Meaning: fertile lowlands of the Amazon region (Quechua word)
‘En Las Pampas todo es posible, y nada es seguro’. ‘In the pampas, everything is possible, and nothing is certain’, says our guide Victor with a grin. It becomes his catchphrase over the next few days in the Bolivian Amazon as we sail up and down a river lined by dozing Caymans, dorky Capybaras and Sereres; birds that bark. For an Australian the Amazon seems like one of those rare places where the animals are as dangerous as our own, but I soon change my mind. We swim in piranha infested waters, get up close to cheeky yellow monkeys and wake up to the ominous roar of the howler monkeys at dawn. During the day we cover up so much with white shirts and scarfs wrapped around our heads that we look like a group of nuns floating down the river. Another group even does a double take as they pass us by but its all worth it to avoid the bloodthirsty mosquitos. One night, we get into the boat and go up the river trying to spot the red eyes of the Cayman in the water hunting. Victor tells us to turn off our torches and he cuts the motor. We drift in the pitch black underneath galaxies of stars listening to the sounds of the Amazon at night. Nobody says a word. Sitting in the dark with the current pushing us onwards we feel like part of the jungle instead of mere spectators. The next morning we try in vain to swim with the Amazonian pink dolphins. We catch only a glimpse of a snout and a few tail flicks before we have to leave this incredible place. In the pampas, everything is possible, and nothing is certain.
In the middle of the night I am woken by Calli who is sitting next to me on an overnight bus in northern Bolivia. We have stopped in the middle of nowhere and she is sure we are about to die. Outside the window she points at the big coach coming towards us trying to pass and I realise that our clunky big ‘flota’ (coach) is slowly backing up, already at the edge of the cliff that lines one side of the road. The road is made of dirt which is softening at the edge in the torrential rain that outside. Flashes of fork lightning illuminate the tiny narrow road before us. Its not wide enough for two buses to pass. Our impending death is certain.
Only a few days earlier have we found ourselves faced with a tough decision. A quick flight from La Paz, Bolivia over the jungle to the town of Rurrenabaque or a treacherous sixteen hour bus ride at night along one of the most dangerous roads in the world. We are heading to visit the Amazon jungle in Bolivia, and while the road there isn’t technically the famous ‘Camino de la Muerte’ or ‘Death Road’ found in the same area, it is virtually the same. We are two months into our trip around South America and times are tight. Bus it is. The journey begins on a paved highway, the same one I have cycled a few days previously. Its a nice road that curves majestically around steep magnificent cliffs and green mountains. It even has double lines in the middle. But a few hours in the pavement ends and the real journey begins. We begin to traverse a dirt road just wide enough for us with a drop so steep on one side that we can’t see where it ends. We curve around cliffs and mountains heading into lower altitude where the plants become more and more tropical. Every time we see a sharp corner ahead everybody holds their breath as the wheels slowly find traction and bring us deeper into the jungle. Calli next to me in the window seat sees the bus wheels every time they brush the edge of the steep cliff, sending gravel falling over the edge. Even so, somehow little minibuses zip along this road, overtaking us in the slightly wider sections. Night falls and the storm picks up. Calli can’t take her eyes off the road which is fast becoming mud. I have been asleep for hours when she wakes me with the coach trying to pass. By now the wheels are almost falling off the side of the cliff. The rain continues to pour down, but still the coach advances. Inch by inch it moves forward and finally passes us. We breathe a sigh of relief and the bus continues on through the winding mountains until at last we reach flatter ground. Though we arrive at 4am at a tiny terminal surrounded by pitch black darkness and jungle sounds, we are so thrilled to get off that bus.