Monday, November 9, 2009


A word on Bolivian transportation:

There are three things that are guaranteed to occur on an overnight South American bus trip. One, a crying baby. With a maliciousness beyond its years, the child will usually wait until everyone is trying to sleep to begin its wailing. Two, at least one guy who snores, who will compete with the cacophony of scary mechanical sounds the bus makes. And three, the road will be in terrible condition, with potholes the size of jungle cats and enough dust to make you feel like you're wearing an extra layer of clothes. The bus will rattle and bump and shake the entire time, so that sleeping means knocking your head against everything. Stepping off the bus at your destination feels like emerging from battle: weary, sore, irritable and dirty.

Someone told me that he saw a sign in the La Paz bus terminal that says: "We never know when we're going to leave and we never know when we're going to arrive." True to form, our 11:30 bus from La Paz to Rurrenabaque remained quite stationary at our supposed departure time, and the driver was no where to be seen. Yuval sighed and said, "I guess we're not leaving on time then."
Another Israeli guy who was taking our bus replied, "Oh no, we'll be right on time. 11:30 on the nose - Bolivian time." he laughed, "do you know how you can change your watch to Bolivian time?"
"Break your watch."

From La Paz, the bus to the small northern jungle town of Rurrenabaque takes anywhere from 17 to 20 hours. It used to be that the route was via the infamous Bolivian Death Road- three and a half feet wide, a sheer drop into the canyon, tales of vehicles disappearing over the sides. But they've since closed that road to vehicles, although there are bicycle tours down it now - if you manage to stay on the road the whole way, you get a t-shirt that says "I survived the Bolivian death road".
The new road is slightly less dodgy. Still said to be the worst bus ride in Bolivia (and that's saying a lot; competition is fierce) and the road is still not wide enough to accomodate both directions of traffic. Every time an oncoming car approaches, one of the vehicles has to back up into the nearest shoulder. It's best not to pay too much attention, or the inefficiency of it all will drive you beserk.


The bus rolled into Rurre at 4:30 in the morning. Why so early? The same reason the roads aren't built to accomodate both lanes of traffic, the garbage cans don't have bottoms, and why during a parade I saw children dressed up like lettuce. This is Bolivia.
Not having slept at all, stepping off the bus into dark, heavy humidity felt like walking onto a different planet. One where bugs the size of household pets hide in the reeds and have strange sound making contests.

We then spent a leisurely day of orienting ourselves with the town. And by orienting I mean drinking pina coladas poolside. The pool is top of a hill overlooking the river valley. Gorgeous AND an antedote to the crazy heat. Successful first day.

The following day we went on a three day tour of the pampas - the marshy savanna outside of Rurre. It's incredibly touristy to be sure, but more than worth it. After being jostled around in a Jeep for four hours, which was actually sort of nice despite not being able to see out of the windsheild for all the dust, because the open windows provided a bit of air conditioning. The next leg was a three hour slow roast in a wooden, motorized canoe. By the time we got to the lodge, we were probably cooked enough to eat. The scenery was great, though. Loads of alligators, caimans (giant, aggressive black crocodilians), turtles, pink dolphins, capybaras (world's largest rat; adorable, looks like a cross between a bear and a cuy), all sorts of birds from cormorants, eagles, falcons, goofy looking pampas condors, ostriches, and birds that we dubbed 'prehistoric chickens' (looks exactly like it sounds). We arrived at the lodge - a very basic wooden number on stilts with cold showers, no electricity, and best of all: hammocks - and chilled out in the hammocks watching red howler monkeys play in the trees before dinner. The food was spectacular beyond expectations. Not even the oppressive heat couldnt stop us from eating until we felt like bursting.

It was halloween the day we arrived. I joked that I was going as Jane Goodall and would befriend the monkeys. Which didn't end up being far from the truth: I found a spider monkey hanging around the restaurant we stopped for lunch at. He was curled up with a sleeping pig and was more or less friendly. Obviously really used to humans: he grabbed my hand, we had a little interspecies bonding moment... and then he tried to pull me closer to see what I tasted like. I averted the bite, but am thankful that I got that rabies shot before I left!
Fun fact: I heard that Jane Goodall had visited Rurrenabaque a couple weeks ago to meet one of her heroes that lives here.

That night, Halloween night, we went out in the boat again to look at the alligators. When you shine your flashlight on them, their eyes glow pink and yellow. We found a huge nest of baby alligators and it looked like the lights of a city.

The first half of the next day - and let me put this in the most positive way I can - sucked. We went for a four hour walk through the marshes looking for anacondas. It was blisteringly hot, there was very little for shade and the anacondas weren't up for playing with the gringos (can't blame them). The cold shower at the end of that ordeal was fantastic.

After that was nice, though. We went fishing for pirhanas with little bits of raw chicken. Fishing for pirhanas is significantly less boring than Canadian fishing. For one, there's no waiting. As soon as you drop the chicken in, they are all over it. What's frustating is that they're wily. They eat it in a split second and you come up with an empty hook. I caught a few sardines, who also apparently like raw chicken. The only one who caught any pirhanas was our guide, Alec, who reminded me of what Mowgli from the Jungle Book would look like in his early 20s.

