Monthly Archives: July 2011

Expedition Chicas Locas: Atalaya Lodge

Sarita’s new bff, Chico the red howler monkey.
(Photo cred: Erica Moutrie)
Shortly after my extremely fruitful mission with Reynaldo (not), it was time for all of the volunteers and Dionicio to go on our joint expedition to visit Atalaya lodge, the Wachiperi community in Queros, and Pilcopata, Dioni’s hometown.  It was our final hurrah before we all set sail and went our separate ways.
We arrived in Atalaya without any landslides or highway robbers to deter us.  We stepped out of the car and into a forest much different from the one we had grown accustomed to.  The sound of rushing water followed us through the tall trees and the honking of cars melded with the screeches of wild birds.  Here, this part of the Madre de Dios River was called Pilcopata River and boulders the size of buses generated madly churning waves unlike the steady pull of the current at the MLC.
We saw Atalaya Lodge in the distance across the river.  I scanned the horizon for some sign of a bridge, but there wasn’t one- just a light-haired man by a long cable, smiling at us.  “Hello,” he greeted us in accented English.  “Don’t worry, this is a new cable.  There were a couple of tourists who fell into the river and died close to here just a little while ago because of a bad one, so we changed ours just in case.”  The chicas laughed uneasily.  “Okay, who’s first?”
No worries, this particular cable hasn’t killed anyone yet.
The chicas locas await impending doom.
Despite the tourists’ fatal end, I was intrigued by this mode of transportation.  “I wish we had one of these at the MLC,” I thought as I watched the other chicas locas cross.
 Finally, it was my turn to go.  “You know,” the man said seriously, “the cable is weakest with the last person.”  I laughed and the man grinned slyly.
As I sat down on the seat, I accidentally touched the cable.  “Do you want to lose a hand?” the man asked as he pointed to the sign above my head that read in capital letters “DO NOT TOUCH THE CABLE.”  “Oops,” I smiled as I steadied myself on the sides of the contraption.  The man pulled on a rope and suddenly I was gliding meters above the perilous river.  “Next best thing to flying,” I thought, landing on the other side much too soon.
(Photo cred: Sarah More)
The view from above.
We crossed a small bridge over a creek and came to the lodge hidden in the foliage.  An older woman and a little girl waved to us from the kitchen as a gray dog ran outside to greet us.  They had the same cardinal rule as the MLC: no shoes inside, so we kicked off our boots and walked into the living area.
Approaching Atalaya Lodge.
“Oh my!” I cried as I noticed a red howler monkey perched on the bar.  I excitedly dashed to pet the furry animal, but she yawned, seemingly uninterested by the presence of yet another human.  Soon another monkey came into view- equally bored.  This did nothing to thwart my advances.  I reached out my hand to pet the monkeys and was surprised to feel fur almost like human hair.  “Better start watching what I say around you,” I thought as I looked into the human-like eyes, held the human-like hand, and stroked the human-like hair of the nonchalant monkey.
“Chicas locas,” Dioni turned to us.  I reluctantly turned away from the popular kids.  “You will stay in these two buildings,” he said pointing to two wooden cabins behind the living area.  A cage with a weasel-looking creature caught my eye in front of our lodging.  “So, we will meet back in half an hour, okay?  We go to the waterfall to swim, yes?  Then we have lunch at one o’clock.”
It didn’t take long to get ready, so Sarah and I went into the living area to wait on the other chicas locas.  Behind the tables we noticed a large whiteboard listing a range of different projects and English sounding names to the side.  This lodge had A LOT of volunteers but where were they all?
“The volunteers are not here for the weekend,” Dioni said, answering my thoughts.  “They leave for Easter but will be back later.”
“Some will be back today,” chimed in the cook, Gabriela in Spanish.  “I think you will meet three of them” she said.
The little girl who was sweeping stopped in front of me.  “¿Cómo te llamas?” I asked her.  “Gabriela,” she said shyly.  “¿Y tú?” she asked me.  “Tina.  Are you related to the cook?”
“No, I just like to help here,” she smiled.  “I live in the village nearby.”
One of the red howlers got my attention lounging on the floor.  The little girl looked hesitant and walked back toward the kitchen.  Not a fan of the monkeys I guess.
“I don’t think Tilman would approve of pet monkeys,” Sarah laughed.  “You’re probably right, but they’re so cute,” I said as I laid down on the floor next to him, holding his small hand.  Gabriela laughed at the scene from the safety of the kitchen.  Soon Erica and Hanako joined us.  “Okay.  Chicas locas, it’s time to go,” Dioni said.
After  a mostly uphill walk, we came upon the famed waterfall.  At first, we only neared the smaller rapids, but finally Dioni convinced us to go under the larger cascade in the distance.  Imagine getting sprayed in the face with a fireman’s hose while Jackie Chan continuously punches you in the skull.  I felt the way I do when I’m on a roller coaster that has a drop that’s just a bit too much.  The feeling that if the fall was just a little more intense I would certainly, irrevocably explode.
The volunteers still weren’t back when we returned, so the fellow from the river pass who turned out to be one of the coordinators took a seat by yours truly for lunch.
“I’m Alvaro,” he introduced himself and the chicas locas followed suit.  I fell into my usual pattern of interrogation and discovered that he was an environmental engineer from Sevilla, Spain, and that he’d only been in Peru for nine months.  “Do you miss it there?” I asked him, expecting some show of emotion for Seville, one of the most beautiful cities around.
 “No,” he shook his head.  I paused for a beat, waiting for more than a one word answer.
 “Really?  Not even a little?” I asked.
 “No,” he repeated.  Then he thought for a moment.  “Well, sometimes I miss the trees.”
After lunch we had a little bit of down time.  We all parted ways, and when I thought everyone was out of view, I walked up to the cage holding the weasel-like creature furiously pacing back and forth.  He froze and locked eyes with me.
 “What are you?  A weasel?  An otter?” I asked him quietly, walking up to the chicken wire keeping him in.  He sniffed at me, sticking his snout out one of the holes.  I knew that I shouldn’t, but I quickly reached out my hand and touched his wet nose.  He growled at me and gnashed his teeth.
“Do you want to lose a finger?”  I heard someone say from behind me.  I was caught red handed by gloom and doom Alvaro.
 “You saw me, huh?” I said stepping back from the cage.
 “Yes.  You know, I’m serious about your fingers.  He bit off two of the monkey’s.”  I made a face.  “Won’t happen again,” I promised, raising my hands in defeat.  “What is he?”  I asked, changing the subject.  “Some kind of otter or-” “No, no, no.  He’s part of the musti-musti-”  “Mustilidae family!”  I finished his thought, pleased that my brief stint at the Natural Science Center had come in handy for something.  “Like a weasel or ferret?” I continued.
 “Yes, yes, that’s it, we’re going to release him back into the wild soon.  He was illegally trafficked.”
