Journal 14 - December 21, 2002

Rurrenabaque, Bolivia» Go Back

Journal 14
My attempt at the least logical route possible around this huge continent had me back in La Paz again after my Salar de Uyuni and mountain bike tours. For those of you attempting to trace my route on a map, you probably have a giant squiggly, maybe a figure 8, or possibly a combination of the two. My trip more or less resembles the shape of a giant capital N, give or take a few zigzags here and there. Right now I'm 1/3 of the way down the diagonal part of the N.

I forgot to mention in my last email the train graveyard in Uyuni (pictures of which are now up on the web). With nothing to do the day before my tour of the salt flat, I set off with a Dutch couple, an American from Iowa, and a Canadian. Sure, why not bring the camera? Seventy shots later I was glad I did. The eerie graveyard is home to dozens of old decrepit train carcasses. Rusting away on the outskirts of Uyuni, there apparently is talk, occasionally, of making a museum. But as is the Bolivian way, "mañana". Mañana for decades. Like the new paved modern road created to circumvent the most dangerous road in the world, the museum might happen next year. Actually the replacement road for the Death Road exists and was finally opened in 2006. From what I heard the new road had been finished except for a kilometer long section waiting to be tunneled to completion. The nearly completed road had sat for nearly a decade. Purportedly the last of the project's money, the part needed to complete the tunnel, was embezzled before the project could be completed, delaying completion of the project for over ten years. Like the train museum in Uyuni, maybe next year. Museum or no, the old train bodies were fascinating.

When I eventually made it back to La Paz I began making plans for my trip to the jungle. The idea of a jungle trip is something I had heard about, but skipped in Peru because of the reported bargains available in Bolivia. I was later sad to discover I would get what I was paid for in Bolivia. From La Paz I flew to Rurrenabaque, a small town that marks the beginning of the Amazon basin. Stepping out of the plane in Rurre was like walking into a sauna. From the cool arid valley of La Paz's 3600 meters, to the sweltering jungle humidity of Rurrenabaque, what a shock for the body. I couldn't stop sweating, and despite the liters of water I drank, I couldn't pee. Every ounce of liquid I consumed I sweated out. With a day to kill in Rurre I hit the pool, internet cafe, restaurants and hammocks. The next day the other tourists and I arrived at the tour office at 9am sharp. We were assured we'd be leaving at 9a, so we didn't dare be late. Very prompt these Bolivians. We left according to schedule right on time, Bolivian time that is, at 10:15. At the airport we picked up the rest of our group. Much to my pleasant surprise, Christian, the friendly Aussie who did the Uyuni tour with me was waiting there for us to pick him up.

A two-hour Land Cruiser ride later we landed at Santa Rosa, where we got in our boats and headed for the Pampas, the grassy border of the Amazon basin that is home to hundreds of animal species and millions of mosquitoes. A long boat ride and five sore asses later we were off the boats and in the camp. During the boat ride we saw monkeys, crocodiles, pink dolphins, weird giant river rats the size of a small bear (officially known as a capybara, the world's largest rodent), many different bird species, and tortugas, or turtles. Upon arriving at camp it was so hot, and there were so many mosquitoes, that we all jumped in the river for relief. The guide jumped in first, and then the crew. "No problema," they assured us. Because of the heat we couldn't resist. I stuck my hand in water to test the temperature. Warm, but less than six inches down my hand was invisible. The brown water of the river flows slowly, and picks up silt and mud as it goes, which means there is zero visibility in the water. How the crocs and piranhas see to bite anyone is a wonder. Maybe this is what gave us the courage to swim in the water in the first place. Shortly after getting out of the river we watched a huge croc swim by in the exact place we had been swimming. Minutes later the cook began fishing for piranhas in the exact same place. Scary.

Eventually the mosquitoes left me alone. Probably because after applying so much DEET on the outside of my body that by default I had begun ingesting it, thus I when I perspired it came out of my pores in a toxic lather. This turned out to be doubly beneficial though. First for me, because I managed to avoid mosquito bites for the second half of the trip. Secondly for my tour companions, who seemed to appreciate the fact that my body let off an iridescent light, much like a glow-stick illuminating the tent and enabling my mates to go about their business without the use of a flashlight or headlamp.

After dinner we went crocodile hunting in the boat. It didn't take long. Every five meters or so our flashlights would reflect back the two little red lights that were the reflections of the crocodile's eyes. Our guide, or Rambo as we came to know him, quickly lassoed a croc and had him on board to pass around for photos. I reluctantly grabbed the poor croc and posed for my token gringo-with-a-crocodile-photo. The whole episode set an unfortunate tone for the rest of the trip. After the croc experience I was sufficiently turned off and simultaneously guilt ridden for disturbing the beast in its native habitat. The guide's attitude didn't help matters. The way he handled the animals wasn't exactly representative of the eco-tourism advertised by the agency. For the rest of the trip all of us abstained from further contact with the animals, this despite the urgings of Mr. Rambo and his crew.

