By Darin Wahl
Drive east from Santa Cruz in central Bolivia, past the long chain of farming equipment and machinery shops, past the small towns, then villages that give way to vast stretches of farms and you'll eventually butt up against the Amazon rainforest. Santa Cruz is easily Bolivia’s most modern and affluent city. Starred restaurants, neon lit clubs, and shopping strips litter downtown where the young and hip flock. It is also fraught with modern dangers. One of our group was roofied at a club, but was lucky enough to have friends near at hand.
We headed out to a medical clinic on the frontier where med and nursing students volunteered. This clinic served the surrounding villages and villagers came in daily with a variety of issues. On rare occasions clinic personnel would make house calls, sometimes on horseback. A big worry in this part of the world is Chagas disease. Chagas is spread by a blood-sucking insect that often lives in the roofs of rural homes. The insect will defecate on the skin very near to where it bites. An inadvertent or intentional slap, scratch, or brush will rub the feces onto the bite, giving the Chagas parasite (waiting hopeful and expectant in the poo) access to the bloodstream. The insect is also known to crap in the eyes or mouths of sleeping victims, which, for the parasite, is just as good.
The rainforest’s edge was across the road from the clinic. It is difficult to imagine how incredible the Amazon is, especially from where it abruptly and unceremoniously ends, as it turns (or burns) into pasture. I stood under the wide blue on a sun baked red earth road with fences, farms, and homes behind me, and 5 steps later I was under the canopy of the rainforest. It reminded me of stepping out of the C train on Eastern Parkway and Kingston Avenue in Brooklyn. Look one direction and you'll see an orthodox Jewish neighborhood. Look the other direction and you'll see a West Indian neighborhood with Eastern Parkway smack in the middle. It disturbs me. This felt like that.
One day, as we drove back from a supply run at a nearby town we noticed a significant change. The rainforest was cut back more than 10 meters from the road. We drove alongside this new edge for kilometers, until we passed the work crew, which consisted of two construction strength back-hoes. That’s all it took. A couple of machines and acre upon acre of rainforest was gone. The last part of our ride was silent. We stared at, or away from, the destruction. Amazed. Terrified.
The next day, in the afternoon, after a not very refreshing rain shower, one of the clinic’s two horses suddenly went a bit mad. The horse was caught and calmed, and before long the caretakers realized the horse had been bit in the face by a snake. Likely, a very poisonous one. The horse was unsteady, bleeding, and foaming at the mouth. It was drenched in sweat. Did the clinic have any anti-venom? Did anyone know how to treat a horse? Did we even know what kind of snake it might have been? No, no, and no. The horse died in the night. I knew that first thing, because I awoke, looked out my window and saw the caretakers digging a grave on edge of the field. A damn big grave, in rooty sandy clay soil. The snake, you see, had been chased out of the forest by the destruction. Traumatized, lost, and afraid, it fled into our field. Where the grazing horse came upon it. Face first.