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   Travel Abroad   Narrative Travel Writing Contest   2015 Contest 3rd Place Winner
 
2015 Narrative Travel Writing Contest 3rd Place Winner

Bugs and Boars in the Bolivian Jungle

Article and photos by Ted Campbell

Camp in the Bolivian jungle

“Wait. Hold on. STOP!”

It was the first time I’d heard Juan, our Bolivian guide, raise his voice. I froze.

Juan leapt forward, thrusting his hand into the forest. He pulled out a black snake, holding it by the head so the mouth was open, fangs dripping. The snake slapped and twisted against his arm, reaching just past his shoulder.

“This,” he said with a huge smile, “is the second most dangerous snake in the world.”

Snake in the jungle

After we had admired it long enough, he pointed at a passage through the trees and said, “Walk over there.”

We took ten steps, and he tossed the snake into the forest and sprinted up to us. He scratched his chin, looked around, and chose a direction: “Let’s go this way now.”

Three days of hiking in the jungle with Juan was like walking in circles in the dark with a blindfold on. Sometimes we followed trails — faint, overgrown trails that never went in a straight line and crisscrossed each other, like animal trails. Often it seemed like we were simply trudging through the trees with no direction and no plan. There were no landmarks, only the river and the camp.

The camp was four dilapidated plywood huts on stilts with thatched roofs in a clearing in the jungle about the size of a basketball court, half a day upstream on the Beni River from Rurrenabaque in central Bolivia.

Known as Bolivia’s gateway to the Amazon jungle, Rurrenabaque is a small, quiet town, not much more than 10 blocks of red-dirt streets and concrete buildings on the banks of the wide, red-dirt Beni River, a distant tributary of the Amazon.

Town in the Bolivian jungle

A small hill on the edge of town overlooks this flatness — an endless swampy expanse of green that falls into the horizon like the ocean, only interrupted by the twisting brown river, barely visible through the trees.

Though tiny, Rurrenabaque is an important meeting place for traders from remote, upstream jungle towns, along with tourists like me. Visiting the Amazon jungle in Bolivia is significantly cheaper than in neighboring Brazil or Peru.

A typical jungle trip in 2007 was about $20 USD for three days, which included two 6-hour boat rides, three meals a day, and a dirty, blood stained (from insect bites) cot under a mosquito net, with only a torn, flimsy screen between you and the creeping jungle.

I visited in low season, so every travel agency offered big discounts and, as I found out later, at night everyone played pool in the same bar.

After visiting several tour companies, I chose Anaconda Tours for two reasons: It was the cheapest, and I liked Juan.

He was a tall, muscular, handsome, dark guy who always had a huge cheek full of coca leaves. In fact, he was the one who taught me to add a pinch of baking soda to the leaves, to release the “potency.”

Coca leaves can be processed into cocaine, but anyone who has visited the Andes Mountains knows that the leaves are legal and commonly consumed. Most restaurants in the region offer coca leaves as an alternative to coffee at breakfast, for example.

Coca leaves are known to help with altitude sickness, but being that the jungle is far, far lower than the high mountainous plains of central and western Bolivia, which includes the capital La Paz, Juan and I chewed them for the relaxing buzz and the tingling feeling in the mouth. Plus, at less than a dollar for a big bag, they are cheap — though that didn’t stop Juan from constantly pinching mine.

Juan was in his mid twenties, but he didn’t know his birthday. He was from a tiny native community four days upriver.

“It’s a different world,” he told me. “There’s no electricity, no phones, no TV — nothing like that.”

He pointed at my shoes. “There’s no shoes.” He pointed at my shirt. “No clothes like that. I knew everybody and everybody knew me. There’s no privacy.”

“How often do you go there?” I asked, wondering how much he would charge to take me.

“Well, I came to Rurrenabaque when I was 18 or 19. I haven’t been back.”

“No? Never?”

“I could go if I could afford the boat trip, but then I’d probably lose my job.” He worked every day — he only got time off if there were no clients, but even then he had to spend all day in the office waiting for them.

“So you haven’t talked to your family?”

“Not for four years, since I came here. But occasionally someone comes downriver and gives me news. Everyone’s fine — nothing’s changed.”

“Occasionally?”

“Once or twice.”

“A month?”

“No,” he laughed. “Once or twice since I left.”

“Wow.”

Juan slashed at some vines with his machete. “It was hard coming here, that’s for sure. I caught a ride on a boat — occasionally a fisherman gets the bright idea to fill their boat with fruit, or baskets, or medicine, or something like that, and bring it down to Rurrenabaque to sell. They never go back. So I went with one of them. I showed up in Rurrenabaque with nothing — no place to stay, no money, no Spanish. I learned English before I learned Spanish, actually.”

“Where did you stay? I mean, where did you sleep?”

“In the jungle. There was more of it then.”

“What did you eat?”

“Whatever — fish, fruit from the jungle. It didn’t take me long to get this job.”

“Don’t you miss it? I mean the village — the nature, your family, your whole life before?”

He was quiet for a while. “You know, it feels like a dream to me now.”

A cheerful Israeli named Sarah was the only other person on our jungle trip. She slept with Juan in the guide hut.

She was up ahead, crouching and peering at something on the jungle floor. “I guess you’d have to give that up,” I said.

He laughed loud enough to startle Sarah, and said, “You got it, man!”

