The pantanal and the pain

Trip Start Feb 14, 2006
Trip End Dec 15, 2006

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Flag of Bolivia  ,
Sunday, September 3, 2006

Last time I was in contact I was awaiting to enter the Pantanal, or swamp lands, of Brazil. The reason one would do this is that the Pantanal is supposed to have the best wildlife viewing in South America. The concept is that in a jungle the animals hide behind the trees but in a big open wetland there are no such hiding spots hence more animals for the punter! Hooray!

Anyway, at Campo Grande (the starting point for the swamp) people are literally jumping out of windows trying to get you to sign up with their only-authentic-no-more-than-6-people-with-real-naturalist-guide tours. We went with a company based on Louiseīs sister having a good time with them and a pretty schmik sales pitch from Maurillo the owner (who pointed out his name actually IS in the lonely planet... he was right, itīs in there). Anyway - we signed up for what we thought was a 4 night doo-hickey but the fine print actually read 3 nights (fine print only appearing on our second night in the swamp). Fine, fine we haggled him down a little and he haggled a day off of our itinery - all`s fair in business. This was, however, a pretty apt introduction for the 3 day adventure that followed:

The trip itself was a definite mixture of highs and lows. A serious low was the cholera-esque disease that decided to squeeze my colon like an over-eager milk maid on the first day of the trip. This, plus the 45 plus degree heat and lack of drinking water, resulted in a mild case of what medicos call hypovolaemic shock. The consequences were that I simultaneously fainted and vomitted whilst horseback riding. This created further consequences. I naturally fell off the horse and landed in knee deep swamp. Whilst things began to eat me I discovered I had lost the ability to stand up - everytime I did I blacked out and fell over again. I have never, ever had such an experience and, had my sphincter at that stage not been completely derailed, would have puckered up in fear. A further problem was that I was about 2 hours from anywhere with no way out except getting `back on the wagon`. I am glad (though a little humiliated) to say that Louise was my shining knight who ultimately galloped me back to the fair kingdom of Gastrolyte and saved my quivering (seriously, about 120 beats a minute) heart.

The lodging would not really be described as 'adequate' either. Everyone slept in a large dirt floor room in hammocks strung around a centrak pole. This was not too bad (except that a hammock really is not a good thing to be in if one wants to actually sleep). There were also snakes in the room (as a woman's scream proved) and a small contingent of highly aggressive mosquitos and predatory bats. I realised I had been 'violated' by a bat one night when I awoke to the realisation that something was urinating on my face. Tough experience to replicate

It wasnīt all that bad though, I did slowly improve and we did do lots of stuff (kayaking, fishing, walking... ummm sleeping) and saw lots of different animals - peccaries / bush-pigs (ahh to use it in a sentence at last), monkeys, deer, pirrahna, caiman (south american crocodiles), hummingbirds and the real highlight for me - both yellow and black armadilos. Other people saw anacondas but we didnīt quite have that luck.

We also met another group who had gone out for a walk with their guide, got lost, and ended up SWIMMING for HOURS through the Pirahņa / Caiman / Anaconda / Schistosomiasis infected water.

So the conclusion of the Pantanal - worthwhile but hard. The company (green track) would probably not be recommended but the place would be. We will be going back into Bolivian jungle in the future and I think the combination will be perfect.

Even the truck ride out of the jungle proved to be an adventure. Louise and I were sitting on the back of a pickup enjoying the sunset when suddenly we hit a pothole and the shit literally hit the fan-belt. We all got out of the truck and realised that (this is hard to explain considering I have no mechanical knowledge of anything) that the arse-had-literally-fallen-out of the car. I seriously thought we were stuffed. The driver pulled out a pocket knife and got to work. I asked him if he thought he could fix it and, seriously, he asked me ''if I wanted to die?``. We stayed in one spot for about 4 hours why he tinkered with the car and swore in portugese. About 3 cars passed in that time and he told them all to keep going and not help us. Amazingly, after getting infected with 3 different forms of malaria, he managed to get that heap of junk moving again and we managed to escape the jungle

But wait... My story is not over, you now get to hear how a country like Bolivia has turned a 2 day journey into an 11 day one. How? read on.

After leaving the swamp we were dumped on a border town between Brazil (where the Pantanal is) and Bolivia (Where we wanted to be). Usually you cross the border, take a 15 hour train (called the death-train incidentally) and end up in Santa Cruz Bolivia. From there it should have been a simple bus trip to the city we wanted to end up in (called Sucre).

However, this is NOT what happened. When we arrived in the border town we found the border was closed. Well, not closed in the sense that you couldn`t cross it but closed in the sense that all Bolivian employees had gone on strike and so weren`t stamping passports. A passport without stamps, as we all know, is like the clientele at HELP nightclub - just waiting to get f***ed.

The reason for the strike was that the new Bolivian prime-minister had decided to nationalise all the companies (in a master stroke of Socialist planning) in Bolivia and so kick out a Brazilian gas company operating on the border. Problem was that none of the locals seemed to trust this guy and so all went on strike thinking they had lost their jobs.

Anyway, we waited and waited in this tiny do-nothing town for the border to open. It didn`t. When we heard that both the Bolivian and Brazilian army were moving in to īsettleī things we beat a hasty retreat to a local airport and took an incredibly expensive international flight to Santa Cruz (the first place we were trying to get to) and thought our worries were over.

Our worries were not over. It seems that, for possibly similar reasons although the precise motivation still eludes me, that the ENTIRE public transport system of Bolivia had co-incidentally gone on strike at the same time as the border people went on strike. So we remained stuck in a new do-nothing town (though this one was far richer due to an impresive cocaine trade running out of it).

So, how did we escape? Initially we took a taxi (loving Bolivian prices) to a town 3 hours away where we thought we would wait out the strike (everyone said it would end tomorrow - maņana, maņana as they say here). Unfortunately the strike did not end but we were PROMISED that if we could just get to the next town a method of transport would surely present itself. We managed to do this as well and ended up in one of those special towns that the Lonely Planet does not acknowledge exists. As the saying goes, sometimes the īīroad less travelledīī is less travelled for a reason. Highlights included asking for a menu in a restaurant and receiving the answer īchickenī and meeting a man-with-an-eye-that-only-looked-up. Great times.

Anyway - it took 5 days of backpacking, hitch-hiking, truck riding and sexual-favour trading to get to our destination - Sucre, where we are now. The one, wonderful saving grace (aside from the fact that Sucre is fantastic) is that the public transport still isnīt running!

Hope this wasnīt too long and everyone is happy

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