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Bolivia for Beginners

We’d been quite concerned that as it was Sunday in La Paz, travel agents may be shut and we were keen to go on the trip Monday morning. However, as is often the case in these types of cities, once we’d found out where the backpackers hung out (Sagarnagar) we also found the industries perpetuated by them. Simon, to his credit, had asked a lot of questions about the trip and we had even tried ringing up the airline directly and it seemed that we weren’t being ripped off (as you can imagine this is a relative term in a country like Bolivia).

So on Monday morning around 6am we were picked up at the hotel by a young Bolivian girl (18 or 19?) representative of the tour company with a driver to take us to the military airport (oh yes, the military airport). This was about a 20 minute drive and upon her knowing the secret password to get past the men with the big guns in the little security point at the entrance we and she were deposited at the terminal. She told us not to worry, to go into the cafeteria and everything would be sorted out.

Luckily the little fella behind the counter was just opening the place but unluckily as is common in Bolivia he had no change. I think it was a 20 boliviano note that we had (about $3.20) so no refreshments for us.

Over the next hour we peered towards the check in desk every so often to see our young lady involved in what seemed to be a very good natured scrum/free for all with much screaming and gesticulating as only the latins can.

Eventually we figured that the fact that she didn’t actually seem to be achieving much may not be such a good thing. We went over, I was elected to try to figure out what was happening (due to my ‘amazing’ grasp of the Spanish language). She was standing at the front leaning on the desk with a wad of our money (of course we had been told that we already had the tickets) being completely ignored. I asked her what was going on – she said there were problems. Indeed. So I used my Spanish and asked the guy behind the desk if we were likely to get on the plane (or perhaps the way to the boulangerie) and it was apparently unlikely. Upon requests for further information I got the same treatment as the young lady, ignored.

At this point I took the time to construct a rather difficult sentence in my head, addressed our by now very harassed travel agents representative in the tone of a man not to be toyed with:

-si nosotros no sommos en el avion, sera (and that’s a future tense which I was very proud of) muchos problemas entre nosotros y Inka Land Tours.

She very nearly burst into tears!

At this point I figured I’d done all I could so retired to share the news with Simon. Then for what reason we will never know she told us quickly to get our bags weighed on the scales, pay some more money (of course),(this was in fact only a small amount) and we were hussled towards the door which separated  those who would be going and those not. The military personnel on either side opened it and in a scene reminiscent of the evacuation of Saigon (well maybe not) we joined the ranks of the passengers.

So at last as we boarded the ‘plane things were back on track for the start of our jungle safari later that afternoon (this is the point at which I might end the chapter with ’or so we thought’ and then the reader would immediately know that in fact that was not the case something that I find quite infuriating, if I wanted to read the back page and find out how it was going to end that’s what I’d do, otherwise just tell me the story).

We took off and were later served with a coffee and a packet of biscuits. As two young local school girls traveling with their mother seated diagonally opposite from us started to find amusement in the two big pale fellas, Simon proceeded to steal the exercise book that one of them was paying so much attention to. This caused shock and amusement in equal measures, reminding me of a similar experience a few days earlier when Simon had suddenly picked up a Peruvian boy who had been moaning about something or other, in full view of his parents, on the boat on Lake Titicaca and made to throw him overboard.

We knew the flight was to take approximately an hour (well I say we knew, let’s face it we actually knew very little for certain) so an hour and a half later when we were still flying we became rather bemused. Polite enquiries of the other passengers in my faltering Spanish produced very little useful information and eventually after about two and a half hours we landed, quite clearly somewhere other than where we expected to be. We were all herded off the plane and those of us hoping to continue our journeys to Rurenabaque were given passes to reboard the ‘plane. As it turned out we had landed in a small town on the Bolivian and Brazilian border. After spending about 40 minutes in the airport we returned to the ‘plane and flew on to a further destination that was not Rurenabaque and went through a similar process. Finally at our third stop we were indeed where we had intended to be. However our safari had been due to start with a journey by 4 wheel drive and motorised canoe to the jungle camp. Due to our Arrival approximately 6 hours late this would now be delayed a day until tomorrow.

Now this is where all that ‘traveller/tourist one has a lot of money one a lot of time’ and ‘backpackers just roll with the punches’ ethic gets tested. We accepted it without too much fuss and tried to confirm that our flight out would have no problems. To this we were informed that the runway was just grass so if it rained a lot (as sometimes it will during the rainy season in the rain forest) it may be closed for a number of hours, days or…….well, I’m sure you get the picture.

We also discovered that TAM the military airline that we had flown up there with had become very unpredictable of late. This was the reason for our very round about journey which was totally outside the control of the agency we had booked the trip with. The combination of these facts made you realise that all you could do in this part of the world was make your plans the best you could, try to plan for eventualities and then see them fall apart due to circumstances outside your control.  The trick is not to avoid this because by definition you can’t, the trick is how you react when it happens.

That afternoon I climbed to a large cross sitting on a hill above the town, whilst Simon slept in a hammock at the hostel in town. These were very rewarding experiences for both of us; I had a view over the town of Rurenabaque and the river and jungle beyond.

The next morning we did indeed head off on the trip, starting with a journey of three hours or so squeezed into the back of a Land Cruiser. The next two and a half days that we spent in the jungle I would say was probably the highlight of my time in Latin America; traveling along a river in a jungle setting in a motorised dugout far from civilisation encountering toucans, howler monkeys, alligators, caimans and even the opportunity to swim with pink dolphins really is the stuff that motivates me to travel.

The journey back in the Landcruiser took around five hours not three due to the deterioration of the road. Certain individuals were asked to step out and walk the odd two hundred metres or so to get the weight distribution right over the more muddy sections (yes, that was me and I have the photos to prove it!).

When we got back to Rurenabaque, predictably nobody knew when the next flight out would be. Our delay was in the end a day and a half involving a night spent in the ‘Mosquito Bar’, a very pleasant memory as we were a large group of people who had just shared similar experiences on our jungle trips.

The flight back to La Paz was on a twelve seater unpressurised aircraft. We were not offered any fancy refreshments but we were offered oxygen – not something you get on your average transatlantic!

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