Saturday, October 25, 2008

Northern Bolivia

Parrot, lunch before putting in to the river. There are many outings one can take with La Paz as home base, and the one I elected was the Pampas tour. I wanted a taste of the jungle and knew this might be my only chance on this trip.

I had heard from more than one person that if you took the bus to Rurrenabaque, where the tour begins, you would take the plane back. The 18-hour bus ride is the commute from Hell. I'm usually a pretty slow learner—I've got to experience it to get it—but in this case I learned from others who had gone before. I splurged and booked the round-trip plane ride from the airport in La Paz to the little dirt strip near the town of Rurrenabaque, in northern Bolivia.

I had recently met Chris from Poland, as we were both staying at Wild Rover Hostel in La Paz. It would be good to know someone going into the trip. He had been living in New York for the past three years and was madly in love with the city. He loved the vibe, the night life, the people—the idea.

Yacaré Caiman (I think). We caught a cab to the airport the day before the tour, so we could relax that evening in Rurrenabaque to start the tour fresh the next morning.

As we were about to go through the metal detector at the airport, I remembered I had my pocket knife with me. I quickly removed it from my pocket and tossed it into my camera bag, hoping that it would go unnoticed. No such luck. Security took me aside and went through my bag, removing the knife. I asked if I could just put it in my backpack. No problem. I left the security area, went back to the ticketing area, and was allowed behind the counter, where my bag was still sitting on the motionless conveyor belt. I removed the lock off the top pocket, slipped the knife in, and replaced the lock. This time, I made it through security without a hitch. I couldn't have pulled that off in the States.

Yacaré Caiman (I think). Once in the plane and moving down the runway, the rollout was lengthy. We were at 12,000 feet and the air was thin. Even with flaps extended, the Fairchild 23 needed extra speed to create the pressure differential between the upper and lower wing surfaces necessary to suck the plane into the sky. We flew rather close to the jagged peaks of the Andes—it was spectacular. Within about 40 minutes, we descended to near sea level amongst a green landscape, and touched down onto a rough, dry, dirt landing strip.

Squirrel monkey (I think). Before the ground crew even cracked the door open, we could feel the heat and humidity. It would be an uncomfortable few days, but a good warm-up for my travels through Central America. After the stairs were rolled up to the door, we deplaned into a climate drastically different than that in La Paz. The changes that accompany a stiff change in altitude are stark. We were sweating before even picking up our packs.

A mini van taxied us to the town of Rurrenabaque, about a 5-minute drive along a rough but pretty stone road. Chris and I checked into a hotel recommended to us by the travel agent back in La Paz—Los Tucanes. The room was clean and had a private shower.

Birds and capybara. Before turning in for the night, I wanted to pick up a small day-pack to keep my few things organized on the trip, as there was no need to take my entire backpack into the outback for the few days of the trip. After packing a few clothes and several lenses and my extra D-SLR body into the pack and making sure everything was ready to go, we turned in. Although there was an oscillating pedestal fan in our room, it was a pretty toasty night. Welcome to the jungle.

The next morning, we got up in time to shower and get to the travel agency by around 8:00. I picked up my new day-pack, for which I had paid $7, and threw it over my right shoulder. The strap tore out of its bottom attachment point. Before the trip was over, the other strap had torn out—Chinese craftsmanship. It had served its purpose, and I just left it in our room when we checked out.

Squirrel monkey (I think). We arrived at the travel agency in plenty of time and were informed that the other adventurers had canceled—Chris and I were the only two left. The lady got on her cell phone and called another agency which, lucky for us, had space on their roster. While waiting for the transport to show up, we walked to a nearby restaurant and got some breakfast.

After we arrived back at the travel agency, a red Toyota 4x4 pulled up. The driver took our packs and threw them onto the roof under a blue tarp and tied everything down securely (we hoped!).

The outing began with a three-hour drive along a rough, dusty, potholed, rocky road. It was hot. It was dusty. Shortly after we got out of town, we were behind a motorcycle carrying a man, a woman, and a large bundle. Thankfully our driver was looking forward, as the motorcycle didn't like the rough, rocky, road, and crashed. Our driver swerved suddenly to avoid the downed bike. A second later, we were all looking out the back window at the man and woman slowly picking themselves up and dusting themselves off.

