To paths less trodden...

When I started this blog a few years ago in 2010, I was wrapping up my life in Australia, putting a painful few years where they belonged - behind me - and preparing for some crazy travel adventures and a new life in London. Now I'm older, slightly wiser. There's been more laughter than tears, incredible friendships revived and forged, successes, loss and grief, and a shedload of travel. I should have kept this blog up, but like many good intentions it fell by the wayside as life took over. Well, no time like the present! I hope you enjoy, be inspired, roll your eyes a little. And like I said when I kicked this blog off: "You know it's not going to be boring."

Saturday, January 30, 2016

Imagine a place where horses run down an endless beach at sunset and dawn; muscled surfers and wavy haired hippy girls take to the water with their boards searching for the ultimate wave; howler monkeys whoop soulfully at one another across the treetops; well-fed beach dogs play happily in the shallow surf next to long-lashed sunkissed toddlers; the supple-limbed practice yoga as the sun sinks into a golden ball and birds wheel and dive across a pink-hued sky; people gather with their cameras for sunset beers at Banana Beach at the end of another post-card perfect day, just before the sky lights up with a million stars and you can walk back along the beach by the light of the moon.

It’s hard to describe paradise, but one stroll down to the beach in Santa Teresa and you have found it.  Stunning uncrowded beaches, small and big waves, with a laid-back vibe, no rubbish and lots of beautiful people, this place is firmly on the surf trail and well worth a visit.  A long, palm-lined beach stretches from Malpais in the South to Playa Hermosa in the North, easily walkable if you want to avoid the cost of a quad bike (and the dusty dusty road) and can take the heat.  The place itself can’t be called a town – there are plenty of shops and restaurants scattered along the length but renting a quad (or ATV as they are locally known), pushbike or car is probably advisable if you want to really explore the place thoroughly.   If not, like me you can restrict yourself to certain sections and commute by beach, and after a couple of days it’s easy to navigate to where you need to exit the beach for your intended destination.

San Jose is not that far away by air – the bus/ferry route still takes a few hours – but Costa Rica now has flights direct from Canada and the UK meaning more tourists are discovering this little gem of a place.  Once a surfer haven, tourists are drawn by the relatively cheap hotel costs with a good selection of self-catering, stunning beaches, safety – there’s little crime here although leaving valuables alone on the beach or in a car isn’t a good idea – watersport activities, year round sunshine and unparalleled natural beauty.  It’s the perfect winter getaway for north americans who only have a couple of weeks and don’t want to spend hours on a plane.  Lots are up for sale and I imagine that in 10 years there will be bigger resorts, and the beaches will heaving, but for now the place has a distinctive surf/hippy vibe, similar to that of Byron Bay. 

Downsides – well there has to be one or two!  Hotels tend to accept cash only – you save a bit if you pay in the local currency of colones, but bring tons of cash either way.  If you pay by card you get clobbered with additional fees varying from 5% to 15%. The ATMS do work but in high season they run out of money and queues can be horrendous.  You can pitch up and find places to stay that aren’t bookable online, I imagine this is easier out of high season, but self-catering or a place that has a kitchen is recommended, otherwise any meal you get in a restaurant will set you back USD$5-10 at a minimum. 

The other downside is the dust.  This is thick, grey and gets into everything.  It will be in your clothes, hair, suitcase, shoes, electronics, eyes and ears… if you are on an ATV bring a bandana to put around your mouth and nose and wear sunglasses.  Basically you can’t escape it, so you learn to live with it!

If you ever hankered for some surf lessons then Del SoulSurf School, which is run by a former Israeli surf champion, is the place to try it!  A surf lesson will set you back USD45 for a local, and anywhere from USD50 to USD60 for non-locals or surf schools with a good reputation.  There are tons of them so do some research – but all I can say is Amit got me up and catching waves which is something I thought I would never do (albeit on the surfboard the size of a planet).  I’m still, admittedly, a lot more comfortable under the ocean, but I also rented a body board (about USD10/day) and the surf here is less powerful than Aus or SA, although people who aren’t strong swimmers should still be careful.  At low tide there are lots of rockpools – going a few mins walk north past Banana Beach there is one which is absolutely stunning for an early morning swim, and the resident lurcher will happily let you throw a coconut for him and give you a waggy-tailed, wet-nosed welcome. 

