A quick author note to everyone reading this. I know that I haven’t been updating frequently. It is very overwhelming here and I have been having a lot of trouble recently with keeping my motivation up. Speaking Spanish and conforming to cultural norms is exhausting. Thank you for sticking with me on the journey! I should be updating more frequently now that I am home from the jungles and getting settled into school. On to the writing.
On the first day of my jungle adventure I wake up at 5 in the morning to get ready for a trip that is supposed to be off at 5:30. Bolivians are not a prompt people generally, so needless to say I am picked up at 6:30. However as soon as we all converge, we’re off! 5 days in the jungle! Adventure at its finest!
There are a lot of us going, so I’ll do some quick descriptions. First there are Ernesto and Veronica, a married Bolivian couple I’d guess to be in their 50’s or maybe 60’s. Ernesto is muscular, an ex-gymnast, grey haired, and handsome, with a sense of humor that I am sure is hilarious if you speak Spanish. Which I do not. Veronica is thin in all ways: thin lipped, thin armed, thin haired. She wears high wasted pants and polyester shirts and I find her excellent and hilarious. They bring their two dogs. Ernesto and Veronica’s guests are also on the trip. They are a short haired wisecracking mother named Andy and two beautiful identical twins from the California desert. The twins are 18 years old and named Theodora and- wait for it- Augusta. This produces some superb moments of Augusta confusion that I wish someone filmed. We end up calling her Gus and her sister Teddy.
The third family on the trip is in some way related to the family I am staying with. The father is named George (Spanish pronunciation- Hor-hay). His two children are the ones I am riding in the car with. They are Hiara, a lovely and quiet 13 year old girl, and Mateo, a hilarious stick-thin 16 year old boy. The most hilarious thing about him is that his English mostly consists of shouting “WHAT’S UP!” and smacking himself in the chest every time he sees me.
What I can gather about our trip in the beginning is this: We will spend one day camping, one day in a city called Apollo, another day camping, and then do some driving and maybe some camping I don’t really know don’t worry about it. Plans are clearly flexible here.
I spend the first morning and afternoon of the journey with George, Mateo and Hiara. Mateo and Hiara are in the back of the massive green pickup truck while I sit in the front with George. I sleep and watch the countryside while George chain smokes Derby cigarettes out the window. We listen to James Taylor in the car. This is a little weird, especially because we listen to each album like three or four times and no one ever sings.
The country is beautiful. We go from desert flatlands to high, rolling hills, which are empty except the occasional tiny village or giant heard of llama. The kids teach me the names for farm animals in Spanish. I am pleased with my progress. All the different cars stop for lunch on a huge hill. The American girls drink beer while I look for rocks to bring home to my little sister. There is a massive statue of Jesus on top of the hill. This strikes me as odd because there is nothing else for hundreds. There are no trees, no houses, nothing but Derby cigarette butts and stray dogs. It’s rather lonely country.
The drive continues for hours. Hours. Hours and hours and hours. The drivers have short range walkie-talkies and they bark directions in Spanish every few minutes. I am bored out of my mind. Eventually we descend out of the highlands and into flatter, warmer country. It’s not the jungle but it is something. There are Eucalyptus trees. The smell reminds me of Los Angeles and I am suddenly, sharply lonely. This loneliness is interrupted by our car almost hitting a cow in the middle of the road.
I realize at some point that the cars are slowing down and taking distinctly different paths than the main road. We’re getting somewhere! Yes! I’ll be able to walk soon! We get lower and lower, slowing down, taking curves slowly, and finally stop. I throw the door up and jump down in excitement. We’re here! Camping!
We are all parked in a field. Not a gentile, grassy New England field. A hay field. There are cows chewing on the hay. There are donkeys tied to trees. They stare at me and I stare at them. One of the donkeys farts. This is the exact moment when I come to the realization that camping in Bolivia is not like camping in the States.
We couldn’t make it to the campsite we were hoping for, George explains to me. Ernesto is going to ask these farmers if we can camp here. He seems genuinely excited about this idea. The American girls come up to me and start chirping about Did We Bring Ground Pads and Do You Need Some Toilet Paper. I excuse myself for a moment and pace the site. Only after a full walk around do I accept the conclusion that we are, in fact, going to be sleeping on hay. Thrilling.
