I arrived at Madidi Travel´s private Serere Reserve with sore feet, arms, back and butt. We had stopped off along the river Beni on the way to load some seventy sacks of gravel. They weighed about twenty five kilos each. These were to be hand laid in boggy sections of walking trails within the reserve. Within minutes, my clean clothes were brown and muddy and permanently stained. It was my first day as a volunteer with Madidi Travel. I was filled with both excitement and apprehension. Having never done prior conservation work, I may have been forgiven for having naively inaccurate preconceptions of what it entails. What I imagined drew largely from what I had seen on television, where selfless nature lovers cradled wounded animals and gently fed them milk from a little bottle, or staked out endangered animals to tranquilize, tag and later monitor via GPS tracking. Really heroic stuff. I now know that the other ninety percent of conservation work that was not often publicized was all hard labour and if it was done well, it was invisible and not so glamorous. My ignorance was quickly dispelled by national park founder Rosa Maria. No lengthy conversations were needed for her soft spoken voice and perfect American English to reveal an exceptional intellect and altruistic personality. She shared with me the history of her organization, the many threats and incredulous problems that her conservation effort has faced and is facing.
She also explained to me many aspects of indigenous life and social problems that I had found puzzling. No skeletons were left in the closet for the sake of appearances. She spoke bluntly of many issues that impacted Madidi Travel´s operation: corrupt politicians, mutinous staff, rampant alcoholism and absurdly comical displays of elitism, vanity and machismo. But not before I had observed and questioned her on these matters, so as not to indoctrinate me with her biases. Then there were the problems directly affecting conservation of natural environments such as Serere. One afternoon we found the bloated corpse of caiman floating on the lake. Its tail had been cut off and taken away for food. Our subsequent patrol spotted several lakeside dugouts used by the trespassing hunters, it had been a large group. As though I needed proof this was not an isolated incident, I saw vendors selling hunted meat from the park at local town fares. It was both excitingly eye opening and deeply frustrating to be aware of such insurmountable problems. I realized the importance of ongoing responsible tourism to displace and curtail illegal hunting, fishing and many unconscionable means of deforestation.
In light of these threats, I laboured alongside Madidi Travel’s field team eight hours a day. The scope of their work seemed boundless and always physically demanding: carting and laying gravel by hand, constructing eco friendly cabins from foraged timber, clearing weeds from our fruit plantations, transporting luggage and supplies from the river port to our eco lodges for visiting travellers each day, patrolling trails to investigate trespassing hunters and much much more. In the evenings, I taught the staff English by candlelight. By the time I got into bed each night I was exhausted. Maybe that was why I never felt the warm fuzzy sense of self admiration that usually accompanies volunteer work. Instead, I have gainedskills I never imagined learning: the utility of the machete, navigating dugout canoes. cooking traditional Bolivian dishes and although I could not speak the forest language as the guides did, I learned to recognize the sights and sounds of some animals. But some lessons were taught directly by the forest, not my co¬workers. Mosquitoes, horseflies, fire ants, ticks and wasps fed on my sweat and blood, reminding me that nothing can exist in this ecosystem without participating. But the harassment of insects pales in comparison to other experiences that Serere Reserve had to offer. The wildlife worked together twenty four hours a day to keep silence at bay with an endless symphony. The spine tingling wailings of howler monkeys, the stampedes of wild pigs and the faint purrs of jaguar underscored the melody of insects and birds, whilst windswept canopies and falling fruits provided a percussive backing. Even heavy torrential rain only amplified this performance, by encouraging all to increase their volume and by welcoming the shrieks of ecstatic frogs. It was therapeutic and I slept deeply every night. But my personal favourite experience was canoeing around Lake San Fernando in the afternoons. A variety of birdlife rested on lakeside trees and caiman drifting stealthily just below the water surface, both eagerly awaiting to feast on the brimming fish population. Dramatic displays of colour rippled on the lake surface as the hues of sunsets that painted the sky were reflected on the water. Then, as sunset transitioned into twilight, huge colonies of bats embarked across the lake. Completely unafraid, they swooped low near our canoe, letting us hear the flapping of their wings and smell their pungent odour in the gusts beneath their wings. Neither words nor pictures could do it justice, nor did the spectacle become any less awe inspiring with repeat viewings. I took a great deal of motivation from fact that we were able to conserve environments such as Serere in spite of the short sighted profiteering and egocentric zeitgeist of many Bolivians. Signs of recovery were everywhere. We spotted the first otter in the lake for a very long time, bobbing and weaving curiously around our canoe. They had not been seen in the area for many years due to aggressive poaching for fur. Animals which used to flee at the first hint of human presence for fear of hunters were now being spotted with frequency by our field team and visitors alike. Previously lifeless lakes were now seldom still as thriving fish populations dart to the surface to snatch floating fruits or hesitant insects. And in ironic recognition of their success, Madidi Travel´s trademark flying macaws and bright eyed spider monkeys decorate the walls of most tourism offices in town as they attempted to harness the public image of Madidi Travel. My time as a volunteer at Serere Reserve was unforgettable. I took away a little piece of Bolivian culture and left a bit of my own behind in its place. I was privileged to sample a slice of indigenous Bolivian life that few tourists and even many Bolivians would never know. However I had no pretensions of becoming one with nature. I longed for the luxuries of city life: hot showers, electricity, internet and the absence of mosquitoes. Nonetheless, I would encourage any curious nature lovers to shed doubts and pitch in with Madidi Travel.