Monthly Archives: June 2011

CAMPING

 Photo cred: Erica Moutrie

After a few weeks of living in the Amazon, it was getting to be more and more ironic and ridiculous that I’d never gone on a camping trip.  Ever.  That problem was soon to be remedied one Sunday afternoon.

Juvenal gave us a set of options of where to stay, and we picked a site that wasn’t too close but not too far from the MLC.  Carla and Alcides had made us boxed dinners to take with us since it would still be too wet to make a fire in the forest.  Carla chided us for not consuming enough fruit and forced us to stuff our packs with more than we could eat.  Juvenal came with us, while the rest of the staff stayed behind along with Juanma, the project director who had recently arrived from Cusco.  Covered in tattoos and smelling of vanilla, he struck me as a magical, expansive being like a soft-hearted pirate from a children’s book who seemed to levitate rather than walk.

On the way to the camping site, Sarah gave me a run-down on British slang.  Here is a compiled list of terms (Sarah, let me know if I left anything out)…

Guide to British Slang:

– taking the mick (out of somebody)– making fun of somebody.

Ex) My favorite pastime is taking the mick out of Juvenal.

– ming– anything that’s gross.

Ex) “Bill, go take a bath!  You are so ming!”

– soppy- sappy

Ex) Reynaldo’s favorite song is the soppy “My Heart Will Go On.”

– knackered- utterly exhausted.

Ex) No, I don’t want to go on a night walk.  I’m completely knackered from all the day walking.

– pulling- attracting someone.

Ex) I’m slightly disturbed that I managed to pull a monkey in the jungle.  (In an entry coming soon.)

Ants.

Once we arrived at the site, we set up camp.  And by we I mean Juvenal did his thing while we looked on.  In ten minutes time, he had created a hobbit house using nothing but a machete and jungle brush.  Then we put up the tents- one for Sarah and me, another for Erica and Hanako, and one for Our Fearless Leader.  Honestly, I’m surprised he used a tent at all.  I half expected him to scale a tree and sleep on a limb with one eye open, just daring a jaguar to come and find him.

There wasn’t much to do, so we decided to have a little photo session.  We started out in the mouth of our hobbit cave.  After a few photos, I began to feel something tickling me under my shirt and in my hair.  “Oh no… oh no,” I squirmed.  Ants.  Ants in my pants.  Red ants had crawled onto the hat hanging around my neck and traveled down my body.  I started to wiggle and writhe, and that’s when they began to bite.  It felt like some sadistic maniac was pricking me with a needle.  I stripped off my overshirt and did some kind of spastic anti-ant dance to get the little critters off of me.  Meanwhile, the chicas locas were having a laugh and taping the entire thing.  Finally, I shook off all the angry insects and breathed a sigh of relief.  “Please, jungle.  Stop trying to kill me,” I thought.

Before the ant attack there was the Hanako attack.

(Photo cred: Erica Moutrie)

Forgetting and Remembering

Before long, I realized that I had forgotten my dinner back at the MLC.  I was inclined to survive off of the tangerines that Carla had forced upon me rather than risking another asthma attack, but thankfully the other girls were kind enough to go back to the MLC and retrieve my dinner.

So it was just me and Rambo in the middle of nowhere.  Juvenal mostly refused to speak in English which suited me fine because I wanted to practice my Spanish anyhow.  I knew how much he was understanding by watching his left eyebrow.  If it was raised particularly high, then I knew I wasn’t making a lick of sense.

“Do you know any stories about Chulian Chaki?”  I asked him.  He laughed.  “Siii.  Muchas historias.  There was a man who lived in these parts years ago.  He was a logger.  Chulian Chaki was very angry with him.  He wanted him to leave his forest forever, so he made a deal with him.  They would fight.  If the man won, Chulian Chaki would show him a grove of hardwood chiwawakos.  If Chulian Chaki won, the man would never show his face again in the jungle.  And so they fought.  They fought for a loooong time.  Finally, the man won.  Chulian Chaki had to show him the grove of the tallest, most beautiful trees.  The man began to chop them all down.  He became rich off the wood.  But he was not happy.  One day he went into the forest and never touched another tree.  That is the story.