“Oh.  Is that why you have the monkeys?” I asked wondering if it would be possible to reintroduce these monkeys back into their natural habitat knowing how clever they were and how accustomed to humans they seemed to be.  “Yes, and we have turtles too,” he led me to a small pond with two turtles sunning themselves on rocks.  “Now THEY are mean.  They will definitely bite you, so don’t even try touching them,” he chuckled.  “Wasn’t really planning on it,” I retorted.
“And we used to have two pumas but we let them go already…”
“Wait.  What?  Pumas?  Seriously?  And you let them go?”
“Yes, far away from here.”
“Well, aren’t they used to humans now?  Don’t they go up to them?”
“Probably,” Alvaro shrugged and walked away.  Knowing him, he wouldn’t mind having another unfortunate event to recount.
Suddenly, the male monkey came bounding toward me.  I bent down to pet him and he leapt onto my shoulders.  Alvaro turned back to the two of us.  “Poor Chico.  He’s been rejected by Paula.  Now he sleeps in the beds of the girl volunteers.  Such a lover.  Do you want me to take him off?” he asked, stepping closer.  Chico tightened his tail around my neck, practically choking me in the process.  “No, no, that’s okay,” I smiled.  Alvaro nodded.  “Okay,” he said.  “Let me know if you need help getting him off of you,” he said.  “Thanks.  I will,” I smiled, having absolutely no intention of asking Alvaro for help.
Chico’s such a lady’s man.
“Sarah!  I have company,” I chimed as I walked into our joint cabin.  “Wow, you have a monkey on your shoulders!” she stared incredulously.  “That I do,” I said holding the monkey’s hand in mine.  His weight was somehow grounding, and I had the absurd feeling that I had missed having a monkey on my shoulders.  I descended into a fantasy of having a constant companion who I imagined would screech whenever ill-wishers would come near and lead me to safety if I was ever lost in the jungle.
After some time, I passed Chico off to Sarah who taught him how to read.  Hey, never say never.  He climbed on us like we were limbs of a tree with no concern as to whether or not he was strangling us with his tail, pulling out our hair, or smothering us with fur.  After more than an hour of being a monkey’s jungle gym, it was time to meet up with the others for some bird watching.
Sarah teaches Chico to read.  He’s a natural. 
“Alright, Chico, time for us to go,” I said, looking into his far-too-intelligent eyes.  I moved to take him off of Sarah and he growled.  I tried again.  “Ow!” I yelped as he bit me on the wrist.  I looked down and saw two sets of fresh bite marks.  “The skin’s not broken,” I said more to myself than to Sarah.  “Just a love bite, that’s all.  But…um… What are we going to do with him?”  I asked.
We decided to walk toward the kitchen and hope that he would abandon us for Paula or perhaps a nice snack.  We stopped on the way to show Erica and Hanako what we had gotten ourselves into.  “I want to hold him!”  Erica exclaimed, staring excitedly at Chico who gave the usual unaffected glare.  She reached for him and Chico growled.  “Ow!” she howled, jumping away from Chico.  “He bit me!  I don’t want to hold him now,” she glowered.  Chico readjusted himself on Sarah’s shoulders.  This monkey was proving to be a man who could not be moved.  Taking Alvaro up on his offer was starting to look better and better.
As we walked up to the living area to wait for Dioni, Chico leapt off Sarah, onto the railing, and bounded toward the kitchen.  Simple as that.  I wondered if he just wanted a ride all that time.
“Chicas locas,” Dioni called out to us.  “We are going to see the Cock of the Rock today.  We must be very quiet.  I see you girls are not wearing bright clothes.  This is good.  So.  Yes.  We go now.”  He turned and we followed him into the forest.  The sky had turned gray so I silently tilted my head back and blew at the clouds to keep the rain away as Tito had taught me.
Before long, we were at the lookout: a small, wooden structure overlooking some trees.  We squeezed onto the bench and waited for the Cock of the Rock to show his face.  I saw a vibrantly colored bird stir in the trees.  I pointed him out to Dioni.  “No, this is not it,” he said.
Finally, an orange bird came into view.  I laughed at my recent blunder.  This bird was so brightly-colored, he was like the traffic cone of the jungle.  We watched quietly- the only sounds being the strange honking of the Cock of the Rock and the steady clicking of Erica happily snapping pictures.  Soon, an entire clan of the birds showed up and we marveled at the trees dotted with with their brilliant orange.
Eventually it was time to go, but Erica was determined to get a better shot, so she made her way to the birds and I tagged along.  We inched forward, holding our breath so as not to scare off these sensitive creatures.  Finally, we were in their midst.  They must have seen us, but they stayed anyway, emboldened by how far below we were.  I flagged Erica over to the side where one lone Cock of the Rock was hovering out in the open.  She snapped the picture and we retreated after the rest of the group that had left long before us.
So cocky.
(Photo cred: Erica Moutrie)
 Sarah and Hanako had found a massive rock on the outskirts of the river.  And by found I mean they had found a way to get to the top and were in the middle of doing a dance.  “Oooh no.  No way am I climbing up there,” I told Erica as I speculated on how the heck they had gotten up that slippery slope of a rock.  Erica, unphased, walked up to the rock, found some mystery leverage, and had scaled the thing in a matter of seconds.  Well, damn.  Guess I was climbing after all.
Getting to the top was surprisingly easy in comparison to getting down.  It started to rain, so we all awkwardly slid/jumped of the side and counted our lucky stars when we landed on solid ground.  Before long, it was pouring down and we practically ran through the forest to get to the relative dryness of the lodge.
Hanako and Sarah doing the Jungle Shuffle.
(Photo cred: Erica Moutrie)
Three young people greeted us as we walked in- the Atalaya volunteers had finally arrived.  There were also two dreadlocked, bearded men who appeared to belong to the same pirate clan as our project director, Juanma.  Because of the table set-up, we ate segregated from one another.  The Atalaya volunteers spoke in hushed tones, unlike us unruly chicas locas.  After dinner, the girls wrote in their journals while the pirates conversed in a corner.  We asked if anyone wanted to join us in playing cards, and Andrew from Australia, the only male volunteer there at the time, was the only taker.
As we were playing, Masacho the dog began to bark madly in the direction of the kitchen.
 “It’s a porcupine.  He’s broken in again,” Alvaro told us, running off to scare the animal off.  Apparently this was a common occurrence at the lodge.  Masacho went close enough to scare the animal, but he knew not to play.  A face full of needles is no joke.  Soon, the porcupine ran out the back and Dioni guffawed at his waddling escape.  Once the excitement of the evening had died down, the staff and female volunteers dispersed for the night.
By the end of the night, the candle burned down to the cusp of the holder and the flame licked the bamboo, setting it on fire.  That’s when we knew it was getting close to bedtime.  Dioni blew out the glowing flame, and before long, we headed off to sleep.

