Saturday, March 22, 2008

Me Tarzan

I think that at one point or another most elementary-aged kids go through a stage in which they are interested in the rain forest. I remember my own elementary days of creating a rainforest out of the hallway by the cafeteria in art class and building dioramas for display in the library – although the intrinsic purpose of the dioramas escapes me now. Either way, to me, the rainforest was this mysterious place only truly accessible to researchers and people working for National Geographic; I probably would never go there.

This past week, however, I got the amazing experience of spending four days buried deep in the Amazon rainforest in the Heliconia Reserve about four degrees south of the equator and off an Amazon River tributary, the Yavarí River, in what is technically Brazil.

For our Semana Santa (Holy Week) or Spring Break vacation another teacher friend, Tina, and I boarded a plane in Bogotá for a two hour flight to Leticia, a small town in the southernmost tip of Colombia, where it meets with Peru and Brazil. Aside from using the river or a plane, there is no other conceivable way in or out of this region of the country; it truly is isolated in the middle of the jungle.

We were met at the airport, if you could call it that, by a lady from the reserve who took us to the docks of Leticia where we climbed aboard a small fiberglass motorboat driven by a curly-haired, raspy voiced man named Israel with questionable dental hygiene. Israel handed us a sandwich and juice and informed us we would be sitting for the next three hours as we made our way to the reserve. Along the way, he pointed out various settlements along the river and birds and the like, but with the motor, his heavily accented Spanish, and the fact that he sounded like that lady in the anti-smoking ad that takes a puff through the whole in her neck, we usually didn’t understand and thus just smiled and nodded politely.

This being the rainy season (although I have to believe that there is still a consistent amount the rest of the year in order to maintain the moniker of “rain” forest one assumes a certain amount of constant precipitation) the water level was at the cresting point and all of the shoreline was hidden and most of the trees seemed to grow out of the river itself. Upon arriving at the reserve the staff greeted us warmly and served a wonderful fish dinner. Oddly enough, we were the only two guests present that first night so we were able to hang out in the lodge and converse with Israel, the wonder kitchen mother, and several of the guides. It was a great way to practice our Spanish. They decided to name me Tarzan because they could say that so I was “Tarzan” the rest of the week.

Our cabana consisted of beams and screens with beds enclosed in mosquito netting. There was a toilet “room” and a shower “room.” I say “room” because the outside wall was non-existent and as you did your business, you looked out at the marvel that was the jungle. It reminded me of the forest wallpaper my parents have behind the entertainment center in the basement except it moved.

After bidding everyone a buena noche we made out way to said cabana only to discover a (large - to us) medium-sized tarantula on top of my mosquito netting. After calling for help and not getting any response, we haphazardly attempted to smash it with a pair of shoes only to have it retreat into a crack in the wall. We conceded defeat and, only after pulling my bed away from the walls, secured our mosquito nets and drifted off to sleep. I’m sorry – that’s a lie. Have you ever been tempted to buy one of those “Ocean Sounds” or “Jungle Sounds” CDs to help you sleep? I haven’t and I am now certain I never will. Not really a settling noise when you know the rattling trees or chirps or screeches are real and potentially meters from your head. I’ll take passing traffic any day.

The next few days our personal guide, Jimmie, took us on nature hikes, canoe outings, fishing, and swimming. On our hikes we saw termite mounds, more tarantulas (bigger ones), frogs, parrots, monkeys, eagles, and a dead anaconda complete with circling vultures. He also showed us how the rubber (caucho) is harvested from the rubber trees the way the indigenous tribes did it so that the trees did not die. He also showed us trees with medicinal value including one to prevent constipation (that was a fun game of charades) and itching from bug bites. SAVE THE RAINFOREST PEOPLE! THERE'S GOOD STUFF IN THERE!!!

