Even as we set out on our exploratory journey, Warren and I weren't sure where exactly we were going or how long it would take to get there. The first day we drove eight hours to Trinidad, the capital city of Beni. Trinidad is a dirty bustling city where the streets are overrun with cheap Chinese motorcycles and honking taxis. It definitely feels like a frontier town, a jumping off point on the edge of the Amazon wilderness. The Momore river, passing nearby, is the largest tributary of the Amazon River. That night we met with some local church leaders and business men. Over the best steak dinner of my life, we discussed our water project, and their Christian radio project and new church plants. I literally kept stuffing steak in my mouth until I could not squeeze in another bite. I wobbled away from the table and slept uncomfortably in the spare bedroom in the home of some generous church members. After learning that it was still another six hour drive to San Lorenzo de Moxos over rough dirt roads, we decided to leave super early before the city even woke up. By 6:00 AM we were out of town and crossing the Momore River on a ferry—really just a simple barge built out of rough hewn wooden planks and powered by a small boat with an outboard motor tied along the side.
We passed quickly through the beautiful colonial town of San Ignacio de Moxos and made our way on back roads to San Lorenzo, arriving around noon. Luckily, being the dry season, it was possible to drive overland all the way to San Lorenzo. For many months each year both San Ignacio and San Lorenzo are completely cut off from the rest of Bolivia. The only way in or out is by air or by boat. We didn't have exact directions to Natividad's house, but were told to simply mention his name to anyone on the street and they would direct us. We did and they did. Natividad lives in a humble home next to the evangelical church. Natividad pastors the local congregation and as well works as a missionary, planting churches in many smaller communities along the rivers. He set us up for lunch and a room in the home of a church member—there are no restaurants, hotels or even humble guest houses in San Lorenzo—and then went out searching for the connections that would make a community visit up river possible. Because it is the dry season, many of the rivers are too low to travel on even by canoe.
The first community he knew of that needed a well would take too many portages on the river or would be a six to eight hour hike. Ouch! When we were about to admit defeat, thinking this area would be too inaccessible for our intrepid Texas team, when Natividad met Limber, a friend and local leader from the Yuracare community of Villa Hermosa, on the plaza of San Lorenzo. Limber was in town collecting half a ton food rations being donated to his community by the WFP (World Food Program). Earlier this year Villa Hermosa and every other community along these rivers were flooded and the residents completely lost their crops for the year. Disaster relief in the form of food aid from the WFP is being distributed in these communities as a way to insure the residents do not starve until their next crop can be planted and harvested. It just so happened that Villa Hermosa needed a water well and Limber was traveling back home that same evening. We could come along in the canoe if we liked to see if a well drilling trip would be possible. We helped load the donated food into the back of our Land Cruiser and drove it down to the river "port." I say "port" but it was really just a river bank along a canal that fed from the river into a shallow lagoon about five kilometers from town. As we were loading the ten meter long dugout canoe, we met the owner, Teofilo. Teofilo said the canoe can carry about 2500 kilos of cargo. He was already headed upriver to his own farm and agreed to take Limber and the food supplies back to Villa Hermosa. We offered to contribute the 60 liters of gasoline necessary for the 120 km trip to Villa Hermosa and back. While we were loading the boat we met a group of Chimani Indians from Asunta, a village five days travel upriver. The Chimani were also collecting WFP food rations. Ten days on the river seems like a long way to travel for a half dozen bags of rice and flour. The Chimani women and children did not seem to speak a word of Spanish and acted quite fearful of the white foreigners (us). The Chimani still live primarily has hunters and gatherers. There were a number of long bows and spear-like arrows sitting round their camp. The women were roasting piranha and monkey over a campfire.
After the boat was loaded with rice, flour, beans, and cooking oil, we reloaded the Land Cruiser with the Chimani's green bananas (which they were taking into town to sell), and drove back into town to leave the vehicle parked safely in Natividad's yard. Limber and several others from Villa Hermosa said they would be traveling back home seven hours by horseback and would meet us the following morning to unload the boat. After a five kilometer hike back to the river through dark woods, we were finally on our way upriver by 7:00 PM. Teofilo had a fairly powerful 40 hp outboard, but he was afraid to give it much gas because the bearings were worn out and he could not find replacement parts. He assured us it would only be a four hour journey upriver to Villa Hermosa. We settled uncomfortably on top of the cargo and began shining our flashlights out into the underbrush. After only a few minutes of searching we had already spotted dozens of pairs of glowing eyes—caimans and crocodiles along the water's edge. Warren drifted off to sleep by nine, but I couldn't find a comfortable enough position to relax, so I listened to the hum of motor and scanned the moonlit shore for faunal movement. The hours passed slowly. Finally around 1:00 AM, after six hours on the water Teofilo pulled ashore and announced that there was too much brush in the river to continue on in the dark. We would camp along the shore for the night and continue on to Villa Hermosa the following morning. Warren and I scrambled up the muddy bank with our tent and personal gear and hastily set up camp. Teofilo, his two young sons and Felix a nephew disappeared into the woods. Only later in the night did I reflect on the fact that we might have set up our tent on the same bank that some large crocodile called home.
