Published: June 30th 2012June 30th 2012
In true Bolivian fashion, the flight to Rurrenabaque boards 20 minutes late, without explanation. A mostly gringo crowd anxiously walks across the tarmac to our miniscule 2 propeller plane, and though there is no overhead compartment and no room to stand up straight, on the plus side, every seat has both a window and an aisle. There are no flight attendants, no safety talk, just two illuminated signs, one saying 'no smoking,' and the other, 'fasten seatbelts.' So much for the complimentary peanuts.
I am seated in 1A at the very front, and can see directly into the door-less cockpit. I can hear every beep, see every flashing light (all of which seem to signal imminent death) from take-off to landing. The pilots fire up the propellers within seconds of closing the hatch, and we are off - not over the mountains, but through them. The highest peak easily dominates our little plane as it struggles to gain a bit more altitude. Just as I start to relax and enjoy the view, we start to descend through cloud cover that shakes the aircraft enough to send my already knotted stomach into somersaults. When we finally break through the clouds all
I can see below is jungle - where the hell is the tarmac?
When we finally land I see that the 'tarmac' is little more than a crudely paved strip surround by red dirt and forest (I am told that the pavement is a recent improvement). No gate, no building, no nothing. And despite my still queasy stomach, I am well aware of how bad-ass this is.
Though I had only planned to visit the jungle, my partners in crime for this leg of the trip, Dan and Alex, convinced me to do the Pampas as well. This is the high grassland and swamp area - home to a huge variety of fauna. I believe the promise of pink dolphins sold me. It's like something out of a goddamn Lisa Frank poster!
While I did get a glimpse of the famed river dolphin, two other components figured heavily in this scenario: snakes and murky water - possibly my two least favorite things in this world. Thus day two of the tour was especially tough for me as we went out looking for anacondas in the swampland. "No worry - anacondas, they are not aggressive," our guide, Victor,
tells me. "They can swim right between your legs and no problem." I am not reassured. "Now, cobras," he says, "they very aggressive." I stop mid-step. "Are there cobras here, Victor?" "Is very rare, but yes."
Any courage I had manage to muster leaves my body like a vapor. I feel my heart pound with every muddy step, my boots making horrible sucking sounds as the mud first accepts then reluctantly releases my feet. My eyes search desperately for any sign of movement in the shallow water, though my attention is often split between looking for freaking cobras and swatting a growing number of mosquitoes from my face. After 30 minutes or so, I get the distinct sensation that I need to turn back, which is exactly what I do. I shamelessly hightail it out of there. It occurs to me that this is exactly what happens in horror movies just before the coward who turned back gets swallowed by the 40 foot snake; but I made it back unscathed.
That night was another experiment in testing my nerves. Taking to the boat in darkenss, we went out in search of caimans. The water had gone from murky
to unknowable, as black as the night above it. We pointed our flashlights towards the shore, looking for any kind of reflection. We were lucky enough to spot a few - their eyes burning like embers, almost demonic, hovering on the water's surface before disappearing below. Though I tried to enjoy our little night adventure, I would be lying if I didn't admit how on edge I felt. We were at the mercy of our guide's navagation skills (maybe I shouldn't have shared my rum with him so freely), skimming through caiman infested waters in utter blackness. I had visions of a rogue caiman jumping out of the water and dragging me under (perhaps I've seen one too many Discovery Channel specials). Of course, nothing happened - if anything the little buggers probably just wanted us to screw off so that they could go to doing what caimans do best - being creepy.
A few days later we head into Madidi National Park, to an eco-lodge in the jungle. It was all a bit Alice and Wonderland - trees that could walk, trunks that bleed milk, blossoming fungus, and psychedelic butterflies. It was both as I imagined, as I couldn't possibly have imagined. The primary activity was just "experiencing" the jungle on a number of walks, through muck and deadfall, and a never ending supply of mosquito-paparazzi. I used to be one of the people who "didn't like to put chemicals on my body," but now I am IN LOVE deet. I would have bathed in the stuff had been an option.
All in all, Rurre was a pretty crazy trip. Amazonas airlines canceled our flight yet again on the way back, but we managed to get out the same day. This was after I got into a screaming match with the customer relations rep about the definition of his job. Which reminds me, I still need to write that "strongly worded letter" that I threatened to send....