Friday, December 3, 2010

The Longest Day: Part 2

This cab driver was by far the worst that I'd ridden with yet; his driving habits were not quaint, laughable, or remotely enjoyable even in a thrill-ride sort of way; I truly feared for my life on numerous occasions. The exaggerated back and forth movement of his steering wheel recalled to mind a hokey driving scene out of a 1930s-era film: it seemed to lack all regard for the actual layout of the road ahead. We arrived at Carrasco in 45 minutes, a full fifteen minutes less than it had taken us to travel the same distance in the pickup that morning. The town was a twenty meter stretch of road with a handful of saggy residential buildings, a small restaurant, and an even smaller convenience store. I was just shy of the halfway point home to San Ignacio.

I paid the cab driver 7 Bs ($1) for the ride and he asked me how much I would pay him to drive me the rest of the way home. I offered 20 Bs and he scoffed: I was thinking more like 40... But anyhow I'm not going up there tonight; I'd go up tomorrow morning. I almost laughed out loud at his proposition as I reviewed it in my head:
         1) He'd already told me he had no idea where San Ignacio was,
         2) He didn't plan to leave until tomorrow, and
         3) He had the nerve to ask for almost six times what I just paid for the first half of the ride...?

I was not in the mood to be taken advantage of because of my American passport; I smiled hollowly and declined his offer, saying I'd rather walk. As he drove away I checked my watch: it was 4:18. I had exactly one hour and thirty minutes before the sun hit the mountains...two hours before it was completely dark out. There were no taxis in sight (no people in sight either) and I hadn't the foggiest notion of what the chances were that another one would come through "town" again that evening. I weighed my options and decided to take my pride to task: I set out on foot before any more daylight had been wasted.

While my feet kept a comfortable urban-American clip, I busied my mind wondering how to convert minutes of downhill driving into minutes of uphill walking. I somehow convinced myself that with all of the bumps and mini lakes in the road I would probably be able to walk about half as fast as the truck had been driving, meaning that I would arrive back in San Ignacio a little after dark. Right.

I met a host of characters as I moved up the mountain, beginning with a pair of bewildered Bolivians walking in the opposite direction. As they gawked I pretended not to notice: Buen dia! I said with a smile, not lingering to hear their response. Soon into my trek I began to have what would become regular run-ins with the canine locals. Most encounters started with a few sparse warning barks that served as my cue to pick up as many rocks as my fingers could carry. I walked with all the confidence I could muster as the barking, growling and posturing inevitably grew more intense the closer I got to the homestead in peril (clearly they sensed my villainous intentions to....walk on by). Despite all their froth and furl, a handful of well-aimed pebbles and a larger rock or two were usually (...usually...) enough to keep them from getting too close.

The road wound around a mountain curve and I found myself squinting into the piercing amber sun of late afternoon. Seeking respite from the glare, my gaze drifted downward just in time to catch the unmistakably pulse-quickening arc of a serpentine slither mere inches from my toes. I stopped dead and watched the golden creature casually make it's way across the road, carving deep, graceful curves through the dust. Though it was still young, the patterned shades of brown that stretched down its back were all I needed to identify it as the deadly Fer de lance—el vivero as the locals called it—an aggressive species of pitviper that causes more annual human fatalities than any other American reptile. In the research I'd done before my trip to Bolivia I'd learned that this hateful creature has a fiery temper and is fond of hanging from trees in coffee and chocolate forests. Quite frankly I can think of few things I'd like to see less than a deadly snake with a bone to pick weaving its way towards my coffee-picking fingers. Luckily this guy was not losing any time in making his way across the road and away from me. I watched as it slinked away without a trace into the dingy undergrowth on the far side of the road; my body shuttered. I hate snakes. I hate snakes.

The road meandered lazily on, following the ebbs and flows of mountain topography and always heading up. The bag of oranges seemed to be growing in my backpack and I realized that I hadn't eaten since my mid-morning api con buñuelos. As I stopped to set my bag down on the ground I was approached by a timid, apologetic creature with droopy black ears and a tail that did not wag; folds of skin—once plumped with hearty muscle and healthy fat stores—hung loosely from her skeleton, swaying back and forth as she gingerly plodded towards me. Her frail body shook in a quiet, helpless way and I heard the softest of whimpers as she labored to lift her head from its low hang to look at me. My heartbreak was very nearly audible as her dark, desperate eyes pleaded with me for help; I had nothing to give her and knew that even if I did, it would only delay the inevitable and prolong her suffering. She sat down and watched me, looking utterly defeated as I reluctantly picked up my bag and kept walking...

I picked up the pace again—my mouth now stinging from eating too many oranges—and ran into a jovial puppy around the next bend in the road waiting to cheer me up. He jumped and barked in a friendly manner and followed me for a ways up the road until we came across the forlorn wails of a highly distressed feline. The puppy bounded back towards home and I followed the pitiful sounds into the underbrush until I spotted a giant tabby sitting just above a large tin drainage pipe. She did not appear to be in any immediate danger. ...Que pasó, gato...? I asked out loud, feeling like I'd been dropped into a strange episode of Lassie. What's that, cat? You say Timmy's in the drainage pipe...? As I got closer she jumped down into the pipe—still wailing—as if she wanted me to follow. I started to oblige, with visions of trapped children or drowning kittens flying through my brain; then I remembered el vivero and decided in the blink of an eye that the cat (...and the children, and the kittens...) could work out their own problems. I hate snakes. Hate them.

My adventure maintained a predictable pace over the course of the next hour and a half as I put several miles of dirt road behind me. I had found the main road to be generally easy to follow, and by some miracle of luck I had had the fortune of meeting locals at every major fork except one. I met their gaping mouths and bewildered eyes head on: Buen dia...¿San Ignacio está por aquí? I'd say, pointing in the direction that looked correct while making certain not to give them time to ask who I was or why I was alone. With a quick thanks and a nod of my head I was gone, leaving behind what I'm certain evolved into speculative whispers and rounds of gossip....“you'll never believe what I saw today...

Soon, the dulled browns of palm leaf roofs, the thousand greens of the surrounding foliage, and even the dingy dust underfoot were all set aflame by the crimson glow of the jungle sunset; Though the red hues cast new life upon a tired setting, the only thought on my mind was the fact that my daylight was about to expire.

