Beds of Pasta
It’s been quite a while since my last update; we have been, and still are, in the middle of the rainforest region of Bolivia, and it’s been a very interesting and varied couple of weeks, with more than a few anecdotes to relate.
I left off last time just as we were preparing to visit the ‘port’ and try and secure a boat passage out of the rainforest city of Trinidad. At the port, we met the sunbeaten and friendly Don Soilo, el capitán of the motor boat Don Angel, who told us his boat, cargo and crew left in four days, and that we were welcome to string up our hammocks on deck for the journey. We held a thirty second decision making meeting and decided to accept the offer, which meant we had three days for another adventure in the meantime.
We decided to visit the small town of San Ignacio de Moxos, known for its distinctive local culture due to the influence of the native Moxos people, and a five hour journey along the notoriously worst road in the country, including a short micro ride, three hour river crossing in a boat, and another micro to pick us up on the other side. The initial micro ride presented no problems, and we arrived at the riverside and waited in the searing heat of the day inexplicably for two hours, until something unseen and unbeknownst to us changed and we were gestured onto a small, wooden cargo boat. We set off, enjoying the stunning views across the wide river as the sun slowly sank, and after a while, followed a narrow passage almost hidden by water plants, and promptly got lost. In an attempt to get back on course, we ploughed through the water plants, so that it looked like we were floating in the middle of a field. We inevitably got stuck, and spent a good hour slowly inching forwards, while Nae and I amused ourselves goggling at the insect life living on the leaves around us, then once free and back to a main waterway, spun in circles for a while until the boat was free of all leaves and could continue. The motor, however, was not happy and continually broke down. The sun had set by this point, so one of the men took a torch to the front to direct the boat through what looked like a submerged forest, and we endured more than a few head-on collisions with the trunks of large trees. Shortly after we had emerged from the forest section, the motor broke down completely and the passengers, the two of us and an elderly lady, waited on the banks for nearly two hours as the cargo was unloaded, the boat fixed, then reloaded again. Once back on board and on our way again, we all fell asleep on piles of large white sacking, which we later found out contained packets of pasta, and at some point in the night we came to a complete standstill, broken down for good.
We awoke the next morning in a narrow waterway, about one hundred metres from our final destination — the dirt road— but stuck in the river. A small canoe with a motor came to rescue us and a mere hour later we were moving once again.
Once on land, and with no vehicles in sight, we waited on the roadside for another couple of hours, until a micro turned up, and the ninety minute last leg of the journey went relatively smoothly, with the micro only breaking down twice. Twenty-three long hours after we left, we arrived in the town of San Ignacio, shaking from hunger having eaten only one meal in nearly forty-eight hours, with painful backs from our pasta mattresses. We ate, bought an obscene amount of snacks, and headed straight for bed.
In case such an incident happened on the way back, we had to leave the next day, so spent the evening wandering the town a bit, admiring its beautiful Jesuit Mission church and shaded, geometric main square, and not at all focussing on the fact that we spent roughly six hours awake in the town, as compared to the twenty-three to get there. The return journey the next day went a lot smoother, taking only seven hours.
Living, Not Leaving, on the River
Once back in Trinidad, we spent the morning before our boat’s departure buying snacks to last us five days’ worth of food, as our passage didn’t include meals, and a large, plastic, Toy Story bag to carry them in. A taxi dropped us, our food, and our rucksacks at the port in the afternoon, and we spent a while hauling everything on board. The seven-year-old girl and eight-year-old boy, who live and work on board, gave us a tour of the motor boat and the five cargo floats attached (three of which were exclusively loaded with crates of a local beer), then took us out fishing in the small canoe. We set up our hammocks and mosquito nets on a covered section of the second deck, and settled down to enjoy our relaxing journey up the river.
Five days later we still hadn’t left. Not all of the cargo had turned up, and each day the captain came to speak to us, until Nae became sick of the word ‘mañana’ (tomorrow). Bolivia being an excessively inefficient country, we just waited and enjoyed living with the locals, particularly getting to know the two kids and their grandmother who was the sole woman on board, cooking for the crew of five men in a small kitchen attached to the back of one of the cargo floats, which came complete with a sink, old fashioned fire oven and wooden dining table. However, after five days, and being told once again that the departure was being pushed back another, we held another, much longer, decision making meeting and decided to get off the boat, slightly worried about our timing and visas what with a few more stop offs in Bolivia planned. A very interesting few days, and a shame we didn’t get to experience the boat actually moving more than the few metres back and forth as it rearranged the cargo floats, but definitely the right decision for us.
