Manual Labour and Middle Earth

Guyaramerín, Bolivia

As I near the start of my third week in my city prison of Guyaramerín, I wonder if they are ever going to let me leave.

Don’t get me wrong; this place isn’t the worst spot to be forced to stay in. I’ve had lots of fun so far during my stay, and it’s in the Amazon rainforest, how fantastic is that? However, that’s not the issue. The issue is that I can’t leave even if I decide to. My usual mindset of ‘I can blow this joint whenever I want to’ is in direct conflict with the mindset of reality, which is ‘I have to stay here until they give me my passport back.’

First, it was ‘You’ll be able to leave by Friday.’ Then, it was ‘You’ll be able to leave before the end of the week.’ Those deadlines came and went, and now it’s ‘You’ll be able to leave before the first of September.’ I really hope that’s the case.

Now some of you will say, ‘you play with fire, and you’ll get burned,’ meaning if I hadn’t crossed illegally into Bolivia, and I hadn’t attempted to swim the Mamoré to Brazil, than I wouldn’t be in this situation at all. And you’re absolutely right; I have no-one to blame for this problem but myself. I just wish they would stick to their deadlines, is all. I start to look foreword to leaving and heading somewhere new, and than am disappointed when it turns out I’ve got to stay another four days.

My time here in Guyara isn’t leisure time, either. Most of it is backbreaking, sweaty manual labour that is always accompanied by mosquitoes and marijuís. Not to mention I’m constantly looking for a place to sleep. Let’s do a recap:

One of my finest and most useful qualities is my ability to make friends with just about anybody, regardless of age, race, gender, or peculiar body odors.

When I first arrived to Guyaramerín, the military wanted to shoot me, the police wanted to arrest me, and immigration wanted to deport me. Now, barely two weeks later, the military gives me a bed on a fairly regular bases (and free refrescos,) the police give me rides all over town on their motorcycles and even employed me once, and immigration buys me lunch almost daily and is constantly searching for less excruciatingly weighty work for me to do when I can’t lift my arms anymore.

Nevertheless, the majority of the work I’ve been doing has been down at the docks. I’ve found a fairly consistent employer who pays a reasonable sum for a full days work. The people I work with change daily, but they all seem to know me as soon as they see my face. My real name is widely known, though most people prefer to simply call me ‘Mister.’

In fact, it seems as if the entire city knows who I am. Oftentimes, people that I swear I’ve never seen before in my life will say hello to me on the street, actually using my name, and I believe I’m somewhat of a hot topic to gossip about amongst the local police force. In any case, a small town is a small town, no matter what the country; interesting news spreads like wildfire, and people love to go on about anything that takes their minds off of the monotony of everyday work.

The first three or four days were spent at the docks; I would spend my mornings and afternoons in a ten metre wooden boat unloading bags of rice, corn, sugar, and other various dry goods from Brazil into a waiting medium-sized truck. As soon as this was done, we would all scramble out of the boat as quickly as possible to be one of the first three people in the truck as it lumbered off (the first three get to unload it as well, which means more money, obviously.) Elbows flew and feet kicked, but I was usually the first one in. The trick is to climb up the side and not go for the back entrance like all those other blundering idiots.

The truck (which was never less than forty years old) would creak and groan as it crept into the city centre. Sometimes, we would stop and unload at a local grocery store or shop; more often, we went to various distribution centres on the edge of town. These places would then ship the goods to other parts of Bolivia in semi trucks.

It was my second day at work when we were dropping off sixty-five kilogram sacks of rice at one of these centres, a place called ‘Commercial Refrigador’ near the western edge of town. The process involved first heaving the sacks up onto your shoulders from the truck. Then, you needed to hop out of the bed and carry the sack to one of the back rooms, which was about fifty metres away. Subsequently, with the sack still on your back, you ought climb a rickety wooden ladder to the top of one of the existing mountains of rice already there and add to it. It was dreadfully exhausting but I was happy to be doing something physical (I’ll admit to harboring hopes of getting hugely jacked doing this job so that I can look like Schwarzenegger and intimidate people with my Pecks of Termination.)

I was blazing hot and still pretty sore from my previous day of labour; I was starting to have difficulties hefting the substantial sacks of seeds from the bed of the truck onto my shoulders.

Now, I’ll be the first to admit it: I’m a skinny guy. My fortés do not include lifting heavy objects or getting into bar fights where people throw chairs at each others faces. Fortunately, we weren’t bar-brawling at the moment, but we did still have 500 bags of burdensome rice to move from the truck and into the storage room. I bit the bullet and kept on working.

Two hours later I was climbing the infernal ladder to the top of that damned mountain with another one of those awful bags on my shoulders, which felt as if it was probably the densest object in the universe.

I made it to the top and set down my white dwarf star in its little spot near the ceiling paneling and climbed stiffly back down the creaky, handmade ladder. When I got back to the truck, I drank lots of water and rested. The owner of the centre noticed my white-ness and came up to me and started to chat.