Santa Teresa looks West, and the sunsets are literally the most popular time to be on the beach.  It’s a celebration of beauty:  surfers rush into a beautiful molten gold/pink ocean to catch the final waves of the day, birds swoop down and form V’s as they glide off to their evening roots; howlers can be spotted – and if not spotted, heard – in the jungle lining the beach and above in the hills.  Friendly beach dogs will gaze adoringly at tourists who will throw 
sticks/coconuts or give them food, or a scratch whilst having a sunset beer and often steal your beach towel.  The sun launches itself through the sky in a golden ball towards the horizon – by 5.30pm in Winter it is all over and the bonfires start up and down the beach.  Keen surfers will stay in until it’s almost too dark to see.  Hermit crabs of all shapes and sizes start to come out in the thousands – quite a sight.  It was full moon whilst I was there, and the beach was eerily beautiful in the light of the moon and billions of stars.  

I stayed in some cabins up the hill (yes, more hills!) and I’m not going to put the name of the place down as my review won’t be entirely positive, but the owner is very sweet – sort of like a sad-faced Ben Kingsley.  I nicknamed it Fawlty Towers because like the show there seemed to be an endless stream of incidents, and every time the owner approached me with his habitual hang-dog expression – hands clasped together to beg for a favour – my thought was always ‘what now, Basil?!’  The first thing was that my cabin was quite rustic – wooden, parts of it definitely open to the elements – but had a mirrored door.  Yes, a mirrored door in the tropics – the kind of thing you might see in a police cell. This is great during a sunny day but when it’s night and the light is on inside you can see right through it!  After complaining I came home to find a stained tablecloth hammered in to act as a curtain.  During the course of the stay: 
  • someone got electrocuted in the shower (mild shock – anyone who has travelled knows the danger of running wires by a shower head!)
  • the water tank sprung a leak
  • some sort of bug was eating the cabins - leading to very early morning sprays by the owner using his Ghostbuster-looking proton pack which made a god-awful teeth-on-edge racket
  • he overbooked so had to evacuate his own room and sleep in a tent in the car park
  • he left the door to my room wide open after going in to fix something – at night – all the lights on – I was not happy about that at all!

The plus sides were the kitchen – meaning I could eat healthily and make my own breakfast and lunch – cutting down on costs.  He also gave me my ‘tax’ back when I left. 

I met the most amazing people!  We even had an Xmas Day Secret Santa at a beach bar.  All up it was a wonderful experience and I hope that one day in the not-too-distant future I will again get to run with dogs and swim in the surf on Santa Teresa’s endless beach.

Friday, January 1, 2016

It's a Bird's Life!

I’ve posted on Facebook about some of my daily adventures with the animals of Inti Wara Yassi.  I wanted to go a little more in-depth on my blog not onto to encourage other people to come and have this rewarding experience but to treasure the memories for myself.  

Spider Monkeys!

My first day I was assigned to the spider monkeys.  This involved a hike upwards into the jungle, carrying over 10kg of ‘api’ or porridge in a backpack.  I was in full waterproof gear, as it's very wet in November and it's pretty mucky.  Once there, we let the monkeys out of the cages and put them on runners by way of a carabiner.  The monkeys will take you to the runners they want to be on.  There are only 4 caged/leashed monkeys out of the whole troop in the spider park.  Then it’s time to clean the cages, and cut up fruit for their breakfast. They are fed in 3 bowls, one of which is hoisted to a tree so you have to be quite quick to winch it up and move before getting ‘api-head’!  These guys are clever and the opportunity to chuck api over a new volunteer is not lost on them.

Normally in the afternoon the volunteers take the monkeys into the jungle, and the whole troop comes along for the walk.  I was always careful – these are strong animals and whilst gentle if they don’t know you are very capable of attacking and causing injury, and working with wild animals is always unpredictable.  The volunteers have to be quiet and calm at all times, and use the names of the monkeys when talking to them.  Bibi landed on my head, and gripped on quite painfully – I think this was an act of dominance more than anything – and so I was very calm and tipped my head forward and told her to get off which she did eventually.  There’s plenty of opportunity for cuddles – some of the females have babies too – and whilst you aren’t really supposed to, the temptation to play with these gorgeous young creatures is overwhelming.  A lot of the females will climb on your lap and asked to be groomed, and if you are in any doubt where to scratch (or stop scratching), will grab your hand and firmly place it where they want it to go.  One of the females, Mikaela, had a small scab which was itching so she got me to scratch her arm.  If males came near me I moved away, as this can cause issues, not only from attack but from jealousy.  There’s a lot of undercurrents in the troop, things which have be to observed and respected – sometimes you interfere sometimes you don’t.  The balance of semi-tame animals against their normal wild instincts is very difficult and I’m no expert.