The High Life
The next day we boarded a tiny, rickety plane with its nose patched up with sellotape, not being able to face the worst road in the country again for the far longer journey to the rainforest town of Rurrenabaque. There were nineteen passengers in total, one on each side of the aisle, and a view into the pilot’s cockpit. The short flight offered stunning views over the rainforest and waterways snaking through. On our flight, we met an incredibly interesting American named Mike, who is in the process of setting up a social business project to run tours in the area, which will highlight and educate about the effect of deforestation, working with the Bolivian Amazon Land Trust Alliance to buy areas of land in order that it remains protected. Upon arriving at the earthy airstrip in Rurrenabaque, we balanced all our rucksacks and selves onto the back of two moto-taxis and rode into town, got a room together in a hostel, then Mike gave us a short tour around the small town centre.
The next morning, Nae and I climbed aboard a small motorised canoe, and two guides took us a short way up the river, then on a walk through the rainforest, slowly climbing uphill. Once we were high above the river, we put on harnesses, helmets and a strange leather sort of glove thing on one hand and began our descent using eight ziplines criss-crossing between the very tallest of trees over the canopy for about one kilometre. It was exhilarating to zoom over the forest so high up, gazing down through the trees, even if I did manage to get stuck on one line a fair distance from the end platform and have to haul myself along slowly.
The final, and most challenging, of our recent experiences, came in the form of the jungle tour we set off on the following day. It began with a two hour boat ride into the protected Park Madidi, where the main camp was located on the bank of the wide, muddy river. The first afternoon and following morning we did long walks with our indigenous guide, Marco, tracking a group of grunting forest pigs, including a very squealy young one, and learning about the incredible uses of the plants and trees, from anti-malarial and anti-insect properties, to creating leafy backpacks to carry items, to highly toxic poison put on the tips of arrows to hunt animals.
After lunch of our second day in the jungle, it all changed. We started our survivor tour, which meant that we left all our items at base camp aside from mosquito nets, a bottle of water and a headtorch, and set off in essentially underwear to survive in the jungle for three days, finding our own food and shelter. Our arms and faces were tattooed with the dark blue pigment of a local fruit, we were made crowns of plaited leaves, and one cheek was stuffed with coca leaves to slowly suck, which stave off hunger, tiredness and the cold.
We began with a long walk to a river beach, where we fished for several hours until it got dark and then made a fire amid the pebbles. Marco ran a ceremony for Pacha Mama, Mother Earth, to ask for protection in the form of necklaces made from forest materials which the Tacana men wear when they set off into the rainforest alone for three months at the age of 10 or 11. He sang and offered Pacha Mama coca leaves, cigarettes and a special whiskey, whilst the two of us danced around the fire in our underwear waving around the necklaces, having convinced him that it was not necessary to strip topless. We were asked to sing a song from our country as an offering, and under the sudden pressure of finding something we both knew the words to, haltingly sung a particularly beautiful rendition of ’There’s a Hole in My Bucket’. We strung up our mosquito nets between a simple structure we made of branches on a sandy section of the beach, and endured a chilly night.
The next morning, shortly after daybreak and a quick river wash for me, it began tipping it down, so we ran for it, wading across the river with our items and into the forest. Marco led us to a tiny structure made of branches and leaves to get out of the relentless rain, and a few minutes later another survivor, Matt, and his guide ran in and joined us there too. We scarpered very promptly when the large branches of a nearby tree came crashing down on the structure, so we ran with the two guides to the ruins of an old Tacana house made of bamboo, wood and a roof of thatched leaves, which had belonged to Marco’s grandmother. The entire of that second survival day was given over to the pounding downpour. The guides started a fire, around which we slowly dried, and wrapped in our mosquito nets and sheets of the soft bark of a certain tree for warmth, we endured the night curled in a communal spoon around the fire. Morning brought no break in the weather, so after a few hours of daylight, we ran for base camp and got back in time to eat lunch, our first proper meal, pack up and get on the boat back, our faces and arms still tattooed and our bodies now adorned with plaited bandanas, anklets and wooden rings made in the hut by the guides during the rain.
Due to the rain, which has ruined the muddy airstrip in Rurrenabaque, we are waiting for a flight to La Paz in two days, passing the time by sleeping and eating a lot, and receiving a fair amount of amused looks: our faces and arms still stained by the natural tattoos.