Letters From Latin America: Madidi National Park, Bolivia

14 September 2019
Saturday
7:40am

¡Holaaa de Boliviaaa!

Did you know that, instead of trains, the metro system in La Paz is cable cars? So cute. The people have been really helpful too in taking their time to explain what is where. Naturally, I got lost trying to manoeuvre my way around. But thankfully, I’m finally in a lower-cost South American country, so my travelling-in-the-wrong-direction mistake only cost me RM2 (approximately USD0.50). Although after Chile, pretty much everywhere would seem cheap. I almost can’t believe I spent a full three months there. I waited up until the very last day of my visa validity before flying out.

My life for the past month has been comfortable, indulgent, and wonderfully domestic. Throughout my entire time in Santiago, I hardly ventured out at all. Remember I mentioned how Ryan, Jarett, and myself, crashed in Mauricio’s apartment for a few days? After they left, I lingered on and made his couch my home.

It took no time at all to immediately settle back into a life of bumming about – spending most of my time binge-watching Netflix or being in the kitchen. I was more than happy to prepare home-cooked meals just about every day. Based on my observation, I think Chileans don’t really know how to cook. Especially when it comes to vegetables, so they think vegetables are gross. I made sure to prove otherwise. Also, they tend to eat many foods with an abundance of salt and mayonnaise. That’s gross.

Cable car ride from the airport to the bus terminal

Anyway, obviously it was lovely to hang out with Mauricio every day; catch up on unnecessary vanity like painting my nails and dyeing my hair; enjoy a hot shower whenever; clean my clothes easily with a washer and a dryer – all the things that I am now back to lacking.

When I was a teenager, I remember feeling jealous of girls who always got free stuff from guys. Chocolates, make-up, flowers, whatever. I was never one of those girls because I was never pretty like that. But life is so gracious now. And generous! What did I do to deserve people inviting me home for days and weeks shortly after meeting me and then not getting sick of my face? What have I done to deserve people always looking out for me, making sure I have everything? On the day of my departure, Mauricio was scuttling about his house stuffing things into my bag in spite of my protests. “Take my shoes. They’re light and quick-dry!” “Take this chocolate. They’re my favourite.” “Take this headlamp! You’re going to need it!” “What else do you need? Toilet paper? Take this. You need all these things. There is nothing in Bolivia!”

At the airport, I was a ball of tears. You know how bad I am at goodbyes. I can’t help but be overwhelmed by these moments. I just feel so stupid every time I cry in public. So I tried to console myself with the reminder that this is South America, not Asia. People show emotions here. They’re expressive like in their telenovelas. So it’s okay to cry; no one here will judge you.

While trying to find my way around La Paz, I was constantly thirsty. Not sure if that had anything to do with the high altitudes. I was also frequently out of breath, but that could easily just be me and my poor stamina. At the very last minute, shortly before I got on the wrong bus to the wrong location, I received directions from my Workaway host. When I Googled for the bus companies he mentioned, nothing came up. I tried searching on my maps.me app for the bus terminals instead, also nothing. By asking “Dònde està autobus a Apolo?” to shopkeepers every 200 metres, I finally found the place mentioned by my host.

My accommodation

And I could see why it didn’t have a website or anything. All these bus companies just had a hole in the wall for an office. Important to note, most transactions in Bolivia are by cash only, no credit cards. It was BOB70 Bolivianos (approximately USD10) for a 13-hour journey. Sweetly inexpensive. It was, however, the ricketiest, zero-suspension, squeaky, bumpy bus ride you can imagine. There were other companies around all taking the same route. All their buses looked just as terrible or worse. Covered with really odd paintings of dragons, lions, wizards, and semi-naked ladies.

The bus was over an hour late, but that wasn’t so much of an issue as compared to the splitting headache I was suddenly attacked by. It’s the kind that pains me until I feel like puking. Even though I hadn’t eaten in over 24 hours, I was still worried I might actually vomit due to the constant jolts and sways. Thankfully, my sleeping abilities overpowered everything else, and I managed to remain passed out for most of the ride.

