Monday, February 28, 2011

I Walked Right in to the Sky

So far in Bolivia, my luck with excursion brochures had not been good. Climbing Mount HP was certainly not easy. The whole brochure for the Jungle Tour was a mean joke. So you can understand my worry when I read the brochure of the 3 day tour of Salar de Uyuni, and it said this word for word: We only work with safe tour operators and we can assure you will not have any problems about drunken drivers, jeeps in bad conditions, or you being stolen during the tour. Me being stolen during the tour?!?!?! What had I signed up for this time???

We decided to splurge and spend the extra money on a tourist bus to Uyuni. The price difference was 120 bols or about $18. It was the best 20 bucks I have ever spent. The contrast between the local bus we took from La Paz to Rurennabaque and the tourist bus was extreme. Read about my bus trip to the jungle here. On the local bus we had big, nearly fully reclining seats. It was clean. It smelled like regularness. We were served dinner and then breakfast. We had movies. We had pillows and blankets. I had a great sleep for being on a bus. The 20 hour ride flew by. This was the way to travel!!! We arrived in Uyuni right on time and ready to start the tour.

I was excited for the tour of Salar de Uyuni. I had seen amazing pictures of the pure white salt desert and the bright blue sky. It was one of the main things I wanted to see in Bolivia. So far Bolivia had left a bit of a sour taste in my mouth, but after the great tourist bus, I had high expectations for the salt flats.

The salt flats are dry for about 10 months out of the year, and covered in water during the wet season. During the dry season you can get some amazing pictures because of the lack of perspective. With nothing but flat ground and sky as far as you can see, any which way you look, there is nothing to judge the distance of things against. In pictures, you can look like you are standing on top of a wine bottle that appears 10 times the size of you, or you can appear to be squashing an SUV the size of a tiny toy truck with your fingers. Some of the members of our tour had bought some props like little army men, a plastic helicopter and finger puppets in anticipation of the photo opps,

Six of us set off for the full three day tour. We were going to see the salt flats, coloured lagoons, flamingos, and active volcano and beautiful scenery. Our guide was named Waldo and although he spoke almost no English, he was always happy and smiling. When he spoke to us in Spanish, he spoke slowly and clearly so even I could understand. People like that are rare in Bolivia. Our jeep was in good condition, Waldo was not drunk and therefore I had no anxiety that I would be stolen during the tour. Finally, a brochure that didn’t lie to me!!!

Our first stop was the famed salt flat. Only 2 weeks before we had arrived the salt desert was bone dry. Now wet season was in full swing, and the salt was under 6 inches of water, giving it an appearance of sand. We stopped in the middle of the desert, with miles of salt, sky and nothingness for as far as you could see. I rolled up my pants and jumped out of the jeep. It was pretty chilly outside and I expected the water to be ice cold. I was pleasantly surprised when my feet touched the bath like water. The landscape cannot be described in words. The sky was reflected perfectly in the water below, creating a surreal mirror image. The sky seemed endless, as if we were walking into infinity. It was beautiful, and I cannot do it justice to even trying to describe it. You need to go!!

We walked for awhile, watching the clouds change and marvelled at the mirror image reflected in the water. Sticking out above the water were occasional piles of salt, built up like huge ant hills. Of course, I needed to taste it… it looked almost fake; I had to be sure we were really standing in a giant salt desert. I kicked over a pile and picked up a chunk of the white stuff. I brought it to my mouth and stuck out my tongue. Sure, enough it was deliciously salty!

We took a break for lunch and ate on a little dry spot, an island in the middle of the wet salt oasis. My feet and legs were covered in dry salt and my skin was screaming for moisture. Just being around that much salt sucks all of the water right out of you. We stopped in the little town just off of the salt flat, where the miners work harvesting the salt. Entire buildings were made out of salt. I know for sure because I licked the wall, just to make sure. There were tables and chairs made out of salt, as well as statues and decorations. Everything was salt!

After lunch we headed towards a tiny town to spend the night. We drove for awhile and I gazed out the window. The salt flat glowed in the background of the rest of the sand desert. The only vegetation for miles were little tufts of grass that looked like hedgehogs. Other than that, you could see for miles and miles. I felt so small in this vast land all around me. We spent the night in a little share house, with very uncomfortable beds, a third world bathroom and no heat. Luckily, the amazingness of the day was still with me and I didn’t mind much as we drank beer and played cards.

