I'm going on a new adventure in Bolivia tomorrow, this time on the Río Mamoré with a big group of ten people. We may be gone for a few weeks or more again, so I'm not sure when the next update will be. I figured I should post something here first before everyone thinks I'm dead again.
June 17-19, 2006
After I got to Trinidad, I began the long process of updating my website. At least a dozen people thought I was dead, but I'm most definitely alive for now. I had a couple boring days of watching the slow Bolivian Internet service crawl its way to completing my updates. I guess I needed some time on the computer after being away from them for so long, though.
I also started searching for canoes for my next trip. In a few days, I will meet Craig and some of his friends here in Trinidad to do a canoe trip down the Mamore. I didn't feel like going to La Paz with Craig, so I had a few extra days to begin the canoe search. Unfortunately, I didn't have much luck. I took micro-buses out to four different ports in the area, but no one at any of them knew of any canoes for sale. I'm still hopeful, though. The people I talked to know that I will be returning in a few days, and knowing a little bit about how small Bolivian communities operate, I bet everyone in the area will know about the gringos looking for canoes by the time I return.
June 16, 2006
I was awoken from a deep slumber at 4:45 AM when my bus arrived this morning. I was promised a seat, but Bolivian promises mean nothing, and it looked like I wouldn't get one. I originally sat toward the front, but when we left, everyone started piling into the bus and my seat was already taken. I started making my way toward the back, and a guy waved me in next to him in the back row. I got lucky because at least five people had to stand the whole time.
The road was in a deplorable condition the entire way, making it impossible to sleep. I got jostled around so much, it felt like my bones had been liquidated. Every part of my body ached. At one point, we went over a large bump (even for this road) and I was thrown over a foot in the air only to be stopped when my head crashed against the ceiling. I wasn't sure how long I could hold out without going crazy.
I started to read my book, The Old Patagonian Express, by Paul Theroux. One day back in 1978, Paul left his house near Boston on a commuter train and continued riding on trains all the way to Esquel, Argentina. (You may remember I visited Esquel back in January.) He frequently mentions the books he's reading, which I thought would be good for me to do, especially in this case. Several of the trains he took were in such horrible condition I'm not sure how he managed to survive. Paul's adventure comforted me somewhat as I was being thrown to and fro.
Toward the end of the trip, we had to cross several rivers. This being Bolivia, however, none of the rivers had bridges, so we had to wait for a ferry each time. At one point, I started talking to a guy who said his kids both were going to college in the US to become lawyers. I asked if they were planning to stay there forever, and he said that they would probably just work for a few years in the States and move back to Bolivia. I nodded in approval, stating how expensive the US was compared to Bolivia. He said "That's not the reason. In Bolivia people work to live. In the US people live to work." The man succinctly summed up the biggest difference between our cultures, for better or worse.
About ten miles before Trinidad, the road became paved. For the first time all day, I wasn't in a continuous earthquake. The trip took twelve hours, which I was told was quite fast. At the bus station, I met an English couple who were on their way out of town. I asked if they could recommend anywhere to stay, but they told me they splurged on a hotel room because their bus ride from Rurrenabaque was so horrible. It took them three whole days last week to do the exact same route I had just done. Suddenly, I realized that all of the agony I went through could have been a lot worse.
June 15, 2006
It was another slow start today as everyone took until after 9:00 to get ready. The only thing on the agenda before going home was swimming with the dolphins. After breakfast, we went up the river for awhile and all jumped in. We didn't see any dolphins, but at least no alligators ate us either.
We went back to camp, had lunch, then got ready to leave. While I was waiting for everyone else to shower (with the same water they were just swimming in), I had another fish. We all piled into the boat again and went back downstream toward where we started the tour. On the way, we saw a group of dolphins and were asked if anyone wanted to swim. Everyone else had just taken a shower, so I was the only one to go (once again, shower water=river water). This time the dolphins were closer, but they didn't approach and play with me like you see in the movies. Of course, movie dolphins are of the cute, sea-faring variety, while these were an ugly freshwater species, so that might have made the difference.
