Trinidad, Bolivia, in the tropical lowlands of the Beni below the Amazon, was not even our destination. We were only driving to Trinidad to leave it again, by way of the road to Santa Cruz de la Sierra – a real road, not paved of course because tropical Bolivia does not run to paved roads, but literally a highway, raised over the swamps with upcast from the drainage ditches on either side to stay dry enough for travel even during the rainy season. That was the glorious prospect before us, if we ever made it to Trinidad, except that we were not normal human beings going from A to B but venturing travellers, who had come specifically to see the animal wonders of the flooded plain. So for us the Trinidad-Santa Cruz highway should have been no promise at all, for it would mean the end of our adventure. But that was before we ran into trouble. And so it was that having flown from Washington to Miami and from Miami to La Paz, to drive down from the Andes along the precipices of the Yungas road – voted the world’s ‘most terrifying’ by the Lonely Planet editors – we finally reached the plain only to discover that we were very eager to leave it again.
We had come to see animals, and see them we did: alligators and snakes, giant lizards and giant rodents, birds of every hue and size, Amazonian bush dogs, were all around us in great profusion, just as Pedro Sarmiento had said in La Paz. But Pedro, back in the capital after five years in the Beni, had also said that we would never make it to Trinidad. ‘An inferno!’ was how they cursed the endless track through the lowlands, though it was not hell that came to mind. There was no burning heat, and with cascades of rain every few hours, and black clouds gathering beforehand that obscured the sun, it was not even warm. Instead it was wet, wet from above and wet below. Here and there the red-earth roadway had withstood the rains, but for the rest it was only a ribbon of watery mud that marked our route, and that, too, was frequently interrupted by streams of muddy overspill flowing in from the rain-swollen swamps on either side.
Some really were streams, visibly shallow and easily crossed by the high-built Japanese jeep we had rented in La Paz. Others were more like torrents, much wider, much faster and certainly deeper – but how deep? We could not tell by looking at the muddy water, nor could we risk sinking our jeep by simply driving in. So my son Joseph, or his college room-mate Benjamin who had incautiously joined him for an odd winter vacation, or I had to wade in to test the depth with a stick. I have a photograph of Joseph standing knee-deep in the water, which seems attractively blue. That is most peculiar because we both remember it as brown. But what mattered would not have photographed anyway: the water was alive with darting fish of all sizes, and we knew that there were snakes in it, and alligators, and much larger caymans. It was only the fish that worried us – piranhas are abundant in the Beni – until we saw a very poisonous green mamba nicely curled on the jeep’s front winch.
After successfully crossing dozens of streams, several torrents and one full-blown river, it happened: six-foot Joseph reached the far side with the water still well below his waist, but when we drove in after him, the jeep slid sideways and deeper, and stopped. The rushing torrent must have dug out a hollow that had eluded Joseph. After we had failed to climb out by sheer engine power in ultra-low gear, it was the turn of the winch. The first trick was to run the engine fast, so as to keep charging the battery that the powerful electrical winch would drain in minutes. The second was to find a sturdy tree on the far side around which to loop the fifty-foot cable. We had been crossing a vast grassland, with few large trees, but there was a candidate – a good yard into the swamp. Somebody would have to wade in; clearly a job for Dad, who much preferred to be bitten himself (the mamba had just made its appearance) than return to Washington with Joseph or Ben on his conscience. It was then that Oscar arrived.
That part of the Beni is almost uninhabited, and we had seen no humans along the way since passing a three-hut village hours before. But there he was, a young fellow in ragged trousers turned up to his knees, bare feet, a torn shirt, a small bag over his shoulder. Oscar – or Ohcar, as he later pronounced his name in the s-less dialect of the lowlanders – had clearly decided to earn our gratitude. Without a word, he crossed over to seize the end of the winch cable from my hands, waded into the torrent towards the obvious tree, and astonished us by leaping over the bushes to dive at the trunk, looping the cable around it in one swift movement.
There was no time for introductions. Winch controls in hand, with Joseph now in the driver’s seat to rev up the engine, I turned the switch only to find that the jeep would not budge. I tried again, and again; each time the drum would start turning, and then stop. The slope was just too steep, the jeep too deeply dug into the mud. Soon it was all over, the engine had seized up, and the battery was exhausted. Such things can happen anywhere, and are sometimes seriously inconvenient if there is no cellular phone at hand with which to summon help, and no public phone within walking distance. In the Beni it is not the absence of telephones that is the problem, but the absence of anyone to call. In the largest villages, there is some sort of police post, but the policemen have no vehicles, or telephones for that matter. There are of course no garages or tow-trucks to call, and even if we could have somehow sent a message to San Ignacio de los Moxos, the only village between us and Trinidad, nobody would have been mad enough to attempt the drive. In the meantime, the light was failing, it would soon be dark, or rather pitch black in that moonless time, and the water seemed to be rising.
