The Boiling River: Adventure and discovery in the Amazon, by Andrés Ruzo, is a short non-fiction account of Ruzo’s attempt to find the eponymous river. This is the second of my Strong Sense of Place books this summer – this time taken from the episode about Peru. Growing up in Lima, Ruzo heard his grandfather telling stories about the Spanish conquistadors, including a mention of a river that boiled deep in the heart of the Amazon and caught out the invaders. He assumed the boiling river itself was an exaggeration, but years later, as a geologist working on his PhD, he was studying geothermal features in Peru and began to wonder if there was truth to it. When he initially approached a senior geologist about the possibility, he was scoffed at and laughed out of the room. However, he told the story of this embarrassing experience to a sympathetic aunt – only to find that not only had she heard the story, she’d actually been to see the river herself. Considering her to be a reliable witness, Ruzo set out to find this mythical place. Given the name of the book, it’s hardly a spoiler to say that he found a river. The majority of the book is given over not to finding the river, but to studying it, finding out if it actually boils, and trying to work out what’s going on – that is the central mystery.
When I picked this up, I did not realise that it was an expansion of Ruzo’s TED talk on the subject. It does read a bit like a TED talk, and I wonder if I would have had a different experience with the audiobook, since it was originally designed to be performed rather than read. The writing starts out plain and straightforward, with no particular attempt at scene-setting, but either I got used to the writing style or it changed over the course of the book. By midway through, I could feel Ruzo’s curiosity and wonder at the discovery process. The most vivid part of the narrative is his description of his data collection and investigations – perhaps unsurprisingly, since that’s what he’d have to know inside out for his final exam – and I felt that the book really came alive while he was describing his experiences beside the river. The fact that it was in present tense irritated me, but I didn’t find it as aggravating as I sometimes do – I felt that Ruzo was using present tense in an attempt to carry the reader along on his investigations, rather than out of misguided artistic pretensions. It gets very TED-talky indeed at the end, suddenly feeling more like a lecture or a sermon than an adventure story, but it was interesting enough for long enough that it kept me turning the pages, and I’m certainly glad I read it.
I appreciated Ruzo’s thoughts on the tension between his desire to study the river while respecting the fact that it was a sacred place for local indigenous people. His careful negotiations with the shaman who oversees the area were well-written, and their discussion of what the river means to each of them were fascinating. In fact, I would have read a much longer book just on that subject – how to respect local beliefs and traditions while finding out more about the science that underpins them. As it is, he touches on the subject but doesn’t have room to expand. That’s a problem throughout the book, in fact. I’ve just marked a whole pile of first-year assignments where my most common piece of feedback was you have tried to include everything and therefore have not covered any subject in depth, and I’d say the same thing about this. There is enough here for a full-length book, and I wish Ruzo had written one (though I also have a lot of sympathy for a PhD student slinging something serviceable together before getting back to the outputs he’ll actually be assessed on). It’s an interesting blueprint of how robust methodology can work hand-in-hand with respect for local or traditional beliefs. It’s clear that Maestro, the shaman, and Ruzo, the scientist, respect each other as experts in their respective fields, even though they don’t share the same beliefs. Each works to accommodate the other’s values and priorities.
There are things in here that I related to as a former PhD student – particularly the way that Ruzo is haunted by a single historical paper that he can’t get hold of. I had my own experience with this: Green, 1967 – the author and date of which I was able to pull out of my head three years after my viva because it was so very frustrating to track it down. Would the hunt for an individual source be as compelling to someone who hadn’t had to do it? Probably not, I suspect. Similarly, I enjoyed seeing Ruzo’s deep level of personal investment in the project – at one point in his attempt to hunt down the missing paper, he has to call an academic librarian. It’s only after he bombards the poor man with his enthusiastic account of how important the papers are that “I quickly realise the librarian was ill-prepared for the tenor of this conversation when he picked up the phone”. He pauses, calms down, and introduces himself clearly. There are also accounts of his wife literally falling asleep while he explains how exciting it all is for the nth time. While I didn’t have these exact experiences, it is pretty relatable – doing a PhD makes you weird, myopic, and obsessive for years on end. My loved ones were very tolerant, but there’s no denying that nobody – not even your supervisors – cares as much about your thesis as you do.
Fundamentally, in order to have room for both the adventure and the discovery promised in the title, I would have liked this to be much longer – which is a compliment, I think! I’d also prefer it not to be quite so didactic at the end – I am quite comfortable being presented with facts and analysis, and drawing my own conclusions; I prefer books don’t explicitly tell me what to think. However, I recognise that that is part of the nature of TED talks, and grumbling about it too much seems churlish. It’s certainly made me more interested in reading books about both the cultures and the landscape of the Amazon, and Peru in general – I have a copy of Kim MacQuarrie’s Last Days of the Incas and reading this has probably bumped it several places up the TBR. I’ll be pleased if Ruzo decides to write a more comprehensive account of his experiences one day, but until then, this is a quick and enjoyable read that took me to a place I am not very likely to see any time in the near future.