Needless to say it's bloody warm, there are billions of mozzies and I'd sweated so much in my waterproofs I could actually pour it out of my welly boot.  The hike into the forest was twice a day, and whilst I’m fit it was going to be too much for the 3 weeks I was there.  By the end of the first day my back and legs were killing me. As much as I loved being with the spiders I had to be re-assigned.  I was embarrassed to even ask, but I’m not the only one this has happened to – a few other volunteers have been in the same position and administration understand that it’s a difficult hike carrying a lot of weight.  So after some discussion I was re-assigned to birds, or Los Aves as it’s known.

Los Aves

If you want to take a look at the video I made of my adventures in Los Aves, click on this link

I spent over 2.5 weeks here, getting to know the animals.  There are 25 cages, arranged in a u-shape with the volunteer’s casa at the farthest end and the Aves volunteer hut in the middle.  Where possible, birds are either paired (in the case of the larger parrots) or you can have several in one cage, as with the case of some of the Amazonian parrot species.  The most we had in one cage was 6.
I’ve never had an appreciation of how clever birds can be – wily even.  They are stubborn, naughty, determined, sometimes grouchy, but they can be wildly affectionate and incredibly sweet too.  Again, I was always cautious – their beaks are bloody enormous and whilst I did get used to working with them and didn’t get any injuries, I have a huge respect for how much damage they can do.  They are hysterically funny – you can talk to them and engage with them and they enjoy the mental stimulation which in turn earns their trust.  When they answer you back it’s even more entertaining.

I worked with a young Bolivian vet called Bea, who should also be called the Bird Whisperer and I've never seen anything like it. She could cuddle Monchito like a baby - literally flip him onto his back and coo to him.  All the birds loved her and she was an expert on handling them – I learned a lot from her in my short time there. Unfortunately she also left the week I did and I know the birds are really going to miss her – she’ll be very hard to replace.

Some of the characters and species of birds in Los Aves are:

Blue fronted Amazon parrot - - one of the most common pet parrots and amazing talkers.  They would enjoy a game with me – say something then get me to repeat it.  This could go on for hours.  These guys would wolf-whistle regularly, especially when I was cleaning - sort of like walking past a construction site in London.

Mealy Amazon parrot – one of the larger birds. Carolina, my favourite, was one of these. They tend to be calmer birds than a lot of other species.  Carolina talks and likes her head scratched.  She can cry and laugh like a little girl – which can be creepy and alarming as you wonder what she’s been exposed to her in life, although one of the other volunteers told me it was her friend that taught Carolina to laugh. The crying once went on for about 20 minutes and was heart-rending.  Carolina was one of the older residents and I never found out her story, but she's going blind in one eye and I think she's been at CIWY a good while.

Yellow crowned Amazon Parrot – we had one of these called Frank who was an absolute terror, but a very cunning bird.  He and his compadre, Strings, escaped through a hole in the roof his cage - which had kindly been created by the macaws Rosa and Watson in full destructive mode - and they were out for about 3 days before Bea managed to get them back in.  They'd visited the fish restaurant and the hotel over the road and were having a right old adventure and judging by Frank's bad mood on return were not happy to come back and get locked up again.  Frank is a talker, Hola Dave! Hola Cabron! And plenty of wolf-whistles - even when he was trying to bite me through the bars.

Blue Headed Parrot (not known for talking) – Phily –another one of my favourites – is one of these.  Phily was quiet, but would chirp at me when I brought his food.

Military Macaw – the two we had were both quite aggressive so I kept my distance except when feeding them.  One of them is partnered with a smaller parrot called Roma and the other with a red and green macaw.

Red and Green macaw – also known as Papagallo – we had 5 in the park, all with their own very distinctive personalities.  I often broke up fights, and usually they’d get on a stick if I needed to move them.  None of them talked or were friendly enough for me to pet.  We had Loco, Rosa and Watson, Juanita, and one in cage 15 (cage 15 freaked me out as I heard they attacked a volunteer, so I never went in there if I could avoid it).

