Tag Archives: Amazon

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?”



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.


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.

This trip is bananas. B-A-N-A-N-A-S.

On our second and final day in Salvación, we had spaghetti for breakfast in a house belonging to a local woman named Esmeralda.  If you can have breakfast for dinner, why not dinner for breakfast I ask?  Anyway, after that, we finished the bamboo fence and hightailed it out of Salvación.  I was expecting to leave on some sort of bus, but we made our getaway on the back of an old pickup truck.  We shared the car with another passenger who had a laugh at our excitement over being able to see the streams we were driving over through holes the size of footballs in the truck bed.

No, that’s not a boat we’re on. We drove through the river on a pickup. That’s just how we roll. 

After our drive, we had to walk through the jungle to get to the river.  Even though we had to book it to reach the peke peke in time, we still managed to pick up a few fallen bananas by the path and enjoy a mid-day snack (yes, it always comes back to the food).  We continued to walk and came upon a group of cattle placidly grazing in the Amazon grasses.

There I was, happily munching my banana, ambling along behind the rest of our posse as per usual, when a massive bull came charging at me in a blur of horns and black fur.  The cattle herder yelled after him and raised a whip high in the air, but he was already too far ahead.

Fear would be a normal response in this sort of situation.  Instead, I was transfixed.  All I could do was stand there, a banana still dangling from my hand as I stared into the wild, curious eyes of this animal that was getting closer and closer by the millisecond.  I couldn’t shake the feeling that he was coming for a visit- not an attack- and soon enough, he froze right in his tracks a few yards away from me, looking at me with recognition.

Then the herder caught up with his charge and the moment was over.  The bull carried on as if nothing had happened and I followed suit.  But what did happen?  I asked myself.  What had set him off?  As I threw my peel into the brush, I realized that he was probably trying to steal my banana.  The nerve.

A cow similar to the bull that was after my banana.

An Unexpected Visitor

It was just another day at the MLC.  The clouds were heavy with the promise of rain and we started off the morning identifying and studying bird species.  Apparently birds are just not my thing because in addition to failing my call test, I incorrectly identified every single bird I saw including the beautiful russet-backed oropendulas which are as common in the Amazon as crows in North Carolina.

A month in the rainforest, and I still can’t tell you what kind of hummingbird this is.

Later, Karla and Alcides cooked a delicious lunch which Erica and I proceeded to douse with mayonnaise, and we began to chat away while Tilman zoned out.  Did I mention we were the first all-girl group at the MLC?

Hanako was talking about someone back in Singapore when she suddenly stopped midsentence.  “Oh my God,” she whispered.  “What is it?” someone asked.  We turned in the direction she was looking and found ourselves staring into the eyes of a jaguar.

She was stalking toward us from about twenty yards away at the edge of the forest.  We jumped out of our chairs to get a closer look.  For a split second she looked at us with the terrified eyes of a hunted animal, then whirled around fast as lightning and disappeared into the forest.  Maybe it was the distance, how fast the moment passed, or the fact that we had seen her scared-eyed in our garden, but she left the impression of being a very large, spotted housecat rather than a dangerous huntress that pounces on her victims from high in the canopy, breaking their necks before she feeds on them.

The jaguar came out of the forest by pod 4.

Erica, Sarah, and Hanako were ecstatic about the encounter, their faces lighting up at our good fortune.  Tilman was so shocked, he put his head between his hands and wasn’t speaking at all.  I mumbled something about my pet cat.  I still didn’t quite believe we had seen a real jaguar just as someone might experience uncertainty about whether or not they’ve seen a certain celebrity or simply their look-alike.

That night, I told my parents about our sighting over Skype.  “What?!”  my dad yelped.  “What?!  Get on the next bus and come home.”  “Oooooh lord.  Oh lord,” my mom groaned.  “We’re the first group to ever see one,” I told them.  “There are only about 1 or 2 per 50 kilometers, so we’re really lucky.”  “Huh.  Did you get a picture?” my dad asked.  “Nope.  We were eating lunch when we saw it.”  “Oh, okay.  Are they feeding you over there, Tina?”  Ah, Greek parents.  Gotta love ‘em.

