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Part I
The story behind the release San Miguel de Bala

chronicle by Antony Milton

We were in La Paz in Bolivia, six months into a year long journey through South America. After a several weeks at high altitude and suffering from a run of vague travelers illnesses- flu’s and coughs as well as the usual catastrophic gut infections- we came to conclude that it was perhaps at least partly the frigid airless nature of the Altiplano that was largely to blame for our various infirmities. A decision was taken to bail for the lowlands.

Rurrenabaque is a small town in the Bolivian selva (jungle) that gained a certain notoriety when a group of Israeli adventurers came unstuck there. Several of them died and the bestseller “Heart of the Amazon” was written by one of the survivors. Somewhat perversely this resulted in the place becoming a major tourist attraction, especially for other Israeli tourists seeking perhaps to prove their survival skills superior to that of their countrymen. Many tour agencies were set up to take groups out into the jungle. A national park- Madidi- was formed and the numbers increased until today when “Rurre” is one of Bolivias top tourist attractions.

To be honest we had initially planned to skip the place. It seemed if anything overhyped and we had read many negative reports about the tours based from here. Amongst the most notorious were rumours that animals are frequently kept in cages close to tracks so that guides can miraculously spot and catch, say, an anaconda to present to their clients. But at the same time we were both to return to the Amazon basin having had an amazing time in Iquitos in Peru a couple of months earlier.

My partner Sara did some online research and posted a query on a couple of forums asking if anyone could recommend a good tour company that didn’t capture or mistreat animal. Within hours she had several responses and at least 2 of these were recommending a company called San Miguel del Bala, a Conservation International affiliated business owned and run as a community trust in an attempt to turn to tourism as an income stream now that no logging was allowed in the Madidi National Park. What’s more it turned out that it was possible to stay longer term as a volunteer. One still had to pay to do this- around NZ$14 per day- but this was still significantly cheaper than the US$70 it cost to visit as a guest. I read something on the website about them being particularly interested in special projects. Bingo! I wrote them about the possibility of making a CD documenting the sound environment, natural and musical, at and around the lodge and the National Park. I had a positive reply within hours and we started making our plans to get down there.

Rurre is 18 hours by bus from La Paz. A long long way and the road is notorious for its slippery muddy tracks cut into cliff faces and around gorges. Catastrophic boggings are common after rain and there are frequent reports of the trip taking 30 hours or more. The alternative however was a very expensive 20 minute flight. Sara and I decided to take the bus- I was actually pretty excited about the trip- the great thing about goat tracks around vertical drops is that they are typically attended by great views.  I spent our last day in La Paz scouring the pirate software stalls for music programs, editing and multitrack software. Needless to say nearly every program you could imagine was available for next to nothing. Then it was off to the chemist to stock up on antibiotics in case of tropical bugs, and valium to knock ourselves out for the overnight sections of the upcoming bus trials.

The bus itself departed La Paz at least an hour and a half later than scheduled (in part because some family was moving house and all their lounge furniture and fridge freezers etc had somehow to be slotted into the hold under the bus) and I was pretty sad to leave knowing that this would be our last visit for this journey at least. It seemed a very livable city and I had many fantasies of what I could do there living in an apartment. All those markets full to brimming with useful tools and materials. If it weren’t for the notoriously ineffective, and perhaps even downright corrupt, postal service it would be a great place from which to run a record label.

We seem to have had pretty crap luck when it comes to windows on buses. For some reason the locals seem to have an aversion to fresh air on public transport and prefer to ride their journeys out in a hot humid fetid funk. We would occasionally manage to sneakily open a neighbours window a crack or more but this was always discovered within minutes and the offending breeze cut off. So it was for at least the first few hours of this journey. We set off over a high snowy mountain pass before dropping down down down through exquisite scenery- massive craggy mountain faces awash with spectacular waterfalls- 2 hours or so down and into the beginnings of the tropics and the jungle. The heat and general mugginess increased so that some windows were finally opened, if only a centimeter or so.

For all the austere breathless beauty of the highlands there’s something about these tropical lowlands that I preferred. It’s hard to rush in this kind of heat and things are instantly more laid back. Everyone gets around in shorts, singlet and flipflops. No suits down here. The bus rattled along for hours through lush jungle occasionally being subsumed in enormous clouds of dust from vehicles coming the other way- always a hair-raising experience, with the buses carriage frequently overhanging the edge of a cliff. This only got worse at night when the drivers assistant would disembark and attempt to negotiate our precarious mutual passage by feeble torchlight. We passed tiny villages in the bush, the buildings of thatched palm fronds. We had a dinner of bbq’d steak and beer in a small town. Then the lights off, we took our valium tablets and zoned out gaga to the Beatles ‘White Album’ , Brian Eno and old Pink Floyd bootlegs fresh from the pirate stalls of the capital.

As mentioned getting bogged is one of the hazards of a trip like this and I awoke in the dark to find that all the noise and action was in attempt to free us from a small quagmire. Turned out that it was 5.30am and that we were on the very outskirts of Rurrenabaque. The drugs had worked! Half an hour later, in the rosy dawn, we retrieved our dusty packs from the hold and gave ourselves entirely to a tout who was offering a room in a riverside hotel for an ok price. He offered to drive us down on the back of his 125cc motorbike (not many cars here- most of the taxis are motorbikes!) but I had no idea how this was even remotely feasible with our packs and bags so we walked behind him as he putted along down to the river and our home for the night. A nice place, free bananas, parrots in the trees, hammocks on the shady deck, and the big brown Rio Beni rolling sluggishly passed. We took to our room and promptly fell fast asleep until early afternoon.

The town of Rurre is a collection of dirt and cement roads lined with cheap chicken restaurants (wooden benches and plastic flowers) , a phenomenal array of 2nd hand clothing stalls festooned with offcasts that originated in small USA towns, and the typical general stores and electro gadget shops. There was one street dominated by over priced tourist restaurants and bars with signs in both bad English and what I assume was equally bad Hebrew. There were many tour agencies, but with the season winding down only a handful of actual tourists. We found the offices of San Miguel del Bala and introduced ourselves to Eric, the guy with whom we had been corresponding about our volunteer work.

We went over the volunteer agreements, signing a 7 day contract (the minimum- a trial period). I was left somewhat unsure that they knew what the fuck I was on about with my project, but they seemed keen to encourage me all the same.  They promised me the use of a laptop and I agreed that I would stay until I had a viable and acceptable album of environmental recordings finished for them. The deal was that we would work a minimum of 4 hours a day in return for the reduced rate food and accommodation at the lodge. We signed an acknowledgement that San Miguel was in no way responsible for injuries occurring as a result of falls nor snake or scorpion bite. He told us to be back at the office at 8am the next morning so that we could catch the boat up river.

Loading our gear on board I was glad of my dry bag (a truly waterproof rubber bag containing my zoom recorder and other electronics). The boat was not much more than a dug out log with an outboard motor at the back. Pretty fucking cool but there seemed a very real possibility of an unexpected swim. We had thought Eric was going to join us but as we boarded he waved goodbye and the boat set off against the current. Operating like a taxi it called in, picked up and dropped off people as we went. 45 minutes on a surging hot chocolate coloured tumult with stunning rocky cliffs and green jungle lining the banks. At one point we stopped to watch a large weasel like creature swimming across to toward the other bank.

…to be continued

-Antony Milton

San Miguel del Bala release page
Antony Milton discography
Pseudoarcana website