When we exited the river, we got back in the Land Cruiser and were driven down the bumpy road back to Rurrenabaque. The trip was great for wildlife viewing, but it was too bad everything moved so slowly. The activities we did (go down a river, look at animals at night, look for anacondas, fish, swim with dolphins) could have easily been done in two days if it weren't for all the dilly-dallying. Most of the other tourists don't mind that the tour is three days because they fly to and from La Paz specifically to do this tour, so it's their only chance to see the jungle. Never mind the fact that most of their jungle viewing is done from a hammock or a muddy river water shower.
When I got back to Rurrenabaque, I got a bus ticket to go to Trinidad tomorrow. The only problem was that the bus was leaving from Guayara, and I was told that it could get to Rurrenabaque anywhere from 3-7 AM, depending on road conditions. I moved into a hotel right next to the bus station and told them to wake me up when the bus got there. Of course, I couldn't just go to bed early on my last night in town, so I hung out at the famous Mosquito Bar with my comrades from my tour most of the night.
June 14, 2006
We got up today at 7:30 and had breakfast, which consisted of an assortment of fruits that were beautifully prepared for us. We then proceeded to wait for everyone in the group to get ready for the day. They all had to take showers for some reason, despite the fact that we would be walking through the swamp all day. I didn't have the heart to show them the pipe that pumped the water directly from the muddy river to the holding tank above the bathroom area. We didn't get going until 9:30, which was in stark contrast to the canoe trip, where we were usually on the water by 5:30.
The main activity of the day was to look for anacondas. We took the boat further up the river to an area where cows were grazing. Then we started walking until we got to a wetter area. Everyone was given rubber boots, and at first they somehow thought they were immune to getting wet. We kept crossing deeper and deeper streams, though, and the water got dangerously closer and closer to the tops of peoples' boots.
When we got to the main stream to look for anacondas, several of us started walking through the water, which was almost waste-high, while everyone else walked along the shore. We were told that if we found an anaconda, it would feel like stepping on someone's arm. That was a pleasant thought. As we kept walking, the shore line became smaller and smaller. Eventually, our guides led us to an area where everyone had to walk through the deep water. One by one, people screamed and jeered as their boots filled with water. We didn't find any anacondas, but seeing everyone who had just showered with the river water get muddy made it worthwhile.
When we got back to camp, I wanted to eat the meal that had already been cooked for us, but everyone else had to take another shower first. It was frustrating how different our priorities were. I didn't care if I smelled bad, which probably pissed off the others as much as them not caring if we ate pissed me off.
Later in the day, our group went fishing. We started out using raw beef as bait, and I got a few piranhas, catfish, and dogfish. I switched to using a small fish for bait and caught some bigger catfish. All of the others caught several piranha, too. The fishing outing was a great success, as would be expected considering that they bite constantly here. Tonight's dinner was complimented with a large plate of fried fish, another delicious feast.
June 13, 2006
This morning, Craig took a bus to La Paz. He is going to meet some of his friends who are flying in from Europe. We will all meet up in Trinidad in a week or so for our next canoe adventure. That gave me some spare time to do another tour, this time of the animal-laden pampa.
I was joined on the tour by Mano and Luz, whom I had met yesterday, Chris and Max, from England, Anna and Katie, from Denmark, and our guide Joaquin. We started the tour by driving about three hours down a bumpy road in a Toyota Land Cruiser. On the way, Joaquin spotted a three-toed sloth, one of the slowest animals in the world, hanging from a tree. I was surprised he was able to spot it from the moving vehicle because it blended in with its environment so well.
When we got to the river, we threw all of our gear into a large, sturdy dugout with a 15 HP motor and took off upstream. As soon as we left, we started seeing alligators on the shore. They seemed to be very vicious the way they sat with their mouths cocked open, but when we neared them with the boat, they proved to be quite docile. We were warned, though: They would attack if we invaded their territory. I think we were safe in the boat, though. I think.
