Life At La Senda Verde

Trip Start Sep 17, 2009
Trip End May 28, 2010

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Flag of Bolivia  ,
Friday, November 20, 2009

So much has transpired since I first arrived here that I am not really sure where to begin. Drama has a way of infiltrating even what should be mundane activities. I can't possibly tell you everything that has gone on, but I will go over the highlights.

Here in La Yungas, the department in which Coroico is the capital, it is incredibly difficult to find decent employees. There are a plethora of reasons for this, but one explanation trumps all others: cocaine. Iīm not insinuating that the employees themselves are on it, but rather the growing of the coca leaf has given them reason not to work. Here is how it works; a family here is basically allowed to cultivate half of a hectare of coca, which is the raw ingredient used to make cocaine. They can make far more from this than they can from actually working. A half hectare plantation can bring in roughly seven to ten thousand US dollars per year, which is a fortune. Half of the crop is sold legally in the market in La Paz, where the dried leaves are distributed out for use in teas, candies or just to simply be chewed. The other half of the family's crop is sold to the cocaine producers, who coincidentally, have their market on the second floor directly above the legal coca market. The fact that I, a gringo, know this and it hasnīt been shut down tells you a bit about the level of corruption here. These coca leaves are then brought to warehouses in La Paz where they are converted to cocaine. In the past they exported the leaves to Colombia, but in recent years they learned the Colombianīs techniques for extracting the cocaine more easily, and can now complete the process indoors in small batches rather than in giant holes in the ground in the jungle like they used to.

You may be wondering how I know all of this. The fact of the matter is that these things are talked about freely here, as though there is nothing wrong with what is going on. Everybody knows exactly where the new influx of cash is coming from, and I don't feel there is a great sense of guilt emanating from the producers. Everywhere you look there are coca plantations, carved into terraces on the sides of virtually vertical cliffs. Equally predominant are the campesinos who, once they have carved out their terraces, sit around idle all day. Coca is a very easy crop to grow; the only difficult part lies in clearing the land, which they do in abundance with fires which often rage out of control. Two weeks ago we all had to pack up our gear in preparation for a fast getaway since there was a rampant fire speeding towards us which had spread miles beyond its intended target. Luckily it stopped short of us, but given another hour or two La Senda would have burned to the ground.

Because we are in the heart of coca country and there is little incentive to work, in less than a month and a half of volunteering here we have gone through six employees. Out of a total staff of ten that is a pretty high turnover rate. Many days they just don't show up, not bothering to call or anything. The volunteers end up scrambling to clean the rooms and make the meals, something which is definitely not in our job description. When they do show up, the work is always sloppy and they need to be reminded daily of their duties. We have a few long-term employees who do a solid job, notably Pablo, Justina and Edgar, but even their work ethic would be laughable by American or European standards.

Everyday it is a bit of an adventure to see who shows up and what gets completed. But the employees are not nearly as entertaining as the animals. There is always some sort of drama playing out with them. The macaws, which are just big parrots, are always fighting somebody, whether it is the toes of unsuspecting tourists or the coati who is constantly stealing their food. The monkeys are constantly getting in trouble, particularly Wara who loves to break into people's cabanas and run out squeezing toothpaste into her mouth like some sort of crack fiend. She also enjoys hanging around me as I work to build walls for the different animal enclosures. As soon as they are erected, but the cement is still wet, she runs on top of them, toppling my work. I have trained Tus to chase her away, which has completely backfired as now it is the favorite game for both of the hooligans. The squirrel monkeys love to break into the cafeteria and steal pieces of bread, holding it above their heads like some sort of trophy. I have even been dive-bombed by a parrot; last week a blue and gold macaw simply crashed into the back of my head. Both of us were unhurt but it scared the hell out of me.

