Thursday, October 7, 2010

Welcome to the Jungle (My Amazonian Adventure)

I spent my birthday this year in the heart of the Bolivian Amazon. After days of harrowing bus rides (Normal People Fly), my friend and I finally arrived in Rurrenabaque. The next day we set out on a jungle tour with Mashaquipe, an eco-friendly, community-based tour agency. Its staff and guides are from the jungle itself.

Our first stop was a farm which cultivated caña dulce (sugarcane). I’ve seen plenty of sugarcane grown in Paraguay, but I’ve never seen it processed before. This family processed the plant from scratch, using trapiches (horse-drawn yokes connected to presses) to extract the juice from the sugarcane and giant iron pots set over a wood fire to turn the juice into honey and sugar. The families in Rurrenabaque that don’t work with tourists live off of agricultural activities, especially the growing of sugarcane, plantains, and corn. They are fortunate to have a weekly farmers’ market in Rurre where they can sell their products. Even in the middle of the jungle, there is agriculture!

We continued our journey in a motorized canoe to Mashaquipe’s lodge in the middle of the jungle. Although the accommodations were basic, I was thrilled by the running water and electricity. Our guide took us on a walk through the jungle. Along the way he explained the names and purposes of different trees and plants. We had to follow him closely as the path was blocked by underbrush, which he had to clear with a machete. Besides, we wanted to be as quiet as possible to avoid scaring the animals. Even though the dense vegetation made it difficult to see, we were lucky to spot a cluster of squirrel monkeys swinging and jumping from trees.

The next day, we set off on an 8 kilometer trek through the jungle. This area was much less dense than the one from the previous day and the trees were shorter, as they weren’t competing for sunlight. In the middle of our walk, the sky opened up and it started to pour. Everyone had told us that we were in the middle of the drought. I guess they don’t call it the rainforest for nothing! Our guide sprinted through the forest and we tried our best to follow, trying not to trip while scrambling over tree branches and up hills. The sound of the pouring rain drowned the noise of our approach, allowing us to spot a capuchin monkey. We finally reached our campsite, absolutely drenched (well I didn’t get too wet thanks to the pack cover and pancho my parents bought me), and lay out our stuff to dry.

After drying ourselves, we re-wet ourselves in the Río Tuichi where we went for a long swim. Afterward, our guide asked us if we could help him collect firewood. By this point I was feeling so confident that I took his machete and sprinted through the jungle. I was able to use the machete skills I acquired in Paraguay to chop down trees for our cooking fire. When we returned to our campsite, our guide immediately signaled us to be quiet. We crept to the kitchen and silently sat down, while wild pigs went rummaging through the forest around us. After 20 minutes or so, either their curiosity or their courage got the better of them and they began to approach us. We saw, all in all, about 60 wild pigs!

In the night, our guide took us for a walk to see if we could glimpse any nocturnal animals. Mostly we just saw night spiders. We threw bugs into their webs and watched them entangle their prey in thread. It was fascinating to watch them weave their webs. I felt like a third grade squashing bugs and cutting worms in half just to see what would happen. We were incredibly fortunate to catch sight of a tapir. A tapir looks like a giant rat. It’s huge and can weight up to 250 kilos! Ours was with its baby, also a sizable animal. It’s incredibly rare to see a tapir. Last year, only 20 tourists spotted a tapir with the Mashaquipe guides.
The next morning, we set off bright and early, 6 AM, to the viewpoint of the guacamayos (parrots/macaws). The entire area was surrounded by thick clouds. We waited for hours for the mist to clear. When it finally did, we saw hundreds of red, blue, and green macaws flying back and forth. Where we went is the only place in the jungle where they congregate because there they lay their eggs in the wall.

We returned to our campsite via boats, specifically rafts. The Tacana people, the indigenous group that Mashaquipe is part of, traditionally traveled up and down the river and transported all their goods by way of wooden rafts. We did the same, but luckily we didn’t have to worry about wetting our stuff as all we took with us were our swimsuits. Our guide let me take the helm and steer our raft down the river. It became a bit of a free-for-all when my friend tried shaking the boat and then pushed our guide into the water. I hit him with the oar, only to lose my balance and fall in myself!

I only spent three days in the jungle, but they were absolutely amazing.

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