Letters From Latin America: Riberalta, Bolivia

2 October 2019
4:35PM
Wednesday

Hey you,

Can you imagine what it feels like to have a tarantula jump on you while you’re naked? Because that happened to me in the shower. Apparently, that’s what happens when you’re in the Amazon. Then, when I ran out of the bathroom, this thing chased after me, sensing my fear, testing its power. Ugh, I just got the shivers recalling the moment. Spiders have too many legs, too many eyes; adding size and hair on top of all that mess is too much for my liking. The journey to get here wasn’t all that appealing either.

There are no direct buses from La Paz to Riberalta. I had to get a ride to Rurrenabaque, and from there to Riberalta. In fact, the buses heading in that direction – north – aren’t even found at the two main bus terminals (Terminal de la Buses de La Paz and Terminal Minasa). They start off from another location in town, which is a little confusing. Why do they do that? Thanks to all the travellers using maps.me, this not-at-the-main-bus-terminal location is marked on the map app as ‘To Rurrenabaque’. Very helpful!

The schedule for departure changes as and when, so your best bet is to check with a tour agency first. Don’t buy from them though. When I asked an agency about the timing, the agent said it was at 3PM and costs BOB100 (approximately USD14.50). I went to the bus agency a day before to confirm the timing and book my ticket and it was BOB70 (approximately USD10).

Planting a chocolate fruit tree. Too bad I never got to try it.

So, the next two days of my life went like this: The bus departed at 5PM – two hours late – and arrived at Rurrenabaque 15 hours later. Then, I found out I’d just missed the morning bus to Riberalta and was told I will now have to wait until 9PM. Not true. I waited until 10:30PM for the next bus. Making that 14 hours of sitting around in the terminal. Then, it was another 14-hour ride to Riberalta. This second journey was extra uncomfortable. Surprise, surprise, it was because of a man.

He worked with the bus company and offered to help put my backpack in the luggage area as he yelled something to his friends about mi amiga nueva, before turning to me with a smile and a nod and a confirmative, “Sí?” I nodded back and got on the bus. Once everyone was on board, this dude came to check on me and decidedly took up my partnering seat. He started to make conversation, but I wasn’t in the mood and I really couldn’t understand his accent, and I could smell his unbrushed teeth and cigarette breath. So I did what I always do, just close my eyes and hope he’ll go away.

He asked in a disappointed voice if I was going to sleep. I said yes, I’m really tired. His next move was to pretend to sleep too. I believe it was in pretence because his manspreading body kept coming closer to mine every time I shifted closer to the window. I didn’t know how to politely tell him off because I foolishly still never know how to do that. Plus, I was worried he might then chuck my luggage out of the bus if he got offended. So I shoved two of my coats in between our bodies. It worked for about five minutes before his limbs shoved my coats aside. Seriously. What was his game plan here?! Now I was trapped, unable to listen to my music or podcasts because moving would mean I was awake and he might try to keep talking. I continued to play dead in my discomfort and about an hour later, when they made their first pit stop, he got up and went downstairs to the driver’s compartment. Por fin!


“He grabbed my wrists, he called me pretty, he said he loved me, he pinned me against a wall, and I wanted to scream but the words wouldn’t come out.”
How I Overcame Getting Sexually Assaulted While Travelling Solo 

The entire jingbang

The closer we got, the smokier the air became. I haven’t been keeping up to date with the news, but from what I can now see, the Amazon is still burning. It was a Sunday when I left La Paz, and a Tuesday when I arrived. Tired, but more than anything, relieved. As this was paid accommodation and not Workaway, transportation to my jungle cabin was provided. I was roomed with a Bolivian sweetheart named Marta and met with six others who were staying there too. Everyone else chose the option of flying in instead. I didn’t because I wasn’t going to fork out USD100 for a one-way flight. Although, some of them flew-in directly from their respective countries.

There was Adam from Sweden, Dana from America, Matt from Australia, Frederica from Germany, Aroa from Spain, Marta and Vicky from Bolivia, and me. I felt super incompetent and rather envious after meeting everyone because I very quickly came to know that they all could speak fluent English and Spanish while I was the only one who didn’t put in that extra effort to properly learn this necessary language. Of course, the only person judging me was myself. Everyone else, especially Marta, always very kindly reassured me that she was more than happy to translate whenever I’m lost and didn’t want me to feel left out.

After being greeted and welcomed, one of the first very warnings we received were of “el borro.” (I think I’m spelling that wrong because I can’t seem to find the English translation on Google). We were told never to hang our clothes outside the cabin, and even if in our cabins, please shake your clothes before putting them on. There’s this species of butterfly – the borro – that’s huge and lays eggs which burrow into and under your skin. Its eggs will hatch and cause you to itch to the point you’ll want to use a knife to scrape it out. The day we got there, there was a dog that’d suffered the horrible fate of this horrifying butterfly. Poor dog pretty much chewed its entire paw off, pulling a 127 Hours on itself. The dog was rushed to a vet. By the time we left, the dog returned. Prancing about with three and a half legs.

