Thursday, 19 April 2012


A last reminiscence from my life in Bolivia:

In my first year in Bolivia, aged twenty-four, I went to live in Flor de Oro; and it was here that I became a naturalist. It is a place of joinings and of junctions. Here the exhausted Pre-Cambrian uplands of the Brazilian Shield, golden with their grasslands and gallery forests, collide with the swelter and hum of Amazonia. Here a river, an Amazon tributary’s tributary, divides two nations and is named two names: Guaporé to the north in Brazil and Iténez on the Bolivian shore to the south. Land meets water here and they tussle for turf. From December to March water has the upper hand, taking savannahs and varzeas for her own, and peopling them with fish and globe-eyed caimans. From August to October the dusty land has his revenge. And so continue their squabbles from year to year.

South of the river the people are indigenous. The true natives, the forest-clad Guarasugwe, are all but extinct, with only seven speakers of their language known while I lived there. They had been replaced by Chiquitanos, their nearest neighbours to the south, who had trickled here in suit of successive waves of prosperity: first rubber, later caiman skins and live macaws, and finally mahogany. On the Bolivian shore, everyone’s face was brown and round, a complexion like fresh conkers, and like them wrinkling quickly with age in this sun-cursed land. To the north of the river, in this remotest outpost of Brazil, forgotten in the malarial flooded forests, no indigenous people smiled their broad white smiles now. Here were African blacks, lean and handsome, and East European whites – polacos - of a startling whiteness shared in the Amazon by only manakins’ throats and peccaries’ muzzles.

Flor de Oro was a forest outpost, forbidden to anyone but wiry guards and one scrawny newbie naturalist from Norfolk. My first journey there was the dawn of my Bolivian life. It was February and on our way to Flor de Oro we landed in a little Cessna at El Refugio, in the south-west corner of the one-and-a-half million hectare park, to carry out a continent-wide, twice-yearly census of waterbirds. Southern screamers belched and yodelled from the tips of trees too tiny by far to bear their ridiculously plump bodies; blue-and-yellow macaws quivered their endless tails over the dark consommé of the river; hoatzins bashed through the trees and wheezed like smokers of forty a day; and giant otters – giant otters! – bobbed beside us, pushing the stench of their breath into our dugout.

North from here to Flor de Oro. We flew through an angry Amazon storm in a flimsy hull of metal and my years-long friendship with Chichi the pilot was born. A kindly man of European descent, he feigned loss of control of the plane as we passed through the lightning-spitting clouds and turned to me with a wink and a thumbs-up once we had left the inky clouds beneath. Clearly I had not looked as cool as I had hoped.

Nor did I look so cool when I arrived in Flor de Oro. Years later, by now great friends and conspirators in countless tall tales, the park’s guards confessed that, on first meeting me, their judgement had been: no aguanta; he won’t make it. Our disagreements began with a shit. Stepping from the plane onto the grass runway I was very chuffed to spot maned wolf scat. My mistake was to tell the guards. Doors came down. The scrawny, Spanish-mangling newbie had crossed a line. No. Everyone knew there were no maned wolves here. In the south of the park, yes. In the east too. But here in the north, no maned wolves. Aquí no hay borochi. Get it, newbie?

Stalemate. I stayed for months, working on a study of black-and-tawny seedeaters, a sweet bird found breeding only in a few inundated termite mound savannahs. Every day I would wander for hours through flooded pampas and through forests, mesmerised by the treasures which scampered and hopped through the trees around me. And most days I would find two types of canid poo. The crab-eating foxes, as scrawny and parasite-ridden as I was, left their little poos everywhere. But something else left heftier turds. Fewer but unmistakably heftier and full of the seeds of the tomatillo, the borochi’s favourite Solanaceae.

The guards stolidly continued to deny the existence of the borochi in Flor de Oro and I fumed. It became a great joke all over the park and guards in remote camps, whom I had never met, knew that the skinny gringo in Flor de Oro, who didn’t even eat meat, was hell-bent on finding the beast there. But the beast was in no mood to be found. A day of peculiar frustration saw me enter an island of forest in the grassland and emerge half an hour later to find fresh borochi shit steaming on the same path by which I had entered.

And it wasn’t just the days. By night I would sit at the top of the observation tower in camp, clutching my trusty Maglite, watching the comings and goings of the foxes, until the whining veil of mosquitoes drove me in. And always, by the following morning, there would be fresh turds in camp. Hefty turds. The final straw came late one night. I had sat in the top of the tower until one o’clock, when I heard a boat arriving from Brazil, bringing with it the manager of the camp’s basic tourist facilities. Game over, I thought: no chance of my borochi tonight. So I gave up and went to bed.

The next morning Olga the tourism manager beamed at me over breakfast. Ví tu borochi. I saw your wolf. I got back late and, when I turned on the lights in the kitchen, there he was, staring in at me. Seconds after I had left my vigil the wolf had walked right by!

Radios all over the park buzzed with the news. Only by now, instead of arms’-length condescension, I was viewed with amusement and with chuckling comradeship by the whole family of the park. I had survived the sweat-drenched wet season and what’s more I’d chosen to slog through it, day after day, alone in the forest. This was a source of grudging respect, that I would tread the snake- and jaguar- and mosquito-infested paths by myself for hours each day. ¿No tienes miedo? Aren’t you afraid?

The watershed had come in April, still in the days of standoff, when in the mud at the edge of a dwindling savannah pool I had found unmistakeably the long-clawed tracks of a maned wolf. I diligently sketched a footprint, life-sized, in my notebook and rushed back to the doubting guards. They fell over themselves to decry my discovery. Es la londra – it’s a giant otter – said Lerlis, stretching credibility to nourish our disagreement. The head guard Javier, a strong, masculine man and a natural leader, heard the discussion and came over. Es el borochi. That’s a borochi print. Enough said. Borochis were in Flor de Oro and the skinny gringo could stay. He’d been right.

Right perhaps but still incapable of finding the damned wolf. One morning I left the camp in the gloaming and returned, hours later, filthy and exhausted, to be met by my now-good-friends the guards beaming uncontrollably. The borochi has been wandering round camp all morning. They told the story as if they themselves had discovered the rare animal’s presence in this new stretch of the park.

But good things come, they say, to those who wait. Soon afterwards I was leading a private tour for a delightful couple from the United States. We sat at dinner, my clients the only tourists in months, in the screen-sided dining room. Chichi the pilot and I sat facing inwards, while my clients sat facing out towards the night. The lady of the couple gave suddenly a tiny whimper of surprise. Chichi and I turned to look out and there, peering in over my shoulder, a metre away, stood the borochi. I surrender, his look said. You’ve played a good game. He stared at us for a moment, unafraid, and swayed off into the night, out of the pool of our dining room’s light, on his absurdly spindly legs.

Later there were other borochis. There were jaguars, ocelots, giant anteaters and innumerable tapirs. But with this borochi no other memory from Bolivia compares.

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