“And there is another.  A man was lost in the jungle.  It was raining and there was a bolt of lightning that lit a path before him.  He followed the trail all the way to a small house in the middle of nowhere with a woman standing in the doorway.

“The man had hunted, so the woman offered him a place to cook his meat.  He was a little wary, but he was so hungry, so cold, and the woman was so beautiful that he gave in.  He cooked the meat and spoke with the woman.  She was very kind.  They laughed together.  That night he put his arms around this woman.  She was warm and very much real.

“In the morning he woke up and found that he was wrapped in the branches of the sacred lupuna tree!  There was no woman and no house to be seen.”  I considered this for a minute.  “But why?”  I asked.  “Does Chulian Chaki just mess with people for fun?  Or was he protecting the forest?”  “No one can understand Chulian Chaki,” Juvenal said matter-of-factly, staring blankly at Lukumayo river.  “He does what he wants, who knows why.”

“Have you… seen him?” I asked.  Rambo chuckled.  “Chulian Chaki shows you what you want to see.  Once I was hunting,” he continued.  “A deer came out of nowhere.  She wasn’t very big.  I shot her in the shoulder.  And then in the neck.  And two more times.  Nothing.  She wasn’t hurt at all.  She kept running deeper and deeper into the jungle.  I followed her for some time, but she never slowed down.  I’ve never seen anything like it.  I remembered just in time that she might not be a deer at all.”

We were silent for a little while.  It was dark already and the girls hadn’t gotten back yet.  “Are you ever afraid when you’re alone in the forest?”  I asked.  “Yes,” Juvenal whispered and then was silent again.  Suddenly, I heard a strange drone emanating from the forest.  “Juvenal?” I turned to him, but he was staring far off into the forest, his hand to his mouth.  “Juvenal?” I asked again, a little more worried at his empty expression.  Then I realized that the sound wasn’t coming from the forest, but from a small mouth harp he was playing.  I sighed in relief and silently laughed at my anxiety.

“What is that?”  I asked.  “An icarro,” he replied.  I later found out that this was actually a dan moi, a Vietnamese instrument not even close to being native to Peru, but I accepted his answer at the time.  “When I feel like eyes are watching me, I play this so I will be in harmony with the jungle.”  He smiled and handed me the instrument, instructing me on how to play it correctly.  I thought it was the coolest thing, and ever since then I have lusted after that musical instrument.

Good night and good luck 

Finally, the girls returned, laughing because they had heard some kind of growling in the forest and began to have the feeling that they were in some low-budget horror film.  We ate our chicken and rice by the river, and once we’d finished, Juvenal asked us if we wanted to go for a night walk.  The girls were tired from their walk back, so they opted to watch Jersey Shore back in their tent, so it was just me and Rambo again.

“There won’t be many animals out tonight,” he said.  “There’s a full moon.”  He jokingly threw his head back and howled.  “You know, if you swim when there’s a full moon, you will get good energy,” he told me.  “Yeah,” I retorted, “but then you might get eaten by a caiman, so I’m not really sure if it’s worth it.”  He chuckled and walked into the forest.  He paused, remembering something.  He turned to me and put his finger to his lips.  “Silenico.  Quiet so we can hear the animals.”  I nodded and followed.

I had never heard the forest so silent.  Here and there we heard a bamboo rat wailing, but other than that- nothing.  We came to a shallow river and Juvenal froze.  He thrust his hand into the water and pulled out a small, gray fish.  It’s beyond me how he managed to see the animal let alone catch it, but I unquestioningly took the fish into my hand and stroked its slimy scales.  I let the creature go, and we carried on walking for about half an hour.

