A Stone's Throw

practice your aim. you never know when you'll spy 2 birds at once.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Rurrenabaque & the Pampas

When you travel, word of mouth from other travelers is usually the best way to find out about cool cites, the best places to eat, where to stay, where not, and a host of other generally helpful information. One of the best pieces of advice was to take an excursion from Rurrenabaque, a jungle town along the Amazon Basin in Bolivia. As I´ve illustrated, its a beast to get to, but despite all the troubles, it was worth it.

A 3-hour jeep ride took me to a river, where we loaded up a wooden canoe and took off. Traveling down a jungle river is both exhilarating and primal. Especially when you're surrounded by caimans. I stopped counting them when I reached 100 in the first half hour. For those not familiar with caimans, they're part of the crocodile family and despite the incorrect belief - they get really big. I'm talking bigger than an alligator big.

But they weren´t the only animals along the river. Here and there were capybara, the world's largest rodent. They're pretty lazy, really, mostly hanging out by the river, clearly unaware that they are inches away from becoming caiman food. Besides the capybarra were squirrel monkeys, howler monkeys, and some kind of monkey with a name that sounded like cappuccino. (the guide spoke spanish, and some of the animal names didn´t translate. like the rheas (gigantic ostrich-sized birds) are called pios)

In the afternoon of the next day we went on an anaconda hunt. This is not for the squeamish. It´s basically wandering through waist high pampas grass in 1-2 feet of swamp water looking for a snake that could swallow you whole. Anacondas regularly grow to 20-25 feet long. In the first half hour we found success and thankfully it was only about 8 feet long, a baby.

This was only the beginning, however, for soon we stumbled upon 12 feet of unhappy cobra. Apparently if you get bitten, you would die within 3 hours. Suddenly, standing in the middle of a swamp seemed less wise. (to be fair - I didn´t know they had cobras in the Pampas, especially not giant ones) Having had uncanny luck in finding the two biggest, most dangerous snakes in the Amazon, we decided to hike back to the boat. This proved to be tricky when the guy walking in front of me stepped on another cobra. This one was even larger, and the guides weren´t able to catch it, it just whipped around and disappeared under our feet. Yeah, whatever feeling you´re getting right now - multiply it and that´s how our group was feeling. We waited and watched, before carefully continuing on. And came across another cobra. Suddenly the boat seemed very away. But in time, we negotiated our way out of the snake-infested swamp and back into the boat.

One of the funnest things we did was fish for piranha. It´s sorta like any other sort of fishing - they tend to prefer shady areas under low-hanging trees - the only difference was using chunks of meat as bait. The tricky part was setting the hook. Piranha´s literally bite so fast that you can barely notice the line move before they're gone. So all you could do was yank as fast as you could. This had one rather unexpected consequence - I saw my line jig and yanked, and a piranha flew out of the water and landed in the canoe. There´s nothing so disconcerting as a piranha flopping around under your feet. It´s not like you can get out of the boat or anything. So there we were, hopping around in a canoe, avoiding the little guy´s razor-sharp teeth, trying to figure out how to scoop it up without capsizing. This proved to be difficult. But at the end of the day, with piranhas flying out of the water and into our boat more than on our hooks, we caught enough for dinner and, I must say, they are one of the tastiest fish I´ve ever eaten.

The final adventure in the Pampas was swimming with the pink river dolphins. There's nothing quite like summing up the courage to jump in a river teeming with piranhas, 16 foot caimens, and anacondas, but when a gorgeous gray and pink dolphins swim by, its hard to say no. Amazing experience!

All in all, my adventure through the Pampas was worth every moment it took to get there. Sometimes the best journeys are the most hectic ones, and this ranks pretty high up there.

One final image - me enjoying the Pampas the right way:

Monday, June 23, 2008

The Journey North

After the park I was keen on seeing more of the Bolivian part of the Amazon Jungle and the Pampas, and determined to make it there - hell or highwater.

Turns out that the road went through both.

The morning of my escape turned out to be an escape for another disgruntled park volunteer, Jason. Together we waited on the road, backpacks ready, to discover that the north-bound bus wasn´t going to show. Of all days for it to happen, this was the worst. Refusing to waste another day at the park, we flagged down a car and made it to the village to the north - a collection of ragged buildings and dirt roads. There we were able to catch a taxi (imagine a Honda with 8 passengers and luggage) 3 hours to Trinidad.

There are 2 things I´ll always remember about Trinidad.

1 - Everyone rides motorcycles and vespas

2 - Open-air sewers lining the sidewalks


I suppose there is a 3rd thing I will recall about Trinidad - there are no night buses to 'Rurre'. This threw a kink in the plans for a quick route north. Suddenly we were forced to weather a night in Trinidad.

We caught a morning bus that left at the usual 2-hour late starting time and found that calling the route north a 'road' was far too generous. Criminally incorrect. It was a river of mud. On several occasions we even had to exit the bus so that it could make a wild, sliding, spinning attempt to surge through a particularly deep part of the road. I´ve never seen such a massive vehicle in so much danger of tipping over.

Yet as surreal as riding the bus was, it was nothing compared to crossing a river with it. On 3 occasions we came to rivers where we had to take wooden rafts across. I never would have believed that a canoe with a 15Hp outboard motor could push a raft carrying a bus. Now I know better. That's what traveling does for ya.

To the left - the launching dock.

The raft's secure bottom:

At the 11th or 12th hour we arrived at some darkened village where the drivers that there weren´t enough people going north. So instead of driving us themselves, they effectively sold us to a driver of a renovated cargo van. Our protests fell on deaf ears and so the 15 of us squeezed into the van for what would turn out to be the worst ride of my life.

