This is part 1 in a 3 part article about Toby Swank's trip to Bolivia in June, 2014. He visited the Untamed Angling operation refferred to as Tsimane somewhere near the eatern base of the Andes mountains. It was a trip that epitomizes the idea of "what else could go wrong?" The atricle is meant to be more enteratining than infomative; so take it with a grain of salt and I hope you chuckle as much as I have over this unforgettable expereince!
If you would like to learn more about Tsimane or fly-fishing for Golden Dorado, feel free to e-mail or call Toby at our Bozeman fly shop. He would be happy to give more practical insight into the fishery, equipment, and travel plans if you are heading to Tsimane! As always, we rely o the travel experitse of Yellow Dog for all of our travel bookings and strongly encourage you to as well!
Part 1 - Bolivian Adventure 2014
Staring out at 3 miles of concrete surrounded by rebar-topped apartments put together in a manner that defies the term “zoning,” I wondered how I ended up here. The concrete was the runway in Santa Cruz, Bolivia and my seat was where the co-pilot should sit in a 6-person prop plane. The question of my being there had to do with the fact that the guy flying the plane looked like he just came out of his room in mom’s house after drinking Monster and playing Minecraft for 13 days straight…and the wind was blowing 50 knots. I have no idea what a knot is, but I have spent enough time around water to know that dudes that do know what a knot means, usually start to get a little jumpy around 20. Other than that, I was excited about heading into jungle for a week of fishing for Golden Dorado with my buddies.
We arrived in Santa Cruz early the morning prior after a late-night flight from Miami and a brief stop in La Paz. The guidebooks all said where lots of long clothing, douse yourself in bug spray, and avoid eye-contact in urban settings after dark if you choose to roam Santa Cruz. We checked into the hotel and spent the morning getting settled and trying to understand the difference between Bolivian and European foods. I don’t know that I ever figured that last question out.
The typical Googan Tour of the new city took place later that afternoon, led by our fearless interpretative local expert. As we explored the wonders of modern day poverty resulting from Socialism and a dependence on narco-trafficking, I kept thinking to myself that my hotel room was pretty nice. I always like to see a little local flare when I travel as it gives me a greater appreciation for humanity, America, and the vastness of the world. However, the sense of appreciation faded quickly as I watched a pack of wild, urban dogs relish in their reward of a recently disposed diaper. The idea of getting out of there seemed to make more sense than staying and we retreated to our hotel where we could once again hide from the reality of not being poor and stuck in a second world country for the foreseeable future. Still, if you end up in Santa Cruz for a day, it’s worth going downtown and checking out the sights and sounds for an hour or two.
Morning came early the following day with a wake-up call from our interpretative local expert with the greeting that went something like “Good morning Mr. Toby, it is a beautiful day for flying!” I thought to myself that maybe it was a train that I was hearing outside my window rather than a cyclone-force wind best described as consistent. Ominous warnings were all over the place that morning as one of our members overslept and had to be removed from his bed to make our deadline and that our local expert neglected to tell us a bout the need for carbonate to activate the recently purchases Cocoa leave. Still, we all ambled out to the runway with excitement and filled the two planes that awaited to take us to our “Jungle Oasis.”
A couple things about me and small planes to keep in mind. I often puke when put in hot, cramped spaces that tend to move around in various directions in a seemingly unpredictable manner. Also, I have very little faith in other human beings when it comes to doing a better job of keeping myself alive than I could do myself. So, there we set – after I broke the back on my seat and now relied on the knees of my pal in the backseat – staring down at 3 miles of concrete, in a hot little plane bucking in the wind and we haven’t even started. The other friend in the back is holding what appears to be some kind of homemade dipstick with little marks on it that presumably is used to measure the fuel level in the plane…it’s in the rear pocket of the pilot’s seat. The pilot looks way to young to know that he should be scared out his mind right then and I have that nagging feeling that I am getting old as a young person would never think like that.
Thankfully, we were number 2 for takeoff and I watched closely for any clues to the wind’s effect as the plane (full of our buddies) headed down that 3 miles of bleakness as 50 gusty knots of South American breeze crashed into us sideways. I will say that I became markedly less excited about the trip at that instant in which the plane ahead of us left the ground and immediately swerved and bounced it’s way towards the heavens in what appeared to be a truly precarious state. Our takeoff was much less dramatic and I was comforted by the closeness to buddy number one with his knees supporting my 200 pounds or so of fragile humanity.
