did by raft.
“I got excited,” FitzGerald said. “A raft. What a great idea!” She added, “Fitz was in full Huck Finn mode.”
With leftover rafts and materials readily available in the village, the young couple put one together.
“People sat on the banks watching us,” she said. “We were their entertainment.”
The local harbormaster gave them a license to operate the raft because, “Rafting didn’t require any skill or training.” After securing a few supplies and finishing the raft, including a pink plastic shelter they dubbed “the pink palace,” Fitz pushed the raft into the current with a 10-foot long pole and they were off.
“The first four days were wonderful – paradise – we saw birds and butterflies,” FitzGerald recalled. “The sun was shining.” But it was the rainy season; there wasn’t any solid ground. The tree canopies were then full of animals, snakes, all manner of wildlife avoiding the flooded ground. Then the storm came.
The FitzGeralds would spend the next 26 days trying to stay out of the floodwaters that they knew were filled with life-threatening creatures. “We were outnumbered,” she chuckled.
FitzGerald described one particularly horrifying experience that still haunts her.
“We became covered in bees.” She said that one day they were suddenly swarmed by hundreds of bees. “The more we tried to get them off, the more they bit us,” she said. They discovered that by lying still inside their enclosure, the bees seemed less excited, yet, “They covered us like blankets.” She said Fitz asked her, “Are they eating us?” She replied, “I think they are licking our sweat.”
FitzGerald ended her presentation there with her wry sense of humor, saying, “Maybe you’ll read the book and get us out of there.”
During the Q & A that followed, FitzGerald said she always thought Fitz would write the book. “He was the writer,” after all. She said they were approached by several writers wanting to take on their story, but her response was, “No, if anyone was going to tell the story I would.” And what a story she wrote.
FitzGerald was encouraged by her children to write a book, and one suspects it was for the love of family that she eventually did. She said she took a short course on memoir writing adding, “At one point, I had been an English major … it was a good challenge.”
While the theme is one of survival, a young couple nearing death with each day that passes, it is also very much a love story – the love two people can draw upon when faced with insurmountable odds.
Fitz stood in the back of the room during the nearly hour-long presentation, a silent sentinel watching his wife enjoy her time in the limelight. When approached for a few comments, he shared that when they had met the tribal chief, he gifted Fitz with a fan made of beautiful bird feathers. He said they also planned a picture-taking session with the chief and his tribe. When the couple arrived, they found the chief had dispensed with his loincloth and donned western clothing much to their disappointment.
“Holly doesn’t read any reviews, but I do.” Fitz shared. He said he gets frustrated when people comment about the lack of photographs documenting those trying days as they fought to simply stay alive. “It’s a ‘selfie’ world today.” As he looked over to where his wife was fielding one-on-one questions and signing books, he said, “Taking photographs was the last thing on our minds. We were just trying to live!”
By Marilou Newell