Vern: To get to Rurrenabaque, a small town within the Amazon jungle, we decided on the path least travelled, the river. The options were: a short boring flight; a bus ride said to be so scary that travelers seek out Valium from shady pharmacies in La Paz; or a little known travel company who run tourists up the river in a simple wooden motorboat over three days, with camping each night on the riverside.
We stayed in foggy Coroico for two uneventful days, living cheaply as the upcoming tours had been expensive, and then on a rainy Sunday morning two stationwagon taxis and a tour guide arrived to collect us. The drivers loaded our backpacks onto the roof-racks, waterproofed the luggage pile unconvincingly with tarps and ropes and three New Zealanders, three Australians, two Americans, a Brit, a French Canadian and yours truly set off. The winding downhill road whirling us down from cloud forest to amazon basin was unpaved, muddy and very narrow and the canyon which sunk down next to the road was very deep. The passengers shouted introductions and travel tales over the taxi drivers loud music not wanting to turn it down too much in case he needed these unidentified instrument squeals to concentrate as he threw the car round the mountainside.
Four hours later we had dropped considerably in altitude, somewhere around 600m (originally from La Paz at 3660m) and pulled into Carnavi, a small bland town with the usual scattering of never-will-be-finished buildings, for lunch. Our tour guide talked nervously on his phone and battled to hide his worries behind a big smile and sophisticated thick-rimmed spectacles. He arranged the transfer of our bags and supplies onto two new vehicles and we set off again. The road was still narrow but the drop-off into the river less ominous though the cabbie sped like a rally driver and ignored our pleas to slow down. The other car had a tire blow-out, luckily with no consequences, and stopped long enough for a twelve year-old to install a new one, so we were well ahead of the other group. The car slowed down only for a moment when we passed a row of pulled over cars. A truck had slid over the edge and relatives came to help or sadly to retrieve bodies.
At some point the first twelve bars or so of a famous classical melody played in a loop through a soft tinny speaker. "Your cellphone is ringing", someone told the driver. "I don't have one", said the driver (worrying since he makes a living pottering around on remote and dangerous roads) and the music played on. "Then what's that noise?", someone asked.
"It sounds like one of those crappy singing birthday cards", offered Luke.
"I don't know", said the driver.
On and on it looped as everyone foraged around in their daypacks confirming that their iPods or alarm clocks weren't responsible for the taunting tune, but all our searches came up null. Much later we invaded a stash of papers wedged between the cabby's windscreen and his dash and in there we found a singing Valentines Day card not yet inscribed but dog-eared and malfunctioning, as if our driver was still working on the confidence to write out his feelings and deliver it to its recipient. We suddenly had the terrible feeling that when someone had asked what the noise was, the driver had been about to say, "Oh that is this fantastic greeting card I bought. You wouldn't believe the technology - when you open it it plays Mozart!" but as the driver opened his mouth to speak Luke had guessed, "It sounds like one of those crappy singing birthday cards", and so instead the driver had simply sadly said, "I don't know". (This probably wasn't the case since the driver didn't seem to speak much English but it did make us chuckle).
We were relieved when we stopped in dusty Teoponte, though the other cab which was carrying our guide, Raul, and five other backpackers was nowhere to be seen. We were pulled up next to a hotel and the beaming proprietor started showing us around before we explained that we were expecting to sleep in a tent on the side of the river tonight and that the next scheduled stop was expected to be a jetty to board a boat. The taxi driver and the hotelier just shrugged and the occupants of our car bought beer and sweets and sat down on the curb confused.
A while later Raul and the others arrived. He had some bad news. A Chinese company blasting for gold had blocked the river and despite promising to have removed the blockage, it remained blocked and the boat could not get through today: we'd be sleeping in Teoponte. So he checked us into another very basic hotel (the beds were hard like rice-sacks) and we went drinking. Teoponte was expected to be the capital of the lowlands back in the day when the river was swimming with gold but today it's derelict and quiet. A few prospectors still make a small living panning, finding a gram or so a day but apparently live roughly and spend it as quickly as they earn it. The bar comprised of a few drunks on garden furniture, yelling at each other over loud music, in a concrete room with an inappropriate mural of topless cartoon woman dancing with suited men. The beer is lovely and cold and we all buy some and carry chairs and tables outside onto the sidewalk. When Teoponte's strip rivals the Champs Elisé in a few years, this motley crew of backpackers will be credited with bringing café culture to the jungle.
We drank until dinner and Andrea and I were pleased that we were with such a fun group. Dinner was a little odd. Raul had found a woman willing to feed us for what he was willing to pay but not willing to pause the horror DVD that the family had chosen for their Sunday Night Feature. So we sat in plastic furniture in the middle of a room with a family lined up against the wall looking over us at the TV on the opposite side of the room. We tucked awkwardly into some delicious fried chicken while on screen inbred cannibals feasted on some sexy young things. A little boy watched us gringos curiously, and the inappropriate movie, through a screen-door leading to another room and squeaked through the gory scenes.
