The Modern Nomad’s Thought of the Post: ‘There are few things more satisfying in life than killing biting insects and then either: A) setting them on fire with your lighter or B) Pulling all of their arms and legs off and leaving them by a pile of ants to be further dismembered.’
I am deep in the Bolivian Amazon, a mere stones’ throw away from Brazil. That is, if you could throw a stone about half a mile across the Mamorè river…
So. After I finished my Che searching in La Higuera, I headed straight towards Santa Cruz de la Sierra after spending a pleasant night in a concrete drainage ditch in Vallegrande (less frigid wind, more empty beer cans…worth it.) I got to Santa Cruz with little difficulty in about eight hours.
When I arrived, I wasn’t sure exactly where I wanted to go, so I dropped my few remaining Bolivianos on a few minutes of Internet so as I could look at the map. I decided on Guyaramerìn, deep in the jungles of the far north on the Brazilian border. I planned on leaving the next day, not wanting to spend any time in Santa Cruz since I don’t really like cities.
After washing a few plates at a burger joint in exchange for some grub, I went off into the night looking for a peaceful place to sleep. I ended up stealth-camping the gazebo behind a hospital.
I awoke early so as not to be caught by the morning staff. Now, I wasn’t quite in the centre of the city; more like on the west side. I needed to get to the east side so as I could continue north to Trinidad, some five hundred kilometers to the north in the Beni department.
Luck was, as usual, with me; I asked an old couple for directions and they ended up giving me 2 b.s. so I could just take the minibus to the exit road. Nice folks, they saved me a lot of walking.
After the bus bumped and rumbled through the streets of Santa Cruz, we eventually reached the highway to Trinidad. I gave the bus driver my 2 Bolivianos and was off to the jungle.
It was getting hot at last. I shed my jackets and was back to just a t-shirt. This released the odor of nineteen days without showering that all those layers of clothing had been keeping in; believe it or not, I’ve definitely smelled worse.
I was hitching on the other side of a toll booth about 25 clicks east of Santa Cruz when a pickup loaded with sound equipment, guitars, and six people asked me where I was going as the driver paid the toll. I told them to Trinidad.
They were headed to San Xavier, a few hours to the east. I thought, ‘Sure, why not?’ and hopped in the back of the cramped pickup. After a few moments shifting around and getting comfortable, the engine rumbled and we chugged eastward on the pothole-studded road.
Turns out, they were a group of musicians headed to a discoteca in San Xavier to provide live music for the 6 de Agosto party, which is Bolivia’s independence day. They invited me to come along as their guest, as they were very impressed with my travel tales, which kept us entertained the entire way. We told stories, chewed coca leaves, and smoked Casino cigarettes as we zoomed along through the palm tree-studded lowlands of southeast Bolivia.
When we arrived at the club, I helped unload the truck while the musicians set up all their equipment and brooded silently into their instruments, deep into their pre-show rituals.
The discoteca was actually just an old warehouse that somebody stuck a bar and a few bathrooms in. The stage dominated the back wall, which went up about fifteen feet before changing to a few pylons; these went up a further ten feet to the roof. This left a nice space for air to circulate through the place, giving it a gazebo-ish look.
After the band was set up, we had a few beers and then went off to eat dinner. I even took a shower for the first time since I was in Santiago. Upon our return at around eight the place was still empty, with just one table of people in the giant building. Undeterred, the band began playing.
After an hour or so, people were mulling about on the dance floor and sloshing down Paceña beer like it was water, well on their way to getting nice and sauced in celebration of Bolivia’s’ 185th birthday. The band rattled out all of South America’s most popular songs, from Amèrico’s ‘El Embrujo’ to the hottest salsa tunes from Bogotà and Sucre.
I was free to come and go as I pleased; I was, after all, with the band, and was allowed all the free beer I wanted.
That was their first mistake.
I took it easy for the first few hours; while the band played, I drank with the equipment manager and watched some people get in a fight near the bathrooms (how do urinals taste? Ask that guy.) Around twelve, the party really started to heat up. Everybody was royally smashed, and myself and the rest of the band nearly died laughing when this really huge drunk girl, a veritable whale of a woman, tried to grind on the lead singer.