For the rest of the ride to our camp, we almost constantly saw animals. Turtles were everywhere, usually in groups of two or more. There were also several species of birds, including the biggest bird of flight in the Amazon. Many of the birds beautifully spread their wings as we passed them. We also saw a few capybaras, the largest rodent in the world, and some pink river dolphins. Toward the end of our journey, we saw a group of golden monkeys swinging in the trees. A group of Israelis pulled up next to us with bananas and started feeding them. I'm not sure which group was of the higher-ordered primates. I think I saw more wildlife in that two-hour ride than I had seen in the entire last month in the jungle.
When we got to our camp, we unpacked our stuff and checked out the end of a soccer game (I know, it's not really roughing it if they have a TV). Later, we had a large dinner. A cook came along with us, so there was no work involved on our part. It's a lot easier than going without a guide. I felt like royalty, but everyone else acted like it was just part of their normal lifestyle.
After it got dark, we got in the boat again and looked for alligators. Their freaky amber-colored eyes were watching us from all over. The loud sounds of the frogs and birds were incredible. We may not have been able to see much, but the pampa was still very much alive at night.
The photo album for this entry is here.
June 12, 2006
I wanted to go on a tour of the pampa today, but it wasn't possible. All of the flights into town were canceled due to poor weather conditions, and so many tourists opt to fly rather than take the 18-hour bus ride from La Paz that every tour company in town was forced to delay their tours until tomorrow. However, I was able to get into a tour of the jungle for today. I went more for something to do than anything else.
I was joined on my tour by Mano and Luz from Holland and Julio, our guide. We were driven to the nearby jungle, but not in the national park. Julio mainly taught us about plants that were useful in the jungle. There are plants that supposedly can cure everything from snakebites to impotence. Probably the most interesting example was eating termites to cure indigestion. Julio tapped a termite nest to get them riled up, and when they started running around, he licked them. My turn was next. They tasted very minty for some reason.
For the next several hours, Julio led us through the jungle, cutting his own path with his machete the entire way. He constantly joked about being lost, and at times I wasn't sure how much he was actually joking. There didn't appear to be any rhyme or reason to the direction he took us in other than to keep us occupied for awhile.
At one point, Julio saw some vines and started cutting around them. I wasn't sure what he was up to when he asked us how much we weighed. Then I saw that he was clearing the area around a vine we could swing on. I guess it was kind of cool to act like Tarzan for a few seconds, but it took half an hour and countless wasted vegetation just to create a glorified swing. It seemed like a big waste, but the girls enjoyed it at least.
Later, we walked out of the jungle to the main road where we met our ride back into town. I didn't see many animals, but the tour was still interesting to learn about living in the jungle. Tomorrow's pampa trip guarantees lots of great wildlife viewing.
The photo album for this entry is here.
June 8-11, 2006
After a long travel day, it took a whole day to get caught back up on sleep. Craig and I decided to hang out in town for a few days before moving on. The next canoe trip doesn't start for over a week, and Rurrenabaque is the perfect place to relax. It's at the edge of the jungle and Madidi National Park, the most biodiverse national park on Earth. The surrounding scenery is amazing, and it's back on the Gringo Trail. I was really surprised to see all the tourists, especially Israelis walking around town. I had only seen three other tourists in the entire last month.
In my four days in Rurrenabaque, I watched a bunch of World Cup games, played a lot of chess against Craig on a new board he made, and met a lot of interesting people. Among them were an American ex-patriot who sells banana bread and cinnamon rolls from his homemade car with a 10hp tractor motor. He has a sign on his car declaring that "The Da Vinci Code is Ridiculous," and will discuss Armageddon with you for hours if you're up for it. Another person I met in town was Katrina, a Brit who has lived here for a few years. She has a cafe complete with DVD viewing rooms and a book exchange, which I desperately needed to use. Finally, I met a guy named Paul. He left his native Australia several years ago to travel around South America. Someone suggested that he check out Rurrenabaque, so he did. He met a girl there, got married, and had a kid. He's going to make one last trip back to Australia to save some money and go back to Rurrenabaque for good. Honestly, I can hardly blame him, it's such a nice place.
