MIRADOR DE LA CRUZ: SNAKES, BLOOD & DARKNESS

I’ve just finished hurtling down the ridge line of the jungle mountain near Rurrenabaque for what must surely be the twentieth time – grasping at the long grass in a desperate bid to slow my descent and ripping muscles in my arms and legs in the process – when I arrive at a point in the path where I can finally lift myself up from a deep crouch into a semi-standing position. I peer through the dense undergrowth, see the hint of a path towards my left, and take a step forward.

And I fall right through.

“Fuck,” I mutter, “Fuck, fuck, fuck.”

The Mirador de la Cruz, Lookout of the Cross, has one path ascending up from Eufa’s place, an endless set of steps that give way to the dodgiest half-hacked path I’ve seen in my life. It’s red, thanks to the sandy dirt that comprises this so called cerro – something between a hill and a mountain – with a gaggle of tree roots, no handholds or footholds, rail, markers or signposts to speak of, and bursts out onto a little stone platform with a couple of bins, a rail to hand upside down on, a sort of outdoor casita – more or less four wooden posts holding up a jatata leaf roof over the dustiest picnic table I’ve ever seen – and a spectacular view of the township and the Amazon river. Technically, it’s the Rio Beni, but it feeds right into the Amazon in Brazil – so just a matter of country. When you arrive at the top, there are two other paths that lead down. I take the one that simply follows the side of the cerro right down in the other direction, rather than the one that goes behind or the one I came on because I figure it’s gotta be better.

Wrong.

I’m at least two thirds of the way down the mountain when I realise: I should have turned back as soon as I saw the tall grass completely overgrown on the path that suddenly became narrower and narrower, and deadly steep.

The only way from there to go down was to get into a deep crouch, almost sitting, take a deep breath, and slide-fly-fall down, carried by the loose sand.

“Yaaaaa!” I yell as I grapple with the plants above the hole I’ve fallen into – like some sort of bear trap of the Native Americans – and grit my teeth as I rip out the grasses right from their roots while attempting to haul myself up and over. Having decided to wear short shorts and a see-through sleeveless Indian top, my legs and arms have been thoroughly scratched all over by the cutty grass.

I’m past caring, however.

As I pull myself into sitting position on the ‘path,’ I calculate my options. I’ve hyper-extended my triceps and shoulders, I have finished all my water, it’s getting darker, and I have no phone credit, so there are only two choices: turn back, and go up the horrendous way I came, or keep plundering through this way and hope for the best. I am, after all, most of the way down and can easily see the village lights and roads in the distance.

All of a sudden, my phone rings.

“Alo?” I say.

“Hola Nalini, como estás? Soy Jalime.” Hi Nalini, how are you? It’s Jalime, a bubbly female voice chimes in.

I’ve been coordinating with Margot and Matthieu – the illegal French couple who’ve been lurking in Bolivia for a year just to build a community centre for the river rat nomad kids in the village – to get in touch with Jalime for about a week, and she’s finally rung. Probably just out of the council offices.

“Hola Jalime!” I reply, my voice almost breaking.

“Queria coordinar contigo nuestra reunión – esta semana te parece?” Just wanted to coordinate a catchup with you – how’s this week sound? she asks.

We’re supposed to be meeting about me running a two-week socio-enviro leadership intensive with eight high schools and I should be excited.

Instead, my energy drops and I feel my heart rate speed up.

“Ummmmm, I’m super lost at the lookout right now; I went down the other path and can see the lights of the town in the distance but the path is really dangerous; I’m super stressed out because it’s almost dark,” I gush in Spanish, palms sweaty from clutching the phone. Amazon ‘winters’ can be up to 38 degrees Celsius, some days.

“Dime,” Jalime says. Go on.

I explain as fast as I can to her what I mean, trying to control my voice from shaking.

“Ya voy, voy a buscarte.” I’m coming, I’m coming to find you, she says without hesitation, telling me to keep going down and that soon I’ll come across a river.

I clarify with her three times what she means. I’m sure the river is at the bottom of the third path, the one I haven’t taken yet because some young hoot was clambering up from it when I arrived at the lookout and told me it led to a dead end. She assures me to keep going, saying, ya voy once again and confusing the hell out of me – ya voy literally means I’m going already but I take it to mean I’m coming right now – and ends the call.

Damn. I forgot to tell her I have no way of texting her.

I start easing my way down in the crouch position once again, holding on to branches, slim trunks, anything to slow my hurtle downwards.

It’s getting dark and I know three things: First: my phone battery is at 21%, which gives me maybe 20-30 minutes of torch time all up, in case I decide to go down further and come back up again. Second: people have vanished here, on the path to this lookout or back. Third: there are giant snakes – at least ten people I know in the village have seen them with their own eyes and for most of the village-folk, this is a big reason for not even venturing up in the first place…and I don’t have a machete with me, and would probably not be able to slow my descent in time if one were to suddenly drop from the trees right into my path.