The next day brought all kinds of new wonders. As we were headed to see some lagoons, my gaze hardly left the landscape. Throughout the day we passed through the moon, mars, mountains and vast nothingness. The scenery changed constantly. From a maze of beautifully random rock formations, to bright red soil, to a valley of rocks and craters, to the Andes in the backdrop, to absolutely nothing besides the ground and the sky; it seemed like we were jumping from planet to planet, not driving around rural Bolivia.

We saw some lagoons that changed colours with the light of the afternoon and wild flamingos just hanging out on one foot. We went to a petrified forest which reminded me of Jurassic times. What used to be huge trees had solidified and were eroded by the elements, leaving these oddly shaped rock formations in the middle of the empty dessert. Around every corner I fully expected to see a brontosaurus come charging at me. We spent the night in another camp similar to the previous night, and again I did not mind the shady accommodation.

The last day of the tour we were up before the sun to make it to an active volcano and a natural hot springs. Of course I fell asleep in the jeep. When I awoke, the ground was covered in snow. We really had covered all types of landscape on this tour! We drove to the top of the volcano, an elevation of 5400 meters. Snow breezed by us but I was not cold. You could feel the heat of the volcanoas soon as we got out of the jeep. Steam billowed out of the mouth of the volcano.

The greatest thing about the third world is the lack of safety precautions. In Canada, the mouth of the volcano would have been roped off, so you could look, but not get close enough to fall in. In Bolivia, there are no such ropes. Waldo told us to be careful not to fall in. We would not be the first tourists to tumble into the volcano and die a hot fiery magma death. I loved it. I hate anything that is roped off. I got as close as I dared and tried to look inside the mouth of the volcano. All I got was a face full of steam.

We drove back down to the hot springs and hung out there for awhile. After that we headed back to Uyuni. The drive back was uneventful as I slept most of the way. Me and before dawn don’t get along too well.
Back in Uyuni we had a few hours to kill before we jumped on a bus to Villazon, the Bolivian - Argentinean border town. There was no tourist bus going this way, so we were at the mercy of another local bus. After this amazing trip, I was barely even worried. Bolivia was looking up after all!!!!!

Or so I thought……….
Up next, the adventure of getting the hell out of Bolivia!!!!
Join me as I TRAVEL MY LIFE AWAY!!!!!

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Rurrenabaque = Never-going-baque

                                               We had planned to be here for 3 days. Now 5 days had passed and we were still here. And wanted to leave more than anything!!!

The world`s shittest airport
After our flight was cancelled, we went to the airline office to rebook the next possible flight out of jungle hell. It was at 6 am. No problem, the sooner the better. After we left, I thought of a slight problem. My phone was dead, we had no watch or alarm clock. The front desk guys didn’t speak English and couldn’t understand my Spanish. The worst thing ever would be to miss the flight and have it be our very own fault!!! Luckily, they were plenty of other travellers who were on the same flight, and we managed to borrow a watch with an alarm.

We made sure we were there with plenty of time to spare. At the airport we encountered what bolivia is famous for; a game of hurry up and wait, an abundance of fees that no one told us about and a lack of information. The airline office stressed to us that we must be on time (at 5 am) in the morning to catch the shuttle. We were there with a few minutes to spare. It was 5:30 am before the bus showed up. At the airport, we were shuttled from one desk to another to pay some fees so we could leave the jungle. At the first desk we paid an airport tax. Then we were sent over to another desk to pay a departure tax. Then another desk for another jungle tax of some sort. With the lack of ATM`s in the city we were very short on cash. By the time we got to the last desk we were short. No way was I going to live in the jungle forever because the stupid town didn`t have a bank machine!! We had to borrow a few Bolivianos from another traveller who, thank the lord, had come more prepared than us and used the ATM in a real place. Besides that….what the F is jungle tax?!?!?! And why couldn`t we just pay everything all at one desk?? Bolivia blows my mind.

After that, we waited. And waited and waited and waited. Our boarding time came and wnet withou any sort of annoucemnt. Our flight departure time came and went and still not a word from anyone about what was going on. When I have to get up at 4:30 am I am never in a good mood. Top that off with feeling stranded in the jungle and an ass more itchy than you can even imagine, you could say I was not in a peachy mood. I loudly complained to Laurie about all of my Bolivain woes, and right after someone came over and explained in Spanglish that the flight was delayed due to the weather.

