Monday, December 12, 2005

Blood, sweat and tears.. in the jungle!!!

Jetted off for Rurrenabaque and our pampas tour today. I´m sure you desperately want to know the difference between the jungle and the pampas. Well - jungle tours involve canoe trips up the Beni and Tuichi rivers with treks into the jungle itself. Pampas tours, that we picked, involve visiting the wetland savannas and seeing lotsa wildlife and trekking inland through the tall, pampas grasses. Oh yes, and did i mention the mosquitos! I´ll get to that later!

It is great to know how well the Bolivian airline industry works. Our 12:15 plane was cancelled till 3pm, without us knowing until we arrived at the airport, so fair enough, we hang around and have lunch. Then it gets close to 3pm, so we head over to board, only to wait, and wait, and wait, as we listen to our pilot chatting with his building contractor about an addition for his house. Oh, yes, then a few personal phone calls, then a chit chat with the ground staff THEN we finally get on the darn plane!

The flight took about an hour on a wee 12 seater plane. It was great as I could clearly see the mountains and jungle below us, as well as the Amazon. We arrived to scorching sunshine - so incredibly hot!! Rurre (as we locals call it!) is a really small town of about 15,000 people, a bustling frontier town on the banks of the Rio Beni, with dusty roads, flip flops are the "zapatos" of choice, and you really feel like you are away from it all..

We hung out in hammocks at our hostel, watching the river flow past, chatting to some new found friends, like Sara from Taiwan, ..ahhhhh the pleasures of the jungle! But how things changed! Next morning we were picked up -on motorbike- to go meet our group for the tour. I held on tightly to my driver, who couldnt really see cos my giant rucksack was in front of him... he giggled a bit and as i looked around i realized all the cool passengers dont hold on, but i didnt care.. i wasnt falling off! Our group (which would soon become "The Condor de Pampas" gang) was a great laugh! We had Sam and Michelle, Chris, and Sarah and Pete from Australia and Kate and Lauren from the States. (Notice everyone very relaxed and summery looking, except Amish looking me who wore long sleeves and long trousers, and 3 layers of clothing the entire duration of the 100 degree trip, and the damn mossies still bit through all of that!!!) Our new found friend, Roberto was our guide! What a character. To get to the pampas, we had to take a 4 hour rickety, bumpy ride in this wee van, that had the most cracked windscreen i had ever seen. Every time we went over a huge bump, the driver held onto it with his hand - so clearly he was a bit nervous too! We saw an anaconda at the beginning of this trip, which is meant to be very lucky -or so we thought!

Got to the landing site, where we all got into our boat which would take us to camp! Think big canoe...on the river for about an hour, beautiful views and the breeze was fantastic as it was hot, hot, hot! On our way, Roberto asked if we wanted to see some yellow monkeys. Now all the books say be careful not to upset the fragile ecosystems of these areas by feeding the animals or doing things that arent in keeping with the environment. So what do we do? Yup, feed the monkeys bananas. Roberto decided it would be fun to put some of the bananas on my head - so of course, the monkeys went bezerk! At one point I had about 10 of them crawling all over me, and i was convinced that i bit one of their tails! Thank god for my tetanus shot! We also saw paradise birds, pink dolphins, condor de pampas, funny animals called "cappiberas" (spelling?) that look like cute bears but actually belong to the rat family (can you believe it, they are too cute!), and lots of tiny tortugas (turtles to you!).

On to the camp, picture lotsa swinging hammocks, a beautiful view of the river, with us all sharing one big dorm room with mosquito nets on them. We had dinner by candle light .. it was all going so well, and then, the dreaded word - mosquitos!!!! It had started to become apparant that in the pampas (slightly different than the jungle) there were quite a few mosquitos.... well, to be exact, millions of them and they wouldnt leave any of us alone! I had over 65 bites just on one arm by the next morning. And i wasn´t alone.. so this began to put a damper on our pampas trip! As we headed off to the bar - yes, can you believe it, in the middle of the pampas you will find the Sunset Bar, that proudly serves cold beer, everyone began to realise the mosquitos would play a big part in whether we would enjoy - or want to desperately escape - the pampas! Beautiful boat ride home in the dark, looking for alligator eyes, which light up pink in the black darkness of the pampas night.. so perfect and worth all the scratching to sit in the boat, listening to the bullfrogs, looking for our alligators! (Oh yes, back to not upsetting the ecosystem, did i mention Roberto had 2 pet alligators who lived at the camp, Pedro and Carlos, who waddled up to the front door every breakfast, lunch and dinner time to get fed... didnt matter what it was, bread, soup, pasta, they would eat it with gusto!