Initially we were told it was 3 hours to Rurre, but then after 2 hours, we were told it was still 3 hours to go. It was like going back in time, or being stuck in purgatory - as the van bounced and lurched and shook, fully without any sort of shocks or suspension.

When we finally reached Rurre, we were so delirious from lack of sleep, pain in our limbs, and splitting headaches from hitting the van's ceiling so many times, that we had no idea what time it was. But we had made it.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Images from the Park

The path to work everyday.

Me and my charges - Talia, a 6-year-old howler monkey, and Rumi, a several-month-old howler who is waiting to get strong enough to be released into the wild. Talia´s way of showing affection is to groom your hair. Rumi is the epitome of a lovable, attention-seeking monkey, often seeing how far he can leap from high places onto my head.

Two hands.

Rumi and I scoping out the wild howler monkeys in the trees above us.

The little howler is Carlita, whom I helped release into the wild where she was accepted by the troop of howlers.

Me, the littoral jungle gym for Rumi.

Lots of butterflies in the jungle, but they´re impossibly hard to photograph.

Talia, in the midst of grooming my hair.

The dominant male who is part of a troop of howler monkeys that travel through the park every few days. They´ve accepted Rumi as part of the troop, but Rumi´s not big enough to leave with them yet. He´s still working on the timing of his jumping.

Despite their cool colors and connection to Guinness, toucans are vicious and aggressive. They hop around in a funny little way and then whack at your feet with their bills.

Faustino, the house howler monkey

Herbie the Tapir. The biggest, most lovable animal. And when he sees you, he runs toward you and you can´t help think that he could very easily trample you.

Rumi and I.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Parque Ambue

So I have to backtrack a bit to sum up my travels over the last month. When I was last able to effectively blog I was in Sucre, Bolivia. I´m now in Arequipa, Peru, also known as the White City.

But to get back to Bolivia...

I think that after volunteering at a wildlife park in Bolivia, I better understand prison life. You're in an unpleasant place with people you don't like, being ordered around, given horrible food, and worked on a chain gang. Granted, I wasn´t about to be shanked, but I think getting attacked by a great cat is worse. At least in prison they have doctors.

The idea of a park existing solely on the contributions of volunteers is a great notion, but in reality it's a mismanaged mess. I didn´t know this going in and spent 21 unfortunate hours on Bolivian buses to get to the far eastern part of the country. But by the third day of hauling rocks through the jungle, having my tent flooded, moving to a straw mattress that had all the cushion of a lumpy brick, and dealing with an obnoxious number of know-it-all granola girls, overnight rastas, and chain-smoking druids, I knew my time there would be short-lived.

I spent a week working with Rupi, an adult male jaguar the size of a tiger. (His back came up to my waist.) I soon found out there is no 'working with'. There is only what a 300Ib jaguar feels like doing and what it doesn´t. My time with Rupi consisted of two things. 1) Walking him, and, 2) Feeding him. The second one seemed the most important since it kept the idea of me as a meal out of his mind. But the first one is the dodgy bit. Walking him consisted of letting the jaguar out of its enclosure(an outdoor habitat the size of several backyards strung together), putting it on a leash, and following it around the jungle. Now, if someone at the Washington Zoo said to me, ´hey - we're going to let the lion out of its cage. Would you like to walk it around in the jungle?' I would have laughed. But this is Bolivia, so the idea seemed more reasonable. Now, the walking part was easy. It was everything else that was difficult. Like trying not to anger him for then he will leap up and tackle you, or turn your back (tackle again), or show it up (tackle), or look it in the eyes (tackle), avert eyes (tackle), or express any movement that might encourage it to show you who's boss.

I handled Rupi's first attack well. I didn´t fall down. I didn´t run for my life.

The turning point for me was when my friend Rossa was mauled by a puma. Her horrific experience was then demeaned by other park volunteers, who laughed and acted as if her soon-to-be scars were some kind of trophy. I took this as a sign to plan my escape. I switched off Rupi-duty to work with howler monkeys. And there, far away from all the nonsense of the park, I had a great week working with Talia, a rescued female howler, and 2 baby howlers, Carlita and Rumi. The highlight was when a troop of wild howlers came through the monkey park and we released Carlita to go live her life with them in the trees. Rumi will also join them, but he´s still too small and needs to work on his climbing some more.

Even with the downsides (like being assassinated by mosquitoes day and night), I considered staying longer to see Rumi properly released into the wild, but in the end the lack of a park manager, any onsite expert, or a doctor, combined with all the aforementioned issues, convinced me to move on.

In the end, I'm glad for the experience, pitfalls and all. But I wouldn´t do it again.

- C


Santa Maria, a village just outside of the park:

Monday, June 16, 2008

Brief Aside

Sorry for the delay in blogging and adding pics. Internet´s been sketchy in the jungle - including a stretch of 2 weeks sans electricity. Yeah, 2 weeks. Anyway, I should have better internet and uploading speed in a day or two and I´ll catch up on all that´s happened. Suffice to say, I made it through the jungle relatively unharmed. Sad to say that my camera died. Nothing happened - it just stopped functioning. Will get it looked at, but may have to buy another. Can´t keep going on my journey without a camera.

Headed to La Paz this morning. Taking the World´s Most Dangerous Road. No joke. Google it. From Rurrenabaque to La Paz. I would have taken a flight, but the rain´s been canceling all the flights, so the backlog of stranded passengers is ridiculous.

Next time I´ll be online at 4,000 meters and freezing again. But I´ve have enough of this cold business. After I get things organized there, I am heading north with a quickness.

But, like said, more soon to come about my time - getting pounced on by a 300 Ib jaguar, swimming with dolphins, the worst bus ride in the history of busrides, the fragrant open-air sewers of Trinidad, and the search for the giant anaconda.

Wish me luck on the Death Road.


Saturday, June 07, 2008

Still In The Jungle...