The story starts off simple enough. Truth be told, neither one of us really has an attraction to searching for wildlife in the middle of the jungle. But we decided that the probability of our return to this part of the world was slim to none and it just seemed to be what all the cool kids were doing, so we said why the fuck not?
The company (Ecological Expeditions) is recommended in Lonley Planet and a couple blogs we have been reading. The only problem is their home offices are in Campo Grande and Bonita and we are at the border of Bolivia, in Corumba. Alas! An intermediary (An ex-used car salesman with his hair slicked back and ripping people off on his mind). He was actually waiting at the border for unsuspecting tourists, hoping to get the jump on the competition in town (his brother). We took his card but wanted to read up a little more on the tour before we booked. Later that day we strolled down to his office in a very finicky manner. The overnight train from Santa Cruz was reflective of an old wood rollercoaster. The ones where the metal bar doesn´t quite make you feel secure and the way the ride shakes, rattles, and ultimately rolls, has you questioning whether you are going to die or vomit all over yourself. Needless to say we didn´t get much sleep. Combine that with the reintroduction to heat, and it gave each block we walked the feeling like another nail was being pounded into the coffin that held our motivation.
When we made it to the bus station where dickhead´s office was he was quick to rush ahead of his brother and shuffle us into his office. Now I have dealt with sales people before. In fact, I dabbled in the profession myself a little. The worst experience for me being the stereotypical used car purchase. But this guy takes the cake (fat bastard obviously eats most of it too). What he didn´t know is we had already emailed the company prior to our arrival and were given the price structure.
He began his pitch with a half ass attempt at explaining what we were buying (maybe a minute long) then went right for the jugular and quoted us R$200 more then what the company sells the package for. Now keep in mind we are no longer in some country that uses Monopoly money, we´re in Brazil and R$200 is $100 US. The whole package is only $200 US per person. That is a sweet little markup for him. I informed him that we had already been in touch with the company and quoted a price. He looked a little dumbfounded and quickly said “Ok, ok, I make compromise for you”. We discussed payment options (cash only / now) and then we were off to the ATM.
Sally and I noted that it wasn´t just the fact that he tried to rip us off, it was his mannerisms when he tried to do it. I have had interactions with strung-out tweakers that were more professional and poised then this guy.
When we came back he had informed us that he spoke with his boss and there was a miscommunication. He then started explaining portions of the package that were not included at the price we agreed upon. The two of us just sat there and stared at him shaking our heads. “No, that doesn´t sound very good. . .” I said. He squirmed a little bit and said he would have to call his boss. He made two phone calls in Portuguese (which we don´t speak) and said again how he was going to make “compromise” with us. I was beginning to question whether he firmly grasped the meaning of the word. He added back in the things he was trying to take out and gave it to us at the quoted price. The entire dog and pony show took about 30 minutes and was quite annoying. We left questioning the legitimacy of our “deal” and the company itself.
The next morning, to our surprise, a truck pulled up to take us into the Pantanal. We thought we would surely have to return to the bus station equipped with broken bottles and molotov cocktails to get our money back. The driver was extremely pleasant and we were thankful to be on our way. The drive took about three hours with stops. Quick breaks to take a few shots of the cayman (a small crocodile) and some birds.
It wasn´t until we were stopped by the police (5 minute stop) that we realized the danger of visiting the Pantanal. The mosquitoes, oh dear God, the fucking mosquitoes!
These things are as relentless as the Japanese war planes in WWII. Divebombing in from all directions with no regard for their own life. It was like taking a girl onto a military post and walking down the halls of the infantry barracks. What seems to be a deserted area quickly becomes flooded out of no where as soon as they catch wind of who´s there. We collected around ten lumps each before we were on our way. The very next stop we lathered up with bug spray. We had concocted a special mix for the occasion, half OFF and half 99% DEET (Thanks Darci!). People had told us stories about melting clothes and sunglasses with the pure DEET which is what deterred us from using it in its pure form. (Though by the end of the trip I had dreams of returning to the Pantanal with a fucking fire truck full of the shit and just blasting the place)
Once we arrived to our final destination we were relieved and had our confidence revived. An impressive three-story, new and clean lodge greeted us. The staff was quick to get us situated and explain the strategy of our stay. “You don´t have much time and you have a lot of activities to complete”, explained Paulo. “We need to get you going right away”. He explained we would go fishing for piranha after lunch, night spotting tonight, boat expedition tomorrow morning, walking after lunch, and the jeep safari our last day.