Second day (after not being able to sleep all night due to the damn mossies...) we headed off to look for sloths (very hard to find, big brown blobby animals that dont move very much.. yes, that is my naturist and very technical description folks!). We were in the boat for hours in the blinding heat, with everyone now madly scratching as the mossie plague spread amongst the to our sloth area, and Roberto excitedly tried to get us enthusiastic about traipsing into the even hotter high pampas grasses and then mosquito infected grasslands to find the damn sounds whiney and we all duly tried to follow our leader, until Lauren, with the full consent of the group, asked very politely if we could "regresar, rapido" as we were all being bitten alive and at this point, didnt give a hoot about a sloth... So, back on the boat again, phew for the breeze... just lovely!

Roberto tried to cheer us all up before dinner by bringing an anaconda to us as we sat swinging in our hammocks, swatting the damn mossies again. We did show some interest, Dominique, brave girl, had a wee shot holding it, but then we returned to our usual topic of asking who had the most bites at this point, and in the most interesting places! Later we went swimming in this beautiful isolated lagoon area of the river, and swam with the pink dolphins. Well, technically we swam and they swam but we werent actually in that close vicinity but hey it sounds good! Did i mention the river was chocolate brown, you couldnt see an inch in front of you, and a girl we met who had just finished the tour had been bitten by a piranha on her leg... we saw the bite, it was pretty big! But the heat and the itches sent us scrambling into the water, i didnt care what colour it was, i loved it and didnt want to get out!

Third day the excitement was in the air! Yay, this was our last day in the damn hell hole called the pampas! Actually, we had a great laugh about how miserable we all were, so it was still great fun. Our last event was to go piranha fishing, very exciting and those wee critters are pretty wily i tell you! I didnt catch one but was proud to stand beside Sam who got the biggest one of the day. Their teeth are fierce looking, but we were the ones laughing as we tucked into them for lunch- seriously they were quite tasty!
We headed back to Rurre with sighs of relief! The bonding over our itchy experience meant we all met up for dinner and mucho cocktailes at the (yes wait for it) Mosquito Bar in town! Great cocktails i have to say. The girls were quite perturbed that the boys didnt ask us to play pool, so we had our own, 3 hr long game, with Australia vs. the US (and a half - that was me!). Dont know if it was the cocktails, the malaria tablets, the heat or if we were just rubbish, but the game went on forever with the Aussies beating us, just barely tho´! Oh yes, and we were all delighted when our waiter, who was 19, asked us all to go dancing with him - what more could we ask for! Of course, we didnt go, cos we were all too old and knackered (or was that just me!).

One funny story; flying back to La Paz, both Dominique and I nodded off, only to wake up to all of the passengers in front of us wearing oxygen masks. We didn´t want to panic, so looked ahead to see what the pilots were doing. They too, had their masks on.. hmmn this was slightly weird. Looked behind, no-one wearing one. But we felt fine, so why were they wearing them, and if things were dangerous, why hadn`t someone woken us up and given us masks?? We had to assume the answer was either a) these "mask" people flew alot and brought their own masks with them for the flight for a wee burst of oxygen when they needed it or b) a sneaky way to get rid of a few gringos, one or two at a time ...either way it was the strangest thing to wake up and see.. tried to capture it in a pic but doesnt really do it justice, oh well, funny at the time!

Another fantastic experience in Bolivia. This country has it all - natural beauty beyond compare, vibrant indigenous culture, the warmest, friendliest people who are so happy and willing to sit and chat with you for hours, amazing parks and jungles, its got everything, well, except beaches, being landlocked, but who needs them, not now anyway! Bolivia is fantastic!I will be very sad to leave it...


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