After the amazing sights of Bolivia’s salt flats, we journeyed north to La Paz. La Paz has the wonderful distinction of being the highest capital city in the world,
at 3,640 metres altitude. The first thing we did here was to meet up with some locals. We had the good fortune to meet Cyrielle (through couchsurfing.com) who, whilst actually being from Switzerland herself, has a Bolivian boyfriend (Mauricio), and so we were honoured to be invited round for a local barbecue and some customary drinking games with them and their kind friends Julio and Karina, who welcomed us into their home with a delicious meal of fired meat before trying to teach us a frankly unfathomable dice drinking game, which left both Kerri and I in a state of happy staggering bewilderment that night, and groaning near-death bed-ridden mess the whole following day
. Apparently Bolivians consider a good party one at which everyone’s passed out on the floor by the end, and so we felt quite reassured that we hadn’t embarrassed ourselves too badly with our inebriated chuckling and stumbling antics. Drinking any amount of spirits at that altitude is frequently warned against, and so we expect no sympathy. We can now happily say that we have had the great fortune of meeting people and making friends in each country we visited. That has, without a doubt been the best part of traveling.
The following day was spent arranging a dentist for myself, in order to fix the slow throbbing pain that I had been suffering for the previous couple of weeks. I had known for a while that this particular wisdom tooth was swelling grandly in the back of my jaw, growing in perfectly sideways and even beginning to push my front teeth together crookedly. Locating a dentist in La Paz couldn’t have been easier. In the tourist district where we had found a hostel were plenty of signs displaying fore and aft pictures of fixed or whitened teeth, with arrows pointing ominously down side-alleys. I figured that one jaw mechanic was going to be as good as any other and so sidled into the first one we came across to be told after a quick inspection of my mouth that, "Si senor, this tooth can be pulled out for the piddly little sum of about 15 of your British quid", and that I was to return a few days later at any time I liked after 3pm
. I’m drawing out this story in order to drag you into the world of discomfort that I had to endure that sun-drenched but chilly Monday afternoon in the world’s highest capital city. What I assumed would be a simple two-minute twist and pull job turned into one of the most horrible physical experiences of my life. I writhed in that chair for more than two hours, watching the minutes tick by on the clock on the wall while this little sweating dentist slowly and methodically drilled out the back of my jaw and rattling my skull with his various-sized jackhammers, constantly forced my mouth open wider than I’d ever imagined possible, impaled my gums with the occasional anesthetic when he became too distracted by my feable twitches and groans, and all the while reassuring me with mutterings of “tranquillo, tranquillo” (‘relax, relax’) as he ran back and forth fetching cups of water for me to rinse and spit my blood and bone chippings into his sink (dude, get an assistant). After this ordeal (topped off with a needle being jabbed into my bare backside “for the pain”), I somehow made it back to our hotel by leaning on Kerri’s shoulder like a wounded soldier, then spent the next ten days or so in bed, slowly recovering on mashed bananas and milk.
The worst thing about this experience (besides the jarring agony and feeling of oral violation) was knowing that La Paz has a whole lot to offer the discerning traveler, and that we had to endure listening to festivals going on in a nearby plaza, unable to attend anything due to my general weakness and/or overtly drugged state
. By the time I had recovered enough to venture outside and experience anything of La Paz, it was about time to move on to our next destination, and we were left with only one Sunday night to kill before our subsequent bus journey into the jungle. Sundays happened to be the night upon which the famous Cholita wrestling takes place. This much- talked about spectacle seems to be one of the must-dos whilst in La Paz, and so we went along to witness a rather hilarious bout of choreographed ring fighting featuring such well-known wrestlers as Spongebob Squarepants, Michaelangelo the ninja turtle, Batman, various other unidentifiable bemasked heroes and villains, and of course the aforementioned Cholitas, beating the snot out of each other in comical manners. A cholita, in case you can’t be bothered asking Uncle Google, is the traditional little old woman of Andean culture. They wander around the hills and towns carrying the same colourful bundles of secret goodies (often babies), sporting the same doily-like skirts, the same long thick pigtails with extra tassled ends and the same tall witchy hats and hooked noses that could have been the main inspiration for Frank Baum’s Wicked Witch of the West. They are one of the typical ubiquitous sights of Bolivia, Peru and Ecuador, and are often seen either sitting on a step in the middle of a high street with a bunch of flowers or basket of vegetables, or hanging about in market places with a llama on a leash, possibly in order to charge a small fee for tourists to take photographs
The Cholita wrestling, then, was a much anticipated event, and managed to not disappoint, while at the same time being completely disappointing. Being fans of mixed martial arts, Kerri and I were somewhat chagrined to witness such blatantly choreographed bouts, but were also somewhat tickled to see these traditionally plump and dumpy old women throwing each other around quite deftly on the canvas. It was a good laugh, and almost certainly worth paying a few quid for. They even handed out free gifts of cuddly cholita keyrings on the bus as we made our way back to our hotel.