And expire it did: my guiding star, having turned from yellow to amber to crimson as it fell to the horizon, was replaced by a brilliant full moon. Soft, gauzy white light fell weightlessly on the jungle around me, which seemed to be letting out a collective sigh of relief—the cool humid haze of the moon soothed the sun-weary inhabitants. The dim beam of my headlamp began to flicker; batteries have an infallible way of picking the most inopportune time to kick the bucket. I clicked the light off to conserve what was left and let the moon light my path.

Jungle dogs become more aggressive after dark. Perhaps the stench of fear trailed behind me in a damning pheromonic tell; perhaps their nocturnal ancestry gave them more confidence under the cover of night; perhaps it was nothing more than the frenzied pull of the full moon. Whatever it was, it was not a joke. I clicked my headlamp back on to keep tabs on my canine companions. Two pairs of blue-green eyes shone back at me from the side of the road, where low growls warned of an impending attack. I walked backwards and shot stones into the dark, dipping to the ground often to pat my hands through the dust in search of more artillery. I didn't dare divert my gaze from the glowing eyes for a second—their slow, calculated pursuit was different from the feigned aggression of earlier run-ins: these dogs were ready to take every inch of room I gave them. The rocks I hastily and nervously threw into the dark were quickly assessed to be of little threat, and the creatures' perpetual motion through the velvety void of black that surrounded the beam from my headlamp made it impossible to aim with better precision. They advanced. I began yelling to scare them away. Short, echoing yelps of VENGA, VA! and VETE! broke through the silence of the surrounding jungle and disrupted the quiet peace of the moonglow. The dogs advanced. I kicked the air in front of me, I yelled, I threw every rock I could find, all while scanning the side of the road for a stick—something, anything to swing like mad. In the nick of time my headlamp fell upon a two foot long stick with a jagged end. Dogs nipping at my heels I swiftly dipped to snatch it up and in one foul swoop jabbed into fleshy jowls and made solid contact with muscular shoulders and front legs; the dogs backed off. VETE!! I yelled once more into the darkness, but the glowing eyes and glowering voices did not disappear. I continued walking backwards, keeping tabs on my aggressors for a full 15 minutes before they were finally inked out by the black of the surrounding night.

Or so I thought.

Shortly after I lost sight of the dogs I heard movement through the tall grass and bushes that lined the road to my right. I clicked on my headlamp yet again and aimed it in the direction of the noise, stick held at the ready and a fist full of stones waiting to fly. Nothing happened; I let out a full volume scream to scare away whatever it was, and kept moving. Once again the brush of life on leaves reached my ears, this time accompanied by a deep, slow curdled growl. I let out another nonsensical yell at the top of my lungs, hoping by sheer volume I would be able to keep my stalker at bay; at first I assumed it was the same pair of dogs, but my imagination quickly began to wander as I recalled stories the farmers had told me of pumas and jaguars in this region. I picked up more rocks. Big ones. Each time I heard a growl I let out a yell or two and swung the stick around a few times as I peered blindly toward the source. It must have been an utterly ridiculous scene to watch from above: solitary white girl intermittently screams and swings a stick at nothing in the middle of a dark Bolivian jungle. After what felt like an eternity of yelling and swinging and plodding onward with my eyes scanning the shadowy bushes, the night finally became quiet again; I breathed a sigh of relief but once again felt my pulse quicken—as I rounded sharp turn I realized I was traversing the same ridge on which my travel companions and I had awaited transportation that morning. I was only thirty minutes away...

I followed my palm leaf X's back to town by moonlight and arrived exhausted at the soccer field a little after 8:00. My trip into town that should have taken five or six hours had transformed into a fourteen-hour epic journey, complete with plot twists, a cast of good guys and bad guys, full-on action scenes, breathtaking scenery, and a fair amount of danger. The village was waiting for me: I walked into a circle of men who all looked slightly shocked, slightly irritated, and more than a little baffled. Ingeniera....¿qué pasó, Ingeniera? ¿Por qué has tardado tanto, Ingeniera? I recounted my story for them from the beginning; after a long, lonely day of self-reliance and utterly failed expectations, it felt good to watch the bewildered expressions of my caretakers break into knowing smiles as I told them of the more memorable moments of my day. I was even able to elicit an eruption of hearty laughter when I recalled how no one in town knew where San Ignacio was. They apologized for the dogs; they patted me on the back and told me my giant legs move much faster than theirs do (only four hours to walk from Carrasco??!), they told me how glad they were that they didn't have to call Jorge to tell him they'd lost the Ingeniera, and though they didn't say it, I'm pretty sure they looked at me in a different light from that night on.

Maybe this American isn't so spoiled after all...

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The Longest Day: Part 1

July 24, 2010
Saturday. I've officially been here for five days; only five days...? It seems unbelievable that so much has happened in less than a week. Above all, I've learned that the most important skills to have out here in the jungle are resourcefulness, flexibility, patience, and trust in your own judgment. Today I took each of these skills for a fairly harrowing test-drive...

By now I barely notice the loud bangs and rooster cackles all night long. The soft beep of my watch alarm woke me from a sound sleep nearly three hours before the first viridian-hued shards of daylight would grace my eyes. Caranavi. was the first thought to cross my mind; today I would once again head down the mountain to visit the lackluster town that had become my hub of communication to the outside world. I threw on my headlamp and anxiously collected, organized and deposited my travel necessities into the small green daypack that has become as much a part of my daily attire as my shoes or pants—I never, ever let it out of my sight. As I ate breakfast I ruminated on the differences between this trip and the one I had taken with Teodoro during my stay in Chijchipani; Teodoro had all but laid out a red carpet for me that day as he arranged cabs, ushered me away from the advances of unsavory characters, and led me into a series of pertinent storefronts and bustling markets in his calm, methodical way. Today I would be by myself; I had been given no instructions on how to leave or return, aside from where to find a cab into town this morning (“at the soccer field, 6 AM” was the answer I received to my inquiry more, no less). Despite the uncertainties, I was eager to prove to myself that I could manage the trip on my own. With my belongings on my back, uneasiness in my gut, and anticipation in my heart, I clicked shut the padlock on the warehouse door at a quarter of six and strode my long American legs over to the soccer field. I waited. Two small lights blinked and bobbed through the darkness and muffled whispers carried across the clearing as a small group of travelers labored by. They were weighed down by large 50lb sacks of oranges and coffee: these travelers were definitely headed into town, and they were clearly not staying to await transport at the soccer field. I contemplated joining their ranks but the thought of following complete strangers down a road I did not know in total darkness made me uneasy; I decided to stick it out where I was a little longer. A prescient intuition told me to return to my warehouse home and forget the trip altogether, but I ignored my inner warnings; after thirty minutes of waiting and a lot of deliberating I decided to follow the lead of the locals...I lit up my headlamp and hit the road.