Blue and yellow macaw – there are many of these in the park: Toto, Pablo, Cleo, Destroyer, Monchito, Pacha, Hija and Matius, Marciel and Melina. My favourite, apart from Monchito, is Pacha.  He is a proper groover and loved it when you interacted with him, even though he didn’t talk.  Toto loves going to the volunteer house, walking into rooms and causing trouble (he woke a volunteer up one morning and she brought him back on the end of a broom still wearing her nightie), or going into the laundry basket and dropping all the clothes out onto the floor. I also heard he had a thing for bras.  Monchito is very affectionate and talks a lot, egotistical – gets very jealous if anyone or anything is getting attention other than him, and locked me into Carolina’s cage when I was inside petting her just to get his point across.  Pablo and Cleo are very old and very traumatised and missing most of their feathers where they have plucked them out.  There was one other parrot in their cage, but he died (I found the body!), it is thought from old age/natural causes. Marciel and Melina are independent and loved nothing more than to dig holes in the paths or hollow out trees. I liked to think of them like a modern power couple! Hija and Matias – or Los Terroristos or Beavis and Butthead as I liked to call them – spent much of their time trying to break into and destroy the volunteer hut and if they were on the ground outside would peck your wellies.  There was a hole in the hut near where we kept the cleaning brushes and they were always pulling them through onto the ground outside. Generally if you yelled ‘agua’ ('water!' or ‘feura!’ ('f-off!') at them they would back off, also screaming ‘agua!’ or ‘feura!’ which was pretty funny.  If yelling didn’t work I would just squirt them with water which they hated and protested loudly about.  They were like naughty teenagers and whilst amusing at times could be quite frustrating in their determination and there were times I wanted to wring their scrawny necks – something I think they were very aware of and probably had a right good old laugh about.  We always kept the volunteer hut locked – mainly because of them but also so that monkeys didn’t get inside and steal our stuff.

Mitred Parakeet

Blue crowned Parakeet

Marvan the toucan! This chap was a real character – he can’t talk and would often try to bite me but his beak is too soft to hurt. Sometimes he’d jab my welly boot if he was feeling feisty.  Like Monchito, he has a massive ego and secretly loves the attention and likes to be petted and adored.  When out of his cage he hops around like the King of the Jungle and is quite bolchy and threatening to other parrots who keep their distance and get the hell out of his way.  He makes a kind of akka-akka sound – especially when he is in a bad mood and trying to bite. If he was on a branch above me sometimes he would nibble the top of my head and I could nuzzle him.  He also liked to pick seeds off my leggings and eat them.  He sizes you up with a cock of his head, and he’s a hungry little bird – if left to his own devices he hoovers up any leftovers in the park like a starving Labrador!

White Eyed Parakeet – another one of my favourites – this little lass is called Poly. She doesn’t talk (although apparently they can be trained), but she likes a head tickle, and she puts her head side to side and closes her eyes whilst making little cheeping sounds, and fluff up her feathers around head, making her look like Orville, who was a puppet baby bird famous in the ‘80’s in the UK!

A Day in Los Aves

A typical day would start with collecting the food to take up to the birds.  Then we would open the ‘cortinas’ or curtains – tarpaulins which we drew across the cages each evening as birds like the dark to sleep.  As we entered the park I’d always yell ‘good morning’ which would be answered with a chorus of ‘hola’ and my favourite – wolf whistles.  I’m guessing a lot of these birds spent time as pets and it was one of the first things they were taught.
After this we had to collect the plates from each cage and scrub away any ‘kaka’ and food from the shelves.  Most of the birds would keep their distance during this activity although Frank would sometimes fly closer and would attack given the half a chance, and the papagallos would see it as an opportunity for escape and you have to keep an eye out, as well as avoiding the massive hormigas, or fire-ants, which would swarm the cages carting off left-over food.

As there were 24 cages of birds we’d do half and half with two volunteers, whilst one stayed in the hut and started preparing the vegetables. The plates would be cleaned and breakfast dished up.  One thing about birds –they love to eat.  In fact I could easily see how a parrot could get fat.  They are, however, very wasteful and tend to throw a lot of their food around (yay!) or on the floor, I swear sometimes they would look you in the eye and do this deliberately when they were being petulant.

I’d then go feed the small birds or parakeets (I don’t know the sub-species name) – these were in a cage near Balu (the bear).  There’s 10 of them, however one of them has a secret escape hole and we spent a lot of time trying to get her back in only to find her out again the next day.  Unfortunately monkeys like to eat them so it’s not safe for her to be out.  After cleaning out the old food and washing the bowls, we’d put carrots, bananas, cucumber and beans on branches of the trees inside the cage like Xmas decorations.

Back in Los Aves it was time to let the big birds out.  Not all the birds were allowed out as they do fight, but generally Melina and Marciel, Rosa and Watson, Loco, Pacha, Monchito, Toto and Max and Roma were let out, sometimes Juanita and Destroyer.  You have to keep your eye on them all and break up fights with water.  Monchito would normally wander around after you seeking attention, Toto would head straight for the volunteer house to cause trouble and the macaws would stalk up and down the tops of cages like gang lords, or try to open locked cages.  Loco would try to let Juanita out, mainly so he could torment her, and a lot of time you are thinking up ways to counteract any parrot plots before they hatched - sort of like an anti-parrot-terrorism-squad.  I’ll be honest here –it’s not as easy to outsmart a parrot as it first appears.  It's certainly entertaining.

