Thursday, February 16, 2006

Parabanon Falls

Went on a hike today, but first a little background. Luis, Chelita’s brother, is hosting a mission team at his school this week and he asked me several weeks ago to take several of his team on a hike. I checked into going to the Surutu falls, but the trail is still closed because the latter down the cliff has not been replaced. So I decided to drag the team along on a hike that I have been wanting to attempt for a couple of months now. I had heard through several sources that there was a big but fairly inaccessible waterfall near the Parabanon mountain, about 50 km to the south Angostura along the front mountain range. One height estimate was of 400 feet. I figured that was probably an over estimation because I have not seen anything approaching that height in Santa Cruz. Carlos met a family in Bermejo who are originally from the Parabanon area and who verified the existence of the falls and said their were actually located on their family’s property.

Carlos and I drove up to Bermejo yesterday to ask for permission to enter the area and to get directions. We were directed back to El Torno where we met a cousin of the family who knows the area well and agreed to take us in today. So we left this morning at 5:00 A.M. not really knowing what we were getting ourselves into. Here is the cast of characters. Myself, Carlos (my Colombian well drilling buddy), Luis (Bolivian school teacher and mission team leader), Ernando (18 year old local guide), Samuel (Bolivian school teacher working with Luis), Rob (20 something year old mission volunteer from Indiana) and Mark (61 year old mission volunteer from Indiana). We picked up Carlos and Ernando in El Torno and everyone crammed into my Nissan for the bumpy three hour off road trip to the trail head. Ernando wasn’t sure which roads were passable so we stopped at several relative’s houses for advice. The road was increasingly less traveled and more difficult to follow. The mud and sand got deeper and the forest closed in around us. We crossed two rivers—the second crossing was at a place I was not too confident we could make it through. After a bit of machete work, rock rolling and shoveling I gunned the motor and we made it through the river and up the steep sandy embankment on the other side. . I definitely need to get a winch. It is just too stressful constantly thinking I am going to get stuck out in the middle of nowhere. We parked the truck at the end of the road where we left it in the care of one of Ernando’s many aunts who live in the area. The aunt and her two tiny children were all sick with a fever. She asked if we had any medicine so I came up with something from the first aid kit. This family lives at least three hour walk from the nearest road where they could get a truck out to civilization. Their home was a loose collection of rotting boards nailed to four posts and roofed with palm leaves and their yard was a swamp full of pigs and mosquitoes.

We were finally on the trail and hiking by 9:30. It was a late start, steamy hot, and I was already feeling the pressure to hike fast so we could be back to the car before dark. Ernando had estimated it would take three to four hours to get to the falls, or longer depending on the condition of the trail. We followed the river, a gentle current knee deep and 10 meters wide, two or three kilometers upstream. Ernando, already impatient with our teams pace, disappeared into the bush with his machete looking for the entrance to an old trail that climbs a steep ridge out of the river valley. Ernando’s family has a long history of living in this area. I wasn’t sure if Ernando had ever lived here for any length of time, but he certainly knew the area well. He said he had been hiking in the area with his grandfather ever since he was a young boy. Ernando’s grandfather is a somewhat legendary figure in the area because he was captured by Che Gevarra in the mid-60s during his revolutionary campaign in Bolivia and forced to guide his army through these steep mountains and canyons. He is mentioned by name in Gevarra’s personal diary. The trail we hiked today is one of a scant few trails that traverse this uninhabited range of mountains and is probably one that Gevarra’s army used during the two years they hid in the mountains of Valle Grande. Cecilia, Ernando’s cousin who we met in Bermejo, said that as a child she lived in a cave near the waterfalls. Ernando said he could guide us to both the cave and the waterfalls but that he would not go in the cave because a giant snake lived inside. While there are huge boa constrictors and anacondas here, there are also fanticiful tales of magical creatures that live in caves, on mountain tops and in bodies of water in the Andes. Most locals avoid these areas at all costs.