The next day we were supposed to go and swim with the pink river dolphins. We'd seen glimpses of a few on the way to the lodge, but they're hard to see because the water is so brown with mud and silt. If the group of dolphins is large enough, they can be playful with humans, but on this particular day they were being shy and elusive (again, in no mood to entertain the gringos. and fair enough). So we wound up swimming with the alligators instead. The alligators are actually quite timid but they definitely kept a close eye on us.

The night we got back to Rurrenabaque, we ran into Alec at dinner and he invited us out to play pool and have a couple of beers with him, his cute Israeli date and some of the other guides. Had lots of fun. Alec made fun of me for being so miserable on the anaconda search, telling the rest of the guides what a wimpy Canadian I was. So I joked that I wanted a refund for one: promising but not delivering the anacondas, and two: for being mean. We played a game of pool instead and that was just as well.

Fun times at Kilometer 25:

Not wanting to leave the jungle just yet (La Paz is just so cold and far away!) we began to search around for other things to do. There's a cafe that serves pricey but wonderful breakfasts that we ate at before we discovered the to-die-for french bakery. Paranthetically, we've been eating like Kings: chocolate croissants right out of the oven in the morning, freshly baked bread, homemade italian style pizzas, large catfish steaks smothered in tamarin sauce, cups upon cups of ice cream and fresh fruit milkshakes. I may or may not need to buy another seat for the plane ride home.
Anyway, there was a poster in the cafe about a wildlife rehabilation center about forty five minutes outside of Rurrenabaque where they were accepting volunteers. Sounded like a good experience, and I'm all for giving back to this crazy-amazing country. So we hopped on the boat that crosses the Beni river and into a minibus that dropped us off literally in the middle of nowhere, beside a sign that said "KM 25".

We were greeted at the wildlife center by a malnourished hippy from Jersey, with a giant wad of a coca leaves in his cheek and teeth stained bright green. He had, evidently, gone to great lengths to escape from Jersey. He talked a mile a minute, generously peppering his speech with profanities that seemed really out of place in the jungle; explaining the program, the people, the bugs, Jersey... pretty much everything under the sun. We helped make lunch and ate, and still, he talked and talked. There were around 15 people working and living there, but the only two animals on residence were a couple of older pumas. The center was still in its infancy, and they needed volunteers to built it. At the time we arrived, they were collecting palm leaves with which to build a fumidor, so they could smoke in the shade. We weren't allowed to see the pumas. Only a small number of people, who were staying for at least three weeks, got to work with the pumas. And their job was to essentially take the cats out for a walk in the jungle for most of the day. Everyone else did construction under the blazing hot sun, with the worst bugs I have encountered to date. I helped the hippy from Jersey hunt down more palm leaves after lunch and the tall grass sliced up my legs like a razor blade. After three hours there I looked like a Freddy Krueger victim with chicken pox. Jersey took us for a quick walk into the jungle and was surprisingly knowledgable about it.
He said the two rules of the jungle are as follows: try not to touch anything. And if you do touch something, look at it first. Quite true: we were climbing up a steep incline and I reached out to grab a tree to steady myself, but looked at it first and it was covered in spikes. Other trees, you'd brush and be left with a stinging burn on your bare flesh.

At the end of the day, we decided the cause didn't quite grab us enough for manual labor in 45 degree weather to be worth it. Plus, the hippies were pretentious at the PETA level and that didn't work for me either. We stayed the night and decided to leave in the morning. It was a torturous night. There were cockroaches in the sheets and my mosquito net had holes. I resigned myself to putting in my ipod so I couldn't hear the incessant whining of the mosquitos. But there was nothing I could do about the biting.

Dawn was a shimmery, promising silver the morning of our escape. Clouds had rolled in over night; a brief shroud before the heat of the day pierced through. We waited until all of the hippies had gone for breakfast (a measley two slices of bread. we figured if we got back to town early enough, we'd be in time for the croissants to come out of the french baker's oven), left money on the bed with a note and snuck out onto the road. We debated over whether or not to actually talk with Jersey and explain that it wasn't for us, but from the conversations the night prior, it seemed fairly likely that he'd argue and try to guilt trip us into staying. No one needs that sort of awkward unpleasantness at 7 am. So we left, undetected, and waited on the road until an oversized pick up truck stopped for us. The primary method of transportation on the backroads if you don't have a motorbike is to hitchhike. Our truck picked up other loads of other travelers - Bolivians, going to town to sell fruit or taking their children to school. It wound up being quite fun. The Bolivians were, as usual, very friendly. An old man insisted that I take the best seat and shared his fruit with me.

It was a well executed escape: we were back in Rurrenabaque just in time for the bakery to open. There´s nothing like post escape pastries to start another great day in the Jungle.