But Juan was much more than a fun-loving opportunist or the token native used to sell tours. During our hikes, Juan constantly taught us about the forest. “Stop here,” he’d say, and he’d slash the bark of a tree with his machete. Milky white liquid poured out, like blood from a wound. One time, even, the liquid was red. “This is a powerful medicine,” he said.

Yes, this was the jungle. The real jungle — the deep, dark, living jungle. Life is everywhere, sprouting out of the ground or off a tree — flying, clinging, creeping and crawling. And Juan knew all about it.

He took a handful of leaves and crushed them into pulp, added water, and dyed our forearms. He took some twigs and lit them on fire, explaining that the smoke has healing qualities.

From low branches on huge trees he pulled down fruit I’ve never seen before or since — small white things, the size of a plum, with many pits instead of one; long pea pod type things, but sweet and strange; and small berries that only a lunatic would eat without being assured by a smiling native that they were ok.

These were our days: long aimless hikes in the jungle with bleeding trees, strange fruit, and more animals than in a zoo — though we heard them much more than we saw them.

But we did see a few. Once, while Sarah and I sat by the river, fishing for piranha, a tapir, the pig-like beast with an elephant nose, strolled out of the forest, swam across the river, and stepped into the trees on our side without once glancing in our direction.

Another time, also by the river, a pair of parrots flew overhead. They were as big as eagles, but with huge green and red tails. How nice to see them so far from a cage!

Monkeys screamed at us as we hiked, though a flash of black fir was usually all we could see of them from their homes high up in the canopy.

Also mostly invisible were the massive groups of wild boars (officially called peccaries) that stalk the forest. Juan warned us about them, how they are dangerous with huge tusks and powerful jaws, and that they run in packs of well over a hundred.

Juan heard the boars before us. He told us to stay still and quiet. The floor of the jungle began to shake, like an earthquake. Suddenly the sound rushed at us from all around, so loud we couldn't hear each other, a mix of stomping hooves and angry snorts, with a smell worse than any industrial pig farm I’ve passed on an American highway.

Yes, the jungle is LOUD. In comparison, the mountain forests of the Rockies in North America are dead quiet. A bird chirps, some leaves rustle, and the occasional squirrel squawks at you. But, especially if you climb high enough, you might actually experience real silence. A mountain stream — canyons and waterfalls — sounds like a garbage truck thrown off the Empire State Building.

But there’s no silence in the jungle. Birds sing and monkeys howl. Huge herds of wild boar stampede through. Deer roar like jaguars - and yes, there are jaguars out there, though according to Juan you would never mistake their roars for deer.

And more than anything, there’s the constant whine, click, and hum of insects. The insects are as much a part of the forest as water, soil or dead leaves — they are everywhere.

Mosquitoes and thousands of flies, from no-see-ums to colorful ones bigger than horseflies, constantly swarm around your greasy hair. But the worst bites are from ants. Long trains of ants march from trees to their mounds, carrying chewed up leaves like the sails of a galleon. Like the flies they come in many sizes.

One ant, about the size of a queen ant from North America, is called the 5-minute ant. I got bit a few times. The spot is acutely painful for 5 minutes.

Another is the 24-hour ant. You get the idea.

But after dark, the bugs cease to be a nuisance and, with the right inspiration, can become a source of fascination.

On my last night in the jungle camp, another group arrived. Sarah and Juan had already disappeared, so I sat with the four British tourists and their guide in the cook building, sharing their whisky and my coca leaves.

Outside the jungle hummed, buzzed, shrieked and roared. The smell of heavy soil rose into the air, mixing with the caked-on grease of old pots and pans in the kitchen.

I squinted though the darkness at the flimsy screen walls. They seemed to be moving. So I turned on my flashlight.

The walls, the ceiling, the floor, and the picnic table where we sat crawled with cockroaches. “Turn off the light!” shrieked one of the girls.

“No,” I said. “Look closer.”

Yes, they were cockroaches, but iridescent, colorful ones. And among them were golf-ball sized beetles with huge horns, adorned with a rainbow colors that changed color as you changed the direction of the light.

“Wow,” she said, turning on her flashlight too.

We went outside to walk through the jungle. I turned the beam of the flashlight into the trees, and hundreds of tiny pairs of eyes reflected back.

I turned the beam onto the trail, and I could barely see the soil, so covered it was with bugs. It was same with any tree trunk or low hanging branch. The jungle moved. It pulsed and breathed with the crawling of insects.

We didn’t go far until bigger noises frightened us back to our sweat-soaked cots and mosquito nets full of holes.

The next morning the boat came early for Sarah, Juan and me. My backpack and all my clothes were moist with dew and old sweat, and my whole body was covered with bug bites and tiny ticks. Sitting in the boat as it rushed through the calm brown water of the wide river, we were like monkeys, picking the ticks out of our hair, our backs, and any other places we couldn’t reach.

Boat in Bolivian jungle

After the trip, I ended up spending another week in Rurrenabaque — most days wandering the town and chatting with locals, and most nights playing pool with Juan and his friends at the bar.

In all I spent a month and a half in Bolivia, mostly in Rurrenabaque and the capital La Paz. Now, years later, when people ask me about my time there — did you go to the salt desert? Did you do this? Did you do that? I say no.

Rather than rush around the whole country, trying to see it all, I slowed down, took my time, made some friends, and was eaten alive by ants and ticks on the wild banks of the Beni River.

On the banks of the Beni River, Bolivia

Related Topics
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