Category Archives: Eco-travel

Cycle-touring Tanzania, for a cause


Two sets of thick, nubby tire tracks disappear over the steep slope. This is a cliff, really, a cliff in remote Tanzania ending 1,500 feet below on the hot, sandy Masaai Plain. It’s not a good place for injuries of any kind, and especially not the bloody kind of gashes sustained after falling off a mountain bike. Blood (and fear) is detected easily by lion, hyena, snake, scorpion and the like in wild places like this.

Today, after five days riding up and over Tanzania’s green, lush Usambara Mountain Range, it is finally time to descend into a harsher, hotter Africa.

Though hilly and rutted roads are the norm in these mountains, mountain-biking the Usambara had been relatively easy so far, as long as you took it slow and steady.  For most people in our group of five foreigners in their thirties and forties, this method worked well. I think the cool, misty mornings had something to do with it. I could see, after a few days cycling here, why they call the Usambara “The Switzerland of Tanzania.” We had stopped for a full day and night in the village of Lushoto, singing “Old MacDonald Had a Farm” with friendly girls walking home from school, eating sugarcane with happy young boys, whose only use for knives was to cut wild sugarcane. Passing through the farm towns, “helloooo-muzzungu!” rang out from anyone working the fields, and children pushed us up the hills, grabbing the backs of our seats and running furiously behind us, laughing the whole way. The mountains felt safe, giddy almost, with happy monkeys in the trees above us and happy children nearly everywhere else.

But the exit route out of this veritable African idyll, so far, isn’t so pleasant. Our guides, two Tanzanian brothers, decided to lead us out of the Usambara and onto the Masai Plain via a new route, a little-used cattle track beginning in the village of Mtae (muh-tie). It’s main purpose was to switch-back down the mountainous shelf known as the Masai Steppes. This track, peppered with thorns and full of deep rocky ruts, gave this amateur cyclist chills on a rather hot day. I’d never seen anything tougher on which to ride, and especially on a bike laden with too many tee-shirts stuffed in the panniers. I rode my brakes (always) and got off the bike (often). Whether riding or walking, I swore, loudly and steadily, at this horrid little cattle track. Local women, hiking the track uphill with heavy baskets of firewood on their heads, smiled knowingly as I shrieked and swore and sweated past them.

* * *

Yassin Madiwa, one of our two guides, saw the errant tire tracks first, where the riders had obviously missed the switchback and instead rolled off the slope.  He peered down. Definitely no trail. Just thorns, bushy tangles of trees, loose sandy soil, and rocks. He got off his bike, examined the tracks and thought, Could they … have ridden down this? The two women were the least experienced cyclists in the group of riders, made up of three American women and two Englishmen.

Certainly the others wouldn’t have lost the trail like this, Yassin thought, endangering themselves and possibly the rest of the group in one sweeping, poorly-thought-out decision.  It was only the seventh day of an 11-day cycling trip. It was not a day for losing two American women on the Masai Steppes.

He called the two women’s names, long and loud.

One of those names was mine.

TO BE CONTINUED (NEXT WEEK) ….

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Where Wild Tigers Still Roam


Did you know that India is home to most all of the estimated 2,000 wild Bengal tigers still left on the planet? Only after drastic conservation measures have many tiger species returned from the brink of extinction in the 1940s. Of the nine different tiger species that once roamed the world, six remain. Not long ago, I was lucky enough to see two in the wild — a mother-tiger and her young one, in Bandhavgarh Tiger Reserve in hard-to-reach central India.

Wild animals are the best reminders of why we need to care about the environment. Their mode of living also offers us a lesson: wild animals don’t over-consume. Wild animals don’t need to collect “stuff”. Wild animals don’t need oil to get places or keep warm or clean.

Sadly, the above — our modern human way of living —  has affected wild animal habitat so much that simply seeing certain animals is a once-in-a-lifetime event. Tiger reserves, like those the Indian government have set up, are really our only chance to see them these days.