This was the first time I had been back on the road that we had driven in on, and I was surprised by how muddy it still was from the fabled storm the week before. I slipped and slid across tire-carved ridges and crevices, hopped, climbed, and tip-toed across the jagged wall of mud that had dried along the road's edge, and left big X's on the ground in palm leaves at every intersection to help direct me home should I need to turn around. The damp cold of the winter jungle slowly fell away as I hiked down the mountain, and thirty minutes later I caught up with the small group that had passed me earlier. They had set up camp on the side of the road: the two women sat on the ground atop large leaves that looked like elephant ears, and the sacks of coffee and oranges had been stacked to one side. The younger of the two women gingerly coddled and rocked a screaming wad of pink blankets while a waterfall of thought streamed from her mouth aimed at no one in particular. The young man that accompanied them had climbed the opposite bank to find his own elephant ear, which he was bending and twisting and pulling off of a sturdy weed that was reluctant to let it go. They assured me that this was the best spot to await transportation, so I grabbed my own leaf and joined them. We waited. And waited. As daylight finally crept in the older woman announced with frustration that she was going home; no transportation is coming and what are we going to do...wait all day for nothing..? she explained with tired eyes. A little after 8:00 the three of us that remained simultaneously turned to look at one another. Is that...? our eyes asked each other without saying anything. I think it might be...! We jumped to our feet just in time to flag down a beat up, dusty blue pickup truck coming around the bend. Worn steel rails ran lengthwise above each side of the truck bed and a load of freshly milled lumber stuck out of the back. A quick negotiation on price was made and we rushed to toss bags of coffee and oranges onto the bed before hopping on ourselves. I settled onto a large spare tire at the front corner of the truck bed just behind the driver, and a smile spread across my face as we tore down the mountain (as fast as possible). We bounced and bumped over the storm-ravaged roads, the wind whipped my hair across my face, and I turned forward to take in every giant pink blossom, every iridescent blue butterfly, and every stunning yellow bird that faded into a blurred oblivion as we sped by. Today is going to be a great day, I thought to myself with a degree of undeserved certainty that almost dared the world to steal my sunshine. Whooooosh. I ducked just in time to avoid an ominous, thorny mandarin tree branch that hung into the road. Before long, our group of three had become five, our group of five had become eight, and our group of eight had become twelve; my white-knuckled grip on the steel railing had periodically loosed as we stopped to pick up more passengers and more sacks of fruits, vegetables, and of course, coffee.

We finally exited onto the familiar mountain road that I had been up and down several times during my stay in Chijchipani. My eyes lit up in awe at the incredible and unimpeded view of cascading blue-green mountains and stream-carved ravines that traced the horizon from east to west as far as I could see. The cold wind felt refreshing on my face, the intense sun warmed my hands, and I poked my head through the truck's railings to get a birds-eye view of the valley floor hundreds of feet below us: conserva la izquierda road rules were in effect and our beat-up blue pickup traced lines through the dust mere inches from the precipice. This. Is the way to travel, I thought to myself just before I noticed the huge cloud of dust being kicked up by a coming vehicle. I closed my eyes against the grit and turned to sit backwards for the remainder of the ride. I arrived in Caranavi around 10:30 feeling happy and invigorated (despite the velvety coating of dust that had settled on all exposed surfaces); I paid the driver 10 Bs ($1.30) and arranged to meet the truck at a specific location in town between 1 and 2 pm to catch a ride back to San Ignacio.

My first order of business was to find some api con buñuelos for brunch; I then made my way to one of the many Punto Entel storefronts and disappeared into a phone booth. I was startled to see my reflection in a scratched, plastic mirror that had been taped to the wall above the phone. Not only had I not seen any reflection of myself since my arrival in San Ignacio, but I was also completely filthy. Smudges of dirt smeared across my face, and a mist of dingy ivory-colored dust had settled onto my eyelashes, eyebrows, and hair. I brushed myself off before picking up the receiver with anticipation—though I was not burdened by the same need to speak English that had been so overwhelming during the first days of my stay in Chijchipani, I was still hoping to reconnect with a world that was daily feeling further and further away.

Alas....five hours of travel for one phone call would all be for naught: a familiar baritone rose above the static but I could barely make out any words—the hum of four thousand miles of separation was too much to overcome. Several minutes of futile and incoherent yelling drew frustrated tears and I exited into the street feeling detached, disappointed, and defeated. It was 11:30.

I made my way to the town plaza to find a place where I could sit and check my email. I flicked aside a stack of sticky plastic cups (once filled with the ever-popular jello and whipped cream dessert) as I sat down on a bench underneath a landscaped canopy. Blue, green, and yellow tiles were arranged neatly underneath my feet, but their sun-dulled hues annoyed me—why does everything have to look so tired...? My eyes were starved for the cleanliness of perfect lines, the squeak of polished floors, and the sheen of something new; I could find none of those things here...the dust simply gave no reprieve. A young girl carrying a blue bucket approached. Brightly colored straws stuck out the top of the bucket at every angle and as she neared I saw that they were stuck into plastic bags filled with juice. ¿Comprame uno? (Buy one from me?) she asked in the sweet voice her mother had taught her to use. When I declined, she sat her bucket down on the ground and climbed onto the bench a couple feet from me. She kicked her legs (which did not reach the ground) up and down several times before walking tiny fingers over to the same sticky stack of cups I had flicked away in disgust not minutes before. I watched out of the corner of my eye as she brought each cup to her face, licking away second-hand flecks of artificial strawberry goodness. Grubby little fingers scraped microscopic amounts of red glistening sugar from the inside of the cup before disappearing into her mouth. Oof. I stopped feeling sorry for myself.

I spent the next hour checking emails on a painfully slow internet connection, then quickly picked up a large bag of oranges and some crackers before heading to the agreed upon meeting place to catch my pickup truck home. It was unbelievably hot in town that day; I stood waiting on the sidewalk with trails of sweat streaming down my face and my eyes pinned down the road to my left, scanning a near constant stream of white vehicles and expecting at any moment to see the familiar dusty blue pickup. It did not appear. At 1:30 I started to get a little anxious; Teodoro had explained the taxi system in Caranavi to me on our first visit here, and thus I knew that if my ride did not come, I would need to find a completely unmarked, wholly ambiguous singular location somewhere in the city that acted as the “cab stand” to San Ignacio. I approached a nearby cluster of taxi drivers and asked them if they knew where this spot was. They looked blankly at me and said, San Ignacio? Dónde está San Ignacio...? Well. That was a monkey wrench I hadn't anticipated...

