Tag Archives: Manu

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.

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?”

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.

Día Libre Dos

Back at the MLC, we had our second day off.  A few tourists had arrived of the avid bird watcher breed, so we had to be on our best behavior.  We couldn’t help overhearing their discussion during breakfast:  “I was hoping to see at least 250 by the end of today… Oh yes, a very rare species… must head down to the lookout,” etc., etc.  I wish I could get that into birds.

One of the tourists was a retiree who apparently used to be some kind of politician but now works for a conservation organization of sorts.  Awkwardness ensued when I ran into him in the restroom when I was sniffing my laundry to see if it was clean, but that did not stop him from chatting me up about my alma mater which he had visited before.  Ah the joys of the communal bathroom.  But really, he seemed pleasant.  Though he did make a crack about North Carolinians eating squirrels.  “Only when we hit them with our cars first,” I chided.  To be fair, I did mention something about him coming over from the dark side, so I guess we’re even.

The tourists had a lot of birds to watch and not a lot of time, so they went on their way while the rest of us went to the river for a swim.  We covered ourselves in clay- good for the skin, you know- and took in the scenery.  Floating on a cool river, looking at the clear blue sky, I fell deep into thought.  I felt different somehow since I had arrived, more at home than I’d ever been anywhere else.  Every night I went to sleep content and complete, and never with a heavy heart.  It’s no secret that many scientists believe the cures to most of the world’s diseases lie waiting in the rainforest, but what was it about the place itself that was so healing?

Back home I always felt the urge to take up my time, to keep doing and doing.  But still, there was an emptiness.  Rather than filling me up, all that activity was making things more and more complex.  I was beginning to feel separate from everything and everyone.  I was in my head and away from nature.  The funny thing is that all I really wanted in the first place was to feel connected.  There, in the middle of nowhere, I remembered what it was like to be part of a community, to feel small but part of a bigger picture, to waste nothing and want for nothing.  Surrounded by nature and the most generous, kind-hearted people, I realized that I belonged.

From left to right: moi, Hanako, Sarah, and Erica.

(Photo cred: Nelly via Erica’s camera)

Later that night, Lilia, the manager, told me she felt the same way about the MLC.  “We always work together here,” she told me.  “There’s no other way.”  With that, she cooed over a trio of tiny baby mice she had saved earlier that day, tucked them in, and everyone went to bed.

Babeh mice

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.

Vacación en Salvación

The happenin’ scene that is Salvación.

After about a week of forest debauchery, we were ready to get a taste of civilization again if only for a little while.  We loaded into the organization’s boat a.k.a. the “peke peke-” aptly named for the sound the motor makes as the boat sputters along downstream- and headed to the small town of Salvación to participate in a volunteer project.

On the way to Salvación.

On the Madre de Dios

After a short trip down the river and a long, long, walk down a dirt road, we arrived in Salvación a hot mess, blinking through sweat and sun to meet the eyes of staring children, and a multitude of curious dogs who belonged to no one and to everyone in town.  Soon enough, a couple of those dogs took it upon themselves to be our own personal guards and did not leave our side for the rest of the day.  They even followed us into our hotel rooms, looking dejected and pathetic when they were finally turned loose for the night.  Chickens were also constant companions, roaming free and popping up in the most unlikely of places, including a basket of chicks tucked away on the corner of an old man’s bed.

Our hostel was the only one in town.  Despite the lack of toilet paper, hot water, and a ceiling (there was a tin roof that had a large gap that connected all the rooms in one echoing, acoustic mass), the place seemed luxurious because, well, it had walls.  An incessant chirping filled the room which turned out to be frogs ribbiting, though Sarah was convinced for the longest time that it was an annoyingly loud car alarm going off for hours on end.

Once we had put our things away, we left the hostel for the nearest store to buy a few things.  Just as we decided it might be nice to buy the men back home a pump for their soccer ball since theirs was broken, we heard a shrill scream coming from the back of the store.

Erica assumed that the store clerk was quarreling with her husband, but in reality a HUGE SNAKE was reared up, preparing to strike to protect himself.  It was the first snake I had seen, apart from the docile looking ones in the zoo, and rather than being afraid, I was transfixed by the sleek, graceful creature seething and hissing with more intensity than I thought possible.  The shop keeper did not seem to share my sentiments.  “Dios mio!”  she whimpered as her husband poked at the snake with a large stick, finally managing to slice the serpent into small pieces that slithered of their own accord.  I shook off a strange sadness at the sight of the dead snake, and we quickly made our purchases and left the shop keepers to dispose of the wriggling snake bits.

With our first jungle snake encounter behind us, we made our way to a small, concrete house away from the center of town where a smiling, older woman stood waiting for us to begin our work.  “We’re going to build a fence,” Tilman coughed.  I looked around for evidence of a tool set or boards, but all I could see were a stack of machetes and a mountain of bamboo piled high by the side of the hut.

An old man emerged at the front door and glared at us as we divvied up the machetes and began to split the bamboo from tip to tip into thin strips which we wove together for the framework of the fence.  We smiled at him in acknowledgement, but his only concern were the squawking chicks who engaged him in a power struggle, determined to get into a large bag of forbidden feed.

Why can’t we be friends?

Don’t mess with his chickens.

(Photo Cred: Sarah More)

I fell into a familiar rhythm chopping the bamboo, sometimes using a stone to hammer down the machete with a particularly tricky piece of wood.  The nice thing about working with a machete is that you can’t think about anything else.  You have to focus.  If you don’t, you get yourself into trouble.  And by trouble, I mean losing a finger.

Watch those fingers, Tilman.

(Photo Cred: Sarah More)

Before long, the mercurial skies opened up once more in the most dramatic and violent manner.  Without a second thought, the family, volunteers, dogs, and chickens all ran indoors to escape the downpour.  The doors were open, and wind whipped through our hair and lashed the sheets of the bed where the old man sat with his baby chicks close at hand.  It was too loud to hear anything, and we were still too shy to speak each other’s tongues for too long, so we sat there placidly staring and smiling at one another.  Fifteen minutes passed.  Tilman took out his ipod.  Half an hour passed.  I trapped a puppy and forced him to sit on my lap.  By the end of an hour, we were all going a little stir crazy, including the old man who abandoned the chicks, which almost resulted in their escape via sky diving off the edge of his bed.

Finally, there was no point in staying, and we made our way back to town in the rain.  The weather was determined to give us more time off.  After a brief respite at our hostel, the sun went down, and we ended the day at the local bar.  Little did we know that buying alcohol had been prohibited due to the upcoming elections (don’t drink and vote, everybody), so naturally, we were the only ones in the entire place.  But we made the best of it, bought a couple of rounds on the dl (foreigners don’t count apparently), and played a game before hitting the sack.  Personally, my evening was made when Sarah divulged that her father runs Rowan Atkinson’s farm.  He runs MR. BEAN’S FARM.  It doesn’t get much better than that.