Located in India’s central agricultural basin, Bandhavgarh was once a place for Indian and British royalty to shoot and kill tigers. How times have changed. Today, about 60 Bengal tigers roam over 500 square miles of protected jungle and savannah. For 12 hours each day (dusk to dawn, when they are most active) the tigers are left alone. For the other 12 hours, tourists in open-top jeeps crisscross the park on designated dirt roads hoping to spot them.

Park fees protect the tigers and other animals and the guide fees create much-needed income for local residents in this poor district, where most people live on about $1 per day. Eco-tourism at its best.

Still, it’s not your typical image of eco-tourism. Imagine a mob of paparazzi snapping pictures of movie stars outside the Academy Awards you’ll get a sense of the mayhem as safari jeeps converge on a tiger visiting a watering hole at India’s Bandhavgarh Tiger Reserve. More than once, I found myself in a crowd of 20 jeeps parked helter-skelter, packed with visitors from faraway places clamoring to see one of the world’s rarest creatures.

After we finally saw these two, drinking at a watering hole, my eyes started to tear up. I then laughed as I watched the young tiger try to jump and capture a wild peacock for dinner. The peacock got away.

It hit me: something really bad has happened in our history for a simple glimpse of a tiger — or in my case, two tigers — to be so precious. Will seeing trees and clean water and breathing unpolluted air be this out-and-out thrilling someday? Will humans eventually live in protected zones? I certainly don’t hope so.

Still, wildlife reserves like Bandhavgarh will never completely undo the damage. My tears for the tiger, when it came down to it, were for all things wild. Every creature is precious, forming an ecosystem that we are only beginning to understand. Humans are an integral part of that ecosystem and an integral part of its ultimate survival. We must change our consumptive ways and strive to keep wild places wild if we want a better future than the tigers. The experience only renewed my drive to reduce my overall use of resources, to support wildlife and wilderness conservation, and to encourage others to do the same.

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Lhasa, at last


The conclusion to my 3-part story of traveling from Beijing to Lhasa, Tibet via high-speed rail:

The instant-comfort-with-other-foreigners phenomenon happens again in the dining car, where my husband and I meet another American woman. She is 73 years old and traveling alone. She’s no less energetic or excited about the world as the young Harvard graduate we’d met earlier. After she explores Tibet, she’s headed to the highest point in India. She definitely does not buy an oxygen tube, feeling perfectly fine at 15,000 feet. Instead, she chats with us about her love of travel. We discover that we have both reached the summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro, in Tanzania.

As we get closer to Lhasa, a few of the cars’ bathroom floors are completely covered in sewage. Time. To. Get. Off.

Claustrophobia and intense restlessness set in. My husband spends hours on end in the dining car. Normally gregarious with strangers, he has reached his social limit and doesn’t feel like talking to anyone. We sit across the table from one another and stare out the window at the Tibetan Plateau.

Like us, the Chinese wait-staff appear as if they do not want to talk to another soul. Visibly weary at journey’s end, they stand and stare at one another behind the beer cooler. The looks on their faces say don’t ask us for another single thing.

For everyone, it’s a relief to pull into Lhasa.

The doors open and cold, thin, squeaky-clean air breezes in. We breathe a clean breath for what seems like the first time in weeks. Lhasa, at last.

The Lhasa train station stretches the size of football field in one big platform covered by a high ceiling — way too large for this one single train arrival per day. There are no schedule boards, and no one waits inside at the station for anyone.  Is this against the Chinese government rules, perhaps? People-less, the giant station nearly swallows us whole.

Just outside, the Himalayas loom in all directions; the sun sets behind those to the West. Out here, families greet one another in the Great Outdoors.

Lhasa is still an outpost city. There are no high-rises here. Yak herders, walking for hundreds of miles, have pitched their tents just beyond the train station parking lot. They will sell a few yaks and then go home.  We make our way into town under pink and purple skies enveloping the Himalaya.

LHASA, A CITY DIVIDED

To get to the Tibetan sector of Lhasa from the train station, you have to drive through the Chinese section first. It is a saccharine place, with neat rows of new shops with floor -to-ceiling glass fronts and Chinese shop girls wearing tight jeans milling around the mannequins that also wear the same tight jeans. The Chinese government has offered incentives for Chinese settling here, and it shows in how many storefronts use only Chinese lettering. Even in Tibetan sector of Lhasa, where we are staying, grocery stores are Chinese-owned chains.

