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?”
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)
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.
(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.
(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.