I didn’t have a lot of down time though.  Gaps were spent cleaning the Tortuga pools - we had small turtles and a big pond full of Californian turtles - or raking up leaves in the garden and dumping the rubbish using a wheelbarrow, and then we’d clean the cages at midday, doing half each whilst the other volunteer was on lunch.

Californian turtles

I also tried to get Jorge, our blind tortoise, to eat once a day.  She would wave her head in the air and open her mouth at that point I would try to shove as much banana or papaya in as I could – without getting my fingers nipped as her mouth is quite hard.  She could gulp down an entire banana in one go! She was a darling, although you had to watch her if you let her out.  Once I lost her and was terrified she had got out onto the road, so initiated a search with 3 kids and 1 bored teenager. Turns out she was slap bang in the middle of the park about 10 feet from where I thought we'd lost her – we must have walked past her 20 times – but she’d cleverly disguised herself as a rock.  

There were other giant tortoises in the park, they’d lumber up to you looking for food or follow you around as you clean cages.  One thing I never realised is that tortoises have very pretty and endearing eyes and can very effectively communicate their desires - which is mainly 'give me food'.  They are intelligent animals and can move like the clappers – much faster than you’d think – and can cover a lot of ground.  You can tell the male and female apart only by feeling under the shell – females are concave and males are flat.  I think we had red and yellow foot tortoise.  I had to move them occasionally out of cages or off the road and would guess that the heaviest was 8kg – males were definitely grumpier than the females (and would grunt and hiss to show their disdain).  As far as I could tell, they were only happy in human company if it meant food, apart from Jorge who was a darling and liked her head scratched. 

The day would end around 5pm.  We’d get dinner ready then attempt to get all the free birds back in their cages.  As, like dogs, birds seem to live for their stomachs, once you started calling ‘comida!’ ('dinner!') and they could see the food go in the cage they’d make their own way in.  Matius and Hija were always so easy and they’d break landspeed records to get back in their cage at feeding time.  Marciel and Melina were always the hardest – Melina especially.  Marciel would go on a stick, and I was really proud of myself when I had to use a 20ft long bamboo stick to get him out of a tall tree and actually got him to climb on it.  I couldn’t walk with the bloody thing though and had to get Tomas to help me get him back in the cage.  Melina has been known to spend the night outside her cage and will not come on a stick, but will walk under her own steam. 

Once dinner is served, curtains are pulled shut and we say goodnight.

Inti Wara Yassi

I’m not going to write a big overview of Inti Wara Yassi itself, but would encourage people to visit the website instead: I think everyone’s experience differs so much and I am not an expert in animal conservation by any means, nor do I fully appreciate the challenges that must go into sustaining a place like CIWY.   It is an amazing experience, to be able to get one on one with capuchins, spider monkeys, coatis and birds, or even jaguars, ocelots, bears and pumas if you can be there long enough, and not all the sites are next to a busy road like Parque Machia – some are way in the jungle and would offer a totally different experience.  Vets or people with degrees in animal management – perhaps people who are looking for some practical experience whilst doing a course -  are desperately needed, but if you can only spare 2 weeks, all hands are welcome.  The longer you spend, the more hands on time you’ll have with the animals, but a lot of the work is cleaning cages.  Appreciate the risks – don’t stick your fingers in cages (one volunteer lost the tip of his finger and had to be operated on) and be prepared that even with taking extreme caution around the animals you might get bitten or scratched.  There’s other dangers too – insects, wire and wood poking out everywhere, and in fact most of the injuries I sustained were from the cages themselves.  It’s not for the faint-hearted and it’s better if you have a certain level of fitness and no major injuries.   You work in very hot conditions too, and it takes – I’d say – a good week to get acclimatised.    You certainly lose weight and become very fit!! 

Bring:  wellies (or buy them in Santa Cruz or Cochabamba), a decent length poncho or rainjacket with a hood, clothes you are happy to bin afterwards, cash in Bolivianos - the ATM in town works for some people and not for others. 