My husband and I venture out for a walk the first morning, and cross from the TIbetan sector into the Chinese.

Sidewalks at nine in the morning on the Chinese Side are full of waving arms. Human arms waving in big circles, and human hips, bending from side to side. These mostly-female employees wear identical store-uniform skirts and aprons in pastel green or pink. They face their storefront, their backs to the cacophony of the streetscape unfolding behind them: the passing of Tibetan donkey carts packed full of vegetables with their clanking chimes, or motorcycles zipping by, or the women in traditional dress walking past silently, with equally quiet babies strapped to their backs. Patriotic music blares out into the street. When the mandated exercise session is over, the music stops and the employees go inside, like nothing ever happened.

The Tibetans walk and drive and pedal past all of this as if invisible in a territory no longer their own.

On the Tibetan Side, though, Lhasa’s sounds and smells would overwhelm me. Hearing the scraping of hand-mitts on stone of prostrating pilgrims inside and around the Johkang Temple gave me a new appreciation for Buddhist devotion. Inside the temple, the chanting was low and intoxicating, and yak-butter candles lighting every dark corner made the experience nearly surreal.

But then, intrusion. At the Potala Palace (the former home of the Dali Lama, now exiled in India), video cameras and recording equipment and Chinese soldiers in every quadrant of the eerily empty palace angered me. Our Tibetan guide warned us not to talk of the occupation or Chinese politics in public. There were recording devices placed all over. We could talk about it inside the car, though, once we were out of Lhasa and heading out into the villages.

Despite Chinese occupation and the physical absence of the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan way of life is enduring and being passed on to the young. A trip to the hillside Sera Monastery, about six miles outside Lhasa, where laughing young monks debate every afternoon, gave me hope. These monks reveled little fear as they practiced their beliefs. And, after visiting Sera Monastery, as we hiked down the hillside to catch our bus back to Lhasa, a young man, maybe 20 years old, happily ran toward us. He saw us looking at our guidebook, and asked in English if there were any pictures inside of the Dalai Lama. Tibetans desperately want to see their exiled leader, but the Chinese ban any images of him. We flip and flip through our guidebook but there is no picture to rip out and give the young man. He looks over our shoulder, hoping to see his holy leader, and to take him home. His faith is steadfast, not impeded in the slightest by the Chinese occupation.

We apologize that there’s no picture in our guidebook and mean it more than we can say.

He thanks us for looking, smiles and walks away. On our way out of Lhasa the next day in our Land Rover, the train-bridge over the Lhasa River reminds me of our long journey from Beijing. If my presence here changes anything, I won’t fully know it unless I return. For now, all I can know for sure is that the only change I wish for Tibet is a peaceful end to the Chinese occupation. I’ll support the worldwide effort as best I can by bringing awareness to the issues. It’s all I can do — at least now — in the hope of preserving such a rich and wonderful culture. For now, though, I’ll take in — and lock into my memory — the wide openness of the Tibetan Plateau unfolding before me in every direction.

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Of Trains and Toilets and Tibet


The continuation of last week’s story about my travels into Tibet on the Beijing-to-Lhasa train:

Given the still-sensitive nature of the Chinese occupation, my husband and I knew before we left the U.S. that we would have to adhere to strict Chinese rules to move about Tibet once we got there. Rather than get stuck in travel-permit hell, we decided to join a Canadian travel outfit for a small-group adventure tour, who would arrange the permits and drivers for us. We’d be with the group for about two weeks.

After the train ride, government-mandated Tibetan drivers would take us deeper into Tibet, then overland to Kathmandu.  First, though, once off the train, our itinerary called for acclimation time to the high altitude (and high level of yak-based meals) in Lhasa before the Land Rover portion of our trip.  The eight days of the trip would be slow going, with bumpy, dusty roads and overnight stops in the Tibetan towns of Gyantse, Shigatse and Sakya — before a cold sleep at the Rombuk Monastery Guest House at the foot of Mt. Everest. Rombuk is the highest-altitude monastery in the world.