Marina, Spain. Our driver stopped and got out, presumably to help the accident victims. He walked over to a neighbor who had come out onto the road to see what the fuss was all about. We sat in the parked vehicle in the sweltering heat. Finally, someone said what we all thinking. If he's just going to stand there chatting with the neighbor, why doesn't he just get back in and let's get moving? The still Toyota had become like an oven. He must have felt the bad vibes emanating from within his ride. He came back and we took off.

During the drive, we all got to know each other a little bit. Romain, a French hippie, asked where I was from. I assumed he was traveling with Christophe. They looked like they were cut from the same mold.

"I'm traveling with my girlfriend, Elodie. We just met," and he pointed to Christophe.

Chris and I had run into Shane and Lucy at breakfast. We had talked to Lucy while Shane paid the bill. When Shane came back to the table, he said hi. He seemed a bit stuffy to me. He was a Canook who had been living in California for ten years. He was a software developer. Lucy was of Asian heritage, but was a native United Statesian, living in the Bay area.

Camp. For the first hour of the drive, Shane asked travel questions nonstop to Marina, a gal on extended travels from Spain. I thought he would never run out of questions. At least he wasn't talking about himself.

On occasion we would pass another motorcycle or a pedestrian, engulfing them in a thick cloud of dust. How could they see? How could they breathe? We all agreed that the park should use proceeds from the one-hundred-fifty Boliviano entrance fee to pave this miserable excuse of a road. Sure, the people we passed would benefit, but an excruciating three-hour, butt-numbing, snail-paced drive would be turned into a comfortable one-hour jaunt.

Shortly before we arrived at the river, we stopped in a small town for lunch. All the tour groups stop here before the three-hour canoe ride in the blazing sun. Upon exiting the vehicle, I spied a monkey on a fence. I walked over to him to shoot a few close-ups. He was into close-ups. He jumped off the fence onto my head and began to crawl around on me. It's difficult to take self portraits with a Nikon D3 and 24-70 f/2.8 attached—it's a heavy combo—but I managed to change some camera settings required for self-portraiture and snap a few. When we sat down to eat, there was a pig under out table which our waiter shooed away, and a very large bird standing a few meters away—he never moved.

Carine, France. Another fifteen minutes of driving and we arrived at the river. We were told our boat would arrive in about twenty minutes (they bring the previous group out, and pick up the new group). We stood around in the shade, shooting the breeze.

I discovered Shane was a systems developer. He writes software used for doing performance analysis on other software. So, he's really smart. I figured I should come right out and admit that he's smarter than I, a mere application developer.

"We're not smarter than you. Our intelligence is just different." We soon discovered—as his girlfriend pointed out—that we had the same exact sense of humor, terrible as that may be to some. We would have entire conversations where everything we said was facetious. An outsider would have thought we were crazy, but we knew what we were talking about—every word coming out of our mouths was ironic, a lie of sorts. Few chats are more enjoyable. This might not be such a bad trip.

Girl whose parents worked at our camp. Shane had a little multi-use gizmo with a compass, a thermometer, and a whistle, all built right in. He also claimed it had a clicker, a device for counting.

"On a previous trip, the compass got stuck, so we were always going the same direction. It works now, though."

"How about the thermometer?" I asked.

"It works."

A couple hours into the trip, I wondered aloud how many capybaras we'd seen. It seemed like hundreds.

"We've seen 481. My multi-tool has a clicker. Unfortunately, it's stuck on 481."

"Do you think we've seen that many Caimans?" I knew we'd seen a lot of them.

"Four-hundred-eighty-one," Shane answered.

We were all astounded at the usefulness of Shane's tool.

Shane, foreground, pursued by Israelis (I don't know what he did). About an hour before we got to camp, the boat pulled onto a beach where there were already a couple boats moored. We spent about a half hour there and swam. This was a favorite hangout for pink dolphins. As we enjoyed the warm, but refreshing, water, we spotted several of them. They would just surface for a split second, blow a puff of air out of their air hole, then disappear below the surface.

Our guide was a slightly annoying canoe driver. I realize there might have been some shallow spots in the river—it was the dry season—but he was constantly changing the throttle position, even where there were certainly no low spots. Maybe he had a nervous twitch. Shane figured he was conducting some kind of systems test on the canoe.

