I’m back – have been for a while, but settling into a new life with a new job is taking up a lot of time. As promised, I will try to continue this blog. And after one month in Peru and Bolivia there are some stories to tell. One is about our stay with an indigenous community in the Bolivian jungle, where a solar-powered radio was the only link to the outside world.
No, I wouldn’t do it again. A million different shades of green, the diversity of birds and plants, unharmed wilderness – all of this looks amazing in a National Geographic magazine. However, standing in the midst of it, billions of ants crawling between your feet, just as many mosquitoes dying to suck your blood, the humidity making you sweat without moving, I quickly felt very uncomfortable. Like nature telling me that this is its party, I’m not invited, and the insect bouncers will now show me to the door.
A village and a few cabins for tourists
My discomfort was amplified by the perfect remoteness of the place. We initially flew into Rurrenabarque, a small tourist trap on the edge of the Bolivian rainforest. Getting to the Mapajo community required another three-hour boat ride on an upgraded tree trunk. The river was the only way to reach the village and the few cabins that were put up for tourists.
I’ve hardly ever felt so far removed from the rest of the world and at the same time so trapped in one place. My realm of experience for the next four nights and five days would be the village, the wilderness of the rainforest, and the murky waters of the river. No Internet café, no cell phone connection, no bus ride into town.
Right here, right now
Such state of complete and inescapable “localness” appears similar to how accounts of the invention of the telegraph describe the world before telecommunication and mass transportation. Life was a very local, very immediate experience. Right here, right now. The people in the Mapajo community grow their own food, celebrate their own fiestas, and socialize almost exclusively among the 120 inhabitants of the village.
This was a new experience for me. I’m used to what some researchers call “time-space compression”, or “global village”, to use Marshall McLuhan’s more sexy term. Telecommunication – the Internet, television, cell phones – gives me access to any event taking place anywhere in the world at any time. Mass transportation can take me anywhere at any time, if I’m willing to pay for it. The physical distance between places usually doesn’t matter.
Not going anywhere
In the rainforest, places and distances do matter a lot. In fact, it was the awareness of being in a place without any material or virtual way out of it that made staying in the Mapajo community so uncomfortable. This awareness was particularly strong on our very last day, when our guide said we would be unable to leave because the river was carrying too much water and was running too fast.
After we had insisted on leaving that very day, they promised to double-check whether navigating the river would indeed be impossible, reminding us that people have drowned under such conditions. To find out how the river was behaving a few miles downstream they had to use their only link to the outside world: a solar-powered radio.
“Rurre? Do you copy?”
Every community along the river was given one of these radios by the local government. As we witnessed in another village, they don’t always work and oftentimes people can only listen but not respond. Everyday at 12 o’ clock, there’s a conference among the communities and the municipality in Rurrenabarque.
On the day that we wanted leave the Mapajo community and urgently needed to know how high the water levels were further down, nobody answered the radio at 12 o’clock. We were sitting in the radio tower, listening to the head of the community calling for Rurrenabarque. No response. And so the only link to the outside world failed. That’s when I really felt stuck.
Smart phones and travel passes
Fast-forward to the happy ending. The head of the community eventually decided to leave that day, but the boat ride that followed was the scariest moment of our journey through Peru and Bolivia. A few times, I was convinced we would fall in the water. Our navigator sitting up front fell asleep (still drunk from the night before) and almost missed the most dangerous currents.
Now I’m back home, well connected through a new smart phone and a monthly travel pass for Berlin’s public transport. Of course, the unpleasant memories of this trip are fading faster than the amazing moments we had and so I’m slowly starting to remember the Bolivian rainforest for its million different shades of green, the diversity of birds and plants, unharmed wilderness. Maybe I would do it again.