A few years ago, my friend and I decided to spend Christmas in a different way, by taking a trip to Bolivia – we wanted to stay five days with an indigenous community, deep in the rainy jungles of the Beni region. After doing plenty of research, we decided the best place would be Rurrenabaque, a vibrant little village 200 miles north east of La Paz, in the Amazon basin.
Getting to Rurrenabaque is in itself an adventure. This village can be reached by land, on the The Most Dangerous Road in the World (or “Death Road” for short), a 20 hour horrifying bus ride in an old and colorful bus. The other option is by plane. We chose the latter. Amazonas Airlines flies its 18-seat passenger planes (smaller than a bus) to Rurrenabaque. The airport looks like a soccer field cleared in the middle of the jungle. If the buses travel on the Death Road in pretty much any weather conditions, airplanes are limited by daylight – at the tropics it gets dark fast and there are no lights on the green ecological organic “runaway” in Rurrenabaque. Weather can be a bitch too: mist and rain (a common occurrence in the jungle) will surely cancel all flights. So, no surprise when I found out my flight was delayed for 6 hours due to heavy rain. Not only the rain had to stop, but also the landing strip (aka the grass) had to dry.
Rurrenabaque heavily relies on tourism and once there, it seemed that half of the locals were either tour guides or worked in one form or another for the travel industry. Rurre flourished as a travel destination after a young Israelite tourist (Yossi Ghinsberg) ventured in the surrounding jungles, got lost and miraculously survived the merciless wilderness for 21 days. He was rescued by a local, was featured on “I Shouldn’t Be Alive” show and wrote a book (“Jungle: A Harrowing True Story of Survival”) that appealed to the young and restless. This put Rurre on the adventure travel map and the town was invaded by Israeli young guns looking for crazy jungle experiences, trying to re-enact the survival days of their compatriot.
After two days of incessant inquiries my friend and I had no success in finding a guide that would take us to a nearby indigenous community. All the agencies were offering solely hard core jungle adventures. Through nothing short of a miracle, we finally found a private guide, a short and skinny local named Melvin, who was willing to offer the trip we were looking for. It was already December 23rd and we had no time to waste.
We went Christmas shopping with Melvin and his wife in the Rurrenabaque local market, which consisted of mounds of merchandise spread on the banks of Beni River. While walking through the vendor “stalls” (think piles of stuff spread out on a blanket on the ground) scanning for potential presents for the small community where we would travel the next day, I could not think of the hoards of shoppers filling the glitter cladded stores back in the US. After ransacking through piles of clothes, we selected two huge bags of clothes to take to the community. Then, we headed for the general store where we purchased powdered milk and cocoa, and lots of biscuits – that would make the Christmas meal.
Next day at sunrise, the gifts and backpacks were loaded in Melvin’s wooden boat. Melvin started the 15 horse power engine and off we went to our (Christmas) destination.
Rurrenabaque remained a colored dot on the immense green of the jungle. Ahead of us was the wide, bloated, brown Beni. We sailed up the river through breathtaking scenery. The forest was crawling into the water as far as the eye could see, rolling smoothly from an imposing range of mountains that formed a rugged green horizon: the EKG line of nature’s heartbeat. The silence was interrupted occasionally by macaws flying above us in pairs, or a bunch of quarreling green parrots. Every now and then I could peek beyond the green curtain of vegetation and get a glimpse of a thatched roof, sign that somebody was living there.
We soon caught up with a peke-peke (wooden carved canoe with a tiny engine, making peke-peke noise, hence the name), fully loaded with twenty people, adults and children, and countless sacks, bags, backpacks. Melvin greeted the locals with a hand wave, they were from a Moseten community, Charque. Seeing the sun-stroke kids, the youngest one being only 2 weeks old, we decided to cal the kids and their moms into our boat and give them a ride to their community. We would get them there faster than the peke-peke and spare them the ordeal of baking under the merciless sun. Moved by our good intentions, the Moseten invited us to stay in their community. We happily changed plans on the spot and accepted the invitation with excitement.