Semi-Solo Mission: Part II

Reynaldo and me living fabulously in Shipitiari.
Starting out on the wrong foot.
I didn’t exactly feel rested when my alarm went off at five o’clock in the morning.  Thanks to Reynaldo’s pep talk, I decided to sleep without my earplugs, and what with the frogs, the squealing baby next door, and a mishmash of other unrecognizable jungle noises coming from all directions, I woke up every half hour.  I dragged myself out of bed and plodded like a zombie to the bathroom.  Since there was nowhere to rest my clothes, I laid them on top of the commode while I took a cold shower.  By the time I got out, I was shivering like a leaf, and in one spastic motion managed to knock my shirt and only clean pair of underwear into the toilet.  Fantastic.
Just at that moment, Reynaldo knocked on my door.  Of course he chose that day to be early.  I hurriedly flung the sopping wet clothing into a plastic bag I had found at the bottom of my book bag.  I pulled on another shirt I had brought along and ran to open the door.
 “Buenos días,” Reynaldo chirped.  “Buenos días,” I parroted.
“Are you ready?”  “Um, not exactly,” I mumbled.  He looked off to the side.  “Is this bag ready?” he asked, motioning toward my large back pack.  “Yes,” I answered, figuring I could stick the rest of my stuff into my daypack.  “Okay, the bus is leaving soon, so please come when you are ready,” he said, picking up my back pack and walking out the door.  When he left, I frantically began to cram things into my pack and gave the room one last search before grabbing my machete and heading out the door.
I bolted to the common area expecting to see Reynaldo, but he was M.I.A.  “Must’ve gone to catch the bus,” I thought, not considering the fact that I didn’t know where the bus stop was.
I darted outside and saw a man building a wall across the street.  “Excuse me, have you seen Señor Reynaldo anywhere?” I asked in Spanish.  “Si,” he nodded and pointed down the road.  “¡Gracias!” I cried and bounded down the road.  “Thank goodness everyone knows everyone around here,” I thought to myself.  I kept rushing along, not pausing to consider if I was supposed to turn somewhere.  After walking for a good five minutes I began to get worried.  Leave it to me to get lost in the smallest town ever.
I saw a guy on a motorcycle across the street talking to a friend.  “Excuse me, have you seen Señor Reynaldo anywhere?”  I interrupted, trying to disguise my desperation.  He smiled and pointed in the opposite direction.  “He’s at the market,” he said.  “Are you sure?” I questioned.  He nodded.  “¿En verdad?  Really?”  “Si, en verdad,” he laughed.
I had to make a split decision.  I didn’t think Reynaldo would leave me, but then again, I didn’t think he would leave me before, and I wanted to be absolutely sure I didn’t miss that bus.  “Can you take me?” I  blurted out.  “Si,” the man conceded and made room for me.
I leapt onto the bike and we drove… all of a few seconds.  If I had been looking hard enough, I could have seen the marketplace on the horizon.  I convinced myself that the motorcycle ride was still necessary- time is money after all, and thanked the man profusely before he drove away.  There, casually sitting on a bench, was Reynaldo, completely oblivious to all the heartache he had caused me.  “Hola, Tina.  The bus is late,” he smiled.  “Of course it is,” I thought.
After thirty minutes, the bus finally arrived.  Thankfully, there was a lot more room than last time, and we actually had seats to sit in.  All the stress of the morning dissipated as we ambled along.  There seemed to be no divide between the forest and the passengers; the palm trees whipped their leaves through the windows, blessing us with water droplets that fell on our faces and shoulders. A little girl with pink bows in her hair reached out her window, grabbing at the trees to catch a handful of leaves.  We drove over streams and rivers, rocks and mud, and under an emerald canopy framed by a clear blue sky.
After an hour and a half, we stopped in Shintuya, a small jungle town, to have a fish and rice breakfast.  Shinutuya is at the heart of much environmental debate in the Madre de Dios region.  Its leader seems willing to allow an oil company to come into the area to pump oil.  The town would be paid off, but their way of life would certainly change, and since the company does not have an excellent track record, the Amazon would be impacted as well i.e. deforestation and oil leaks.
At the time, I had no idea any of this was going on, and I sat there, oblivious to the undercurrent of rising tension, silently eating my breakfast and watching some old Arnold Schwarzenegger movie on television with a bunch of kids.
Sit down, you’re rocking the boat.
As we finished cleaning off our plates, a man came into the home where we were eating and spoke with Reynaldo.  “Our boat is here, Tina,” Reynaldo relayed back to me.  We got up, thanked the Señora of the house, and headed down to the river.  It was another peke peke, not much bigger than the one we had back at the MLC.  The man who spoke to Reynaldo turned out to be the driver, and there were a few more passengers waiting on the boat.  I was the only woman there.
Those first three and half peaceful hours on the boat were my favorite part of the journey, riding down the river, watching the shore zip by and the birds dotting the sky.  I closed my eyes and took a deep breath.  Suddenly, the boat stalled.  “Uy!” the driver exclaimed.  We had hit a sand bank and the motor was rendered useless.  All of the men jumped out and began to push the vehicle upstream.  I motioned to join them but froze in my tracks when Reynaldo put his hands up to stop me.  “No, Tina.  Stay,” he commanded.  I sat back down and waited for a bit, but once the water had become shallow as a kids’ pool, I couldn’t take it anymore and leapt over the side of the boat to lend a hand, much to Reynaldo’s dismay.  “I can handle it, thank you very much,” I smiled, half believing it myself.
We pushed with all our might, the peke peke straining against us.  When we came to deeper waters, we had a different challenge of walking upstream through the powerful current.  We continued on like this for half an hour.  I couldn’t fathom how some of the men were accomplishing this barefoot while I was struggling in my rubber boots, water up to my mid-thigh.  Just before we came to dock, the water deepened and the captain told us to jump back on.  “Oh, no,” I thought.  The boat was moving quickly now and I had been pushing in the back. Within a few seconds, the boat was out of reach and I was left behind.  Reynaldo shook his head.  “Yeah, yeah, I get it,” I grumbled as I trudged my way through the murky waters to the dock.

Trees are hard to come by. Well, some of them.

