Excerpted from my chapter on the Bolivian Amazon from my travel memoir-in-progress:
Watching the moon rise over the world’s ventilator, you can really breathe. The stars reveal themselves in the millions from this unlit vantage point in the Southern Hemisphere. And the audio — oh the nocturnal noise! – is all natural: billions of insect and reptile songs creating a kind of ethereal pulse. Croaks and dinkkkks and vrrrs and tzzzzs — melodies that mask the careful foot steps of jaguar – are nightly symphonies in the Amazon rain forest. In three days, I’ve come to relish the cacophony, the dangers it can hide, and the outright mysteries of this place.
The seemingly unbroken top of the Amazon rain forest canopy is just below me; I’m sitting on a cliff above the Quiquibey River, deep inside Bolivia’s Pilon-Lajas Biosphere Reserve and Indigenous Territory. When I look across the dark gurgling waters, I envision jumping over it and walking on top of the spongy rounded lumps of trees for miles.
The reality is, though, even if I could magically walk on the tops of trees, I would eventually fall into a gap: a logged area. But for now, unbroken wilderness is all I can see, and being inside the Amazon for the first time is magic indeed. Like the stretch of rainforest in front of me, my mind feels happily stretched out here, wide enough to process thoughts of past, present and future all at once.
I’m joined at cliff’s edge by a few other night-loving tourists; it’s the first time to the Amazon for all of us, and everyone seems to be having a mind-shift too. I don’t want to leave, and I’m not the only one. For many of us on the cliff, the thought of returning to a world of airplanes and honking cars and crime still feels years away. The reality is that most of us will return to that world in mere days.
But right now the skyscrapers are trees, nourished by ample sun and rain. The trees are so close together they literally hug all day and all night. Lovely how they do that, linking branches, making shade for everybody down below. And there is an everybody under there. Most of the human life living under the canopy have come out onto the rivers and shown themselves to the outside world. A few have not as seen – ironically – on CNN.
Our Moseten and T’Simane tribal hosts are among those who have made – and some might say, seek – contact from the outside world. They’ve built five bungalows for tourists and named the place Mapajo Ecolodge. It has been our home in the jungle for the last few nights.
It’s our final night in the rainforest. I’m concerned about how outsiders like me are changing this place; how I, here as leader of a group of 14 American and Canadian volunteers, have filled the little lodge to capacity. We have already changed the daily life of the local people just by being here, choosing this place to rest and recharge. As my mind wanders, caiman and alligator and massive, ancient river-bottom fish slip through the water just below the cliff where we sit. The Quiquibey is only one of thousands of rivers that snake their way into the mighty Amazon.
Vast tracts of this jungle have remained unchanged for thousands of years. I’d love to know the exact percentage of virgin forest that remains, but the logging rages so fast that it’s impossible to get current figures. I’m here because I want to learn more about the past that rules daily life here – the medicinal plants, hunting and fishing in the jungle, and all the fruits and vegetables that sustain the local indigenous people.
The locals have been teaching us these things. I think that’s valuable for us, members the “outside world” in order to understand – and perhaps better protect – the Amazon. But what are the indigenous people getting out of it, other than money and exposure to our (rather unnecessary) Gore-Tex rain jackets and moisture-wicking socks and SLR cameras?
Do we, by supporting eco-tourism here, do more harm than good?
I’d love to hear answers from readers to this question.