We came to a fork in the path and Juvenal left his hat hanging on a branch by one of the trails.  He looked slightly confused.  “Don’t tell me we’re lost,” I thought.  Happy thoughts.  Happy thoughts.  If Juvenal had survived 3 days lost in the jungle, I’m sure he could handle a little night walk.

We came to a broken bridge that we crossed by balancing on one beam.  We heard a rustle.  “Espera.  Wait.” Juvenal said and disappeared, diving into the water-filled ditch we had taken such great care to cross.

A strange calmness took over me once I was alone.  I didn’t feel like an intruder, but rather part of the fabric of the forest.  I waited for some time, wondering what Juvenal was hoping to find.  He finally emerged from around the corner, wading through the water, tight-lipped and disappointed.  “Just a baby.” he sighed.  “A baby what?”  I asked.  “Caiman.” he confirmed.  So there was a mama caiman traipsing around here somewhere.  “I wanted to see an adult,” he said, mirroring my thoughts.

We started heading back to the camp site.  We came to a fork in the path and I began walking down the right-hand side toward Juvenal’s hat looming in the distance.  “Tina!” Juvenal barked.  I turned around to see that he was nowhere in sight.  I backtracked and saw that he had gone down the other trail.  “But your hat…” I began.  “My hat’s not there,” Juvenal dismissed.  “But-” “Vamos.  Let’s go.” he grunted.  I didn’t want to argue, so I followed him.  Soon we came to another fork in the path, and sure enough, there was his hat where he had left it.  He put it back on without a word.  Strange.  I could’ve sworn I saw it by the other path.  I was so sure.

Finally, we were back at the campsite.  After sitting by the river for a bit, we went to our respective tents and settled down for the night.  Maybe it was because I was so tired, but the ground felt incredibly comfortable.  We awoke the next day and returned to the MLC to find that the staff had discovered a venomous snake in our roof while we were gone.  “Ustedes tienen suerte,” Carla said somberly.  We are lucky.

Spirit of the Jungle

The Birds and the… horseflies

We didn’t escape going to the clay lick this time.  My alarm didn’t go off, but thankfully my internal alarm sounded a half hour later and we made it just in time to go with Dionicio to the other side of the river.

We stood there on the beach with a telescope and a set of binoculars facing a orange-colored cliff.  A few minutes passed and there were no birds in sight.  Finally, a set of blue headed macaws came into view, and then dozens of birds followed suit.  There were macaws, parrots, and parakeets of all different colors and sizes.  Again, I couldn’t tell the difference, so others did the identification while I recorded them for some time.

I’ve always considered myself a bird person, but seeing them at that kind of distance isn’t exactly exciting.  Within a half hour, we occupied ourselves with other pursuits.  I chatted up Dioni- he told me how he had once climbed a 50 meter tree!- and Erica and Hanako took to spying on the tourists who had gathered farther down the river with the telescope.  Suddenly they burst into laughter.  The group seemed to have gone crazy- whacking each other with articles of clothing, running around like lunatics, and even stripping down in some cases.  What was going on?  A swarm of horseflies must have descended on the tourists, and as Erica and I had found out from our own horsefly attack not too long ago, those little bastards hurt.  Within a few minutes, the tourists had picked up shop and left the vicinity, much to Erica and Hanako’s dismay.

Pitfalls

Back at the MLC, there was more work to be done.  Juvenal collected us after lunch and took us down to clean and fix the pitfall traps.  Unlike the traps we had set before, these were buckets that had been buried in the ground so that small mammals would fall right into the holes as they were running along the trail.  Sadly, the only animal we later found in these traps was a large toad that had probably eaten all the small mammals in the traps.  So much for that.

We had more success with sewing the butterfly nets back in the project room.  Well, some of us did.  Juvenal, of course, was the first to finish while I slowly struggled my way through, managing to break a needle in half, leaving the pointy end jutting out of the net forever more.  As I got a new needle and continued to relentlessly jab myself, our fearless leader began to tell us the best kind of stories: jungle stories.