I continued asking around, always keeping one eye to the road for that blue pickup. The majority of those that I asked had no clue where San Ignacio was, and I realized with slightly terrifying dismay that I had no idea where San Ignacio was either. I described it as being “waaay up the mountain , past the road that you take to get to Chijchipani” (leeeeeeejos es...I said in my newly acquired exaggerated Bolivian prose). Around 2:00 someone finally threw me a bone: San Ignacio, eh? ….Is that close to Carrasco...? Something in my brain fired: Sí, sí! I said, vaguely remembering a rusted metal sign on the oddly out-of-place gas station that we had passed about halfway through our trip into town that morning. It's about an hour beyond Carrasco, I said. Aaaaah San Ignaaaacio, he repeated before quickly saying I was in the right place. I found this to be highly improbable, considering that less than half of the cab drivers I asked had even heard of it. You're sure. I said. Si, siiiiiii, claaaro que si...aquí no más! He assured me. I returned to my post and willed the blue pickup to appear, putting every ounce of my concentration and every last grain of my gravely faltering morale into somehow making that truck materialize before my eyes. It did not. Instead, the sardonic humors of the great beyond sent me a parade.

I watched four marching bands and four groups of dancers pass, each group decked out in matching Bolivian attire, each group doing slightly different variations of the universal Bolivian “dance” step, and each group more intoxicated than the one before it. The last group had completely given up all pretense of maintaining appearances: their matching outfits were now complemented by matching cans of warm Paceña that were clutched between clumsy alcohol-impaired fingers and dangled above sluggish, alcohol-impaired feet. The clamor of the band united on a single final note, the drums rolled to a halt and everyone swaggered to the side of the road where they all enjoyed a rest and more beer. It was 2:30 and my blue pickup was a no-show. When cars began once again flying through the street I redoubled my efforts to find an alternative ride: I approached every taxi that stopped in the general vicinity; not a single one knew where San Ignacio was, but a handful said they were going to Carrasco and that I might have better luck finding a ride to San Ignacio from there. One by one I knocked on windows and contracted with drivers to reserve a seat in their cab; each time, I finished the conversation by asking the driver when he planned to leave. One by one each driver hemmed and hawed before assuring me that it would be a while: forty, fifty minutes, at least, they'd say. One by one, each of the taxis disappeared ten to fifteen minutes later and did not return. I worked hard to fight back a growing sense of helplessness by acknowledging how well I'd handled things thus far: any residual fear that I had of speaking in Spanish had completely evaporated at the hint of a crisis...I had made it into town this morning and found my way through the day by approaching strangers and knocking on car windows until I found the answers I needed. Now I just needed a bit of luck to find someone going my way—and fast: precious few hours of daylight remained, and under the cover of darkness all bets were off.

At 3:30 a cab driver that I had approached an hour earlier came running up to me from down the street. He yelled and pointed at a taxi that had just turned onto the main road in front of us and was starting to pull away. That one! He has room! He's going to Carrasco! We both ran into the street with our arms flailing; I nearly threw myself in front of the cab to get him to stop before I opened the back door and jumped in. I waved and mouthed Gracias! Muchas Gracias! to my savior through the closed window and we sped away. By “room” in the cab, the driver meant that there were only four bodies already in the back seat; apparently it's not full until there are five passengers.

The driver turned fully around without slowing the car to ask where I was going. San Ignacio, I said. He of course told me he had no idea where that was. You're going to Carrasco, right? I asked. Si, Carrasco. "Just take me there," I said with all the polite enthusiasm I could muster.... 

Friday, October 29, 2010


July 23, 2010

As of yesterday afternoon my water situation was becoming slightly more problematic.

With the only running water in sight coming from my neighbor's tap in the middle of the clearing, I had all but resigned myself to sub-par cleansing with my Fresh Bath shower wipes (“a backpacker's best friend”) for the entirety of my stay here. If there is anything less refreshing than the slightly sticky residue of sweat, smeared dirt, and flowery-smelling detergent these wipes leave behind on the skin, it's the fact that I only have six of them to get me through two weeks. Gross.

Lucky for me, everyone else smells too.

Along similar, but more troublesome lines, after a long and exhausting day of work I visited my neighbor's tap with my two-liter water bottle so I could treat the water for drinking overnight. The tap gurgled as I opened the spigot and then made a quiet sucking noise as air rushed in. Well that's unfortunate, I said out loud as I looked at my empty bottle. Behind me, two young boys played in the dust beside the house, laughing as they chased a handful of terrified peeping balls of fluff around the dirt. Tiny toothpick legs fluttered as fast as they could but alas, they were never fast enough to escape the cunning wit of the jungle five-year old; one by one the fluffy peepers disappeared into a wooden crate beside the house where they would be safe overnight. I asked the boys what happened to the water. For several seconds they paused from their game to stare at me with what I can only describe as five year-old disdain.. No hay (there is none), the older boy finally said with a quick shrug before turning his attention back to the chicks.

Right. No big deal, I told myself; I'll wait until later and try again. “Later” came and went, and water did not arrive on its heels. I went to bed actively working to quell the vague sense of panic knocking at my door and hoped the situation would work itself out in the morning. Bang, Bang. Coo coo, CooRaaaaaw! Squitter squitter squeeeak SquealSquealSqueal. BarkBarkBarkgrowwwwwwl, Bang; my nighttime soundtrack settled in and I giggled in helpless, exhausted delight at the thought of recording the charming layers of discordant melody for one of those white noise soundtracks: “Nighttime in San Ignacio: a soothing and curious soundtrack of rare jungle discourse.”

Moths the likes of which you've never seen...
Photo doesn't do them justice.

I've by now become accustomed to my dance party wake up call each morning....with timeless classics like Red, Red, Wine” (UB40), “Bad Boys” (Inner Circle), and “Be My Lover” (La Bouche) blasting into my room at 4 AM it's pretty hard not to wake up in a cheery, ready-to-dance mood (false.). At the very least it adds another layer of ridiculousness to laugh at amidst the nighttime rancor.


