Oranges, Landslides and the Southern Cross in the Bolivian jungle

Crouched in the back of a truck amid the stench of hundreds of oranges I catch a glimpse of my travel companion's sunburnt face shining back at me through the moonlight. I smile – we both know we've just had a once in a lifetime experience that will be etched in our memories for years to come. What we don't know is that we are about to have another one.

Earlier that day we had climbed aboard a bus in Bolivia's capital city, La Paz, bound for the small town of Sorata, a three hour drive into the heart of the Bolivian jungle. Soon after leaving the city, we wind our way through steep-terraced mountains on a three-metre wide potholed road. Valleys of green and narrow strips of water lie hundreds of metres below as the bus lurches around corners, its wheels clinging precariously to cliff edges.

Eventually the bus veers inland and begins stopping at villages to let passengers on and off. Caught up in buying wares from the sellers that board the bus at every town we realise we have missed our destination. When the bus stops again we are in a tiny village miles from Sorata. The next bus is scheduled to pass through in two days time.

My travelling companion Kate – who is armed with boundless confidence and a devil-may-care attitude - suggests we catch a lift back to Sorata in the next passing vehicle. While we wait, the seering heat of the afternoon sun forces us to seek shade under the trees. One hour later, a truck finally appears, and Kate leaps into the road waving frantically for them to stop. We climb into the back of the truck, alongside a sickly looking cow tied to the railing, two young boys and three local women, complete in their traditional bowler hats and billowing pollera skirts. A handful of oranges roll about on the floor beside our feet.

Our feeling of triumph is short-lived when we realise the truck will stop every 500 metres over the next 5 hours to pick up and bag piles of oranges lying on the roadside. Our fellow travellers stand around with bemused looks as we 'gringos' get to work helping them bag the oranges. As we near a river on one stop, all but Kate and myself disappear. Half an hour later they return with dripping hair and handfuls of wet clothes. Laughter and chat fill the air and for the first time since coming to this country one month earlier I feel a genuine connection with its people.

As nightfall beckons, we fill our final bag and climb aboard the mountain of oranges heaped in the back of the truck to take us the final few miles into Sorata. One of the women tells us we are the most helpful gringos she has ever met. I feel proud. Looking at the night sky the lights of the Southern Cross twinkle back at me. For a second, thoughts of home in New Zealand flit through my mind.

Interrupted by a tap on my shoulder, Kate tells me, “I've just overheard them talking about a landslide which has washed away the road up ahead”. “Are they going to stop,” I ask. She shakes her head. Landslides are not uncommon in this country and Bolivians have a well-earned reputation of being dare-devil drivers. As we approach, my stomach lurches as I feel the truck wheels slide in the mud. We are told to lean to the side away from the cliff edge. My heart is thumping in my chest as Kate and I scramble to the edge of the truck, our legs half over the side, ready to jump if it starts to tip. I love the excitement of travel but right now I would rather be anywhere but here.

The driver revs up, my armpits dampen and my hands shake as the truck's engine roars and with one massive lurch we somehow make it over the ditch. When I open my eyes, cool air is gushing past my face and branches brush my arms as the truck gathers speed. Kate is smiling. Relief is seeping out of my body. Glancing around, eager to share the moment with my new Bolivian friends, I am met with an eery silence as they lie slumped among the oranges fast asleep.

N Brebner

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