There we were, exactly where we had wanted to be, on the flooded plain. But to leave had suddenly become our only aim in life. Oscar had been walking dead ahead of us when he heard the engine straining and turned back, hoping for a ride. It now seemed that we would be joining him on his walk to San Ignacio, some eighty miles away. It would have to be a non-stop slog: the Beni is one of the few places left in the world where it is not only the animals that are endangered, and once we left the jeep we would have no safe place to sleep. For the rest, there was no problem because we had a hand-pump water filter guaranteed to keep out bacteria, some dry biscuits, a few fruit bars, two tins of corned beef and besides, young alligators are easily caught.
Oscar had a better idea. The endless grassland and swamp all around us showed no signs of habitation, but he was sure there was an estancia nearby, where they might have a tractor. Where is it? Further up the road. How far? Not far. I tried to ask how many kilometres away, but kilometres meant nothing to him. So we set out, him and me. It was soon too dark to see as far down as my feet and my feet were often in the water. I had thick-walled boots on, and nothing to worry about. When I stepped too near an alligator, it slapped me with its tail in bolting away, but it was too small to hurt, and I was concentrating on keeping up with Oscar, who was much faster on his bare feet. After a while I heard Joseph’s voice and by the time we saw the oil lamps of the estancia, they had caught up with us – they had decided that Dad should not be out at night on his own.
There is some relaxed cattle-ranching in the Beni. Humped Brazilian zebus are let loose in as much land as the owner can afford to fence in (the wire costs more than the land), and the herd’s natural increase over what the jaguars eat is culled once in a while for the meat markets of La Paz, Cochabamba or Santa Cruz. All are far away, transport costs are huge and zebu meat cannot compete on export markets with Argentina’s superlative unmad beef. There are no luxurious ranch-houses on the Beni’s estancias, or any real houses at all, just a handful of huts, perhaps with a generator for a few light bulbs, radio and VCR. So it was in the one we came to, but there was also a shed with two bulldozers and a tractor. The tractor was OK, just what we wanted. The bulldozers were another matter. No cattle ranch needed them, and no Beni rancher could possibly afford one, let alone two. Their presence could mean only one thing. The estancia was being used to fly out cocaine paste, the bulldozers were there to flatten airstrips before landings, and then to slight them after take-offs, so that they would not show up on American satellite pictures, attracting a visit by the US Drug Enforcement Agency’s helicopters with their loads of trigger-happy Bolivian auxiliaries.
It was the last place where prudent gringos should wander. Six or seven youngsters, pure-blood Moxos by the looks of them, were the first people we saw in the light of a weak bulb dangling outside the main hut. They were shy but friendly enough – when I told them that we needed the tractor to pull out our stranded jeep, they promptly went over to the shed to get it going. But then their bosses appeared – two men in their forties. Neither was a native, neither was friendly. One was sinister and very silent, offering no reply to my greeting. The other was sinister and less silent, for he flatly refused to send out the tractor. It is late. We are tired. Come back tomorrow, maybe. We could be busy. The striving for a decidedly sarcastic tone was quite unnecessary: Bolivians are famous in Latin America for their formal good manners (even policemen say buenos días before anything else), and the man’s original refusal, abrupt and unapologetic, was quite enough to express extreme hostility.
It was then that Oscar chose to whisper in my ear that the estancia belonged to the brother of the mayor of San Borja. I had thought that our saviour was just passing through, but evidently he knew all about the area, too much for my taste just then. The Beni’s miniature version of Medellín and Cali, where the cocaine-paste millionaires build their mansions, San Borja has an evil reputation for violence in tranquil Bolivia (Lonely Planet: pass through if you must. Do not linger). Joseph has mainly studied medieval history at the University of Rochester and is a very gentle soul for all his six feet of muscle. But when I told him to unfold his Leatherman knife as I was doing, and do as I did if I did it, he nodded and got ready.
It was important that neither of the bosses be allowed to enter the hut, where they undoubtedly kept their weapons – every adult in the Beni has a shotgun, and these two particular adults would have had shorter weapons, too. I was not worried about the young Moxos – they seemed far from happy with their lot, and eager to help. The less taciturn of the two bosses kept saying no, I kept insisting, and both San Borja gentlemen soon realised that they might be standing there all night. We would not go away, and they would not get to the hut. When the speaking boss changed his tone, to complain once again that he was too tired, but without the sarcasm of the first time around, I offered him $40, a princely sum in Bolivia. He asked for $50. I agreed, but told him that he would get nothing if we reached the jeep too late: the water was rising, night had fallen, and to dive into the torrent to look for it amidst plenty of animal company would have been unthinkable.
