Wandering Bolivia. Rurrenabaque


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.

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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.

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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.

‘New Zealand’.

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’?

‘Sapna’.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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Wandering Bolivia. Sucre.


Nights rides on a bus are sometimes a blessing. You can sleep and not worry about missing the landscape. So it was on my way from Uyuni to Sucre. The seat was comfortable, I had a big llama fabric wrap around me, and my bladder stayed quiet. The bus reached Sucre at 3a.m. A short cab ride and I was at my airbnb Hostal CasArte Takubamba. I’ll write about this again but not once did I fear taking a taxi ride in the dead of the night in an unknown town, in an unknown country where I did not speak the language. I would never do that in India. Not an alien country AND I speak the language.

It was a relief to sleep on a bed in a warm room after the freezing temperatures on the bus. The hostal is a beautiful old casa, (house/abode in Spanish) that also doubles as an art gallery. One of the guys invited me to an opening later and it was really interesting to see the chi chi set of Sucre. This place offers a very good breakfast too. Fresh fruit, freshly squeezed juice, eggs on toast and a variety of Bolivian teas. I had coca leaf tea every day.

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It is laid out like a square grid, streets running perpendicular and parallel to each other with a green space bang in the middle. There is a church on almost every street. I wonder how Christianity dealt with indigeneity and vice versa. Indigenous cultures are embedded in nature, tied to this universe, manifesting multifold. Then there is the idea of a singular God. The dissonance therein and eventual assimilation would make fascinating study. Although I guess colonising forces always have the upper hand. On my last day in Sucre a guest at the casa invited me for Sunday mass but I had a flight to catch. Pity. I would have loved to go. A service in Spanish after experiencing one in Manase, Samoa.

The genteel atmosphere of Sucre was a welcome change after touring Uyuni in one day. I walked around and observed the locals as I love to. Bolivia is slowly getting prosperous (as one local in La Paz told me). I saw indigenous people tucked away in corners trying to eke out an existence or just beg. I don’t have a solution for poverty; to prevent people from being forced out of their own land, where no God or gods can alleviate suffering nor prevent greed or selfishness. It breaks my heart. I wish I had an answer. I don’t think global poverty can be eradicated with us from privileged positions wanting to help others but maintaining hierarchical status quo. The failure of free trade economy is obvious for all to see; the world is not flat! There has to be a collective solution, the will and leadership for it. How that can be when the world order is imperialistic? Not that communism is the answer either. That order to begets its own pecking order and unilateral power. President Evo Morales of Bolivia, not quite comunista y socialista you know. (Incidentally I blogged about Thomas Friedman’s The World Is Flat way back in 2009.)

Back to Sucre. As is also my habit I eat street food as much as I can and I discovered this little place under the stairs of a building. A whole pot of hot chocolate con leche, queso (cheese) empanadas, masaco de yuca con queso sonso, a kind of cheese pastry that is a Bolivian speciality. Another time I had Milaneza de pollo, a chicken dish, in the food court at Mercado Central, the central market. Right amongst the people some of whom were counting their coins for what was a treat out. It reminded me how I went to this roadside joint two of the three nights I was in Shanghai and finished off an eggplant and rice dish from an orange plastic plate.

I got a taste of South American soaps while dining. Like Hindi television soaps they are loud, melodramatic and hilarious. I was riveted :-p

Oh and was I not surprised to see Asians established in Sucre.

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An old Korean couple ran a Kodak Express right in the town centre. Asians rule!

I did most of my shopping at a co-operative in Sucre. The wool, the fabric, the style is quite unique. Arts and crafts that reflect the local people and their ideas of the world, their interactions with outsiders. Museo Casa de La Libertad was another little place I browsed to know more about the history of Sucre and Bolivia in general. And there is a great vegetarian cafe just off the town square too.

There were many parades through the streets during the time I spent there.