Villa Tunari and the Chapare mountain range

I didn’t stay in the volunteer house but in the hotel over the road which had a pool, my own room and a massive fan.  I didn’t have hot water but it was secure, mainly due to the resident 6 dogs which would go mental every time someone neared the gate.  They still went mental at me and I stayed there 3 weeks.  I’d just stand still and generally they’d bark madly, sniff me a bit then either want a head pat or just wander off.  The nice one got hit by a truck a week after I arrived which is heartbreaking and all too common with the busy road.  The lady who runs it, Sonia, is very motherly and a real darling – she told me I was one of the quietest guests she’d had!  Mainly because after work I was too knackered to do anything but sleep. The accommodation was £7/night which included breakfast, however I always ate at the volunteer cafe in the park as I was addicted to Bonita's delicious banana pancakes!  You could also eat very cheaply in town - £1 for a huge place of rice, meat and veggies.  

Please do not hesitate to contact me if you want more information, using the comments form below.

Monday, December 14, 2015

Villa Tunari, Adventures on the Road, The Traveller’s Paradox

Villa Tunari is a town set in the Chapare mountain range.  Wide rivers, lush steaming valleys and the close, looming mountains make this a place of immense beauty.  The town is growing fast in the way that many areas of the third world are now.  Once bypassed by the Cochabamba-Santa Cruz road, the road now thunders straight through it, along with a consistent barrage of trucks and cars and motorbikes.  There is also a newer, smaller road cutting through Parque Machia – the home of Inti Wara Yassi animal refuge where I have been working as a volunteer for the past 3 weeks- right to the coca-growing town of Copacabana 5km away.  Rumours abound about why the Bolivian government built it, but presumably to make the transportation of drugs in and out of the region easier.  However it has had a devastating effect on the park, making animal management is a lot more difficult.

Weather is crazy here this time of year. The thunder rumbles in the distance, like a warning growl from some predatory animal deep in its throat, building momentum as they creep closer. When the storms hit they are non-forgiving – torrential rain, thunder echoing, booming in succession off the surrounding mountains as loudly as if being in a room of cannons firing in succession, the lightening white-blue and intense, waking you up in the middle of the night through drawn curtains, like someone had sneaked a cheeky photo with the flash on whilst you were sleeping.


I left Villa Tunari at 6am yesterday.  It was a stunning morning, clear – so the tops of the Chapare mountains were reflecting the rising sun.  I walked to the taxi, braving the bridge with its loud clatter as the huge lorries slam past, inches from you, tearing the breath from your throat and forcing you to turn towards the river with your eyes squeezed shut.  It’s a shared taxi – I needed 4 to get to Santa Cruz – a hatchback stationwagon - and I was sat in the back with my feet dangling over the boot edge, watching Villa Tunari disappear in front of me in a wide vista.  It’s something I’ll never forget – the mountains crowding purple, orange and grey – bruised colours contrasting with the green steaming forest and waking sky of pastel blue, spread out of in front of me like a painting.  The Chapare range is heartbreakingly beautiful, like something dropped from Tolkien, and it was one of those moments that will encapsulate in memory forever, so even in old age it will suddenly pop into my mind like stepping into a snapshot of time – the wind blowing in my face, the smell of the clear morning after the night’s storm but with the occasional waft of diesel, the impossible immensity of the mountains and lushness of the jungle, all of it loaded with promise of adventure, beckoning me to stay, to explore, to experience more.

The second taxi ride was more interesting.  It's not unusual to have 4 people in the open boot with their feet hanging over the edge, 3 in the middle and 2 in the front (not including the driver).  Shoved up in the front next to a young man, I realised that the driver was a wannabe F1 racer, overtaking trucks and cars in the face of oncoming traffic, zipping into narrow gaps then slamming on the brakes inches from a bumper.  The fact that he probably travelled that section of road twenty times a day did not give me comfort.  I had to grip the dodgy passenger door shut with one hand and peeked through my fingers of the other.  I noticed the chap next to me was asleep – asleep! – then I realised he must have deliberately induced himself into a catatonic state to avoid the terror unfolding through the windscreen. Even scarier was that the driver kept his finger on the radio whilst he tried to find a decent channel, the music all so teeth-clenchingly bad that when he found a station playing the Backstreet Boys I almost begged him to leave it on. Most Bolivian music seems to be yelling random names of towns and countries out, drawing out the last syllables: ‘La Paaaaaaaz!’, ‘Cochabambaaaaaaaaaaaa!!!’, ‘Peruuuuuu!!!’ as if the artist were letting everyone know up and coming tour venues.  It’s slightly more melodic than the awful Patagonian music you got on buses when I was here last, which was always up at ear-splitting level, banging out of tinny speakers during the middle of the night, clearly to keep the driver awake whilst he frantically chewed coca leaves and hurtled the bus around the kind of bendy mountain roads that could slide away at any second.  It’s funny how, when you are travelling in these kinds of places, you put your life in the hands of people that probably got up one day, decided that they were going to drive a bus or taxi, and just did just that without taking a test in vehicles that are held together with hope and prayer and on roads that are the most dangerous on the planet, populated by other equally precarious drivers.  It’s all part of the experience, but every time I get home from a trip part of me wonders how I made it back in one piece, and whether one day my luck will run out.


