Wednesday, November 9, 2011

So Easy, A Caiman Could Do It

This past weekend, I had the amazing opportunity to sneak away from the real world and head to the Amazon with my fellow titi monkey researcher/roommate, Anna.  Let me tell you right up front that it was one of the best experiences of my life.

We left Santa Cruz late on Wednesday night.  It was hot.  And we were leaving Santa Cruz on a non-air conditioned semi-sleeper bus full of other hot and sweaty people.  Trust me when I say it's not comfortable...for your body or for your nose.  But it was cheap (like $10 cheap) and it was getting us where we needed to go.  Plus we were so so excited that I don't think we cared HOW we got there as long as we DID get there.  Nine-ish hours later - around 6:30 am - we arrived in Trinidad, a small city in the Beni region of Bolivia.  Located at the southern edge of the Amazon basin, Trinidad is the city of motorcycles.  Everyone rides motorcycles.  Sometimes five at a time.  No one wears helmets.  Trinidad is also very hot and very humid.  We realized this very quickly...pretty much right when we stepped off the bus.  At this point, we had two hours to kill before we could meet up with our tour group and officially start our Amazonian adventure.  There were three initial goals: pee, find the plaza (the center of every Bolivian city), and find some food.  Our first goal was accomplished relatively quickly, although we did have to spare a few bolivianos (Bolivian moneys) for the use of some very sub-par facilities.  But after all night on a bus with no was worth it.  Our second goal was also quickly accomplished, thanks to our map, our resourcefulness, and our "oh let's just follow that other gringo" method.  That method never fails.  It was then, in the plaza, that we met up with one of Trinidad's adorable plaza sloths.  There are actually a few Bradypus variegatus that inhabit this plaza, most at the tops of the trees away from view.  Lucky for us, this one was at perfect picture-taking height...even though we could have easily paid a small Bolivian child B$5 (about US$0.70) to climb a tree and fetch it for us.  But I'm more a fan of just letting the sloths be sloths.

Mama sloth and her precious baby.
Seriously close to that sloth.

Goal #3 was slightly more difficult.  One, because Trinidad isn't exactly known for it's top notch cuisine.  Two, because nothing is open at 6:30 am.  No worries though, we found a room full of bread vendors.

Here's the honest truth: I could go into lot and lots of details about every single minute of every day, but nobody would read that.  Solely based on the fact that it would be novel-length.  Except maybe my mom...she would read it.  So I'll give you my brief, yet thorough, Amazon play-by-play.

Day 1 (continued):  We met up with some new German friends.  For some reason, I've met lots of Germans in Bolivia.  They all seem to vacation here.  So these two German girls, in addition to a very adorable Ecuadorian man, a very stylish man from Luxembourg, and a hilarious Belgian woman, would join us for the next few days on our river boat cruise.  It was an odd, yet somehow perfect, mix of people.

Germans in a boat.

Made our way to our "posh" riverboat.  It was big....and comfy.  Especially compared to the leaky cave I occupied during my Galapagos tour last summer.

Our first adventure was a trip to a local fishing community.  Life there (and in the region, in general) is very different.  Girls are married at 12 or 13 and usually have about two kids before they're 15.  Life is simple.  They live under blue tarps and attend school under a mango tree.

Adventure #2:  FIND SOME RIVER DOLPHINS!  I love river dolphins and it was so incredible to see them in the wild.  So glad I got some pictures (these were NOT easy pictures to get)!  The Amazon river dolphin (Inia geoffrensis), also known as the bufeo, boutu, or pink dolphin, differs from a grey dolphin in color and in its lack of dorsal fin.  It instead has a slight hump on its back.  These cetaceans are also able to turn their heads 180 degrees, due to their unfused cervical vertebrae.

Plus I got to see some capybaras!  My favorite rodents.  Hydrochoerus hydrochaeris is the largest rodent in the world...closely related to the agouti and the guinea pig.  These semi-aquatic, coprophagic "water pigs" live mostly along riverbanks and feed on a select few grasses and aquatic plants.  Also they're really cute.

That was all Day 1.