In the project room where we sewed our butterfly nets.

Story time with Rambo

Juvenal went hunting in the forest one day.  He found a troop of spider monkeys and followed them deep into the forest.  By the time he shot one down and flung it over his shoulders to take home, he had completely lost track of the trail.

He didn’t panic.  He knew how to live off the forest.  He ate leaves and berries off the trees.  He made a shelter out of the brush to keep warm and hidden from the night animals once the sun had gone down.  He survived the night and awoke the next day hopeful.  He tried to find a stream or river to follow back to civilization, all the while clinging to the dead monkey draped around his neck.  As he walked, everything began to look the same.  Little did he know he was walking in circles.  The second day ended and Juvenal once more fell asleep in the brush, his stomach growling and objecting to all the foliage he’d been eating.

He survived another night.  He began to trek through the forest, and in the spur of the moment, decided to change course.  After a few hours, he heard the sound of running water.  He ran toward it and breathed a sigh of relief.  He had found a river.

He went downstream until he came upon a barking dog.  He laughed out loud from happiness.  If there was a dog, there had to be a person nearby.  Soon enough, the old woman to whom the dog belonged came into view.  In a rush of emotion, Juvenal ran toward her.  He must’ve been a frightening sight, dirty and crazed, with a dead animal on his back, because she turned on her heal to go back from where she came.  Juvenal didn’t lose hope.  He calmly approached her and poured out his story to her.  She took pity on him and took him to her town where he was given food and a place to stay until he made his way home.  He was saved.

Juvenal’s story reminded me of something Lilia had mentioned during dinner the night before, her face mischievous and grinning in the candlelight.  “Chulian Chaki,” she had said “is the spirit of the jungle.  I don’t believe this.  But.  He calls your name and you go in the forest and ‘poof.’  You are gone.”  Chulian Chaki: an entity to be feared and respected.  While most of the scientists who come to the jungle dismiss such myths, many people who live in and have grown up in the forest adhere to the belief that such a creature exists.  “What does he look like?” we had asked.  “He has the foot of a deer and the foot of a turtle,” Lilia giggled.  We laughed at that.  Not exactly a scary combination.  “But,” she whispered, “he can change.  He can look like any animal.  He can look like your best friend.  He speaks to you in the voice of someone you know so you will trust him.”

I asked Juvenal to tell us what he knew about this spirit of the jungle.  He recounted what Lilia had already told us, but there was more, some other story he hadn’t disclosed yet.  “Otra vez.  Another time,” he said.  The nets were finished, so with that, we left the project room while I pondered what had happened with Juvenal and Chulian Chaki.

As the sun went down and moon came out, I thought about how ambiguous and changeable everything was.  Even the moon looked different in this hemisphere- the craters turned in such a way as to give the appearance of a large rabbit or an old man with a mustache.  I smiled.  Nothing is constant.  Nothing is as it seems.  At the mercy of nature, I realized how little control we have over our world.  As individuals we certainly have power, but at the same time, we are all passengers on the same train moving toward some unknown destination.  So far, I was enjoying the ride.

Prickly affairs

“Where are the rest of the bananas?”  Once again, our

Fearless Leader is displeased with our performance.

My bad…

We had barely been asleep for a few hours when the night sky was suddenly filled with light.  It wasn’t morning yet- streaks of blinding lightning broke through the clouds and emblazoned the entire stratosphere.  Our beds rattled with every rumble of thunder and rain poured down in bucketfuls rather than in drops.  Cold winds wormed their way through our mosquito nets and chilled our insect-bitten skin.  I stared blankly up at my net, listening to the confused chirping of a family of bats overhead through the roaring of the rain.  “Guess we’re not going to the lookout this morning,” I thought, finally drifting to sleep in the twilight after almost an entire night of torrential downpour.

