My son Joseph, his college room-mate Benjamin and I had come to the lowlands of the Beni in Bolivia to see the animal life. But the rains had caused plenty of problems for our 4x4 on the journey from the edge of the Andes towards Trinidad, the capital of the Beni. We had been marooned in flood water and beeen forced to negotiate a tow from a pair of surly cocaine-handlers at a remote estancia, but we had also acquired a local travelling companion and saviour, Oscar, who was with us now, as we took to the road again in our jeep.
We had heard that there was a hotel in Trinidad – a real hotel. I was looking forward to paved floors, painted walls free of visible insects, a shower with running hot water, perhaps even air-conditioning. But we were not yet in Trini, as Oscar called it; we had not even reached San Ignacio de los Moxos, the only inhabited place before Trini. The total distance was supposed to be less than eighty miles, and I was convinced that we had driven more than that since leaving the cocaine estancia, yet in the darkness there was still no sign of San Ignacio or of any other human habitation.
We were crossing a vast plain of grassland and swamp but for us it was only a perfect obscurity. Moon and stars were completely covered by the rainy season’s thick clouds, and if anyone lived within sight of the road they had neither electricity nor oil lamps, rare luxuries for the Indians of the lowlands. We were breaking the first rule of Beni travel by driving at night. So we tried to be cautious, accelerating only when the surface was firm, dry mud, slowing drastically to a first-gear creep when the track dipped down, allowing streams of swamp water to flow across its width. I had decided to stop and wait for dawn if the water rose any higher than a foot or so as we advanced into it inch by inch. We could no longer walk ahead probing with a stick as we had done by day. There were too many refracting alligator eyes right next to the track, too great a probability of stepping on a snake in the darkness. The guavas that fall from the trees lining the road attract rodents that attract snakes – easily avoided and hardly a peril in daylight; not so at night.
As we kept driving, hour after hour, packs of Amazonian zorillas, stout bulldog bodies covered in straggly fur, kept coming out of the grassland to trot just ahead of our jeep. Listed as rare (worse than ‘endangered’) in the Simon and Schuster Guide to Mammals, they were in imminent danger of becoming rarer: bewitched by the headlights, they would not get out of the way, and often we had to brake to avoid hitting them.
When we finally reached the tranca, the barrier that each Bolivian town operates to collect a bit of cash from passing vehicles, it was after 11. There was nobody in the shelter, and the boom was raised. San Ignacio is a real town, not another village of wooden shacks. By the time we had driven the length of the main street to reach the square, with a central garden and Spanish-colonial church, we had passed a loud wiskería, several shops still open, and long rows of tin-roofed small houses built of concrete blocks, definitely upscale for the Beni where grass roofs, raw trunk frames and walls of hand-sawn wood planks are more usual. Only the gas station of the Yacimientos Fiscales Bolivianos state monopoly was a disappointment. The light was on, a man sat in the booth but there was no gas. The tanker truck from Trini was several days late, the ferry-rafts could not risk the rushing waters of the Mamoré in flood. It was bad news on two counts – we were low on gas and to reach Trini we, too, would have to cross the Mamoré.
The hostal on the square was a parody of the type. Much of the cement floor of the garage-like entrance was covered by thousands of large, shiny beetles. Most were motionless, a strong smell of gasoline indicating the cause of death. With readymade outer walls provided by buildings on either side, the architecture was most efficient: two rows of rooms on either side of a corridor open to the sky had been obtained by adding tin roofs to wood-plank inner walls. There were no outer windows, no hopes of a breeze to disperse the intense heat, only some netted openings facing the corridor, now crowded with men and women waiting to use the toilet and shower. Beetles were everywhere, crawling up the walls, lining the edges of the corridor floor. I had yet to discover that they preferred ceilings – they fell on my bed all night long. Joseph laughed at my complaints – he claimed that he had stayed in worse places when touring Anatolia. No doubt he was right – Bolivia always has its compensations.
The neatly dressed sixty-something proprietress did not want to talk baldly about rooms and prices with her distinguished guests, wearing muddy clothes but also shoes, wildly unkempt but lavishly conveyed by a brand-new jeep of the most expensive kind. Assuring us that we were welcome to choose the best of her unoccupied rooms, she invited us to drink tea with her in the walled garden beyond the double row of lean-to accommodation. Served on a long mahogany table set under flowering trees, the mate de coca was excellent, and so were the newly-baked buns. There was a six-dollar-a-night VIP room, it turned out, with a raw cement floor and beetles like the rest, but also with a washbasin, toilet and shower-pipe en suite. Needless to say, I took it for myself, leaving Joseph and Benjamin to share a plain room. Even better, both rooms had ceiling fans that would keep turning to mitigate the heat until the town’s diesel generator shut down at two in the morning – a rare extravagance in the Beni, where long truck journeys greatly increase the cost of diesel fuel, and electricity is cut off by midnight in most towns.