Around one, the beer caught up with me; I vaguely remember dancing on a table with some people I’d met on the way to the bathroom.
The next afternoon I woke up in rather a daze with a splitting headache that I totally deserved. I was wedged in a small space between a large amplifier and a box of electric cables, microphones, and other band equipment; scattered about onstage and in the surrounding area was the band themselves, all in similar alcoholic comas. The lead singer was curled up in a ball under the keyboard, the snores of the drummer echoed out of the bathroom, and the bassist somehow had gotten atop of a stack of beer crates fifteen feet high. The keyboardist was nowhere to be found (he later turned out to be on the roof.)
I sat up, squinting in the bright, evil sunlight that was gleaning in. I decided I needed to drink some water and go on a strict diet of Aspirin and Ibuprofen. As I was standing up, I noticed an oddity; there was a string tied around my ankle!
Hm. Frowning, I grasped it between my fingers. From my ankle, it wound around in circles a few times before disappearing behind the amp. I gave it a tug.
There was a loud SQUAWK from behind the speaker.
‘…The fuck?’ I said, with an incredulous expression on my face. I poked my head around the speaker.
There in the corner against the wall and perched atop an empty beer bottle, was a fighting rooster. I kid you not; a real, living, breathing fighting rooster was tied to my ankle.
I coaxed him out and picked him up; not only was he a fighting rooster; he was a very old fighting rooster. His feathers were mottled and he didn’t seem to have functioning eyes. I set him down on top of the amp and tried to remember how this had happened…
I had a hazy memory of a guy dancing around in the club with a rooster, but that was it.
How had I come into possession of this aged avian?
While I was lost in my memory, the rooster ruffled its feathers, craned its neck, and gave an earsplitting crow.
There was a shout from a few feet away as the lead singer woke up; he sat up so fast he banged his head on the metal bar of the piano stand.
‘Mieeeearda,’ he said groggily. ‘What the fuck was that sound?’
I pointed at the rooster, who pooped on the amp.
At first he looked very confused indeed. Then, realization dawned on his face and he grinned broadly, laughing a laugh that soon turned into a cough.
‘Oh man,’ he said, coughing. ‘I remember that! That guy was on the dance floor with that rooster!’
‘Yeah!’ I said. ‘I remember he had it standing on his head while he was dancing. But…’ I trailed off. ‘Why is it tied to my leg?’
The laughing got louder now as the bassist joined in from atop his tower of beer crates.
‘You bought it, man. I was with you.’
Huh? Bought it? How did I do that? I didn’t have and money, just one or two Bolivianos.
I craned my neck up at him. ‘Explain, please.’
‘We were dancing to that techno stuff on one of our breaks,’ he paused to blow his nose on his sleeve, ‘and then that guy started shouting “Does anybody want to buy my rooster? He’s the champion of all the roosters in San Xavier!” No-one wanted to, but then you told him you’d give him two pesos and a cigarette for it.’ He snorted. ‘He took the deal.’
I must say, it’s one of the most interesting hangover experiences I’ve ever had. I can tell my grandchildren, ‘One time, I got drunk with the band at a discoteca in Bolivia and purchased a blind fighting rooster for 2 Bolivianos and a cigarette.’ Classy. I’m reminded of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, when the good Dr. Hunter S. Thompson and his lawyer try to buy an orangutan whilst in the depths of an ether binge.
I ended up setting my purchased poultry free amidst one of the many nomadic flocks of roaming, seemingly owner-less street chickens that inhabit every city and town in Bolivia. Chao, y buena suerte, mi amigo viejo.
I left San Xavier as soon as I had a meal and some food. I thanked my friends for the good times and was soon back on the road, my sights set on Trinidad, the Mamorè river, and Guyaramerìn.
Three days later, I arrived to Trinidad, the capital of the jungle department of Beni, Bolivia. I didn’t spend too long in the city, as I was anxious to arrive to Guayramerìn; I wanted to pass to Brazil and visit Manaus and the Amazon river.
The road leading out of Trinidad quickly turned to dirt, and I soon found myself at the ferry crossing of the Mamorè river. On the other side, the dirt road went on for about 500 clicks before arriving to Guayaramerìn. The river also went straight there.