The next morning after breakfast and further delays, we went out to the riverbank and met our boat. It was long and thin, made with rough unfinished wood and powered with a single outboard motor. Our luggage and supplies were packed into the nose and we took our places on splintery benches two or three people across under plastic shade-cloth. Raul introduced us to our new guide, Ivan - his brother - and the cook, Carmen who was also Ivan's wife. Also on board were the captain, Ivan's four year old son and the first mate, a teenager wearing a t-shirt and a suede smoking jacket. Raul, who studied as a lawyer, was to stay behind and along with some senior members of the community (who rely on the river for food and transport) was to do battle with the Chinese miners causing chaos on this river. We pushed off shore and into the fast flowing muddy water. The sides of the boat extended only a few centimeters out of the water and several small waves washed over us but the boat was well balanced and the captain and first mate steered us expertly through exciting rapids. Every now and then we passed prospectors panning for gold at various levels of sophistication. Families in reed shelters or torn tents with sieves in hand, groups of men with larger contraptions and company sites with specialist machinery.
An hour later we tied up to rocks on the side of the river and clambered out and into the jungle. Ivan pointed out a rubber tree. At five in the evening, the rubber collector carves concentric circles round the trunk of up to 200 trees and then the following morning goes to collect the sap secreted by the tree into its wounds. The sap is liquid or solidified rubber and is ready to be melted dyed and moulded into to shoe soles. We continued down a lush path and discarded our shoes to cross the river and ascend up to a beautiful natural pool. A loud waterfall crashed down into the clear pool surrounded by large boulders. A few of us went for a dip in the icy water but were cautious not to pee fearing the infamous tiny fish which can swim through an open urethra and lay eggs in ones genitals. Yikes! The first mate asked me to take a photo of him and the waterfall on his cellphone "for Facebook" and the following day when we pulled up to a few tents pitched in the mud and he popped in to pick up laundry from mum, I wondered how often he checked his Wall.
Carmen made some tasty pasta and we spooned it out of bowls, all wedged into the little boat and back on the water. That evening the boat moored on a large empty mud flat which is under water during the rainy season but revealed now in the winter and the crew put up out tents we collected firewood and lit an enormous bonfire which burned through the night.
After dinner Ivan rounded us up for the Jungle Night Hike. This was a scheduled event postponed from the previous night because we had not been able to sleep in the jungle but there was of course no path to follow because we weren't at the usual spot and the jungle which started 300m from the campsite was too dense to hack our way through. Ivan would have to wing it so the tourists didn't start demanding refunds. We set off and pottered around in the mud in the dark until Ivan spotted two little glowing eyes and shushed us. We gawked and he pointed and we shone all our torches for so long that you'd have thought we had discovered an endangered species but after ten minutes of analysis and discussion it was assessed to be a sparrow. Shortly after this discovery, we came upon two jumping spiders. Luckily the sparrow didn't find these first otherwise 33% of the wildlife of the mudflat would have been wiped out. And then, a yellow frog (now the most photographed frog in the Amazon) which sat patiently and petrified while this nature-starved bunch blinded it with flash bulbs and the red-eye reduction beam. Simon, a good-humored Kiwi, later told us how he had been furiously wishing for Ivan's sake that we would come across a mammal or a Cayman or a snake or anything to save face, but it was not to be and after enough time Ivan wrapped up the failed expedition, nervously said goodnight while scanning people's faces for signs of mutiny. Then he disappeared into the dark. The generous Kiwis shared their red wine with us and we settled round the bonfire to discuss the nocturnal wildlife. Thirty seconds later we moved onto other topics and talked till our mugs were empty.
The next day we packed up camp and floated downstream onto the Beni River and into the two-million hectare protected area, the Madidi National Park. The vegetation was thicker and greener and the river was lined with pretty boulders instead of mud. We tied the boat up and Ivan hacked an entrance into the jungle with his machete but we soon joined a well trodden path through the huge trees.
Ivan called the Amazon the largest natural pharmacy and talked us through the dangers and the remedies growing here. One tree is called both the Saint Tree because it's bark cures parasites and the Devil Tree because it is hollowed out by fire-ants who live symbiotically within it. Forty fire-ant bites will kill a human in two hours. The Spanish Conquestitors found this out when they unknowlingly tied a captive to a tree and the ants brutally killed the prisoner before they did. One drop of the Solomen tree's sap will burn your skin if touched, blind you if splashed in your eye or cause your organs to explode if consumed but a quarter glass is collected and thrown into the river by fisherman who then collect the poisoned floating fish in nets. The liquid sucks the oxygen from the water but the dilution is sufficient that the fish aren't tainted and can be eaten. And a tree called Cashapona walks three centimeters every three months. It is a funny looking tree with thick, thorny roots which extend out of the ground a metre and a half before joining and forming the trunk. It resembles a tree growing on top of a teepee. The roots regrow every three months and this way the tree 'walks' toward sunshine. The cavern created by the roots is said to be the only place to seek refuge from a jaguar or pack of wild boars who will not enter the thorny root enclosure even if the gap is wide enough. Ivan had heard first hand of an out-of-bullets hunter who waited here for two hours while a large jaguar circled him before it stalked off.
It was a fascintating walk though the wildlife spotting was limited to a tortoise, some monkeys high in the trees, a toucan (apparently), huge spider webs big enough to entrap humans and later a capybara (a huge rodent) which we spotted from the boat. We boarded the boat one last time and admired the dense jungle quietly as we floated downstream and into Rurrenabaque.
Our little tour party disbanded to find accomodation and then reunited in a jungle themed bar (in the jungle) for expensive beer and some hilarious stories from the Australians. We'll be in the jungle for a little while more and next head out to the 'pampas', the wildlife rich wetlands.