In hindsight, it didn’t look occupied from the road.
My optimism powered me on, all despite the crushing weight of my rucksack and the draining power of the humidity. But a small part of me had begun to wonder whether I might have made a mistake. A big one.
As I approached, it became clear that time had not treated the centre’s buildings kindly.
Each was in desperate need of repair; they were barely standing, worn down and dilapidated amongst miles of desolate savannah.
It certainly didn’t look how I had expected El Porvenir, the reserve headquarters of La Reserva Biosférica del Beni in northern Bolivia to look. My guidebook at claimed that from here, I could take guided tours into the pampas, accompanying the park rangers on their rounds of the park and even visit a lake home to hundreds of crocodiles that had been released after a company making crocodile handbags had gone under (no joke).
Two barking dogs – complete with wagging tails and an evident case of schizophrenia – heralded my arrival.
A woman suspended from a hammock outside a nearby building scurried towards me, shouting off the dogs as I neared.
“Is there somewhere to stay here? Are there tours into the jungle?” I stuttered in Spanish. She looked at me.
“There’s nothing here.”
“No trips into the jungle?” I asked again, reality fading my hopeful smile.
We stared at one another for a short while longer. A sinking feeling of being miles from civilisation, and my bus having already left, was rising up into my mouth and it emerged with me pleading:
“But how can I get to the next town?”
She paused, then slowly responded:
“You’ll have to wait for the next trufi.”
We both knew that this was a highly unlikely prospect.
The trufis serving the infamous mud-obstacle course between Trinidad and San Borja – and any trufis for that matter – do not leave unless full. And by full, I mean three in the back (or boot by UK standards), three in the middle, plus driver and front passenger. Occasionally, companies try their luck further, with a third front passenger, squatting on the handbrake in between.
No trufis would be stopping to pick me up.
It goes without saying that after any prolonged period of travelling, you are destined to have what I define as the “oh shit” moment.
It is that split-second when you realise that you’ve cocked-up – impressively. However much you might plan, however extensive your travelling experience, you will, at some point face the horrible, sinking awareness that you have got it badly wrong.
While forgetting to set an alarm and therefore almost missing a bus (which I have also recently done) or actually managing to miss that bus are problematic, they are nothing in comparison to finding yourself stranded in the absolute middle of nowhere.
The trudge back along the driveway to the road reaffirmed my predicament.
Fully laden with all 22kgs of my belongings, it didn’t take long for the roasting heat of the sun to slow my steps. Add to that, I only had one litre of water on me.
Back at home in the UK and faced with such a situation, I will admit that my reaction would have been as follows: I would have sat down on the dusty road and cried. Self-pitying tears of frustration and annoyance that I hadn’t checked the information in the guidebook would have issued from my sweaty face, in what can only be described as a spectacle of ridiculousness.
But somehow, everything didn’t seem completely terrible. Instead of immersing myself in a cloud of self-pity and despair, I opted for what any Bolivian would have done in the situation.
I sat down to wait.
All hope was not yet lost.
Whilst I didn’t have much water, I did have a two-man tent, sleeping bag and mat, plus a hammock. In reality, I could have invited two friends to join me in a stranded-in-the-middle-of-nowhere party, passing the night in what would definitely have been a most incredible of spots to camp.
Further to that, my inventory of useful items comprised of one large packet of dulce de leche wafers, a packet of salted crackers and four bananas.
I would definitely survive the night.
With that in mind, I relaxed, enjoying the shade of a now neglected shelter on the side of the road. Four motorbikes, a jeep and two trucks passed in rapid succession in the opposite direction, the drivers and passengers of each sharing incredulous stares towards me.
Finally, after 35 minutes, I heard the sound of a vehicle approaching, this time towards my destination, San Borja. Plumes of brown dust sprayed from its wheels as it took the unpaved road at excessive speed. My prescription sunglasses aided me to confirm that it was a trufi.
I was saved.
I waved at it, unsure as to whether it had yet seen me. It approached, closer and closer. Then, it passed. The driver was shaking his hand in the customary indication that there was no space. I considered throwing myself in front of it at the last minute, but the sight of a passenger wedged uncomfortably in the third front seat stopped me. It really was full.
Crestfallen, I went to return to my shady spot, but realised with a glimpse further along the road that in the near distance, my chariot was approaching. It was a white lorry, carrying with what seemed to be broken fencing.
Eventually, it slowed to a stop in front of me. A man popped his head out of the passenger window, his right cheek swollen with a mush of coca leaves.
“Can I come with you?” I asked timidly, dreading the shake of his head, but with little hesitation he had opened the door and was gesturing for my bags. I followed them in, clambering unsteadily into the cabin.
Sitting down in the middle seat between my two new companions, I marvelled at my luck.
The drivers were also evidently also marvelling, but at the unlikeliness of the situation. You probably don’t come across many lone gringas on that stretch of road.
They plied me with questions, and I responded by asking them about what had also brought them to this part of Bolivia.
“Petrolium,” JuanCarlos informed me, his words muffled by a matching swell of coca leaves which bulged from his left cheek. Neither were local and they had driven from Santa Cruz – a long and arduous journey (particularly given the state of the roads) which had begun a few days previously.
Whilst it was considerably slower by truck, the vehicle’s ability to drive over gaping holes in the muddy road without losing a wheel were impressive, and almost made for a comfortable journey. Added to this, the views from the cab across the pampas, where cattle grazed and herons searched for food in the muddy pools of water, were much more impressive than if I had been squished into a tiny trufi, much closer to the ground.
After two and a half hours of steady progress and numb bottoms, we arrived in San Borja – an uninspiring town known mainly as a stop-over between Rurrenabaque and Trinidad.
There I descended from the truck, bidding farewell to my hosts who flatly refused any money for their assistance.
My time in San Borja before I took a taxi to Rurrenabaque the following morning was unremarkable except for two points: an offer to go fishing by a hopeful taxi driver, and an even more hopeful offer to marry from the owner of the alojamiento in which I stayed. Both were declined.
Whilst I wasn’t yet ready to get lost in the Bolivian pampas, neither was I ready to settle down as the wife of a local in a lost town on the edge of the Amazon jungle.
What have I learned from my travel screw ups and getting stuck in the arse-end of nowhere in Bolivia?
Someone – a kindly local, another tourist, just someone – will bail you out. Whatever the predicament, it’s nice to know that someone will look out for you, when you most need it.
And I know that in the future, I’ll be looking to return the favour that those men from Santa Cruz did for me, to another backpacker who’s screwed up. It’s all karma, right?
I want to hear about your travel screw ups! Comment below to tell me about your worst travel moment and, most importantly, what you learned from the experience!