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Part II
The story behind the release San Miguel de Bala

chronicle by Antony Milton

We arrived at San Miguel del Bala, not much more than a bend of river bank in the jungle, and it was straight into the start of our 4 hours work unloading the various food supplies we had brought up river and carrying them up to the lodge.  It was really bloody hot, incredibly humid, but we were told that even the locals were a bit freaked out by the heat and that it wasn’t like this most of the time.

The lodge itself was a beautiful place- as one would expect! There were 2 large buildings down by the river, a dining hall and kitchen and a big mosquito meshed common house containing hammocks, a small library and a tiny museum. The main accommodation area- 7 self contained cabins- was an arduous climb up a stairway up the hill. We got to know this climb intimately over the next few weeks carrying guests luggage up to the cabins and undertaking our morning cleaning details.

The volunteers were housed in small cane huts near the kitchen along with the other local workers. This was perfectly adequate, ok beds and good mozzie nets. At night a torch was essential to get up to the cabin, no lights once the generator was shut off and the rough bush track prone to invasion by snakes, scorpions, and tarantulas. (Actually tarantulas were the most common of the exotic creatures we encountered, seemed to be everywhere). The most common actual hazard was a species of small wasp with a violent disposition. It would attack on sight, administering small but painful stings without any provocation whatsoever. I estimate I got at least 3 such stings every day I was there.

I was keen to get on with my project and so set about recording bird and insect sounds around the lodge. The insect sounds in particular were truly amazing. Very metallic, very loud and so like electronic sounds it was difficult to believe that they were natural. Julio, the manager at the lodge, seemed a little perplexed by my forays with microphone in hand and it took me maybe longer than it should have to realize that there had been no communication from the office about what I had come to do at all. I kept asking when the laptop I had been promised would arrive and he would just smile and shrug. If he had said ¨what laptop?¨ I may have clicked earlier that he was in the dark about the whole thing.

Anyway upshot was that for the first few days I didn’t really get much work done on my project at all but rather helped with the general volunteer work.

Needless to say the hours tended to exceed the agreed amount but as there wasn’t much else to do I didn’t really mind. Pretty much every morning we were there we would start out by cleaning around the cabins up on the hill. This meant going up there with a rake and a broom for 2 hours or more of sweeping up leaves. A pretty surreal scenario in the jungle! Needless to say this work was never completed because the place was subject to a constant rain, a veritable storm of falling leaves. Despite the resulting blisters I got a perverse pleasure from this work; I could wander off up some trail and work my way back listening to the forest. It was a meditative time. Besides this we did jobs like building stairways and new paths.

The lodge is a 15 minute walk upstream from the village/community of San Miguel del Bala itself. We had several excursions down here during our time off, a hair raising experience for me being a snake phobe walking through long grass. It was very interesting to visit because they still have no electricity (besides some solar powered lights) and people were still living much as they have for 100s of years. I got some great recordings down there, especially one day when they were using a huge wooden sugarcane press to extract sugar juice, a whole team of people driving it. Most of the people here survive by subsistence farming. Before the Lodge, and the National Park, the major external income came from logging. There were many banana and cacao groves (cocoa pod trees), and areas were being cleared for rice paddies.

On the 3rd or 4th day Eric showed up bringing with him the laptop and having a sit down meeting with me and Julio. Eric suggested that maybe he could organize a trip upriver to the Madidi National Park proper so that I could record some monkeys and other more exotic animals. Sounded great I said. He asked Julio to help me as he could, including running the generator, a horrible noisy little petrol affair, whenever I needed to recharge the laptop battery. Fantastic! I was in business. Straight away I set up in the common house and loaded on some software and started editing the insect and bird recordings from the last few days. Eric said he would be back ¨the day after tomorrow¨, or possibly the day after that and we could head up the river.
I think it was a week later that he showed up midmorning. (Everything happened at a tropical pace here… Manana manana manana..) He arrived and said ¨So, we can leave in 30 minutes?¨.