Without thinking too hard about it, I grab the toothpaste tube in the toilet, wash off the tube and my hands. I do this as thoroughly as I can, seriously considering how I might use boiling water to sterilize the tube some more.

Back in our sleeping compartment, my husband is appalled when I tell him how I rescued the toothpaste. So are the others in our group. I’m not sure if he’s more surprised about my thrifty desire to save a $2 tube of toothpaste, or my willingness to retrieve anything at all out of a Chinese squat-toilet. In many ways, I’m looking in the mirror at my “travel-self” for the first time, and it feels like everyone else is looking too, pointing out the flaws. Just like outsiders seem to be doing with China and its flawed politics and flawed dog food and flawed kids’ toys.

But on this train at least, it seems the Chinese want nothing more than to protect us. There are no outdoor viewing decks on the train, and no windows that open. Instead, double-sealed and glazed doors and windows protect us from the cold, wind and from strong ultraviolet rays at the high altitude.  We’re also protected from sinking into the permafrost. Strange stone square grids made with hand-placed rocks line the train tracks, part of an intricate system of raised rock beds underneath. The Chinese have used these, along with clever uses of pipes and near-frozen concrete pylons, to create a cool bed of air underneath the rails. It’s a fairly simple way to ensure that the permafrost never has a chance to get warm enough to thaw.

You wouldn’t know a rugged geological uprising is happening right under us, as the Indian and Eurasian plates crash together to create the heave of the Tibetan Plateau. It’s quiet here, and save for a few small towns, the most common sign of human life is the nomadic herders and their tents. And the yaks, scattered in groups of ten, fifty, a hundred, look small here. The few Tibetan antelope we see spy the train and flee. For hours, we see nothing but distant Himalayan peaks.

My husband stares out the window, running the compact video camera, his eyes moist behind its lens. I’m intrigued by what lies outside too, but touched to a greater degree by his emotional reaction to seeing the Himalaya for the first time.

YEARNING FOR THE OUTDOORS, EXPLORING WHAT LIES WITHIN

Like him, I wish I were outside in the emptiness. My semi-solution to get away from people is to take frequent long walks through the other train cars (where there are yet more people), then back again. On a train it’s the closest thing to going for a stroll. I like to keep moving, up and down the length of train, through the seating classes, glimpsing the shades of economic and cultural difference that they represent.

It’s much like a city: the rich live in the periphery (the first and last cars), the poor in the middle. It reminds me of wealthy suburbs surrounding the struggling inner cities of so many world metropolises. But the poor on the train are not so poor by local standards. Buying a ticket on this train isn’t possible for most of the Tibetan population – the ones we see herding yaks, or in the yurt camps, and so many others we never see. The poorest are on the outside looking in. Do they know where the train stops and starts? Did anyone tell them it was going to slice through the openness of their land?

I wonder how the herders and their families must feel looking at us behind our windows, zooming by on the rails. Can they see our table stacked with chips and apples and tea and warm Chinese beer? Can they see our $1,200 high-definition video recorders, our $1,000 digital SLR cameras?

Perhaps this new train somehow intensifies their knowledge of their “poorness.” Or was that already done decades ago after the Chinese invasion? Perhaps it doesn’t matter. The nomadic yak-herding families remain, at least for now. It’s their home, train or no train running through it.

Some of my fellow foreigners (which include urban Chinese) never seem to emerge from first class, hiding inside four-berth sleeper cabins with sliding doors that close them off from everyone. The next class down, which we have booked, is made up of foreigners and wealthier Chinese. These six-berth sleeper cabins have no doors.

In second class, the train’s “inner-city,” passengers creatively attempt to sleep on the floor underneath or between seats, or on the cold hard metal floor between cars.  The price to be able to lie down on a bed – even stacked three high in an 8 foot by 5 foot space — is high enough (about $100 for the entire route) that most locals cannot afford it.

On this journey, there is only one foreigner who sits here, a young woman who keeps to herself and looks utterly miserable. After the first day, I don’t see her anymore.

PEACEFUL, IN LOOKS ONLY?