It’s not easy being green.
One of the passengers on the boat was a park ranger named Manuel.  Before he attended to whatever business he had in Shipitiari, he joined forces with Reynaldo, the driver, and me to look for chiwawakos.  We had been planting trees as part of the reforestation program for so long that I had taken for granted where the seedlings were actually coming from.  I had no idea that every time new cedros, awanos, or chiwawakos were needed, an expedition was launched to find them in their natural habitat.
Things were different in this part of Manu.  Characteristic of a primary forest, the trees were huge, towering meters and meters above our heads, and unlike the jungle surrounding the MLC, the air was thick with mosquitoes.  I had doused myself in insect repellant, but they didn’t seem to care, landing on me without hesitation and feasting off my blood.  “Focus on the forest,” I told myself as I resisted the urge to scratch.
I caught my breath as we came upon an enormous tree that seemed to be as old as time.  “What kind of tree is that?” I asked Manuel in awe.  “A chiwawako,” he replied.  My mouth dropped open.  There we were, searching for chiwawakos and I had no idea what a grown one actually looked like.  Massive.  Imposing.  Ancient.  I wondered how long it would take for a small seedling to become the size of that giant.
Hanging out with the chiwawako tree.
After forty-five minutes or so of looking in the prime locations and finding nothing, the driver and Manuel left Reynaldo and me to continue looking.  Reynaldo showed me a seedling similar to the one we were looking for and we hastened our pace to keep up with the sinking sun.  We didn’t have much daylight left due to our late bus and the river road blocks.
I wasn’t yet adept at identifying the plant, so I kept getting my hopes up every time I saw a promising looking weed.  Part of me felt like I was more of a burden than help to Reynaldo.  He was even getting concerned about the bites accumulating on my fair skin.  “Estoy bien, I’m fine,” I told him again and again, though I’m sure the expression on my face told him otherwise.  As I was starting to feel sorry for myself, I noticed a bunch of tiny green leaves poking up out of the soil.  It couldn’t be.  The plant was far too small.  “Reynaldo!”  I called out.  He was already far ahead.  “I think I found one!”
After the first chiwawako we unearthed two more specimens.  “How many do you normally find?”  I asked Reynaldo.  “About thirty,” he replied.  “Oh,” I whispered, suddenly unimpressed with our findings and realizing why this was usually a two person job.
It had gotten too dark to see without a headlamp, so we abandoned our search.  Reynaldo reminded me of someone as he gently wrapped the roots of the seedlings in banana leaves.  “You’re like Johnny Appleseed,” I told him.  “¿Quien?” he questioned, and I told him the tale of the kind man who loved nature and gave apple seeds to people for them to raise their own orchards.
Reynaldo aka Johnny Appleseed with a chiwawako seedling.
Shipped to Shipitiari.  Be back soon.
Having aborted mission chiwawako, Reynaldo set his sights on another goal: a fish farm in Shipitiari.  Reynaldo explained that we were going to visit every home in the village and meet with the families to see who would be interested in raising fish since the river itself had none to catch.
There was no need for doors or walls in Shipitiari- walls would just lock in humidity, and no one was going to steal from you anyway- so most homes had a very open floor plan.  Some houses were simply straw roofs on stilts.
While they were all farmers, every family was different- some reserved and suspicious, while others were loud and outgoing.  Some used plates and cutlery, while others preferred to eat off the table using just their hands.  A constant was the smell of cooking fires and fresh papaya.
The locals all generously shared their yucca, fish, potatoes, and eggs- simple, hearty jungle fare.  I gladly ate the food they offered me at every house.  I was famished.  I found that I loved chicha- fermented corn- and masato- fermented yucca.   The daughters of the village brought the drinks out in clay mugs that were about as big as them.
Despite my efforts to “blend in,” I may as well have started doing the dougie, for all the stares that were being directed at me.  “Blanquita!  Blanquita!” I heard again and again.  One family couldn’t stop laughing when I told them I had never eaten purple potatoes or papaya with seeds in it before.  “Where did you find this girl?” a woman my age asked Reynaldo, throwing me a challenging glare.
The peke peke driver, Juan, his family and I got on better.  I gave his little daughters some chocolate and I was deemed “ok” in their books.  I’m really not a fan of papaya, but I needed something to talk about, and the family’s papaya tree caught my eye.  “That’s a nice papaya tree you have there,” I told Juan.  “You like papayas?” he asked.  “Yes!” I said.  With that he walked over to the tree, cut me down the largest papaya he could find and handed it to me.  “For me?” I stared at the enormous papaya that took up my entire lap.  He nodded.  “Wow.  Gracias,” I thanked him.  I was sure someone at the MLC would appreciate it.