Shane with catfish—he didn't know we were fishing for piranhas. There were several camps located along the river, all within a half hour, or so, of each other. Ours looked about as decent as any of them. The various tour groups stayed at these camps during their time here.

We had three square meals a day—and juice. The food wasn't bad, but the juice—the juice was awful. It came in all flavors, and it was all terrible. And it was all luke warm. One of the flavors was banana. We figured it was just monkey pee. Three days in the jungle without a cold drink is tough to take. In fact, in general, cold drinks are hard to come by in Bolivia. And when a street vendor tells you their Coke is cold, they simply mean it hasn't been placed in a microwave oven.

There was actually a "bar" about a 10-minute boat ride away, that had a variety of drinks for sale, and the drinks were cold enough to taste good, but certainly not icy-cold. We went there once—for a totally lame sunset—but if we'd had our druthers, we'd have gone multiple times per day.

Piranha—sharp teeth! There were basically four items on the agenda for this trip: swim with the piranhas, fish for pink dolphins, find an anaconda, and go Caiman watching at night, by flashlight.

The day we arrived at camp, things were a bit hectic. Our guide told us four other tourists had been lost during their anaconda hunting trip. All the guides were going to go out and join in the search. Within a few minutes, however, a guide pulled up in a boat with the four, hungry, very thirsty, formerly-lost souls.

The first night was a bit annoying. Everyone turned in at about 10:00. Everyone except for a group of people hanging out in the hammocks out in the common area. They were loud for quite some time into the night. The next morning when a few of us went to relax in the hammocks, we found a fair amount of trash on the floor under the hammocks. Although there are exceptions, this is the kind of behavior I have come to expect from young, traveling Israelis. Maybe it's just their way of rebelling after having to serve two years in their military.

Christophe, France, some kind of fish (not a piranha). The next day, our group, along with the Israelis (there was a French woman in their group, too), went on our anaconda outing. The other group led the way. Our guide was quite a ways ahead of our group. I wondered how our guide would teach us about the local flora and fauna at such a great distance. He did not shout this information the 100 meters back to us.

Shockingly, about an hour after our anaconda hunt began—and less than one day after four other tourists were lost—two members of our group were lost, Elodie and Romain. Considering the distance between our guide and our group, I did not find this surprising in the least, yet I was still flabbergasted that they would allow this to happen, especially considering it had happened only the day before.

Our guide had previously informed us that shorts would be fine for the hike. We traversed quite a bit of terrain with tough bushes. Shane's legs were taking a beating. You know those sensitive programmers. He was a bit put out about that.

Self portrait, spider monkey. A few of us had joined the other group to continue the hunt, while the others in our group turned around to look for the lost sheep. We eventually cornered a snake and the brave ones took turns holding it by its tail. It was about 7 feet long and 3 inches in diameter. I wasn't particularly blown away, but it was still good to see one. I would've been really annoyed hiking around in the heat for three hours for nothing.

The others in our group had encountered the lost group members and we crossed paths, us leaving and them coming. Shane, Lucy, and I continued back with the Israelis, and the rest of our (reunited) group continued on the search for an anaconda. On the way back, during a short break, the guide informed us that there were ticks in these here parts. This additional, omitted item, made Shane even more agitated. One would have thought that the guides would have told us this tidbit beforehand ("shorts and sandals are okay").

Lucy, Berkley. Moreover, the guides had apparently just assumed that we would bring our own water. They hadn't brought any. This was a mere annoyance to us, but could've been deadly to the lost group the day before—or to Elodie and Romain.

Later that day, after we had eaten lunch, we returned to the pink dolphin hangout and swam some more. When we arrived, some other boats were already there (What a pleasant surprise to see Dennis and Sylvia from Belgium, the wonderful couple I had spent four days with on the tour in southern Bolivia).

Shane was bound and determined to have a close encounter with the strange but beautiful pink mammals. He must have treaded water for an hour. I grabbed my Panasonic TZ-3 in its underwater case and took a few snaps out in the middle of the river. I never did get a photo of a dolphin. They were shy. Lucy and I swam out in the middle and joined Shane. Lucy let out a shriek and told us a dolphin had brushed Capybara.against her feet. This happened a few times. She was freaked out and wanted out of the water. I thought she was a wimp—until it happened to me. As I was treading water, I felt something against my feet. This happened four times. I now understood why Lucy was freaked out. It was a mite scary. What an experience.

