Our highly unreliable map of Bolivia puts the distance from Trinidad to Santa Cruz de la Sierra at roughly 500 km, none of it paved. But after driving through floods and deep mud all the way from the mountains through the Beni lowlands to Trinidad, the hard-packed earth of the road to Santa Cruz was an easy ride. My son, Joseph, his college friend, Benjamin, and I had become used to mere tracks, the accumulated residue of all previous transits modified by the effects of tropical downpours, but now we were driving on what was literally a highway, built up over the swampy plain with upcast from drainage channels dug on either side. The road crews who camped on each tract for weeks on end had not been idle. With nothing to do in their spare time except hunt for the pot, or for the sheer fun of shooting at live targets, they had made a thorough job of that, too. We had seen a vast number of birds, large, medium and small, on our way to Trinidad, but beyond it we saw only a handful of vultures. And instead of an abundance of animals, we saw only big Amazonian lizards, three or four feet long, attempting to cross the highway – and a solitary snake. So it is not true that it takes an asphalt road with all the World Bank trimmings to wipe out the Amazon’s exuberant wildlife along its centre route – an unpaved road can do the job, too, if properly constructed.
Only the occasional giant tree far into the swamp, with branches stretching out for dozens of yards, suggested what luxuriance had been there, before the chainsaws and shotguns arrived. A week earlier, we had left our jeep in the much-visited village of Rurrenabaque (there is a non-stop bus from La Paz) to go up the Tuichi River in a canoe with an outboard engine, courtesy of Tico Tudela, an old acquaintance whose guides and canoes have provided a taste of the rainforest to many thousands of European, Israeli and American backpackers over the last ten years or so, at $15 for a two-day trip, meals included. The floods had made it entirely impossible to drive beyond Rurrenabaque to reach the wild country of the Madidi Valley, and I did not yet know that we would be able to drive across the plains to Trinidad. So I settled for Tico’s overnight special for the sake of Joseph and Benjamin, who had never seen a rainforest. It was a mistake. In the early years, Tico’s guides had enlivened the proceedings by hunting monkeys and birds, which they would skin, dress and cook for suitably awed young visitors, who would also get to see alligators aplenty and even the occasional jaguar. Tico has never had more than six guides working for him, and a newer competing outfit only has four, but along with the few local hunters they were more than enough. The Tuichi jungle is quiet now, totally hunted out: a rainforest without birds or monkeys, it might as well be under a dome in Kew Gardens.
When Tico proudly told me that he was setting up a new camp in the lagoon of Santa Rosa where visitors would be able to fish for piranha, I asked him about the hunting: plenty of monkeys, good juicy birds and baby alligator tails to roast on the fire. ‘Hey Tico, all good eating, buena comida, no?’ Tico was shocked to find me so backward: ‘No compadre, so sorry, but no hunting, no hunting at all. We cannot ruin Santa Rosa, too, otherwise nobody will come to visit any more.’
After several hundred kilometres which we did at a fair clip, the totally flat grassland and swamp gave way to a succession of hills. Till then we had only passed some hamlets in the usual Beni style, three or four huts of roughly-cut wood planking topped by grass roofs. Now we saw the first solidly built ranch houses, each on its own hillock some way from the road. The road surface also changed, from dusty white to bright red, the reddest earth I had ever seen. Up and down those hills the red road went, straight as an arrow. We had just reached the crest of one more hill when we saw in the distance below us some farm buildings in long straight rows, part of what was obviously a commercial cultivation, a road intersection, and at its corner the unmistakable outlines of a gas station – the first we had seen since Trinidad. We were no longer in the Beni: we had entered the department of Santa Cruz, near the frontier with Paraguay, the richest and most modern of all Bolivia.
Naturally we stopped to refuel. There were two white plastic tables and some chairs by way of a roadside café, and two teenage couples, evidently from a nearby settlement. Except that they did not look like Bolivians, not even Santa Cruzeños. The two shiny motorcycles they had come on, their spotless T-shirts, blue jeans, perfect tans, blond hair and blue eyes all suggested that the road which intersected the highway led straight to suburban Los Angeles. But when I approached these typical Californians to ask them how it was that they had ended up in the Bolivian lowlands, they giggled at my question, which they did not seem to understand.
At the other table there was a man in his forties, also blond and blue-eyed. He spoke up in a most peculiar Spanish to tell me that the teenagers knew no English. He then translated my question for them in a most peculiar German, which sounded much like Yiddish. ‘So where are you from?’ I asked. ‘From Paraguay, we are Mennonites from Paraguay.’ So that was it, they were speaking Platt-Deutsch, the 16th-century German of the Amish and Mennonite colonies of Canada, Pennsyivania, Mexico, Paraguay and Bolivia, too, it turned out. While the teenagers hopped onto their motorcycles and drove off still giggling, the man explained that the Mennonite colony, to which he also belonged, had moved over the border from Paraguay three years earlier in search of security. The fall of Stroessner’s dictatorship had been the downfall of order, he said. Banditen had made the roads dangerous even in daylight, people had been attacked in their houses. Unarmed pacifists in a land of guns, the Mennonites could not defend themselves and had to leave. Bolivia was fine, no bandits, no violence at all. For the colony, it was the fourth move in two generations: from Serape on the Volga, fifty miles below Volgagrad, ex-Stalingrad, ex-Tsaritsyn (to which they had fled from Catholic persecution centuries before), to Canada after the Bolsheviks arrived, then from Canada to Paraguay in search of good, free land, and now to Bolivia. The crops we had seen were soya plants, mile-long rows of them, whose beans the Mennonites converted into oil, valuable enough to be trucked to Santa Cruz, then up the plateau to Cochabamba, then down to Chile and off by ship to China or Japan while still leaving a nice profit net of transport costs which would have been too steep for grain crops or beef cattle.
Aside from Platt-Deutsch, what language did those giggling teenagers know? ‘Guaraní’ the older Mennonite replied – the language of the Indians of Paraguay. They had learned it as children. ‘We always had Indians about, they came to our clinic, they came to trade, and the children came to play. No, they knew no Spanish. There was no need of it – we do not listen to the radio nor watch television.’ What about business, or dealing with the local authorities? ‘Oh, that is for the outside-men, like me, and the colony only needs a few of us.’ How about English? Their parents had come from Canada, they must have known English. Yes they did, ‘but we are very careful about that, none of our youngsters know English,’ he said proudly. English, he explained, was ‘the language that steals our souls, of the films and magazines that call us to leave the land, to leave the colony, to leave our religion, to go to America for money and sex.’ How about the Amish? I asked, they live in America, in Pennsylvania, right in the middle of things? ‘Ah ja, the Amish, it is true – but they are strict, you see, not like us. We use cars and trucks, we use electricity. We are modern.’