This Amazon epic had danger, discovery ... and an ex-president

My own bucket list has never included a trip through the Amazon, where even the sloths are dangerous. But then again, I'm no Teddy Roosevelt. On Tuesday (Jan, 9), PBS has an ambitious film about Roosevelt's adventure in 1914. Here's the story I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

We all know what
ex-presidents do. Some paint, some para-sail, all write books and
give speeches ... but only one went on a deadly journey down an
uncharted tributary of the Amazon.

That was Teddy
Roosevelt, in an idea that spiraled. He “had a plan to do some
adventure travel,” Tweed Roosevelt said of his great-uncle. “But
it wouldn't have amounted to anything more.”

Then Brazil's
foreign minister suggested Roosevelt lead a mission to chart what was
then called The River of Doubt. The result – which will be traced
Tuesday in a PBS documentary -- was epic.

“Before it was
over, one member of the expedition had drowned, another had committed
murder and ... was abandoned to perish in the jungle,” said John
Bredar of WGBH, the station that produces the “American Experience” series. “Roosevelt
himself would be bady injured and (almost) left behind to die.”

He survived, but
died five years later, at 60. His widow said the ordeal had robbed
five years from his life; “it probably took more,” Tweed
Roosevelt feels.

But one survivor
seemed unfazed. Candido Rondon would live another 43 years, dying at
92. “TR never would have gone on this without Rondon,” Tweed
Roosevelt said.

This was officially
the Roosevelt Rondon Expedition. It was not the usual white-man
journey into native territory, said Larry Rohter, a Rondon

“Rondon (was)
5/8ths Indian descent ... He was an orphan from the age of 2, poor.
Grew up in what was essentially an Indian village until he was 7 and
went to study in school.”

He was a
“postivist,” Rohter said, believing in the quality of the people
deep in the jungle. He worked with them while bringing power lines
into the Amazon area – and during this river expedition.

The two leaders had
much in common, but also had key differences. Rondon never wavered
from his goal of charting the river meticulously; Roosevelt, however,
soon was more worried about the son who had accompanied him and was
planning to marry when he got home.

Eventually, Tweed
Roosevelt said, the ex-president “only wanted to get his son out
alive. On the other hand, Rondon (was) a tremendously committed man”
who stuck to the charting goal.

The mission would
take more than three months, emerging with the first map of what
became Rio Roosevelt. It was a huge project ... as was the “American
Experience” film.

The documentary
makes rich use of old photos and movies, but also required new
footage on an Amazon tributary, shot in black-and-white. (“The
overwhelmingness of the green ... just felt too much,” said
producer-director John Maggio.) There were the expected dangers, plus

One cameraman,
Maggio said, decided to pose with a sloth. “You think, 'What damage
could a sloth do? They're so slow.' Well, it slowly grabbed his
forearm and it took five (people) to pull the claws off.”

The natives fixed
the gash with the resin of a local bean. These were skilled guides,
Maggio said; the leader, Abhijius, had recently taken David Beckham
on a motorcycle trip through the Amazon.

“Beckham gave him
these designer boots that he wore the whole time. The only thing that
Abhijius could say to me in English was 'Beckham boots.'”

-- “American
Experience: Into the Amazon,” 9-11 p.m. Tuesday (Jan. 9), PBS