BOLIVIA – In the land of Toromonas
Playboy, March 2006
“450, I don’t feel like counting anymore!” Borna sighed, while grimacing under the unbearable tropical sun. Now indifferent, he stopped counting mosquito bites on his legs, as if he wasn’t bothered by them at all, and threw himself onto his back, exhausted. Our rubber boat slowly floated on the calm part of the river. We had just left Puerta de diablo – Devil’s Gate, the wildest stretch of the river Tuichi in one of the remotest parts of Bolivia. Imagine a hundred meter wide river narrowing into a canyon that is a mere ten meters wide. Its force increases tenfold as it rushes over boulders that had fallen from the lining cliffs. Devil’s Gate is the name for the entrance into that canyon, one of the greatest rafting challenges in the world. Puerta del Sol, The Gate of the Sun, on the other hand, is the name for the exit out of that canyon; that moment of relief when the narrow canyon widens into a valley, and where the sun’s light shines a greeting to the surviving adventurers.
Very few people go there. Even the local Indians, who travel the river on balsa rafts, don’t go there if they don’t have to. Several years ago, interest in this river grew among professional rafters, so a few expeditions through these 300 kilometers of river are now organized every year. They say it is one of the seven most difficult white water rivers in the world. Even though I am not a professional, I wouldn’t agree, it just seems too simple to me. One of the last people to go before us was a team of Israelis that, in the end, left their bones in the canyon. Nobody found them. Most likely their raft had overturned, and the river swallowed them. Maybe their bones are still stuck underneath, whirling in a whirlpool beneath some larger boulder.
We are not that kind of freaks. Some other motives brought us to Bolivia. A few years earlier, we wanted to give a name to the unusual way in which we wander about the world, so we founded the Club for Expeditionism and Culture, and now through it we realize our ideas for ventures into the most remote corners of the world.
The idea of visiting Bolivia was born during a casual meeting. Two years ago, in the Pyrenees, at a gathering of people who prefer living in the wilderness, out of it, and for it, I met Bruno, a Belgian that told me about how he has been living in the Bolivian jungle for 14 years (at the moment he was vacationing in France), and he knows about some of the last remaining uncontacted Indians. He scribbled some notes on a small piece of paper: In La Paz sit down on the bus for Pelechuco. There look for Freddy. He is gonna give you mules. Go via Mojos to the river Tuichi (7 days walking), where you will find a no name village. There you look for Cosmi, he will help you to go down the river. That is one more week on the river up to the Uchupiamonas tribe. There you will find me. We took a picture together that was to serve as our pass.
When we arrived in La Paz, the capital of Bolivia, I asked myself one last time, weather such a big trip based on such obscure information, makes any sense. Why not? Even if we didn’t find what we are looking for, we would definitely find something else. If nothing else, for sure some pleasure, fun, and adventure. We bought 100 kg of food, bottles of insecticide, machetes, knives, hooks, and bunch of other stuff, and set off.
Already at the very beginning of our trip, problems occurred. We were waiting for a bus for Pelechuco in el Alto, a suburb of La Paz that is somewhat like the Bronx of Bolivia some 4000 meters up in the Andes. While we were placing our expedition equipment into the bus, a couple of curious people were walking around us. Around my waist I was wearing bag with money, a bowie knife, and a bag with coca leaves that we chewed like the locals for prevention of altitude sickness. Somebody tried to reach for my wallet, but I quickly realized that and pulled out my knife, yelling in their language: “Just try it!” Everybody then ran away. Tactics of self confidence won again. If anyone of them fought back, I would have definitely been in trouble. But this way, at least, I let them know we were not just any ordinary gringos.
The bus was shaking the whole day and night, until it reached the end of the road in Pelechuco. We found Freddy, arranged for mules for the morning, and then went to sleep in the only filthy inn. A meeting with the only white man in that village confirmed to us that we had strayed far from the regions visited by tourists. Craig from Australia had been walking through the Andes for months with his donkey, and after a couple of beers, he began telling tales about his adventures. I easily recognized his character, a lone rider, a man who walks alone for weeks, meeting only llama shepherds and the occasional puma. Therefore he was happy to find people with whom he could talk to in his native language. And then in the morning, relieved, he could continue his solo wandering through the wilderness.
