(Photo Cred: Erica Moutrie)
“Tina. You are very sick,” Lilia said gravely as I ran into her the morning after my episode. “I’m fine now,” I croaked. “No, no, no. You are not fine. This is not fine. Aaaa, Tina, Tina, Tina. You have parasites I think. You said it was something from Queros? We will to talk to them. When you go to Cusco you must go to the doctor and he will give you something, no?” I quietly nodded. “Do not be stubborn, Tina.” “I’ll go,” I replied. “But I think I’ll wait a little to see if I feel better.” “Tinaaaaa,” Lilia reprimanded me. “You need to go. I will talk to the office about this,” she asserted, and walked back to the kitchen.
I really was feeling better besides a dull headache that had settled in behind my eyes. Still, dehydrated and unable to eat any sustenance, I was excused from checking the small mammal traps and all the other projects for the day.
I sighed and pulled out the painting I had been working on for the last couple of weeks. The spirit of the river stared at me from the thin paper, silent and incomplete. Her hair streamed down on either side of her face and became the waves of the river. Animals of all kinds gathered around her waters. She rested her head on her hands, patiently waiting for me to bring her and her charges fully into existence.
I hadn’t thought of the title until Carla looked over my shoulder at my progress one day. She scanned her eyes over the woman in the waves. “Aaaa. La madre de dios,” she whispered reverently. Of course! Why hadn’t I thought of that? The Madre de Dios River. I would have to tell this to Juvenal who wanted a straight answer as to why the river was a woman.
I still had a long way to go. The water was finished, as was the beach, but the forest, some animals, and the woman were devoid of color. A strange fervor came over me. This was all the time I had. Sarah and I were leaving the MLC the next day bright and early- possibly forever. If I was going to give this to the staff, I had to get going.
It was our whole story. No, there were no events portrayed, but each element represented something. The jaguar, the all-powerful river, the monkey who nonchalantly watched the scene.
It’s funny, but the painting somehow foreshadowed parts of our journey and garnered more meaning as time went on: the red howler and otter were on the paper before we saw them in real life, and I drew the spirit of the river before we ever heard about Chulian Chaki, the spirit of the jungle. More than just commemorating our trip, I wanted to make something for those who had made my trip so worthwhile- for the forest and its protectors: my dear friends who I loved and respected.
I pulled out my paints and brushes and began. Many hours passed. We ate lunch. Well, sort of. I picked at some soup that Carla demanded I eat and then got back to work. Tito interrupted me a few times to check on the state of my health. “Agua puro, Tina. Agua. Puro,” he said a slow steady voice. According to Tito, clean water was the remedy for everything. “No agua sucio,” he said, pointing to the cup with my brushes. “Agua puro, Tina.” “Si. I got it, Tito. Agua puro. You have my word I won’t drink the paint water.”
The hot afternoon sun came and went. I had no time to waste and my stomach wasn’t complying, so I had to opt out of the last game of soccer. I longingly watched the action from afar. I was going to miss being goalie, Nelly’s fancy footwork, Sarah’s random goals, and of course, people face planting in the mud.
Dinner time and still not finished. I managed to get some bread down and went back to painting. I hated that the day had passed and I hadn’t spent enough time with everyone, but I had to finish what I had started and I couldn’t do much else with my stomach the way it was anyway. What a sad goodbye, though, I thought.
The sun went down. Hours passed. Some of the staff and the chicas locas had gathered around me, offering words of encouragement and advice. Juvenal admonished me for a few animal choices. “The pink dolphin does not live in the Madre de Dios. Only the Amazon River,” he said matter-of-factly. “And we don’t have this kind of anteater either,” he growled, pointing out my mistake. “Oh well,” I replied and carried on. “But the jaguar. Like a photo. Nice,” he nodded his approval. I stifled a smile, basking in the rare Rambo compliment. Oh, I was going to miss our Fearless Leader.
Our Fearless Leader approves.
(Photo cred: Erica Moutrie)
It was 10:00 pm when I put the finishing touches on The Madre de Dios. Lilia, Nelson, and the chicas locas had stayed with me until the end. Lilia excitedly took a closer look at the finished product and began contemplating the best way and the best place to mount the painting. “Aaa, Florencio will make a frame. And we must put plastic on it. Oh, it is so humid, you know! But don’t worry, we will protect it!” she buzzed. I had no doubts. Conservation was their specialty after all.
The next day Sarah and I spent some time with the staff and chicas locas before it was time to go. After we exchanged information and packed up our things, we headed down to the boat on the Madre de Dios.
I couldn’t help it. I cried as we hugged everyone goodbye. I’ve never met anyone like the MLC staff: they were so fully alive and rich in spirit. Their goodness overwhelmed me. They’d given me the best gifts of my life: being a part of something bigger than myself, and an example of how to give and love and be alive.
The chicas locas’ last picture together.
(Photo cred: Sarah More)
Nelson was leaving with us for Cusco along with Dionicio and Reynaldo. Juvenal scooped water out of the river and doused Nelson who ran away laughing. A CREES farewell tradition. Erica began to snap pictures as Nelson retaliated and Alcides got in on the action. Initially, it seemed that the water fight was reserved for the staff, but we soon realized we weren’t safe either. As we settled onto the boat, Juvenal ran right up to the side, and with an expression of equal parts sadness and glee, baptized us with the waters of the Madre de Dios. He guffawed at our sputtering and at Dionicio who was unsuccessfully trying to guard the backpacks from the water. “Adios, Juvenal!” I cried out as the peke peke started down the river. “I’ll miss you!”
The epic water battle:
Photo cred: Erica Moutrie (All four pics)
Sarah and I waved until the chicas locas and staff were out of sight. As we drifted down the river, I thought about the friends we had made and every part of me smiled. I felt so lucky to have met them.
The warm fuzzies dissipated during the drive from Atalaya to Cusco. My stomach was empty, so I was fine, but I can’t say the same for Nelson. Poor guy, we had to stop at least ten different times for him. And we were six people in one pickup on one very long, very bumpy ride. At first the setup was fine, but by the end, I was getting incredibly claustrophobic and I felt as if my neck was ready to snap since Reynaldo was using the headrest and my head bobbled with every bump in the road like a doggie on a dashboard.
Took a break from the trip from hell to eat some boxed lunches.
(Photo Cred: Nelson Coila via Sarah’s camera)
As we got closer to Cusco, my head began to buzz from the altitude. People were more plentiful and their colorful clothing brightened the dark landscape. There were baby animals everywhere: baby cows, baby ducks, baby sheep, baby goats, and puppies. It was like an Easter coloring book had exploded. The cuteness was almost too much to handle. I got through it by thinking of possible corresponding lolcats captions.
By the time we got to our beloved Hotel el Rosal, I was so incredibly happy to be off a moving vehicle and on solid ground that I almost cried for the second time that day. We said our goodbyes to the deathly ill Nelson and Dionicio, and made arrangements to see Reynaldo the next day at the office.
It felt so strange to be back in Cusco. Had we really been gone an entire month? The rainforest is like a casino: you step in, take a gamble, and before you know it, you’ve spent way more time there than you had originally thought possible. But while a casino might burn a hole in your wallet, the jungle burns a hole in your heart.