Thursday, 15 May 2014

Married in the Amazon

I know it has been a while between blog posts but that is down to the fact that we have been in the jungles of Bolivia for the past month with little to zero internet access. The reason for this technological exile is that we decided to do a decent thing and actually give something back, in the form of volunteering at the Communidad Inti Wara Yarri animal sanctuary.
However, as that deserves a post all of its own I will only update you with regards to the busy 2 weeks in between the previous post and the soon to be published details of our time with an Andean Bear named Balu and a Puma named Gato!

These 2 weeks primarily covering two locations couldn’t have been more different from one another – the world’s highest capital city and the Amazon rainforest!!

We took an overnight bus from the salt flats of Uyuni and arrived into La Paz early the next morning. As stated, whilst not the highest city in the world, it does hold the title of the world’s highest capital city and a crazy fact is that due to its location it stretches across the high altipano above before dropping down into a bowl shaped valley below. The poor live at the top where the altitude is a heady 4,061 metres, the old colonial and touristy centre of town in located at 3,660 metres and the rich live even further down within the walls of their gated communities at 3,200 metres. Apparently on the same day the rich can be basking themselves in the sun at temperatures up to 10 degrees warmer than the poor living at the top end of the city.  
Immediately we liked the look and feel of La Paz. We had been looking forward to coming here for a long time and so it was nice that our anticipation was met with an equal experience.
Once settled into our hostel we ventured out for a look around and being a Sunday the city was dead, which was a nice introduction to what is usually a bustling and very noisy place.
Location wise, we were on the opposite side of a small valley from the tourist centre but as we are only talking about a walk of 5 blocks down to the San Francisco Cathedral via the main Government centre in Plaza Murillo, marking the edge of the tourist zone this wasn’t an issue.
The first day was all about discovering the food side of La Paz and even though some of it was very basic in its make-up, flavour wise we were not disappointed.
La Paz has a huge indoor market in the centre of town and the eateries are characterised by lines of tiny cafes / restaurants manned by little old Cholitas with enough room for about 8 people to cram into and sit along a picnic bench.
A Cholita is the term given to the indigenous ladies of Bolivia and they are easy to spot by the fact that they all dress the same – they wear multi-layered skirts that fan out from the hip giving the appearance of having a fat-arse and they don a top hat.
The way a cholita wears a top hat also displays her social standing:
·         Worn to the side of the head means she is single and available
·         Worn upright means she is married
·         Worn tilting backwards means she is a widower
One final thing about a cholita – the fatter her calves, the more desirable she is. It means she is strong and will therefore bare better offspring!

So on many occasions we squeezed ourselves into one of the cholita eateries and ate lovely food for an absolute pittance. We ate fried egg sandwiches, fried trout, whole chickens and papa rellenas (deep fried stuffed potato balls) and when we fancied something sweet we ate deep-fried cheese pastries covered in icing sugar and drank Api, a drink similar to mulled wine.
I said it was tasty; I didn’t say it was healthy!
If you did want to keep away from a heart attack there were also a load of juice bars where you could pick as many fruits as you liked to have blended into a very healthy fruit juice or smoothie.

At the other end of the scale you could venture to the tourist cafes and restaurants for lunch and dinner and these ranged from an excellent Thai restaurant to an English pub.
On this particular day we fancied a taste of home and it didn’t get any better than me being able to order sausage and chips with an accompaniment of vinegar (rare here) and HP Brown Sauce.
I love my brown sauce and I was a very happy chappy that day – my 15 month HP drought had finally come to an end and I am looking forward to a lot more of the good stuff once I get home in a couple more months.