The trail was over grown so our route up the ridge was agonizingly slow. Ernando and Carlos were up front opening up the trail with machetes. It doesn’t look like this route has been used in at least a year. Five minutes into the climb Mark and Rob were suffering from the heat and humidity. Certainly a shock after having just arrived from the middle of an Indiana winter. The overgrown trail switch backed up the ridge. I could see that the trail had at one time been well traveled. It generally no more than a couple of feet wide, but on the steeper sections it had been carved out of the rock with picks and shovels. Three or four places had recently washed away in mud slides and we had to carefully pick our way across steep exposed slabs of rock, hanging onto roots and grass to maintain our balance. I never felt these traverses were particularly life threatening or even dangerous, but several on our team hesitated a good while before committing to the crossing, and then joyously celebrated once safely to the other side. Mark, a landscaper in Indiana is in great shape for being 61 years old, but I think the heat hit him hard and after about 15 minutes of climbing he had to sit down and get off of his wobbly legs before he completely fainted. After frequent rests and slow steps he eventually recovered some strength and was able to continue hiking well. After three hours of hiking we finally broke out on top of the ridge above tree line and had a magnificent view of the steep mountains around us and the Amazon plain stretching out like an infinite green sea before us. My GPS told me it was about a 1200 ft climb from the river to top of the ridge—not a tremendous gain in elevation but still a valid effort given the trail condition and heat. We settled into a shaded grove of trees to eat our peanut butter and jelly sandwiches that the volunteer team had packed along. We filled our water bottles from the silty pool of a small spring seeping from the mountain. Ernando and the other Bolivian’s drank straight from the stream. I decided to be a cautious wimp and filter the water with my handy dandy filter bottle before ingesting it. After lunch Mark, Rob, and Samuel decided their legs had taken all they could and opted to stay behind while the rest of us, in search of the falls, descended back into the canyon on the other side of the ridge. Ernando side the trail was even steeper and more difficult going back into the canyon. Now that it was only Carlos, Luis, Ernando and myself, we were practically running down the trial trying to get down into the canyon, back out again and then down to the truck before night fall. I was beginning to think we were trying to do a two day trip in only one day.

We quickly dropped into a steep canyon made our way down 500 feet or so into the river course were Ernando showed us a waterfall that was maybe 40 or 50 feet high. It was beautiful and the flow of water was impressive; nevertheless I was disappointed as I was expecting some a bit higher. We worked our way around through the forest and to the top of the falls. Ernando said he had heard there was another larger fall a little further down the river but he had never gone down there because his grandfather had never wanted to risk the scramble down over the rocks. Then I found out the real reason the didn’t go near the pool at the bottom of the falls. Ernando said that when one of his aunts was a child she was bathing alone in the pool below the falls and a hichi came up out of the water and scared her. A hichi is another of the mystical creatures that inhabit the wilds of Bolivia. She claimed it was serpent like in form and had a huge dragon head with horns. We scrambled around through the woods and found a passage between the cliffs were we scrambled down to the pool below the falls. Ernando bravely followed us despite the hichis all around. We snapped a few pictures and then turned our interest downriver. I could here the roar of a larger falls and began to make my way over the boulders made smooth from centuries of flowing water. The river bed dropped way before me and when I finally gained a view of the falling water and the valley below I was shocked at the height we were perched above the canyon. While it is certainly hard to estimate heights when looking down, I would guess the falls were minimally 500 feet high. My GPS said we were at 988 meters elevation, and earlier I had recorded the river at 740 meters where we had crossed. That is a height difference of 248 meters (813 ft). I sure the river drops some between the falls and where we crossed but the falls themselves could easily be 600 to 700 feet high. From the top there was no direct way to get down to the bottom of the falls. It was box canyon with sheer cliffs on all three sides.

It was already pushing 4:00 P.M so we didn’t even have time for a dip in the stream. We headed back up the trail to find the rest of our group. It was a steep climb out. I was struggling to keep up with Carlos and Ernando. My knees were hurting and I was definitely at my physical limit. I couldn’t wait to pick up the rest of the group so our pace would slow back down and I could rest. Ernando seemed to have the eternal energy of youth and was still bounding up the rocks and ledges and then waiting for us to catch up. I was truly impressed with his strength and endurance and quite appalled at my own lack of either. We found the rest of the group lounging in the shade of lone tree on a ridge above the river. Andean condors were playing in the updrafts above their heads. Condors are impressive because of their size, up to a 12 foot wingspan, and they do possess a certain mystique because of the folklore surrounding them, but they really are just big ugly vultures. I screwed in my long telephoto lens and got a couple of descent shots of one sitting on a fence post. We descended quickly down the ridge trail back to the river and there soaked our aching feet in the cool water. The remaining kilometers back to the car seemed to drag on forever. I saw the car through the forest just as the last light was fading from the sky. After another three hours back down the dirt road we made it out to the highway by 10:00 and I was back home by 11:00—an 18 hour day. I think for the next hike to the falls we will follow the river all the way to the base of the falls. I’m sure the hiking will be difficult over the boulders and but there should be less climbing and I think the view will be just as or more rewarding.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Beams Bytes – February 2006

Dear Mission Supporters,

I imagine you can tell from the picture that this month is all about FLOODING. November through February is the rainy season in Bolivia. When it rains more than normal in the highlands the water comes down out of the Andes and floods the plains of the department of Santa Cruz in eastern Bolivia. I’m sure this has been happening for millennia, but only recently, in the last 10 to 20 years, have poor farmers begun to settle in the flood plain near the lowland rivers. The government gave away 75 acre tracts of land to highland quechua farmers if they would relocate to the unoccupied lands of Santa Cruz. Whole communities and towns have sprung up where only 20 years ago was a vast wilderness.

