Chalalan, visiting Madidi Park in Bolivia

by on 29th October, 2015

Chalalan, visiting Madidi Park in Bolivia

How not drinking a beer on a bench in Bolivia’s Madidi National Park sent Tom to think about things and their places.


Heart of a Saturday night, by Tom Waits:

Jus’ seen capuchin, jus’ seen a pig.

Jus’ seen leafcutters, but that ant had a twig.

I’m not drinking…

Not drinking on a bench in Madidi Park.


Maybe it was the anti-malarial pills. Maybe it was the heat. Maybe it was the wild in wildlife. Bolivia’s Madidi National Park was getting to me.

We were two hours into a sweaty hike and the sun high overhead, sending heat rays through the heavy foliage. The animals were lounging in the trees above us, no doubt playing spot the tourist, when a park bench appeared on our path, and next to it a crate of beer.

I immediately plucked out a bottle, sat down, pretended to drink and got a photo taken. A natural reaction to an Englishman wandering in the remote Bolivian rainforest – peel away the repellent and sun cream and act the Brit abroad. Stereotype and satisfaction achieved.

Then Tom started up. Waits that is, more insistent than the insects encircling and the cobwebs entangling my head.


See the harpy Eagle chick, she’s out her nest.

Monkeys ain’t howling, that sun is a test.

Army ants a leaving…

Not drinking on a bench in Madidi Park.


Something was not quite right with the forest since I took that fake sip.


Existential wanderings

A cold beer has no place here, but I drank a few.

Repellent has no place here, mosquitoes do.

Sterilised water from plastic bottles. The local San Jose de Uchupiamonas community hardly drank a drop. Us, the sweaty tourists, our hosts as dry as dead cicada shell.

I saw animals about a week after the guide had spotted it, while a coquettish jaguar continually flashed a bit of paw to us in print form as it stalked wild pigs.

Yellow squirrel monkeys, capuchins, howler monkeys, harpy eagle chick, macaws, parrots, spiders, frogs, monkeys – Madidi contains 1,000+ species and ranges from glacial mountains to sweaty rainforest, 4.7m hectares.

Our savvy boatmen pulled the boat over rocks and through the low waters and rapids while I sat in my seat, tummy full and life jacket on, present but not really taking part.


The community

The San Jose de Uchupiamonas community has spent over twenty years (since 1998) building this eco-lodge from local materials, so that they could live from tourism rather than logging and hunting.

This idea – to live with the forest rather than exploit it – has seen animal populations thrive.

Our guide, Rigo, was a logger and hunter. Now he has added English and Italian to the imitations he does of any animal – from black squirrel monkeys to a pheasant chick to wild pig, which used to be one of his favourite things to hunt.

Chalalan lodges are clean and comfortable, built on stilts to prevent insects getting in, with mosquito nets and screens, flush toilets and showers.

Everything is here, including cold beers at USD 4 a pop!

I felt like that leafcutter ant that was carrying a twig. I was there, taking part, enjoying the crowd, the scenery and the plentiful wildlife. And yet was a little out of place, and everything could see that, but never made note of it, or made a big deal.


Parody in paradise

That bench.

I’d fallen, at the first hurdle, into the trap of being a parody, a pastiche, the Englishman who sees a seat and beer and sits down and takes the British seaside postcard shot, despite being in the Amazon.

Madidi doesn’t care much for such self-indulgent thinking though. It doesn’t think about flashlights in frogs’ faces or solar panel lighting confusing the moths, but that’s what we bring.

Like everything, Chalalan just left me to get on, blending in in my own way, on that seat and with that beer.

No drinking on a bench in Madidi Park.

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