Bolivian life flashing by on the roadside. Bits of shredded plastic bags caught in trees and fences resemble brightly coloured confetti.  Rubbish strewn randomly everywhere.  Should a virus wipe out the human race this would be our sad remnant in the third world, plastic-strewn roadsides and cities – ugly reminders of westernised products in an impoverished country that doesn’t have the resources to dispose or recycle, or the education or forethought to consider it a priority of their day to day life. 


Construction is bits of wood, rusted corrugated iron, flapping plastic, ugly brick and concrete, everything mouldy-black and decaying from the relentless tirade of rain, sun and insects.  Houses have no windows, they are literally open to the elements, and everything looks half finished.  The greenery looms, lush and wild and vibrant and alive, ready to pounce and take over the second someone walks away from their domicile. The countryside is dotted with ruins – lumpy shapes in the undergrowth where nature took over where man left off.  Animals tied up to trees, or bits of wood stuck in the ground.  Limping dogs, some angry and threatening – chasing cars and motorbikes - some that look with scared eyes that want to trust but have known too well a raised voice, the smack of a hand or feel of a boot.  Yet it doesn’t stop them dashing across roads in front of traffic, nor becoming smeared lumps of fur and red when their recklessness doesn’t pay off.  I saw way too many furry bodies between Cochabamba and Santa Cruz.  Children run out by the side of the road too in various states of dress, some as young as 4 or 5 clutching naked toddler siblings by the hand, waving or staring in wonder as they catch a glimpse of my blond hair as it speeds past.  Again they stand too close on the sides of the dusty highways, barefooted with Pixar or Disney t-shirts ripped and dirty, the smile of Elsa from Frozen looking more like a rictus-grin than the promise of a happy ending - inches from death on the newly tarmacked super highway with no speed limit and crazy coca-stimulated drivers – another aspect of survival they now have to deal with along with poverty and disease and a minimum working age of 10.  


Trucks adorned with incongruous pictures for the Bolivian setting- lions against an alpine backdrop, blonde apple-cheeked children with sparking blue eyes, a Japanese woman with a parasol, Jesus on a white horse!  Things like Richard II plastered across a windscreen.  Children peek out from under tarpaulins of speeding trucks.  Motorbikes carrying 4 or more people, toddlers with no helmets being held under one arm whilst the driver talks on his phone with the other.  Bolivian women, pigtails flying, casually sitting sidesaddle at 60km/h, clutching canvas bags overflowing with mangoes or papaya. 


I had the same experience in Borneo this year, horrified at a land of ancient forest that once teemed with life levelled to palm oil plantations and the cruelty of the wild pet trade that is in full force – species on the brink of extinction, live crocodiles being sold enmasse to the Chinese for the handbag trade because they aren’t endangered – the lack of compassion and logic in the face of poverty.  Why is it the lands that have so much also have so little?  I travel to experience all of this, to see all of this.  I sidestep around the harsh reality of these people’s lives, complain and judge when there is lack of modern amenities like fast wi-fi and hot showers on Facebook yet feel saddened by the way the world is becoming horribly generic, cultures and tribal traditions slowly losing their traction as new generations trade them in for mobile phones and scramble to catch up with the modern world.  Feel heartbreak for the animals that are suffering from loss of habitat, wild creatures like monkeys that should never hear the monster trucks that roar through what was once a jungle paradise, their world teetering on the edge of the point of no return, and whether it will vanish quickly, like a whisper into the wind, and we’ll wake up one morning and it will just be gone.  

Wonder whether in 100, 200, 1000 years, those Chapare mountains will still look as indomitable and mysterious, whether the world they see will have changed beyond recognition with dried up rivers thanks to global warming, shitty sprawling half-built brick towns and a society that struggles with culture identity and a legacy of extinct animal species.  Or whether nature will have reverted itself, the green taking over it all, the forests resonant with the happy singing of Capuchins, rivers thundering over rocks, landslides covering roads and rusting relics of cars and trucks, plastic and non-degradable human waste slowly overlaid by rotting foliage.  Part of me longs for the latter, hypocritical though it may be as I go back to my own cozy concrete jungle next month.  I want to be able to visit these places of beauty and nature in the third world and find them untouched, find them unlike anywhere else on the planet, keep them safe from modern development because I love animals and modernisation is killing them and their habitat.  