It was a fast ride back, all of us – Oscar, Joseph, Benjamin, the Moxos, clinging to the tractor driven by the speaking boss, while the silent one rode the engine as if it were a horse. And it was a quick job to drag out the jeep, half-submerged though it was, and the engine promptly jump-started with one pull of the tractor. The silent one squeezed into the back seat with Oscar, Joseph and Benjamin as we drove back to the estancia. I had been grateful to Pedro for having found us such a splendid jeep in a country full of ancient wrecks, a brand-new upmarket model, with a powerful engine and comfortable too. But now I regretted his choice. There was a good $40,000 of vehicle in it, plus whatever we had in cash, which could not be insignificant in a country where all must be paid in cash. We were heading back to the estancia, where $50 were about to change hands – but why only $50? The tractor was steadily gaining on us, we could not speed on the mud without risking a slide into the swamp. They would get there before us, and the speaking boss would get to his gun. After glancing back at him and receiving the answer of an almost imperceptible nod, I was fairly certain that Oscar would do his part, by keeping the silent one, wedged next to him on the back seat, from doing any harm. Nor would the young Moxos help the speaker, of that, too, I was almost certain. But they would not side with us either. A shotgun would not be much use to him, alone and outnumbered, but in San Borja they go for automatic weapons – AKs, M16s, Brazilian copies of HK sub-machine-guns, Uzis – and just one of them goes a long way. It was another moment to regret that I had brought Joseph with me.
Within a few minutes it was all over. When we followed the tractor into the front yard of the estancia, dozens of men, women and children were milling about in the glare of our headlights. Throughout Bolivia, people commonly travel by hitching rides atop the cargo on normal commercial trucks, whose drivers charge half the equivalent bus fare. The flotas, or ‘fleets’, of the co-operatives that run old US schoolbuses on standard routes, charge some of the lowest per-mile fares in the world, but even that is too much for most Bolivians, who eat what they grow, gather, fish or hunt, and can rarely sell any spare food for cash. The crowd that had piled out of a full-size truck and a Toyota jitney to await the morning light on their way from San Ignacio to the mountains was a mixed bunch. Some were almost middle-class by Bolivian standards – men wearing shoes, women in store-bought clothes – and would have paid the bus fare had there been a bus running.
That, as well as sheer numbers, had turned the OK Corral into a social gathering. While the two gentlemen of San Borja ruefully stood about, now reduced to a silent wait for the promised $50 at best, I talked with the drivers and more assertive travellers. How is the road to San Ignacio? Long – six hours for us, but less with a car like yours. Water? Plenty, but nothing that will stop you. We had to be pulled out of the last rio, I said. We know what is ahead, that is why we stopped here. Tomorrow, after the sun rises, the big truck will pull the Toyota through. There is nothing so difficult for you on the way to San Ignacio. And to Trini? I asked – that is what Oscar called it. No idea, sorry. Maybe the road will be passable tomorrow or in a few days, but we ourselves came this way because the rafts across the Mamoré to Trini are stopped – too many giant tree trunks rushing down the flooded river.
Beni protocol allows for the unceremonious exchange of practical information in roadside encounters, but once it becomes a full conversation, one is supposed to go through introductions and, if the hold-up is long enough, to share food and drink. (That was how it had been at the start of our journey when we had been obliged to wait for many hours in front of a gigantic landslide on the Yungas road. By the time a bulldozer came along to ram through a passage – as the only road to the lowlands and on to Brazil, it has the privilege of a road-crew – we had learned much from a Flota Yungena driver about what lay head, and found dinner companions in a Bolivian couple brave enough to risk the journey down to the foothills in an ancient Volkswagen. They were headed for the market town of Caranavi, still two thousand feet above the flooded plain, and tried hard to persuade us to stay there, instead of descending any further. Go in the dry season, the man had said.)
I could not have been more grateful to the San Ignacio travellers. I knew that they would have preferred to talk on into the night rather than face bedless sleep on the bare ground, or whatever berths their vehicles offered. But for us it was time to go. Even if we had to come back from San Ignacio, we might find beds there in the meantime, in the village hostal or residencial (the word ‘hotel’ has not been devalued in Bolivia; it promises proper rooms of the sort hardly to be found in the Beni). And we would come back in daylight, better prepared. Earlier, I had asked Benjamin to have $50 ready. He had a single $50 note folded into a tiny square. I gave it unopened to the speaker – the other one had hardly said a word even when riding with us – and off we went towards San Ignacio de los Moxos, known for its friendly Indians, and a lagoon where, in the dry season, the thirsty ibis and flamingos stand toe to toe along the water between the sleepy alligators and enormous turtles.