On this train, the Tibetan and Chinese passengers sit mashed together in uncomfortable-looking seats placed way too close together. Like the uncomfortable relationship between China and Tibet, it looks peaceful on the surface. People tolerate one another despite invasions of space. Legs and arms stick out in the center aisle. Sometimes spilled and mashed food blocks the way and makes the passageways between cars slippery. After a while it starts to look and smell like vomit.

I walk quickly through and slide on slippery goo. I catch myself by flailing my arms and bolting back upright. The worst part of my train walks, though, is the leering men, whose eyes lock on my chest anytime I pass through.

The train stops during one of my long walks. I’m on my way “home,” just three cars away from our cramped sleeper berth, and the familiar faces inside. By now I’ve thrown the toothpaste tube away under severe peer pressure from my husband and our temporary roommates.  Their teasing is good-natured, and I’m discovering that I’m fond enough of them to know that 10-hour days bumping along in Land Rovers with these people will turn out all right. Plus, someone will loan me their toothpaste.

But as the train stops, so does my long walk home. All the doors seal shut, locking everyone where they are. This is the Chinese solution to keeping people in their places during embarkation and disembarkation: seal everyone off from one another, so one sneaks on the train without a ticket, or sits in the wrong class.

The stop is only a minute or two, but the lockdown lasts nearly 20 minutes. There is no spare seat for me in this compartment, so I’m stuck standing on the metal floor in front of the toilet door.

At first, it feels like the whole car is staring at me, the lone foreigner. A tall man stands four inches away, waiting to use the bathroom. Before long he begins to leer. I try to keep my head pointed away from him. His eyes slowly survey my neck and chest, but there is no where for me to go. Soon he has his cell phone out, and oh my, he’s is taking a picture of me with it.

Is he sending my picture to his entire address book? I will never know, because I do not speak Chinese and I choose not to make a scene. No one in the car says anything. With nowhere to sit, nothing to read, and no window for scenery, the minutes drag. After about twenty minutes, a stern-looking train employee walks by. I motion to the locked door, and he opens it with a key.

With a loud ka-push, the seal breaks.

I’m the first one through the door. I walk fast. I’m relieved to get back to my compartment. I feel bad for feeling this way, but I can’t help it. Like it is in so many places, the privileged are semi-comfortable passing through, but we can’t stay. We can’t sit down and get comfortable. We look different. The rules for men and women are different. And cultural differences, while it’s easy to say they don’t matter, do.

Even the Chinese-Americans on the train can feel the strong cultural division, and it seems a few of them don’t feel they fit in all that well either. A few compartments away from ours, I meet a bright-eyed young woman, a recent Harvard graduate. She explains that she is traveling with her Chinese-born parents, who like to come back to China to visit family; this summer she decided to come along. She confides that she’s tired of speaking Chinese, and oh wow is it so great to have some English-speakers here. She’s got a job lined up at Google in San Francisco.

The scene feels a bit weird, as if the train and the instant camaraderie of talking with another American temporarily cancel out where we are in time and space: racing across the Tibetan Plateau, closing in on on its holiest of cities, Lhasa.

THIS STORY WILL CONCLUDE NEXT WEEK…

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To Tibet, riding the world’s highest rails


 

On China’s sleek new train from Beijing to Tibet, the you-know-what is always sloshing in the squats. Overflowing aluminum toilets and door-less sleeping compartments filled with restless travelers (a few gasping for oxygen with tubes in their noses) wasn’t quite what I had envisioned when my husband and I signed up to take China Rail’s much-lauded route across the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau — as part of our honeymoon.

A romantic trip? Romantic wasn’t quite the word for this, but this journey along the “Roof of the World” from Beijing to Lhasa certainly held an exotic allure. Chinese propaganda reinforced it, as did the news pieces published shortly after the high-speed line opened. And with the hubbub, booking the journey was hard to resist: perhaps it was simply the idea that we could watch the dawn creep over the Himalayan Range from the comfort of a warm train compartment.

Opened in the summer of 2006, this is officially the world’s highest train journey, carrying half a million people in and out of Tibet each year. The shiny new cars glide effortlessly over five high passes, some more than 16,000 feet above sea level.  Over the 60-hour journey, the train stops just eight times, and only for a few quick minutes.