We dropped anchor on a muddy shore, where a few Moseten appeared from the shrubbery. We had arrived in Charque. A man, more at ease with outsiders, greeted us and welcomed us: bienvenidos en mi comunidad! Our hosts led us through the shade of the jungle for about five minutes, until we arrived in a clearing where a small wooden shack was gleaming in the morning sun. We were to call this home for the next 5 days: a room furnished with one wooden bench and dirt floor. Melvin installed the mosquito nets above the ground were we were going to sleep (yes, we slept on the floor), then boiled water from the river to boil and cooked the first meal in the jungle: pasta with ketchup and mayo.
Charque is a tiny human settlement splashed in the middle of the jungle. Five or six thatched roof huts and maybe 30 people, more than half children, make up the whole community. The houses are scattered around the forest, it took a few minutes to walk from one house to the other. The community had a lot of cultivated land where it grew rice, corn, yucca, tomatoes, onion, papaya, cocoa. The staple food of the community, like most indigenous communities in the jungle, is chicha, a fermented drink made from pureed yucca root or corn.
Evening came early. Our closest neighbor invited us to his house, right behind the patch of vegetation a little further from our hut.
It was Noche Buena, the night before Christmas.
We entered a modest room where five men were seated at a wooden table, chattering and sipping something from a cup. The only lit place in the room was a small wooden shelf holding a nativity scene lit by a candle, so modest and yet so beautiful through its simplicity. Newborn Jesus was sleeping calmly in his crib, watched over with by Mary and Joseph. A young shepherd was standing nearby, accompanied by one of his sheep. Around the tiny chipped statues, a careful hand placed fresh jungle flowers. A soft breeze from the forest brought scents of raven earth and wet leaves, making the tiny flame of the half burned candle flicker. The soft soothing light almost disappeared, but soon there was light again. For a second, my mind flew back into my world, where lush decorations adorned the stores at this time of the year – bright, colorful, immense nativity scenes and Santa Clauses, all that glitter and glamour in which our spirit gets lost. For me there was no doubt: the nativity scene in this hut was so precious, a world apart from all that empty glamour, adorning this modest hut far in the entrails of the rainforest.
Stripped of all lights and colors, I felt those moments were so much closer to a true Christmas.
When my eyes got used to the darkness, I distinguished the contours of three more women seated on a floor mat, close to the table, tending to their babies. A beautiful grandma wearing a long red dress, with a serene face brazed by deep wrinkles and with white hair dangling to her waist, approached our table and placed a cup of chicha in front of me. The men raised their cups: Che’ha! This means salud! In our language. Che’ha! I said, raising the cup.
We started talking about the forest, about our families, about our cultures, our voices dissipating in the silence of the jungle. Outside, the moon rose high above the forest, illuminating the tops of the tallest trees which now looked like black clouds against the golden face of the moon. Nine thirty, said one of the men. The moon always comes up at this time.
The conversation went on, while the grandmother in red dress was silently filling our cups with more chicha. The babies fell asleep, their mothers gently rocking them in their arms. The moon was shining round on the clear sky, sending a thick silver beam in our hut. Just like the Star of Bethlehem, I thought, guiding the wise men to the newborn King. In that moment I could have been back in time, 2000 years earlier. On this very night, in similar surroundings, Jesus was born.
The next morning, we woke up early and started preparing hot chocolate for the children. Melvin sent me to the river to bring water in a white plastic bucket. The muddy Beni already looked like hot chocolate. Melvin lit a fire and put an aluminum cauldron on top of it. When the water was hot my friend added the powdered milk and cocoa, while I was stirring with a spoon. We then poured the biscuits in two buckets that Melvin brought from the village and arranged everything in the middle of our room. Esta pronto! we announced.
The children came in one by one in our shelter, shyly stepping inside, aligning themselves quietly next to the walls. Each of them was holding a plastic cup in their strong sun kissed hands, just like we instructed them earlier. My heart sank looking at the tiny bare feet stepping shyly on the ground. These kids are so good. These kids are so well behaved. These kids have nothing. I thought of the entitled city kids who get spoiled with useless toys and clothes and gadgets every year. I wished I could bring some happiness to these forest children, I wished I could give them an opportunity to have a good life, right there in their forest.
Come on, I signaled the kids to come closer to the hot chocolate pot. I loved how their round brown eyes lit up as their cup got filled with the hot liquid. It must have been a real treat for them. My friend was taking each child to the bucket where they happily grabbed biscuits in their tiny, strong, sun burned hands. When everybody was served, we all sat down and had breakfast together. It was the quietest, sweetest breakfast.