Returning to Rurrenabaque was like a full frontal assault on our senses due to the stifling heat (magnified by pavement and unmoderated by any trees); the ubiquitous musty odours and stench of rotting garbage; the unsightly mountains of cheaply made plastic goods overflowing the little tiendas and sidewalk stalls; and the nearly unbearable noise of literally hundreds and hundreds of unmuffled motorcycles. Nowhere had we seen so many before! Our hotel literally pulsed with noise, from a combination of a very determined drummer practising in the building next door, the creakiness of the nearly useless overhead fan, the late-night revelrie of residents and other tourists, and the ear-crunching jubilation of marching bands both in the evening and again in the morning, who were commemorating the day Chile’s theft of the Bolivian coastline (136 years ago) was made official. Reading, resting, doing laundry and checking email took up the better part of the day, and then were off to the pampas for a very different Amazonian experience, a few hours north and east of Rurrenabaque.
Originally we had thought that the ‘pampas’ was something like a savannah, but it’s really more like a never-ending swamp, without so many trees. I suppose ‘wetland’ would be a more neutral term, but ‘swamp’ better evokes the emotional climate of the next three days. To begin with, it rained – torrentially – most of the time. (I know, I know, it was probably in the fine print somewhere – Warning: It sometimes rains in the Amazon.) And we really have tried to put a positive spin on travelling in the wet season (not the time recommended by most guidebooks): the landscape looks very lush and alive; the crops are maturing and nearing harvest; baby animals born in the summer are still small and cute; and the load of tourists in popular places is not yet crushing. But there is not much redeeming about the rainy season in the Amazon; between the downpours, the near 100% humidity, and the bugs it can be just plain miserable.
Most of our time was spent trying to get less wet (there is no such thing as ‘dry’ here) and/or fighting to keep away the bloodthirsty hordes of misanthropic mosquitos which seem to have developed a hearty tolerance for DEET and clearly take a sadistic delight in biting right through clothing (especially backs of legs and bums, on which they could freely feast thanks to the sparsely woven, mostly broken plastic seat bottoms in the motorized dugout canoes). A lost cause if ever there was one.
After some reflection, I have come to the conclusion that the attraction of the pampas rests on tourists’ idealized projections of the Amazon and stubbornly hopeful anticipation of the possible: it is possible that you will see an anaconda or catch a piranha or swim with pink river dolphins. On the other hand, it is also possible (and much more likely) that you won’t. At least such was the case for us. Morning, afternoon and evening for three days we donned our repellent-soaked raingear and climbed in the dugout canoes in hopeful anticipation of exciting encounters with the exotic.
It wasn’t all a bust either: on the first afternoon on our way to the lodge we did see both howler and squirrel monkeys in the trees – a bona fide thrill that we will always remember. Our guide, Antonio, pulled the boat over to a narrow channel bordered on both sides by shrubby trees where there must have been a dozen squirrel monkeys. While we sat in the canoe, they scampered up the branches and leapt from one bush to the other, virtually right over our heads!
The howler monkeys are very different – much bigger for one thing – and they hang out in much smaller groups in much bigger trees, draped over big horizontal limbs, or sitting ponderously, staring out at us with great intent, if not intelligence. (We were later told that howlers really aren’t that smart, but capuchins are really clever. Not sure where that leaves the squirrel monkeys, but gosh they are cute!)
We also spied a black caiman, lurking watchfully under some other lodge. “Muy peligroso! (very dangerous)” said Antonio. “Muy, muy peligroso!” And there were lots of birds, including neo-tropical cormorants, hawks, eagles, a couple of white egrets, a bird with a neck like a snake, and a locally abundant bird – resembling a pheasant on a bad hair day – that is known locally as a “stinking bird”, though we don’t know why.
