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.