Back in 2008 I wanted to go on a backpacking trip and decided that I was going to spend two months in Bolivia. There was a wildlife refuge I had heard of, Inti Wara Yassi, and I couldn’t get the image of me and my new big cat friend hiking through the jungle together. I convinced my friend to go with me and went to MEC and purchased a backpack that was, and still is, the same size as me.
Fast forward to the day our flight was set to depart, two excited and underprepared teenagers setting out to South America, never having travelled before. My friend, however, was South African and since our flight had a layover in Miami and she didn’t have a visa allowing her entry to the USA, she was turned away at the airport. Disappointed, my Dad came and rescued our defeated souls from the airport. I spent that night crying in frustration and the thought of not being able to go on the trip of my dreams. Suddenly, I had this amazing idea: why couldn’t I just go alone? I spent hours on the phone with the airline, with the help of my Mom, and got my flight rescheduled for the next day.
As soon as I got on the flight from Miami to La Paz, Bolivia, I knew I had gotten in way over my head. Everyone was already speaking Spanish, and the flight attendant was asking me what I wanted to eat, something or something else. I was a vegetarian and was eager to keep it that way, so I declined both something options despite the fact that I was starving. When I landed in La Paz I managed to get my giant backpack into a taxi and I remember literally pointing to the words I had written down earlier that translated to “bus station, please”. When the taxi driver pulled off to the side of the road in front of a busy bus station and said something to me. I assume he was trying to tell me the charge for the ride but I, obviously, couldn’t understand him. When I think back to this moment, it just shows how naive I was…I opened my wallet, showed the taxi driver, and asked him to take what I owed him. I can’t believe how lucky I was that he didn’t just take my wallet or even more than he should have, I don’t even remember him looking twice at me. He took a few dollars and cheerfully sent me on my way.
When I got into the bus station I realized that it was much bigger than I had anticipated. I wasn’t actually sure which bus line I needed, only that the stall to buy the ticket was “down the stairs, outside on the left”, so I headed in that direction. When I got outside I was wandering around looking, I’m sure, very lost when a gentleman came over and said “Ambue Ari?” to me. I immediately felt a sense of relief as he ushered me over to his booth and I quickly realized that he could speak and understand a little English. He rang me up for the price of a ticket, and took me to the loading platform. There was a man waiting with gold teeth, a walking cane, tattoos and I was immediately intimidated until my new friend, from the bus booth, informed me that this was his friend. He told this gold toothed man where I was heading and then told me that he would keep an eye out for me.
The bus ride was something like six hours, I don’t really remember exactly. It was dark though, and I remember having no idea where I was and just knowing that I had to trust my newest friend…the man with the gold teeth. Sure enough though, when we came close to where I was going to need to get off my newest friend got up and alerted the bus driver. He even, once the bus had stopped, got off with me and helped me get my backpack on and gave me his own flashlight (when he realized I really didn’t bring one) to navigate myself across the road and down the trail into the thick of the Bolivian rainforest. When I look back on this part of my journey I can’t believe how lucky I was to have come across such kind and compassionate people who were willing to help me, rather than take advantage of me.
I remember as soon as the bus pulled away hearing nothing but crickets and seeing absolutely nothing, except for the stars. I immediately felt a wave of excitement and knew that I was about to begin an amazing adventure, although I had no idea just how amazing. I began to walk down the path and after a few minutes I was nearly trampled by people running up the path towards me. I had no idea what was going on and ended up being swept up into the chaos and in a whirlwind ended up back and camp with everyone else. It was only then that someone actually noticed I was new to the group, as I stood there with a look of shock on my face wearing my gigantic backpack in the corner of the room. One of the guys, Matt, took me outside and showed me where I would be sleeping. Luckily, he had an extra bug net for me to use because as soon as we arrived to my bed, there was a gigantic tarantula waiting for me on my pillow. Not that I’m afraid of them, don’t get me wrong, but I like to sleep alone!
I spent the next four weeks with a puma named Elsa. Elsa was rescued from an unsuitable private home and she was pretty untrusting of humans. It was my goal, along with Abby’s (another girl who was working with Elsa, too, and who became a great friend) to get Elsa to trust us enough to be able to walk her through the jungle. Abby and I spent hours every day talking and singing to Elsa, trying to get her comfortable with having us around. We’d go in somedays and try to sit with her on the leash, just to get her used to the idea of having it on. Elsa, truthfully, liked Abby more than me. She never stalked or jumped Abby, but with me it was a 50/50 shot…I was okay with that though. To me, it just showed that Elsa had her own personality and was capable of making her own decisions.
After a month at the park, Abby and her friend Maria were heading out to explore the rest of Bolivia and convinced me and a couple others to go along with them. I remember being scared because, by this point, Ambue Ari had become my constant and the only place I knew in Bolivia. I had been pretty isolated and I knew that I needed to see what else Bolivia had to offer me!
I’ll write another blog post soon with more details about what I got up to once I left the park. Stay tuned!