The next day we joined up with the free city walking tour to learn some more about La Paz and Bolivia in general.
Our meeting point was in the plaza outside of the infamous San Pedro Prison. If you don’t already know about it you must read the book ‘Marching Powder’. I won’t go into it all now but essentially the book is about a convicted English cocaine smuggler who spent 4 years within the walls of the prison and he describes how life works inside. Basically the prisoners run the place and there are only 10 prison guards working there – they just monitor who goes in and out.
Once inside, the prison which covers 1 city block is run by the inmates and works by the rules of the outside world ie. you need cash. The reason you need cash is because you need to buy or rent a cell, you need to buy food from the convict owned and run restaurants and cafes, and you find any job that you can in order to give yourself an income. If not, you do not eat and you live on the streets. (within the walls of course)
The English guy earned his money by giving prison tours to backpackers (unfortunately it is now very difficult to get in) and for a little extra you could rent a cell for the night and party it up with the convicts. With regards to the parties it was very easy to have a good time because the finest cocaine in the word was and still is being produced by the laboratory based within the prison and so it was on tap and as cheap as chips!
The place is so bizarre that even the convict’s wives and children live with them and are free to leave every day to go to work and school respectively.
I really wanted to make a visit but once I was told that it was possible to be deported if you were ‘caught’ inside and you would be chucked out with literally only what you were wearing I decided against it. At this point we still wanted to remain in Bolivia for 70 more days!
Anyway, read the book, it is fascinating.
The walking tour itself was very interesting and we learnt a lot about Bolivia and La Paz such as the country itself used to be a lot bigger than it is now.
1 former president gave away a huge chunk of its Amazon region in a trade with the Brazilian president; a section that has now been found to contain vast amounts of rubber trees and so was worth millions; and why did he do this? He wanted the Brazilian president’s horse!
The horse also died not long after the trade!!
Only 140 years ago Bolivia also used to cover what is now northern Chile, and so had a coastline.
Found to contain massive amounts of guano (valuable bird sh*t) and nitrate Bolivia lacking in resources allowed Chile to mine this land but when they disagreed with a tax increase by the Bolivian Government they declared war. The Bolivian runner took 3 days to get to La Paz to deliver this news and by that time the war was won and Chile had taken the land!
Bolivia still celebrates ‘The Day of the Sea’ and is actually trying to claim the land back via the courts, but I have no idea how successful this will ever be.
Our guide said that maybe a Tsunami would come and give them their ocean back and the very next day there was an earthquake measuring 8.4 on the Richter scale and an evacuation because of a Tsunami warning – freaky!

La Paz also has a witches market and here you can buy all manner of love potion as well a llama foetus (some of which were full term) and the tradition is that you bury the foetus in the foundations of your new house in order to bring good fortune.
Apparently the bigger buildings need more than just a llama foetus and so it is rumoured (maybe just an urban myth) that the construction companies will find a homeless man who will not be missed, they then lure him to the bar and once his is sufficiently inebriated he will be tossed into the foundations and buried alive as the offering!! I could easily believe that this WAS true, but today? Who knows?

Parts of the tour couldn’t be completed as there was a week-long miner’s strike and as we didn’t fancy being next to an exploding stick of dynamite (they protest in style) we were happy to cut the tour short.
The tour ended at the top of highest building in La Paz where you could enjoy the Urban Rush. Essentially you don a Spiderman outfit, lower yourself out of a window, 50 metres above the ground until you are at a right angle and then walk down the side of the building. At 20 metres you then push off and free fall to the ground hoping the guy below presses the brake at the right moment.
On this occasion I wasn’t feeling the need to push my luck but as we will be returning to La Paz in a few weeks; maybe?

We had planned to cycle Death Road whilst we were here but that had to be postponed due to the strike so I will describe that insane adventure to you another time.

Whilst in La Paz we also went back to Spanish school for 3 days. We only did 2 hours per day but it was very beneficial to iron out those little grammatical rules that we didn’t exactly understand and also practice some of the things that we needed to improve upon.
By the end of it though we were happy to finish and I have no idea how we completed 3.5 weeks studying 5 hours per day when we were in Guatemala last year.