World Concern has been working in the area of these quechua colonies for over ten years. We have more than 20 micro-credit groups in the flood prone areas and two other projects promoting agricultural diversification and livestock production, water well drilling in many other communities. There is usually some flooding every five years or so, but this year has been especially bad. In fact the Rio Grande river has completely left is old channel (which is now dry) and has cut a new river right through the heart of the colonies. The last I heard, 12,000 families have been left homeless and 500,000 acres of crops have been ruined. They are predicting even more rain for the month of February. Tent cities have sprung up along the highway on the periphery of the flooded area and people are desperate for food and clean water. In the short-term the government and local NGO’s (including World Concern) are responding with relief supplies. We are trying to come up with a development strategy that will help farmers take advantage of these rich agricultural lands without putting their homes and families at risk every time there is a flood. In the short term we will offer emergency low interest micro-loans so they can replant as soon as the water recedes. In the long-term we will help them with relocation to less flood prone areas. A regional disaster such as this is not as dramatic or visible as the Asian Tsunami or Hurricane Katrina, but for those affected it is just as devastating. Please pray that World Concern can respond quickly and correctly to this emergency and that God will be honored and revealed in the lives of those affected by this disaster.

On a more joyous note, one of our close friends, Carlos Cruz, accepted Christ several weeks ago. Pray for him as he begins a new journey in Christ. Carlos is from Colombia. He left his home several years ago to escape the political violence and economic instability of his country. He sort of wondered into Bolivia and has decided to stay. We met him in the home of some friends in the mountains where he was working as a hired hand on their farm. Carlos is university educated with an engineering background and when he heard about what World Concern was doing in community development he wanted to volunteer to help. He came to a water well drilling workshop in San Julian and shortly thereafter decided to use our methods to drill water wells in poor communities in the mountainous region west of Santa Cruz. Carlos was also searching spiritually. I have seen how God has put a number of Christian brothers in Carlos’ life in the last six months. Carlos said it was hard to deny how God has been speaking to him and working in his life. He had been reading “Purpose Driven Life” (in Spanish) for a number of weeks, but still hadn’t made a firm commitment. Finally, vanessa sat down with him and worked through the last of his doubts. He enthusiastically prayed and made a sincere commitment to follow Christ. He is excited about reading the Bible, fellowshipping with other believers, and being involved in ministry. Pray that Carlos will continue to grow in his relationship with Christ and that Vanessa and I can help disciple him in his new faith.

Vanessa and I thank you all so much for your prayers and support. We received a lot of extra gifts in December that went along way to catching us up with our budget. That was an answer to pray. BUT, we are still short. We are still $3000 behind budget for the year (the fiscal year beginning in July) and need another $1000 a month in monthly pledges to maintain our ministry. If you are one of those people who read our newsletters regularly and pray for us faithfully, but have not made a financial commitment, why don’t you make a pledge of $25 or $50 a month? God will surely use these resources to impact the lives of physically and spiritually desperate people of Bolivia, and he will also bless you for making this commitment.

In His Grace,Danny

Mailing address:

Daniel and Vanessa Beams
World Concern
Parapeti #146 -- Casilla 3681
Santa Cruz, Bolivia