I talked with a few people there at the crossing, and they told me that there were many cargo boats that went downriver to Guyara that I might be able to hitch a ride on. As that sounded like a lot more fun than two days of hitchhiking on a dirt road, I decided to give it a shot. I was told there was a boat anchored a few hundred meters upstream that was leaving the very next day.
After trudging through the mud and mosquitoes, I arrived. However, the captain shot me down and wouldn’t take me as a passenger. I even offered to work in exchange for my passage, but he wouldn’t have it. Downtrodden, I headed back to the port.
I decided to just try and take the road. As I was waiting for the ferry to arrive, a man with very large arms and an even larger voice started talking to me. He asked me where I was from, where I was going, the lot. I told him I was going to Guyaramerìn, that I wanted to take a boat but couldn’t find a free ride.
He introduced himself as Captain Jorge, owner of the large river freighter Ignatio.
He talked very animatedly, using his hands and entire body as he spoke.
‘You should come on my boat! I’m leaving for Guyara on Wednesday, I’ve already got four other foreigners on my boat who want to make the same journey!’
‘Really?’ I said, rather at a loss. ‘But…I don’t have any money with which to pay for my passage…but I’d be happy to work for you for the duration of the trip!’
Captain Jorge waved dismissively. ‘Don’t worry about it! I’ve got lots of things for you to do, you can come for sure!’
Well, hot damn! ‘Awesome!’ I hitched up my pack. ‘Can I go and put my things aboard?’
‘Sure! My boat’s the big one over there, with the other foreigners hanging out on it! Go right aboard, I’ll be back in a few hours; I’ve got some business to take care of over in Trinidad.’
Nice! I waved goodbye and went over to the Ignatio and climbed aboard.
She was a beast of a freighter; about fifty meters from bow to stern, the Ignatio was a true giant of the Amazon River shipping industry. She consisted of a huge expanse of flat space that occupied the upper two-thirds of the boat; the stern was a four-story complex of bedrooms, a kitchen, and other living areas. I walked to the opposite end of the boat and climbed up the ladder that led to the second level.
There, I met the ‘other foreigners.’ Roland and his girlfriend, Antoinette, from the Netherlands; Jake, from the Queen’s soil in the south of England; and Katie, hailing from the capital city of the Land Down Under, Sydney, Australia.
They all were trying to get to Guyaramerìn as well, and had been waiting in Trinidad for the past week for a boat. Introductions were made, and we were soon chatting away, telling stories of our travels and of back home.
Captain Jorge arrived back on the boat around eight that evening, bringing with him his first mate and two bottles of grape liquor. He joined us at the table and quickly began dominating the conversation with his loud voice.
We socialized with the captain late into the night; the more liquor our Captain consumed, the louder he got. Towards the end of the evening, he declared that we should all arm-wrestle him, so as he could prove he was the strongest man on the boat. I wasn’t disagreeing with him, but he insisted we do it anyways.
After flattening the backs of the hands of me, Jake, and Roland, Captain Jorge went off in a testosterone-fueled victory song about how he is the Captain and you’d better do what he says, or else.
We went off the bed early that morning; the plan was for the Ignatio to set sail north for Guyaramerìn in two days time. The journey was to take a week, traveling only during the day. My fellow foreigners and I went to bed wondering if we wanted to spend an entire week on very remote stretches of the Mamorè with the perhaps slightly mad Captain Jorge.
The sun broke over the mist-and-jungle covered horizon of the Beni early the next morning. I was awake to see it, along with a few of the crew members. When my friends awoke, we spent the day lounging around in the sun and enjoying being on a boat.
That afternoon Capitan Jorge decided to tell Roland and I (the only foreigners on the boat with passable Spanish skills) all sorts of stories from his past. His first tale was when he smuggled cocaine from Bolivia to Arica, Chile:
‘I got on the bus leaving La Paz, right? Had my two kilos tucked safely away in my bag, I was ready to go. Then while I was riding, I got to talking with a few guys next to me. I was doing a few bumps on the way to keep awake, and I gave a little to them.’ He chuckled.