By a community house in Shipitiari
After a long, long day we made our way to the last family of the night.  The father met with Reynaldo while I sat waiting on a stump, tired and a bit saddened.  A little girl no more than five years old came out from behind me, gleefully running with a butcher knife.  I began to make the most ridiculous faces I could muster up, in hopes that I could catch her eye and get her to forget about her “toy.”  I made a monkey face as she flew by me.  It worked.  She paused, hiding the knife behind her.  Apparently I survived a month in the jungle only to die at the hands of a five-year-old.
She smiled at me, revealing a perfect set of pearly whites.  Oh, she was cute and she knew it.  She giggled as I continued my shenanigans.  She disappeared for a moment and came back knife-free.  She stopped in front of me.  “¿Cómo te llamas?” I asked her.  “Dahlia,” she whispered shyly.  “Hola, Dahlia,” I said.  “What’s that?” I asked in Spanish, pointing to a toy plane nearby.  She picked it up and brought it to me.  “Un avión,” she said.  I took the toy and began to make sound effects as I rolled it across the ground.  She laughed and clapped her hands and came to sit on my lap.  I put my hand up for a high five.  She looked at it confused.  I held hers up so we could complete the hand gesture.  “High five!” I said.  “Sheesh, I’m so North American,” I thought, but she laughed and hit my hand again.  “Tina!” Reynaldo called out.  “Time to go.”  I reluctantly stood up and put Dahlia back on the ground.  “Adios, Dahlia.  Bye bye!” I cooed, making silly faces as Reynaldo and I disappeared into the darkness of the forest.
 I sent up a silent prayer into the canopy that Dahlia would stop playing with knives but never stop being happy.
Even the birds are staring me down in Shipitiari.
Day 3
We slept in the empty community house at the front of the village.  It was another sleepless night, but I wasn’t too worried about it since I knew that sleep would come easily back at the MLC.
Our boat left bright and early.  We shared the peke peke with a couple and their two small children.  The woman nimbly perched on the side of the boat, a pole in hand, staring at the horizon.  She expertly navigated between the sand banks so that we only had to get out to push a few times.  The sunrise colored the sky in pinks and oranges, and after a couple of hours, another color show came into view- the biggest rainbow I have ever seen.
An arco iris
By the time we got to Shintuya, our bus was there and ready to go.  At the beginning, the bus was relatively empty, but as time passed, more passengers piled in, and the atmosphere became rowdier and rowdier.  By the time we got to the outskirts of Salvación, there were kittens mewing from underneath a seat, an elderly woman was selling an alcoholic beverage in little bags, and the bus driver was playing music at full blast.  A smiley grandma plunked down next to me and asked me to help tie a sling around her neck to hold her grandson.  The baby was so big that he ended up sleeping on both of our laps.  I had to be vigilant the entire ride so that the enormous papaya I’d been given didn’t roll over and smother him.
And then there was Jorge.  Jorge came onto the bus and all the passengers noticeably sighed.  He locked eyes with me and grinned.  “Hola, blanquita,” he said as he sat down in a seat already occupied by someone else.  “Peru veeeery beautiful, no?” he asked in English.  “Si,” I nodded and looked out the window.  “¿No entiende español?” he asked Reynaldo, wondering if I spoke Spanish.  “Si, entiende,” Reynaldo said.  For some reason Jorge did not accept that I spoke Spanish.  “Peru veeeery beautiful,” he repeated.  Then he pointed to his chest.  “I am your friend.”  He pointed to Reynaldo.  “He is no your friend.  I am your friend,” he reaffirmed.  Everyone laughed.  “You understand?” he asked me.  I smiled and nodded.  He turned to Reynaldo again.  “I thought you said she speaks Spanish,” he said, even though he had been speaking to me in English.  “She does,” Reynaldo said.
“It’s your stop, Jorge.  The banana plantation,” someone yelled.  “Mmm, that’s okay,” Jorge dismissed the idea.  “I will ride around one more time.”  Everyone on the bus groaned.  “No, Jorge, you need to go to work,” one woman demanded.  “What will all those bananas do without you?” another asked.  “Aah, you are right,” Jorge acquiesced, rising from his seat.  “Hasta luego, blanquita,” he crowed, turning to me.  He took my hand, vigorously shook it, and exited the bus.  As I looked down at the baby dozing in my lap I shook my head.  There’s no place like Manu.

