Filthy from Amazon jungle sweat and diseased with mosquito bites, Papacho and I huddle under a small blue tarp, smoking cigarettes and drinking river-water coffee. We wait for a...
RIO IBARE, Bolivia Filthy from Amazon jungle sweat and diseased with mosquito bites, Papacho and I huddle under a small blue tarp, smoking cigarettes and drinking river-water coffee. We wait for a break in the storm so we can get on with the evening’s entertainment: taking mug shots of crocodiles.
So far, we’ve caught and then fried and eaten red-bellied piranhas, hacked through 10 miles of jungle with a machete, chased shy pink river dolphins and bartered with villagers for squeezed-off-the-tree grapefruit juice.
Baiting large ravenous reptiles with raw steak, promises Papacho, a 45-year-old guide, will be a highlight of our four-day canoe trip around the chocolate-brown Ibare River in Beni, in the Amazon region of northern Bolivia. Anyway, it sounds like he wants fresh photos for advertising purposes.
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It’s dark when the rain stops. We use flashlights and walk carefully down the steep, slippery riverbank. I crouch a few feet from shore, camera ready, wondering if this is dangerous. Papacho steps into our canoe, holding onto a couple of long branches, meat skewered into the ends.
He gulps loudly and rapidly, imitating the crocodile’s call. Moments later, a pair of eyes surface somewhere midriver, then a scaly snout. Something floats toward us.
Eagerly, I think.
A few days earlier, I had been scuffling around the central plaza in Trinidad, a hot, flat, dusty city in Beni, inhaling the inescapable reek of the above-ground sewer system and contemplating an offer made by a grinning, gold-toothed river barge captain named Abraham.
I had begun asking around at nearby Puerto Almacén for a ride. For $25, he said, I could hitch a ride on his vessel, two flat stories, about 40 feet long, stuffed front to back with hundreds of soda bottles and empty gas tank containers. The load was on its way to a little town named Guayaramerín, on the Brazil-Bolivia border. I’d fish for my food. I could squeeze my hammock into a little space on the deck.
The only hang-up was time. Abraham said it would take about five days. And although I was only halfway into a three-week trip through Bolivia, I had already learned that in local parlance, “about five days” just as easily means six, seven or eight. And that was only one way.
My itinerary was already squeezed. I had spent most of my time so far at the natural attractions (the relentlessly inspiring shapes of the northern Andes; the near-freezing Salar de Uyuni, one of the world’s largest salt pans, edged by geysers, hot springs and flamingo-filled lakes; and the eerily quiet Isla Del Sol on Lake Titicaca, one of the world’s highest navigable waterways, considered by the Andean cultures to be the birthplace of the sun).
I had wanted to dedicate the last week to a solitary exploration of 13,000-foot La Paz, the stunning unofficial capital, where more than a million residents are packed inside a deep canyon bowl. The last thing I wanted was to be stuck in a frontier town, with undependable transportation options out.
Which is how I found myself saying yes when Papacho interrupted my daydreaming. He appeared out of nowhere in the plaza and waved a piece of paper in my face, a hand-drawn map covered with scrawls and arrows and things to do. He asked if I wanted to go down the river and promised a four-day round trip. All I needed was a sleeping bag.
He said he would pick me up the next day. But he’d need $100 right away. I hesitated, but gave him the money and shook his hand, simultaneously thinking, “This is great” and “I am being robbed.”
But I guess that’s how business works down here sometimes, because the next morning at 8:30, he showed up in a taxi with our stuff: a leaky Styrofoam cooler, fresh water, some large sacks filled with supplies and food, camping equipment, a hammock, an oar and a motor. Our canoe, a hollowed-out tree with bamboo poles for floors, was tied up at the river, several miles away.
I got into the front passenger seat and paid Papacho the balance $75. Papacho tapped my shoulder and offered me an orange. I took it and waved goodbye to my traveling companions, Lonnie and Sarah, whom I had flown in with from Seattle and who would be flying back to the United States in a few days.
I laughed. They were the only two people in the entire country who knew how to get in touch with my mother.
The journey begins
It’s the first night in the jungle.