As we walked into the dining/chill area we heard a familiar voice. . . (flashback) During our salt flat tour in Bolivia we had met a member of T.A.L.K.S.Go (Those Against Letting Known Silence Go). Their mission is to ensure that silence is persecuted to its fullest. If ever there is a moment that conversation seems to be taking its natural wind down, they will intervene. It may have no relevance to the current conversation, it may be something they have already mentioned 17 times, or it could happen when everyone is trying to go to sleep, but God damn it, their mission is clear. Kill Silence. The member (Dave) who was riding in our vehicle had the joy of meeting another member on the last night of the tour. An indian woman who must have been a member of T.A.L.K.S.Go for quite some time. For she had developed one of their secret weapons to the fullest, the complaining tactic. Herself and Dave went through everything from the economy, politics, other countries, and who knows what else? Sally and I escaped as quick as we could.
Her voice came flooding back into our lives as we stepped through the door. The irony was not lost on me. (This is twice I have verbally complained about a member then had that very member join me on a tour…. their onto me!) She turned out to be a nice enough lady. But did have a rant about the Australian police for about 30 minutes. Apparently they don´t agree on what is considered appropriate driving. She has a collection of tickets and a short stint of having her licence suspended to prove it.
Lunch….was….amazing! I am not sure if it’s because we just came from Bolivia? But to have rice, beans, and meat. Damn, it was nice. Plenty of it too. If you wanted to go back for thirds, there was still no denting the amount of food they provided. This continued throughout our time in the Pantanal. A LOT of good food! I could feel the dream of a Brazil Beach Body fading away as I dozed in and out of a food coma for most of the tour.
Paraná fishing proved to be more successful than I expected. A short boat ride to an island in the middle of the Paraguay river and the five of us cast our bamboo fishing rod (a bamboo stick with fishing line attached) into the water. Within a half hour everyone had caught at least one fish, nine in total.
After fishing we did a little boat excursion to view some of the birds the Pantanal has to offer . Thankfully Sally and I left our good camera at the lodge (only bringing our point and shoot) and had the chance to view the birds without being distracted by silly things like the act of taking pictures. (It turned out to be the best bird spotting on the entire trip) This would be a running theme of unpreparedness that would carry on throughout our tour. Thankfully bug spray did not make it onto this list. Two of the girls we were with forgot and also proclaimed they didn´t want bug spray. The viewable parts of their body (arms and neck) were a billboard that screamed what a retarded move that was (they had been there one day). At one point on our boat trip there was at least 15 mosquitos on Sally and I (each), while the girls had upwards of 50 each.
The night boat tour proved to be a simple act of checking the box. While I envisioned a large spot light similar to the ones used in the movies when the hillbillys are illegally hunting from the back of a pickup truck and getting smashed (i.e.) Crocodile Dundee. It was a small handheld flashlight that was low on batteries. We could barely make out what was three feet in front of us let alone the shore 30 feet away where I guide was “trying” to spot wild life. Each passing minute of the thirty we were on the water made it clear to me why the guides were so unenthused. The night-piercing sound of our engine, the “light” from our flashlight, the low percentage chance that any animal will be drinking from the water at the exact time we drive by and “spotlight” it, yeah. . . Wasn´t trying to get onboard the following nights tour, that´s for sure.
The next day the guides decided that it would be easier to consolidate us and we all went on the jeep safari/walking tour (two girls with mosquito bites, the member of T.A.L.K.S Go, and a German/English couple). The driving proved to be pretty successful and we saw quite a few animals. However, our recurring unpreparedness had us out with a camera that was flashing low battery. That ment we were only able to whip it out, take one quick photo of each animal we saw, and stuff it back away in hopes we saw more. (Great job Bret and Sally, great job)
The walking tour, though successful as well in regards to spotting animals, had the major set back of the mosquitos.