I fell into a fitful airport sleep and awoke because a stray and probably diseased dog was licking my foot. God, I just wanted out of Bolivia!!!!!!!! I looked outside; the clouds had dispersed and the fog had lifted. But for somereason, I still had my feet on the ground. Five hours after we should have left, we boarded the plane. I knew we were flying on a small plane, but I had no idea how small. It looked like a Barbie plane compared to the size of a regular plane. Laurie and I had the front row, which looked right into the cockpit. As I stared out the window and cursed the jungle, she overheard the piolets talking. The pilot was in training. And he was behind the controls. The guy in the passenger seat was telling him what to do. It would be fitting for me to die in the Bolivian jungle at the hands of a pilot in training. That is just how things go in Bolivia.

Thankfully, I survived the flight. As for the jungle town of Rurrenabaque, I am with our fellow Canadian Octavia on this one….it is not Rurrenabaque, it is Nevergoingbaque!!

Our original plan was to land in La Paz, and book a bus to Uyuni, Bolivia that night. With all of the delays, the tourist bus was all booked up for that night. We had other options, but as soon as the words `local bus` came out of the tour operators mouth, Laurie and I vigorously shook our heads in unison. There would be no more of that. We spent the night in La Paz and booked the tourist bus for the next day.

The jungle sure was an adventure, what would Uyuni and the salt flats bring????

Join me as I TRAVEL MY LIFE AWAY!!!!!

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

3079 Mosquitoes Bit My Ass in the Bolivian Amazon


                                                     We headed to the Amazon with an eclectic mix of people from all over the world. Laurie and I as well as another Canadian, Octavia, an Aussie boy, Jake, a Norwegian boy called Haccon, an American girl, Mica and an Argentinean man named Jorge. We jumped in a van on route to the Beni River. It was a 3 hour ordeal reminiscent of the bus ride to Rurennabaque (read about that here). It began to rain. Already I was thinking that things could not get worse. At the boat launch area, we were swarmed by mosquitoes. Half a bottle of mosquito repellent between Laurie and I and we figured we were ok. We waited forever for the boat to be ready for us, and once we got on the way, we were cruising down the Beni River. Our guide was named Jonny, and he didn’t speak a word of English. The mosquitoes were everywhere, but our repellent appeared to be working.

The view from our motorized canoe was beautiful. The banks of the river were framed by lush green vegetation and the clouds had cleared away leaving the sun shining down on us. The tree branches hung down in the water like Tarzan vines and bright red flowers spotted the greenness of the jungle like freckles. Monkeys played in the trees and birds soared in the air. Finally my lungs were enjoying the oxygenated air, unlike the altitude and pollution of La Paz. There were many other boats on the river, all filled with tourists heading deep into the Amazon just like we were. After 3 hours of cruising, we began coming up to the camps. Slowly, each boat stopped at their camp. Just when I was starting to enjoy the jungle, we arrived at our camp. It was deserted. A layer of grime coated everything. It seemed like the camp hadn’t been used in years and years. Around this time, my ass began to get extremely itchy.

We settled in the sheltered kitchen area for a delicious dinner. Easily, the food was the best part of the jungle tour. After that we hung out in the screened in hammock room, where we ended up spending most of our down time. It was the best part of the jungle. As long as we only opened the door just enough to sneak inside and closed the door right away, the mosquitoes stayed out. Twelve hammocks hung in a circle from the edge of the room to a central pole in the middle. It was relaxing to swing and get to know the other travellers. It is also very easy to scratch your ass in a hammock, and mine was growing itchier by the second. We went to see the sunset at a soccer field near by, where the gringos played the locals and usually lost. There was a concession stand selling beer, coca cola and chocolate bars at exorbitant tourist prices. I am still unsure if I feel like it was a tourist trap or if we were helping out locals by paying those prices. All I know is that stand must make a killing!!!!!

That night we hung out in the hammock room and talked about life, music and travel. At 10 pm the generators shut off and we all went to bed. It was really hot and humid out still, so I slept in my bed wearing only a tank top and underwear. My ass had been sooooo itchy all night. When I scratched my bare ass cheek, I was shocked at what it felt like. My entire ass felt like what I imagine the moon would look like. Big swollen craters and small valleys in the few spots there was a lack of bites. My entire ass was a mosquito bite! It was dark so I couldn’t see exactly what it looked like. But I knew it was bad!

When I woke up in the morning, the first thing I did was look at my ass. It was worse than anticipated. Actually, I didn’t have an ass anymore. Every single inch of skin was bit by multiple mosquitoes. They had feasted upon my ass meat. I guess on the canoe ride I neglected to spray my ass with repellent. Bad mistake. Those crazy jungle mozzies bite right through pants.