‘By the time we got the border of Chile, we were all terrìble duro, (“really coked-out,”) and when we got to the border crossing, the Carabineros de Chile came aboard the bus. They asked all the usual questions, and when they got to me, they decided to take me off the bus and into the station for a little bit of further questioning.’ He twisted his face into an expression of mock-worry.
‘So when I got in there, they left me alone for a minute or two. Of course, I was all,’ he made the jerky facial movements and fast breathing of someone whose been sniffing a lot of blow, ‘and I grabbed the two kilos from my bag and shoved ’em, just shoved ’em in my pants.’ He mimicked doing this, even rather disturbingly putting his whole hand inside his pants.
‘So my legs,’ he laughed, ‘where like this!’ He made a gesture that showed how big his legs were with two keys of snow stuffed in his undies.
‘So then, they come inside, and they have these two dogs, big, drug-sniffing German Shepherds. So I’m like, “oooooooh shit, I’m screwed now.” But the dogs, wouldn’t you believe it, didn’t do anything. They just sat there!’ He mimed a dog sitting there and not sniffing out the coke he had stuffed in his pant legs.
‘So, eventually, they told me that I could go. I was sweating buckets, right? And I smiled and told them thanks very much, and stood up to leave. Then, when I was standing up, zooop!‘ He ran his hands down his jeans. ‘The kilos started slipping out! So then I was like “Aaaaaugh, I’ve got a cramp in my leg!” I pretended to be grabbing my muscles when really I was grabbing the coke! I started to walk out, and was like, “Oh, no, I’m OK, I’ve just got a cramp from sitting on the bus!” They were actually concerned! Ha! So I walked out of the station like this.’ He demonstrated for us, walking around on the deck with his hands wrapped around his calves.
‘And then I got back on the bus and went all the way to Arica, no problem!’ He laughed uproariously, slapping Roland and I good-naturedly on the back.
Captain Jorge went on to describe how his hid the two kilos at his brother’s house in Arica, in the back of the closet.
‘So I left the kilos there for about a month, because I was trying to find someone to sell the blow to. I went back to go and get it, and,’ he threw his arms up in exasperation, ‘it was gone! Both kilos, nowhere to be found! So I went to ask my brother, “Hey, did you see two small brown packages in the back of your closet? (he of course didn’t know they were there…my brother is a biiiig man, and he doesn’t like that sort of thing.)
He thought for a second, and then he said, “Oh, yeah! The foot powder! I’ve been putting it in my boots for the past month! The stuff works wonders, my boots smell great and my athletes’ foot is gone!” And I was like WHAAAAT? you used it as foot powder? That wasn’t foot powder, man!’ He banged on the table, causing his glass of liquor to tumble over.
For the next three hours, Roland and I were forced to listen to all of Captain Jorge’s stories from his past, which included how he went to prison at the age of fourteen, numerous fights with people, and how he once shot his father four times (don’t worry, he lived, apparently.) Many of the stories were of questionable truthiness, but it was worth listening to them just to watch the mad captain animatedly tell his tall tales.
Later that evening, Captain Rambo (he insisted that we call him that after one of his stories involving a bar-fight and a jar full of fire ants) decided to move his ship a few miles down-river to another port. While his crew piloted the ship, he and his first mate took the road in his small, yellow Crossfox.
When the mad captain returned, he brought tales of how he wrecked his car and went to the hospital. When I asked him how he crashed his car, he said he had been ‘tired’ (which is a euphemism for ‘stoned,’ I believe.)
My friends and I were enjoying the company of the Captain; however, we were a bit concerned about spending a lot of time in very remote stretches of the Mamorè with the guy.
There was another boat called the Christina, which left the next day. Not only was it a lot smaller and less industrial, the Captain was much saner and probably was considerably less likely to drunkenly steer the boat into some subtle obstacle such as the shore.
So we decided to try that boat the next day. If the Captain of the Christina wouldn’t take me aboard, I would take my chances with the mad captain of the Ignatio. Fortunately, the Christina was happy to take me aboard in exchange for work.
The Christina, as I said before, was a much smaller boat than the Titanic-like Ignatio. A mere twenty meters, she was made entirely out of wood and was powered by a loud diesel engine. Attached to her port side was a massive gasoline barge filled to the brim with diesel fuel.