The group sets up camp. Gus, Teddy, Andy and I set up our tent while Veroinca makes dinner. George smokes and unloads the truck with his kids. As the only person without a group I am a little purposeless. I chat with Andy about her aspirations to become a travel writer but pretty soon she’s called away to Do Something Very Important With The Adults so I take one of the two dogs out to a different field and we play fetch till it gets dark.
Dinner is a huge bowl of spaghetti and sauce. Dessert is marshmallows, which I like a lot. I watch the stars. There’s no light pollution here, and it’s another hemisphere, so I have fun making up names for the different constellations. There’s Ball of Yarn, Kitten in a Factory, and Miley Circus, just to name a few. Then it’s lights out. I curl up in a ball in my tent and think about absolutely nothing till I fall asleep.
The next day is all driving. We listen to Abba in Spanish. I didn’t know that was a thing nor did I want to. Welcome to global culture I guess. My legs, back, arms, stomach, butt, and every other part of my body with muscles cramp and ache at the same time. I would be hungry but the smell of cigarettes keeps me feeling slightly sick enough to ignore it. Lucky me this is the part of the journey where we really get into the jungle.
The trees are jungle trees. The rivers are jungle rivers. Picture a movie about explorers in the Amazon. Basically that but without the cool outfits. There are butterflies everywhere in every color and pattern. They range from the size of my pinky finger nail to the size of my head. Sometimes we have to stop because there’s a waterfall we need to look at. Sometimes we drive right across rivers because there are no bridges. The sun is clear and strong. Everything is green. I feel like I’m in a movie except all we’re doing is driving in silence which is a terrible plotline.
Finally, after the sun has set, we arrive in Apollo. It’s a good sized town in the middle of what I can only describe as a bare stretch of dirt. There are teens walking barefoot in the street, drinking sodas and speaking in slang. The doors are all painted bright colors. Every shop is selling the same thing: Huge racks of rainbow candy, drinks, mystery meat, ice cream, loafs of bread, plastic jewelry, and once you’re inside, a little bit of actual food. We stop at a gas station with the cutest puppy in the world like PROBABLY ACTUALLY THE CUTEST PUPPY IN THE WHOLE WORLD. The girls and I are very excited.
We drive on. The adults have been discussing how we’re going to be staying at “a hotel”. I guess I have been picturing a Motel 6 with carpeted hallways and little bars of soap because that’s just what I associate with road trip hotels. Wrong. After driving for a few minutes through the down, we pull up at a very dark gate with vines growing up it. Super architectural and very cool. Perhaps we are making a pit stop, I think. Perhaps we are entering a different section of town.
The gate swings open. A nun appears inside the gates. A nun. I realize suddenly that this is a convent. We are staying in a convent. Another nun shows me to my room, which I will be sharing with Gus. She is wearing a wimple and a habit (are those the same thing? What even are they exactly? How do you fasten them? I should have asked!). I am so struck by the convent-ness of our surroundings I forget how to speak Spanish for a while. There are pictures of the Virgin Mary covered in glitter in the hallway. This is not a Motel 6.
I fall asleep faster than I thought would be possible given the print-out of Jesus staring at me from the opposite wall. When I wake up, the nuns (who we have been instructed to call Sisters) serve us breakfast. It is excellent. The best part is that instead of a painting of The Last Supper they have a printed out photo of the painting The Last Supper. I am truly loving the convent. I head back to our room only to discover that no one thought to bring shampoo. Let me repeat: NO ONE THOUGHT TO BRING SHAMPOO. Our shower only has cold water so I was my hair with a bar of soap which leaves it the exact color and texture of straw.
One of the sisters takes us on a walking tour of the grounds and explains everything. They are an order that want to help people and spread their message in Apollo. They grow vegetables and feed the poor, house travelers, make their own wine. They seem really awesome. The walking tour takes us through small vegetable gardens, in-between massive trees, under parrots, through herds of goats, down long empty stretches of deserted road and past large buildings with perfect lawns. In order words it takes a long time. It is very very hot here in the sun because we’re at a much lower altitude than La Paz. The only drinkable water is what I brought in my bottle and that is quickly used up.
I am starting to feel a little faint when we finally get to what I’m now told is our destination: A coffee shop in the middle of nowhere. Nowhere being actual nowhere. There are no buildings or people anywhere close by. It’s just sort of there in the middle of the flatlands. But I am told that they make some of the best coffee in the world so I sit down inside to try it.