Hike to water source
Fortunately, the tap was running again by morning. I filled my drinking water bottle and vowed to find a better, more reliable source over the course of the day that did not involve taking what I now understood to be scarce water resources from any of my neighbors. As it has done so many times before, the jungle once again rewarded my patience and cool head: while hiking to my first cafetal of the day, the farmer I was with led me down into a valley through which ran two pristine mountain streams. The water was sufficiently clear for drinking without filtration (though I still treated it), the stream was sufficiently secluded for bathing, and the banks were sufficiently flat for successful laundry washing: check, check, and check, in the briefest of instants my most basic needs had all been met. After a day full of coffee picking and coffee cargando (“hauling;” read: balancing a 40 lb sack of dried coffee on my shoulders as I hiked back down into the valley, over two streams on slippery smooth wet rocks, up the other side of the valley, and back to the farmer's home), I was more than ready for a good bath, even if it meant another hour of hiking to get to the stream and back.

My shower...
I made it just in time to catch the warmth of the late afternoon sun as I sullied the pristine water with non-eco friendly (for shame!) shampoo and soap. I watched the water weave its way around groups of mossy boulders, dump over flattened rock ledges, and slowly swirl into peripheral pools. My eyes drifted upwards to take in the lush green forests, vines, and undergrowth that climbed up the mountains on either side of me before my gaze finally settled upstream on the glow of the setting sun that cast amber reflections on the silky water that flowed around my knees. My mind drifted to unpleasant memories of dark showers with flying frogs, fake shampoo, and peeping neighbors; it thought back to frigid tile floors and exploding fuse boxes...and I smiled as it peacefully floated back to the present: the water was brisk and the air was cool, but the sun was warm and I was clean. It is safe to say this was not only the best bathing experience I'd yet had in my month and a half in Bolivia, but was truly the only bathing experience I'd had that was not wholly unpleasant from start to finish (okay, the strawberry BioSilk day in Chijchipani wasn't bad either...). I hiked back to the Centro de Acopio grinning from ear to ear and carrying a heavy bag of dripping wet (rinsed only) “clean” clothes. I fashioned myself a makeshift clothesline on the concrete outside using a couple long sticks I found in the weeds balanced between the backs of two of the chairs in my room, and ate some tuna and crackers on the concrete outside as the sun finally slipped behind the mountains. 

Home Life...b'gawwwwk


Plucky Poultry finishing my breakfast

Saturday, September 11, 2010


Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Nothing caps off a night of vomiting in the bushes quite like high-stepping it up a sloppy mountain slope for the better part of an hour; I did have a schedule to keep, after all.

At 7 AM I politely refused breakfast and followed a quirky farmer with a bushy, full beard (rare in Bolivia) and bright orange pants toward the cumbre. Any residual quivering in my knees and dizziness in my head was soon forgotten as I lost myself in the view from the top of the mountain. The fog has held strong in San Ignacio, and all around, tufts of fluffy white and drops of moisture give the mountains a mysterious allure that captivates my attention. Early morning dew hung on the tips of ferns and leaves, it strung itself ornately along a thousand perfect spider webs, and it slowly dripped to the soggy, slippery forest floor below. I huffed and puffed, slipped and slid my way up, up, up, always chasing after the orange pants.

After two days here I've come to the conclusion that the Bolivian ankle is not mere flesh and bone but actually at least three-quarters steel. My observation is based less on the fact that these individuals can deftly navigate slopes that would render any run-of-the-mill mountain goat quite envious, and more on the fact that the majority of them do so in flimsy plastic flip flops. I spent my childhood doing flips and spins on a balance beam; I passed through my teens flying over hurdles and hovering, twisting, and twirling over the deep end of the pool; more recently I have come to live for the exhilaration of speedily threading my way through city traffic on two tiny tires. In short, over the course of my life I have rarely felt out of place or clumsy in undertaking athletic endeavors, yet here in Bolivia my big American feet in their big American shoes just can't seem to get the hang of things. I spend a good portion of each day picking myself up off the ground and/or frantically grabbing for anything within reach to stop myself as my size-eights involuntarily ride waves of leaves and branches down the mountainside. The farmers laugh at me.

After a long, happy day of working I returned to my warehouse lair to discover that there is no longer running water in the bathroom; whatever boost to the streams our week-long rain storm provided has now passed, leaving the taps dry as a bone with no hope of recovery. It's okay; I can use my neighbor's spigot to wash my hands and fill up my water bottle. Showering might be trickier though...

Friday, August 27, 2010

San Ignacio

Tuesday July 20, 2010

Apparently the roosters in Chijchipani were well behaved as poultry goes; at 1 o'clock in the morning I found myself quite envious of the leisurely 3:30 AM wake-up call that was customary at the Casa del Cafe. Shrill territorial cackles made their rounds through the village, rising over a more localized banter of high-pitched squeaks coming from above; every ten seconds or so the unpleasant chorus was interrupted by a loud, reverberating bang as a bat clumsily entered the lair from his nighttime rendezvous (I thought they used sonar...?). I wished for daylight and fumbled through my pack to find my earplugs.

At 4:30 AM a dance party commenced at the house behind the Centro de Acopio. Or at least that's the only reason I can possibly imagine that anyone in their right mind would ever crank such intense bass-throbbing music at such an unholy hour of the morning. My soft foam earplugs were no match for the natural amplifier that was the concrete, cavernous, and largely empty Centro de Acopio. I grabbed my headlamp and shuffled sideways through the door into the damp night where I was instantly greeted by ferocious growling and barking from somewhere in the surrounding darkness. I did not take the time to locate the source and hurriedly slid back into the safety of the warehouse and shut the door; the bathroom could wait. Instead I put my double-X chromosomes to work unpacking and organizing my belongings into something that resembled a (temporary) home. Aside from the concrete floor, to help with this endeavor I had four small chairs, a pile of junk that was capped with a Coleman-like double burner camping stove (alas, no fuel), and the far edges of my gymnastics-mat-turned-bed. What I did not have was electricity, a (working) stove to cook on, or internet service despite my fancy Tigo USB drive. Luckily I hadn't really expected any of those predictions to come true anyway; I know better by now. I stacked and stowed various items that I would be using with frequency and left the rest in my pack.