The barge was where most of the cargo went; The Christina herself was just the engine, and there was very little room for cargo. She consisted of three levels: The first housed the kitchen (inhabited almost perpetually by cockroaches, a tiny kitten, and our gender-confused cook…we never did figure out if it was a woman or a man,) the bathroom, crew’s quarters, and the engine. On the second level was more bedrooms and a rustic-style wooden floored living area with hammocks. On the third level were the cockpit and the Captain’s quarters.
Once she was loaded up, the big engine rumbled and we slowly began chugging north towards Guyaramerìn. The small port faded slowly into the distance as the Christina plodded deep into the Bolivian Amazon.
The work I had to do aboard was, admittedly, minimal. As it was the dry season, the water level in the river was rather low; therefore, it was necessary to have two people on either side of the front of the gasoline barge with long, painted sticks. As sophisticated equipment such as depth finders are few and far between in the poorest country in South America, this job is necessary so as the depth of the river can be known before the propellers pass over it. If the water line was at the blue paint on the stick, it was safe for the boat to pass. If the water line was at the white paint, then you had to alert the Captain to change course or risk running aground.
I was a human depth finder for many, many hours as we sailed slowly north towards Guyaramerìn. It wasn’t a bad job at all; very easy, and you were the first person on the boat to see all river wildlife that passed ahead. In the early morning just after sunrise and in the evening just after sunset, Amazon River dolphins could be seen rather frequently and in large numbers. They would sometimes swim right alongside the gas barge; I was even sprayed by a blowhole on one occasion! As the barge was much lower to the water than the Christina, you could have a full view of the river ahead and the surrounding tangly jungles.
In the late afternoon, it was common to see caiman crocodiles sunning on the muddy shores, and herds of Capybara rats were often observed taking mud-baths; these are the largest rodents in the world, sometimes weighing up to 200 pounds! They seemed to be pretty docile creatures, looking rather like small, hairy hippopotamuses.
Right after sundown, the mosquitoes would decend on the boat and make it nearly impossible to function for about an hour. Then they would, for the most part, vanish for the rest of the night. For that one hour my foreigner friends would take cover under their mosquito netting and read their books; as I was without mosquito netting, I was forced to endure it, though sometimes I would take refuge in the bathroom or with the crew in their quarters.
The Christina sailed constantly for four days, stopping only at night. We passed absolutely no signs of civilization, and were enjoying our river adventure. During the night, we would usually go fishing. Since fishing poles are uncommon down here, we just use a bit of fishing line, a hook, some sort of meat, and an improvised sinker (and by ‘improvised sinker’ I mean ‘washer or nut’). It was commonplace to pull sizable and colorful Amazonian catfish out of the muddy waters, some of them looking like they should have gone extinct sometime in the Precambrian-Era.
Piranhas were also common. They’re not very large fish, about 4-8 inches in length. In fact, they are nearly the same size as the perch and sunfish I used to catch in the pond back home in Texas when I was young.
Of course, the major difference between the sunfish of East Texas and the piranhas of South America is the formidable mouthful of razor-sharp teeth. Not only are the teeth as sharp as the sharpest knife, the piranha fish also has frighteningly strong jaw muscles; they easily bent a small piece of aluminum I was using to try and pry the hook out the mouth, and it was necessary to stab them in the brain before cleaning to eliminate the risk of doing serious damage to your finger.
One day as we were chugging along near the border of Brazil, I noticed a jungle boar that had been stranded at the bottom of a steep embankment. He had nowhere to go but in the water, and seemed very reluctant to go for a swim. I pointed him out to the crew, who got extremely excited. One grabbed a shovel and a few of them piled into the speedboat that was attached to the barge and skidded off after the boar.
There was a flash of violence; one of the crew members was beating the boar over the head with the shovel as hard as he could. Soon, the animal’s skull caved in, and the crew triumphantly returned to the Christina with one of the greatest things in the world:
We had been living off of rice, beans, and piranha fish for the past few days. Everyone was excited to eat some pork.
I went up to the speedboat and took the jungle boar from the captain. I sharpened one of the kitchen knives and soon got to impress everyone on the boat with my knowledge of animal butchering. The other crew members and I soon had the boar skinned, gutted, and chopped into manageable chunks. We ate much better after that.
