Its my last afternoon at Tres Gigantes and the sun is falling towards the horizon. I’m sitting on the screened in porch when the impossible happens. A rather large green parrot, at least a few kilos in size, somehow flies through the mosquito screen and lands on the porch right in front of me. I mean seriously, I’m a little crazy sometimes and I do have an over active imagination, but this really does happen. So what would you do? I respond to this rather unusual situation in the only sensible manner. I talk to the parrot. I ask him about the meaning of the story I am trying to write. “Hey Mr. Parrot,” I say, “What’s the price of paradise?
“Paradise is free,” he tells me “you only have to pay for the civilized parts.”
According to Backpacker economics, my journey to Tres Gigantes and the Paraguayan Pantanal is way over-priced. I paid 100,000 guarani (about 23 US) a night for my mosquito proof room with ceiling fan on the side of a river when I could have camped on the grounds with my tent for only 50,000 guarani (about 11 US). I also paid another 100,000 guarani per day for three wonderful meals when I could have very easily brought my own food and cooked in the the kitchen for no more than another fifty grand guarani. In other words, I paid twice as much as I should have because I’m a spoiled lazy tourist rather than an adventurous and economical backpacker.
On the other hand, all the tourists on holiday out there probably think I’m insane because I spent a total of almost seven days traveling up and down the river from Concepcion to Bahia Negra on a crowded cargo boat when I could have just as easily flown the same route in an airplane for a few hundred US bucks. So I’m not exactly a tourist and I’m not exactly backpacker. What am I? I like to think I’m searching for the middle path, somewhere in between. I happen to enjoy both ends of the comfort and adventure spectrum. But most importantly, I like to exchange fair value with the people and places that I visit.
Mealtime at Tres Gigantes is one of my favorite things about my journey to the Pantanal. Not only is the food incredibly delicious, but I also get a chance to practice my Spanish and socialize with the rangers who work there. I tell travel stories and my new friends seem to be an appreciative audience. The infected foot on the the Niger River in Africa story is a big hit and so is the tale about my ayahuasca experience with the shaman in the Amazon jungle. I tell other stories as well; the Colombian robbery story, the almost dead on a camel story, the revolution in Venezuela story…. If someone is willing to listen, I’ll go on and on. It’s lunch time of my third day, shortly after I tell them about my hike up Mount Kilimanjaro in Africa, that the head ranger, Neri, makes a suggestion. “Since you like adventure,” he says, ” why not have a little adventure while you are here at Tres Gigantes?”
The next morning at 5:00 am, Neri and I load up two canoes with camping gear and a two day supply of food. The plan is a simple one. We are going to paddle deep into the heart of the mighty Pantanal and camp out illegally somewhere on Bolivian territory. I love breaking laws, human nation state boundaries in the midst of massive jungles are bullshit and paddling canoes through a swampy bio-diverse labyrinth is too much fun. In other words, it’s another classic adventure…
Really though, in order for an adventure story to be dramatic and interesting, something bad has to happen. Indeed, there is a tiny part deep inside of me that secretly hopes things will go awry just so I have a good story to tell. Of course I don’t want to die, but a near death experience that I survive always makes for good material. So what could go wrong here? A run in with Bolivian military personel who have no sense of humor about international boundaries perhaps? Capsizing the canoe in a school of piranha or a swarm of caiman maybe? A jaguar attack? How about yellow fever or malaria? It is true that the further you go into the Pantanal the greater the danger of mosquito carried illnesses. My yellow fever shot is out of date and I’m not taking any malaria pills either…
But nothing does go wrong. Everything unfolds like magic and I enjoy two of the best days of my entire life. Seriously, paddling a canoe in the pre-dawn light on a small river in the Pantanal is an experience every human should get to have. I see lots of birds and caiman and an assortment of furry creatures scurrying along the river banks. I paddle slowly watching the changing colors in the morning sky reflect intensely off the mirrored glass of water. Mother Nature turns up full blast. Biodiversity on overload. The planet earth like the gods intended before it was corrupted and polluted and poisoned by the theoretically civilized humans. How beautiful is this planet? How wonderful is this world. I have an urge to cast off all the trappings of modernity and plunge full on into my animal nature. I don’t need no iPad or television or automobile or aircon. I don’t even need clothes. All I need is this! This glorious world. Another animal among the many. Another creature that is part of the whole.