I know what your thinking: We got the mosquito point. Stop belaboring the fact that there were mosquitos. Suck it up and get on with the story.
No! Fuck that! You don´t know man, you weren´t there! We´ve seen some shit! Oh yeah, we´ve seen some shit. . .
The trek through the woods/jungle (whatever you want to call it) was enough to have the girls that were “Against putting chemicals on their body” begging for mosquito spray. The guide (apparently locals have a built up tolerance) had at least 100 crawling all over his body. I eased my way to the back of the group, slowing my pace enough to be 20 feet behind. It´s not that I am not a helpful guy and wasn´t empothetic to their pain. I just knew that Sally and I had a family sized bottle of bug spray that was 3/4 gone on our first full fucking day!
After lunch there was a second walk to the swamp to try to spot an anaconda. Sally and I decided to hang back with the truck. Sally had no interest in seeing an anaconda, I had no faith the group would spot an anaconda, and we both had no fucking desire to visit the mecca of mosquitos. We stayed up by the truck with the hopes our body and mind (frustration level peaks when you are constantly swatting bugs away) would catch a break. No such luck. A fresh dousing of bug spray was about as effective as using one square of single-ply toilet paper.
We started outside the truck (it was hot) hoping the spray would be enough. Within minutes we were rushing to the door and getting ready to throw ourselves to safety. Just as we were about to pile in we were met with a swarm of mosquitos that were trapped inside the car. Our hope sunk as we slammed the door and discussed our next move. At first we stood together, hoping the consolidated amount of bug spray would help shield us. Fail. Next we did our best Richard Simmons Sweating to the 80´s dance and tried to out slap away the bugs. Fail. Movement we thought, we need to create a breeze so they can´t catch us. A quick walk up and down the dirt road ensued. Looking as ridiculous as the speed walkers in the olympics (how is that even a sport?) It took only four back-and-forths for us to realize being parked right next to a fucking swamp is a place that makes it impossible to escape mosquitos. . . We piled into the truck. Pissed off and ready to fight. Scenes from Starship Troopers raced through my mind as we began to slap, clap, and swat at the 30+ mosquitos inside the truck. We had to punch and slap the bench seat in the back where we were sitting and the two front seats to get them into the air. It took us a good 15 minutes to get every last Hmmmmm out of our ears. We paused, watching, waiting. Sweat dripped from our face as the violent movement of action had raised our body heat to match the warmth of the interior of the truck. Nothing. We broke into a cheer! High-fives and yelps of joy rang out as we celebrated our victory. It was only five minutes of peace before the group made their way back to the truck. . . But it was the best damn five minutes of my life.
The last day of the tour. We were beat down enough by the mosquitos that we were happy as shit we only booked two nights. The sunrise the day before had been fairly spectacular and we decided to try to capture it on our last day. Not yet soaking wet from bug spray, I decided to cover every possible part of my body with clothes. Pants, fleece, and a beanie. The only exposed parts of my body were my face and hands. The quick 50 second jog to the river bank and back to snap two shots resulted in three bites on my right hand and two on my face. While other members of the tour toughed it out and enjoyed the sunrise in its entirety, Sally and I sat in the room and conspired to start a foundation with the goal of developing a chemical that kills all the worlds mosquitos.
Our boat excursion on the last day proved to be extremely unsuccessful. Everyone else on our tour was extremely pleased with the number of caymans, birds, and other animals they got to see on their tour which excited us. But because we had our good camera with us, fully charged, we saw a grand total of three birds, a small iguana, and some otters at a very far distance. Even our guide was perplexed. After an hour of unsuccessful scouting he took us to an orange farm. There was an old gunned down house we toured that fell victim to the Brazil / Paraguay battle over the land and some trees that he knew had at least a good number of parrots.
We ended our tour with a two-hour ride out of the Pantanal in the back of a truck. Followed by a four-hour drive to Campo Grande. As we reflected back on our time in the Pantanal (counting our bug bites versus the number of animals we saw) we decided that its best to leave the animal tours for those that are actually enthused enough by animals to put up with the bullshit it takes to go find them.