I was wrong.  “Chiiiicas locas…” Juvenal growled in Spanish at the breakfast table, glaring at me with his hunter stare.  “Enjoy your breakfast, because you’re not getting any lunch!”  I swallowed in confusion and then realized that he was joking.  At least I think he was joking.  I attempted a laugh.  “¿Qué?” I innocently questioned.  “You were supposed to be here at five.  Five!  What happened?” he asked, exasperated.  “Lo siento, I’m sorry,” I squeaked.  “But it was raining all night, and we thought there wouldn’t be any birds out this morning, and we didn’t get much sleep-”  “Ha!”  Juvenal jeered.  “We always go to the clay lick!  Five o’clock.  And we count how many birds come and go.  Always.”  “Sorry,” I said, guiltily averting my eyes.  “No sorry,” he scowled and began to gnaw at a piece of bread.  It didn’t look like Juvenal and I would be getting along.

Para Pacha Mama

Things went better with Reynaldo.  We met him on the other side of the river to- you guessed it- plant more trees.  The dramatic heat and sunlight of the day were a stark contrast to the downpour and cold of the night before.  We ignored our bodily cues to stop working, and pushed through exhaustion and dehydration to get the job done.  When we were finished, kind Reynaldo took us to the nearest shop for a soda.  The girls got Coca Cola while Reynaldo and I both drank Inca Cola.  I sipped on my bubble gum-like drink as he made his way to the front door and poured some of the frothing beverage on the ground outside.  I looked at him perplexed.  “Para Pacha Mama.  Para Santa Tierra,” he explained.  For mother earth.  I smiled and poured some Inca Cola on the ground.  “Para Pacha Mama.”

Tito to the Rescue

When we reached the peke peke, Tito was wide-eyed and all aflutter.  “There’s a porcupine by the beach!” he blurted out in Spanish.  “I was on the boat and saw it! It’s stuck on a ledge.  It was flooded out with the rain.”  He mimed rushing water.  “We are going to save him!” he said excitedly.  Then the men began to warn us about porcupines and their barbed quills.  “You can take care of this one, Tito,” I thought.

There is no more pathetic sight than a cold, tired porcupine hanging on for dear life.  We came upon the poor creature perched on a small ledge facing the river.  We went onshore for Tito to collect his rescue tool- a rope wrapped around a long stick- and got back on the peke peke to save the spiny soul.

(Photo cred: Erica Moutrie)

After several attempts, Tito finally managed to slip the rope over the animal’s neck.  At first, the porcupine seemed to be too spent to put up a fight, but as soon as the rope was around his neck, he began to flail like a large bass at the end of a fishing line.  I stepped back as the frightened critter squealed like a baby pig and showered down yellow quills on the boat.  “Quiero ayudarte, pequeñito,”  Tito calmly said to the porcupine.  “I want to help you, small one.”

After much difficulty, Tito shook the rope loose and set the porcupine free.  Like a man possessed, he dashed up the stairs and up a tree, away from us crazy humans who had gathered around him.  Beaming with pride, Tito extracted the quills jutting out of the boat and gave them to us to keep as momentos.

Readying the rope.

Gotcha!

(Photo Cred: Erica Moutrie)

The aftermath.

 

Itch, itch, scratch, scratch

It’s not fair.  Tito never had bug bites.

When I was younger, I had chicken pox twice.  The second time around, I tried my best not to scratch, but finally gave in, clawing at spots that left marks in their wake.  Laying in my bed awake at night in the middle of the jungle, I felt like that itchy third grader again.  I couldn’t help it.  After the fifth time of waking up because of the red, angry bites covering my entire body, I finally succumbed and had a scratching free for all that lasted a good ten minutes.  Meanwhile, a thunderstorm raged in the background, and for a second I considered stepping out into the rain to soothe my raw skin.

When my alarm rang at 7:00, I was already wide awake, staring blankly at the white mosquito net drooping overhead.  I sighed and groaned the usual morning mantra:  “Erica, Hanako, Sarah, time to get up!”