Other excursions, however, were less than successful: hunting for alligators by flashlight the first night turned up one single set of shining eyes in the blackness, plus eight boat passengers and one guide desperate for bug-free shelter. Same for the much-touted Hunting for Anacondas activity, which was pursued good-naturedly amidst the swarms mostly by Antonio (Quinn joined for a short spell) while everyone else waited in the canoe, jacket hoods pulled tight as they would go around grimacing faces, arms flapping palm branches to provide the reprieve of a faint breeze, and mouths muttering fervent wishes (between expletives) that Antonio not be successful so we could all just get moving again. When he found a mid-sized non-venomous yellow snake in a tree we grudgingly humoured him by going to see it, staying only so long as it took to snap one photo.
Two trips to see sunsets were similarly underwhelming given the near-total cloud cover, and the sunrise “sail” was cancelled. Fishing for pirahnas? Well, we did feel a few nibbles at our raw meat bait, but those responsible were scarcely bigger than your baby fingernail. Antonio caught one sardine. And the pièce de résistance, swimming with pink river dolphins, turned out to entail treading water for about two minutes (in the rain) in a spot about 100 metres from where two dolphins had barely surfaced. We could have stayed in longer but for the nagging thoughts of caimans possibly lurking in the depths below. (It is said to be safe to swim where there are dolphins around, as they keep the caimans away, but how many dolphins do you need? How close must they be? What happens if and when they swim away?) So much for playful interaction and nibbling toes.
One can’t expect a tour company to be able to alter the circumstances Nature provides, and you don’t get very far railing at the weather. We didn’t even try. Nature so obviously has the upper hand here: hours of deafening thunder (the loudest we’ve ever heard!) and sheets upon sheets of rain made it clear that our role was simply to endure. Which we did, whether huddled under bed nets biding time until the next meal, or doubled over in an open motorized canoe watching rainwater cascading off our hoods onto our soaking wet knees as the water level in the bottom of the boat rose around our ankles.
No one’s entitled to a good time – ya pay yer money, ya takes yer chances. And we’ve had more than our share of good times these past few weeks. We knew we had no right to grumble. But the disappointment and the discomfort were real just the same, compounded when the lack-lustre food failed to fill our hungry bellies, when the muddy water rolled in under the door to flood our bedroom floor AGAIN, and when the dreaded abdominal cramps hit once again, confirming our suspicion that the hygienic standards in this camp kitchen weren’t passing muster. (Photo below shows our quarters – the VIP room!)
Fortunately, we weren’t alone. Four young twenty-something Irish girls shared the van with us and sat at the same table in the lodge, making for much conversation and good humour. Their lovely Irish accents alone brought out the smiles in us. Just listening to them talk – without even trying to get a word in edgewise – was always entertaining. (If you’re reading this, Aoife, Grainne, Charlotte and Rachel, thanks for the memories!) Then there was Federico, the neighbourhood alligator who visited the lodge every day as part of a territorial patrol. Apparently no one apprised the handful of 18-year-old British lads at the lodge of Federico’s presence, as they chose to go swimming in the river not more than a few metres away from Federico, until one of them noticed and they all scrambled out!
The trip back to Rurrenabaque involved a 90-minute boat ride in yet another thunderstorm, followed by a seemingly interminable four hours of driving on the same bone-rattling, bladder-bursting road we had driven on the way out, only this time the knee-high puddles and axle-deep mud made for a lot less bumping and more sliding and slipping. We passed more than a few terminally stuck transport trucks, leading Felix to cross “Long-distance trucker in the Amazon” off his mental list of possible things to be when he grows up. Our driver probably should have been given a badge of courage, or at least a beer, for making it through, but he brushed off the thanks with a shrug. The tour operators must have anticipated the mood that would be shared by all their customers on the moment of return because when we finally got out of the van they were standing right there offering us cold glasses of the country’s finest: Coca-Cola. It was a gesture we truly appreciated.
We had held it together for those few bad days, and could still manage to smile for the camera. It was when we got back to La Paz that we started to come undone at the seams, letting out all our accumulated frustrations and irritations on each other, and finding ourselves no longer able to tolerate or transcend the difficulties and limitations of being yoked to one another and travelling in a third-world country. The end of the trip was in sight and we all very much wanted to go home.