The rest of the flight was uneventful for the most part. My only moments of anxiety came while looking at the gauges after an hour or so and realizing that the pegs on the ones labeled “Fuel” were bouncing around on empty. The young dude in knock off Aviators to my left quickly waved me off and pointed to something that looked like a speedometer, smiled, and gave me a “thumbs-up.” We didn’t run out of gas, but I still worried about it the whole trip. I didn’t puke, but I wanted to.
As we descended towards a tiny strip of cleared ground in a place that truly is “out there,” I looked out the window at the river we were to fish the next few days…it was the color of my son’s favorite morning beverage, chocolate milk. The plane lads safely and, despite the realization that the water we are to fish looks like JUNK, I felt excitement in the moment upon the realization that we finally made it!
The planes taxi to the end of the landing strip, denoted by the presence of 50 or so locals waiting with blank stares and broken smiles. We depart and there is an immediate senses of “what next?” After seeing a few Chili Pepper and Ramones T-shirts on the young kids, the feeling of being in “undiscovered” country soon went away. Introductions and handshakes with the greeting party were made in short order and we stepped aside to visit with the members of the party ahead of us that were now on their way to the next lodge for the balance of their stay.
As typical in these situations, the majority of the other guys were in their 50’s-60’s dressed in head to tow long sleeve everything with their rods in one hand and gear bag in the other. It was hard to read their expressions as they were wearing buffs and sun gloves. Their report came in quickly and sounded something like the fishing sucked…but it should be better for you guys! I’ve been “that guy” so many times and it took some restraint for me to tell them that the fishing was probably great but they suck too much to have been able to catch anything. I mean this is Golden Dorado Shagra-MFN-La and if you can’t get it done here…you might as well stick to golf and bridge night at the country club! I bit my tongue and gave them the uber-polite response of heartfelt empathy that went something like “ I am sorry to hear that you had a tough week and I hope that the rest of your trip makes up for it.” The parties separated and mine headed towards the boats waiting to take us to our camp the next few days.
It was at this time, after we said goodbye to the other party, that I noticed a persistent burning on my neck and an “unsettled” tingle to my arms. The burn was from the sun and the UV rays it emits being magnified 100fold by the waves of water vapor in the air as I realized that New Orleans in August might just not be the most humid place on the planet Earth. The tingle was from my hypersensitivity to the possibility that I have contracted the most potent and deadly version of localized viral infection transmitted through entomological vectors (I have been called a hypochondriac before). It’s pretty much a constant with me wherever I go, but it usually takes a day or two to really mature and this was like 8 minutes in. The old guys now getting into the planes that brought us to this godforsaken place now seemed like the smart ones with their fancy gloves and buffs. We loaded ourselves and gear into these 20+’ dugout canoes piloted by some guys with not teeth and that ever-present blank stare so apparently common to the locals that we had encountered to that point.
The boat ride ended up being about two minutes and the vision of quaint hospitality brought my spirits up and attitude back around to the good side of fun. That too quickly faded as I realized I had to climb up what appeared to be 200 steps in the oppressive heat and humidity to reach our appointed “Jungle Oasis.” Before we got to the steps, however, we discovered that climbing 10’ of mud at an 80-degree pitch isn’t really a picnic either. The lodge was reached by all, and personally, it felt good to relax after burning 2000 calories getting from the boats to the lodge in less than 5 minutes.
The hosts were welcoming and eager to make sure that we were all comfortable and hydrated as we settled into our new digs. The blank stare common on the faces of the indigenous folks, especially the dudes, was quickly explained to me by our host as one of the effects of chewing on Cocoa leaves 24/7 your entire life. I felt jealous of them for a few minutes as I pondered the experienced of life in such simple terms. At that moment, one of the local dudes comes marching up the steps that were daunting and overwhelming, to be honest, to me with a full-size washing machine on his back…not the dryer but the washing machine…on his back…in gumboots! I remember thinking to myself that I not only am I getting old, but I am also fully rooted in the generation that the older generations sometimes refer to as being “soft.”
Did I forget to mention that it was my “grand plan” to get off nicotine while on this trip? What better way to do it I thought to myself? No tobacco, I’ll only take a couple e-cigs and when they’re gone…I’m done…no problem. Safe to say, I was bumming smokes off anyone that would share after I blew through my allotted e-cigs for the week in a few hours.
After all that, I was truly ready to get in the water, make a few casts, and begin to unwind the craziness that had permeated my soul over the previous 24 hours. There is nothing in this world as therapeutic for me as standing in water and casting a fly line. I don’t’ really care where it is anymore, just so long as I have some cork in one hand and coated PVC in the other…