We took a long, narrow motorised boat along a river to our base camp. We were fighting against the current, and twice we had to get out and push it along. As we drifted further into the wilderness, I sensed that we were entering another world. The real world, a place that had existed long before the first city had been built, and would hopefully still be around after the last city has burned to ash and dust.
There were two guys with me. Ernesto, our Takana guide. And Rory, a middle-aged Irishman from London. The Takanas are the local tribe from that region of the Bolivian Amazon, Ernesto had grown up in the jungle, only venturing into the nearby town of Rurrenabaque, Bolivia, in his teens. Ernesto wasn’t his real name, just his Spanish name, I couldn’t remember the Takana one and he seemed to prefer Ernesto. He spoke no English, but his Spanish was clear and slow, and I became the translator for Rory. My Spanish had developed quite a bit in the few months since I’d arrived in Colombia, which is lucky, because in the jungle it’s important to understand what a guide is saying.
I saw a tapir at our base camp, a rare animal to see, but it ran off before I could show anyone. Ernesto took us for a walk near the camp, and we saw herds of wild boar. I will admit being scared. Though they seemed more afraid of us, if just one of them decided to turn and charge…we had no protection. Ernesto had a small machete, we had no weapons. And at one point a boar did stop and stare us down, as though deciding whether or not to charge. After the staredown had gone on for an uncomfortable few seconds, Ernesto made a hissing sound at the boar and it ran away. I decided then just to calm down, if just a boar could scare me in the jungle, I was in a for a terrifying few days. And I did, I accepted that I was in the jungle, I couldn’t control the animals, but I could choose to be calm.
At night, after dinner, we had a ceremony for Pachamama, the Earth goddess, to bless our adventure. We sat by an enormous tree with a shape I can’t quite describe. it had an opening that always faces the river. Ernesto explained that these trees were considered sacred, and he could feel it’s power. At the ceremony we lighted cigarettes for Pachamama, gave her coca leaves, some kind of sweet white powder (legal, not sugar), and what Ernesto called Indian whisky (moonshine). After we left these on the floor by the tree for Pachamama, we had the rest for ourselves – one of the more fun religious ceremonies. We stayed there for a long time while Ernesto told us many stories about the animals. About a local snake that was related to the black mamba – if it bit us we had twenty minutes to live. And it would bite us with no provocation. It was the only animal he would kill for reasons other than food or self-defence. There was a plant medicine around that worked as an antidote, and Ernesto said he would try and find it if we were bitten, but he had no medicine on him. Then he told us the saddest story.
An Israeli guy and his girlfriend were part of a larger tour group, and one day the guide took them to see the parrots that live in holes in a cliff face. Part of the usual tour involves going up to the top of the cliff to see an amazing view. But that day it was raining hard and the guide told them it wasn’t safe to go. But this Israeli guy, 22 years old and presumably feeling invincible after just leaving military service, insisted. The guide relented, but told him it wasn’t his fault if anything went wrong. At the top, while the girlfriend had just left for some unexplained reason (bathroom maybe), the Israeli guy was leaning over the edge of the cliff to get a good look at the parrots from above. He was supporting himself on the branch of a tree that extended just over the cliff. But it was wet and still raining. His hand slipped and he went over the edge. The girlfriend came back and asked where he was. The guide pointed over the edge, she didn’t want to accept it, and later accused the guide of pushing him. That’s something we will never know, though it seems unlikely. Ernesto’s point – respect the jungle, respect the guide, this is their home. Rory and I were just tourists passing through a powerful place.