On the fifth day, we arrived to Puerto Silias, where we restocked on supplies. I spent a few hours unloading bags of salt and concrete from the gas barge while my foreigner friends rested ashore. I technically was supposed to show my passport at this stop, but I pretended like I wasn’t on the boat and slipped on by without showing a thing. It’s a good thing, too, because Roland told me that they were checking for Visas.
The next day we reached the part of the river that separates Bolivia and Brazil. Brazil was right there! It took all my willpower not to jump out of the boat and swim the measly ten meters to the opposite shore.
Two days later, we arrived at last to the city of Guyaramerìn. The river Mamorè widened to an alarming half-mile as the Christina docked on the Bolivian side of the river.
All morning I had been scoping out the shore; I knew I was going to have to try to swim to Brazil, no ‘buts’ about it; I wouldn’t be me if I didn’t.
Now, the situation was a bit difficult; the river, as I said before, had widened to about half a mile. That was the distance to Brazil, while two large islands occupied the middle of the river. It was a few hundred meters to the first island, and then an additional few hundred meters to the second one. After that, the waters were clear to Brazil.
This was certainly to be my most difficult illegal border crossing to date.
I wasted no time; as soon as I got off the boat I walked about two kilometers upstream, skirting the Bolivian Navy docked on the south side of the port. I chose a spot near a half-constructed boat to launch out of.
Now, swimming the half-mile to Brazil would be no problem. I’ve swum much further than that in my life, that wouldn’t be difficult. The issue was my pack.
I needed to build a raft of some sort to keep my pack out of the water. With a well-constructed raft, I would be able to push my pack in front of me while I swam behind it, acting much like the Christina and her gasoline barge.
My first attempt was using the brush raft technique. According to the U.S. Army Survival Manuel, the brush raft was easily constructed with a tarp, green underbrush, and two dry sticks of about six to eight inches in width.
Spreading out my tarp on the ground, I began cutting green underbrush from the jungle using a machete I had borrowed from one of the local fisherman. He and his crew watched me curiously as I worked.
I soon had enough brush; now, I needed the sticks. After a brief foray into the jungle, I came out with two of the appropriate dimensions.
Soon, my raft was complete. I put it in the water and tested its buoyancy; it seemed good. So I stripped down to my underpants, loaded up my pack, and began swimming.
Ten seconds later, my raft began to sink. Swearing colorfully, I turned around as fast as I could and began heading back to shore. Unfortunately, by the time I made it there my pack was soaked through and through.
The brush raft was a failure. Undeterred, I set about making a second raft, which consisted of some dry branches built in a frame around a large, dead tree that I had rolled into the river from the jungle.
This, while much more buoyant than the brush raft, was hopelessly off-balance. It too was a failure, as it kept dunking my pack into the river. I nearly lost it in the swift current.
The third time was the charm; I found an old wooden palette under one of the rotten, ancient unused docks further upriver. It was buoyant in itself, but not nearly buoyant enough. I filled the space underneath it with dead wood and plastic bottles, and viòla, I had a functioning raft!
After confirming it’s bouncy with my pack atop it, I did a few test swims; they were all a success.
Around 1530, local time, I set out on the Mamorè river in my underwear, pushing my pack in front of me on an improvised raft made out of an old palette and empty plastic bottles.
Brazil, here I come.
The current was much swifter than I imagined. The farther away I got to shore, the faster I was carried north. I needed to get to the first island before the current took me right to the middle of the busy port of Guyaramerìn.
I was nearly there when I saw a boat approaching from the distance.
It was small, and probably just a fisherman’s vessel. However, it seemed to be headed my way, and at a rather fast pace. It came closer, closer, and soon I realized it wasn’t a fisherman’s boat when I saw the .50 caliber heavy machine gun mounted on the bow.
The Bolivian military’s Anti-Narcotraffiking Force slowed as they came closer to me. I stopped swimming as one of the soldiers swiveled the .50 caliber so that it was pointing at my head.
The commander glared down at me and shouted,
‘What do you think you’re doing?’
