Thursday, June 4, 2009

Bolivian Memories


Thoughts of long term travel have got me thinking of trips past so I sat down and penned this post about an adventure that we had in Bolivia.

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Alarmed, I felt a stabbing pain on the top of my sandal clad foot. “Tame la mano!” Dominga said, the fuzz on the back of his neck bristling. “Tame la mano!’, he demanded again, shifting his weight so that another talon could find purchase and inflict more pain to my already suffering appendage. I was not sure what to do about this. There was a large blue and yellow Macaw standing on my foot squawking demands at me in Spanish. I looked around the compound confused as Dominga's owner reassured me “He’s just begging. He wants you to give him your hand so that he can crawl up onto your shoulder... He wants treats.” I extended my hand down to him and Dominga scurried up my arm, claws leaving track marks on my skin. He settled in near the nape of my neck and started to nibble greedily on my ear.

We had arrived in Florida. A speck on the map a few hours drive from our final destination. My body was still vibrating from the 9 hour bone jarring ride from Carmen Ruiz. I was tired, dirty and most of all pissed off. The icing on the cake was that my foot was now being impaled by the claws of an overgrown parakeet, demanding that I become his new found feeding perch. I was not in my happy place. Thankfully, Cindy would hand me a beer few minutes later. I wasn't sure where it came from, but frankly I didn't care. She knew that she needed to somehow calm my savage beast. Days earlier she had made me swear to her that I would try to enjoy the trip. It was something she really wanted to do and my current foul mood was not part of the bargain. It would not be the last time that I would be reminded of our pact while on this journey. I broodingly drank my beer, hoped Dominga claws didn't hit an artery and watched Marco, our guide, dig the mass of dead and dying butterflies out of the Jeep's grill. They were everywhere on the road and had impaled themselves with reckless abandon on the front of the jeep. He needed to clear them off so that we would not overheat on the next days drive.


Our journey had started 3 days ago in La Paz, Bolivia. We had been using the city as our base to see the country for the past 3 weeks. I was ready to move on south to Argentina and the promise of a beach side bungalow, but Cindy was up for another adventure into the wilds of Bolivia. She had read about a seldom visited national park Called Noell Kempff Mercado. The park, located in northeastern Bolivia, spans over 3.7 million acres and is one of the most biologically diverse areas in the world. Established in 1979, and originally called “Parque National Huanchacha”, its name was later changed in honor of the late professor Noell Kempff Mercado for the extensive research and discoveries he made while working there. It is home to more than 130 species of mammals, including a population of black jaguars, 620 species of birds, and 70 species of reptiles including the Black Cayman. For Cindy it was an opportunity that could not be missed and she was willing to put up with my impending foul disposition in order to see it.




The main tourist destination is the Caparu Plateau, an 1800 ft sandstone mesa that rises ominously from the surrounding rain forests. The plateau was "discovered" by the prolific British explorer Percy Fawcett in 1910. It is said that inspired by Percy’s descriptions of the place, Sir Arthur Canon Doyle penned his famous story “The Lost World”. The area is so remote and getting there is so difficult that it is only visited by a few hundred people each year. With the signatures of Cindy, myself, our guide and our cook (our real guide) on the guest book at the park entrance, we would bring that number up to a whopping 192 and the new year was close at hand.

We were told that we could book a tour from the eastern Bolivian capital city of Santa Cruz de La Sierra. With a population of over 1.5 million, its the largest city in Bolivia. The place is somewhat less than what I would call charming. The city's main industry is refining oil and with the exception of the towns version of Carnival, tourists are only seen here on the way to somewhere else. Unlike the frivolity of most other South American carnival celebrations, the oil mad citizens of Santa Cruz spend their Carnival days shooting water pistols full of ink at each other. It is a sport for young and old, and they find great joy in blasting away at an unwary visitor. Thankfully, we missed it.

The day before leaving La Paz and setting out for Santa Cruz, we had scouted out the bus station and purchased our tickets. Like most of the buses I had encountered so far in our 4 months of travel, they were small, cramped and noisy. 22 hours of my version of hell later, we arrived. Our first task was to find a place to sleep and get a good nights rest. Our guide book pointed us to a hotel with an open courtyard and small but clean rooms. The courtyard was inhabited by pet toucans, that although novel to see, had a nasty habit of crapping everywhere. The floors, the tables, the chairs, the hammocks, the walls (dont ask me how). You get the idea. Our new place of refuge was toucan shit heaven.

The hostel gave us the phone number of a tourist agency nearby and after settling in and scraping the dung off our shoes, this became our next stop. They did not know what to do with us. It was the month of December, and not anywhere close to the tourist season. There were currently no "scheduled" tours that we could join to defer our costs. We were living on the cheap and the main way tourists get into the area was by small plane. We briefly considered this idea but the price was way out of our budget. They would have to create a special tour for us to fit into our time and budget. After a bit of bargaining, it was decided that we would be supplied with an English speaking guide and a cook that would take us by Jeep to the plateau. To keep costs down, we were told to we had to make our way to the small town of Carmen Ruiz where we would meet our guides at the only hotel in town.