Semi-Solo Mission: Part I

Party bus.  Jungle style.

Lilia and Reynaldo approached me sitting at the candle-lit dining room table after another dinner of rice and potatoes.  “So.  Tina.”  I knew it was going to be all business when Lilia started talking in staccato.  “You will go on the expedition with Reynaldo to Shipitiari?”  she asked.  Reynaldo had mentioned something about continuing on with the reforestation program.  “Sure.  We’re going to be planting more trees?”  I asked.  “Not exactly,” Lilia began, “You will be in the primary forest.  You have to find chiwawako trees to replant.  And also, you will be going to Salvación to help with the bio gardens there,” Lilia explained.  “Sure, I’d like to go.  No problem,” I replied.  “Good,” she smiled.

“So you will be leaving tomorrow morning and coming back on Wednesday and-” “Wait.  What?  I’ll be gone for three days?” I gaped.  I didn’t realize this project entailed a three-day voyage out in the middle of nowhere.  “Si.  Three days,” she confirmed.  “Reynaldo says he communicates best with you and that you will understand what’s going on,” Lilia continued.  I highly doubted that.  I might speak Spanish, but “understanding what’s going on” isn’t exactly my forte.  I did my best to look excited, but to be honest, I was afraid of missing out on moments at the MLC with the chicas locas and staff, especially since our stay was coming to a end.  Still, this was an opportunity to do something I would probably never have a chance to do again, and it was going to be an adventure.  “What time are we leaving?”  I asked.

Lilia is sweet, but she means business.

(Photo cred: Sarah More)

Goodbye for now

The next morning we woke up bright and early.  I ran into Juvenal in the kitchen.  “Juvenal!  We won’t see each other for three days!” I told him in Spanish.  “Better that way,” he growled.  “You know you’ll miss me,” I laughed.  He couldn’t fool me anymore.  The previous day when I mentioned how sore my butt was from constantly sitting on fallen tree trunks, he guffawed and said that I was “una mujer liberal con una mente abierta”- a liberal woman with an open mind.  The best compliment I’ve ever received.  And all because of a sore butt.

Reynaldo and Tito came to collect me with machetes in hand.  We made our way to the peke peke which refused to start.  Suddenly, I saw a man swimming downstream toward us.  My jaw dropped.  I couldn’t believe how he was swimming with such a strong current.  As he got nearer I laughed when I realized it was Tomas coming to see us off.  He emerged from the river drenched, and shook out the water from his hair like a wet dog.  “Tina!  You are leaving?  Why?” he pouted.  “Just for a little while, Tomas,” I explained.  “That is if the peke peke ever starts.”  He tilted his head and looked at the peke peke like a curious puppy before he bolted to the men’s side and began to offer his expertise.  Finally, the thing started up and we loaded into its hold.  I waved to Tomas and we began making our way upstream toward Salvación.

Usually, I was my happiest riding down the river, but that time, a strange sadness came over me, and I couldn’t shake the feeling I was leaving that place forever.  It seemed to me there were more birds and butterflies around than usual, that they were flying in time with the boat, seeing me off to my next adventure.  The others mistook the tears on my cheeks for river spray, and we spoke not a word.

Blanca on the bus

After the boat ride, there was another 45 minute walk into town.  I know I’ve mentioned before that it gets really hot in the jungle, but this particular day was hellish.  Reynaldo was sweating, and he never sweats.  We came to a paved road and Reynaldo stopped to wipe his brow.  “A car is going to pick us up here,” he said quietly in Spanish.

I figured another pickup truck would come to get us, but after a few minutes, a small bus turned the corner and Reynaldo told me to brace myself.  The bus lurched to a stop and the driver hurriedly jumped out of the driver’s seat, ran to the back of the bus, pulled a ladder off the rear, hooked it to the side of the bus, scaled the steps, and reached out to me.  “Oh,” I said as I realized I was supposed to hand over my backpack and daypack.  “Rapido, Tina,” Reynaldo said, and I picked up my pace.

The bus door flew open and the attendant stepped out.  We walked up the steps and found we could go no further.  The bus was packed.  I leaned against a ledge by the stairs between a sack of dried potatoes and a bushel of bananas, and Juvenal shoved his way into the aisle.  The attendant miraculously managed to get the door closed and took a wide stance on the bottom step.

