We were ejecteed out of the taxi at a supermarket to pay the balance of the tour, to be left there afterwards. Turns out that Michael Blendinger tours don`t give you the information you need and after a call to the organiser (www.discoveringbolivia.com/) who cut us off after the only point that she reiterated was “did you get the money”, not how we can or the fact that we were promised a drop off in the centre- what a joke, highly unrecommended! This kind of marred the trip for us, but we told each other we need to not let it and so headed off the centre of Santa Cruz. Through heavy traffic, the first we have seen in South America and past plenty of boutique fashion shops, plus people wearning said items, we were dropped near the Plaza and walked out towards the cheap hostels and reached the South American Handbook cheap option.
The place was an Alojamiento called “Oriente” and was rough around the edges. the kind of place we are now used to: no rules, use what is there, no expectations, get involved! At 30bs (3 pounds a night) each a night it was comparable to other places in Bolivia, so in uncomparably expensive Sanata Cruz was cheap. We soon bought some beers to relax in the warm, tropical, humid, glowing dusk. Suddenly a roguish looking guy staggers past us, looking sleezy into a room nearby. The receptionist doesn`t look much better. We guessed on being Bolivian or Argentine. When he emerges later he slumps in a chair by us. “A`reet mate!”- he`s from Leeds! We have been terrible at guessing nationalities, but this confirms it, while typifying a Brit abroad. “Nasca” (lines) Nick looks pathetic but acts hard. He hates everywhere and everyone, “doesn`t gi a fook”, “is fooked”. When we tell him where we have been, he hated them all, but has been on extended holidays around South America for 5 years, despite only really loving ENGLAND and Leeeeds! (to which he would always stagger up and make a superman pose). However uncharming people like Nick are, they give the world a certain bredth and however annoying the repetition of “I`m just fooked” was he was interesting to talk to in order to try and understand someone like that. Good job too as we had that for 3 days!
At that point another man emerged from his hovel, half naked staggering out of his room, eyes blurry. Nick tells us we chose the best hostel and that everyone here “were greeet”. This man was Hugo an Argentine busker “who were actuelly quite gud”. Next to join was Rahul, the receptionist, always looking puffed up for a fight, a bit meat head looking and had terrible dental hygene (too much time in the gym). Marco, girlfriend and 2 year old girl were living at one of the end rooms of the courtyard surrounded by basic rooms and had done for 3 years. He as busy fixing `his` front door. Add a frenchman, accompanying Swiss girl who were long-term volunteers and old guys who occasionally joined us and this was our evening drinking party group, sat under a mango tree in the shady courtyard covered in cigerette butts and empty cans.
During the day we had travellers chores; clothes washing, buying train tickets, flights, finance evaluation, blog and photo uploading. “Normal shit” that accompanies long-term travel. We saw little of Santa Cruz, except the shady, palm adorned and well maintained Plaza, new looking church and some backstreets with with printers and fashion shops that sold goods in US dollars. The people are very self-conscious, western and good looking looking. We only saw one campisino in 3 days. We were in European Bolivia. The Internet here worked, the supermarket had bag packers. Things were organised, unlike the rest of Bolivia. Everything ran smoothly and soon our days ran out.
Our unlikely group formed bonds and I became the translator for Nick`s laziness and (ultimately friendly) abuse to the others. Rahul turned out to be ok and Hugo a dribbling pisshead entertainer who madeevyone laugh. We were sad to leave them in a way. Our last day was made slightly more morbidly interesting and gruesome. We were walking to find a new jumper in the market as I lost it in the truck we hitched with to Padilla. On the way we suddenly heard a scream and I looked towards the road where a slow moving, massive SUV, was crawling. The driver was oblivious. A little girl was running out in the road to get her small, fluffy, white dog. The dog, staring at the girl and the commotion was run over, directly in the stomach. The dog was screeching non stop after a dramatic crack and with wide, shocked mouth dragged its twisted and completely distorted body off the road. The owner ran over and picked it up. The dogs middle and rear was floppy. I have never seen anything that has made me wince that badly before. Horrible.
The train jorney went smoothly during the day, but at night the seats didn`t recline and we had the only window that sprang open on its own. I almost lost my poncho out of it after head butting the frame, but caught it instinctively outside the train. I woke up on the floor, pillow deflated with floor scum on my face at 5am, knackered. The train was harfly the “death train” as touted, but just uncomfortable. Although to be fair at every stop there were loads of stray dogs hanging around the train anticipating people to throw rubbish and food scraps out of the window. At one stop, a longer one, which is scheduled for food and has a cocophany of people selling real lemonade chicken and rice dishes etc. The dogs were licking up the plastic containers delightfully and were all over the train. When the train eventually started moving, very slowly at first and dog started screaming. Then a nasty sound of it being crushed and then silence. People held their mouth. The train continued. Yet I still think people tend to exaggerate the extemity of experiences I swear and that death train is a bit much.