One thing we didn’t realise when we entered Bolivia from Brazil was that our request for 90 days was ignored and we were only granted 30 days. This needed to be rectified and it was the easiest bureaucratic task I have ever had to complete. We only had to take a photocopy of our passport and our immigration stamp to the immigration office and the guy simply took it off of us (without looking at it) and stamped our passports and immigration cards with 60 more days – it was as easy as peasys and we now had our desired 90 day stay.

Located on the outskirts of La Paz is the Valle De La Luna – the Valley of the Moon – and we caught a local bus out to the site to walk around the bizarrely shaped rock formations created over a millennia via the natural elements and erosion. I have to admit that I expected something a little better than what I saw but it was ok and I enjoyed the trip out as we got to see the whole of the city and it amazing surrounding beauty, which includes the glorious 6,042 metre snowy Mount Illamani.
I do love a good mountain!

That evening we met an English girl who actually lives just a 10 minute walk from me in London and the 3 of us decided to go to the pub and get wasted. By chance we also ran into a German couple who we had met briefly in Uyuni and they were the sort of people that you just immediately click with. We had a f*cking great night out that ended at 7am the next day and I would love to catch up with them all again in the future. In fact, Andi from London offered us a sofa to kip on once we are back and we may well take up that firm offer!

That was the end of La Paz visit number 1 and we now made our way to the airport to take an internal flight north to the Amazon Rainforest – finally after all these years we would make it to the largest ecosystem on the planet and live the myths and the legends.
Quite simply we decided to take a flight because the bus takes 22 hours on a very good day and a flight takes 25 minutes!! There’s no contest is there and when you are flying over and to the largest converter of carbon dioxide to oxygen maybe this increase in our own carbon footprint isn’t so bad!!

The best thing about La Paz airport is that it sits in El Alto, the highest point of the city and affords superb views out across the city to the snowy mountains sitting perfectly in the background.
The flight itself was also a treat for the eyes. We took off and circled over the dry and bare altiplano before hitting the edge of the Andes mountain range. For 10 minutes we soared high above the jagged mountain tops looking down at the ice and blue glacial lakes before the land suddenly dropped away on the other side to reveal the Amazon basin itself. How surreal a sight it was to see the jungle nestled up against the ice laden mountains and we are planning to try to get to this point when we head back this way in a few weeks.
From this point we were now in to the Amazon rainforest and for the rest of the flight we just stared out of the window looking out for as far as possible at only endless jungle interlaced with winding rivers making their way to the oceans thousands of kilometres away.

There was absolutely no doubt that we were now in the back and beyond as we disembarked the aeroplane and stood bewildered on the tarmac. There was literally nothing else around us – only runway, plane and the trees. We stood a little open-mouthed (in a good way) for a few minutes before a small minibus appeared from nowhere to take us to the terminal to wait for our luggage – and when I say terminal I mean a wooden shack.
To quote Guns N Roses; welcome to the jungle!!

The developing town of Rurrenabaque is the gateway to the Bolivian Amazon rainforest and you have 2 main options with regards to tours:
1.       Las Pampas – a tour which is a bit of a wildlife extravaganza. For 3 days you take a boat to a small stretch of the River Beni and here you can see anaconda, tapir, parrots, monkeys, fish for piranha and swim with the crazy pink dolphins.
The only downside is that you must share this relatively tiny section of the jungle with hundreds of other backpackers, mostly party hard Israelis who flock to this region because of a famous book written by one of their own who was lost in this section of the Amazon for 3 weeks and only just escaped with his life (it is actually quite a good read)
2.       La Selva – head deeper into the real jungle for 3 days (or up to 20 days if you wish) with local indigenous guides and learn how to live in the forests

Arriving into Rurrenabaque we had still had no ideas about what to do but as we had only booked a single flight in we were in no rush to make up our minds and settled back into the jungle life – essentially ambling about the dirt streets full of motorbikes and shoeless kids playing football,  looking over to the jungle drenched mountains all around us or watching pink and purple sunsets over the Rio Beni as locals made their way to and from the opposite bank ferrying the public and cargo alike. (such as boat loads of bananas)