OK! That’s a change of pace! Better hurry. Sara and I rushed up to get a day pack together. Also coming with us was a new Irish volunteer named Peter who had shown up a day or 2 earlier. A great young guy his appearance on the scene represented a huge coincidence in that he was a biologist with a particular interest in bio-acoustics. Never before had the locals heard of these freakish westerners who wanted to record animal sounds and now they had 2 of them at once.
Down to the boat with our gear and Eric says: ¨That’s all you need for 3 days?¨ 3 days!!! I thought we were going for the afternoon… More panic as we rushed to try and get multi overnight kit together.

And so started an utterly unexpected adventure wherein we got what was essentially a free guided trip into the deep Amazon Jungle. We clambered aboard yet another log with a motor, this one even more basic than the 1st – the motor sounded like a tractor and pushed us upstream at a snails pace. Really this was an astounding situation to find myself in. Actually I felt a little like a fraud. I’m a guy who likes mixing together weird noises but here I was with an indigenous tribal community funding me to go for 3 days on a serious documentary expedition, with nothing more than a Zoom H4. Pretty damn lucky really.

The scenery was amazing, the river at times utterly terrifying. With us onboard were Eric and 2 other local men, one of the lodges main guides, and the boat driver. At one point we pulled over to shore where they jumped off and cut some long lengths of cane. I had no idea what these were for until we reached the rapids and they were put to use to try and stabilize the boat as we struggled upstream, coming close to capsizing more times than I care to remember. At one stage there was a cacophony of parrot squalls and Eric pointed out a clay cliff full of holes inhabited by raucous Toucans. I was too worried that we were likely about to have an accidental swim to get my recorder out of its dry bag.

We finally pulled into shore maybe 4 hours upstream and carried our gear up the beach.. Tents were set up and a basic camp kitchen put in order. Then we went fishing.

The rivers here in the Amazon absolutely teem with fish of all sorts, piranhas- even ‘giant’ piranhas. There are huge fish here, catfish heavier than can easily be lifted and fish is one of the main food stuffs in the region. It was to be our staple food, along with plantain and yucca, during our time in the bush.

Fishing technique number 1 :
>> Collect enormous grubs from grass by river bank.
>>Use grubs to catch abundant small sprats (approx time to catch small fish with grub = 5 seconds)
>>Use sprats as bait to catch bigger fish on handline.
This didn’t work so well for us.. It was drizzling when we tried and actually pretty cold and apparently these fish don’t feed during cold spells..

Fishing technique number 2:
>>Use drift net- hold one end and let the other be taken out by current.
>>Walk along the shore following your drift net for approximately 5 minutes.
>>Wade out and gather the net in.
This was REMARKABLY successful! On the first try we caught 4 huge fish, much bigger than any trout I’ve seen. We smoked these over the fire and besides being full of tiny bones they were delicious. I had bought a bottle of scotch with Peter and we shared this around the campfire before heading to our tent. It was cold and I was glad of the sleeping bags (something I couldn’t imagine using on other warmer nights), but at least the cold kept the mosquitoes at bay.

Next morning we were up and off bright and early in a continuing light drizzle, our walking fueled by frequent stops to add more coca leaves to the great green wad in our cheeks. (The locals are very addicted to chewing coca, a hunger suppressant as well as mild stimulant, and we were enthusiastic amateurs. The leaves are chewed with mineral lime and the astringent bark of a particular tree that aids in bringing out the effective alkaloids). I carried my recorder under my coat. We walked a big loop through the bush for several hours on hunting tracks. The terrain was remarkably flat overall with very few hills, there were regular swamps that teamed with a seemingly endless variety of bush turkeys, and other strange brown birds. The voices of these birds were incredibly varied, ranging from dried up vocal croaks to the ear piercing car alarm like sirens of the Horned Screamer.

But I had already been able to record many of these birds back at the lodge and village and it was the larger animals that we particularly wanted to see and hear. On that first loop we heard and saw some Brown Capuchin Monkeys. These made it onto the final album but are not so exciting sonically as some of the other monkeys.

