My last installment from the Bolivian Amazon:
We’ve spent four days deep in the Amazon rainforest, and for our last afternoon, we’ve been invited to visit our hosts’ nearby village, Asuncion. Our first surprise, as we arrive, is its location right on the Quiquibey River. I think to myself, “We passed it in the canoe on the way here. How could I not see it?!”
Nobody, not even the locals, can see it from the river. Set back behind a high cliff over the water, it is ingeniously protected from floodwaters, intruders, and curious eyes.
Sand paths link several picture-perfect-looking thatched roof houses. There’s a one-room school made of concrete and filled with old wooden desks.
But no one is teaching lessons today. It’s eerily quiet. Something feels inauthentic here. Amazonian villages as they are, for all the Coca-Cola and t-shirts and peanut butter that have infiltrated them, are an authentic part of Amazonian life as much as the plants and animals. I was hoping to see that, but it will not be.
One of the local guides takes us up to a young girl, maybe 12 years old, sitting alone outside on a mat. She is crushing maize with a giant rock. Crush, crush, crush.
She looks up, sends a weak smile sent our way. More crushing. Kneeling on her mat, she seems hardly to notice us as our group gathers around, standing and staring, not knowing quite what to do. The guide begins to talk about how maize is cultivated in the village. It feels like a Disneyland, but with no crowds or costumes or sound of any kind. Except the crush, crush, crush.
After the guide’s explanation, he leads us between the huts of the village. We find more women in similar Disneyesque setups, demonstrating traditional chores: grinding millet, weaving baskets and blankets, assembling roofing material from big palm leaves.
It’s a demonstration to educate us. That would be fine (with me, at least) if village life went on as usual everywhere else. But it’s clearly at a standstill.
Is everybody inside their homes on a sunny afternoon? Where are all of the people? Hiding out? Or do they go elsewhere when tourists are coming to visit? I’m curious, and half-peek into doorways without getting too close to be obvious, or rude. It’s hard to tell if anyone is inside, but when I pass some of the huts, I hear voices inside. They are indeed hiding out.
My mind races. Educate us, yes, but people-exhibits using just four women spread out in stations across the village? Are most of the villagers afraid of us? Did some past group of tourists gawk too much, or walk into someone’s home uninvited?
This scene – contrived, unnatural – clashes with how earnestly the locals have been teaching us about the wildlife. But perhaps I’m overreacting; we were taken into the Amazon rain forest as tourists and students, and in this “village as laboratory” we are students too.
We ask if it’s all right to walk around the village by ourselves. Our guides say yes, as long as we don’t go into anyone’s house. We walk amongst chicken coops and refuse piles (mostly leftover palm fronds from building new houses), and peer inside the empty little school. A dozen wooden desks face a chalkboard.
Then, a real-life person. A man sits atop a large wooden skeleton shaped like a church. He’s hammering together the frame of what will become a community meeting house. We wave and say hello, and he does the same.
I wonder if funds from Mapajo tourists are paying for the community center. The group is quiet as we leave the village and head toward the path along the Quiquibey. I can’t help but think the others are surprised and perhaps a bit stunned by how staged and stoic our hosts seemed to be. Without words, we aimlessly stroll over a wide open field that ends at a cliff overhanging the river. The field is surrounded by the thick jungle on all sides.
We realize we’re walking on the village’s soccer field.
And suddenly, as we step on the field, everything changes. A small group of children and adults run up to us, from behind, asking if we want to play. When we say yes, they go get the ball. It is Saturday after all, a play day.
“Aqui, aqui”, they yell, trying to get us to pass the ball.
“Aqui!,” our players reply.
They easily win, but no one is really keeping score.
It’s a friendly game, full of laughter and energy, things entirely separate from language barriers and economic differences and gulfs between cultural norms.
As the game winds down, we hear the cackle of Asuncion’s CB radio, the only modern communication connecting Asuncion to Rurrenabaque. Static punctuated by unintelligible words emanate from a shed near the field. Spanish? Tribal tongues? It’s too fuzzy to tell. Whatever the language, it’s real and present. No one seems to be inside the shed to answer. The words keep coming with no pause.
We walk home happy along the footpath back to Mapajo. I wonder what the villagers are saying about us. Perhaps the Amazon rain forest is not as isolated as we once thought.
And so, with so much to process, a few of us end up on another cliff above the Quiquibey River on the last evening to stargaze. I wonder what it would be like to live here, with only a cackling two-way radio to call for help. Perhaps life here is made more comfortable in some way by the tourists. Since our village visit, I’m feeling uneasy about the “show” the villagers of Asuncion put on for us, but also grateful for everything I’ve learned from them. I feel settled and comfortable here.
The reality of the Amazon, though, is full of its own dangers: no fence around us, big cats and snakes and insects in the forest nearby, large reptiles and piranha swimming in the river below us. The jungle rules here, and it is teeming with plant and animal life – documented and undocumented, poisonous and live-saving.
But behind us, between the bungalows, candles flicker, as they have every night, lit by the women of Asuncion tending to our camp. The candles sit on the floors of our cabins and poke up through the river sand along the edges of paths. Do they offer any sort of protection? Maybe. Likely not. Within an hour or two, the breeze will blow them out or they will burn down completely. But for a time, they tie together our temporary village and offer warm comfort.
Perhaps that is all we need to breathe easier in a place changing all around us.