Keen to absorb the local cultures of my adopted country, I developed a parasitic infection. What better way is there to take in a country, than by literally ingesting and secreting its lifeforms? It’s merely compensation for the generosity extended to me by my host nation, becoming a host for its inhabitants.
Getting a parasitic infection wasn’t right at the top of my Bolivian bucket list, but I did enjoy visiting the swish Clínica Alemana: as the NHS crumbles and burns, it was surprisingly pleasant to pass a day in what looked like a very clean hotel containing several medical instruments. Apart from the gruesome symptoms, of course, on which I encourage you not to reflect. Naturally, I milked the parasite for all the human sympathy it was worth, and appreciated all the kind messages sent (in exchange for just a little inter-continental harassment from me).
Having injected several hundred thousand ‘good spores’ into the system, I took myself off to the Bolivian Amazon – obviously a sensible decision. I was still feeling distinctly queasy on as I swallowed the final supply of my medicines in the airport, but decided to ignore my gut instinct and set off anyway.
Ever since I first read ‘Bloomin’ Rainforests‘ in primary school, it’s been a great ambition of mine to visit the Amazon : a desire piqued in recent months by the news of the devastating fires in the region. (Yes, I’m aware I took The Plane Of Hypocrisy. If you want to question this then I will arrange a Skype call in which I will tell you in detail about the physical symptoms of my illness, and you can consider whether or not you would have taken a 20hr bus on dirt roads and perilous mountain passes in such a condition). Bolivia is an absurdly beautiful base from which to explore the jungle; it’s the most biodiverse area in the world, remains less developed than its neighbouring countries’ forests; and, crucially, is much cheaper. (If you want to make any comments on my being tight-fisted in a developing country, I can offer you a follow-up Skype conversation, with pictures).
If you’re keen to contribute to the climate crisis, you could find a worse way to achieve this than taking the flight from La Paz to Rurrenabaque, the little town at the edge of the jungle. It’s an epic journey, which soars above the mountains and forests, dipping so low as to glide through snow-capped peaks, and to offer a view of the Beni river winding through acre upon glorious acre of dense jungle. On exiting the plane you are soaked the thick, humid air; temperatures rarely dip below 30c. I cannot stress enough how sweaty you will be on this trip. It will disgusting; you will just have to embrace it.
My first day in Rurre was spent preparing for the jungle: I bought a swimsuit whose cup size bore about as much relation to mine as a mango to a tangerine, organised my trip with Indigena Tours, and got the ATM to work by discussing every element of my recent hospital trip, until it spat out the necessary Bolivianos as a means of shutting me up. As for night-time entertainment, I rejected my medically-advised white diet in favour of calamari and white wine at Juliano’s, and then, back in the hostel, listened to a Tunisian man describe all his Dengue Fever symptoms, with added moans for effect. Ah, a fellow connoisseur of microbial Bolivia.
9.15 AM swung around, and I was collected en moto for the first of my two tours: the Pampas. This is a vast area that stretches across Argentina, Bolivia, and Brazil; the fertile lowlands are home to a huge number of diverse wildlife populations. In Bolivia it is accessible by the great río Yacuma, where caymans sun themselves before slipping into the water, and haughty capybara ignore camera-wielding tourists. Our guide navigated the boat through the mink-brown river for three or four hours; heavy rain brought out suspicious, and batted away mosquitos. As well as the ever-present caymans and capybaras, we were lucky enough to see yellow spider monkeys, herons, turtles, squat white potoo birds, pink river dolphin and much more besides: my favourite was the Hoatzin bird, or what I called a Quentin Blake bird, a funny rainbow-coloured affair, with tufty hair and an indignant squark.
As we were all pretty drenched in the boat, it was good to reach our lodge – wooden, raised thatched-roof huts, through which the night air gloriously soaks sleep with the scents of the jungle – and eat. Once the rain had stopped, we were able to take again to the river, and spotted caymans in the dark, the sinister glint of their white eyes bright in the pitch blank night.
The next day begun with a fresh walk around the wetlands behind the lodge, where we looked (mostly unsuccessfully) for animals feeding in the lagoon. Caymans lay low in the mud, and birds stalked in genteel fashion amongst the rushes. Given that the highlight was finding a dead cobra, it wasn’t the most fruitful of explorations, but felt refreshing nonetheless.
Because I had decided to make life more difficult by myself by squeezing the equivalent of two 3- day tours into 4 1/2 days, I then had to make my way from the pampas and into the jungle. Luckily, the tour agency had arranged the journey: I got a lift to a local camp, where it was promised that ‘Jimmy’ would look after me. When Jimmy had materialised from his nap, he took me (and a few others) back to Santa Rosa, at the tip of the Beni, and from there I took a taxi back to Rurre. In Rurre, my second tour guide chugged me across the river in a sleepy little dugout canoe. This was an exhilarating ride: we soared across the Amazon, vast mounds of jungle mass looming from every side. After 90 minutes on the boat, we reached our destination: a cove where golden sands sink into trees, and you are swallowed by the great green throat of the jungle.
A short walk from the beach was my new home: an idyllic scene of wooden huts in a small clearing, with hammocks to one side, and a central dining area. This was a lodge managed by locals, run by the irrepressibly cheerful Ramón, who acts as a link between his family and neighbours in the jungle communities and touristy Rurrenabaque. A dinner of plátanos and fish, and then again to bed, lulled to sleep by the jungle chorus of ribbets, croaks, rustling, and birdsong.
On my second day, I took a 6 hr trek in the jungle, led by a local guide. This was as almost as physically challenging as it was beautiful: climbs so steep you have to crawl, tiny paths cut by sheer vertical drops, intense heat. The plants and trees were bizarre; one stood poised on raised roots, and moves two metres every year. They provide solutions to every medical problem, whether it be infertility, burns, or stomach pain, as well as causing quite a few challenges – the sap from one particular tree can turn you blind.
Here there were fewer animals, but we were still able to see monkeys, butterflies of every colour, and giant ants that could paralyse. By two thirty I was dehydrated and pretty tired.
During the day, we visited a couple of the nearby communities, and made sugar cane syrup with a mangle-like contraption; this is fermented to make alcohol, and sold at the Sunday market in Rurrenabaque. We also looked inside the local school, built recently; two teachers have to commute by boat from Rurrenabaque every day. There was a small shop just selling Paceña beers, which we drank as the sun dropped slowly, like a pebble through thick, lazy oil, drenching the sky with violet and burnt sienna.
At night time we returned to the jungle, which was cooler but just as full of life. We would often stop to sit and listen to the sounds, so loud your ears, brain, eyes vibrated with the chirruping and singing and hooting. Again, activity on the ground was stymied by the heat of the day, but the experience was entirely magical.
I was genuinely sad to leave the Amazon, and if anyone reading this is in the position to visit, I highly, highly recommend it.