Unforgettable Journey

February 16, 2007

What does an overloaded twin-cab four-wheel-drive, an overnight journey, and a tropical rainy season spell?  An unforgettable experience of course - but one that we're not in a big hurry to repeat!

By the time we get a chance to send this email, we have finally arrived at our little home at the school in Guayaramerin!  (Well we're not quite in our little grass home yet - we'll be spending a few weeks in one of the roughly-completed staff duplexes that were constructed last year, but it's good to be at the school at last.)  Our first day here was one of shopping around the mercados (markets), ferretarias (hardware stores), etc for the basics of setting up a simple home (plates & spoons, dust-pans, gas stove, etc, etc...  I'm sure in the next few weeks we'll get a chance to share a bit about our beautiful surroundings here at Guayaramerin, but for the moment, here's a little from our journey to get here...

We began our northward journey on Thursday night last week.  For the first part of the journey we would be hitching a ride with George (a Romanian friend from Santa Cruz) who was driving a twin-cab ute back to Trinidad for his friend Louis, a pastor from Trinidad.

The road connecting these two cities is probably one of the best roads in Bolivia from what we've heard, but for some reason much of the transport on this route occurs overnight - in fact no buses travel here by day.  Well as you can imagine, and as we've learned to expect, nothing quite works out the way you plan it here in Bolivia - you've got to be flexible... :-)

About an hour before we thought we'd be leaving, we received a call from Jeff (the director of the school in Guayaramerin) to say that some unexpected issues had arisen, and he wouldn't be able to meet us in Trinidad on Friday as expected.  No problem, we thought, we'll just wait there a few days - we certainly had plenty of things to keep us busy.

It goes without saying that we didn't start our journey on time - we were ready at 7:00pm, but we finally left about 10:30pm - no big problem... but when the truck arrived, one thing began to bother us - it didn't take long for us to see that there was no way that little tarpaulin was going to protect all the luggage in the overloaded ute from the storm that was being loudly announced by regular claps of thunder!  As you can imagine there are no shops selling large tarpaulins that are open at that hour of the night in Santa Cruz.  The pastor from Trinidad had to be home on Friday, and we had just packed up our personal belongings from the room that we'd been renting for a month - we certainly didn't feel like knocking on the door of one of our friends and asking if we could sleep on the floor for the night - in short, we felt we were fully committed! :-)  So off we started with luggage piled up around us in the back seat and our 1 week old guitar across our knees.

The journey didn't start off as bad as we'd dreaded - the storm did come pouring down, but only lasted five minutes, and things dry out pretty quickly in a hot climate so we were pretty happy about that.  There was a minor annoyance to deal with - my (Michael's) window had fallen down into the door when I tried to wind it up as the rain started.  Back in Melbourne, that would have been a major drama, but once again in a hot climate getting wet is not the end of the world.  I did start to get a bit cool, but was able to grab my rain jacket and was soon quite comfortable.

The first few hours passed uneventfully after that.  It was pretty uncomfortable packed into the back seat, and sleep was a long way away as I tried to move around every few minutes to get comfortable.  As the night wore on into the early hours of the morning, I became drowsy and started to drift in-and-out of slumber.  Danielle was able to get an hour or two of sleep here and there, but no sooner had I started to become sleepy enough to drowse off, than I noticed that our friend who was driving was starting to struggle with sleepiness himself.  His friend the pastor was alternately talking to him for half-an-hour, then catching a little sleep, and I couldn't sleep soundly while the driver was so obviously struggling.  Finally about 3am, George realised he needed a break, so Louis took over the wheel for a while, while George slept.  Louis was obviously struggling too about an hour later, I decided that despite the language barrier, I had better try to make conversation with him to keep him awake, and it was only a couple of minutes later that he woke George up to take over the wheel again!  I would have offered to drive, but didn't have any form of drivers licence, and had no idea of the location of the police checkpoints along the road. 

The only significant issue with checkpoints we had throughout the entire night was the main one between the two departments (like states) of Santa Cruz and Beni.  The border between the two departments is just after a very large river.  As we crossed the river, we could see a massive construction project in progress for a new bridge - with massive lighting towers allowing the work to continue even at night.  I was glad to see that the money from the regular toll booths was being put to good use!  Once across the river we arrived at the official border checkpoint.  All vehicles crossing this border are fumigated or sprayed with some sort of insecticide, and all drivers must present the correct papers for themselves and their vehicles.  George's licence had expired the day before, his visa had expired a month ago, and he knew he might have some problems.  He was trying to head up north to the Border with  Brazil to correct this situation, but I could tell that he was a bit anxious as he talked to the border officials.  I tried to listen to the proceedings, but at 3am the Spanish part of my brain couldn't decipher any part of the conversation.  Thankfully after talking for about five minutes we were on our way again!

That checkpoint broke up the journey and everyone was wide awake for a while.  As we traveled, we noticed that the clouds were progressively building up.  By 5am the first signs of the approach of a new day were just beginning to show in the sky when the rain began.  At first a shower, but then heavier and heavier.  Louis leant me his rain jacket to hold up in the window to keep the worst of the rain outside.  By now we were far too tired to care about all our luggage in the back, but George did try to re-adjust the tarpaulin to cover three large cartons which he was bringing to Trinidad for Jeff & Fawna. 