The azure glow of dawn finally illuminated my windows and I tried my luck one more time with the door. Again I was met by aggressive canine warnings; I retreated slightly until I noticed that the source of the ruckus had his tail between his legs. I took a step towards him and the barking crescendoed, but backpedaling paws betrayed his feigned confidence. A few more steps in his direction made him turn on his heels and bark his way deep into the jungle. I took a first look at my surroundings: a scruffy lawn stretched out in front of me until it abruptly ended in a mess of weedy bushes. There, a worn dirt road materialized to the left of the patch and a narrow footpath swept to the right. The smell of wood smoke hung in the air and the faint sounds of children and cooking floated over a thin line of greenery that separated me from my neighbors. I looked off in the distance to see that the fog from the previous day's journey had pursued me up the mountain: a ghostly mist enshrouded the cascading hills in front of me and a thick swath of low hanging clouds blew steadily overhead to settle into the valley to my right. I was looking forward to exploring.

After getting ready, I ate breakfast, grabbed a newspaper I had picked up in La Paz, and waited. At 7:45 Lucio's head appeared, bobbing above the weeds as he plodded along the footpath; he wore stained khaki pants that were tightly rolled at the ankles against the mud, a dirty white t-shirt, and a taupe hand-knit sweater vest. A silver-dollar sized hole was worn through the vest just to the right of where it stretched over the beginnings of a middle-aged pot-belly. Heavy boots dangled oddly at the end of his legs as he walked, as if their weight alone was fueling his forward motion by inertia. His face was weathered and looked tired, but both of these attributes quickly faded when he stopped in front of me and an easy, goofy smile rose from the corners of his lips. Buenos deeeeas, Ingeniera...did you sleep well? “Yes, yes, of course!” I lied. Out of respect they've christened me Ingeniera (“Engineer”); I'm not exactly sure why, as I'm certainly not an engineer...but I go with it (¿Cómo se llama? Catereeeeen, I say. Aaaahh, que nombre mas bonito tienes, Ingeniera. (what a pretty name you have, Ingeniera)). He asked me if anyone had brought my breakfast by yet. My mind cringed; not only was I a little wary at the idea of eating food prepared by someone who most likely is not overly concerned with the virtues of handwashing, but more importantly, knowing the depth of their poverty I was bound and determined to be as small of a burden as possible while I was here. I tried to assure him that I wouldn't be needing breakfast, that I had brought my own food and had already eaten. He smiled and said, not to worry, Ingeniera, Gregorio will be bringing you your breakfast by any minute now. Right...

Together we worked out my schedule for the next two weeks; each day I would be working with at least two, sometimes up to four farmers, harvesting, washing, peeling, eating, living, and breathing coffee. I scheduled in time to go to Caranavi on the first Saturday, and Lucio explained that during my second Sunday there, the region would begin their Fiestas Patrias festivities of dos de agosto (Patriot's Day, 2nd of August) (read: everyone will be too busy dancing and drinking to be driving their taxis into Caranavi, making my planned Monday departure back to La Paz impossible). We decided it would be better if I took off a couple days early. Not sure what to expect of the next two weeks here and conscious of the multitude of unfamiliar discomforts I had run into in the last twelve hours, I was content to agree with shortening my stay by 48 hours.

A short while later a small, happy man in flip-flops appeared on the dirt road; he carried a plate and a steaming cup. I assumed him to be breakfast-bearing Gregorio. ¡Buen día, Ingeniera! He said while pressing the plate and cup into my hands. Aquí tiene su desayunito, I'll be back in fifteen minutes. I smiled big and sputtered gracias...mucheeeeeesimas gracias about ten times while lowering my head into a series of quick short bows (apparently I thought I was in Asia)--trying every way I knew how to show my gratitude for the food that he and his family were sharing with me. He disappeared around the bend, leaving me standing in the lawn holding a plate piled high with copious amounts of rice and potatoes and a solitary egg on top. There was no doubt that the egg came from one of the hundreds of chickens that wandered about the town scratching and pecking its way across the dirt; its fluid yolk shone a radioactive shade of tangy yellow that only comes from a healthy diet of grubs and greens. Over the course of my time in San Ignacio I would learn to be grateful for those chickens for many reasons. Not only did they provide incredible eggs, but they were also more than willing to hungrily snatch up the evidence of anything that I could (or would) not eat. My problem was most often the former: at each sitting, Bolivians eat about three times what my grazer's stomach is accustomed to; it didn't seem to matter how many times I told everyone that I'm not a big eater...plates continued to arrive piled high with more starch than I could ever hope to consume.

I followed Gregorio down the main dirt (mud) road, up short stack of steep earthen (muddy) stairs, and around a winding, dirt (mud) trail up the mountain through the forest. We stopped at a tiny run-down shack in a small clearing to pick up a handful of harvesting paraphernalia, continued up the mountain for another fifteen minutes, and finally stopped. We'll work here today, he said, handing me a small tarp and instructing me how to tie the four corners into two knots and sling one knot onto each shoulder. He then gave me a small purse and instructed me to wear it diagonally across my body with the pouch on the opposite side as the tarp sling. I followed him to the nearest tree. He plucked two fistfulls of coffee cherries for demonstration; in the first hand the cherries were perfect specimens: the deep cranberry red skin was unblemished and unbroken. Cafes especiales, he said with a nod. Normally, these would go in the big bag, pero porque la lluvia ha fregado todo...(but because the rain has ruined everything...), they'll go in the small bag today. He opened his other hand to show me precisely how the rain had ruined everything: like any other fruit, too much rain spells doom for coffee; the once prefect skin had split and turned black along the opened edges; fermentation had set in. When the bean is exposed to air in this way its flavor changes, and it can no longer be considered specialty coffee. Gregorio explained that this coffee would be sold as regular organic coffee in the local market. We harvested for three hours, chatting and laughing the whole time; Gregorio is quite a character. At midday his wife and their two smallest children joined us and we ate lunch: more rice and potatoes and a nice big hunk of chicken. To refuse perfectly good food amongst such poverty simply because I choose not to eat meat seemed like an overly privileged and spoiled thing to do; I put my big girl pants on and dealt with it. After a solid six years of vegetarianism, the tough, well-exercised meat of these very free-range chickens did not go down easy, but I slowly worked my way through it bit by bit. My efforts at politeness paid off: after lunch Gregorio and his wife gifted me the baby.

