Friday, June 22, 2007

Alone in the Jungle

Boy, this is sure an adventure. Tonight I should have been in a romantic cabana in Samaipata, showing my husband Bolivia for the first time. But due to flight delays, he didn’t make it. And rather than come for a hurried two-day visit, we decided to postpone it a month or so until he had more time.

Of course, I was disappointed, after putting in so much planning and expectation. It would be too sad to follow through on our planned trip alone. And being home would just remind me that he should have been there as well.

So I decided to get out of town and travel in the other direction, to Buena Vista. While Samaipata is situated on one end of the Amboro National Park, Buena Vista is at the opposite end.

I found a hotel mentioned in both my guidebooks, promising 200 hectares of primary forest, a bird-watching tower, and guided wildlife walks. Sounded great.

After work I took a shared taxi for the two hour trip to Buena Vista. There is room for 5 passengers – two in front and three in back. When I saw a Japanese couple approach the car at the same time I did, I thought they were Japanese tourists going to visit the park. Only after I got in the car did I see two more young Japanese in the back.

It turns out they are all students in Santa Cruz and come from the village of San Juan, which is one of the local Japanese colonies. Similar to the Mennonites, the Germans, the Russians, among the variety of ethnic colonies, they have maintained their language and culture since coming year during the war in the 1940s.

The girl next to me told me her father is a mix of Bolivian and other nationalities, but her mother is Japanese. The other three appeared to be pure Japanese. They played with their cell phones and mp3 players and spoke in alternating Japanese and Spanish.

After we got to Montero, about an hour from Santa Cruz, the traffic disappeared and the road became dark, with few settlements along the way and no streetlights. I looked up at the clouds moving across the half moon.

The driver let me off at the motorcycle taxi stand on the central plaza of Buena Vista. There, for $1.25, I got a ride to my hotel.

It took no time at all to get out of town and soon we were riding down an isolated dirt road, stars twinkling above us in the striated sky. I breathed in the fresh air and tried to enjoy the nature. But I found it pretty uncomfortable riding on the back of a stranger’s motorcycle, on a sandy, dark road, in the middle of nowhere. At any point, he could turn off the engine, pull a knife or gun on me, steal all my stuff or worse, and leave me there on the rural road. Unfortunately, those are the kinds of scenarios that Nicaragua put in my head. I tried to reassure myself that Bolivians are nicer, this is a small town, and the whole posse of motorcycle taxi drivers saw me go away with him.

Unbelievably, we turned off the dirt road onto an even smaller road, rough, rutted, and overgrown with grass. Overhead, trees united to form a low arch. Only a small wooden placard labeled “Forest and Fauna” assured me we were actually heading in the right direction.

After what seemed like a long ride, but was probably 15-20 minutes, we reached some cabanas, but they were dark and look abandoned.

“There is no one here,” the driver said. He pulled over as if to turn around.

“Go a little further please,” I asked. “Let’s see if there is an office.”

Finally, we spotted a light. I could see a man without a shirt inside. Were these guests? Was this a private home? It didn’t look much like an office. But it was a human, so we approached the door.

“It’s pretty late,” the unshaven, 50ish man said as he opened up the door, buttoning up his shirt. “We go to bed early around here.”

I told him I’d called the Santa Cruz office and told them I’d be arriving around 8.

“You know we’re closed,” he said.

“No,” I replied. “I thought I’d made a reservation. Do you have room for one?”
“Yeah, sure, come on in.”

I paid the motorcycle driver and wondered how I’d ever find transportation back into town.

Robin, who spoke to me in English, became more friendly, offering me supper, and when I refused, got me some boiled water.

“How long have you been closed?” I asked.

“Forever,” he said. “There are no tourists here with Evo Morales.”

I’d read that Buena Vista was becoming part of the “gringo trail.” If anything, I worried I was going to someplace too touristed. But it seemed I was the only guest.

“It’s OK with us though,” he said. “We have scientific projects that keep us busy. And if some people come and we’re able to make some money from that, it’s good. Mostly though, we have scientists visiting us.”

He showed me to my cabana, pointing out a wooden observation tower on the way. “If you don’t plan to sleep right away, you can do some moonwatching there.”

One of my guidebooks had listed this as a luxury hotel. When I called to make a reservation, they told me they had a swimming pool, gym and bar/restaurant. So the simple twin beds and disheveled facilities came as a surprise to me. However, it’s perfectly comfortable. I have good light, good screens, a normal toilet and shower, warm
water and a fan.

Nevertheless, I feel myself very much in the jungle. On one wall I have a unique moth, on another a large spider, and on a windowsill some type of frog or toad. All three have been motionless for a very long time. Several bugs are pressed against the screen, approaching the light, and sometimes I hear them bang against it. The jungle is full of noises – crickets chirping, the coo of some nocturnal birds, and the sounds of an animal I don’t recognize at all. Sometimes I hear the cracking of branches. Since I know the only couple here is going to bed, it has to be an animal. Maybe they are the monkeys Robin mentioned.

I took Robin’s suggestion and went up for a little moonwatching. It was pretty sitting at an elevation, looking out over palm fronds and the shadows of tropical trees, and up at a dark sky brilliant with the light of stars, a half moon and the illuminated, moving clouds.

This doesn’t seem to be much of a place for resting. I was given the choice to get up at 5 for breakfast with Robin, or to come by at 7:30 for a more complete breakfast with his wife Sonya. I chose 7:30. Probably on Sunday I’ll get myself up at dawn to try the bird and monkey exploration walk they offer.

My plan was to head to town tomorrow and to see what kind of tours the local travel agencies offer. Then I did something unusual for me – I appreciated what I have at the moment. I’m already in the jungle, surrounded by animals, and all alone. What do I need a tour for? I should enjoy and explore the place I am. So while I’ll probably have to head to town for food tomorrow, I mostly plan to spend the day in the jungle. And I’m looking forward to it.

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