Bolivia by Boat – South America

The banks of the Rio Mamore in the Bolivian Amazon basin are muddy, the water brown, and the jungle an impenetrable green wall. Occasional alligators and turtles warm themselves on logs and flocks of birds rise from the trees, but aside from that, there’s no action. There are only the monotonous, unrelenting curves of the river through the green, featureless landscape. Yet somehow, the river signals the wildness of this untamed expanse of jungle without snakes hanging from trees and monkeys swinging from branches. Who knows? That all might be happening under the canopy, but from the river, the wildness remains a mystery, obscured by vines and beating sun, its presence an act of faith on behalf of the river voyager.

My first view of Bolivia’s Amazon basin came from the small plane I took from Cochabamba, a city in the Andes, to Trinidad, a town marooned in the heart of the jungle. As the land lost altitude, the brown, dusty mountains gave way to an endless expanse of green swathed by rivers and lagoons. The lagoons were old river curves that had detached themselves and stopped flowing. “U” shaped fragments of water, they appeared adrift amidst the endless forest. From the sky, the water and trees formed a continuous landscape that stretched to the horizon, with no signs of development anywhere.

Trinidad appeared as an abrupt clearing speckled with red roofs and criss-crossed by red earth roads. I got on the back of a motorbike taxi and asked for the port. The driver rested my backpack across the handlebars and I grabbed hold. Zipping through the town, everybody seemed to be either on a motorbike or in a hammock. The town center was a rotary where the teenagers did laps on their scooters, flirting with each other as they zipped around.

My driver and I found a cargo boat heading to the Brazilian border. It was pushing a barge of petrol. The captain let me string my hammock across the top deck for the five-night ride. I loaded up and got ready. There were all kinds of boats resting on the mud; I was eager to get moving.

Looking down river

Looking down river

We didn’t leave until after dark. I awoke the next morning as the sun rose. The vista opened itself to me as flat water, dense jungle and flocks of birds. I propped myself up on the railing and began to watch, waiting to see something.

It did not take long to realize that I would not be seeing anything that I had imagined. Perhaps it was the first alligator that pierced my fantasy of what the jungle meant. I thought that it would be teeming with life, an overwhelmingly vibrant onslaught of animals in all shapes, colors and sizes. But a lone alligator on the mud was not action. The river dolphins were action in a way, playful and amusing, but they weren’t an onslaught.

The river curved back and forth to the point of disorientation, slowly enough so that the boat never seemed to turn, the changed directions going unnoticed until they’d already happened. I realized that we’d changed course only when the sun that had been on my back started to shine in my eyes. I periodically rotated my position to hide behind the barrel of water. The sunset marked the end of the day. I slept again, waking up when it was light.

A routine set in and I carefully plotted my time. The cook arranged the three meals, usually rice and fish. When the crew would wash the barge in the afternoon, I’d have them hose me off for a shower. The sunrise and sunset were bookends; between all that I’d do a few pushups and read.

As time progressed, the landscape refused to evolve. It imposed itself on me. The effect was an enforced meditation. Changes in light became drama, the birds’ gentle sways the beacons of activity, reminders that behind that green wall, wildlife did teem. As I lay in my hammock at night, the river’s curves rotated me around the moon and the stars. The movement of the river and its alliance to the repeating meanders held me amidst these concentric progressions.

Foggy day

Foggy day

On the fourth day the fog was too thick to keep moving. I awoke not to a sunrise, but to gray and the strange sensation of stillness. We were roped to the bank. I looked at the jungle. Even from a few feet away, there was nothing to see. The green was too thick to allow any kind of view. As if to confirm the life hinted at by the birds, the wildlife was hiding just out of my sight. The crew of Bolivian teens started pulling fish after fish out of the water. They’d toss in a baited hook and pull out a fish within thirty seconds, every time.

The stillness tested my patience. I’d grown accustomed to time spent on the boat, but only based on two expectations: that the days would end when I thought they were going to end and that we’d keep on moving towards Brazil. Once we weren’t moving, and once we didn’t know when we were going to get there, that enforced meditation took a hit. Soon enough, though, the fog eased up and we resumed our slow and steady charge ahead.