A SHORT PIECE ON A MEMORABLE MEETING IN BOLIVIA

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I’m trying something different this week. I’m telling a story I’ve already told you before, but more like a story. Does that make sense? I hope you enjoy.

We have been stuck in the airport in El Alto for 24 hours when a voice announcing that our flight into the Bolivian Amazon is ready for boarding puts our 89th card game to an end.

It had been raining and thus the track was deemed unsuitable for landing. To me, at 4000m with limited oxygen, this seems like an exaggerated precaution, but when we eventually land on the muddy strip that breaks up the sea of green, dense foliage, I can understand their concern.

“Don’t worry about the running water, it will be fixed in a day or two” Teresa, the owner of the tour agency, assures us when we complain about not being able to wash off the remains of the airport experience. We book our trek through the Amazon and pack our mosquito repellent.

Marco, our guide, offers us coca leaves to chew on before we start walking. “For energy.” The most dominant effect is the lack of feeling that creeps up onto tongue and throat and triggers an unpleasant gag reflex. But yes, under closer inspection there might also be a hint of euphoria.

The leaves are part of the way Marco smells, a smell I’ll never forget. He smells like sweat, which is unsurprising given the humidity, tabacco and the sweet scent of the coca. A sharp smell, not unpleasant, but penetrating. Intense and piercing. A smell I’ll never forget.

He laughs when we ask him if he has ever been out of Bolivia. “I have never been further from la selva than the town you just came from. I don’t need to go to La Paz to know it’s cold and horrible. My home is here.

Our knowledge is constructed in a way that we know a little bit about a lot of things. Marco knows everything about one thing. One place.

He knows every plant, every footprint and every animal sound. He dyes a few pieces of my hair purple with some crushed leaves; the colour doesn’t wash out for weeks.

We are trekking to the first camp when he makes us drop our backpacks. The slightest movement of air in the thick, muggy forest brings temporary relief to my already impressive collection of fire ant bites and the streams of sweat running down my back. He gestures us to follow him and we stalk. It is immediately apparent that we’re not very good at it. We are too tall not to get hit in our faces with twigs and too heavy for the branches that break loudly under our stumbling feet.

Despite our lack of finesse, countless tiny yellow monkeys suddenly surround us, jumping from tree to tree and uttering strange, bird-like chirps. We stretch our necks back and look up at their moving silhouettes in stark contrast to the sunlight that is filtered through the canopy.

“I saw this thing on television once” Marco says as we are smoking a cigarette at the fire, the deafening sound of the unfamiliar dark engulfing our small circle of light. “There were people like you with slats strapped to their feet sliding down a mountain. Isn’t that dangerous?”

I don’t know if Marco is naive or just beautifully unspoilt, but I feel honoured to be in his company.

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