Office Telephone: 011 591 3336 3664
Home Telephone: 011 591 3352 9156

Thursday, February 02, 2006

A Traffic Incident

This morning I rode my bicycle into the office just like every other morning. It is a five mile commute. As usual, it was hot and humid and I was dripping with sweat as I approached my office. For almost two years I have always arrived without a major incident—until today. I guess in the grand scheme of life, today’s problem wasn’t that traumatic, but it did disrupt my entire day. About two blocks from the office I was approaching a busy intersection when a bus, called a micro in Santa Cruz, sped past me and then dove to the curb to pick up a passenger. I had to break hard to avoid hitting his bumper. I managed to get ahead of him and then stopped at the intersection waiting until I could safely cross. The bus pulled up behind me and then I felt him nudge my back wheel with his bumper. The intersection cleared so I tried to pedal through it but my bicycle wouldn’t budge. My rear wheel had been crushed (what we cyclists call taco’ed) from the weight if his bumper. Of course I couldn’t believe what I was looking at. The back wheel was completely ruined and obviously unridable. I raised the bicycle up in front of the drivers window to show him what he had done. He kind of shrugged his shoulders and motioned for me to get up on the curb so he could pull his bus over to the side of the road. I said I wasn’t moving until the police came. I believed he would just drive away if I moved from the front of his bus. The intersection quickly became clogged with blocked vehicles and pedestrians standing around gawking at the gringo and his broken bicycle. Several men approached me and encouraged me not to move from the spot. One of them ran off to find a policeman. The crowd began taunting the driver and accusing him of basically being an idiot. Bus drivers in Santa Cruz are notoriously known for driving recklessly and for abusing the rights of pedestrians and fellow drivers alike. After about five minutes a police car came and two officers began to assess the situation, quickly interviewing the driver and myself. At the same time a man in street clothes thrust a radio receiver in my face and asked me to explain exactly what happened. It ignored him and tried to concentrate on the policemen’s questions. Later I learned that he was from the prensa, he was a news reporter from a local radio station.

The police put my bicycle in the micro and asked me to get in the patrol car and go with them down to transito, the traffic police station, to write up a formal report. The patrol car followed the micro and once at the station we all sat down together in a hot office where both the driver and I told our stories. We both told the same basic story. Edgar, the bus driver, said he was picking up a passenger, trying to make change, and had accidentally taken his foot off the brake. The intersection was slightly down hill and he accidentally rolled into my rear wheel. Edgar was quiet and polite and seemed nervous at the thought of what all of this was going to mean for the future of his family. There wasn’t much to the interview, the policeman wrote our names down in a notebook and scribbled a few notes describing the accident. He said that the micro would have to remain impounded until my bicycle was fixed. He said Edgar and I should go together to take care of the bicycle repair and that the bus could not leave the impound lot until I personally told the officer I was satisfied with the repair. I thought it was odd that after an accident the police would send the two parties off together to work things out without an intermediary. If the two parties disagreed who was at fault or had even the slightest bit of animosity toward each other, I could see how that arrangement could go south quickly.

Edgar did not have more than a dollar in his pocket and didn’t know how he was going to get the wheel fixed. He does not own the bus himself. He is only a substitute driver for the bus line, Linea 15. He takes the place of regular drivers whenever they can not make it into work. He said he usually works seven days a week from 5:00 AM to 10:00 PM. For each 17 hour shift he is paid 50 bolivianos (about $6.00US). He has a wife and one child, a two month old daughter, but said he has hardly seen her because he is always gone from the house trying to earn a living. They live in a poor barrio with dirt streets that is over an hour from the bus line parking lot, so he is only home between 11 PM and 4 AM. I have always thought all bus drivers are rude and inattentive, but I never considered the fact that they work such long hours and must be mindlessly exhausted by the end of the day. Bus drivers are constantly distracted because they have to collect money from passengers and make change while they are driving. They are always in a hurry to stay on schedule while trying picking up as many passengers are possible. They constantly dive to the curb and then pull right back into traffic without paying any attention to other vehicles or pedestrians around them. Bus drivers are most offensive in the round-abouts where they stay on the outside to pick up passengers and then dive across three or four lanes of traffic in an attempt to make a left turn around the circle. If other drivers value their bumpers at all they have learned to stop and let the busses come on across.

It was odd getting to know Edgar on a personal level. We ended up spending the entire day together and we talked about our respective lives quite extensively. Previously I had only thought of bus drivers as a single class of individuals, all of whom I thought were selfish idiots. Bus drivers are simply the faceless enemies of commuting cyclists. I think you have to actually live in and drive in Santa Cruz to understand this battlefield. Micros are smallish Toyota busses that hold 30 passengers comfortably, and more commonly 50 or 60 when they are stuffed to the gills during peak commuting hours. The buses are small enough to squeeze into and between tight lanes of traffic. And they are quick, having much better acceleration than our lumbering diesel powered Nissan Patrol. Ninety-five percent of the citizens of Santa Cruz get around town by bus, and there are 1000’s and 1000’s of busses. They clog up every primary traffic artery in town. When I am on my bicycle it sometimes feels as if I am a minnow bumping and squeezing my way through a huge school of tuna. Micro drivers will sometimes respect another vehicle, but when they see a bicycle, they simply disregard it completely. Even if a cyclist has a green light or preferential right-of-way, a micro will often cut him off. I have to constantly be on the lookout for maniac bus drivers, my fingers always on the brake levers, ready to squeeze them hard.