Parakeets screech. Insects scurry. Papacho snores. Hundreds of fireflies flicker underneath a canopy of stars and galaxies and treetops. Mysterious animals splash in and out of the water. The monkeys descend from their perches and explore our campsite.
It is beautiful and overwhelming.
Then it gets hot, a kind of baking hot that transcends sweat and humidity, that inspires the words hilarious and horrifying.
I alternate between two states.
In the first, I squirm on my sleeping pad, wearing only running shorts, praying that a breeze will break through the mesh of the tent, enduring the mosquitoes and ants that have somehow made it inside. They are eating my back.
In the second, I put on a long-sleeved shirt to keep the little monsters away. I am a steamed dumpling.
The doctors had said that my anti-malarial medicine wasn’t the kind that produces bad dreams. But when I do manage to fall asleep, I am lost in a giant mall, or falling down a never-ending water slide, or trying to find my apartment in the dark.
I repeat this procedure about five or six times.
I distinctly remember a monkey pawing at my left hand.
I blink and it is morning.
Deeper into the jungle
We spend most of our days traveling down the river, talking and observing the wildlife.
Papacho is a nickname for gringos. Adhemos Campos Añez is a father of four, who used to be a butcher, but decided to become a professional river guide because the money is better. He loves his hammock and his cigarettes. He wants me to send him some real Marlboro Reds from the States.
He is an expert with knives. His grapefruit rinds are always unbroken. When we walk, I am wary of his habit of swinging the machete by the tip of the blade.
The birds are the easiest to spot. Vultures with orange backs. Giant parakeets that always fly in pairs. Coal-black eagles with buzz cuts. And a graceful white heron-like creature with a red rooster’s face and the unfortunate name, “cabeza fea,” or ugly head.
There are river snakes, flying fish, alligators and crocodiles about five to six feet long, and large turtles sunning themselves on logs. Dozens of river dolphins surface to blow out air, but the canoe always spooks them and it’s impossible to see much more than their bright pink crests.
After a day, when my eyes finally get accustomed to the muddy shores, I can see packs of cabybaras, hairy hippo-like creatures about the size of large dogs. I learn later they are rodents.
Often we stop, tie up the canoe and walk inland. We find abandoned huts, herds of cows and a den of angry black hornets, each about an inch long. We cut through a thick jungle trail the blue and red butterflies are enormous and end up in a thatch-roof, stray-dog village.
Papacho visits almost every hut, bringing news from Trinidad. He cashes in or returns favors. At one home, we are fed a feast of rice and fried pacu, a fat, brown, toothy, footlong fish. At others, he trades cigarettes and a couple bolivianos for hand-carved bowls and hundred-count bags of grapefruit, oranges and limes.
A man nicknamed Chino brings the fruits to our canoe on his horse. Papacho will sell them for a much higher profit back in town. Papacho’s got quite a racket.
We borrow another man’s canoe and row into a little inlet named San Martín. We cast out fishing lines and hooks, with raw steak as bait, looking for red-bellied piranhas. They are about 5 to 10 inches long, and they nibble at my fingertips when I dip my hand in the water.
They are fast and greedy, and we yank them onto the boat. They gasp loudly for air and live for a long time out of water. In less than two hours, we catch 30. I am the indomitable conqueror of eight (although they appear much smaller after I develop my film). We clean the fish and throw the guts back. The water boils and the guts disappear.
With a reptilian smile on his face, Papacho says several times, “Les gustan sus compañeros.” They like their friends.
We like our dinner.
Posing for photos
The crocodile hesitates under the steak. Papacho teases it, moving the stick up and down like he’s cooking a marshmallow. The beast lunges into the air and devours the snack.
We throw little balls of rice and left-over fried piranha at the edge of the shore, and the crocodile crawls out of the water to retrieve the food.
I snap more photos. The crocodile snarls. We gleefully scramble up the bank.
“Gracias, cocodrillo!” we shout back at the river. “Eres el Rey!”
He is the king.
We jump into the tent. Not much time to celebrate. The mosquitoes are coming.
Michael Ko: 206-515-5653 or email@example.com