Updated August 31st, 2018.
We travel to connect. To become inspired by one another. Whether they are locals or other foreigners, travelers quickly learn the power of a conversation, the power that a new perspective can add to our own lives.
Merely fifty metres distance lie between Rurrenabaque and San Buenaventura. A small distance, yet difficult to cross. Beni river is raging inbetween, forcing inhabitants to cross on a boat from one town to the other.
On this spot, Beni divides two living styles. Wilderness and civilisation. Indigenous communities and modern city life. While Rurrenabaque on the eastern shore of the river is connected to the rest of Bolivia by streets, the western shore is entirely cut off of it, only leading into the depths of Amazon rainforest.
San Miguel is one of the communities that lie on this side of the river, bordering Madidi National Park. Life here is simple, the Tacanas living in the village are living mostly independent of what is happening on the other side of the river.
Taking a tour through Madidi, I had the chance to talk to Wilman Matty, 34, who has been living in San Miguel all his life. He gave me some great insights into what it means to live in this part of Bolivia.
What is it like to live in San Miguel?
Wilman: It is a very simple life. We do not have electricity in the community. No lights, no television. At night, we have to use candles to go around the villages and in our houses. Our houses do not have windows either.
That can be dangerous at times. Wild animals can easily get in. The most dangerous are possibly snakes. I always have to check if there is not one rolled up somewhere in the corner.
Are you confronted with wild animals very often?
Wilman: We used to have more problems with wild animals in the past. Before the national park was established, our community was mainly living off the hunt.
We were hunting monkeys for their meat and jaguars for the fur, for example. In those times, the animals were more dangerous and would sometimes even attack within the village.
But that does not really happen anymore – the rules of the national park have prohibited us from hunting for years now.
But the snakes are still a threat?
Wilman: Definitely. Snake attacks happen a lot, and they are very difficult to foresee because the snakes can hide in these surroundings very well.
One time, not too long ago, a boy was walking barefoot in the rainforest around the village and got bitten in his toe by a snake. His grandmother had him treated by our shaman, but when the mother arrived, she took him to the hospital right away.
The boy survived, but he lost his toe. That can happen, when you mix both treatments. It is better to stick to one of them.
Do the people in San Miguel usually survive snake attacks?
Wilman: I think so. Maybe it is because we are more used to some kinds of venoms, for example, those of the giant Amazon ants. You would be in pain for twenty-four hours after their bite, but I’ve been bitten so many times that it would hardly last for more than twenty minutes.
The oldest man in our community is eighty years old. He got bitten by very poisonous snakes six times in his life. You can still see the scars all over his body. But he has never been to a hospital in his life. He has always been treated by the shaman and that was it.
How many people live in San Miguel?
Wilman: About two hundred. We are four to seven families, I think.
Those are some big families…
Wilman: (laughs) Yes, we have many children in this area. Most couples have seven to ten children. I only have five.
With so many children living in the village – is there a school in San Miguel as well? How are they educated?
Wilman: There is a school. I went to that school, and my children are going there now as well.
How do you make a living now that it is forbidden to hunt? Are more people from the community nature guides like you are?
Wilman: Only my nephew is a guide as well. Most of the others are farmers now. They are growing crops like sugar cane, different kinds of bananas and cocoa. These plants grow quite easily in the area.
What about your indigenous heritage? Are you speaking Tacana or Spanish in San Miguel?
Wilman: Mostly Spanish. I never really learned Tacana. When I went to school, it was a difficult time to be a Tacana. People in Bolivia were afraid of being indigenous at that time, because it would mean disadvantages for them.
Most indigenous people would deny their origin when they were asked about it. Nowadays, that is changing. Since Evo Morales became president, there are more rights for indigenous communities.
He comes from an Aymara family. And now my children can even learn Tacana in school. The conditions are better for our communities. Today, people in Bolivia are proud to be indigenous again.