On the river we canoed, saw freshwater pink river dolphins, and went for a quick swim. Jimmie told us the middle of the river was fine and that all the snakes, crocodiles, piranhas, and electric eels were over near the trees. He also jumped in first. We went fishing for piranhas and, although both Tina and I got nibbles, Jimmie was the only successful fisherman. He caught two fish, one being a piranha and both being small. He then took a small leaf and said, “Este es su dedo (This is your finger)” and stuck the thing into the piranha’s mouth where it promptly made hole puncher-worthy bite cuts out of the leaf’s margins. Crazy stuff. I’m glad it wasn’t my dedo.

My two favorite things we did was a night outing in which we floated peacefully in the canoe and Jimmie told us the indigenous people’s legend of the pink dolphin. This was fun mostly because we had to work together to translate it and because it was a good story. Well, based on how we translated it, it was. The other was a night outing in the boat were we went looking for caiman crocodiles. Apparently caimans in the Amazon and deer in North America have the same paralytic habit of doing nothing when a bright light is shown in their eyes. All you need to catch a caiman is a flashlight and a quick hand. Jimmie caught a small one (about a foot long) and attempted two others. (One of the others was about three feet long and he wisely retracted his reach and the other just got away.)

The second night Tina was alone in the cabana before dinner and a large gecko lost it’s grip and fell (or jumped, depending on who’s story you are hearing) on her arm. She flipped out, screamed, and the gecko lost its tail as geckos often do when frightened so at least they are even. Either way, the entire staff and a few of the newly arrived guests all went running to “save her.” It was pretty funny and we all laughed about it later. That and when Tina took a swing of the homemade bug repellent we made in an old water bottle. This actually happened while we were asked to help translate (!) for a couple from Germany who spoke good English but not much beyond “hola.” Needless to say, it was an interesting impression of us they will take back to Germany.

After four days in the jungle, we said our goodbyes and Israel took us on another three hour boat ride. We stopped briefly to get gas on this island village, Santa Rita, which turned out to be part of Peru, so Tina and I went for a short walk. I’m not sure it this truly counts as visiting another country but it’s a start.

We found a hotel in Leticia, showered up (without having to immediately apply bug juice and feel instantly dirty again), and headed for Brazil. Normally Americans have to pay a hefty visa fee to travel in Brazil (apparently America charges Brazilians a ton to travel in the States so it is reciprocated) but since the town essentially connected to Leticia, Tabatinga, is in the same isolated situation that Leticia is in, they turn a blind eye. It’s not likely we would turn up in Rio de Janeiro in a few days. During the walk we discussed what one has to do to claim they “visited a country.” We came to the decision that money needs to be exchanged so we proceeded to have lunch. We also got Brazilian change so that has to count. Then, on our way out of town back to good ole Colombia, we bought flip-flops with little Brazilian flags on them. Tell me that that is not “visiting a country!”

Leticia turned out to be a really pleasant and very safe town – actually one of the safest feeling I have visited in Colombia. This may have something to do with the need for tourism…and the easily 2,000 troops stationed throughout the town. You couldn’t turn your head without seeing at least one soldier. One of the unique sights in Leticia is the Parque Santander where each night at around dusk thousands of parrots roost for the night in the trees. The guidebook says they arrive “screeching” but to hear it does not do the book’s description justice. It is almost deafening. You go from thinking, “Oh look at all the little green parrots landing in the trees” to “Seriously! Shut up!”

Friday morning I woke up to find a bakery for breakfast and accidentally joined a Good Friday processional though out the streets of Leticia. The church (I say “the” since there is probably only one) set up the Catholic 12 Stations of the Cross at various places along the processional route and as “Jesus” and the congregation/city of Leticia walked behind, a truck drove along slowly playing Hymns and the priest narrated the story. It was fun since I had a basic frame of reference I was able to understand a good 80% of what he was saying.

Not bad for Tarzan, eh? Also, not bad for a kid who thought the closest he’d get to the rainforest would be the wall outside his elementary school cafeteria.

Monday, March 10, 2008

I Start Walkin' Your Way...

Saying it has been a wild news week in Colombia would be an understatement. Saying that things have actually been wild in Colombia would be quite the opposite. Despite the shocking headlines of Colombia being “on the brink of war” and statements about “sabers” and the like, life in Colombia this past week was essentially the same as it has always been.