In the morning, we set of toward the river Tuichi with Freddy and four of his mules. The road started high in the Andes, crossed over a fold at 5000 meter high elevation, and then slowly led down into the jungle in the Amazon basin. Besides the fact that we were bothered by the tropical heat, millions of mosquitoes and insects, and besides the fact that a green snake that slithered by my feet, identified by Freddy as a “Mulutuma, very dangerous, lethal!” – not much happened. Although we found Cosmi in the village by river Tuichi, we did not find any transportation to go down that river. No one wanted to go downstream with us, except for Cosmi the village chief and lazybones, who didn’t feel like going. The means of transport was a problem as well. Balsa rafts that the locals use to ride the river would be too risky and dangerous, and a rubber raft actually existed there, but it wasn’t allowed to get wet. They planned to start with rafting tourism within a few years, so some donors gave them a rafting boat, but nobody had ever tried it out. But the chief wouldn’t be chief if he was not curious and corrupted. On the fourth night, when we were already so desperate that we drank up our last drop of whiskey, we offered some money to Cosmi. In the morning he woke us up, yelling. “Come on, get ready, quickly, quickly, before I change my mind!” The boat was on the river, in the rain, and we rushed down the rapids into the unknown.
Very soon we got accustomed to the river and started acting like a harmonious team. Cosmi and Armando, his nephew and assistant, are Indians; they understand the jungle entirely, and like to wear soccer uniforms. I was fascinated by their relaxed composure towards survival. We brought everything we needed with us, and they brought nothing. Here and there, they would pick some bananas and catch some fish, and that was the only food they ate the whole week. Once we lost a paddle in the rapids. Cosmi went into the forest, picked a lightweight but firm piece of wood, worked on it with his machete for ten minutes, and made a completely new and excellent paddle.
Before entering the canyon I had mentioned earlier, our raft turned into Noah’s Ark. We found a lost baby peccary that would have definitely died if we had not saved it. Also, during the night, a huge turtle got caught on the hook that we had left in the river. The hook pierced its throat so it needed some help as well. Apart from those two living creatures, we had a fifteen kilogram fish on the floor of our raft. It took us three days to eat it. The best sign of how wild this region actually was that we were traveling through was our meeting with a tapir. We slowly approached it and it didn’t even care. Anywhere else, large wild animals would run away at the first glimpse of humans. Yet this tapir was just as curious as we were. Who knows if he had ever seen human being before? He ran away only when Armando jumped into the water and tried to hunt it with the paddle. For the few people that live in the isolated rain forest, animal means food, and especially when hungry, they are ready to hunt with whatever means available. Back then, it was still strange to us, but very soon, when we were to run out of food and hunt, it would be normal to us too.
After one week on the river, we reached the village of San Jose where the Uchupiamonas tribe lives. Some hundred years ago, they had been contacted and baptized, and have adopted values of the white people, like wearing nice clean clothes. Although they wish to keep on developing in this direction, they still keep some traditions. They still live in the jungle and live from it. They hunt, fish with bows and arrows, cultivate fields, and chew coca leaves. They don’t have electricity yet, but in a few years they plan to implement it. We found Bruno easily, in his house in the center of the village, and stayed a few days to rest and prepare for our trip deeper in the jungle. In search of the Toromonas.
“Five years ago, Lars Haxhon, a Norwegian, lived here,” Bruno told us. “He learned from the Uchupiamonas how to survive in the jungle, and sometimes he went into the unknown naked and bare footed, carrying only a knife. He always came back, obviously exhausted, but alive. When he started believing he could survive in the jungle, he went toward the land of the Toromonas. The Toromona are nomadic hunters and gatherers that still haven’t been contacted by white people. Their existence is somehow mythical because not many people have seen them. They are skilful like monkeys; they hide in the jungle and manage not to be seen. The biggest proofs of their existence are the spears and feathers that they use to mark their territory. When someone steps into their territory, his chances for survival are small. Sometimes hunters get lost there and never come back. The Toromona are warlike and fierce toward intruders. That’s why their tribe survived uncontacted. They saw what happened to other tribes after being civilized, so they decided to remain unchanged. Lars went to their territory three years ago and never came back!”
I wasn’t sure I wanted to step into their territory, but I did at least want to reach its borders marked by feathers, and then decide. Bruno, two Uchupiamonas: Ladi and Mario, and the two of us, set off deep into the jungle, northwards, to the border with Peru, far from all paths beaten by hunters, piercing our way with machetes in shifts. Ladi and Mario hunted along the way, so in the evening we ate colorful tropical turkeys over an open campfire. A few days latter, we reached near the Toromona’s territory. I already felt their eyes watching us, and gradually felt more and more afraid. But, I remembered the words of my friend Kevin, with whom I had explored the jungles of Guatemala. “If it is my destiny, I cannot imagine any better way to die than with poisonous arrows from wild Indians!”
We came to the place where Ladi saw the feathers a couple of years ago, but now, there was nothing. We kept on going upstream along one of the no name creeks. A day after we maybe crossed into their territory, we found one family that lived by the creek. All of the waters that come from the Andean peaks are rich in gold dust; so many locals dig for it from the mud. This family was doing the same. They gave us some useful information for our search.
