Life in Extrema

Martin Lobigs
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St. John's cyclist enjoys a stint with the Bolivian navy

In February, my plan to cycle from Cobija, Bolivia, to Puerto Maldonado in Peru via an isolated dirt road said to be used by drug traffickers, hit a snag when my progress was blocked at the border by a gully flooding the road.

It was one more bump in the road on the adventure I began in October 2007 - cycling 4,000 kilometres from Argentina to Manaus, Brazil - the metropolis of the Amazon.

New stories from the road - In February, my plan to cycle from Cobija, Bolivia, to Puerto Maldonado in Peru via an isolated dirt road said to be used by drug traffickers, hit a snag when my progress was blocked at the border by a gully flooding the road.

It was one more bump in the road on the adventure I began in October 2007 - cycling 4,000 kilometres from Argentina to Manaus, Brazil - the metropolis of the Amazon.

The trip is a sequel to the one I started in 1999 when I left St. John's and biked to Argentina, as chronicled in my book "A Life on Wheels - Biking Alone from Newfoundland to Latin America" (Creative Book Publishing).

Now I was near Extrema, a lonely Bolivian navy base on the shore of the Rio Tahuamanu.

Any smuggler would have smiled at the base. It was little more than a children's playground. Of its 10 people, eight were new recruits. Most had enlisted about six months before and were between the ages of 16 and 20. They were playful, barely-five-foot-tall guys and didn't even wear uniforms. They were dressed in everyday T-shirts and cotton pants.

Their "comandante," Rony, was basically the same, though he was 24 years old, a bit bigger and had been a leader in the cadets. What really distinguished him was that he had his girlfriend, Marina, living with him in the barracks. She was a stunning brunette who no doubt played on the fantasies of the candy-starved recruits. It had been more than a month since they had last been to a store, and one even wanted to buy my cookies.

Contributing to their isolation was the fact that the base had no vehicle, not even a motorcycle or bicycle. In case of an emergency, Rony would have to ask for help by using his two-way radio or take a motorboat an hour's ride up the river to San Lorenzo, Peru, but that was dangerous when the river was high, and it was full of driftwood. The motorboat was heavy, as well, and could not be carried to the spot where the road passed through the flooded gully.

Poor fellows, all they were getting to eat was noodles mixed with the occasional fish they caught by casting spooned lines from the riverbank. Their drinking water came from a hole dug into a swamp that was now flooded by the river. They used tablets to disinfect the water.

Rony said the two guys he sent out each morning with a shotgun supplemented their meals with snakes - boa constrictors, he said, are tasty - birds and macacos (small monkeys). But for the three days I was there, I didn't see anything of that and never heard a shot.

Maybe they should have been catching frogs. There were millions filling the nights with deafening concerts. One was the giant leaf frog (Phyllomedusa bicolour), whose mucus is used by Amazon Indians on burns. They apply it to their skin during rituals. Apparently, it makes them better hunters and scientists have found the mucus to contain a peptide that may work as a medication against depression, strokes, Alzheimer's disease, cancer and AIDS.

I was allowed to put my tent in the mess hall, kitty corner across the soccer field from the quarters where the boys and Rony were stationed. Rony and Marina had the office that connected with Rony's room to themselves. The recruits were bunked in a separate room.

From where I was, I had a perfect view of the camp's routine.

At 7 a.m., two guys came to the mess hall to start the wood fire in the kitchen to prepare breakfast, which consisted of the leftovers from last night's noodle supper.

At 8 o'clock, the door of the office opened and the comandante came out with his girlfriend to walk across the soccer field to the mess hall.

Around 9 a.m., he sent the boys to tend a couple of small corn and yucca fields around the camp.

Around noon they came back and, after lunch, lolled about until the door of the comandante's room flew open. Naked but for shorts, he yelled a few orders, stepped back in and slammed the door shut, only to appear again at supper time.

What he and his girlfriend were doing between lunch and supper in his room and office was a matter of jovial conjecture. In any case, Marina was fond of him and her cheeks were always flushed.

While humming the Village People hit "In the Navy," I found out that the toilets were broken. You had to do your business in bushes, where baring your buttocks was the dinner call for giant mosquitoes. To wash up, you had to go to the flooded water hole, where a diving animal - I wondered if it was a crocodile - was around. The netting on all the windows was ripped beyond repair, which resulted in a bug problem. Like many dwellings in the tropics, the windows had no panes. I was glad I had my OFF!

Rony had asked me about military bases in Canada, and thoughtlessly I said that they tended to be in top shape. I had wanted to take photos of the base, but, embarrassed, Rony asked me if they would be printed in The Telegram to poke fun at them. I liked Rony, so I sacrificed the shots.

On Wednesday, Martin Lobigs learns about a dangerous fish

Now I was near Extrema, a lonely Bolivian navy base on the shore of the Rio Tahuamanu. Any smuggler would have smiled at the base. It was little more than a children's playground. Of its 10 people, eight were new recruits. Most had enlisted about six months before and were between the ages of 16 and 20. They were playful, barely-five-foot-tall guys and didn't even wear uniforms. They were dressed in everyday T-shirts and cotton pants.

Martin Lobigs is the author of "A Life on Wheels - Biking Alone from Newfoundland to Latin America," published in 2007 by Creative Book Publishing.

Organizations: Amazon

Geographic location: St. John's, Peru, Argentina Newfoundland Latin America Cobija Bolivia Puerto Maldonado Manaus Brazil San Lorenzo Canada

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