The next day we were ready to embark on a bus-ride to our South American adventure’s last port of call, and one of our most anticipated yet. We had heard about Inti Wara Yassi animal refuge parks when we first began our trip seven months previously, and had been looking forward to the chance to take care of some needy pumas in a tropical environment. There are three Inti Wara Yassi parks dotted throughout Bolivia. We opted to go to the only one that was actually located in part of the Amazon jungle. Therefore we needed to make the trip to the town of Rurrenabaque (or Rurre – “rur-rey”)). We had heard that this particular bus journey was somewhat long and dangerous, and that flying was a more comfortable option
. Considering that the bus cost the equivalent of a couple of lunches, and the plane cost the equivalent of a week in a hotel, it was kind of a no-brainer for us to take our chance on the bus. There is literally one “road” between La Paz and Rurrenabaque. It is not even second cousin-in-law to the tarred, straight tracks that most of us are so privileged to drive our cars on. It is rocky, muddy, bumpy madness, clinging around mountainsides. This was the longest and most uncomfortable journey of our lives (and we’ve had some tough ones). The bus, which upon our arrival was already missing its engine cover - as well as various other bits of window frame and outer casings - was two hours late setting off due to the amount of large food and goods sacks which the passengers were desperately having tied to the roof (there were three other foreigners standing around to take this bus – after half an hour of worriedly scratching their chins, they decided they’d head to the airport and catch a flight instead… wimps!). In short, what should have been an 18-24 hour journey somehow became a 36 hour nightmare upon seats which would neither recline nor sit up. I don’t remember sleeping during this journey. I remember being in quite a bit of pain during this journey, feeling twisted and cramped as though I’d been stuffed into a barrel for a few days. Nobody who takes the bus to Rurrenabaque leaves again by bus. Nobody. To return to La Paz, after our month in the jungle, we happily paid the price for a flight
. The flight took 45 minutes. That’s shorter than the distance between Manchester and London. The bus took 36 hours. 36 hours. Anyway, we finally arrived in the beautiful, riverside jungle town of Rurrenabaque, spent a night in a comfortable hotel and then made our way to the animal refuge park, an hour or so outside of town.
The following month was one of the best of my life, and was one of those times that I wish I could have shared with you all. We spent a month without electricity, spending each whole day wearing gum-boots (wellies), living amongst butterflies, lizards, spiders, snakes and swarms of various biting, stinging and generally quite annoying flying insects, playing games around a campfire every night with between ten and twenty other volunteers, and of course taking care of pumas. This blog will be split into two, as it has been the first time in the last eight months (and probably quite a while before that) for which Kerri and I have actually had two different experiences.