“Toromonas went away one year ago!” They told us and pointed in the direction of Peru. Like other tribes that lived in Amazonia hunter-gatherer’s lifestyle, they practice the following type of nomadic living: They come to one place, build a village of materials available in the jungle, and live there until they exhaust the eco system by hunting and gathering, which usually takes 5-10 years. Then they destroy the village, erase their traces, and disappear to another, still untouched piece of jungle. Tired and a little bit disappointed, we unanimously decided to return.
We had also run out of food. When you make your way through the thick jungle, you can’t bring a lot of stuff in your backpack. And next to the photography equipment and basic camping equipment, we didn’t have a lot of space for food. We just had a little bit of rice and a few bags of coca, of course. Bolivian people never go anywhere without huge amounts of those leaves that they consider holy. Besides preventing altitude sickness, it also kills the appetite, and heals almost all problems.
We got lucky one day when we were already quite hungry, and found wild honey. Small bees that are not aggressive, used hollow trees to build their hives. We chopped the tree down, drove the bees out by using smoke, and started feasting. The wild nectar was bitter and sweet at the same time, but so satisfying that we devoured it. Bruno was the craziest: He ate it all, the entire ‘package’: beehive, honey-comb, honey, pollen, propolis, and even a couple of live bees that were stuck in the holes.
In San Jose they prepared a little celebration for our successful return from the hunting excursion. The last day Ladi shot a deer, which provided a lot of meat for his five hungry children. The tribal elite and some friends gathered in the shaman’s courtyard where women and children performed traditional dances around the fire, dressed in traditional costumes from centuries ago. These costumes were made from tree bark and decorated with feathers and semi-precious stones. They danced to the sounds and screams of a few elders who played old instruments.
At the table nearby to us, shaman Justino Nabi, already intoxicated from alcohol, tobacco, and coca leaves, was preparing for the ‘seeing ritual’. He was reading from a big heap of coca leaves in front of him. Also, there were tatahanana’s regalia. Tatahanana is the institution of the spiritual chieftain of the tribe, healer, and shaman. His tradition was passed on orally from him to one of his students who was chosen to be his successor. The last tatahanana of the Uchupiamonas was Don Francisco, Justino’s uncle. He died choosing not to transmit his regalia to anybody. Thus the centuries’ old chain of their spiritual tradition was cut just when the Uchupiamonas started getting more and more interested in the twisted values of mainstream Bolivian culture. Today they are slowly returning to their roots and discovering the power they have. Justino had managed to learn something from his uncle, so he served as the tribal shaman, but he was not allowed to use the last tatahanana’s regalia.
The shaman already fell into a trance, murmured something, and threw coca leaves around. Then, just as if somebody threw a bucket of cold water over his head, he got sober suddenly, returned to reality, and informed us: “Lars is alive! The Toromonas didn’t kill him, and he assimilated among them. He lives with them, and at this moment they are across the border in Peru!”
We spent a few more days with the Uchupiamonas, and then we bought a balsa raft from them and headed downstream. Ladi went with us the first day, to teach us how to handle the strange thing made of seven balsa trunks, each 6 meters long, attached together with vines. We got into the rhythm very fast. I find it amazing how fast one learns about life in the jungle. For example, I already knew where exactly inside a certain type of bamboo I had to look to find a certain larva. How to use that to catch small piranhas in the still waters of small creeks, and then use the piranhas as bait for the big fish paku in the great river.
After a week of serene traveling down the river on a balsa raft, we were approaching the end of our journey and the only town in this part of Bolivia: Rurrenabaque. From there, tourists set off every morning in motor boats for one day trips into the ‘mighty jungle’. The first foreigners we met after thirty four days away from civilization were a couple of German tourists. They were standing on the shore of the river together with their guides – two Indian youngsters raised in the city that are more familiar with the smell of money then of the jungle. They were not happy, they already lost three fishes. I asked them how they hunt. They explained the same system we had used; just they forgot about one small detail. I went into the bushes, found one tree whose bark could be used to bind and tie, cut it with a knife, and made a few small strings. I explained to them how they had to attach piranhas to the hook using those strings, because otherwise, the paku would bite off the bait. They did so, and caught their first fish after a few minutes. The jungle had its say.
After thirty four days of probing our way through one of the last intact parts of Amazonia, after 150 kilometers of walking, 140 kilometers in a rubber raft, and 160 on an Indian balsa raft, we finally reached Rurenabaque – civilization. We parked our raft in the port, and looked for everything we hadn’t had those past few weeks: shaving, shower, restaurant, internet, billiards, beer. I didn’t miss all that. But the wild jungle, its remotest parts, where the Toromonas, the last Indians of Amazonia still wandering freely, already started calling me to return.