There have also been some incidents which have not been quite as humorous. About a month ago, Manzana, a baby capuchin, was climbing on top of Pecosīcage when an incident occurred. Manzana had already had a rough life, losing her thumb when a poacher shot her mother. And Pecos is in a cage for a reason, well, several reasons really. He is responsible for the killing of two other capuchins, both babies, and recently escaped from his cell and severed the Achilles tendon of a volunteer. Manzana would have been wise to stay away, but unfortunately she did not, and she got her tail bitten off as a consequence. I was in the food room down below when it happened and Vicky ran to me in hysterics, screaming "not the tail, not the tail!" I ran up there to find Manzana screaming in agony, a gaping hole where her tail once was. I immediately put it in a plastic bag and threw it in a cooler, while Pablo wrapped her in a towel. I pushed Vicky's early 80's Toyota Corolla for all it was worth up the cobbled road which leads to Coroico, making the 25 minute drive in eight. It was all for naught however, as the vet was out, so we had no choice but to drive back and take care of her ourselves. She was given antibiotics and we sterilized the wound, while she screamed mercilessly. Eventually she settled down, after being given a tranquilizer, and slept. Two days later she ran away and we haven't seen her since. Pecos was put down shortly thereafter.

We also had a very scary incident on the night of October 20th, the same night Coroico holds its annual festival. That evening Kate and I walked home alone, down the eight kilometer road from Coroico. We got home around midnight and went to sleep. The next day we awoke to quite a story. Elena, a woman who worked in the kitchen and who has since been fired, had also walked the same road the previous night, and had been shot. It turned out just to be a .22 to the butt, but getting shot is getting shot and not something to be taken lightly. Just up the road from us is a mining operation, and it was on the road outside the mine that she was hit. We still aren't sure of the details, and never will be, but I would imagine one of the miners got hammered and just decided to have a little fun. Now I take a taxi at night, no matter the wait.

And of course there are the minor day to day incidents. Monkey bites are pretty blase' at this point. Why people don't take the warnings seriously is beyond me, but you need to be careful with monkeys. I have no problem handling snakes, crocodiles, hell, I've walked a puma, but the animals I have the most respect for are the monkeys. After seeing the aftermath of a girl who had most of her ear ripped off by a capuchin just because she tried to get her camera back, I can't help but respect these little monsters. They are unbelievably cute though, and it easy to understand how it would be hard to learn to fear them.

My time here has continued to be spent constructing different enclosures. We received a juvenile spectacled caiman two weeks ago, and had to build it a home quickly. Me and Nick, a Swedish volunteer, spent a solid eight days on it, and it actually turned out pretty good. Eventually the croc will need to be moved to a larger habitat, most likely a lake in the far north of the country, but they grow slowly and so it can probably stay at La Senda for at least four or five years. I can't wait to see photos of it as an adult.

We have had a full turnover of volunteers. I am going to have to get used to the fact that most don't stay very long and I will continue to have to say goodbye to a lot of people. It's tough to have your social life dictated by who decides to show up and how much time they spend here. Oh well.

Other than that things have been pretty good. I headed to La Paz for a night, and went out with the guides from Gravity, the mountain bike company that visits La Senda everyday. I haven't spent much time there, but I really like La Paz. It is a very unique city, set into a giant valley high in the mountains. The streets are hillier than in San Francisco, and the city is divided into many distinct neighborhoods, giving it a smaller feel than you would expect from such a large city. I have never been in a city of its size that still manages to retain a hugely indigenous population, mixed of course with modern restaurants and clubs. A lot of people gripe about it, and complain of its dangers, but I feel they are largely overblown and that La Paz definitely deserves a look.

Ok, take care y'all. Talk to you soon.
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Jessy on

Elena got shot! I can't believe this, and fired!! I still pray for my little
Manzana! I miss her so much! It is always crazy there, the animals
always get into things! Love the pics of Kimbo, and my baby WIlly!

somasized on

Thank you for the kind comments. I decided to take down my earlier blogs once I became a teac her. Not that there was really anything incriminating in there, but I wouldn't want my students (or potential employeers) to read about drinking and such. If I ever get some free time I am going to edit out te naughty parts and repost them :)

Take care,

patty d. on

Unbelieveable account of the coca planting and distribution. You be careful at all times. Your accounts seem so surreal at times. I love your photos and journals. patty

somasized on

Thanks Patty. I always keep safe, don't you worry. Take care and manage that recess bell with authority!

big wave dave on

keep up the good writing for us stay at homes. we love learning about your life down south, as its a way for us to vicariously live the buena vida.

Chris on

I just wanted to say that I have read all of this blog after stumbling upon it via Google, an excellent read and you have provided motiviation and new ideas to a jaded traveller. Thank you for writing all of this.

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