I stared warily down the black steel barrel of the same weapon that is designed to penetrate tank armor, and said,
I hadn’t actually expected to get caught. I was rather at a loss for words, to be truthful.
‘What’s in the bag?!’ bellowed the commander.
‘Clothes. Wet ones.’
I couldn’t see his eyes behind his sunglasses, but I’m pretty sure they weren’t full of love and understanding at the time.
‘You know this is an international border?’
He said something to one of the other soldiers, who grabbed my pack and raft and pulled it closer to the boat.
‘You’d better come with us,’ said the commander. I didn’t argue; that guy behind the .50 cal looked like he meant business. After I was in the boat, they tied my raft onto the starboard side and we were soon roaring back to Guyaramerìn.
Some people would say I was in a rather embarrassing state; I was sitting in a boat full of hardcore, slit-your-throat soldiers, the best of the best of the Bolivian military, soaking wet and in my underwear. My entire face was smeared with river mud, which I had applied to keep the mosquitoes and marijuis (small, biting gnats) at bay. Personally, I found the situation rather funny. They would soon find that I didn’t have any cocaine in my pack, and that I was just a mad gringo who was trying to swim to Brazil.
When we arrived at the Bolivian Naval station, there was a plethora of brass waiting for me ashore. First, they yelled at me a lot, and asked if I wanted to be shot.
I told them no, I didn’t want to be shot. Please.
Then they searched my bag and even dismantled my raft that I’d worked so hard on in search of contraband. Of course, they found nothing.
The Station Commander of the Guyaramerìn branch of the Bolivian Navy sat down on the dock and stared hard at me.
‘What were you doing in that river?’ he asked in a deadpan voice.
‘Trying to swim to Brazil.’
‘Why didn’t you just take one of the ferry boats?’
‘Because I can’t pay for the Visa for Brazil. It’s $150, and I don’t have any money at all.’
‘Why don’t you have money?’
‘Because I’m poor.’
‘How did you get here?’
The soldiers around us were listening to every word, apparently rather interested in the situation. One of them was holding back laughter. The commander tried again with the questions.
‘Why do you want to go to Brazil?
‘Because I’ve never been there.’
He stood up, shaking his head. He turned to one of his minions. ‘What did you find in his bag?’
The solider read off a list. ‘Two t-shirts, six pairs of pants, one pair of underwear, assorted black socks, three jackets, one sleeping bag, one bedroll, one woolen blanket, one toothbrush, one comb, and two books, one on outdoor survival and one on edible plants. All wet.’
The Station Commander heaved a sigh. ‘You’re crazy, you know that? Did you know there are piranhas in the river?’
I told him that I did, but I knew they only attack dead things.
‘What about the caimans?’
I told him that being attacked by a caiman was a very unlikely event. About as likely as a shark attack.
‘We have freshwater sharks in this river.’
I reminded him about the likelihood of shark attacks, freshwater or otherwise.
I told him I liked snakes.
Finally, I got a chuckle out of the commander. ‘You know, I’ve worked at this port for twenty-five years. I’ve seen a lot of crazy folks try to swim the river, but I think you top them all.’
I told him thank you. The Navy photographed my Passport, and then me. Somewhere in the archives of the Bolivian Military, most likely under a section titled ‘Border Evasion,’ there’s a photo of me sitting in a boat in my underwear with river mud covering most of my face, smiling and flashing the peace sign.
Immigration soon found out that I didn’t have my Visa for Bolivia. I’m currently being forced to stay in Guyaramerìn for an unknown amount of time while representatives from the Bolivian government talk with the U.S. Embassy. I didn’t go to jail (I’ll admit to being a tiny bit disappointed) and the good people from Immigration actually found me a paying job while I wait for this mess to get sorted out. I’m currently working at the river dock doing backbreaking manual labor. I unload 60-kilogram (that’s 120lbs, for the boys back home) bags of rice, corn, sugar, and other dried goods from Brazil that come across the river in flat-bottomed boats. I load them into trucks, and then get to ride as we unload them in various distribution centers around Guyaramerìn. I get paid between 50-100 Bolivianos a day (between $8 and $16.) I feel rich as a king.
Here’s to hoping I don’t get deported!
The Modern Nomad