After a morning of price comparing at the various tour companies, as well as ensuring that we chose an ethical agency ie. one that doesn’t grab the animals or feed them chips; we decided upon our tour and our agency.
We chose Max Travel because we liked the people we were dealing with and they were the real deal – the guides were real Amazonians who had grown up in the small communities deep within the jungle and when you discover that the owner’s father was one of the search party who found the aforementioned lost Israeli, well, you know you are in good hands.
As much as we wanted to see the wildlife we couldn’t turn down the allure of a few days in the real Amazon, where we would need to build our own shelters and fish for some extra supper. Sod hanging out with the masses and once we found out that we could see the pink dolphins in another town in Bolivia, close to where we will make our exit, well there really wasn’t any decision to be made.

There were an extraordinary number of second-hand clothes shops in Rurrenabaque and good job too as we needed some really gnarly stuff that we could thoroughly trash as we trekked through a potentially muddy and flooded jungle. I found a pair of Celvin Kline ¾ shorts and they cost me about £1.50 – I wore them even though they were a size 12 and so were made for the ladies!!!

The next day we met early at the agency to pack away our belongings, meet our fellow travellers and guide and begin our adventure.
This day also happened to be our 3rd year anniversary but as with every other anniversary we have had so far it completely passed us by unnoticed. We always remember a few days later but I think our list of anniversary locations below gives an idea why we keep missing the date and why it really isn’t an issue if we do miss it – who knows next year we might actually remember to celebrate it on the actual day:
Number 1 – somewhere close to Mount Everest, Nepal
Number 2 – Pueblo, Mexico
Number 3 – The Amazon Rainforest, Bolivia
Number 4 – ???

Immediately we felt at ease with our choice of trip and knew it was the correct decision. There was only one other tourist with us, Ingrid from France and our guide Pedro really was ‘the man’, he was a great bloke and very funny – once he was free from the hustle and bustle of the ‘big city’ (where he was a bit uptight) and back into his own natural environment amongst the solitude of nature.
We also had a cook to accompany us who would prepare all of our meals and any additional food that we could catch!

The trip didn’t get off to the best of starts but looking back now it was very funny, even if I wasn’t amused at the time.
To get to the base camp we would need to take a motorised dug-out canoe / longboat up river for 3 hours into the heart of the wilderness and as we sat in it waiting to leave another guide taking a guy on a different trip tried to push us off and sort of stumbled into the boat. Having stumbled half in and half out he fell and pulled the very shallow sided boat with him and the result was, me especially, hanging on to the frame of the roof but for no apparent reason as I was in the river and completely soaked; as were most of our bags.
At first I really wasn’t laughing but as the guides were p*ssing themselves we just had to go with it and it was hard not to keep a straight face. Anyway, once I found out that we had 3 hours to sit in the boat and relax I stripped down to my undies and let everything dry out in the blazing sunshine as we sat back and took in our very new and different Amazonian surroundings.

Base camp really felt like it was in the middle of nowhere and I can’t imagine how that lost Israeli guy coped for 3 weeks completely on his own isolated from the rest of the world with no prior survival knowledge.
For our first night the basic shelter frame was already in tact so we just had the small job of erecting the tarpaulin and mosquito nets to ensure that we had a dry and bug free evening.
After a look about, meeting a few other tourists who were staying close by and on their 2nd or 3rd days we took lunch before heading off into the forest for 4 hours for our first real look around the Amazon. It was fascinating.
Apart from the wildlife sightings, the macaws (the same lifelong couple flew overhead every day), the tortoises, the monkeys, a baby sloth sleeping in a tree, the butterflies, the spiders, the insects and the mosquitoes, as big as a baby’s hand (no exaggeration) it was the lessons about the medicine and the food that the jungle provides that blew my mind. Pedro showed us where to find edible fruits, ground level coconuts, trees that were toxic with sap that could be used for poison arrows and trees that produced a milky sap that could be used to treat broken bones and rubbing it on the affected area would heal any break in 3 to 4 weeks.
We also found the Cat’s Nail vine which once you slash it with a machete you can hold it to your mouth and drink the purest water and we used this to wash down the termites that we ate. Yummy termites; they taste really minty and are a good energy snack.