Oscar, too, spent the night in the hostal, but paid for his own room. His very timely arrival on the scene of our defeat by the flooded road, his tacit enlistment in what could have been a messy confrontation with the cocaine expediters, certainly deserved a reward. But when I offered him 50 Bolivianos, he refused with a smile. When I insisted, he replied that he was the one who was indebted, for our lift had saved him two hard days on foot. We had been convivial in the jeep, sharing fruit bars and idle chatter. It would be understandable if, having been the equal of affluent gringos, he were reluctant to resume the role of penniless Bolivian. So I kept pressing him to accept the money as tactfully as I could, till he finally took hold of the little bag he had been carrying over his shoulder, opened the flap, rummaged under a pair of sandals, drew out a plastic pouch and with no further ado showed me its contents: several thick blocks of 50-Boliviano notes, a large sum for anyone, an unimaginable fortune for an illiterate Beni youngster in bare feet, torn shirt and ragged trousers. He did not volunteer an explanation, and I did not ask. But nothing more was said about him coming with us from San Ignacio to Trinidad, his own destination.
When Oscar left in search of cold beer, I returned to the garden, a more attractive prospect than my room with its suspect bedding. Our hostess, one of Bolivia’s minority of pure whites, was informative and witty. She spoke well-educated Spanish, and so did her niece, a splendid girl with the delicious golden-brown skin of the Moxos. San Ignacio, I learned, was deeply embarrassed by the company it kept: drug-dealing San Borja – where we ran into our cocaine-handlers – on one side, vulgar Trinidad and its big-city pretensions on the other. Founded by Jesuits to convert, clothe and settle the Moxos, it was now the market town for the mixed-blood ranchers and Indian peasants of a large if thinly populated district. The shops were open late at night because most customers ride or walk to town from the surrounding countryside only at nightfall, after the day’s work is done. Quite a few actually live there for safety (accursed San Borja again) and comfort, commuting by horse, motorcycle or even Toyota jeep in the case of the richest ranchers.
I had been impressed by how much was going on, the wiskería with its booming music, the lit-up shops, and the bands of youngsters chatting in the main street and square, but the two women insisted that, lamentablemente, I was missing San Ignacio’s lively night life – the floods had marooned most commuting Ignacians in their ‘field houses’. I also discovered why both owner and niece spoke such school-correct Spanish, instead of the s-less lowland dialect of contractions and Indianisms. The Jesuits were still there, no longer masters of an independent mission-state as they had been before their expulsion, but still teaching under the aegis of an ostensibly secular institute funded by foreign subsidies. As it happens, a few days earlier we had met its presidente at a roadside eating-shed in the foothills, plastic tables and chairs under a sloping roof, with cooking on open fires behind the supporting wall. The road from Brazil and the northern jungles to La Paz was blocked by an overnight landslide, and the place had been seething with truckdrivers waiting for the promised arrival of a bulldozer.
There was no possibility of overlooking the head of a major educational institute among wild-looking Amazonian truckdrivers, but then again he would not have passed unobserved even in a convention of heads of educational institutes. He was a Jesuit of course and Japanese, the son of immigrants from Okinawa. In his fifties but trim, he was wearing designer sandals, designer shorts, designer singlet, all of them mysteriously spotless in spite of the mud all around, and a gold necklace, a gold bracelet and gold rings on several fingers. His companion, a fine-featured, decidedly handsome young Indian in equally stylish gear and with even more jewellery, was almost girlish. Once the presidente identified himself as a Jesuit, I switched to Latin to show off. He mumbled some phrases of his own in Latin before replying in excellent Italian. For eight years he had lived in Rome, first studying then teaching at the Jesuit College. What a wonderful city, what splendid sights! Looking at the plastic-draped wooden stands of the Indian cigarette, drink and food-sellers across the road, he recited Castel Sant-Angelo, il Foro, San Pietro, la Chiesa di Santa Maria delle Grazie, il Pantheon. Looking down at the pico alla macho he was eating, an abundant plate of fried yucca, rice, beans, grilled sausages and beef ribs, he aspirated greedily through pursed lips: ah the abbaccio of the Castelli Romani, la porchetta of Grottaferrata, the wine of Orvieto and Montepulciano above all – the only wine we make in Bolivia is the red of Tarija, horribly rough, more vinegar than wine.