Lucio washing coffee
The afternoon involved more hiking, more harvesting, and more hilarity, this time with Lucio. He and his wife had an ease of conversation about them and they enjoyed poking fun at everything about me from my shoes to my grammar; they had me in stitches for the entire afternoon while we worked. In the evening all of the men in the village convened outside of the Centro de Acopio so we could communicate to everyone my itinerary. While waiting for the last few stragglers to arrive the men asked all sorts of questions about Americans and the United States. Chief among them were a) why are Americans all so tall, and b) how much does abc or xyz cost in the U.S.? I wasn't quite sure what to say when the men laughed about how the value of my round-trip tickets from Boston to Bolivia was equal to two full years of income for the average family of 6 in San Ignacio. I thus had even more drive to make sure I was not a burden on their lives during my stay; before the business portion of the gathering commenced, I reiterated my sentiments from earlier in the day to Lucio. He chuckled his good-natured Lucio chuckle, said Okay, Ingeniera, and ten minutes later I listened to him instruct the group that I was to be fed breakfast, lunch, or dinner by whomever I was working with when mealtime struck. I stared at him. Frankly I should have known better; trying to tell a Hispanic not to feed you is about like trying to tell your cattle-raising southern grandmother that you no longer eat meat: first he'll take personal offense that you don't want his food, then he'll quote the Bible to give you a number of concrete examples as to why you really should eat his food, and then he'll decide that you can't possibly be serious and will go ahead and serve you anyway. Not hungry...? Pshhh. Not hungry. You must be absolutely starved to be so delirious, for heaven's sake. Have some pot roast.

Exhausted after a night of almost no sleep and a full day's work, I crashed into bed shortly after the meeting ended at 7:30. Unfortunately, sleep was again not in the cards for me: at 11:30 I was awakened by an ominous pain that had taken hold in my stomach; apparently my well-intentioned meals from the village today were laced with a little something extra. The agitated churning rose well above the bat chatter and I set up camp on the concrete outside, anticipating a long night ahead.  

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Return to the Jungle

July 19, 2010

The morning shone bright outside as I busied myself at the house in preparation for my next departure into the unknown. As usual, details have been few and far between. I know that I will be heading further into the jungle this time to a small town where residents are extremely poor. I have been told that I will work with a different family every day and that my accommodations will not be as comfy as they were in Chijchipani. Despite these warnings I also have been told that I will have electricity, that I will likely have a stove to cook on, and that with my new marvelously phenomenal Tigo USB internet drive (borrowed from FECAFEB), I will probably even have internet access. Jaime and I planned to leave in the Sportage at mid-day.

I heaved my pack securely on my back and dangled my daypack off of one shoulder in front of me, locked the door to the house and headed out to the main road to await transportation. I have discovered that a multi-day internal frame backpack in an urban setting is fantastic under one and only one circumstance: when it is on your back. At all other times—say, for instance, you want to put the pack on or take the pack off, or you want to find something inside the pack, or you want to pick up the pack to move it twelve inches to the right, or even if out of frustration you simply want to leave the pack leaning against a wall as you walk away to regain your composure—its awkward clumsiness will leave you wanting to pull your hair out and abandon all of your belongings in the middle of the street.

Enter mini-bus.

While the mini-bus system is fairly unpleasant on a normal day, I found out today that it is (perhaps unsurprisingly) downright deplorable when dragging along fifty pounds of stuff in cumbersome and unwieldy packaging. I struggled to lift the obstinate bag into the vehicle, hoisting it with a grunt on top of the first seat inside the door. I then made the mistake of releasing my grip on the backpack for all of three seconds to get myself in and, true to form, my weighty bundle of joy took the opportunity to topple over and ooze its way back onto the ground outside. Perfect. The driver shouted words of impatience at me while I struggled a second time to get into the overly cramped cabin. I finally sat down with my belongings balanced awkwardly between my knees and he zoomed away before I could even shut the door. Twenty minutes into the ride one of the girls to my left asked to be let off, which required both me and my pack to get out first. Excellent. Again I struggled to get back in and to make it easier on myself I decided to maintain my seat by the door rather than following the unspoken societal rule of sliding in to occupy the now vacant seat to my left. This was not appreciated by my ornery driver who angrily pointed out the empty seat as he glared at me in the rear view mirror. I was in no mood; I ignored him and hoped that the extra seat wouldn't be needed in the remaining thirty minutes of my ride. We repeated the routine—angry glares and all—when the other girl to my left got out ten minutes later; my nerves were running thin. As we approached the bottom of the large hill that separated me from my destination, we pulled over to pick up a handful of passengers. The seething driver once again reminded me that I needed to move in, and my heart sunk when I looked behind me and realized that the seats to my left truly were the only empty ones in the vehicle. Already frustrated by his unnecessary level of distress and aggravated by the strain of my load, I took one glance at his flaring nostrils and decided I'd had about enough; time to walk. I threw my pack to the sidewalk and tossed my three Bolivianos in his outstretched hand before relinquishing my seat to the bubbling crowd outside.

I felt eyes settle on me in profuse abundance as the swarms of morning commuters momentarily paused from their conversations, looked up from their napkin-wrapped empanadas, and slowed their strides to shamelessly take a gander at the giant gringa and her giant gringa backpack. I pretended not to notice and kept my head to the sidewalk in front of me as I powered up the hill with every ounce of speed I could muster. I am by now mostly adjusted to the altitude; I am not, however, adjusted to the plumes of black, noxious exhaust that stagnate at ground level as the mostly 1980s- and early '90s-era traffic zips by. A large bus passed, leaving an opaque, inky black trail billowing in its wake. Under the extra weight of my bags, my throat tightened, my head spun, and my lungs screamed for a breath of fresh air that did not come. A desperate thumping coursed through my body and wooshed through my ears as my heart tried in vain to rush oxygen to my working extremities. I shut my eyes against the dizziness and lifted my sleeve to my face to take a couple pseudo-filtered breaths before high-tailing it to the next street over where traffic was not quite as thick. The air cleared from a choking purply-black to an irritating dirty grey and my grateful lungs sucked in deep. I now understand why I've seen so many pictures of pedestrians wearing surgical masks as they navigate the streets of Beijing.

I dropped my bags off at the office and headed back down the hill to buy groceries for the next two weeks—a tasty mix that more or less consisted of crackers, peanut butter, walnuts, granola, and more tuna than anyone should ever eat.

Bolivia continues to teach me to live in the moment and never allow my expectations to grow beyond the slightest glimmer of a hope that things will truly be as I have been told. Our mid-day departure in the Sportage turned into a 3 pm departure on a rickety green bus with lovely unicorn stenciling on the side. Rapid consolidation was in order: I tucked cans of tuna and containers of peanut butter into every crevice I could find inside my pack and smooshed everything else into the scant remaining space at the top. Everything pertinent to my survival for the next two weeks was now stuffed haphazardly into the bulging seams of my pack; a realization that arrived with rather poignant urgency as I watched my bag being roughly dragged up the side of the bus and thrown carelessly onto the growing heap of belongings on the roof. The lower storage compartment was already full. Is that okay? Jaime had asked as we handed my bag over. As if I had a choice...