Once out of his bus Edgar was a regular guy, he had a goofy insecure smile and seemed more worried about how he was going to get himself out of this mess than about running over innocent pedestrians and cyclists. He asked me about my family and my job, and we talked a bit about politics and religion. He is catholic but has a brother who is a Mormon. We both agreed Mormon’s have some screwed up theology. Edgar wanted to go to a market area called Alto San Pedro where he thought we could pick up another bicycle rim for about $5 dollars. I explained to him that my bicycle was imported from that U.S. and the rims were specifically made for rugged off-road cycling and that any old steel rim wasn’t going to work. The only shop in town that might have a suitable replacement was Bianchi way on the north side of town heading toward the airport. Edgar wanted to take a series of busses to get there, but that would have taken hours, so I suggested a taxi. He balked at the $1.25 a taxi driver wanted for the trip, but finally agreed on the bargained down price of $1.00. Once at the shop, the shop manager described to us the various options. The only suitable replacement was going to cost about $100 for a rear wheel that would have to be built from scratch, or $150 for a new pre-laced set of imported wheels. My old hub, which was not damaged could not be used because nowhere in Bolivia do they sell rims with 28 spoke holes. Edgar called the bus owner on my cell phone, explained that the bus had been impounded, and described his current predicament. Edgar did not have any means to pay for the wheel, so he was hoping the bus owner would bail him out. I thought about loaning him the money, but then that would have defeated the purpose of everything we were doing. Even from several yards away I could hear the bus owner on the phone yelling furiously at Edgar, who just smiled and told me the owner was pretty upset and was on his way down to the bike shop. I called Susana, a World Concern colleague, and asked her meet me at the bike shop with some cash. I offered to accept $75 for the rear wheel and I was going to put up another $75 so I could buy the pair (front and rear) of wheels, which the shop would only sell as a set. When the bus owner arrived he was furious with both Edgar and me. He said he would only pay for a rim and nothing more because that was all that was damaged. I explained how that was unacceptable because my hub was useless in Bolivia and I needed a whole rear wheel. He said he didn’t have to do anything for me and that he could go down to the station and pay a little bribe and get his bus out in half an hour if he wanted to. He finally calmed down and agreed to take this whole mess to his insurance office and see what they had to say.

Crediform, the bus owner’s insurance carrier, said we needed an official police report before they could process the claim. But because it was approaching lunch time, the negotiations ground to a halt. Everything in Santa Cruz closes between noon and three in the afternoon. At three we met each other again at the police station, but the officer said he would not give us a report until the bicycle was repaired. Finally after much explaining, he agreed to make a report that would be ready at 4:30, but still refused to let the bus out of the impound lot until the bicycle was fixed and I gave the okay. Back at Crediform with the report in hand, we still had problems because the police report had incorrectly reported the license plate number of the bus. Back to the police station to take a digital photo of the bus to prove its identity and to photograph the bicycle to prove it was the model I had declared. The insurance adjuster had a hard time believing that my Klein bicycle originally cost over $2000 or that a rear wheel would cost $100. He just kept saying that he could buy a whole new bicycle for $100. But after a quick internet search he verified the value of the bicycle and agreed print a check for $95. But he had to send someone from the insurance office with me back to the shop to purchase the wheel and bring back a receipt for the exact amount. I added $55 of my own money and bought the better wheel set. By the time everything of finalized and the micro was released from the impound lot it was after 7:00 PM. Edgar still had another three hours left on his shift and was eager to get back to work. Earlier in the day he said he was sure he would be fired over this incident. He said he had had one other small accident two years earlier and ever since then the bus syndicate president had not been nice to him. He assumed today’s problems would be the end of his job. Also, the police had confiscated his drivers license and would not give it back until he paid a $25 fine, an amount equal to five days wages, and more that he could possibly pay in the near future. I left Edgar with well wishes and a bid to be careful.

A one second lapse of attention had crushed my rear wheel (really just a minor inconvenience to me), but to Edgar it would probably mean the loss of steady employment and the creation of an economic hole that he will not be able to crawl out of for months. Vanessa wanted to help Edgar’s family by buying some clothes for their baby daughter, but I had already washed his cell phone number from my hand and don’t know how to contact him again. Maybe we will bump into each other again in the streets.