Day 2:  We started the morning with a 4 hour jungle hike (Adventure #3).  I love hikes and I love jungles, so it was perfect.  Lots of cool trees.  Lots of cool flowers.  We were hoping for a sloth or an anteater, but unfortunately neither were spotted.  Thus is nature, though.  You never really know what you'll find along the way.

Hey I like trees there's nothing wrong with that.

Adventure #4: Piranha fishing!  Obviously if you visit the Amazon you have to fish for some piranhas.  And how do you catch a piranha??  With huge chunks of raw meat.

 Anna and I were unsuccessful for a long time.  Smart little fishes kept eating our bait.

Anna with her empty hook... :(

But I finally caught one!  Happiest moment of my life.  I really wanted to hold it by the gills (ya know, for that awesome "look at my piranha" facebook profile picture).  Our guide was hesitant.  I wanted to reassure him that I totally had that situation under control, but I didn't know how to say, "Don't worry, I'm a trained ichthyologist" in Spanish.

Eventually a successful day!

Day 3:  Jungle hike?  Check.  So what's next?  Jungle horseback riding (Adventure #5).  Now I've only ever been horseback riding once in my entire life.  And that was like 10 years ago.  I honestly had no idea what I was doing....but I caught on pretty quick.  A lot of walking, a little trotting, a little running and I was hooked. So. Much. Fun.

Friends on horses.

Adventure #6:  Remember yesterday's piranhas?  Oh yeah we totally ate those for lunch.  Looks delicious, no?

Piranha soup.

Adventure #7:  The best adventure yet...searching for caimans.  Caimans are relatively small crocodilians, one of the two subfamilies in the family Alligatoridae (the other being alligators).  Caiman-hunting is a nighttime escapade, involving just a few people, a small boat, and a flashlight.  Shine the flashlight at the bank -> look for red eyes -> get closer and try to snatch a caiman.  That's pretty much how it goes.  At first, we were least with the caimans.  We did catch a funny little bird though. He kept making all sorts of strange noises, but he was pretty cute.

And then finally a caiman!  Just what I wanted!!  This "little" guy was only about 6 months old.  I thought he was precious.  By this time out guide had figured out that Anna and I were ecologists, so he let us thoroughly examine our specimen. And by that I mean he let us play with it tail and it's feet and pet it as much as we wanted.  I love those tiny caiman feet.

Right after I got my caiman picture (still nestled close to both the caiman and our Bolivian guide), there was a minor slip of the tail.  Caught off guard, our guide let go of the caiman's back end, causing the tail to whack me right in the face.  RIGHT IN THE FACE.  I GOT HIT IN THE FACE WITH A CAIMAN TAIL.  The front end of our crocodilian was then released from it's grip, and we had a caiman on the loose in a very small boat.  The Germans in the back seat weren't too happy about it.  I thought it was hilarious.  And very entertaining.  Nothing like an untethered, sharp-toothed reptile to get your blood pumping!

Day 4:  A rather lazy morning, when compared to our other days.  Adventure #8 was a leisurely boat ride down a smaller tributary; our eyes peeled for any kind of wildlife.  Plenty of water fowl, a few turtles, and of course some monkeys.

Adventure #9:  After docking, we encountered an elderly local woman and her pet capuchin, Martin.  Martin was rescued as an infant when his mother was killed - that's great.  What's not great is keeping a monkey chained to a tree all day with no toys or other stimulation.  MONKEYS ARE NOT PETS.  Nonetheless, Martin and I had a nice photo shoot.

We then made a quick walk through the jungle to a small lagoon.  Canoe trip included.  Found some great treasures along the way: snail shell, caiman mandible, caiman skull, huge fish skeleton.

Then it was back to the boat and back to Trinidad.  A minor time crunch to make it to our flota (flota = long distance bus), but Anna, our two German friends, and myself all boarded the bus for Santa Cruz around 7:30 pm.  Thank God we were able to snag a full-out sleeper bus for the ride home.  Bigger seats, comfier seats, plus a nice big window for a perfect breeze.

Beautiful Amazon sunset.

I've said it once and I'll say it again: best four days of my life.

FUN SCIENCE FACT #19: The brain of a river dolphin (Inia geoffrensis) is 40% larger than a human brain.

1 comment:

  1. LOVE everything about this. You should have written a novel, I would read it too!