It’s hard to reconcile this paradox.  I will travel back to these places though, cry inside as I see the development and also feel grateful that now more people have medicine, running water, a roof over their heads, the chance for education and employment.  I can only watch, wait, and do what I can where I can, hence coming back to VillaTunari for a second time, to feel closer to what is really happening in this part of the world, and to experience the bittersweetness of it all, a feeling that lingers long after I am home, sat at my computer screen in cold rainy London with rain sleeting against the windows, dreaming of the Chapare mountains and the happy chatter of monkeys. 

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Cochabamba, Bolivia

I had one afternoon and evening in Cochabamba in the Bolivian Andes, flying in from Sao Paulo over some breath-taking mountains – probably the Chapare range which I would bus through again the next day.  My last memory of it from late 2002 was that it was a small, dusty city, and I transited through the bustling bus station on my way to Villa Tunari.  I remember staring in horror at a jam-packed cage of live guinea-pigs by my feet, which is an Andean dish (hopefully a tradition that is on its way out as I haven't seen any this trip but avoid 'cuy' on any menu in South America), and wondering whether to set them all free.  I would have probably been arrested and the poor animals would no doubt have scurried under the wheels of buses only to be squished to death, so common sense did win out – but at the time I couldn’t wait to get out of there. 

Not so now – fast forward to 2015 and the city is transformed into a modern, buzzing hub.  Surrounded by the Tunari range of mountains meaning there are jaw-dropping views no matter where you look, it is high and dusty.  It has plenty of modern shops and restaurants although an alarming amount of fast food stores, and traditional Bolivian dress is on the way out, replaced by tank tops and daisy-duke cut off shorts.  In fact, considering how conservative Bolivia was when I was last here 13 years ago, the transformation in fashion is remarkable.  Linked no doubt to the digital and mobile age swinging in with force – everyone here is addicted to their phone just like everywhere else on the planet – modesty has been thrown to the wind and the shops are full of teeny tiny outfits and Chinese tack.  Someone told me the Bolivian government has sold out and is in negotiations with the Chinese worth billions for lithium deposits as well as all the goods coming in.  No doubt the Chinese are taking plenty of live wild animals back with them too for the pet trade.

I stayed at Hotel Aranjuez, a gorgeous hotel with tinkling fountains and tiled, leafy verandahs.  It was originally a mansion home and it’s full of old furniture and artworks.  The staff are friendly and wonderful.  The room could have done with a fan and the breakfast was mediocre including strong cold coffee you could have stood a spoon up in, but it’s in a good location and safe to walk around the area.

Just down from the hotel is La Muela Del Diablo restaurant (meaning tooth of the devil), set inside a pretty courtyard and with a decent menu.  Opposite is the palace and I do wish I’d been there when it was open as the grounds looked really pretty and very European. There’s actually a ton of decent restaurants in Cochabamba now – many around the Recoleta (through the arch), but it’s not the food that’s worth going for – it’s the sunsets.  As I strolled through town down to the Cathedral the sky looked like someone had got buckets of pure gold, red and midnight blue paint and splashed them across the canvas of the sky.  The mountains all around gleamed tones of ochre, and Cochambamba’s own Jesu was silhouetted against a sky that was on fire. 


There’s quite a lot to see in Cochabamba.  The main Plaza is buzzing with locals, dogs, tourists and a few drug dealers, and gearing up for Xmas. 


Parts of the city still have that colonial feel, particularly around Calle Espana which has a few interesting looking bars, and towards the Cathedral.  You still see indigenous dress, particularly around the market (which is dodgy so I didn't linger), but I thought Cochabamba is a perfect blend of old and modern Bolivia, and a city I wished I’d had more time in.


As I strolled back to my hotel, I was lucky enough to come across some Caporales dancers.  This is a happy dance which originated (apparently) in La Paz in 1969.  Dancers wear brightly coloured costumes, with bells and hats.  Again it’s incongruous with Bolivian conservatism because the women’s costumes are made up of panties, short mini-skirts, shiny tan tights and high-heeled shoes meaning plenty of bum and leg is showing, but it’s lovely to watch and reminiscent of carnival in Rio as the dancers are in sections, and move slowly down the street, accompanied by live music and plenty of drums.  The origins of the dance are interesting, apparently inspired by the Caporal who was usually a mixed race overseer of African slaves, and wore a hat and boots and held a whip.  The dance apparently is an important part of the cultural identity of Afro-Bolivian ethnic people. It also has religious connotations as the dance is for the Virgin of Socavon (patroness of miners) with the dancer promising the Virgin that they will dance for 3 years of their life.