Chalalan Ecolodge, near Rurrenabaque
“You’ve got the best job in the world, lady,” came an Australian drawl as I sprawled out on wooden decking.
My attention was jolted from gazing at turquoise butterflies skirt the surface of the glinting lagoon to the envious smile in front of me. “I guess you’re right,” I conceded, holding my whiteboard marker in a failed attempt to show that I was actually working. The Australian gave me a disbelieving nod before strolling away.
I’d been languishing in the Amazon Basin for the past week, giving sporadic English lessons to tour guides at a Bolivian ecolodge.
Currently, I was going over pronunciation when Eric, teetering with pleasure at his imminent comment, blurted out: “I told Ken Livingston that my English teacher is from Manchester. He told me to be careful as people don’t speak properly up there.” His face creased as he recalled his Skype conversation with the former Mayor of London.
“He’ll have a heart attack then when he realises I’m from Liverpool,” I laughed, imagining the horror on Livingstone’s face when Eric next greets him with a Scouse accent. The two met when the Londoner came to Chalalan for a rainforest experience and Eric showed him his native jungle environment.
“He’s writing a book on chameleons and reptiles,” Eric informed me, but refused to give further insight into the publication. It wasn’t a surprising topic I thought, recalling the colourful news reports about Livingstone’s well-disguised past.
My time at the resort had also morphed into changing roles including teacher, waitress and resident dish washer. I was welcomed into the community-run lodge with no resistance, the kitchen staff were pleased to have an extra pair of hands, no matter how clumsy they were. And the guides, when they had time, would bombard me with grammar questions which in typical Latino style would semi-jokingly cumulate in: “We could always have English lessons in your room,” followed by a sentence about their girlfriends.
I was taken under the wings of the girls in the kitchen and treated like one of their family. My obscure miming and amusing dances during their cultural nights sent them into howling laughter, not to mention my crinkled mouth when I had to chew coca leaves, which tasted like soil and left my mouth anesthetised.
During siesta time I familiarised myself with a hammock and several mosquitoes. The lake was also a tempting offer but I decided against testing the caiman-infested waters. “You’re safe to swim during the day,” the guides told me, “just don’t attempt it at night, that’s when they become active.” I could swing a hammock or with swim with the crocodile-like beasts – somehow the hammock won.
In rare moments I’d take a canoe out on the lake which caused gasps of alarm from the male workers who seemed genuinely worried about my safety.
This wasn’t surprising following my return looking like a drowned rat. A tropical storm had hit when I was in the canoe, reducing my visibility to one metre and caused me to wedge the boat on a rogue log. After giggling then cursing, followed by a brief panic attack, I shifted the canoe and tried to sneak back unnoticed only to be greeted by the staff who were waiting for me with anxious expressions. From then on my excursions were accompanied by one of the men from Chalalan, which I must say made the maneuvering of the canoe a breeze.
Our dug-out would pass punk hairstyle birds – prehistoric hoatzins – with blue spikes on their head and brown specked feathers. Their timid disposition caused flaps in the trees as we approached while black cormorants would brazenly wait until we were within arm’s length before taking off to calmer waters.
Besides the lake, Chalalan is enclosed by jungle trails. Guests at the lodge came back from their half day treks brimming with enthusiasm about their wildlife spotting which would include anteaters, deer, monkeys, snakes, toucans and tarantulas. It wasn’t surprising, the guides have a sixth sense about the animals surrounding Chalalan. They’re also passionate about preserving the area, not allowing tourism or greed to ruin the eco-sanctuary the community have built.
The village of San Jose, three hours upstream from the lodge, set up Chalalan with funding from Conservation International in 2000 to share their wealth of knowledge with visitors. The staff, who are from the village, rotate every three months allowing full village participation in the scheme. The guides, however, build up their plethora of knowledge over years of weaving along the myriad paths delving into the forest surrounding the lodge.
After three weeks with the community at Chalalan I had to leave, my three-month visa for Bolivia nearing the end. I came away with great memories of the people and the place (and several more kilos after being fed heavenly three- and four-course meals twice daily, plus breakfast).
If only I could shed the pounds like chameleons shed their skins.
WHERE ON EARTH?
- More than 60 percent of Bolivia’s citizens are indigenous, predominantly Quechua and Aymara
- Bolivia is located within one of the wettest zones on the planet – it receives over eight meters of rainfall per year
- Bolivia contains 40 percent of all animal and plant life in the world
- Chalalan is run by the people of San Jos de Uchupiamonas, an indigenous Bolivian Amazon community located five hours by river from Rurrenabaque
- The villagers speak both Quechua and Spanish
- The lodge is powered by solar panels and maintains a real ecotourism focus with an educational value on medicinal plants
- Chalalan has had several page spreads in National Geographic and is ranked as one of the leading sustainable tourism schemes in South America
- Chalalan is situated five hours by boat from Rurrenabaque, central Bolivia
PHOTOGRAPHS COPYRIGHT OF WWW.SOUTHAMERICAJOURNEYS.WORDPRESS.COM