We order a round of vanilla iced coffees. When they come I drink mine down like my life depends on it. It is some of the best iced coffee I have ever had in my life. Not that I have much to compare it to, but this coffee was SO GOOD. So worth the very very warm walk. I watch a telenovela on the crappy tv and drink another iced coffee while the others sit around and talk about plans. The second one is even better.
Then we walk back and its lunch time! After lunch someone makes the decision that it’s time to go swimming so I get my suit on and we all pile into the car. I am told we are going to Lemon River. I assume that this is close by because everyone keeps saying how lucky we are that Lemon River is close by.
Distances are different in Bolivia. We drive for 2 hours to get there. 2 hours of grueling, bumpy, near-impassible roads with no bathroom breaks.
When we finally arrive, however, Lemon River is very nice. It’s a little strong current wise but very refreshing. The sun is setting so the rocks and trees and butterflies are all turned a sort of pleasant gold color. Everyone swims a little- Mateo does a couple cannon balls- but we’re all sort of being eaten alive by mosquitos so we decide to head back after half an hour.
After 2 more hours in the car we make it to the convent. The sisters serve Mystery Meat for dinner and everyone loves it. I am exhausted from a full day of Doing Fun Things and I can feel my mosquito bites starting to swell as Gus and I discuss our lives back home before bed. Turns out she’s going to college in the fall. I think I fall asleep in the middle of congratulating her.
More showers with soap in the morning. SHOWERING WITH SOAP FOR SHAMPOO IS AWFUL NEVER DO IT IF YOU DON’T HAVE TO.
I am told that we are doing a three-town jump today: One town in the morning, one town for lunch, one town to sleep in, then back to La Paz tomorrow. It’s supposed to be a drive from 6 in the morning to 6 in the evening, which sounds like a long time but not so bad. I’m glad we’re going back and excited to see the jungle once more. I am hoping to maybe get a glimpse of the monkeys I’ve been hearing about.
It becomes clear by mid-afternoon we are not going to make it on time. Mateo is in the back of the car on the walkie-talkie transmitting his father’s messages. We have not reached our first town. It is noon. My butt is already irritated by the amount of sitting I’ve done today. I am apprehensive.
George is on god knows what number cigarette when we reach the first town. The sun is setting. We have listened to the entire album of Abba’s Greatest Hits in Spanish at least 4 times. This is not good.
We drive on. We drive through rivers and streams. We drive across bridges and footpaths. Mostly we drive on dirt roads that are so bumpy and full of unfilled potholes I feel like a sack of turnips. My bones ache by nightfall.
10:30. We have not reached the second town. Moral is low, as are sweets. Mateo and Hiara are asleep in the back. I am listening to my Learn Spanish Phrases- Level 2 track on my iPod because it has come up 4 times on shuffle and I’m pretty sure God is trying to tell me something. I am exhausted. George is tired but driving well. Dinner does not look like it’s coming.
Midnight. We pull into the second town. Everyone looks beyond tired because we have been driving since 6 this morning. Dinner is giant slabs of meat on weird mashed rice and what can only be described as a shot of Coca-Cola. Ernesto says we have to keep driving. There’s nowhere to stay in this town. We plow on.
Four in the morning. I am jostled awake by the car stopping. We have been driving for 24 hours. We’re sleeping here, George says. I look around for where here is before realizing it’s the car. I want to shout I AM 6 FEET TALL AND THERE ARE BAGS AT MY FEET HOW CAN I SLEEP IN THIS CAR but I am too tired to do anything but nod.
I sleep on and off through the “night”, which is really only a few hour stretch between stars and sunrise. I dream of home and of my parents reading to me from Swiss Family Robinson aloud. We haven’t done that since before I was 10. When I wake up I feel another moment of intense loneliness. It’s foggy and my iPod says that it’s 7. I read The Grapes of Wrath till everyone is more or less awake and we start off again.
We drive to an animal sanctuary and eat breakfast there. I accidentally let a monkey in the kitchen. An Israeli girl tells us about how she got her job for the summer. We all drink strong, strong coffee and don’t talk much.
The drive back to La Paz only take a few hours. I think I sleep the whole time. When we get home I collapse into bed without taking off my shoes. The shower afterwards feels like the greatest moment of my entire life. My body is covered in bug bites, which are the best souvenirs of all. The jungle adventure camping trip ends on a note that is not, perhaps, what we were all hoping for, but it is something to remember from my time in Bolivia.