The bus was packed. In the eight feet of space between the stairs and the windshield alone there were twelve people, seven of which were the driver's wife and kids, who were sitting on the bench in the front with him (including one child who sat on his left, wedged between him and the door); see blurry picture, right. Jaime and I had once again paid extra for the front seats and this time it proved worth it if only for the free access I had to lean out the window and digitally document our progress. I sat with my face glued to the glass as we made our way through a familiar mountainous transition that began in the red clay ridges of La Paz, continued through the rolling honey-glow of the highlands, and pushed towards the rugged, oppressive peaks beyond the cumbre. The bitter chill that La Paz has experienced over the last two weeks had left its mark on the charcoal behemoths that loomed on the horizon: pockets of glistening white softened the inhospitable surface, highlighting some of the jagged lines that adorned the rocky mountain face and blurring others into obscurity. We pressed on and winter left the air as the mountains morphed one final time into the majestic, soft green waves of the jungle sierras. 

Tiny raindrops began to accumulate on the windshield and an eerie, thick fog rolled out of the valley and spilled into the road. Gone were the beautiful vistas of my first trip to Caranavi: the impossibly blue sky and the never-ending layers of smokey mountains that disappeared into the horizon; gone were the tenacious clouds of dust that challenged life, blanketing eyes dry, settling on every surface, and seeping into every pore; gone too, was the precipice, its fathomless depths now filled to the brim with a tangibly thick cottony glow. The fog gave new charm to the Highway of Death: for the rest of our trip, cars and horns, birds and butterflies, blind turns and narrow passes were all inked out by romantic billows rising from below. Occasionally the fog would lift just enough for my eyes to trace nascent mountain ridges from the road and down into the ravine, where their crests were only visible by the dark silhouettes of jungle canopy that gradually disappeared into the hovering wall of white. Though wholly different from my first trip to Caranavi, that which remained visible of the road and its nearby surroundings was still stunningly beautiful—perhaps even more so through the mysterious intrigue of the fog.

Something familiar drew my attention back to the inside of the bus; I paused to that...? As if in answer the driver's oldest son stood up on the front bench, leaned over his father, and turned up the volume on the radio that sat above the door. You're darn right it is, I imagined him saying, Ace of Base's “All that She Wants”...finally arrived to Bolivia sixteen years later in extended Re-mix version. The base and drum lines provided a unifying background for snippets from an amazing array of absolutely terrible 90s American pop songs. Every three minutes or so the overlay songs would fade away and the base beats would be joined by the familiar Swedish voice and nonsensical lyrics that I so reluctantly remember from my childhood. This strange trip down memory lane lasted an interminable and frankly astonishing ninety minutes before the remix finally shifted to the incomprehensibly abominable beats of Peruvian pop for the next two hours. I'm still not certain which was worse.

The chilly, humid night closed in around us and we finally pulled into Caranavi at 8:30. My bag—though soaking wet—was thankfully present and in one piece; Jaime and I jumped into a cab and headed into town where I was to meet Lucio, my go-to guy in San Ignacio for the next two weeks. Jaime exchanged greetings with Lucio and two other individuals (Angel the driver and Mario, a quiet guy in the front seat with a sleeping child on his lap), said then his goodbyes, and with a hug and a wave the last facet of familiarity my life would know for the next fourteen days disappeared into the night. For some unknown reason Lucio had been told that I would arrive around 2 or 3 pm; they'd been waiting for six hours. As we plunged into the jungle my exhausted brain struggled to find the words to apologize adequately in Spanish for such a gross misestimation. Fail. There had been rain in Caranvai—three solid days and nights, they told me—and the swampy, torn up dirt road proved it (incidentally, I'm not actually sure how long it rained for, because the estimate extended as the week went on; with each passing day, each farmer's recollection of the unending downpours that had ruined their coffee grew longer and longer. By the end of my two weeks there the fabled storm's duration had stretched through eight days and nights...). We slowly slipped and slid over the muddy trenches and through veritable lakes that saturated the road and I considered the relative absurdity of my situation. If you had asked me two months ago whether I would board a vehicle with three strange men and drive three hours up an almost impassible dirt road into the jungle, my answer would have been quick and curt: absolutely not. Yet here I was...

I had no idea what would be waiting for me as we pulled into the dark village at 11:30, our horn blasting rudely into the silence to wake everyone up. We stopped in front of a large brick building and continued honking the horn as we waited for someone to bring the keys. They apologized for the wait and explained that my visit had been a surprise. Somehow, despite the fact that I was told two weeks ago where I would be going, the residents of the town had only been made aware of my arrival yesterday afternoon. Great. Two strikes against me right off the bat.

Slowly the town awoke and brought provisions to fill my new home, a small room in their cooperative's storage warehouse. Everyone shared something: a chair, a blanket, a long extension cord with a lightbulb that they ran through my window from the next house over. They brought a gymnastics mat from the school for me to sleep on. Lucio showed me the way to the bathroom, told me he would swing by at 7:00 the following morning, and everyone said goodnight. I grabbed my headlamp and plodded over the slippery, soggy trail to the bathroom; Jorge had not been lying when he told me my accommodations would probably not be as nice as Chijchipani. There was a small sink with running water, a shower, and a ceramic hole in the floor filled to the brim with putrid water. Certainly not nice, I thought, but adequate. I headed back towards the Centro de Acopio (warehouse), where I noticed that the wooden front door only opened about eight inches before the bottom of it scraped against the concrete floor, sending a booming, hollow fingernails-on-the-chalkboard screech echoing through the empty brick building and out into the village. I flattened myself through sideways. Exhausted, I did a once-over of the mattress and the surrounding concrete for bugs with my headlamp and, seeing nothing that was close enough to be of consequence, I slipped into my sleeping bag. It was then that I suddenly noticed the prolific cascade of squeaks, bangs, and stench falling into my room from somewhere above. I grabbed my headlamp and traced its beam over the ceiling until it rested upon a massive, gaping hole to the building's crawl space, where a large colony of bats had taken up residence. I was far too tired to care; I paused for a moment to make sure the bats were not using the hole as an exit, pulled my sleeping bag over my face against the stench, and fell fast asleep.