I did find it interesting to read the headlines each day on Yahoo! News or and find out what had happened politically and how it was being sold to readers. Granted, if this had been a year ago and I was reading such headlines about my future home I would have been concerned. Being in the midst of it, however, was a whole other story; mainly that there wasn’t much in that midst.

A little background to put this into perspective: The FARC have been terrorizing many in Colombia for decades. They are one of the biggest para-military groups in the region and are very leftist and get their money through the cocaine trade and ransom from kidnappings. The current president, Alvaro Uribe, has made significant strides to limit the FARC and their activities.

The problem is that other countries in the region, namely Venezuela and Ecuador, have not. This could be due to the fact that the people of these countries were not, until recently affected by their activities, or that the leaders may or may not have been getting monetary kick-backs.

When Colombia stormed a mile or so across the Colombia-Ecuador border to attack a FARC camp in the jungle, and incidentally killing one the top FARC leaders, this upset a lot of people. The only ones who should have realistically been upset would have been Ecuador, whose border was crossed without permission. Venezuela, or more accurately, Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez, lead the charge and made a big stink, often times speaking for the Ecuadorian president. (To make a point, I can’t even tell you without looking it up what the Ecuadorian president’s name is since he had such little voice in all this with Chavez shooting his mouth off all over the place. The Ecuadorian president's name is Correa - but I did have to look it up.)

Uribe issued an apology saying something along the lines of “we will not invade another country without permission again…so long as they are not harboring terrorists at their borders.” I love the added clause which, in my opinion, is completely justifiable.

In the mean time two things are happening. First is that the contents of a laptop found at this FARC camp is being analyzed and accusations are flying all over about all kinds of people and connections, namely that Chavez was funding the FARC. Ah! No wonder he is getting all hot and bothered over this. The second thing that is going on is the Chavez keeps running is mouth and orders troops to the border. He eventually closed the border for a few days.

The thing about this border, and why it sounds worse in the media than it really is, is that there is nothing there, really. Now, I have never been to this area of the country myself, and I probably never will, but I have not found one person who has either. If you look at a political map of Colombia, you will see that most of the population resides in cities or towns along the Andean Mountain range, mostly running north and south along the western half of the country. A whole bunch of Colombia is unpopulated. This includes a lot of the Venezuelan border. (This is also true on the other side in Venezuela!) In all seriousness, Chavez could have secretly had his troops cross the border and not man people would have known about it – since no one lives there!

So, really, it was a very safe threat to make. It sounded really intense and volatile to the international community and media, who are used to having people living near borders, and yet those in the involved countries collectively shrugged.

Well, the politicians didn’t shrug, just the rest of us. (Except for Ecuador’s nameless president who didn’t get many sound bytes out of a situation involving his country. He probably shrugged a little.) There was some head shaking too over Chavez. Every taxi driver I talked to, out of curiosity over their opinion mostly, told me they think he is certifiably nuts. This is true of the common people in Venezuela as well, where Chavez has cut off trade and thus dairy and meat products to his own people. His approval rating is dangerously low – as in overthrow low.

(Another reason Chavez may be having a bad taste in his mouth, so to speak against Colombia, many feel is out of jealousy. Colombia is U.S. backed AND has a lot of the rest of the world more willing to associate with them than Chavez or Ecuador. Some countries, Cuba and Castro most recently, like to throw the old "America trying to run the world" card around. However, in this situation it is important to remember that the U.S. does have a say because they fund a big part of the Colombian military and have since about 2000 because of the increased effect the narco-trafficking was having on the U.S., on U.S. soil. This does concern them.)

Well, this past weekend, all these fine leaders met in the Dominican Republic and signed a peace statement agreeing to play nice. Uribe also extended his apology again, reiterating his initial clause.

In unrelated but ironic news, with the “threat of war” gone, the good people of Cali decided to riot at a soccer game between the cities two major teams and major rivals. (Think Green Bay Packers and Minnesota Vikings x 10 and then remember that it is soccer and we are in a Latin American country.) The riot resulted in two dead and a bunch more injured including a stabbed pregnant lady.

But at least we aren’t at war, right?