The next day, we were off to hunt for anacondas. I was really excited about this part! I love trudging through the wilderness looking for wildlife. Our boat pulled up alongside a few other parked boats. Immediately, I wondered if we were really going to find some snakes with 50 gringos combing the jungle. We walked through a wet field to some tall grass and reeds. It really didn’t seem like the jungle, but if this is where the snakes were, I was excited to be looking. One step and my rubber boot filled with water. There was a hole somewhere, just big enough for water to get in, but not enough for it to drain out. The entire time I was walking around with one boot full of water and one dry foot. The mosquitoes in the air seemed more abundant than oxygen. It was a sunny, hot and humid day in the jungle. But any inch of exposed skin would immediately become lunch for 300 mosquitoes. I trudged through the 40 C jungle in my rain jacket and long pants.

Jonny, our guide, explained to the one fluent Spanish speaker on our tour, Haccon, that we had a great chance of finding some anacondas as a sunny day in the rainy season is rare and the snakes should all be out in the open. After that, he told us to spread out and look for anacondas and cobras. SERIOUSLY?!?!?! Man eating snakes and we were just going to be off on our own in grass taller than I am??? I was surprised, but I love that kind of stuff, so I was off on a mission. Thirty minutes went by; I was soaked in sweat and not a snake in sight. Some people headed back to the boat. I continued my mission. After awhile, I was over it. Were there even snakes in this place?? No one found a snake that afternoon, and we headed back to camp a little defeated.

The afternoon brought the chance to swim with the pink dolphins. We just had to find them first. We went into a bay off the main part of the river. The water was still. It smelled terribly of methane and rotting. According to Octavia, our new Canadian friend, the entire jungle smelled of methane and sadness. I agreed. Jonny revved the engine and sped our canoe in circles. As much as I wanted to swim with these beautiful endangered species, I didn’t think it was right to come into their territory and disturb them from the depths just to see them. Slowly, a few began to appear. I didn’t get a great look, as the just skimmed the surface. I saw a lot of dolphin backs and maybe a side or two. It certainly was not like the brochure pictures, where a happy gringo is swimming in beautiful green water, one dolphin face up and posing for the camera beside him, while others jumped in the air behind. I have certainly learned my lesson about believing brochures in Bolivia.

Two out of the three of the Amazon activities I had been excited for had been a bust. I was REALLY hoping to catch a giant piranha the next day to make up for it all.

That night it rained. Not a good old city rain shower, but an Amazon Jungle rainy season rain. I awoke in the middle of the night from what sounded like machine gun fire, but was really raindrops. After the previous night’s fitful sleep in the suffocating humidity, the rain was a nice breath of fresh air.

As we got in the canoe the next morning it was still raining lightly. I didn’t mind, because I know in Canada, the fishing is usually better in crappy weather. I was going to catch a giant piranha!!!! My feelings of hope were dashed when I saw our fishing gear. A piece of ply wood, about 10 cm long and 4 cm wide acted as the rod and reel. The line was so thick you could have caught a 700 lb fish on it, or knitted a sweater. We had rusty barbed hooks, from which we threaded a little chunk of raw llama as bait. Trying to stay positive, I gripped the ply wood and threw my line in. And waited….and waited. Eventually, I caught some jungle reeds.

We were all fed up with the jungle by this time, and were anxious to get back to Rurrenabaque. We had a flight at 5:45 pm (the tour agency promised we’d make it) and we knew it was a long way back.

Jonny wrapped our stuff in a tarp, and we were headed back to civilization. When our canoe arrived at the boat launch, we were anxious to get into the van. Looking at the time, we knew it would be close if we were going to make the flight. An hour went by. Jonny didn’t seem to be concerned. He said that we were waiting for a different van to come and pick us up. We watched the clock apprehensively. We just wanted to get the hell out of this jungle!!! Missing our flight would be a kick in the junk. Every van that pulled up, we ran up to it with hope and always were disappointed. Jonny got tired of us asking him when we were leaving and hid from us. Finally, we got in a van. We had 2 and a half hours to make a 3 hour drive. The driver promised we would make our flight.

True to his promise, he got us there before the plane left. Because it didn’t leave. Delays throughout the day caused our flight to be cancelled.

Will we ever escape this jungle hell???????
Find out next!!!!

In all the negative memories of the jungle, I almost forgot the best part. We saw many wild crocodiles, and one of them, I was close enough to touch it. In the issue of safety, I only stuck my hand out about a foot away from his open mouth. I could have gotten closer, but I like my arm.

Join me as I TRAVEL MY LIFE AWAY!!!!

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

No ATM???!!!!!!????? In a tourist town???!!!! Somebody should have told me……….

