We've just returned from three days in the Chapare, the lowland tropical region of Cochabamba department. It was an exhausting but enjoyable few days, and students had the chance to see another part of Bolivia, while learning about the war on drugs, alternative development, tropical agriculture, and jungle ecosystems.
The trip was exhausting mostly because of the bus which was our mode of transportation for this adventure. Though we had arranged for a long-distance bus (a flota) to take us to the Chapare, the driver showed up on Sunday with a local city bus (a micro), not designed for long trips or passenger comfort. It was a classic bait-and-switch, and we had no time to arrange an alternative. So off we went.
The bus had trouble climbing the hills out of the Cochabamba valley, but even more trouble with the long descent into the Chapare. The two-lane highway winds for miles down from the heights of Cochabamba (about 7500 meters) to the town of Villa Tunari (290 meters above sea level), and our driver did not seem to understand the use of the lower gears to slow the vehicle. Instead he rode the brakes, which soon overheated. We spent upwards of a half hour standing on the side of the road waiting for the brakes to cool down, and then set off in first gear all the way down the mountain. A trip that should have taken three to four hours took nearly seven,
and we arrived tired, bruised, and extremely hungry - Ivan repeatedly yelling "Carne!" from the back of the bus during the final two hours of the trip, and several students plotting to eat Ayesha, the vegetarian of the group, before we finally pulled into Villa Tunari at about 10 pm.
Our students from last year will remember some of the activities from the Chapare, including a visit to UMOPAR, the Bolivian anti-drug police, who described to us their efforts in trying to fight narcotics trafficking in Bolivia. We also got a tour of the UMOPAR cocaine museum, where we all received a lesson in how to process coca leaves into cocaine paste for easy transport to foreign markets. Very educational!
New this year was a visit to La Jungla, a theme park consisting of rope bridges, tree forts, and
zip lines stretched between jungle trees. There were also rope swings hanging from sequentially higher starting points - our students and the braver among our faculty (yours truly not included) climbed to the top of the wooden platforms and leapt off, swinging out into space and screaming their lungs out.
We also finally made it into Parque Machia, the wildlife park in Villa Tunari. Students from last year's trip will surely remember our many failed attempts to access this park, ending with me screaming "Fascists!" and "Nazis!" at the intransigent park employees who refused to allow us entrance. But this year, after one failed attempt (the park is not open on Mondays, who knew?), we gained admission on our final day, and it was worth the wait. We saw all kinds of wildlife, particularly monkeys and birds, and hiked up a huge mountain to a waterfall.
On returning from the hike, I sat on the steps of the park office drinking from a bottle of water, and was approached by what appeared to be a monkey family: a mom with a baby riding on her back, and another adult whom I assumed anthropocentrically to be the dad. These three sat beside me and appropriated my water bottle, drinking casually till the water was gone and then ambling off in search of more goodies. The "dad" eventually found his way onto our bus, where he stole G's ham and cheese sandwich before escaping through an open window.
There were other events (including a failed attempt to find some Inca ruins) which I will relate at another time. For now, I am glad to be back in Cochabamba - the humidity and the insects of the Chapare, while a nice diversion, get tiresome after a few days. Glad to be back in the llajta.