Buses traveled the route daily and we could stop at the old Jesuit mission town of Concepcion along the way. In the late 16 and early 1700's, Priests from the Society of Jesus, commonly called the Jesuits, had pushed into the south American interior of what is now Bolivia, Paraguay and Brazil to bring the Roman Catholic religion to the indigenous peoples of the area. The locals were then educated, taught farming skills, architecture and the arts. Since these areas were so remote, the Jesuits worked almost autonomously from Spanish and Portuguese governmental controls and over a period of 150 years or so, small cities grew up around their missions. By the early 1700's these cities were unfortunately finally getting the attention of Spain and Portugal. Fearing that the Jesuits were becoming too powerful in the region, they were expelled and the missions were abandoned or destroyed. Few of the great churches from that era remain. The one in Concepcion is an exception. We spent hours wandering the grounds amazed at how well the settlement and church had been preserved. At one point, the sounds of music led us to a small classroom off the main courtyard. We peeked our heads in the door and were invited in to listen to an amazing violin sonata performed beautifully by a 10 year old local boy. It was one the unexpected and enchanting joys of unscripted travel. The priests were long gone but their legacy of arts and music still thrived among the locals.

6 hours later, Carmen Ruiz loomed into sight. It was a typical charming Bolivian small town, with dirt roads, spurious electricity, decent and hospitable people, and like we find in all remote backwater towns in the world, an internet cafe off of the plaza. We checked into our hotel and met our guides, and got some sleep before we set off early the next morning on our journey to Florida. I did not realize that I was just hours away from having all of my fillings shaken out of my teeth by the worst road I had ever been on. It was a seldom traveled dirt road full of potholes big enough to swallow the jeep interspersed with washboards and smaller holes ingeniously spaced out so that I was constantly bounced out of my seat and slamming my head into the roof with enough force to cause a mild concussion. My body still felt like it was vibrating hours after we stopped. Lets just say that brightness and sunshine were not the adjectives I would use to describe my disposition after that ordeal. And of course there was always the nagging thought in the back of my head that "Hey, I get to do this on the way back". Yippee!

Mood somewhat restored by the king of beers cousin, we took a walk around town. Florida is a sleepy little subsistence farming town on the banks of the Paraguay River. They are not used to tourists and there was not much to see, so we whiled away the afternoon, paddling up the river in a dugout canoe. By nightfall, we were tired, well fed and I was feeling better about the prospect of the next days start. That night we slept in the back room of an enormous thatch covered long house. I was just nodding off when I felt what I thought was water dripping from the ceiling. Except it wasn't water. It was shit. There were bats roosting in the eves above and we were in their direct line of fire. We McGyvered a canopy with found extension cords and extra bedding and finally drifted off to sleep protected from the drizzle by the faded outline of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles above our heads.

The morning we said goodbye to our hosts and continued onward to the plateau. Dominga waddled out to the fence at the compound entrance and squawked goodbye. Or maybe it was "give me your hand" again. I had an urge to throw a rock at him. Almost immediately we were faced with an interesting obstacle to our progression. We had to cross the Paraguay River. The road dead ended at the bank and it was about 45 meters across to the other side. There was no bridge but there was a makeshift ferry. Long wooden planks of the densest and heaviest wood I have ever encountered were precariously placed between it and the shore to create a makeshift ramp. The jeep was then coaxed up the ramp onto the deck. We used long poles to push the ferry through the water to the other side. I suppose that if the ferry was on the other side of the river when we arrived, we would have had to swim the short distance across the river and guide it back to our side. In short order we were across and on our way only to be stopped again because the road became impassible due to the mud. We found wooden planks on the side of the road and laid them on end to create a pathway through the mud. Back planks were moved to the front as we passed over them and we inched forward until we cleared the bog.

The rest of the journey was uneventful and that night we camped in the middle of a seldom used runway in the middle of a large clearing. It was a beautiful evening with Macaws flying two by two overhead and the sounds of the jungle gurgling just beyond the tree line. The next morning we had finished breakfast and were about to leave when we were attacked by a swarm of bees. The cook jumped in the truck as a panicked Marco encouraged us to jump into the cab of the now moving truck. Swatting at the horde he continued to throw the last of our belongings into the pickup bed and then ungracefully flung himself into the back and we roared away from the airfield. Unfortunately Marco took the brunt of the attack with multiple stings, but I miraculously piercing free, was finally starting to have a good time. Who needs coffee when your morning can start with this much adrenaline.

Days passed in rapid succession and we camped in the middle of the jungle at the end overgrown dirt road to nowhere. One night we set out walking with a high powered flashlight seeing what would be attracted by the light. Stopping in the middle of the road, we would turn it on for short stretches of time and then wait in the oily blackness of the jungle night to see if we heard anything moving towards us. Our sojourn was rewarded with a visit from curious Ocelot. It approached slowly, stared at us for a while and then decided that we were not the interesting snack it was hoping for and meandered away.

The next few days were filled with a long sweaty treks through the steamy dense jungle. Swimming in a beautiful waterfall fed lagoon at the base of the plateau. In the tent, naked and laughing as we minutely examining every crevasse of each other while looking for ticks (13 in all between the two of us). Being attacked by a horde of moths while eating, and dealing with the occasional reminder that we were in the middle of nowhere. Near our campsite by a meandering river, Cindy had disappeared around a bend to answer natures call. I gathered that as she squatted down, something tickled her fancy and she shot straight up several feet in the air and let out unexpected yelp. Marco, a few feet away from me and wearing a ridiculous looking hat covered with mosquito netting to protect his face, looked up and not the least bit concerned deadpanned, "I think you should go see if Cindy is OK".

We never got to see much of the top of the plateau. From our camp, it was a 3 hour hike to get to the base and then another hour to climb to the top. We got to the top just in time to watch the sunset from the rim and were left with no time to explore. In my minds eye it is still a place of mystery filled with prehistoric animals and wars between the local people and great ape like creatures. I guess I will never know. The hike back was long, dark and sweaty and I knew that I had a lengthy irritating journey back to civilization. Crankiness was already setting in.