I told him I was stuck here until I could get my Visa; he offered his distribution centre for me to stay in for a few days until I got my mess sorted out, for which I was eternally grateful.

After my day was finished, I grabbed a lift with one of the departing trucks back to the ‘Commerical Refrigador,’ where I showered and fell immediately asleep.

The next few days went on like this; I would work until I couldn’t move during the day, and then go back to the distribution centre and sleep the whole night. Sunday finally arrived and I did absolutely nothing except for sit on the couch and watch an old Mexican TV show called Chapulín Colorado.

On Monday I was in immigration and signing my name, as I’m required to do every day to prove that I haven’t gone anywhere. The Chief of Services asked me how my work was coming. I told him it was getting along just fine, except for that it was rather exhorting and possibly causing me to have a permanent hunch.

‘Well,’ he said, ‘I’ve got a friend who owns a restaurant in the Plaza. I’ll talk to him and see if I can get you something a little more restful. I’ll let you know.’

I thanked him and went outside to return to the docks. I was hoping there would be an opening; I honestly was having trouble standing up straight.

The day started off easy; forty kilo sacks of rice and boxes of vegetable oil, which progressed steadily to fifty kilo bags of corn and finishing the day off with the damned rice again. Fortunately, I’d made a good sum that day due to the variety of goods unloaded, (nearly 100 Bolivianos,) so I decided to take the next day off and just hang around town.

The subsequent afternoon, as I was eating my lunch of scrumptious soup, yummy yucca, and pleasurable piranha, I was approached by a man wearing a boonie cap and dark sunglasses. He introduced himself as Rodrigo (I seem to meet a lot of Rodrigos,) from Argentina. I shook with a slightly greasy hand and told him to have a seat.

He ordered the same as me; we chatted for a bit about things in Buenos Aires (we both agreed they could be better) and were soon friends. Rodrigo was here in Bolivia looking for some kind of work buying and selling gold.

Rodrigo was tall, thin, and had a thick, black beard. He invited me for a beer, which I accepted. We chatted more as we drank.

‘Gold,’ said Rodrigo, his eyes slightly glazed. ‘It’s where all the money is here in Bolivia. You can buy it very cheaply and then take it to other places and sell it for a huge profit!’

I was rather skeptical. Gold profiteering was a thing of the nineteenth century, everybody knew that. Nowadays you could probably make more money selling computers or pornos. Or both.

‘No, it’s completely possible!’ he said brightly. ‘Look, all you have to do is find the right seller and the right buyer. It’s foolproof!’ he said, with the same conviction as someone who’s positive they’ve found a pattern in the stock market.

‘Anyways, I’ve already gotten some gold dust from a guy at my hotel last night, so I’m already halfway there!’ Hm.

First off, plastic rings painted with gold paint from Wal-Mart probably had more actual gold in them than “gold dust” from a guy you met in a dollar-a-night hotel in Bolivia, and secondly, I felt maybe he was missing a step or two (‘halfway there?’) but I didn’t say anything. I sensed he had a business plan rather like the Underpants Gnomes from South Park:

Step 1: Collect Underpants

Step 2: ?

Step 3: Profit

Rodrigo finished his beer with a gulp. ‘Yeah, it should be good money.’ He stood up. ‘You want to go smoke a joint?’

Now he was speaking my language. I figured Rodrigo was going to be a really trippy guy to get stoned with, so I happily went along. I wasn’t disappointed.

We went to a small watercourse that went through a patch of cleared jungle and sparked up a fattie that I had rolled with brown grocery sack paper. The conversation turned from gold to the history of the world. Rodrigo’s take on it was certainly…interesting. I don’t recall too clearly exactly what his beliefs were, since I was a little high and he kept switching from Spanish to English and then back again without warning, but they were something like this:

The world is ruled by reptile gods who are some sort of alien race. We ourselves are also an alien race, but not the same as the gods. The Lord of the Rings is viewed as absolute fact, and there was quite a rant on the reality and proof of Middle Earth.

He had this map of his house and the surrounding area, printed out off of Google; one of the mountains was marked as a volcano, and I wasn’t familiar with any volcanoes in that part of Argentina; I asked him the name of the mountain. He told me that no-one knows that it’s really a volcano, but he knew that it was, which was why he marked it with a ‘volcano’ symbol. He says it’s actually an inversion of Mt Doom in Mordor and the entryway to Middle Earth. I assume he is currently searching for a way in without perishing in the lava along with The Ring and Gollum.

Clearly a bit off his rocker, but in all actuality he was a nice guy. He gave me a couple books to read in Spanish about people having auras and real-life travels to other dimensions.

‘These books have helped me through a lot, especially after my girlfriend broke up with me’ (really?) ‘and they explain a lot of what I’ve been talking about.’ He shook his head. ‘I’ve actually been feeling a little down about that lately.’ Standing up, he brushed off his pants and shouldered his backpack. ‘I’ve got to go see a sorcerer. See you later, man.’