Rolling into Puerto Quillaro at 6am and taxi to immigration, which wasn`t open till 8am. When it was both out stamp, crossing a bridge and the entry stamp to Brazil took 20 minutes. An Army guy with A1 automatic assault rifle in arm asked us “tiene robas en su Mochillas” (do you -just- have clothes in your backpack) after our first, brief Portugese confusion. We said yes and he walked off. Security check over, we clearly didn`t look like cocaine traffickers, what this place is renouned for. We started to walk down the only road and passed the taxis who called at us and laughed when we continued on. Well it wasn`t far and next to the boarder. We walked in increasing temperature for 1 hour with 20kg rucksacks between a high wall of trees of many species and experienced our first wildlife A flat giant toad, eagle half sticking out of a plastic bag and dried giant millipedes, care of the road. We recalled that Brazil was actually pretty big…
When in Corumba we had to get directions to a hostel, supposed to be cheap, but with breakfast and a pool. With zero Portugese except the word for lettuce (Alface, in case you wondered, care of Laura), we eventually found a vague spanigh speaker and a final 40 minute walk we arrived knackered, but buzzing with adrenalin. Our blisters didnt hurt- yet. Warned that Corumba was a pass through town we booked in for 4 days. For most of it we enjoyed the `holiday, pool and sun` setting. My dream of piranha fishing was instantly dashed as the season was closed for breeding season, just last week. A boat tour around the Pantenal wasn`t of interest for the price, expecially excluding fishing (320 Reis or 140 pounds for 3 days), especially as a budget review showed us we spent 13 pounds a day in Peru and 20 a day in Bolivia – the cheapest South American country, on a budget of 10.50 a day! Ooops, that will hurt later. We have enjoyed too many things over the last 3 weeks, including alcohol, what we call the budget killer, to warrant it. Instead we sat by the pool, enjoyed the best breakfast offering in South America, with cheese, ham and fruit (not just bread and coffee!), bought food at the supermarket to cook for ourselves and relaxed to enjoy the (30 reis) 10 pound a night hostel. This was great but meant that we still feel like we were out of travelling mode. Laura observed that the challenge of India was what made it `real travelling`, but in Peru especially and now here it feels too easy and relaxed. Bolivia was more like real travelling, with a larger cultural difference and obsticles en route. We debated whether it was a good diea to go to India first, as everyone else said for this reason. Perhaps we should have “increased challenge levels” over time to always have a challenge of sorts? In the end we caved in and went out for 3 nights. 2 nights for an all you can eat Rodizio (table served with many varieties coming along regularly), including a chocolate and ice cream pizza! We also went out once to try the local fish dish “Urucum”. With the cost of everything and hotel spending all our budget immediately we have budget worries, especially when the bus to Campo Grande (6.5 hours) being 68 reis (26 pounds). We hope our months volunteerign sorts this out as our strategy depends on it!
On our way to the bus station we reflected on Corumba, capital of the Pantenal, more North American a town than we have seen yet. Wide streets carry Dodge trucks, Harley Davidsons and horse-carts alike. The two plazas are not too inspiring, but the centre has everything that a Western city does, with familiar names like HSBC bank on the road down to the Rio Paraguy. The bottom of this road overlooks the low lands, patches of mash grasses, deep green, covered in grazing animals and vast amouns of birds. The sun sets here burn blood orange, growing larger and melting into the horizon. Even more tropical here, in oppressive humidity.
We departed at 11am armed with home-made potato salad and began the very comfortable, A/C infused, smooth ride through lush green wet-land, even in the dry season. Deer, storks, 4 types of birds of prey and birds a plenty. No wonder, the Pantenal has more natural diversity than the rest of the world. It is just a shame to see the road lined with rubbish and pylons interrupt this natural wonder of the world. A few stereotypical South American towns with a touch of Carribean flavour were passed. Outside felt like it had more than 100% humidity, so the A/C was valued and storms clouds were building threatening the start of the wet season. I have only seen mammatus clouds that imposing on the plains of Texas. The conclusion was a dark sky as we reached our brief and final destination of Campo Grande.