¡Día Libre!

After working very little the past two days due to the rain, we had a free day on Sunday.  And guess what?  It didn’t rain.

Still, we spent some time cooking with Alcides and Carla in the kitchen.  We made juanes which are made with steamed corn meal or rice, chicken, and olives wrapped in giant banana leaves.  Lots of steps are involved but the effort is well worth the reward.

Carla and Alcides in the kitchen.
Learning tricks of the trade.
The Manu menu

Our equally yummy lunch.

Then the epic clothes washing by hand began.  I thought I would be missing my washing machine, but it’s strangely satisfying to wash your clothes yourself.  But better keep an eye on those clothes drying on the lines because you never know when those skies will open up!

The place you were most likely to find me: the laundry area.
The best part of doing laundry in the rainforest? The butterflies.

The day was topped off with a soccer game, a swim by the waterfall, and some delicious lemon meringue that Tomás made.  All in a day’s work.  My American side felt guilty for doing relatively nothing while my Greek side was hoping for another día libre very, very soon.

Getting to know Manu

Back home when it rains, life goes on.  You pull out your umbrella, your rubber boots, your jacket, and keep trudging.  That doesn’t really happen in the rainforest.  The rivers widen and the paths turn into a thick paste.  Animals and humans alike go into hiding.  Sarah, Hanako, Erica, and I came to the MLC at the end of the rainy season, and so we were subjected to the whims of the weather.  In other words, we didn’t have a lot of work to do at the beginning because it was raining too darn much.

On our second day at the MLC, we headed out to check the animal traps at 4:30 am in the rainy, gray morning.  Juvenal was heading our group, so of course, an asthma attack and a few minutes later, and we were there and back again.  I had a dream that we didn’t find anything, and sure enough, we didn’t find a single critter in our traps.  Pretty normal in the rain, but not even one small mammal was caught on the proceeding days of the project, which has never happened before.

Thankfully, we had better luck with seeing wildlife in action.  When the sky cleared up a bit, we saw a horde of adorable squirrel monkeys hanging out with some larger capuchin monkeys high in the canopy.  Juvenal grumbled that we would have seen more animals had we not been chattering so much.  I don’t think he’s used to so many girls…

White Fronted Capuchin

(Photo cred: Erica Moutrie)

Back at the MLC, Tilman forced us to learn the different bird calls.  I thought it would be easy if I thought about them like music, but no, the macaws sounded exactly like the parrots, and I could hear a slight difference between them and the parakeets, but not by much.  Heck, I was still confusing bird calls with monkey howls and bamboo rat screeches, so it was no surprise when I got 7 out of 20 on my bird call test.  Sarah was the champ of the group with nearly 3 quarters correct!  She must practice.

Thankfully, I still had a rather good hold on English which came in handy later in the day when we taught the staff and they taught us some Spanish.  I worked with Tomás, the housekeeper.  Tomás is a soft-spoken, sweet sort of man who has the biggest smile and an appetite for cervezas.  He had a good memory for vocabulary and already knew a lot, and my Spanish wasn’t too shabby either, so the lesson really flew by.

Then, we visited the orchid garden, the bio garden, and the medicinal garden.  There were cat’s claw for cancer, aloe for burns, and dragon’s blood to heal wounds.  Another plant that resembled a snake was crushed by people of the rainforest and applied to their legs to prevent snake bites.  But my favorite plant grew in a corner of the garden.  Hunters traditionally bathe with it before going hunting to attract deer, and supposedly, if a person mixes the plant with perfume and wears it, he/she will attract a mate.  The only problem is that everyone knows exactly what you’re doing because it’s ridiculously pungent.

In the biogarden.
Orchid Garden entrance
Dionicio shows us around the Orchid Garden.

Tree huggers, beware.

And so another day in the Amazon came and went.  The first day was for changes and the second for taking it all in.  That night was the first clear night we had in the jungle.  The trees were full of fireflies and the sky was heavy with stars- so much so that I caught my breath as I looked up and realized I didn’t know where the sky ended and the forest began.