I was quickly appointed the task of spending my days with two pumas named Capitan and Flashman. Capitan and Flashman are twin brothers who have never been separated, and who spend their days in a large enclosure, unable to be taken out and walked around the jungle like the other pumas in the park, and therefore being much more like wild pumas than the overgrown pussycats that make up the other residents of the Jacj Cuisi camp
. Known as the pumitas (‘little pumas’ - even though they are probably the largest of the cats there), my job was to feed them, clean their homes, make toys from whatever the surrounding jungle offered up in order to give them a little entertainment, and generally make sure their lives were comfortable and stress-free. After a month with the pumitas, it is natural to develop quite a bond. While they weren’t able to be stroked or played with like some other pumas in the park, I nevertheless got to know them quite well and felt genuinely sad to say goodbye. It was harder leaving Jacj Cuisi than any other place we’ve travelled to these recent months. Spending a month taking care of two fully grown pumas is without a doubt one of the most privileged experiences of my life. I would go back tomorrow and spend another six months there if I could. There were so many things I loved about living in this place that I don’t think I could list them all. Every morning I would take a ten minute walk through the jungle to where the pumitas’ enclosure was (it was important they felt isolated and in a natural environment). Each morning there were fresh spider-webs across the path to be knocked down with sticks (the spiders here were the biggest and ugliest I’ve ever seen). The path took me across creeks, through muddy puddles, under fallen trees and through overgrown greenery which had to be regularly hacked back with my large machete. When nearing the cage, I had to shout “hola” to each of the pumas, so that they knew who was coming and weren’t alarmed by the sound of my footsteps. I would then step out into their clearing to be greeted by their beautifully watching and curious faces. I learned that they like to eat a particular type of long grass that aids their digestion, and so would carry it through the jungle and poke it through the bars for them to happily chew. This was the closest I could get to them without them becoming territorial and hissing at me
. They actually became a little like pussycats at this one time of day when I gave them this grass. Then they would revert back to their normal, stalking, wild state, whereupon I would sit and talk to them. They were subjected to my singing (Wild Rover) and storytelling (Game of Thrones), and while they didn’t really react much to either, the general point was that they become used to human presence (as they had not had a regular carer in quite a few months). When I wasn’t just sitting around providing them with company, I was able to fashion them “toys” from vines that I cut down from the surrounding trees. These toys I would hang in their cages, hoping to give them a little stimulation. I often came back to find their toys lying broken on the ground, and so was quite content that they were at least getting a little enjoyment out of them (even if it was when I was not looking). I also managed to clear a nice space between two trees (just outside their enclosure), put up a hammock, and build a crude shelter out of bamboo and vines, which will hopefully serve whichever volunteers are there during the next rainy season. This idea came about after one afternoon when the heavens opened up and I had to return to the camp early, soaked to the skin from wading through creeks which had become torrential rivers within about ten minutes of the rain starting. The rainy season in the jungle is quite a remarkable thing. Luckily, there was only one day like that, as we had arrived at the back end of the season, and so my shelter was never actually put to the test
. At least I had fun building it.
I had one incident with a tarantula. Anybody who knows my phobia of spiders will have been hoping for this. On one particular afternoon I had returned to our dormitory (basically an open-sided barn) to find that everybody else had gone down to the local creek to bathe. Seeing as though I had the place to myself, I decided not to bother using the changing room and just get changed quickly next to my bed. I grabbed my towel which had been hung on a nail on the wall, and proceeded to quickly pull my trousers off. Once I was bare from the waist down I started to wrap the towel around myself, when something big and furry landed splat between my naked feet. My immediate reaction was that this was a fake spider. Surely nothing real and live was this big or hairy, ha ha. Instinct made me jump deftly into the air anyway, and somehow I landed two or three feet away, whereupon Mr. large and hairy started to crawl. That was when a good portion of my life-force truly leaked out through my bowels and I uttered a loud and startled obscenity. Those people in the vicinity (including Kez) swear they heard a girlish scream, and came running to find me shaking nervously, but I was the only one there, and I can honestly attest I just swore like a pirate and jumped like a ninja, with a fair warning to that tarantula that he’d better run lest he face my annoyed wrath
. He was dispatched by one of the girls in the camp into a field far far away. All was well again.