Some would say the Qinghai-Tibet railway line is a work of engineering genius. Several sections cross some of the world’s most active geological fracture zones. It took 227,000 workers five years to complete the line, and the high-altitude working conditions required 2,000 medics (working in on-site hospitals with oxygen chambers!). Not one person died building it.

I’m starting to wonder, though, if some of us passengers near the toilets might very well expire from fumes.  It’s June — peak travel season — which is part of the reason the plumbing is protesting. It seems as if this train — for all the feats of Chinese engineering required to get it up and running, and all the fanfare (and controversy) over its opening — would contain working toilets.

Still, I see no one passing out – yet — at least from the lack of oxygen on a train that cruises at an average altitude of 13,000 feet.  We can thank a special oxygen-generator under the train and piping in the walls that directs the extra oxygen into the ventilation system for that.

A PLACE UNCOVERED

Tibet was once a place that had a kind of natural shield – the unforgiving terrain — to protect it from the masses. Now with the train, we can shield ourselves from it, at least until we get to Lhasa. And now, the masses are starting to come to Tibet. Critics say this train, as the years go on, will bring way too many Chinese into Tibet who will stamp out the Tibetan culture. It’s a dramatic conclusion, and most of the time I bristle at dramatic prophecies. But I can’t see another end for Tibet unless it gains independence. The Tibetans are way outnumbered by the Chinese, and the longstanding Chinese-government occupation makes it easy for ethnic Chinese to move in.

Tibet is empty. Yet Tibet is full – of a spiritual confidence, of a culture steeped in history, of values still largely unaffected by consumer culture. Tibet is also a study in flatness and height, dirt and cleanliness. Tibet is new and old all at once: fresh geologically (the Himalayas are the youngest mountain range in the world) but old spiritually and historically. Tibet’s people are resilient yet acquiescent. Outwardly calm yet brimming with spiritual energy.

Perhaps naively, I want to get to know Tibet a little before it changes too much. I want to know what I can do – if anything – to help it. I’m hoping our two-week visit, staying in local guesthouses with a small tour group, will help me find out how.

From the train window, I gaze out over this vast plateau flanked by the Himalaya on two sides. Perhaps I’m hoping that some of the Buddhist spirituality to rub off on me. My wants conflict me, because so many other people want Tibet too, and this train is far and away the cheapest way of getting here. I also feel conflicted as I am helping to globalize (and in the process homogenize) Tibet, one of the last lonely places left.

A NEW TIBET?

China Rail installed oxygen outlets in the walls so passengers can buy individual connection tubes for about $2 and “plug in.” It’s funny to watch people stick the tubes in their noses in their compartment (there are outlets over each bed), near their seat, or at a table in the dining car. I wonder, might this train be a metaphor for the New Tibet? Could this high-tech thing, capable of dampening the blow of high altitude travel for potentially millions of people over the coming years, be making Tibet into a softer, more pampered version of itself?

What about those that feel dizzy but cannot afford the $2 tubes?

Foreign tourists like me, of whom the train carries only a handful on this particular summer run, are part of the problem. For the time being, we are a small percentage of those flooding into Tibet, but we represent big change to Tibetan way of life. Why aren’t the train’s nay-sayers mad at us? Aren’t we part of the controversy too? Chinese or not, we are all part of this history-in-motion.

Right now, though, most of us Westerners in our tour group are trying to blend in, an impossible task. Even so, we do our best to mimic the locals, cooking our giant store-bought tubs of spicy ramen noodles using the hot boiling water from spigots in the walls next to the toilets.

One evening, not wanting to set my toothpaste on the filthy bathroom sinks, I hold the tube in my teeth as I use the restroom. One turn of my foot on the slippery floor, though, and it flies from of my mouth and lands directly in the toilet.

I stare down at it. Is this really happening?

I look again. It’s still there.

My conscience won’t let me leave it where it is to clog the toilet, so, holding my breath, I go in.

TO BE CONTINUED ….

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A hidden Amazon village (that wants to be seen?)


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.

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The jungle is not a gentle place (Bolivian Amazon, part 2)


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.

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