Tuesday, August 21, 2007


On Sunday, I continued my adventure in Villa Tunari. I hired a taxi to take me to the Carrasco National Park. I’d heard that the Chapare region was Bolivia’s prime cocaine-growing area, but only on the way to the park did I realize it. My driver stopped on the way to buy a bag of coca leaves (for 25 cents). We passed by small village households actively drying coca leaves in the sun in their front yards. When I stopped to take a picture and said hello, I received a gruff response.

Conservation International implemented what seems to have been a successful project, training locals to serve as guides in the park. Visitors are taken on an easy 2.5 kilometer loop. First, we crossed a river in a cable car, which was an exciting way to enter. Then we walked along a path, looking at jungle wildlife along the way. Our destination was two caves – one that held a variety of bats, the other the unique guacharo bird. This nocturnal bird is very aggressive and at the sound of our approach, they began to squack, filling the dark cave with audible anger. Our guide, Juan, told us that the man who originally found the cave thought there were wild cats inside. He was so afraid by the sounds that he didn’t approach too closely, but came back the next day with someone else.

Villa Turani is known for its fish – fresh and delicious from the many surrounding rivers and streams. I enjoyed a piece of surabi, fresh from a streetside grill. Then I went back on the same mode of transport that had served me so well the previous day.

But this time it didn’t go so well. I should have been warned when I saw the driver picking his zits in the mirror when I entered. My arrival didn’t affect his work. Once we started moving, I had the strong sense something was wrong. He leaned forward and gripped the wheel in a strange manner. His head seemed somehow to be loose. He frequently bent over, and drove with only one hand. It took me a while to realize he was typing text messages onto a cell phone while he drove. His reactions to things in the road seemed impaired and when we stopped at a checkpoint, he yawned and stretched.

I thought he was going to fall asleep. I tried to reassure myself. Maybe he’s missing something upstairs, I thought. I’d had several similar drivers in Cochabamba. Maybe he’s worked long hours. But when I asked him, he said this was his first route of the day. Night was soon to fall and we were driving on mountainous roads. If he was having this much trouble in the daylight, how was he going to manage in the dark?

He illegally picked up another passenger on the side of the road and put him next to me. It seemed to be an acquaintance and he told this man he “was dying of sleep.” This passenger pulled out a bag of coca leaves and they both started to chomp. That, plus the music and the conversation seemed to help. But I still wasn’t reassured. And an hour after departing, when we reached the first place with some civilization (a police checkpoint), I got out. Even though it was already dark, I’d preferred to take my chances flagging down another bus than to risk flying over a cliff with this guy.

Luckily, I found another option quickly – a private citizen with a minivan who’d been vacationing with his son. He took passengers back to cover his gas expenses. He was an excellent driver and I could pass the rest of the journey relaxed, breathing in the scent of the coca leaves the elderly man next to me was busy chewing. It smelled like the dried piles of leaves I used to jump into at Halloween as a child.

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