While headed back to camp in the boat, clouds moved in and the sky grew dark. By this time, we had seen so many capybaras and Caimans, we didn't give them a second thought. The storm clouds and cool temperatures they brought were refreshing.

After we arrived back at camp, I lay down in my bed for a nap. I enjoyed a wonderful hour of wind and rain along with the guitar playing and singing emanating from the dining area, floating through the screen and over to our set of dorm rooms.

Turtles—no idea how they did that.After dinner, we gathered in our boat, flashlights in hand (or headlamps on head), and headed out for some night-time Caiman watching. This was very cool. Make sure to take your own light, ideally a head lamp, which you should have as part of your travels, anyway. The angle at which a Caiman's eyes reflect light is extremely narrow and you won't see the reflections form other people's lights unless they're along your line of sight (i.e., almost directly in front of or in back of you). At times, I was reminded of being on a ride at Disney Land, like Pirates of the Caribbean. This was really nice.

Flowers (you tell me).The night was cool. The previous night, I had wondered why there were blankets on the beds. That night, I used mine.

The next morning, we partook of the last event of the trip—we went fishing for piranhas not far upstream our camp. Each of us was given a small piece of wood with fishing line wrapped around it several times. There was a regular fishing hook on the end of the line. We were given steak for bait. We simply threw the line off the edge of the boat—the bow of the canoe was grounded on the shore—and the piranhas went nuts. After about 10 minutes of the piranhas eating our bait, Shane asked if we supposed to be fishing for piranhas or just feeding them. At this point, they were having a feast.

Elodie, Romain, Christophe, Spain. We ended up catching a few. Shane caught a catfish, too. I looked over at the Israelis. Their boat was sinking. I think they had cast their net on the opposite side of their canoe or something. They had piranhas coming out their ears.

We ate our catch along with lunch. The piranhas tasted like fish—remember, I'm not a food connoisseur. They didn't have much meat on their bones, but the fishing had been entertaining.

After lunch, we loaded our bags into the canoe and headed back downstream to our put-in point three days earlier. The trip back down stream and along the rough road seemed to go more quickly this time. Some group members thought the trip was wonderful while others were underwhelmed. We all had a good time, however, and enjoyed making new friends.


Elizabeth said...

Your site is amazing! The pictures are great. Thanks for sharing!


SteveTaylor said...

Hi Jay!
Thanks for taking us along on your travels and with such great pics to help visualize all that you see. That is so great! Nice photos man! (how do you manage to update this site?) Excellent stuff here.
Down at TBI - things are just the same as when you left - it's a jungle of a whole different sort.

Anyhow, looking forward to your next update.

Abhijeeet Thacker said...

awesome pics, how come that monkey ended up on ur shoulders?

Cheryl Mingo said...

I have a first say that the four events of your trip were supposed to be swimming with pirahanas, fishing for pink dolphins, caiman watching and finding anacondas, but then you swam with the dolphins and fished for pirahanas. I mean, I'm glad you didn't fish for dolphins. That would have been weird. And it probably would have been dangerous to swim with pirahanas. So, was that the orginal plan or were you just being facetious again? :)

Jay said...


I walked up to the monkey to take his photo, and he jumped on me.


It was just a joke—swimming with the piranhas and fishing for pink dolphins.

Jay said...

Thanks, Elizabeth from CO! I should spend some time on your blog, too. I could use the Photoshop tips!!!

Denis and Sylvie said...

Hey Jay,
Sylvie and me just checked your blog... this is kind of tremendous!
It was fun indeed to bump into you in the middle of swimming pink dolfins.
Anyway, it seems you're roaming up all fine to your final destination.
I wish you all the fun we had in Southern Bolivia with our nice little group!!!
And many thanks too for your group pics!
All the best,
Denis and Sylvie (from Belgium)

P.S. : how is raw sugar going since last times?

Denis said...

Just another thing, Jay, you might be interested in my job blog...

See you,