We paraded to the restrooms and then to the kitchen.  It was our first day without Tilman, and the first day we got to eat with the entire staff in the kitchen so as Tilman put it: we “wouldn’t be lonely.”

I was really happy to be integrated into the group, though it was a little strange not having Tilman to greet us in the morning with his usual milky hot chocolate and itinerary for the day.  Nelson was missing too, gone to Salvación because of a toothache.  Still, most of the staff was at the table, chowing down on omelets and the ever popular fried bananas.  Sarah stealthily transferred her bananas to my plate which I gladly accepted.  I freaking love fried bananas.

The bffs: Sarah and Tomas.

It made me chuckle to see the way several of the men including Alcides, the cook, fawned over our “Fearless Leader,” Juvenal, staring at him with adoration and laughing at all of his man jokes.  I glanced at Lilia and she smiled.  “Now Tilman’s gone and you’re going to do some real work, chicas locas,” she said, giving a girlish giggle.  Come to find out in the next few days, she wasn’t kidding.

We spent the day planting and measuring trees as per usual but in a different part of the forest.  Expecting a well-maintained plantation like the last, I was surprised when a demolished grove came into view.  The trees had been burned down, which unfortunately has become a common deforestation method.

Deforestation 

And so we began the long, painstaking process of recovery.  Reynaldo had taken it upon himself to teach me as many plants of the forest as possible, so he would periodically test me on the trees we were planting there.  He is that rare type of leader who shows the way through kindness, patience, and consideration.  Not one to complain or criticize, I never heard him once blame anyone for the plight of the forest.

In a denser spot.

Trying to keep the peke peke from floating away.

Anyway, nothing much else happened the rest of the day.  That night I slipped into my old habit of doing my laundry at night.  Just as I was putting my clothes on the line I heard growling.  I jerked my head up and looked into the dark of the forest.  Nothing.  Must’ve imagined it, I thought.  I continued to place my clothing on the line.  Another growl.  I dropped my underwear in the dirt.  I looked into the canopy again.  Probably a potoo bird that sounds like a jaguar I thought.  I quickly shook the dirt of my undies and hightailed it out of there just in case.

Ta ta, Tilman

Goodbye, Tilly!

(Photo cred: Erica Moutrie)

We thought he’d never leave, but alas, it was time for Tilman to head on back to civilization without us.  A good listener, and a good friend, we were gonna miss the fool.  Who was going to tell us off when he was “not in a mode of patience?”  Who would show us his strange ballerina moves, wow us with his earth-tone, nature shirts, and give us words of wisdom at the most unexpected times?  Such a gentle person, he had trouble telling us what his favorite animal was because he was afraid of offending the other species in the animal kingdom.  That’s Tilman for you.

From right to left: Hanako the hummingbird and Tilman the penguin. Not sure what a penguin’s doing in the rainforest.

(Photo cred: Erica Moutrie)

We saw him off down by the river with hugs all around.  We would see him again in passing when we left, so it wasn’t goodbye forever.  When he left, things felt a little emptier, but there was still work to be done.  By the time we got back to the MLC, Juvenal grabbed us, the “chicas locas” as he had started calling us, and took us to clean the collection nets in the jungle.

A big tree we found on the way.

The nets are used to catch foliage in order to see how dense the forest is.  It’s a pretty easy job, the most difficult part of the process being getting there and finding the darn things.

Hanako cleaning a net.

We ate a boxed lunch by the river, and as we were getting up to leave, we saw a flash in the river.  At first the animal was swimming, and then running faster than our eyes could follow.  “Is that a fish?”  someone asked.  “No, no, no, chicas locas” Juvenal dismissed.  “Lobo del rio!  An otter. It’s a baby.”  This “baby” belonged to the rare giant otter family found only in South America.  I had no idea these animals could move that fast, and if that was a baby, I could only imagine how big an adult was.