But no, I don’t strip naked and run through the jungle. The swarming Mosquitos would devour my soft white civilized flesh in no time. And although we do catch, cook and eat piranha from the river, we also eat chorizo we brought from town. For bathing, we use buckets from the river instead of swimming with the caiman and the technological marvel of a canoe transports us from place to place rather than our own two feet. I’ve said it before and I will say it again. I’m a middle path kind of guy. I’m not against all technology. I just think that it is highly over-rated and usually causes more harm than it prevents. The premise of paradise is simply working with nature rather than against it. And that’s why I like canoes and bicycles rather than motor boats and automobiles.
The hidden cost of engines is always higher than you think. Seriously, I thought that the woman at the office in Asuncion said the motor boat transport from Bahia Negra to Tres Gigantes and back would cost me 300,000 guarani (70 US). During our discussion of the benefits of canoe travel, Neri informs me that motorboat transport from Bahia Negra to Tres Gigantes is 300,000 guarani in each direction. That means I have to add 140 whole dollars to the overall price tag of my week long adventure in the Pantanal. Wow, it’s starting to look like an expensive week. Oh well, what can I do? Gasoline is expensive. Indeed, if Americans had to pay the real unsubsidized cost of energy, our entire economy would collapse tomorrow. But people don’t want to think about that so I won’t mention it.
Anyway, my canoe adventure to the wild swamplands of the Pantanal is a roaring success. We see lots of animals and have lots of laughs. We eat piranha and don’t get eaten by them. We avoid mosquito bites and are dazzled by a spectacular sunset. We stop to drink mate at the very last house in Paraguay and I smile when I see the solar panel. Finally, we camp out on the shoreline of the Pantanal somewhere in Bolivia. Look at a map of South America. Imagine South America to be the upper body or torso of a human. Now point your finger to the exact location of the heart. That’s right; I’m camping out in the very heart of South America. Paradise! How good is this life?
The way back is easy. We awake before sunrise, drink coffee and then set forth. I smoke a joint to the rising sun as we float downstream. No more paddling against the current, for this morning’s journey we go with the flow. It only takes four hours to reach Tres Gigantes but they are some of the most pleasant four hours I have ever experienced. Sparkling sunlight, scurrying creatures, bananas in the bow of my boat and a dreamlike world of reflective water and endless green.
I still have three more days at Tres Gigantes. Three more days to meditate and walk in the jungle. Three more days to write travel stories on the porch and eat good food in the common room. Three more days to swim with piranha and try to photograph birds. In other words, three more fantastic days.
It’s my last afternoon at Tres Gigantes and I’m sitting on the porch trying to calculate my finances. If I add the expensive motor boat journey of $140 US to the $315 US I paid for food and shelter that’s a total of $455 US for seven days and seven nights – Way over budget! If, however, I include the cargo boat journey as part of the overall experience that’s only another $150 US for seven more days which makes the whole thing about $600 US for two weeks which is about on budget. The only question remaining is; will I have to pay extra for the canoe trip? What is the price of Paradise?
And that’s when I’m interrupted by the parrot. What follows is rather comical. I spend the next half hour trying to convince the parrot to escape the screened in porch. I open the door for him and point the way. I speak gently to him in English and Spanish. But he won’t listen. He flies into one screen after another but can’t find the door I’m holding open. If I step away from the door it closes and if I prop it open for too long, the mosquitoes invade. How can I coax this bird to freedom?
Thankfully, the situation is saved by Neri. He hears me talking to the parrot in English and he thinks I am having crazed ayahuasca visions so he comes to see what’s wrong. When he sees the parrot he laughs. “How in the world did the parrot get inside here. It’s never happened before. It’s impossible.” No matter. He is a trained wildlife veterinarian. He takes off his hat and tosses it to trap the bird. He then gently carries the bird to the doorway and releases it.
The next morning as I’m checking out, I have to pay the balance of the bill. “How much do I owe for the canoe trip.” I ask.
“Nothing,” says Neri. “You already paid for the food and shelter. I wasn’t your guide, I am your friend…. Amigo.”
Apparently, the bird was correct, the price of paradise is FREE.
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