The best thing about this chapter of my life (besides the puma’s) was undoubtedly the other volunteers with which we shared that space, and so this blog is dedicated to each and every one of those individuals who made this such an amazing experience. I name them here for posterity, so that we may never forget them, nor they us. Most of these people were here for less than one month, and therefore did not qualify to work with puma’s (a certain amount of commitment is needed in order not to make the pumas have to deal with too much change). To those people, you are a true inspiration. Kez and I went to this park with more selfish intentions: we wanted the privilege of spending time with pumas. Most of these people were there only to do something from the good of their hearts, and were the ones who did the real hard work, like building things for the benefit of future animals, and kindly making wonderful meals for the rest of us. And so, in no particular order, I dedicate this blog whole-heartedly to Jorrin (Holland), Dave (Puerto Rico), Jael (Bolivia), Chris (Australia), Anna (Canada), Myriam (Monaco), Mathilde (France), Richie (Australia), Nik (Switzerland), Clair (France), John (England), Jazz (America), Andrew (America), Molly (America), Oso (Bolivia), Adrian (France), Uri (Slovakia), Yasmin (Australia), Camilo (Chile), Kristine (Canada), Mark (England), Eli (England) and Nicole (Australia)
. Each one of you did something special to make our stay here an amazing experience, whether it was your wit, your generosity, your positive attitude, your hard work or the countless other things you brought to the camp, it was a pleasure to know you all. Thank you for sharing that small slice of your lives with us. We hope to see each and every one of you again in the future. Keep being your wonderful selves.
It is now my great pleasure to pass this blog over to Kerri:
I had the pleasure of spending my days with a fabulous puma named Luna (‘Moon’ in Spanish). Luna is about 5 years old. She and her sister were rescued as cubs after being owned by a Bolivian woman who tried to keep them as pets. They were obviously not looked after as pumas should have been and suffered various health problems. Luna survived. Her sister, sadly, did not. Luna now lives in a very large and comfortable enclosure in the Amazon. She can never survive on her own and so she is not being rehabilitated. The goal is to keep her happy and comfortable and make sure she enjoys her life as much as possible. She has a very large area of the jungle designated only to her, known as Luna Land. Each puma has their own territory. They are not very sociable animals and therefore they live separately from the other pumas
Every morning, myself and my puma partner, Claire from France, would set off to Luna’s enclosure. It was a 10 minute walk at a brisk pace from camp, through a creek and up a hill. We would arrive every day to find Luna purring and rubbing up against the cage at the place where we emerged from the jungle. We’d stick our hands in and get our morning licks and affection, a special moment for her and us. Then we’d go sit on the “affection bench” where there were bigger holes cut into the cage so we could stick our whole arms in and rub and pat her. This bench is right next to the doors to the enclosure, so after about five or ten minutes (usually, not always), she’d lick her cage door, letting us know she was ready to walk.
Now, walking a cat is something I always wondered about and wouldn’t have believed possible. So let me enlighten you. It is indeed possible, all you need is a lot of patience. Cats do not like to be told what to do. Cats are boss! Luna is the queen of Luna Land and she has two walkers who spend their days following her around. She has a network of trails that she can take and so she chooses where to go and we simply follow.
In the morning, she walks well
. One of us is attached to a rope which is attached to her collar. The other one of us is a backup and we alternate who walks her every day. We keep her on a rope that is about three metres long, but we walk about one metre behind her on the trail. She often goes off the trail into the bushes to investigate, but she can only go as far as the rope allows, which is about three metres. When she goes off into the bushes she sometimes gets playful and stalks us. She then runs out of the bushes, straight for us and jumps us. Having a puma jump you is a somewhat intimidating experience. She does it playfully and is gentle, (ie. no teeth and claws), so she doesn’t really hurt you. Usually she just jumps your legs or lower torso and keeps her back legs on the ground. She likes to jump the new person a lot. So when I started, I got two big jumps, when she jumped me with all four of her feet off the ground, which is to say I literally had a puma on by back. But, once you realise that she doesn’t hurt you when she jumps, it’s no big deal and you don’t mind so much.
So, in the mornings we would follow her around. At some point between 11:00 and 1:00pm, she’d find a spot she liked and she’d lie down for her nap. This would usually take an hour or two. At this point, we'd tie her to a tree, get out our packed lunch and sit on the ground (after doing a careful ant check…those jungle ants are like nothing you’ve ever seen) and eat our lunch
. After that, it was time to put up the hammock, layer in more clothes and a bee-keeperesque hat to keep the mosquitoes at bay, get the book out and chill out until Lady Luna was ready to go again. She’s pretty good at communicating, and would get up and walk towards us, looking at us with a face saying “I’m ready to go now”. At this point we had to quickly, quickly pack up, clip her back on to our waists and get going, remember, pumas are not patient. If we took too long, she’d get a little growly, but generally was a very purry, happy cat.