Day two we found a South American species of Cobra, which Rambo grabbed in a crocodile-dude kind of way, except with little regard for the animal's well being. Later we found a 10 foot Anaconda, then another. Rambo eagerly posed for pictures, then attempted to pass the poor creatures onto the group, none of which accepted. He misunderstood our lack of enthusiasm as fear, which is fine, but it didn't stop him from chasing down more Anacondas in an attempt to impress us. When we met up with another tour group he finally found the audience he was looking for. Members of that group were happy to handle the snake and pose for pictures with the suffering creature wrapped around their necks.

We returned to camp after making our way back in torrential rains. This after a blue sky morning that fooled us in to not bringing rain gear. Upon entering the tent-cabin I pulled the zip-lock bag containing my camera out of my backpack, to my horror the bag was half full of water and my camera was floating, at least I wish it was floating. In fact it was entirely submerged in water, along with my Australian mate's camera, given to me because of my ingenious water protective methods. After the amount of rain we endured during our two hours of exposure, it wasn't much of a shock that the water had penetrated my backpack, the zip-lock bag inside my pack, and anything else it could penetrate. So far the camera seems to have recovered, but keep your fingers crossed.

By day three we were all ready to leave. Mosquitoes, rain, heat and Rambo had taken their toll. We searched the river for pink dolphins to swim with, but I think most of us were hoping not to find any. We didn't, although we saw a few in the distance. Understandably they fled when they heard the outboard motor on the boat. We did swim in the river though, it was our only relief from the heat after being cooked like jerky in the boat for hours. Pretty exciting watching the crocs in the distance as we jumped in and out of the boat attempting to de-DEET ourselves.

I eventually made it back to La Paz and a proper shower, no mosquitoes, and most importantly no Rambo. While in La Paz again I felt compelled to see some sites. The Mercado Negro is one of the most fascinating things I've see so far on my trip. Several square blocks worth of Black-Market goods, where anything and everything is available, but somehow nothing I had the slightest inclination to buy. The market is a frenetic clash of old world Bolivia and modern world manufacturing. For someone who feels the pangs of an anxiety attack from the disorganization of Ross dress for less, the Mercado Negro was a grand mal seizure waiting to happen. The area is overrun by booth after booth of every imaginable item, product, or black market knick knack. Anything ever manufactured anywhere, has either been remanufactured for the Mercado Negro, or there is a knock-off for it. My favorite was the SQNY Discman, there are SONY products too, but you save a bundle if you buy the SQNY stuff.

The alleys are packed, an alley of yarn, an alley of beans, an alley of jeans, an alley of fruits, an alley of vegetables. Not many gringos up there either, in some sections I felt as if I was on display. Food sections, with rows of soup stands, pot after pot of oil sizzling fire pits. Chicken-parts, meat, (who knows what kind). Fish, heads, fish-heads, the local delicacy guinea pig, dried up llama fetuses, you name it. If you can eat it, wear it, kill it, make it, sell it, steal it, it's there. An Irish friend of my found his stolen camera for sale there. He couldn't afford to buy it back though, so he settled for a SQNY knockoff. Eventually I was driven out by the chaos, back into the relative calm of the Bangkok-like streets of my neighborhood. After the madness of the Black Market, the streets of La Paz made me feel like I was back on serene State Street in Santa Barbara.

I have La Paz to thank for another one of my trip's highlights. The World Press Photography exhibit. Moving in ways I've rarely been moved. Horrifying, incredible, beautiful photos from the World Press. If a picture is worth a thousand words, you're going to be reading for a long time as I try to describe the exhibit. Pictures from the significant events from around the world. Impossible, really, to describe. I was glad to discover later, after talking to my Aussie mate, that I wasn't alone in being close to tears on several occasions, just from the images, both good and bad. Who ever thought ballerinas could make a guy cry? The world is a complex and amazing place. We know, 9/11 pictures from the WTC were well represented. Slavery, genocide, war, plenty of terrorism, technology, and miracles of modern medicine just to name a few of the incredible images. Ballerinas too.

That's almost it for my latest verbose email. Can anyone out there tell me why President W is insisting on a war with Iraq? With my admittedly very limited knowledge of the situation, my perception is that W wants to settle the score for daddy. The EU doesn't want a war, nobody I meet wants a war, and everybody I meet thinks that W wants to finish what his farther didn't. Of course I am socializing with a bunch of idealistic, oftentimes under-informed, narrow-minded travelers like myself. So, if any of you have a true, good reason for him to start a war with Iraq, please let me know so I can attempt to give a logical explanation the next time the subject comes up, which will undoubtedly be soon.

Have a great Christmas, err, Holidays everyone. I'd barely know it was Christmas if I didn't miss my family so much. The developing world lacks the corporate infrastructure necessary to sustain anything near the marketing bonanza that exists in the U.S., so the holiday season is barely noticeable here. Good and bad.

Happy holidays,

Justin