I waved. What a character.


My friend at immigration got back to me about the restaurant job a few days later after I did some more manual labour and passed another afternoon with Rodrigo (his visit with the sorcerer was apparently a complete success.) Unfortunately, there were no openings. In spite of this, he told me he found something else for me with one of his friends on the police force. It paid 150 Bolivianos. He gave me the name ‘Capitan Olmos’ and told me to go to the police checkpoint on the remote western edge of town.

Two hours later I arrived on foot. The police checkpoint was like most police checkpoints in Bolivia: a dilapidated mud-brick building on the edge of nowhere. There was an old stick across the narrow dirt road to Riberalta that was painted with black and yellow lines, which was doing the same job as the arm that blocks your way into the parking garage until you take your ticket. A police motorcycle was parked out front next to a thinning string hammock and a smoldering campfire.

I walked inside the small one room building. There was a bed with a dirty mattress in the corner with a bright blue mosquito netting hovering over it like an air jellyfish. A tiny black and white TV sat in the opposite corner, playing silent static on a wooden table that had serious termite damage. In the center of the room was an equally unstable desk; assorted stamps and official-looking stacks of paper were scattered about. Sitting at the desk with his head on the table was, I assumed, Capitan Olmos himself. He was fast asleep.

‘Um,’ I started. ‘Excuse me?’ No response.

‘Capitan Olmos?’




‘HEY!’ I shouted. The Capitan’s head popped up, and he mumbled something that sounded like ‘Murgmpschplatter?’ He shook his head and his eyes cleared. He finally noticed me and stared.

‘What do you want?’

‘I’m here because Edmundo from Immigration told me you had a job for me?’

He thought for a moment. ‘Ah, yes!’ he said stridently. ‘You’re the gringo who tried to swim across the river!’ Apparently my infamy had made it all the way to the edge of town. ‘Yeah, I’ve got a job for you. Come with me.’ He stood up and I followed him out the door.

‘This is the gate.’ He pointed to the yellow and black stick that was currently blocking the deserted road. ‘Your job is to open it to let cars and motorcycles pass. At night, the cars have to pay 1 Boliviano per passenger and they have to show you their driver’s license. Semis always have to pay ten Bolivianos.’ He hitched up his pants, which were already quite high up on his enormous gut. ‘You get off in 24 hours. I’ll be inside.’ He turned and left.

Not bad, I thought. Not bad at all. I went up to the gate and tried to figure out how it worked. Not much brainpower was needed.

On the far end of the stick was a heavy weight; some sort of rusty steel mess dangling from a rope fastened to the end. On my side were a rope and a pulley. To lower the arm, you pulled the rope towards you and tied it off to a nail; to raise it, you let the weight on the other end pull the stick up. Not rocket science.

I went to work, which is to say, I sat in the chair and stared at the road. Motorcycles would pass every once in awhile, and cars and trucks rolled by a few times every hour. Sometimes we would get a semi or two. Other than that, the road was basically quiet.

It was pretty neat; I got to ask people for their driver’s licenses, and people gave me those nervous fake smiles that are usually especially reserved for cops and, in my case, immigration.

I was the man controlling the yellow arm; you are subject to my whim! Maybe I’ll let you by, maybe I won’t. After all, I’m the only person who can move that stick out of the way! Ha ha! You want to go to Riberalta? I’m gonna need to see some ID…

A few times Capitan Olmos would emerge to piss in the fire, and he brought me lunch and dinner. That’s all I really saw of him.

When night fell, traffic all but stopped. The perpetual jungle haze that covers Guyaramerín shrouded the orange waning gibbous moon in a cloak of wispy silk as it rose slowly in the eastern sky.

I was getting bored; I had already watched leaf-cutter ants all afternoon, caught three cicadas and a gargantuan mole-cricket the size of my thumb, and fed the dogs my chicken bones. Well, I was in the Amazon jungle, after all. I had a flashlight.

I decided to go ‘snaking,’ which, for those of you that don’t know, is when you go out at night with a flashlight with the sole purpose of finding snakes. There was a small brook nearby, so I figured I’d start there.

I wandered around in the jungle for five or six hours. I was disappointed that I found no snakes, but I did find lots of frogs (two blue-and-red poison dart frogs, and thirty or forty garden variety leopard frogs.) I also encountered tracks and feces that I was sure were from an ocelot. Not bad for a night of snaking, if I do say so myself.

I got back to the police checkpoint around three a.m. As I suspected, nothing had changed. Capitan Olmos was still asleep and the gate was just where I left it.

The next morning I was done. Capitan Olmos was a stingy bastard, though, and only paid me fifty Bolivianos because ‘it was a slow day.’ I didn’t mind; I got paid to sit on my ass and explore the jungle. A hell of a lot better than the rice, I can assure you.


I’ve got two more days until the first of September. Capitan Olmos doesn’t work again until Thursday, so I’ll have to find something else to do for the next 48 hours. I’ll keep you posted.

The Modern Nomad