Published: June 18th 2007June 18th 2007
I got back from four days in Puerto Villarroel, a tiny settlement of 200 people in in the Amazon Basin, last night. The experience was absolutely unforgettable: the place is stunningly remote, with one phone for the whole town manned by the local Entel office whose manager calls those with a call waiting by hollering through a megaphone that can be heard across the town, and no internet. Who could guess how long mail would take to reach that place?
A group of about fifteen TAPA volunteers from different projects were on the trip. We all signed up the previus week thinking we were trotting off for a free holiday in the jungle, staying in the TAPA-owned house there where two other volunteers were working in the local guarderia (day care centre) and farm. But TAPA director Daniela cleverly left it until two nights before we were going to call a meeting in which she handed us each a large schedule detailing the work we would be doing every day - painting the day care centre and getting up at 6 am every morning. At that point a few weaker souls suddenly contracted a cold or the shits or something and had to pull out. But Daniela brought out the trump card - that a puma had been seen prolwing the grounds of the huose we were to stay in, and I was sold. Being mauled by a puma in the amazon is more exciting than dying old, and it might be the only way I make it into the pages of the Guardian... I was excited that I was going in to the Amazonian rainforest for the first time and also to get a chance to hang out with some other TAPA peeps, since I had pretty much just worked for the previous mnth and turned down a lot of invitations to go out and party with the crew.
It was about a six hour drive to Puerto from CBBA and the trip there was a fabulous primer for what I was going to experience in the jungle: leaving the city and climbing into the Cordillera, we went through almost Swiss-looking pine forests with big blue lakes and rolling hills, and then about an hour or so in as we turned a corner we were suddenly in another totally different place - a place of towering rock walls covered with lush, tangled creepers hanging down from a greay height as if wilting from the heat, first covered by a layer of white soot from the road (a lot of huge lorries go down this route, kicking up the dust), and later on, glistening with sweat from the humidity which is totally absent from the air just a couple hours south. It felt as if we had just crossed the Equator line or something. As we drove in our minibus manned by a crazy ass driver who kept overtaking the juggernauts in front and risking head on collision with oncoming traffic, or plunging us into certain death in the ravines below, I gawped out at the steep mountains and the heavily draping clouds hanging round the top of them, which we drove through (this area is covered in my favourite-named type of forest, cloud-forest). The plants all took on a much more tropical, amazon look: tall spindly trees with perfectly formed symmetrical five part branches and five part leaves, different types of palm trees, banana trees, all feeding off the humidity. After a brief wait at a remote checkpoint (to curb the coca trade, which is rampant here - the police have checkpoints where they need to see the driver of the vehicle has a little slip of paper showing they passed through the last checkpoint, so they can prove the driver followed the road route and didnt stop off in some other outpost to take delivery of any cocaine - we stopped off in the town before Puerto, Ivirgasama, to buy supplies for our job. There we were the subject of much staring. One guy even stoped his car on a roundabout on which I was standing, about a metre from my face, to have a closer look at me and my friend Ellie. Bolivians are fabulously curious and without any of that need for distance that us English suffer from.
The next three days were all about painting the day care centre, which in print sounds like easy work, but was not so much. This guarderia is housed in an old abattoir with serious subsidence and rat shit everywhere, even all over the blankets for the babies. A row of knackered and filthy cots made it look like a Romanian orphanage. Bare cement walls, cement floors, not much furniture... One half of the building was for the day care centre and the other half for a local electricity company, ironic since the building itself has no electricity - no running water, no toilets, no facilities and no light after dusk. The day we got there we were taken to see the place and to meet the english dude, Jonny, who was working with the kids there. The first thing I saw when we went in was two tiny kids chasing each other with large kitchen knives. This is in the day care centre. I learned that the knives were usually left lying around to open the door which had no proper lock. So that is childcare chapare style - rat shit, knives, and english male nannies who like to get hickies from local teenagers (thats Jonny.... lovely boy but somewhat troubled in regards to his lifestyle choices). It was hard work but a lot of fun, cleaning and painting the whole place, and Jonny, Ellie, Will and Charlotte did good by painting a seascape mural on one of the walls at the end, complete with treasure chest. We drank a lot of Taquina that weekend and on our last night we not only danced, we watched a cross dressing pageant from the local menfolk. Yes, Puerto is strange and beautiful.
I had been given another assignment to do while in Chapare, to attend a press conference being held there (a press conference in the jungle - cool, and odd) on some researchers who were doing a census of pink river dolphins in the rivers coming off the rio amazonas. By chance I bumped into one of the editors from Los Tiempos there and me, her and Jorge, the guy who runs the TAPA project there who is also something of a local legend/politician got talking, and decided I would write a story about Puerto for Los Tiempos. So I hope that plan comes together because I depserately want to go back to Puerto ASAP. Sitting by the river Ichilo watching little chapare kids running around on the dry riverbed - and downing cold Taquina under a tin roof while it bucketed it down tropical amazon-style, was amazing, and I want to do it again. Puerto is a special place and they are already drawing up plans to get a tourist scene going there. But the thought of some awful eco lodge filled with irritating rich types eating mung bean salads and discussing the plight of the peasants, while their bastard Etonian kids wind surf on the river Ichilo, makes me sick and I personally hope Puerto can find a way to bring in the cash it needs without selling out. It is so quiet and far away - just 2000 people living there - that is its greatest asset.