So.

I clench my jaw as I reach a wall of forest in front, peering through the darkness for where to head next. The phone torch doesn’t help much – but now I can see lights a little closer. A farmhouse, maybe? I can hear dogs barking.

I’ve had enough.

“SOCORRO,” I bellow: HELP. “Estoy perdida, hay alguien allá? Hola? Hola?I’m lost, is anyone out there? Hello? He-llooooo?

My mouth is dry, and I have no water left, but I keep shouting anyway. It worked in the Valle de la Luna – Moon Valley – in the Atacama desert in Chile, three months ago, when I arrived back by what I thought was the correct path, bike in tow, jumping barbed wire fences and crossing rivers in the blazing afternoon heat.

Nobody replies.

“HOLAAAAAA?” I repeat. “Hay alguien allá?”

There must be someone out there, surely.

“Holaaaaaa. Estoy perdidaaaaaaaa.” Heyyyyy. I’m lost.

Not technically true, since I know I could head back up the semi-nonexistent path along the ridgeline again, but lost in the forward sense. I can’t see nor hear any rivers.

And I have no way of letting Jalime know.

I hazard a quick guess: if this path is truly monstrous from the bottom end, then Jalime can’t possibly be coming up this one. Nor the second, which the young man said lead to a dead end. Which means she’s coming up the same one I came up.

Which means…I have to heart-in-throat bash my way up the third path like a madwoman, the one I’m on, the one I’ve hurtled down on, anyway. It’s fucking steep, which means…I’ll keep sliding back down many times. It’s either that, or stay put, wait for them to arrive at the top then scramble down here to rescue me. It would be the logical thing to do, to avoid getting lost on the way up and making it even harder for them; it’s what you’re supposed to do when you’re lost.

Except. There’s just one thing:

Giant. Fucking. Snakes.

I whirl around, heart-thudding for the moon, flip on my torch again, and claw my fingers right into the soil. It’s this or nothing.

***

There were so many times I could have died already during this voyage.

I could have died in the 1000km highway between La Serena and Antofagasta, hitchhiking solo but perhaps not from hitchhiking – perhaps a tsunami, a landslide or an earthquake, none of which are uncommon here and indeed, one of the worst earthquakes hit Chile just weeks after I left. I could have died from the sub-zero cold, waiting on the highway in the middle of the Atacama desert at night for the next ride, or perhaps in San Pedro de Atacama, where the temperatures got to -10 degrees Celsius some nights and I had one sleeping bag tucked into another sleeping bag on the hard floor in a one-room adobe earth shack. I could have died in Parque Nacional Eduardo Andina Avaroa, a national park at the bottom of Bolivia, complete with red flamingos and lakes at over 5000m altitude – I’m anemic, after all, so the loss of oxygen, coupled with the fact that the jeep had no oxygen supply for emergencies, could have resulted in more than just coughing up some blood, vomiting and the most explosive headache of my life.

I could have died in the bus ride from 9pm to 4am in the morning in one of the worst bus companies of Bolivia travelling up from Uyuni, a tired salt flat town, to Oruro, a silver-mining city of red brick and adobe on hairpin turns and a hair-raisingly bumpy dirt road in the night, with a half-asleep driver chewing coca leaves to keep him awake – indeed, one of my good friends from New Zealand, a strapping young lad named Levi, had the ride of his life when the bus catapulted right over the edge of the gorge on its longest side, twice, and disembodied heads came hurtling past his ear as he jolted awake, later rushing to haul out injured, bloody and sometimes dead passengers from the bus while everyone else dashed to get their bags. He warned me, Nalini, never, ever go with a cheap bus company in Bolivia. It’s not worth your life. I had no choice, this time, however.

I could have died on the 120km hurtle down steep, winding Death Road, of course, or the World’s Most Dangerous Road, dropping from 4000m altitude to 1000m in just a few hours and with zero experience on a mountain bike – don’t you fucking dare look at the scenery while biking, our guide yelled at us in the morning, you look at the landscape: you become the landscape.

I could have died the first and last time I went into the reserve, looking for caiman in the night, or perhaps because I walked through jaguar footprints just the morning after it had marked its territory close to the cabins, on the way to the monkey-island.

And so, when I triumphantly walk into the village, bleeding from about fifty places and with the skin ripped clean off the front and sides of my neck, and demand a coconut from Luz’s Place, she all but drops the pan she’s drying.

“What…what happened to you?” she gasps.

I grin. “Well…it’s, er, quite a story.”

“Sit down,” she says. “You look like you’ve been fighting with a jaguar.”

I take a seat. “Yeah,” I say slowly, “Something like that.”

*I lived in Rurrenabaque, Bolivia, during August 2015 – October 2015.
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