I looked up and saw that dozens of dark brown eyes were watching me.  “Who is this gringa?” their stares seemed to say.  I smiled and slid my machete under the passenger seat.  Bumpy rides and sharp objects don’t mix.  I turned back around and saw that even more eyes were on me.  “Yes, everyone, I am the only blanca (white girl) here, I know,” I wanted to say, but opted to focus on the green and blue parrot that was sitting on a woman’s lap directly in front of me.  Yes, there was a parrot on a woman’s lap, and it was awesome.  The driver got into position, the bus rumbled, and we took off with some concealed chicks peeping their objection in the background.

By the end of the trip, the attendant and I had established the kind of connection that happens through unwanted physical contact.  I fell onto her and she smiled to show there were no hard feelings.  She stepped on me and I put my hand up and nodded to convey that my toe was a-okay.  We even shared a silent joke when we simultaneously noticed the driver had forgotten the ladder on the side of the bus and it was dangerously teetering by an open window.  She rolled her eyes, I shook my head, and we laughed as if it say “I mean, really, what’s with that guy?”  As our trip came to an end and Reynaldo motioned for me to get ready, I retrieved my machete and gave the attendant a wave which she retuned.  New friend in the Amazon.  Check.

What we’re really here for

We worked in two gardens that day.  The first belonged to a young couple with two young kids and a bevy of chickens.  They were pretty jovial and eager to learn about the different seeds Reynaldo had brought for them to plant, and we all worked well together.  As we were aerating the soil, the woman looked at me out of the corner of her eye and gave me a knowing smile.  “So.  You are Reynaldo’s new woman.” she said in Spanish.  Oh.  My.  Age may just be a number, but Reynaldo is in his sixties.  We had been talking in Spanish, but I chose to pretend I didn’t understand that comment.  “No entiendo,” I said, and thankfully, she didn’t bother explaining.

When we left the first house and made our way to the second, we inadvertently left Reynaldo’s hat behind.  Rather than return and have the woman propagate any more innuendo, I gave him my UNC hat since I had once more come overly prepared and had packed two.  I can proudly say that Reynaldo is now an honorary Tar Heel.

Reynaldo in the garden.  Notice the hat that went missing.

As we began to melt on the side of the road, a motorcycle slowed down next to us.  “Jump on,” Reynaldo told me.  “Eh?” I stared at him bewildered.  Reynaldo told the driver a name and motioned for me to climb on.  Lured by the promise of wind in my hair and not dying of heat exhaustion, I decided not to mention that I had never been on a motorcycle before and that I DON’T RIDE WITH STRANGERS IN THE MIDDLE OF THE JUNGLE.  Instead, I clambered behind the driver and held onto the man’s waist as we zipped down the road to some unknown destination.

“So, this is taxi service in the rainforest,” I figured as we drove along, glad to finally have a break.  We came to a neighborhood I recognized from our last trip to Salvación, but we drove past the garden with the bamboo fence we had made, so I knew that wasn’t where we were stopping.  “Where are you going?” the driver asked me.  What was he asking me for?  I was just along for the ride.  Literally.  “No se…” I replied, confused.  He sighed as if to say, “God, these gringos,” and pulled to the side of the road where he asked a group of bystanders where he could find Señora Nori.  The children laughed at the sight of a lost blanca, but the man with them obliged and told us where we could find her.

We made a u-turn, passed our bamboo fence, and stopped at a house next to Esmeralda’s place where the chicas locas had once had breakfast.  “Ok, we’re here,” the driver said unamused, probably irritated that his navigating ego had taken a blow.  I climbed off the motorcycle and he took off back in the direction we had come from.  Before I had time to digest the reality of being alone without a clue as to where I should be going, I saw Esmeralda come into view.  “Señora Nori is at the market,” she told me in Spanish.  “But she will be here soon.”  I breathed a sigh of relief and sat with her as she tutored her son on writing in cursive.  “Mama, I want to play!”  he whined.  “You need to be patient, hijo.  You need to learn!” she scolded him.

Within a few minutes, Reynaldo came around the corner on the back of the same motorcycle that had brought me.  He climbed off, paid the driver, and motioned for me to follow him.  I said my goodbyes to Esmeralda and son, and went with Reynaldo to the garden behind Señora Nori’s house.  I thought we would wait for her to come back from the market, but Reynaldo began to weed the garden, and I followed suit.  Soon, a couple of teenage girls came to the garden and pitched in.  By the time Señora Nori arrived, we were almost ready to plant the seeds.  “What would you like, Nori?” Reynaldo asked the woman.  “Radishes?  Lettuce?  Cucumbers?  Tomatoes?”  “Anything my daughter wants,” she responded.  “This will be her garden.”  One of the girls turned to us and smiled shyly.  “What would you like?” Reynaldo asked her.  “Everything,” she giggled.

Reynaldo pulled out his bag of magical seeds and we planted everything.  We tucked the sleeping seeds in the soil and covered them with a layer of volcanic ash for good measure.  Reynaldo detailed how much water each plant needed and when they could expect their harvest.  As I was putting the last of the ash over the seeds, Nori laughed.  “I think I know why you are so white, blanca.  You have all this energy in you!”

When our job was done, we parted ways happily, glad to have met someone new and to share the work load, but not having spent enough time with each other to miss anybody.  As we walked to the other side of the house, I heard a baby laugh.  Another baby laughed in response.  Back and forth they went, laughing faster and louder until even stray dogs on the street were perking up their ears at the strange ritual taking place.  Once we rounded the corner, we realized that the echoing laugh was not coming from a baby at all, but from a large, green parrot.  I laughed out loud, and sure enough, the parrot laughed right along with me.

