Goodbye to the jungle: Young people abandon Bolivia's "Gateway to the Amazon"
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Goodbye to the jungle: Young people abandon Bolivia's "Gateway to the Amazon"

Carlos is your average 15-year-old. He likes films, going online, football: in fact, he’s rarely seen out of his Chelsea FC shirt. But on weekends, you’ll find him on the trail of jaguars and piranhas in one of the world’s wildest jungles.

Carlos lives in Rurrenabaque, a remote settlement in northwest Bolivia known as the Gateway to the Amazon. Foliage-covered mountains enclose the town, cut in two by the muddy Río Beni. Soldiers rub shoulders with backpackers and indigenous farmers in the clutch of karaoke bars that line the potholed streets.

The naval base across the river is a one story-house. Outside are moored a few of the Boston Whaler-type speedboats that make up the majority of the landlocked nation’s naval forces. It bears a legend stubbornly recalling the coastal region that Bolivia lost to Chile 135 years ago: “The sea is a right. To reclaim it is a duty.”

Carlos’s father, Ernesto, did his national service with the navy. He tells how sergeants would turn up at town dances and bundle half-drunk “recruits” into their trucks, some who’d already done their time: the mistake was usually rectified after a few days.

Now, Ernesto works with local indigenous tour company Mashaquipe, guiding visitors around the fringes of the Madidi National Park, an hour downriver. A 19,000 square-kilometer reserve stretching all the way to the Andes, it’s home to thousands of species: raucous scarlet macaws, monkeys, snakes and the occasional big cat.

Ernesto was raised nearby by parents belonging to the Tacana community, one of several indigenous peoples who inhabited the region long before the Spanish, or even the Inca, arrived. Each group speaks its own language and knows the jungle, and its non-human residents, inside out. Several once-isolated communities now negotiate the tricky balance between business — tourism, or growing sugar cane for sale — and maintaining their separate identity.

“My father taught me everything,” Ernesto tells me as we walk along a winding jungle trail, the fierce sunlight barely penetrating the leaves, Carlos bringing up the rear. “He taught me about the jungle, the different species, how to use a bow and arrow, how to find my way around. And I want to pass that on to my son. Hopefully, one day he’ll become a guide too, and keep the knowledge alive.”

Ernesto stops, holding up a hand for silence. First comes the smell: a greasy, pungent scent. Then a rustling off to the right of the trail, and a deep bass grunting. We get a glimpse of the chanchos as they bolt: more than fifty coarsely-haired black wild pigs, squealing and crashing through the undergrowth before us.

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The national park, stretching to the Peruvian border is home to nearly 1,300 species of birds alone. Photo: Laurie Blair

Weirder animals come from the deep rivers that wind through the jungle; beasts to rival the ancient rock carving of a serpent-like river monster a few miles downstream. A few hours later, father and son cast simple hooks and lines into the water. Before long, we’re hauling in a huge surubí, a leopard-spotted catfish. The fishing’s good in the wetlands to the south too: if you find space to drop a line amid the pink river dolphins and caimans, you’ll soon pull it into the boat with a piranha on the end.

But Carlos is part of a generation that doesn’t want to stay on the edge of the jungle forever. New technology is opening up horizons. The cybercafes back in town are packed with teenagers on Facebook and Twitter. Many, like Carlos, think about leaving to somewhere better connected. La Paz lies 20 hours away, along gravel tracks and mountain roads, often impassable due to flooding and snow. Rurrenabaque itself was evacuated after several people died in huge floods last February.

“I think I’m going to leave, for a bit, at least,” says Carlos that night, as we roast the surubí back at camp. “I want to join the army. I’ll have to train for two years away in La Paz, or Cochabamba.”

“If I get good enough grades at school, I can become an officer, and maybe rise up the ranks. I’ll get to see more of the country. It’ll be a good career,” he says.

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Carlos and Ernesto pilot a launch down the waterways of the Parque Nacional Madidi. Photo: Laurie Blair

Later, as the firelight dims and the nighttime noises of the jungle rise up around us, Ernesto tells the story of the time he became lost out here for two days.

“I was walking and walking, and getting pretty scared. But there are animal tracks, and you can sometimes see the stars. Eventually, I found my way to the river, and I knew where I was.”

The next day, the chanchos fearlessly invade the camp, the promise of scraps outweighing their timidity. We take the launch back to Rurre in time for Carlos’s Monday morning classes. He may leave his home in the Amazon for a life elsewhere. But he, too, will know how to find his way back home.

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