Then, there was the lake. The calm, beautiful, inviting lake. Although Malaysia is also the tropics, the tropical weather here seems a lot more intense to me. The heat is insane and showering with cold water became my favourite thing to do. I’d shower about five times a day. When I first saw the lake, I wanted to jump in. Everyone wanted to jump in. Unfortunately, the owner of the place said not to. Entering would be inviting an attack from piranhas, anacondas, and crocodiles. Every day, we felt tempted to find out if this was true or not. When we went on boat rides, we always hoped to see a scary animal. We saw none. We concluded that the warning was just “to be on the safe side.”

On the sunset boat ride the evening we spotted a crocodile

I don’t know how I missed this information when I made my booking, but it was only upon arrival that I was told we won’t be having electricity or phone signal. Full immersion in the jungle experience and all. When I dug through my bag for my headlamp, I found my lamp already turned on and really dim by this point. Great. Walking around at night with just a torch brings about a lot of shock factors – you never know what you’re going to see with every step you take, and the Amazon really comes alive at night.

The paths we walk during the day are mostly clear. At night, it’s almost impossible to not step on trails of giant ants and other bugs all out working and carrying leaves and who knows what else they’re up to. The worst is always when I enter the cabin only to have my heart stop for a second because I see a tarantula chilling on the wall somewhere or on the clothes that I hung up. Reminds you to never just feel your way around the cabin. Even if it’s a short trip to the toilet, you’d better shine that light everywhere and move with caution.

My toilet had a frog, or many frogs of the same kind, living right in the bowl. Every time I flush it down, or manage to shoo it out of the bowl, there it is again the next time I needed to wee. But it wasn’t brightly-coloured, so it wasn’t poisonous and therefore not a threat. As long as it had the right mind not to jump and touch my butt, we’re cool.

Our beds have mosquito nets and I always made sure to have it closed all the time. The risk of something entering is too high. One morning, Marta woke up and right in her netting was a cockroach. She closed her eyes and went back to sleep for another hour. When she awoke, it was still there. I would NOT have been able to go back to sleep, that’s for sure. Then, she gently shook the netting to persuade it to leave. It did not. When I got up and she pointed it out to me, I did what needed to be done. Hold the mosquito netting shut. Whack it with a slipper until it falls to the ground. Kill it and swat it out of the room.

Marta and I in our cabin

We had a lot of wasps too. At first, I kept catching them with a cup and sliding my notebook under, then releasing them outside. It was a futile attempt because they kept returning. Since they didn’t ever threaten to sting, eventually I got used to them and left them alone.


This quick and handy guide will help anybody else embarking on a few days in the jungle:
How To Pack For A Jungle Adventure 

I wore shoes and long-sleeved tops at all times. Matt was always bare-footed and he seemed unperturbed and I admired that. But then again, he’s from Australia and is used to having all animals out to kill humans. He also works with saving wildlife, so he’s on a different level of being chill with nature. Marta often wore slippers and her feet weren’t as lucky. I don’t know what it was, but something crawled into her toenail and her toe started throbbing, so she had to dig it out with a pin and a pair of tweezers. Then a monster ant clung on to her skirt and bit the back of her ankle and it bled. It wasn’t like a spot of blood. It was actually dripping blood. I passed her a Band-Aid because it wouldn’t stop bleeding. How overboard of an ant bite is that?

Everything was bigger, scarier, and deadlier, in the Amazon. I saw bugs that were as big as my palm. That’s not right. They shouldn’t be allowed to be so huge. The fireflies were cool though. They were also massive and mad bright. When their butts weren’t on fire, you can still see them cause their eyes gleamed a bright neon green.

How innocent looking is that lake

On our final evening, while chilling by the lake, we got to find out the rumours were true. Cruising along the horizon towards the sunset was a crocodile. Everyone whipped out their phones in excitement. Once the sun went down and we walked up the steps to dinner, Dana spotted a snake. It was just a baby, but I still felt privileged to be able to see one in the wild. Oh, I also got to witness a tribe of squirrel monkeys rushing about from tree to tree just outside my window. That made me really happy. I didn’t want to miss a moment of it so I didn’t take any photos.

For the most part of this entire journey, I’ve been trying to spend as much time in nature as possible, but now, at long last, I feel it’s enough. I need a break. I want to return to the city. I’m tired of getting bitten. I want the internet. I miss my friends and can’t wait to read their emails. I need to contact my family, especially my sister! Last night I dreamt I met my nephew and got to say hello to him. Then I got to bless him with many blessings like a fairy godmother. As far as I know, he’s still in my sister’s belly, so I need to find out when he’s due. I feel extra close to him already. So if he came out around the same time I dreamt of him, I’d take it as this was more than just a normal dream; it would be a woo-woo dream – the first I’ve ever had!

Tomorrow I have to head back to La Paz before making my way to Peru. I’m not looking forward to this stupidly long journey ahead. And hopefully, I won’t get into too much trouble at the border due to my week-long expired visa. I’ve never overstayed before. But once I’m in Cusco, I’ll get to be with my friend from Portland – Angela! A real friend in the flesh and I just can’t wait.

Hasta Peru!

All my love,
Petrina

*All photos 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.

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