This is a continuation of last week’s post “Quiet (for now) on the Quiquibey”
As volunteers before coming to the Bolivian Amazon, we came to Bolivia to build houses in the country’s eastern lowland, about 1,000 miles from here. Fourteen strangers before the volunteer work, many of us now call one another friends. This four-day stint in the Bolivian Amazon is our mini-vacation after nearly two weeks of work, and as the leader of the group, I chose Mapajo because I wanted to bring people to a grassroots indigenous enterprise. I must admit, the price was right too. For a group our size, about one hundred dollars a day per person would fully pay for three nights in the jungle, including the roundtrip flight from La Paz (Bolivia’s high-altitude capital city) to the airstrip in Rurrenabaque, a three-hour upriver dugout canoe trip from Rurrenabaque to Mapajo, all our food, a handful of jungle walks and boat trips, a guide and translator, and a donation to an unnamed community project in the village of Asuncion.
I had no idea it would include an ample dose of awe and wonder, too, for many of us. The price was right (and fair, given the value of the Bolivian currency), for sure. But at what price to the local way of life?
As bold a traveler as I have become over the years, I have no jungle survival experience. I’m happy to hand the reins of responsibility to the locals for a few days, acutely aware that the jungle is not a gentle place. There is a part of me that is nervous about bringing a group of people, none of which has set foot in the rainforest before, to the biggest one on Earth. It quickly becomes clear that while we have the money to get here, we have none of the real skill to survive in this place. We listen closely to our hosts when they tell us not to touch a certain tree bark (it’s poisonous); or when they say to stay away from the fuzzy caterpillars that crawl lazily along the beams of our cabins (one small touch, they say, and our entire bodies will feel as if engulfed by flames); or when they tell us the water from the stream is perfectly safe to drink.
A young woman in my bungalow finds a poisonous caterpillar crawling over her pillow one night. She shrieks when she sees it. We take the pillow outside, shake off the caterpillar, and return the pillow to the bed.
“I can’t sleep now,” she says, nervously pacing around the cabin.
We look up; it’s so dark we can’t see the beams above us. There are probably more creatures up there, but structures in the Amazon are anything but airtight, so we tuck our mosquito nets under our mattresses just a little more securely than before.
The young woman eventually goes to sleep, ignoring her fear of what might be creeping around in the dark.
The next morning, we can’t ignore our need for water. Not having any other choice, we give our empty water bottles to our hosts to fill from the stream; not surprisingly, it’s clear and cool and delicious, and no one gets sick.
If we cannot trust our indigenous hosts, we don’t belong here. We need them in every sense of the word need: we need them to navigate the Quiquibey and the Beni rivers to return us to Rurrenabaque after our stay is up; we need them to find fish for our dinners and fruits for our breakfasts; we need them to apply their tropical medicines if we accidentally touch a poisonous frog or a thorn-laden tree. We are too far from any doctor’s office to think we wouldn’t need tribal medicine.
Our Spanish-and-English speaking guide and Spanish-speaking translator (who understand the Moseten and T’Simane languages) work in tandem. Every time one of our hosts tells us something, it gets translated through two men and three languages before we hear it.
During the day, the men take us out in the dugout canoes or by foot on their well-hidden but well-trodden hunting trails. In the dugout canoes, we go to special places known to the Moseten and Tisane for multiple generations: where hundreds of parrots gather, where big cats lick the salt from the Earth, where alligators lurk along the riverbanks. On our way back to the safety of the lodge in the evening, we can see crocodile and alligator eyes glowing when we shine our flashlight beams in their eyes from the boat. Bats dive from the riverside cliffs to feed on insects.
About five of the Asuncion villagers, mostly women, walk to our cluster of thatched-roof cabins each day to cook dinner for us. We eat by candlelight in a communal building. My favorite is the fish, steamed in palm leaves. It’s an ancient Amazonian river fish, thick and white and buttery, with a name I have never heard of and a taste incomparable to any other fish I’ve eaten.
As we are introduced to the natural environment, the village of Asuncion remains a mystery, literally hidden from us. We know Asuncion is only a 20-minute walk from Mapajo, but have no idea in what direction. Finally, on our final day in Pilon-Lajas, the guides tell us that they will take us there.
Check back to Good Journeys next week for the surprising conclusion to the story.