So why are you here, why not stay in Rome? The Order orders, Jesuits obey. But he was smiling placidly as he said it. ‘I was sent back to head an institute that provides free elementary and secondary education all over the country.’ An important duty for a Jesuit, and a Bolivian. He listed the statistics, thousands of pupils, hundreds of teachers, dozens of schools. ‘Besides,’ he said, looking at the young Indian pouting in annoyance at his gratuitous exclusion from the conversation – two Spanish speakers were speaking in Italian – ‘my life was too restricted in Rome. Teachers at the College wear the habit and live inside. Here I dress as I please, and have my own apartment in the institute. Nobody interferes.’ Two weeks later in La Paz we passed the building, a large unkempt villa with a bit of garden in a very central street. With the country’s racial divisions sharply edged even if they arouse no overt expressions of hostility, and social customs altogether more old-fashioned than anywhere else in the Americas, it had never occurred to me to think of Bolivia as an especially tolerant country for homosexuals.
Our jeep hardly made it to Trinidad when we left San Ignacio, after a night’s sleep only slightly disturbed, in my case, by the drizzle of beetles from the ceiling and a breakfast of eggs and fruits under the garden’s flowering trees. We looked for Oscar, but he was nowhere to be found. In the dry season, we would have stayed on to admire the lagoon where ibis, flamingos and alligators crowd each other around the shrinking waters. But there was nothing much to see just then, and I was nervously eager to leave.
Things were not going well. Joseph had been as energetic as ever in spite of several days on dry biscuits and water, but his diarrhoea and headache had persisted, and he had now withdrawn into a corner of the jeep in pained immobility. Also we were low on gas and there was none to be had in San Ignacio. In Trinidad, if only we could reach it, there would certainly be gas and I somehow believed that there would also be a remedy for Joseph’s illness – leisurely rest in a clean hotel with a shiny-white bathroom to flush out the bacteria with distilled water by the bottle, even a doctor perhaps. Of course we carried medicines with us, including last-resort Bactrim, always in its own slot in my travel pouch, along with the Leatherman knife, iodine tablets to purify water, flashlight with spare batteries, aluminium foil micro-blanket, nylon string and reinforced tape. I had resisted giving Bactrim, a tactical-nuke of a medicine, to Joseph (foolishly as it turned out, for once I did, the magic mixture of sulphur and antibiotics worked as advertised, with no disagreeable side-effects). In the meantime, however, I had a sick son rapidly becoming sicker.
So Trinidad was that, too, an exit: the capital of the Beni is linked to the outside world by real roads, unpaved but always passable, and there is even an all-weather cement runway that would allow a rapid evacuation to Santa Cruz de la Sierra, and on to Miami if necessary. But Trinidad was still far away, and perhaps altogether beyond reach. When we set out from San Ignacio there was no telling how the road would be, how many hours would be lost along the way for one reason or another, stretching a morning’s drive into the afternoon with the early tropical nightfall approaching fast. Nor could we be sure that there would be a raft to carry us across the Mamoré if we got that far. The non-arrival of the fuel truck expected by San Ignacio’s gas station was not a good sign. The only remedy was to leave as early as possible.
It had not rained heavily for two days by then. There were no torrents in flood to bar our path. But the mud! It had been ordinary enough west of San Ignacio, where we had positively welcomed muddy tracts in between those actually under water. Some soil scientist somewhere probably knows why mud is so different a few miles beyond San Ignacio. Powerfully adhesive, to the point that it was only with a knife that I later managed to dislodge it from my boots, it kept accumulating inside the wheel wells, always on the verge of stopping us altogether. With the road deeply rutted, one alternative was to keep the wheels in the ruts, at the price of frequently bellying the chassis on the high central ridge. Another was to ride with one set of wheels in a rut and the second on the ridge, with the jeep slanted at a sharp angle.
That is how we reached the Mamoré, after passing the scattered huts of long-settled Moxos and a missionary camp for Chimanes newly lured out of the jungle – and after another magnificent display of Amazonian bird life, from huge storks to tiny humming-birds. Joseph was now reduced to silent immobility, but the rafts – giant tree trunks kept together by cross beams, pushed by a canoe with an outboard motor – were working again and Trinidad was just across the water.