At day break we heard some rustling outside the tent. Teofilo was ready to get back on the river. Turns out we had camped at Teofilo's farm. Felix and the boys were going to stay behind to pick oranges while Warren, Teofilo and I continued on to Villa Hermosa. After another hour on the river we arrived at the village where we scrambled up the muddy bank and hiked the half kilometer to the village. Villa Hermosa is built on the highest ground in the area. Even so, the community floods almost every year. Earlier this year the community was flooded for weeks and they lost all of their crops. They showed me the water mark on the houses. There had been about two feet of water in the houses for weeks on end and no dry ground anywhere in sight. I asked Limber what they did during the flood. "What could we do?" he asked. "We had nowhere to go. We sat and slept on top of our furniture in our houses, ate bananas, and waited for the water to go down."
As we walked into the village a dozen dogs began barking letting everyone know of our arrival. Every member of the community came out to see who the visitors were. They knew Teofilo of course, but they didn't know what to make of a pair of tall white gringos. Limber still had not shown up on horseback so they hadn't been expecting us. We saw a half dozen stick and thatch houses loosely organized around a bare dirt plaza. The school was a thatched roof structure with open walls, a couple of benches, a chalk board, and a Bolivian flag. We met the teacher, a dozen men and women, and about as many kids. They said that nine families now live in the community, about fifty people altogether. The community walked in mass down to the river and we began unloading the heavy bags of food. The men threw the 120 lb bags of flour and rice onto their shoulders and confidently climbed the muddy bank. After everything was on shore the men shouldered the heavy bags for the ten minute hike back to the community. The kids and women carried smaller boxes and bottles of cooking oil. Ashamedly, I walked back empty-handed, mumbling something about a chronic back condition. The bulk of the food was wheat flour. About the only thing you can make with flour is bread. I didn't see an oven in the community so I asked one of the women how they would eat the flour? She said they would eat it just like it is. I didn't really understand but she demonstrated by pretending to scoop some into her mouth. I asked if they might build an adobe brick oven so they could make bread, or perhaps make fry bread in oil. She said they might.
Even though the community lost all of their crops for the year, they still have an abundance of meat and fish. Teofilo said the river and the forest provide all that they can eat. While the Yuracare are not simply nomadic hunters and gatherers like the Chimani. They do rely heavily on fish and wild animals hunted from the forest for a large portion of their diet. They eat a variety of fish as well as wild pig, jochi (a large rodent), wild turkeys, armadillo, monkey, tapir, anteater—practically any animal they can kill. They do not hunt with bows and arrows like the Chimani, but rather with ancient looking 22 caliber rifles and shotguns. They also have a few domesticated animals. I saw two cows and several dozen chickens, ducks, and pigs running around.
The school provides classes only through fifth grade. The closest high school would be in San Lorenzo. The teacher in Villa Hermosa, Juan Marcelo, is a young guy in his mid-twenties from Trinidad. He said he has been teaching in the community for three years. He said they did have seventeen students but now they only have twelve. I noticed the school has a kitchen. Sometimes the government provides food to insure that each student eats a good breakfast at school. Marcelo said they were not providing breakfast this year. Because of some confusion or miscommunication, Villa Hermosa had been left off of the list and has not been receiving food from the government for the breakfast program. Limber, the Corregidor (local authority) we met the day before still had not arrived on horseback. His wife, Regina, welcomed us into their home and quickly cooked up a heaping plate of masaco, green bananas fried in oil and mashed with a good bit of salt. We did not have supper the evening before or breakfast, so the masaco
was a welcome gift. She served it with hot chocolate made from locally grown cacao beans.
After breakfast, we met briefly with the teacher and all the adults of the community to explain the reason for our visit and the possibility of returning with a volunteer team to drill a well. They all seemed excited about the possibility of a well with a hand pump and promised to help with the labor. They are currently drinking water directly from the river, or from pools of stagnant water left over from the flooding. Now that it is the dry season, the pools have been drying up. They also showed us a shallow hand dug well about two meters deep where they draw out water with a rope tied to a bucket. The Yuracare in this community have been drinking dirty water their whole lives. I'm sure they live with endemic water-related diseases. Water from the river, from stagnant pools, or from such shallow wells is definitely contaminated with parasites, viruses and with fecal coliform bacteria from the livestock, wild animals and even their own fecal waste. A deep well with clean water will without a doubt improve the health and quality of life. If they will combine the use of clean water with proper hygiene (hand washing) and sanitation (use of latrines), they will quickly see even further improvements in health.
We left Villa Hermosa a little before noon with the promise of returning in two weeks time with the volunteer team. Back on the river with Teofilo and traveling with the current, we began making good time back to San Lorenzo. Along the way, we picked up Felix, the boys and a load of oranges and lumber at Teofilo's farm. The number of birds and other wildlife along the river was simply staggering. As the sun came out we saw more and more crocodiles along the banks for the river—literally hundreds of them. We saw half a dozen monster crocs that must have been at least twelve feet or longer. Interestingly, the Yuracare said they never, ever get in the river to swim or bathe. They only take bucket baths. I will follow their advice.
You can see a complete photo gallery of our trip at: http://www.pbase.com/beamsclan/sanlorenzomoxo.