I tried using the Internet, but it's far too slow and expensive here because it has to be brought in via satellite. It's probably the only bad thing about Rurrenabaque. Also, for the eighth time, I had a power of two day. I'm clearly slowing down, though. It took twice as long to reach this one as the last one.
June 7, 2006
This was a very long day of traveling. As soon as we left the big ship, we found a boat taxi to take us to the other side of the river. The bus station was far away so we all fit into a motorcycle taxi that had a back seat like a car. It was a sight to behold. We immediately got a bus ticket to Riberalta, labeled as a "charming city" on Mathias' map.
On the way to Riberalta, we approached the Yata river, but the bridge was still under construction. It was amazing to see the Bolivians building a bridge with no equipment bigger than a circular grinding tool hooked up to a diesel engine pulled straight off an old truck. We had to wait for an old leaky ferry to take us across the foggy river.
When we got to Riberalta, we learned that we could get on another bus to Rurrenabaque in a couple hours. Rurrenabaque was where Craig and I wanted to end up, so we decided not to waste any time and bought the ticket. We said goodbye to Gabriel, who wanted to cross into Peru via the Pando department of Bolivia, which is probably even more remote than the area we were just in.
With a little time to spare, I took a quick walk around town and discovered an Internet cafe. I was surprised to learn that everyone back home thought I was dead. No, far from it, actually. I asked Craig if anyone ever thought he was dead, and he said "No, I've got a pretty good record [of not dying] so far." Too bad I only had a short time to read a few emails before my bus left.
We were told that the bus ride to Rurrenabaque could take anywhere from 12-18 hours, depending on road conditions. It would be a long ride, but a necessary one. On the way, we stopped for gas, but there was no pump at the station. Instead, they had to siphon fuel into the 200-liter tank, 10 liters at a time. Pavement is something that rarely exists in Bolivia outside the big cities, and this was no exception. The dirt road was in horrible condition the entire way. Looking at the deep marks in the dried mud, it was obvious that several buses had gotten stuck recently. We were lucky to be able to travel on a dry road at least. The bus had no TV or radio, and it was far too bumpy to write in my journal. I tried reading, but the only book I had was in Spanish, which is a difficult task even in a comfortable hotel room, so I abandoned the idea after a few minutes. The only thing left to do was watch the scenery, but I couldn't even do that after it got dark at 6:00. Sleeping was impossible while getting thrashed around, so I'm not sure how I even made it without going crazy.
We finally got to Rurrenabaque at 3:00 AM. I learned that electricity got cut off in the entire town at 2:00 AM, so it was completely dark. Luckily, Craig was there about six months ago, so he knew of a place to stay. We walked near the hotel and sat on a sidewalk until dawn. Sitting in the dark in an unknown place for three hours was a little scary, but I don't think too many people would attack two 6'3" gringos who were carrying canoe paddles and machetes. At least I wasn't on the bus anymore.
June 5-6, 2006
The next Bolivian town after Remanso that had road access was Guayaramerin, and our canoing only got us about one-third of the way there. Rather than paddle another three weeks, we decided to take the free boat there. The two-day trip was a great time to play chess and poker with Craig and the Frenchman, catch up on my blog, and reflect on our adventure.
Along the way, we stopped at several small Brazilian towns, all of which were very nice. It made me exited to see Brazil for real in the future. I'm going to have to learn some Portuguese, though.
We got to Guayara (on the Brazilian side) on the night of the 6th, but we opted to stay one more night on the boat since we weren't going to get much further and none of us had any reais anyway. Tomorrow we'll go to Riberalta, the first city I will have seen since Santa Cruz over a month ago.