Now, I’m in the jungle with bites and scratches everywhere and am going through the adjustment period again where I feel anti-social and sullen and missing friends everywhere. Pretty much like how I was back in Uruguay right after leaving Kuala Lumpur. I’m not actually sullen. My mood is fine. I just don’t feel like talking. Even now, breakfast is ready and I love to eat, but I am staying back in my room because I know the rest aren’t awake yet, and the people in charge of today’s breakfast are chatty folks. So if I head to the kitchen now, I’ll be forced into small talk about how I slept last night and what my weekend plans will be.

I also still get very easily agitated. There are two humans here who irritate me endlessly every day. One is a three-year-old who is the very definition of a crybaby and a snotty spoilt brat, and I wish his mother would either tell him off or simply ignore him, but she never does. Aren’t jungle babies meant to be more resilient? This one is fake-scream-crying every 15 minutes. The other is a much older man who looks like Santa Claus and has the strangest ability to speak like a child while simultaneously sounding patronising and pitiful as he nags us about not watering the garden or cleaning the kitchen or scrubbing the toilet floor properly. If our boss isn’t complaining, why are you? I don’t actually know what his role is.

The biggest dude is from Itay and the rest are from France

What I miss, I realise, is coming across people who have the same sense of humour. It’s the rarest thing to find. I wish I could turn to the person next to me and play one of my favourite games – “What animal does that person look like?” I don’t mean it in a mean way. Some very beautiful women can be very pretty and simultaneously look like a cute little.

My boss/host is a really nice bloke from England. He’s always in a good mood, very willing and patient in explaining why we’re doing what we’re doing, and has a moustache growing too long for his face that it’s curling outwards and over his top lip. I look at him and see a mouse. It can really be quite distracting. Obviously I can’t say all this to anyone here or they’ll think I’m being mean. Anyway, besides my boss, no one else here speaks English. The other volunteers are from France and so we talk about basic things in broken Spanish. However, the one great thing about not speaking Spanish is that the kids mostly leave me alone. Now I don’t need to pretend to want to play with them or admire their drawings.

When I look at dirty hippies and wish they were less disgusting, I wonder if that’s how my friends feel when they look at me and go, “Why are you like that?” But I also feel that if I find a person dirty, then the person really is dirty. My bar is already set pretty low. Even though I come off as hippie-ish to city folk, I can’t actually connect with real hippies. They’re in a whole different world and we have nothing in common. You don’t like television and think cars are evil? Okay, bye.

Also, I will never want to date a man who travels with a guitar or a djembe or anything as equally attention-seeking. Unless you are outstandingly mind-blowingly talented or will face serious withdrawals without your instrument, there’s no real reason to be banging on your bongos or strumming More Than Words around a campfire and distracting everyone else from having a conversation. Really makes me roll my eyes.

This jungle is so dense I could get lost without wandering in

I was once sat across a hippie woman in the mountains of Lithuania. I can’t really remember what she looks like but it’s her actions that stick in my mind so vividly. A big fat ant was crawling up her left shoulder while she was telling us a story. Without needing to look, she let it crawl onto her right index finger instead and gently it led it onto the grass. It’s not anything major, but I was so fascinated because I would have smacked and killed the ant instantly. Knee-jerk reaction to any creepy crawly that decides to lay its dirty little feet on me. I think I’m slightly better or nicer now though. I only aim to kill if it aims to bite.

Weekends are our days off, and last Saturday, five of us volunteers ventured on a two-hour trek to a waterfall known as ‘the big one’. It was a plain enough trek with ups and downs. I didn’t enjoy all the uphill climbs, so I distracted myself the way I know best. By taking my mind some place else.

Just the day before, someone from my past dropped me a message. It wasn’t about anything significant, but his mere contact made its mark. I couldn’t stop thinking about him. I know what we have is in the past, I know we might not even see each other again, I know the only dimension where there could ever be a ‘we’ again is in my head. Imagine if his next message to me after, “Where in the world are you now?” was, “Stay there. I’m flying to you.” I pictured seeing him at the airport. I pause. I freeze. He walks slowly towards me as I stare at him in disbelief. His face reaches mine. “Hey,” he says in that gentle, loving, calming way he used to say whenever I greeted him at his door. He has one palm on my cheek as he looks into my eyes and I just drown in him. I get lost in desire, infatuation, passion, like I have never known with another, and never will. We spend some weeks here, maybe even fly back to his country for a while, before I return to where I was, and continue my Latin American journey. We bid goodbye. With less pain this time. Less “Why did I fall asleep? I could have had a few more hours with you,” type of regret. Less neediness to make this last. Less or no promises made. Promises simply can’t be kept. Even in my daydreams, we come to an end. It’s not sustainable, this kind of whirlwind intensity. He consumes me and I can’t help but get swept up and lose myself in all of it. That’s also why he needed to leave me. Silently. Suddenly. Savagely. There was no other way. I know that now. I needed to be left alone, forced on my own, to find my balance again. I guess I should be glad this fantasy only exists in my head. I become too dramatic for my own good. At least in this version, I get to give us some closure.

