Jungle Tour – Day 1
We woke up this morning, not quite ready to head back into the rustic lodgings of our organized tours, but the hope of spending more time with Erin and Liz inspired us enough to continue. They had already delayed their original tour of Madidi and we thought we might be able to join them this time around. But after a few questions and the realization that our very tight schedule could not be delayed any longer, we said our goodbyes.
Our jungle tour had been arranged by the tour office in La Paz. Though not as amicable as our Pampas group, we checked in and waited. And waited. And waited. It turned out that because of the last few days of rain, no fuel trucks could navigate the jungle roads – and now everyone was out of gas. Everyone.
We made do with peanut butter and chocolate milkshakes and when fuel had been “found”, we were led to the wooden boat that would once again transport us. The group this time included Sarah (from our Galapagos tour), Maria, and a French couple from Toulouse. And of course our local guide, Jasmani.
Maria, willing to “take one for the team”, engaged Jasmani in delightful conversation, in Spanish of course. He began to weave the tale of journalists he had taken to “meet’ the cannibals living in a remote area of the Madidi National Forest. Yes, cannibals. Lonely Planet doesn’t really mention them…Locals know where they are and these known boundaries seem to keep everyone safe. There are known rules and “suggestions” of what to do should an interaction occur – such as removing all your clothes in an attempt to show solidarity. The cannibals live like a National Geographic spread – loin cloths, crude arrows and bone jewelry. Jasmani’s tale kept us completely enthralled.
The river was wild and wide, and full of bacteria that would “kill us immediately” if we swallowed enough of it. Fabulous, I thought. After a 2-3 hour ride we arrived at our jungle “retreat”, which made the accommodations in the Pampas look like the Four Seasons – well maybe just a Quality Inn, but you get the idea. Another group was just gathering to leave as we sat down to lunch. Jasmani and the other guide – who I rightly named Mowgli, swung from beams and played with machetes. We were officially in the jungle.
Jasmani cleared the dorm spaces from the last group and transformed the beds into something livable. We smothered ourselves in bug repellent, tucked our long pants into our socks (to keep some sort of creature from climbing up our pants) and followed naively into the dense bush.
The flora here was much different from the Pampas – dense, green and mysterious. The heavy canopy of trees shaded all the undergrowth and you could feel the pulsing of the earth beneath your feet. Somehow we agreed to the “off the beaten path” journey – though I wasn’t sure I wanted to trail blaze after spotting a rather poisonous spider at eye level. Regardless, we continued. Jasmani spotted a freshly maimed opossum – a puma kill, which meant that the puma could not be far. That was assuring. A few meters more and Jasmani stopped us and stuck a stick down a hole in the ground. Minutes later, a tarantula the size of his hand was on Patrick’s forehead. Okay, we’re definitely in the jungle now. The spit at the end of the stick had lured the spider out of its hole and as long as it was not alarmed, it could cause us no harm. We learned also of a giant jungle bee that flies into the tunnel of the arachnid and with one perfect puncture into its body cavity, kills the spider instantaneously. There is no struggle, simply surrender on the part of the spider.
We learned about the symbiotic relationship between the fire ants and an indigenous plant – the plant providing food for the insect and the insect providing protection for the plant. Around the tree was a clearly defined circle of space, where no other tree grew, assuring there would be no struggle for light, soil and water. It was crucial to be aware of these almost hidden signs, at every moment. Tapping the tree with your sleeve could mean the person walking behind you could be covered in fire ants within seconds.
We tasted the bark of a tree that tasted bitter and pungent, like tonic water and learned of its anti-malarial properties. We each had a try at clearing a walking path with a machete and felt the weight of this primitive tool in our hands. We drank filtered water from vines that work like a Britta water system in the jungle – when cut the vines release the pure liquid like a hose.