Only Juvenal can make butterflies look hardcore.

On the way back, Juvenal asked how my asthma was doing.  “I’m much better,” I told him in Spanish.  “I have an inhaler that I use.”  “No, no inhaler,” he scoffed.  “You need suris.”  “What are those?” I asked.  “Like a small worm.  You eat it and your asthma will be better.”  I figured it was only a matter of time before someone asked me to eat some grub around here.  And it was only a matter of time before I accepted.  Though I promised folk back home that I had given up my adventurous eating ways after ingesting cuttlefish ink and stunning my internal organs, I couldn’t resist trying just one more exotic dish.  I turned to Juvenal.  “And where exactly can I find these suris?”

Fugata

We spent Tilman’s last day at the MLC measuring more trees.  This time, I had to get in on the action since there weren’t any paths to clear, and I reluctantly left my machete by the wayside.  We also had a few trees to plant to replace those that had died because all of the storms, so that slowed us down a little, but not by much.  Spurred on by Hanako’s need for efficiency and the heat, we worked as quickly as humanly possible to get the job done.

Before we knew it, it was time for lunch.  I’m pretty sure we had causa that day which is my favorite Peruvian dish.  It has mashed potatoes on the top and bottom, lime, chili, oil, and onions, with avocado and mayonnaise in the center.  Alcides likes to make it with Pollo Cubano, or Cuban chicken on the side.  Sooo delicious.

Causa and Cuban chicken.

It gets dark in the jungle around 6:00, so we spent the rest of the daylight doing chores and collecting firewood for a fugata, or a bonfire in honor of Tilman before he left for Cusco.  The rest of the girls went off to find fallen branches along the shore of the river, while Lilia called Tito and me to collect old wood from the shed.  We piled it high into the wheelbarrow, and began the arduous task of getting it all down a steep, endless set of muddy stairs.  “Muy bien, Tina.  Muy bien.” Tito would say with every step.  Tito is one of the caretakers of the MLC, and it couldn’t be a more fitting title for him.  All sympathy and kindness, Tito is a natural cheerleader.

The girls had collected enough wood and dropped it off at the bonfire site.  They had something to do up at the MLC, so they left, and Tito and I set up the fire.  I felt a drop of water on my cheek.  “Aaay,” Tito sighed.  He must’ve felt it too.  He tilted his head back and blew at the sky.  “What are you doing?”  I asked him in Spanish.  “It keeps the rain away,” he explained as he continued to pile up wood.  It kept drizzling as we worked, and I was surprised that I still saw fireflies emerging from the trees.  “Fireflies,” I said, pointing at the flying insects.  “Aaaa si.  Luciérnagas.” he replied.  “Luciérnagas,” I repeated, letting the new word roll off my tongue.  “Muy bien, Tina.  Muy bien.”

We had to inch up the stairs in the dark because I had lent my headlamp out.  I’m glad I had an excuse to go slowly because normally that hill knocks the wind out of me.  Back at the MLC, the girls were poking fun at Tilman as per usual- out of love, of course- but with more jokes than usual since Tilman was set to be leaving us.  He took it all in stride; he’d been in a good mood all day since he would soon get to see his wife again whom he hadn’t seen in two months.  Tito and I told the others that the fire was ready, and I crossed my fingers that the soft rain hadn’t extinguished it yet.

The entire staff and all the volunteers paraded back down to the river with food ready to be cooked.  The fire was still burning brightly and we turned over the wet boards to the dry side to sit down.  There was undoubtedly still a divide between volunteers and staff at this point, but it was nice coming together, and we spoke what Spanish we knew.  Alcides cooked the most amazing kabobs and choclo- a type of corn with large kernels- which we devoured within seconds.  The meal was topped off with a delicious dessert that Tomas had made- the lightest lemon pie I’d ever had.

Kabobs, rice, and choclo

Chilling with Erica.

That’s what I’m talking about.