Our next walk started with an hours ride upstream on our motorized log and I resolved to be more cautious during my evening washes after spotting a sizable crocodile on the river bank. Walking through the jungle with that Zen-like awareness of the hunter, careful step by careful step for hours on end was almost reward enough but we had more luck with animals on this circuit. Our first animal encounter was with a large group of maybe 30 wild pigs. Apparently these are the most dangerous animal in the region and have been known to kill and eat people. We were instructed to climb a tree as fast as possible if they attacked. They were truly terrifying, huge black beasts that seemed determined to stand their ground and made an enormous racket clacking their tusks at us. CLACK CLACK CLACK! Then they would all bolt howling through the undergrowth smashing small trees and whatever was in their path. I got some great recordings.

An hour or so later we came across a group of Spider Monkeys, but besides a quiet tuneful whimpering voice barely discernable above the rustling of foliage they had not such an interesting sound.

I was starting to feel pretty knackered by the time we turned around and headed back to the boat. I had something like 75 recordings already, mainly virtually identical recordings of birds, but a problem was on the horizon. Not having been aware that we would be out here for so long I hadn’t organized getting any more batteries for my recorder. I was using rechargables and had only one backup set. One of the guests at the lodge had kindly donated me what AAs they had with them but unfortunately these turned out to be rubbish. Another eg of the counterfeit goods that proliferate in the markets of South America. Branded as to be Sony alkaloid batteries it turned out that even simply booting up the recorder (turning it on) used nearly a third of their charge. Bugger!  I had very little recording time left available to me.

That night after dinner Eric and the other local guys headed off for some night fishing. With my batteries dying we would head back down to the lodge tomorrow and they wanted fish to take to their families. I decided to head off to try and record some frogs, something I considered very brave given my terror of snakes, creatures more active at night and especially fond of the swampy watery areas frequented by amphibians… I walked at a snails pace my torch studying every inch of ground for a goodly while before I took the next step. I got what I considered some good recordings and crept back to camp just as cautiously. (In fact in later review with Eric I discovered that what I had was a collection of recordings of remarkably exotic sounding crickets..)

The next morning I awoke in the pre-dawn to a distant roaring. I leapt up with the recorder just as Eric called out to me to get ready. Howler Monkeys! It was the most amazing sound, a deep throaty call and response between two groups at separate ends of the valley.  There was a wonderfully weird stereophonic ambience at this distance but the sound was too quiet to get a good read and so I set off running through the jungle- for 2 or 3 km with the guide Ronaldo leading the way. (Eric laughing stayed in bed).  It was the longest run I’ve had in years and I nearly asphyxiated in my desire to not pant breathlessly all over what turned out to be the most dramatic the recording of the trip. Positioning ourselves at the very base of the tree inhabited by one of the howlers I crouched there purple in the face recording a good 5 minutes or so of incredibly loud throaty roaring before the surprisingly small animal finished up for the day and curled up to go to sleep. Duty done, territory confirmed. It had sounded for all the world like death metal vocals –Backyard Burial live in the Amazon.

After breakfast we broke camp, loaded the boat and undertook the hairy trip back down the river. The trip down with the current was a fast one, with at least one very close call on a rapid. The jungle cliffs and rapids sped passed and we were back at the lodge by midday. Not exactly anticlimactic but a shock to be back there so soon. The sun came out for the first time since we’d left just as we arrived home.

Despite the instructions to the lodge people that I was there to work on a special project it was evident that this still wasn’t really understood. I was able to turn on the generator whenever I asked, but to be honest even I wasn’t very keen on this. It was a horrible smelly noisy thing that disrupted the ‘tranquillo’ nature of the place whenever it booted into life. Usually it was only on from sunset until around 8.30pm. Also it was obvious that Julio, the manager, thought that my time would be more practically used doing more mundane tasks such as building and leaf sweeping. I didn’t necessarily begrudge the requests that I work on these other jobs rather than on the editing etc I was trying to get done- I actually very much enjoy outdoor physical work- but I also knew that if I didn’t get cracking on putting this album together then we would be there forever.  And so I decided that it would be best to return to Rurrenabaque to work on the album there with relatively constant electricity and without the distractions of the lifestyle of the lodge.

…to be continued

-Antony Milton

San Miguel del Bala release page
Antony Milton discography
Pseudoarcana website