By 6am or 7am, I noticed that the car was not handling very well.  At first I thought George was really tired and overcorrecting with his steering adjustments.  I kept a close eye on him and tried to make conversation from time-to-time.  Next, I put it down to a combination of tiredness and wet roads, but I was concerned that he didn't seem to be driving more slowly to compensate.  George speaks Romanian, Spanish, and a little English, but by that time in the morning, I could not think how to express my concerns so I just did my best to keep a close eye on him.  Half an hour later, George himself started to become concerned with things and pulled off the road to have a look at the vehicle.  An almost-flat rear tyre was soon found, and I breathed a prayer of thanks that we had discovered it before we completely came to grief on the wet roads.

We had pulled over in the middle of a big downpour of rain, so we waited for ten minutes for it to subside before tackling the changeover.  I won't go into the specifics of the tyre changeover - suffice-it-to-say that by the end of it all we were soaked and glad that the vehicle hadn't fallen off the poorly-fitting jacks.  During the tyre changeover I tried hard not to look at the soaked luggage - nothing we could do about it there.  Looking at the condition of the spare tyre, I wondered if it would carry us the distance to Trinidad, but thankfully we had only 20km to go, and it did hold-out for the duration!  The spare tyre wasn't the only worry for those last 20km.  Periodically we started smelling smoke, but although we unsuccessfully stopped a couple of times to find it's source, the only thing we knew was that it was coming up into the cabin through the steering wheel!  Man were we glad to arrive safely in Trinidad. 

Our prayer of thanks for a safe journey took on a new meaning after this saga, but this wasn't quite the end of the journey.  We were all desperately tired, but now had a ute full of soaked luggage to deal with.  Pr Lois and his wife kindly offered for us to stay at their place, and allowed us to string up ropes all through their open-air lounge/living-room to hang up our soggy clothes.  We finally lay down to the sound of the rain pouring down outside ay 11.30am.  As I started to drift off to sleep, I breathed a prayer "Lord, thank you so much for the hospitality of these kind people.  I hate to think what Louis' wife will think when she comes home to a house full of wet washing.  We have no idea of the damage to Jeff & Fawna's luggage yet, but we can't do anything more right now...".

What a blessing to wake a few hours later to find the rain had stopped, the clouds were blowing away, and very soon the sun was blasting down at full tropical strength!  I won't say Friday afternoon wasn't tiring - sorting through another 100kg of our friend's soggy luggage and moving it around in the small available space in the sun, but praise God between Friday afternoon and the best part of Sunday, we managed to rescue almost all the clothes, medical supplies, and books from their otherwise soggy, mouldy fate.

All-told, we spent four days in Trinidad.  We had booked a flight up to Guayara for Tuesday morning, but what a privilege when Jeff told us he would be able to pick us up in the little plane he has at Guayara.  Surprisingly, when we returned to the ticket office to try to get a credit for our purchased plane tickets, they kindly offered to refund them, as we had only brought them that same day.  What an awesome experience - apart from the fact that Dani was completely surrounded with luggage in the back seat, it felt like we were suddenly transported back to the privileges of a first-world country, where things happen easily and quickly.

For most of the trip, we followed the Rio Mamore (large tributary river to the Amazon, that forms the border between Brazil and Bolivia at Guayara).  It was pretty awesome seeing the country along the way, occasionally picking out a riverboat etc, and then as we approached Guayaramerin, seeing the sights that we have studied on Google Earth, in real life!  I (Danielle) was amazed at how many grass roofed houses there were. In the process of lining up with the runway, we crossed over the river into Brazil. 

Speaking of which...we need to answer the most important question about Brazil before signing off...and that is "What do they call brazil nuts in Brazil? Well, sorry to disappoint you, but we don't know yet.  But the next best thing...in Bolivia...well you can't give your wealthier next door neighbours all the credit...they call them alamendra's (in Espanol).  Where we are living is a big area for growing Brazil nuts/alamendra's and there are "smashing career" opportunities here in the field of cracking open brazil nuts if your interested!!  The food on the whole is not that flash here, but at least we have a ready supply of brazil nuts, and at about $4/kg its not a bad option!

We are just starting to settle in here at Guayara, but will have to wait until the next edition to tell more about that.  Its getting late here under the mosquito net, and its time to turn off the light so we don't have to look at the mosquitos eagerly staring at our veins through the net anymore (They are actually quite skilful at biting you through the net if your not careful!)

Until next time...Love Michael and Danielle.

P.S We aren't sure exactly how reliable postage here is but we do finally have a postal address which is:
    Familia de Michael Engelbrecht
    c/o Melquiades Duran Calderon
    Calle 25 de Mayo Frente al cine
    Copacabana
    Guayaramerin, Beni, Bolivia

And we don't like your chances of c atching us on either of these phone numbers, but just in case they are:
    School mobile phone +591 71602548
    Our mobile phone +591 71147826

The school mobile phone is on a fair bit of the time and is connected to a large antenna so it gets a signal from town 30km away.  It is in a central location and when it rings someone usually runs to try to catch it, but inevitably misses it.  So if you are really wanting to catch us you'll probably have to call at least twice (assuming the phone is on and has a good signal)!  Even then, someone would need to call us if we're on campus, so as I said it's not easy to catch us.  Between this and the time-zone differences between Australia (we are UTC-4) telephone communications is not a good option, but there it is anyway.

Our personal mobile phone doesn't work out here without an antenna, but works when we're in town.  Once again, not much use, but you could try texting/SMSing us, but we don't yet know how reliable this is either  :-).  It all sounds pretty frustrating, but actually it's a real blessing - to be way out in the jungle in the middle of no-where and to have access to any communications facilities is really absolutely amazing!

Hasta Luego, Michael & Dani