Back in La Paz overnight for an early morning flight to Rurrenabaque. Into the Bolivian Amazon.
El Alto airport is the highest airport in the world.
It has a micro climate of its own and prone to fog. So I waited and waited for my flight to Rurre. At least I was not vomiting from altitude sickness. I was more worried about missing my boat ride into the jungle. I had booked a two-day-three-night stay with Madidi Travels in their Serere Reserve. It being Bolivia officialdom no one wanted to give me an exact time of departure. Until we were suddenly called to board.
Then it was to a muddy, humid village that could have been along the Konkan coast in Maharasthra. Except that it was the Beni river and the women did not wear sarees/salwars.
The lovely people at Madidi had kept my ride waiting. Just for me. Solo. A very Indian looking female came up to greet me. She asked me where I was from.
She said ‘I’m from New Zealand too’.
We both looked at each other thinking exactly the same thing. “But you look Indian to me”
‘What’s your name’? I asked.
‘Nalini. What’s yours’?
We both started laughing. She moved to New Zealand from the U.K. when she was a child. I gave her a Whittaker’s L&P. She was there when I returned from the reserve. She spoke fluent Espanol, was backpacking her way across Sud America researching ecological movements, environment, economics. She was a UNESCO global youth leader. She told me it was rare to see an Indian doctor backpacking anywhere. But I am also a writer and filmmaker, a creative. How else would one travel if not intrepid?
It was a two hour trip down the Beni river. Along the shores were clear signs of extreme poverty, environmental degradation a.k.a ‘development’, and just the sad plight of where the Amazon is heading.
I could not be snap happy on this leg. There was no electricity except at the casa grande and that was used only for daily crucial requirements. The camera is such a first world luxury. Anyway there I was on a boat with two strange men and food and water supplies for the crew in the jungle. Then a thirty minute walk into the jungle with more strange men who also carried my backpack. Not for a moment did I feel fear. I would never have done this in India. I have in the past wandered through the streets of Gangtok and hiked alone in West Sikkim but that was then. It is hard now to walk the streets of my own city Mumbai without uncouth young men staring at your breasts.
That evening our guide took us across the lake rowing his little boat. I am unable to encapsulate the diversity of the Amazon. From pink fluorescent dragonflies to noisy red bottom monkey and every bird in between. Tarantulas, beautiful and very dangerous snakes, life saving flora that the local indigenous peoples have used for centuries, knowledge about the land and connections with nature, our wairua, our whenua, our breath. Living. Life itself. Words fail me. It is incumbent upon us all to treasure, to be care-takers.
Later, after dinner, we went back to the lake. It was pitch black, the moon danced with the clouds, softly silhouetting the trees, silver rays teasing the water as it rippled under the oars. The milky way glittered like the star party it was. We were looking for caiman. We were not allowed to talk. It was magnificent. Then we saw them. Baby caiman with glittering orange eyes.
The mother is around, the guide said. For a moment I thought I was going to die in this lake. I imagined Mother Caiman jumping out at me from under the boat, the orange gaze of anger and death. I shivered. It was clammy. The mosquitoes were a more imminent danger. When in the Amazon, not only be fully clad but spray insect repellent on the clothes as well. Their probosces penetrate thick fabric. Next morning young Zara (Indian-Pakistani-Australian living in London) informed us about the cockroaches running riot on her bed. Now if you have lived in India you know to tuck your mosquito net right under the mattress before dusk. Prevents larger pests from encroaching as well.
But it does not stop the monkeys from jumping on the roof first thing in the morning. I was in a cage and they were making fun of me 🙂
I had interesting conversations with Rosa Maria Ruz, eco-warrior, conservationist, kaitiaki who turned the barren Serere into a lush jungle. She talked about how Evo Morales is not really doing anything for the indigenous peoples. China is allowed to plunder even while he takes aims at Western capitalists.
There are special places in this universe and while all places I travel are special, this one, the Bolivian Amazon, Madidi Travels, Serere Reserve was like going into the womb. (I know, Africa awaits.)
How can the world order be re-established to bring back the balance?