30 Dec

Daily Photo: Bolivian Military Rescue Mission

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On the banks of the Beni River in northern Bolivia lies a small town called Rurrenabaque. The town isn’t much to speak of, but does serve as the gateway for expeditions into the Madidi National Park (within the Bolivian rain forest) and the surrounding pampas. On December 1, 2006, I would return from a three-day trip into the jungle to hear rumors of a national transportation strike. This apparently happens a lot in Bolivia, but usually not to this extent.  Out of solidarity to their friends in the transportation business the rest of the country would shut down, as well.  Restaurants, drivers, guesthouses, food, water, etc.  Everything that a jungle wherry traveler might need to get to their next destination would be off-limits.  For how long?  Nobody was quite sure.

This tiny jungle airport became the only way in and out.

There are two ways in and out of Rurrenabaque: an 18 hour-long bus or 4×4 journey along the “Death Road,” which is how we got there (and a whole other story), or by jungle airplane.  The town would frequently get cut off from the outside world due to its remote location and unpredictable weather patterns–preventing flights from coming across the mountain range to the south. In our case we would be shut off by the lack of any legal or sanction transportation options.  I believe a few 4×4 drivers were offering to drive the journey for $800 for a truck load of about 10 people (read: cramped, bumpy and long).  Since I had already had that experience once, I figured I could let someone else take my seat and enjoy the adventure.  It was the least I could do considering that I had barely recovered from the trauma of the first trip and had heard parts of the road had washed out by a storm the night before.

Rumors started to circulate about a converted military flight leaving the next morning. Tickets sold fast, if you could even find someone who could find you one. I got tickets for the first flight and purchased tickets on the second flight for a couple that was on the jungle expedition with me.  They were out of cash and the banks and exchange offices were closed due to the strike.

The town was particularly quiet this day.

We had to hike to the airport from the center of town.  I’m sure it wasn’t far, but it felt like 20 miles with my full backpack. Along the way we would be passed by trucks filled with angry protesters, the kind that carried machetes, bats and guns. They were heading to the same place we were; not to catch a flight out of Rurre, but to prevent one from landing or taking off.  They were the kind of guys that I always imagined would be part of a Coup d’état. It was exciting and terrifyingly frightening at the same time.

Our fight would eventually arrive.  The passengers that came from La Paz looked like they had been through war. The flight through the mountain isn’t known for it’s comfort.  When you hear about flights disappearing off radar and rescue crews taking weeks to find the wreckage, this is the kind of airplane they find in the jungle.  We were fortunate this day.

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