One eye open

Reynaldo had a house in Salvación, but since it would be improper for me to stay there, I would be spending the night in my beloved hostel.

When it came time for us to turn in, Reynaldo stopped me outside the entrance.  “Are you okay alone?” he asked.  “I can pay for another room if you are worried.”  “Thank you, but I’m fine,” I replied.  I really was.  I had absolutely no problem having a morsel of privacy after being deprived for so long.  “Are you sure?”  he asked.  “Yes,” I answered.  “Positive?”  “Yes.”  “Don’t go out alone,” he cautioned.  “I won’t,” I affirmed.  “Don’t open the door if someone knocks.”  “Okay.”  “Lock your door.”  “I will.” “Promise me,”  “I promise…” “Please, just lock your door,”  “I will!!”  Jesus Christ.  I wasn’t worried before, but now?  Was there some gang coming through that I was unaware of?  Some gringa-hating gang that had gringa-dar and were going to chop down my gringa door to get to me, the only gringa around?  Aaah!  Thanks, Reynaldo.  Thanks a lot.

Carla and the Cookie Catastrophe

Me and Carla.  Not making cookies.

(Photo cred: Sarah More)

Over the course of our stay, Carla and I had become friends.  I helped her with her English, listened to her gossip, and she laughed at my absurd facial expressions and Spanish inadequacy.  She may be small and dainty, but don’t be fooled, Rambo has nothing on Carla.  So it should come as no surprise that she tricked me- yes, tricked me- into baking cookies for the entire staff and the chicas locas.

I like to cook, but baking is an entirely different story, and what with an unfamiliar oven, I never would have volunteered my services in that arena.  That didn’t stop Carla.

“What kind of desserts do you eat in the United States?” she asked me in Spanish one afternoon while I was painting.  “Um… I like cheesecake and chocolate chip cookies,” I absent-mindedly replied, not being much of a multitasker.  I should have known this was a loaded question.  “Aaaah, chocolate chip cookies,” she repeated, slowly rolling the foreign words over her tongue.  “Chocolate chip cookies.  ¿Galletas con chocolate?”  “Si,” I responded, putting the finishing touches on a red howler monkey.  “So, what do you need to make these cookies?” she innocently asked.  “Uh, well, you have chocolate, eggs, flour, baking soda, sugar, vanilla, and some salt I believe.”  “Aaaah si.  We have those ingredients.”  She paused.  “So you will make them this week, no?”  “Sure.  Wait- what?”

And that is how the cookie catastrophe began.  I held out several days, hoping that she had forgotten, but Carla has a mind like a steel trap, and I wasn’t let off the hook that easily.

I got my mother’s recipe from her online and went about making the things one sweltering afternoon.  Erica and Carla kindly lent their services while the men sat about snickering at us breaking a sweat mixing the ingredients together in the absence of a mixer.  God, what I would have given for a mixer.  We didn’t have a measuring cup either, so we used mugs which we didn’t realize until later were two different sizes.

The chocolate was pure and tasted like bitter nothingness, but we had no choice but to use it, so in it went with the batter.  The batter itself wasn’t the right consistency, so we added a little more of this and a little more of that until it was a far cry from what the recipe called for.  Not the best idea considering that baking is an exact science.

Erica and Carla looking surprisingly calm in

the midst of the cookie catastrophe.

“How many people are there?” I asked.  We settled on about 15 people eating cookies, so we began making more batter.  In went the first batch.  Carla lit the oven with a candle and we waited.  “It’s not the best oven,” Carla said.  “Fantastic,” I thought.  Before long, we took a look in the oven and saw that the cookies were in fact now one large cookie.  “Umm.  We have a problem,” I said to Erica.  “It’s one big cookie.”  “Oh no.  How did that happen?” she asked.  “I don’t know!  Maybe we put in too much butter or something?” I frantically asked no one in particular, trying to make sense of why jaguars and caimans didn’t freak me out, but baking a batch of cookies did.

Finally, the massive cookie was finished and we took it out of the oven.  We had buttered the pan, but nonetheless, we struggled to scrape the cookie off the metal.  Paper-thin and tough, this was not a cookie I was interested in eating.  Erica took a bite and I waited for her reaction.  Her eyes lit up and she nodded her head in approval.  The chicas locas poured into the kitchen and tasted it as well.  Shockingly, they all seemed to like it.

Carla, Tomas, and Juanma were not so impressed.  “More sugar, more flour, more salt,” Tomas said.  I began to think of what we could do to keep the cookies in the second batch from getting so thin.  “I think we should make more of a cookie cake this time,” I told Carla.  She pulled out the flour and some other powdery substance I wasn’t familiar with, and we mixed them both into the leftover batter.  I crossed my fingers and sent up a prayer to the dessert gods that this thing would pan out.  No pun intended.

After about fifteen minutes, we checked on the cake.  Not ready.  More time passed.  Still uncooked at the bottom.  I began to get nervous that the thing would never bake through.  “No te importa, Tina.  Don’t worry,” Reynaldo said, which did absolutely nothing to make me feel better.

Finally, the cookie cake was ready and we took it out of the oven.  I cut a piece and bit into it.  Not bad.  The chocolate still tasted like saw dust, but at least it kind of, sort of tasted like a cookie.  Even Juanma and Lilia approved of this strange concoction, so I was mostly satisfied with the outcome.  And at least there was plenty for everyone.  After dinner, Carla came up to me.  “Next week we will make more cookies, no?”  Oy vey.