Camp was located at the banks of the river so after such a hot and sweaty walk it was only right that we made our way down to the beach for a chilly bath.
After dinner we were treated to a very special evening. In the pitch black, split only by the beams of the odd head torch, we all made our way to the river and over to a natural sandbank via a very sketchy area of quicksand / mud – we had to run across it very quickly.
Here we constructed a huge bonfire made from the masses of driftwood brought downriver during the now ending rainy season and around the roaring flames we sat in a circle and listened to the Amazonian Indians tell us all about their belief system and the world of Pacha Mama (Mother Earth). Myself and Arancha are already very familiar with Pacha Mama having been in the South America for so long and having visited many Inca Sites, but sat around a fire drinking a cold beer under a starry night sky in the middle of the Amazon rainforest; well what can I say, it can’t get better than that and I was filled with a feeling of enormous well-being.
I was completely engaged by our spiritual and cultural lesson and was only too happy to make my contribution of coca leaves along with a drop of beer to the Pacha Mama offering. 
This was one of those occasions when I never wanted to or could even consider the possibility of never traveling the world. It was a special day.
What’s more, there were an English vacationing couple with us, from one of the other tours and they had no idea what was going on. There weren’t familiar with the idea of Pacha Mama and as this was all done in Spanish they didn’t have the foggiest notion as to what was being said and so for us to be able to understand all of this in another language; I was a little bit proud of myself and the missus.
Just to top it all off a baby crocodile made an appearance at the proceedings.

The following morning we packed up our belongings and set off on a walk deeper into the jungle. The walk consisted of a lot of machete action in order to fashion a route through the undergrowth and on a number of occasions we were required to put our balancing skills to the test and cross a number of streams or mud pits via a fallen tree. This is hard enough when wearing a backpack and your shoes are caked in mud but try crossing a log bridge when your girlfriend decides that the best time to clear the mud from her shoes by kicking them against the said log is at the exact moment that you are halfway across the water and you can feel every vibration. Needless to say I fell!

Once at a suitable venue it was time to build our shelter. Using only a machete Pedro showed us what type of tree makes the best structure and which vines we could manipulate to make natural rope! All in all it took about 2 hours of hard graft to build our home for the night but there was a definite sense of achievement when we stood back and admired our handiwork.


Next up it was time for a spot of spear-fishing but this was a complete waste of time; as good as Pedro is in the jungle, even he couldn’t get close to catching any extra food. Therefore we had to revert to good old-fashioned hooks, lines and worms; which we had to dig for.
We fished in 3 separate spots along the river, us 3 tourists, Pedro and the chef and it was Arancha who caught the whopper! As the picture below demonstrates, it was a right good catch especially given the depth of water we were fishing in.
Pedro also showed us how you could fish with only a machete by standing very still in the water and waiting for a fish to swim close by before smashing it as hard as possible with the flat side of the machete to stun it.
We fished for the whole afternoon but as the sun set over the jungle we had to make our move back to the safety of our camp as we were fishing next to a crocodile nest and they awake as soon as the night comes on!

After our evening meal it all turned a little surreal for myself and Arancha. Why is this? Because we got married!!
During the afternoon Pedro and the chef had been fashioning rings from a particularly hard nut found in the forest and now that they were finished we were dressed up in leaves and a surprise ceremony began!
Pedro conducted the service and Ingrid and the chef were our witnesses / photographers and so once we made our vows and fed each other a piece of fish (the one Arancha caught) we were ‘officially’ married before Pacha Mama and under the laws of the jungle.
So there you go, we are now Mr and Mrs Adam Lambert!

To celebrate our first night of marriage we went on a late night jungle walk to view the nocturnal wildlife and although we didn’t get to see a tapir or a jaguar we did see all manner of crazy looking insects as well as the Amazonian giant snail which was massive.

