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Memories of my travels between 1972 and 1982

Wednesday, 11 May 2011

May 11th: On The Rio Ichilo in Lowland Bolivia

On May 11th 1976 I was on the Rio Ichilo in Eastern Bolivia.  I had wanted to spend some time on a river boat.  As I had not been to the Amazon in Brazil, I took the opportunity in Bolivia, much further up the river system, on what is ultimately a tributary of the Madeira.  With my friend Olivier I took a bus from Sucre to Cochabamba, and then on to Puerto Villaroel.  We started sleeping on one boat but the engine broke down when we tried to set off, so we switched to the Neptuno.  We still had to wait a few days before leaving while the captain lingered hoping for more water in the river.

The Neptuno pulled a barge which took larger, less perishable cargo and some temporary passengers.  On the deck was the captain's cabin and wheelhouse and a galley, below was the hold where the main passengers slept.  I slept on a mattress on top of sacks of cement with a mosquito net draped from the ceiling.  Doña Lina  and Fernando (El Gordito) were the traders who were the main paying passengers; they carried beer, salt, cement and lots of other commodities, and kept up a friendly rivalry between themselves.  Doña Lina was headed for the town of Santa Ana and played her records at any time of the day or night; she only had three or four and after a couple of days we were all singing along ironically.  Fernando was heading for Trinidad I believe.  These towns and others downriver had no roads to the rest of the country in those days and traders made good profits for what was often two or three week journeys.  The other two passengers were white Bolivian drifters in their twenties.  Upstairs were the captain, the pilot and his wife and daughter, three marineros (sailors), one darker with a limp, two younger, and the cook and her son.  We also carried a canoe for quick trips to shore, for fishing and for bathing or swimming.  At night we would pull up to the bank and usually take refuge from the mosquitoes.  The river was quite narrow at this point and in this dry season the marineros were forever taking soundings before the pilot was happy for us to continue.
On this day I recorded in my journal:    
Plenty of things happening to keep the interest up.  Woke early as marineros were bailing out, but lay in until well after we'd set off.  Stopped around breakfast to survey a tricky stretch ahead.  The 2 borrachos (an alcoholic couple) and their daughter and dog left in the canoe meanwhile.  Stopped at chaco (farm), trying to get bananas, but none there.  Friendly owner, also has house in Trinidad.  Sat a while under thatch, took papaya and peppers.  Turtle spotting on the right hand side, mostly grey or black.  Purple kingfisher.  Immediately after lunch tied up at another chaco but owner away, beautiful flowers, a lovely paradise, they say he has maize and cows as well, everything except women.  Gorged ourselves on papaya.  Some beautiful jungle on right hand side, pink trees some with little red flowers, parrots, big parrots and macaws.  More turtles.  Hot and sunny.  A tejon (kind of coati) in the water, caught him, caged him, he got away, caught again.  Some hawks and vultures around.  Falcon being mobbed at chaco.  Storks and herons and spoonbills.  Little yellow monkeys in the trees.  Stayed the night by a chaco with a big beach and rivulet in front of it.  Flamingo in the dying sunlight.  Fishing again, again no success.
The days continued slowly downriver.  We stopped in at a wood plant to take a load of timber on, and stayed the night when the owner and the captain went on a hunting trip.  The supplies got low and we were more dependent on catching fish.  Piranhas were the most common if not the best;  I quickly got used to swimming or taking a bath with them around.  Cigarettes ran out which made for irritability.  Tea and coffee rarely were offered.  I spent long hours reading or playing dice on top, or watching for wildlife of which there was plenty on the banks or in the trees.  As we joined other tributaries the Rio Ichilo became the Rio Mamore and was a lot wider though not always deeper.  One evening we came to a real village, Cristal Mayo.  We met Gladys, the schoolteacher, and looked for cigarettes; she produced some home-grown tobacco and they were rolled in newspaper for the smokers.  Then we went to a further house where there was a party, rather indigestible chicha, friendly people, sitting and dancing to records.  The next night was our last on the boat and I sat on the bank in the dying light, muggy, fighting off mosquitoes: there was lightning behind the clouds, fireflies were out by the banks, and ducks were scampering on the water.

In the morning we reached Puerto Barreros, with a few houses around the capitaneria.  We took a pickup which was going towards Trinidad; we had to cross a river on a canoe and then found another pickup through open cattle country into Trinidad itself.  We found good food in the market and a flight which was an hour later.  We walked around the plaza and arcaded run-down streets, which were paved with bricks, all full of girls riding Honda 50s, and then we walked on to the airport.  The aircraft was small and they served Coca-Cola and crackers and sweets for the snack.  Below were winding rivers and lakes and swamps, then the foothills, I could see snow peaks and villages and hills of the Yungas beyond. Then we were over snowy cordillera, and I could see across the altiplano.  I caught a glimpse of a distant Lake Titicaca and then as we were coming down to the airport in El Alto, below me was the city pouring over the hill and down into the Valley of the Moon.

Rio Mamore, 2007:  Picture by Gerardo Ontiveros,  CC

View Trinidad in a larger map

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