Poker in Bolivia
After being talked into it by Dr. Bob Petres, we
for yet another trip to South America. Unlike Venezuela, this trip
threatened us to seriously question how this country boy
from West Virginia ever actually qualified to be a doctor!
From La Paz we took a military transport out to a little town called Rurrenabaque. Well, actually we flew to this dirt airstrip and then caught a truck to the town. While waiting for the military plane, we saw some officer go through a hazing where they dragged him off somewhere and showered him with alcohol. He was smiling, so it couldn't have been but so bad.
The hotel in Rurrenabaque had a pool! We were delighted. An American actually ran the place. We think the guy was actually someone who ran away with his kid illegally. Our best quess was Denver, but he said he was from Minneapolis. Nice guy and the kid was a treat too. It was, by far, the nicest hotel in the town.
Next day we headed down the banks of the muddy river where we climbed on board a motorized canoe. Now, Venezuela had canoes and we had already expected this to be harder. The scenery was very wild and we saw parrots flying in pairs (they mate for life and were beautiful in the air) and various other animals,
Chalalan Lodge was where we eventually ended. Chalalan was profiled in the March, 2000 issue of National Geographic. It is located in the heart of the Madidi National Park. The natives have built this lodge as a way to promote ecotourism. We had nice, comfortable cabins that were covered with mosquito protection. The lodge is located in a beautiful lake that is about 30-45 minutes from the river bank.
At Chalalan we had guides to show us the caimans (like alligators) and various birds. A night ride on a 4" canoe to go looking for caimans didn't seem like a good idea when we left the dock. There were caiman everywhere. Everywhere. Oh. The lake had pirahana too. At one point we got within inches of a caiman just under the surface of the water. If he had made a sudden move we would have all been in the water - with the caiman. Fortunately, everyone stayed calm and we made it back to the lodge where dinner was served and we played poker.
Bolivia rivals Idaho when it comes to potatos. This is a country that believes that potatos are meant to be served as a least three parts of your meal. Still, the food on our entire trip was very edible. Never great, but not bad either.
One of the days at the lodge involved a long day trip to a remote river. It ended up being about 8 hours. The guide was incredible. Supposedly he is the foremost authority on Bolivian birds. He could pick out birds in any number of ways and imitate them faithfully. It was one of the most remarkable things I have ever seen. He showed us rare jungle plants and army ants attacking a rival colony. Along the trip we ran into two ancient settlements, probably Mayan in origin. One settlement was close the confluence of three rivers. It was an impressive facility that has never been truly examined by archaeologists. It seems like it is a perfect thesis waiting from some graduate student, but it wouldn't be the easiest thing to get to.
After Chalan we headed to the Pampas, or lowlands. We took the boat back the Rurrenabaque where we were to meet the truck to take us the next camp. The night before, I had gotten into an argument with the guide. He wanted to leave at something like 5:30 in the morning on the canoe. I said 'no chance'. By this time the young Australian guide wasn't too thrilled with me, but we were calling the shots. We compromised on some later time. It turned out to be great. An earlier group (featuring the young couple who woke up Bill while having sex inches away from him through the thin cabin walls) had left earlier. They froze. It was cold, dark, and the skies were cloudy. By leaving a little later, we enjoyed a stunning day on the water with a nice sun on our face.
Madidi park has gotten a lot of attention because of a proposed dam on the river. The guide said that the damn was only going to cost $15M to build. I had already decided that this probably wouldn't even the do the feasability study, much less build the dam. Conservationists are worried about flooding millions of acres of valuable jungle land. When we got to the place where they want to build the dam, I was stunned. It probably isn't 50 feet across. This huge river comes pouring through this tiny gap in the mountains. I have never seen a place that was probably a better, easier fit for the dam. No question that the dam could be built and it might very well be the cheapest power plant ever built.
Should Bolivia build the dam? That is a tough one to answer. It would cause some real damage to the ecosystem. But it might bring power to this backwards region. Some of the people in the villages on the side of the river are living a lifestyle that is virtually unchanged in thousands of years. The average income in Bolivia is about $600/year and Bolivia has little in the way of natural resources of geography to help it economically. Cheap power could potentially help this area a lot. It is hard to look America's crowded cities, roads, and malls and then have the audacity to tell Bolivia that they can build a power plant to help people who have never seen electricity, a doctor, or nylon blanket to keep them warm. I came away unconvinced that we had the moral right to tell these people not build their dam.
The truck ride to the next camp was brutal. We were covered in dirt. The 'road' consists mostly of river silt several inches thick. You literally sink into the dust. Huge holes are testaments to how parts of it wash out when the rainy season comes. There is no such thing as a paved road. This fine dust works its way into everything. You've heard the phrase 'eat dust'? This is where it comes from. You breathe it in and it gets on your teeth. It should have been an omen.
When we got to the camp, we couldn't help but notice that the men were still building it. While we waited, they literally built our beds. We were the first visitors. I would suggest that it wasn't quite ready for us. The next day it was into a real motorized boat and we set off up river of the Amazon tributary. Little more than a drainage ditch, this place was filled with caiman. One time we got out to help move the boat when it got stuck on a sand bar. I think I held my breath the whole time. No chance that pirahana or caiman were more than a few feet from you. And some of these caiman were far bigger than what we had seen at Chalalan!
At one point we saw some famous pink dolphins. When the Andes rose, they cut the rivers off from the Pacific, causing some dolphin to become trapped. Over the years they evolved to live in fresh water and turned pink. Smaller than traditional dolphins, they still look just like small, pink dolphins.
After hours in the boat, we stopped and began a trek across some plain to some other body of water. This was where we were going to catch Anacona. Steve, Bill, and I, exhibiting superior intellect at this point in the trip, decided to sit down and enjoy the sun and the wind. Our fearless leader, Dr. Bob Petres, promptly went off with a stick so he could 'scare the Anaconda out'. Right. Oh yeah: there were plenty more caimans around too. While Bob traipsed off into the marsh, we looked around and found various bones of animals and other things. This was a place where stuff died. Often.
Sure enough, Bob came back with an Anaconda. It's the small one you see in some of the pictures. The large one was captured by a guide. They aren't poisonious, but they smell like raw sewage. They certainly have strong grips too.
More to come!