Before returning to the base camp the next morning we went on a small excursion to find some bits and bobs so that we could make some jungle jewellery and whilst we did this we encountered the wrath of the fire ant. They are called fire ants for a reason; because when they bite you it feels like your skin is on fire and we all managed to get ourselves bitten during the course of the morning. Fortunately the pain only lasted for a few minutes but I can testify that their bite really stings!
Back at base camp we took a final lunch and made necklaces whilst we waited for the boat to take us back to the real world.
Finally it was time to return to Rurrenabaque and it was with a little regret that we left this small part of the Amazon basin to return to the town. I know that we were only gone for 3 days but everything seemed so loud and obnoxious once we got back onto dry land and were back in civilisation; it was so strange how accustomed we had become to the sounds and sometimes the silence of the jungle in such a small period of time.

We had 2 more days of r&r in the steamy Rurrenanabaque before it was time to return to La Paz and when it was time for us to go to the airport / wooden shack, of course the heavens opened and it rained as only it can do in the rainforest.
The problem is that when it rains here the planes won’t leave La Paz and so we ended up having to kill an extra 4 hours at the shed, 1 hour more than necessary as we did the honourable thing and let 2 Chileans take our seats on the earlier scheduled fight so that they wouldn’t miss their connecting flights to Santiago. We’d like to think that this little bit of travel karma will be repaid when we really need a favour from the universe.

After a 1 night stopover in La Paz it was now time for us to make our way to another part of the Bolivian jungle to finally begin our 1 month long volunteering stint. We had been talking about it for so long that it was actually nice to finally be doing it.
We first had to make our way to the city of Cochabamba where we made a 2 night layover to stock up on the necessities that we thought we couldn’t do without for 1 month ie:
·         Baby wipes – always handy when the showers aren’t working (a common occurrence)
·         Batteries – always handy when an electrical storm knocks out the electricity (a common occurrence)
·         Cash – for when the small town ATM is broken (yep, a common occurrence)
·         Insect repellent – how we hate mosquitoes and sandflies bites (a more than common occurrence)

Cochabamba itself was an ok place. We didn’t really take a good look around as frankly we couldn’t be bothered, so I would say we only explored the city from a food and drink perspective and as far that subject goes it was a success. The European style cafes allowed us to drink the first decent cup of coffee that we have had in Bolivia and to have the option of a savoury crepe for breakfast rather than stale bread and jam (the standard hostel breakfast) was an absolute treat. Cochabamba also had an excellent section dedicated to street food and we ate dinner here each evening using upturned buckets for seats.

To get to the volunteer site we needed to take a micro (people carrier) through the mountains to get from Cochabamba to the small outpost of Villa Tunari. However, nothing in Bolivia is ever that simple and what should’ve been a simple 3.5 hour drive turned into a bit of a 5.5 hour nightmare.
It wasn’t so much the police blockades delaying everybody and only letting 10 cars pass every 20 minutes that was the issue, it was the fact that we were sat in huge traffic jams and my stomach decided that was going to play up for the first time in about 6 months.
There was no choice, on more than one occasion I had to suffer the humiliation of the fellow passengers laughing at the weak Gringo (slang term for a foreigner) as I exited the car in a rush and jumped into the bushes. What’s worse is that just as I was finishing up the jam began to clear and I had to sprint to the car (hard enough in flip-flops without dodgy guts) and run alongside it before jumping in to the moving vehicle like I was in the A-Team. I pity the Gringo fool.

Finally we arrived at Parque Machia and the office of the Communidad Inti Wara Yassi to be greeted by a flurry of volunteers and questions of how long would we be staying for. At our answer of 1 month there was a big cheer (we do the same now as it really helps our own sections out) and so we were welcomed into the volunteer family and so began our 1 month long jungle odyssey with a bear and a puma; as a married couple, but not quite!!!
Until next time……….