We emerged from the jungle bewildered and a bit turned around (even Patrick had lost his sense of direction). The evenings activities were a candle lit dinner accompanied with the music of the howler monkeys and then a night hike through the jungle. Looking for a set of yellow glowing eyes, amidst the sounds of the night world coming alive, was eerie. Our long walk however brought in nothing but heavy tiredness and we were all happy to crash into our single beds, under the protection of tattered mosquito nets and makeshift blankets.
Jungle Tour – Day 2
After breakfast, we packed up our things and were given the choice to hike again through the jungle or see the parrots. The immediate consensus was parrot, though the realization of that choice came a few minutes later.
You see, seeing the parrots meant 2 river crossings, jungle style. That means, swimming. Was this not the river that yesterday was full of bacteria that would kill us in one big gulp? Jasmani insured us it was the other river, not this one. Um, okay. What we should be concerned about instead was the current that could easily carry us away if we did not swim fast enough.
Though I did not share it with anyone else, the first river crossing terrified me. In one moment, I realized how powerful the force of the river was and swam as if my life depended on it. And then, I put my feet down and realized I could stand up.
We made it to the parrots and watched first from an observation deck from below. We watched as the pairs (parrots are monogamous and mate for life) flew above our heads and their songs echoed off the great cliffs. On our hike up, Jasmani shared another jungle medicine – though the real medicine was his laughter as we realized we had just eaten a natural anesthesia and the numbness was spreading to our lips and tongues. The view from above was even more magnificent – seeing the vast Madidi rainforest, the convergence of rivers and land vibrating with energy.
We were rewarded with a boat ride back to camp and prepared to load, when the clear blue skies morphed into sudden afternoon rains. Again wet, we loaded the boat and simply accepted that the next 2 hours would be a bit uncomfortable. We arrived back in Rurre, indulged in a hot shower, devoured 2 pizza Margaritas, guzzled several jungle cocktails and of course ended the evening at the Mosquito Bar. Jasmani had also ended up at this watering hole and he had brought a piece of the jungle with him – when I ran into him on the way to toilet, I couldn’t help but notice the tarantula creeping across the floor, from behind his feet.
One crazy day of travel
We woke up early in Rurrenabaque in order to make the early flight to La Paz. A rickety bus transferred us to the airport, where we could see for ourselves the patch of grass that was used as the runway. It was clear now why flights are cancelled so often. We checked in and paid 3 different people, three different taxes and departure costs. There were only 4 other passengers, so I wondered how perhaps one amount and one ticket and one person could do the job of three, but we were n Bolivia, so I did spend too much time thinking about it.
We waited for the plane to arrive from La Paz, and once it did, we were soon on our way. We flew for 1 hour, and as we dropped out of the clouds, the difference in temperature hit us. Once on the ground, we were greeted with hail and frigid air – a shock to our systems that were acclimatized to the sticky and warm weather of the jungle.
Our cab driver to La Paz told of the events we had missed – the day before in the area close to the airport, riots had damaged a whole street. In this area full of brothels and whore houses, residents were sick of the noise and debaucheries, so they took it upon themselves to set fire to the houses of ill repute – the pictures in the paper showed piles of charred furniture, red stiletto boots and wigs. That’s one way to do it.
We arrived back at the Brewhouse Hostel, where our luggage had been stored for 5 days. It is strange to notice the behaviors that become like second nature when you travel, for instance luggage storage. The rest of the day was full of mindless “errands”: we collected the refund from the travel agency for our cancelled flight, collected the CD of photos from the bike ride, bought an LP for New Zealand, bought gifts and locks. We then picked up our luggage, took a cab to the bus stop, boarded a bus to Oruruo, arrived three hours later, checked our luggage at the train station, had dinner, Patrick got his hair cut and then we climbed onto the evening train. The guy from Alaska sitting next to Patrick shared his stories of the Bering Sea until it was time to close our eyes. At 2 am , we arrived in Uyuni, and in the dark and cold, collected our luggage and stumbled into bed for a 6 hour power nap.