Setting up camp next to the waterfall

Next thing I know, we’d arrived at the lookout point of the waterfall. Seeing as this was ‘the big one’, it was a long way down. My old lady knees weren’t pleased. But once we pitched our tents and collected sufficient firewood, all was good with the world, and I was glad I went. While sitting around the fire, conversing in Spanish with the Frenchies, I found out with much relief that I wasn’t the only hater in the room. They couldn’t stand the crybaby kid and the old man either. Good to know it’s not just me being a grumpy old fart. From then on, we always exchanged looks of annoyances whenever either one of those two start doing their thing. I was grateful to find some common ground in our grievances.

When it came to sleeping arrangements though, one girl didn’t have a tent and asked if she could sleep in mine. Of course, I said yes. Of course, I would rather have not. I love my tent. I love the privacy and the false sense of security I get from being in it. It’s labelled a three-man tent which means it’s just right for me and my luggage. She and I are roommates back at camp too, but we don’t talk to each other all that much. So it can be rather claustrophobic to be sharing this single-mattress-size space with someone you’re not comfortable with. I thought to myself that everyone should travel with a tent! Then I remembered how I didn’t have a tent once and others had shared theirs with me. So just be kind and pay it forward, Petrina!

Blending in with the jungle life

Early the following morning, before the rest arose, I had a quick (skinny) dip despite it being cold and cloudy and windy. I’ve heard good things about showering or swimming in cold water. Apparently, you’ll feel refreshed and strong after that. Nope. I was freezing, shivering, and had brain freeze. The sun only decided to make an appearance once we packed up and ready to trek back.

I just read what I wrote. Contemplated deleting my fantasy paragraph because I make myself cringe. Then I realised I haven’t even told you what I’m doing in this jungle. So I’ll tell you all about that in my next letter. A girl from America is arriving today or tomorrow. I’m quite excited to have another English-speaking volunteer here. Hopefully, we get along!

Hasta luego!

Jungle love and affection,
Petrina


Always wanted to travel alone but scared the loneliness will creep in? Just follow these tips:
How To Make Friends While Travelling Solo

P.S. Malaysians need to apply for a tourist visa before entering Bolivia. It’s quite straight-forward although undeniably mah-fan (a hassle). As with all visa applications, really.

Before visiting any nearby Bolivian embassy:
1. Make sure your passport has at least six months of validity.
2. Fill up the online application form (do also check if your passport is applicable for visa on arrival).
3. Photocopy/print out all these documents:
a) The above online application form
b) Your passport
c) Flight booking out of Bolivia
d) Accommodation booking in Bolivia
e) Itinerary in Bolivia
f) Bank statement
g) Passport photo, maybe. I didn’t get asked for one but apparently sometimes it’s required.
h) Depending on where you’re headed, they may ask for your yellow fever vaccination certification. They didn’t ask me for this either.

Go in the morning so that you can get your passport back by the end of the day. And only go about a week before entering Bolivia. At first, I went two weeks prior and they said it was too soon to apply. It’s free, by the way, and only Americans need to pay USD160USD. If you’re like me and typically have nothing planned out, don’t be intimidated by the need to have an itinerary and all that. You can just make it up. They’re not going to check if you’re actually going to do that tour or not.

I applied for mine in Santiago, Chile. Went at 11am. Got my passport back at 4pm. There was no such thing as queueing. If you see the man come out of his office, just go up front and tell him why you’re there or you won’t receive any attention at all. This may not apply to embassies in other countries.

*All images courtesy of the author. 

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Occasionally referred to as a hobo, Petrina happily sleeps on cardboard boxes at petrol stations, digs through bins for food, and can go without showering for days, when necessary. She has terrible sense of direction but believes that getting lost can be pretty fun too.