In the afternoons, Luna likes to stop a lot. She walks a bit and then just lies down in the path for 5 to 15 minutes. We wait. She gets up and walks a few more steps and then lies down. We wait. The nice thing about all this is, when she lies down in the path we go up to her and offer her our lower arm and hand and she licks and licks and purrs and purrs. This affection time is so special and I just loved it. This is the time you stroke her and love her and she loves it. Her tongue is very raspy, so you have to keep turning your arm so that it doesn’t get a rash. When she stops and we want to drink water, we also offer Luna some out of our hand and she laps the water up as you pour it into your hand. After an afternoon of stop and go, we make our way back to her cage around 3pm.
Every evening we then take turns returning at 4:00pm to feed her. It takes us about 30 minutes to do this, as you have to clean her bowls and her eating platform, check her enclosure, remove termites from wooden structures and other such things. She has two houses with hay and we fluff her hay for her every night. She usually eats chicken, but loves it when she gets beef once or twice a week
. So, we leave her happily eating her dinner until the next day.
The jungle is beautiful, her trails involved plodding through streams and up and down steep hills and over roots and under spider webs. As I don’t have four legs, I couldn’t always keep up on the downhills and so went down a few on my ass, and at least one face first, but there was nowhere else I’d rather have been.
The month I spent with Luna was one of the most memorable experiences of my life. Watching Luna investigating, stalking, playing, climbing trees, resting and all those other things was so amazing. To form a relationship with such a beautiful, powerful and intelligent animal was so wonderful and I feel so lucky and blessed to have had this experience.
…So that was our month in the Bolivian Amazon. We each got a free T-shirt to prove it.
We had a few days to spare between leaving the jungle and catching our flight from Lima (Peru) to Johannesburg (South Africa), and so we decided to make our last Bolivian stop a couple of nights in Copacabana on the famous Lake Titicaca (sniggers will be tolerated from those less mature amongst you)
. Lake Titicaca is – drumroll please for the last superlatives of our South American escapades – the largest lake in South America
, as well as the highest navigable lake in the world
. Two rather impressive facts, you may admit. It lies on the border between Bolivia and Peru, and so was a natural choice for the last stop before we made the 60 hour journey by bus and plane from South America to South Africa. Lake Titicaca’s beauty does come from its vastness and its stillness and its beautiful calm blueness, as well as the hills that gently roll their way around its edge. At parts it could be easily mistaken for an ocean. We took a trip out to the famous Isla del Sol (Island of the sun) on the slowest boat on the planet (just speculation, but a fair guess) to be guided around the hills where the Incan civilization is reputed to have been birthed. It was nice. I usually refrain from describing anything with the dullest adjective in the English language, but there’s not much else to say about this island. If we had had a bit more time, we would have been very happy to have camped on its most accommodating of beaches or stayed in one of its many charmingly basic hostels, but as we only had one day spare, we settled for a brief walk before returning to the town of Copacabana in time to walk up its local holy hill and watch the sun go down over the lake, drawing our South American journey symbolically to a close.
Thanks for sticking with us and reading these blogs. Thanks for everyone who left comments. It’s been that much the better knowing that you’ve been with us. Our next step is to spend another year in China, saving up another bunch of cash (strangely, the pile we had a year ago seems to have largely and rapidly depleted) before the next stage of our lives. See you somewhere down the road.
This will be the last entry in 'Kez and Stevie's Great South American Adventure’. We will endeavor to think of a better title for the hardback coffee-table version. We are presently in South Africa, recovering from the last eight months of travel by being spoilt by Kerri’s family, and are left only with the simple task of telling you about our last month or so in Bolivia, which actually turned out to be one of the greatest experiences of our travels so far.