After carousing for a while, we let the fire die out and returned to the MLC.  Back home, we played cards an ungodly amount of times while giddy Tilman filmed the entire thing.  Things were going to be different without him.

Lost in Translation

It was finally time for our long-term reforestation project to begin.  We took the peke peke down the river and walked along the rocky bank toward the plantation to measure trees for the day.

On the peke peke

By this point, my blisters had become almost unbearable, taking up most of the space on the backs of my ankles, and even on my legs where my boots ended and my pants began.  I have pretty sizable calves, so I had to trade out boots and cut them at the tops with my knife.  This resulted in me being relatively unable to keep water from getting water in my boots when we walked in rivers and puddles, and so I walked around with a constant ocean sloshing around under-foot, leaving my blisters raw and wet.  I finally felt like I had the asthma issue under control, but once again I found myself trailing behind.  Thankfully, Tomas stayed with me and we passed the time practicing our Spanish and English.  We crossed paths with a couple of women with a herd of cattle who jokingly asked if I wanted to watch their cows, and for a second I considered it just so I wouldn’t have to walk anymore.

Yep. I’m behind…

My bud, Tomas.

At the entrance to the forest, Reynaldo, an older gentleman who has lived in Salvacion for the past twenty years or so and is the leader of this project, joined our party and led us to the plantation.  Little did I know that this man would become a dear friend to me over the course of our stay.  A sweet person with a quiet voice, he embodied patience and kindness like one of the trees he so loved.

Reynaldo

Finally, we arrived at the plantation and found ourselves surrounded by banana trees that remind me of ripped love letters and outstretched arms reaching for the sun.  We weren’t going to be measuring banana trees that day, but rather cedro and awano trees in between them.  Sarah, Erica, and Hanako had the task of measuring the tree growth, while I joined the men in clearing the way with machetes.

Banana trees

Measuring trees.

Tomas creepin’.

Tilman and Hanako taking a break.

Time dragged on in the heat.  As I was slashing at the brush, a massive thorn lodged itself in the flesh peaking out between my glove and my sleeve.  I yanked it out and thought I had gotten it all, but to this day I still have a piece of it embedded in my arm- a token from the forest.

We were all glad when it was time to return to the MLC.  Reynaldo’s son, Tito drove the boat on the way home.  He was wearing a bracelet with peccary canines and a McD’s hat that said “I’m loving it.”  I think the slogan works for him more than it does for McDonald’s.  He’s always smiling.

Back to the peke peke.

That night the girls, Tilman, Tito, and Tomas all bonded over our beloved card game, and it also slipped that I had been on the Ellen show before, so the staff and volunteers had a laugh watching my attempt to eat a marshmallow off a string on our slow-loading internets.  (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CJvXJUDWXbM)

Before we headed off to bed, we all went to the bathroom.  As we were about to exit, we suddenly saw Tito, Alcides, and Nelson speed-walking toward the building, armed with machetes.  They all had a look of excitement in their eyes, and I asked Nelson in Spanish what was going on.  “Tito heard the jaguar,” he smiled.  Tito had grown up in the jungle and so was adept and recognizing animal sounds.  “On top, over there,” he said, pointing upward.  “On the roof?”  I asked.  “Yes!” he replied.  My jaw dropped.  On the roof??  I translated this back to the girls and we all exchanged eager, disbelieving looks.

We stood there huddled together in between the sinks for fifteen minutes while the men silently waited, machetes poised and ready.  Finally, they determined the jaguar was no longer there.  “How did it get down if it was on the roof?”  I asked.  Nelson busted out laughing.  “On the roof?  It wasn’t on the roof!”  Oops.  Mistranslation.  “I was pointing to the trees!”  he laughed again as he told the rest of the men what had happened and I relayed this new information back to the girls.  I guessed it didn’t make a lot of sense that we were waiting in the bathrooms if it was in fact over our heads, but common sense kind of escapes you when there’s a jaguar in your vicinity.