On my last night in Sucre I went up to the church behind the casa where the street was closed for a fair. A jatra जत्रा as one can see anywhere around a temple and on festivals in Maharashtra. Some things are the same across countries and cultures. So what if the language and religions are different.

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More Wanderings. Bolivia. Uyuni.


My travel doctor had warned me about altitude sickness in La Paz, as I mentioned in my post Wanderings Again.. The only other time I’d experienced altitude sickness was in Sikkim, high up over Natha La Pass the other side of which is Tibet, the roof of the world. I was fine when I reached the hotel, breathing well, speaking full sentences. I walked around looking for dinner, found a cheap Chinese restaurant, had a tasteless rice dish, went back to the hotel. My flight to Uyuni was at 6am the next morning and I had booked a taxi for 4am. I felt nauseous through the night. I thought it was the rice. Well, it was the rice. Churning in my stomach because the bloody altitude was hitting me and although my respiration was fine I was inhaling rarefied air. So I threw up. Then I threw up again. I still did not connect it to the altitude. I thought it was a migraine because that is the only ‘condition’ I suffer from and that is the only time I vomit. Inside my oxygen starved brain I was chiding myself…you travel you suffer you get headaches that is so typical onward and upward serves you right. Throw up once more. That went on through the night. Chunks of undigested rice. I had to re-arrange my backpack in the morning, which, anyone who has travelled with one will tell you, is part of the daily routine. How To Distribute The Weight Evenly-An Ongoing Exercise. And it was cold. Bloody cold.

I slept through the one hour trip to Uyuni (yes I vomited at the airport).

Uyuni is a remote town straight out of a Hollywood Western. I took a taxi into town. This was the only part of the trip I had not organised. I was going to wing it. The main drag was empty. Not a soul on the street. Not even a drunk straggling home. Before I could get out of the taxi a fast talking local woman with a loud voice opened the door for me and sold me a day trip to the salt flats. Her office was warm and I could hang out until she assembled a group. Adventure on! I was dehydrated and cold. I stretched out on her office couch and was fast asleep in a second. Here is the point when a traveller should be alert to potential theft, assault etc. Not once did I feel I was in danger. I will reiterate this through my travel stories in Bolivia. Not once, never through my time in Bolivia did I feel scared.

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Main street, Uyuni.

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Main street, Uyuni. Guardian princess perhaps.

So it was a day of touristy Uyuni train graveyard and salt flat viewing. The group was full of Asians. Two Koreans, four Japanese, one Indian and the Bolivian guide who turned out be quite a keen photographer. He wanted us to pose and pretend for the camera. As if it was part of the service, for us to take these memories with us this way. At least I think this is what he wanted us to remember.

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More photos: https://www.flickr.com/photos/drsapna/albums/72157659571976489

I was meant to be in Sucre the next day and the plan was to take the overnight bus but was the only part of the trip I had not booked. The tour business lady told me there were many buses going to Sucre and that I will get a ticket easily. I actually got the second last ticket. If you have travelled through rural India (or in my case rural Maharasthtra, which is my state) then such experiences are deja vu. You go into an office full of people, children, bags, sacks, lots of chatter, comings and goings. A seat number is written down on a receipt voucher, money exchanged and you turn up at least 30 minutes before the bus departs. You don’t know if the seat number actually means anything or fellow travellers will ‘catch’ the seat for someone else, whether there will be any place for your bag, whether there will be a ‘pee’ stop and whether you can safely empty the bladder in a female friendly space.

Well.

There were two buses departing at the same time, both to Sucre. Mine was a seater not a sleeper. It was unclear initially which was which. I waited to the locals to get in. Then I climbed in. There was a large Bolivian woman in my seat. Now these are formidable women you don’t mess with. She sat stoic. It was her seat! I ran back to the office and hey, the girl who wrote my ticket nonchalantly changed the number. Sorry. As if that was routine. Not for me. Whew and geez! Thus I took my overnight bus from Uyuni to Sucre. Safe as a single female backpacker in a foreign land, in a bus mostly full of locals.