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 listen...is 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.                 

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