                                                The brochure sold it for me. Motorized canoe, swimming with endangered pink dolphins, searching for anacondas, cobras and crocodiles and fishing for piranhas. After Mount Potosi, I should know not to believe the brochures…but once again it sure was an adventure.

It started off with the plan to be a real backpacker, skip the 40 min flight and take the 19 hour local bus and save $80 bucks each way. A few hours into the bus ride I would have sold my soul to be on a flight. As my Dad always says, you get what you pay for, and I should have known that a 19 hour bus ride for $11 just didn’t add up.

Figuring out what bus we were supposed to be on was an ordeal in itself, and I will spare you the tiresome, not very exciting melodrama. All I will say is that Bolivia is a disorganized mess of hurry up and wait.

The bus looked like it had had its day before my parents were born. The inside was a mess of broken green seats covered in dirty, 1970’s green fabric. The entire bus smelled of armpits, urine and the third world. In times like this, sleep is my savoir. I can sleep anywhere and especially well in a moving vehicle. Poor Laurie cannot. We began by driving down a road that was similar to Death Road (check out the details of my experience here), narrow one lane dirt road with a sheer cliff face on one side, a mountain on the other, and at times it was partly washed away as it is rainy season. The bus was tearing down the road like it was a paved 4 lane freeway. As we would come up to a blind corner the driver would lay on the horn to signal our appearance out of nowhere. Quite a few times another horn would blare, vehicle unseen and we would slam on the brakes. What happens next is something like a game of chicken. The drivers stare each other down for a few seconds, until one decides to back up and let the other pass.

I woke up in the middle of the night, and the bus was stopped. Well not just stopped, broken down. We got out to see what was going on. It was not a good situation. Laurie and I watched as a few men worked under the bus. Hours went by. Of course none of the other passengers spoke even a word of English. My Spanish was not even close to good enough to have a conversation, had anyone even tried to speak to us. Instead, they stared. Not out of the corner of their eyes, and not when our heads turned the other way. They stared at us full on without even a hint of a smile. I did not feel welcome, or even safe. Outside in a Bolivian slum, at 3 am, unable to communicate and surrounded by locals who I am sure would have sold me for $20 to anyone who wanted a exasperated white girl.

Seven hours later, well into the light of day, we set on our way again. We were less than half way there and our tour was just about to start. We had already had enough of this adventure, and it hadn’t even began.
27 hours after the bus had left La Paz, we finally arrived in the jungle town of Rurrenabaque. But the fun had only just begun………………

We showed up at the tourist office to make sure we could do the tour the next day. No problem at all. Next, we needed to hit an ATM and withdraw some money. The jungle tour required us to pay an entrance fee at the park, and we didn’t have much cash at all. The tour office told us there was a bank on the next corner. Sure, there was a bank, but no ATM. No way to withdraw money. We pooled what we had, but only had enough for the bus to leave Rurrenabaque. No way we were going to go through that hell again!!! We only had one option…to beg for a refund on the tour and if we got a full refund, we could manage plane tickets back to La Paz. We would miss out on the jungle tour, but so far, this excursion was sheer hell. I was not sad at the possibility of missing the jungle, I was only sad at the thought of taking the bus back.

At the tour agency, the lady listened with sympathy. I am sure we were not the only backpackers who had been stranded due to the town’s lack of an ATM. When we were done begging for our money back, she smiled and picked up the phone. Speaking quickly in Spanish we had no idea who she was talking to or what she was saying. After a few minutes, she explained that she had called the manager down and had booked us plane tickets back after the jungle tour was over. We began to explain again, that we couldn’t go because we didn’t have any cash to pay the entrance fee into the park. She shhhhhhed us, and told us not to worry. Once the manager of the tour office arrived, she explained. The tour office was letting us go on the tour tomorrow, had booked our plane tickets back to La Paz, and handed us 400 Boliviano (about $60) for our accommodation, the entrance fee, and some dinner.

We were shocked!!! We did have to hand over our passports until we paid the company back - eeep! - but we were so surprised at how accommodating they were. So, we were getting the best of both worlds….we would be adventuring through the jungle AND we got to fly back!!! So we were off on our adventure in the Bolivian Amazon to hunt for crocs and anacondas, swim with pink dolphins and fish for piranhas. Oh, if we only knew what the jungle had in store for us!!!!

SIDE NOTE: Anyone looking to make some money, Rurrenabaque, Bolivia DESPERATELY needs an ATM. You could charge $20 or more for each withdrawal and make a killing!!!!

Up next, my adventures in the jungle…oh the jungle!!!