Tag Archives: rainy season

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.

Mission Moats and Machetes

Rockin’ the machete

The heavens finally decided to stop raining, so for the next couple of days we did a lot of manual labor.  We went into the swamp for the first time and began to clear a path with machetes.  I forgot to wear my gloves, so angry blisters sprung up on my hands to join the ones I already had on my feet and legs.  For once, we were working out in the hot sun rather than beneath the canopy, so we dripped with sweat, attracting every sort of swamp insect within a mile radius.  The swamp floor was like a trampoline with the occasional hole that would swallow your entire leg.

The swamp.

Despite being drenched with perspiration and swamp water, it felt good to finally be doing something.  And it felt good to be using a machete too.  I treasured that thing that was part tool, part weapon, and found myself wishing it was acceptable to carry one around back home.

Everyone should own a machete.

We also picked up the task of digging a moat for fish around the bio garden.  Let me tell you, these fish better like this moat, because digging that hole is the single most exhausting thing we did.  At least Hanako brought her speakers to the MLC, so we had music in the background as we worked.

Working on my favorite project. Not.
Erica and Sarah in action.

Tilman did the usual of giving us some tangerines and splitting (can’t blame him really), but at some point Dionicio and Nelson who we had nicknamed “Nelly” took pity on us and came to help out.  It turns out that both men are digging machines and in the time it took us to throw out two shovelfuls, they had cleared an entire patch of dirt.  Respect.

Dioni is a digging machine.

Anyway, after two days in the heat, I began to see the need for this whole wet season.  Back home I resented rainy days, but in the rainforest I felt gratitude at the sight of approaching storm clouds because they signified a cleansing of all the wounds, dirt, and sweat of the forest.  For the time being, we took reprieve in cold showers and in the waterfall.  We wouldn’t have to wait long before the rain came back in full force.

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
monkeys!

(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.

Falling

 

That first night in the rainforest was hot and cacophonous.  I woke up in a sweat, scratching my bites and listening to a family of bats chattering over my head.  Thankfully, I had spent about a quarter of an hour tucking in my mosquito net, so nothing was getting into that safehold.  It’s a good thing too, considering how many cockroaches I saw scatter when I opened the armoire before I hit the sack.  I discovered that one of my earplugs had fallen out, and once I had remedied that problem, I drifted back into an easy sleep that comes with exhaustion.

Before I knew it, it was time to get up.  At breakfast, I had my first of many, many cups of the best hot chocolate I’ve ever had.  An interesting thing about breakfast in Peru is that it’s common to eat a huge meal to begin with in order to sustain you the rest of the day.  We mostly had omelets, fruit, and cereal, but when we visited other places, we generally had things like chicken and rice or spaghetti to start off the day.

After stuffing our faces, we took off for the small mammal traps with Tilman, Juvenal, and Nelson.  Juvenal was the head of the small mammal project and had garnered the nickname “Rambo” because of his tough guy attitude.  Nelson was his sidekick in the project- a gentle soul with a whisper of a voice and the agility of a jungle cat.  Armed with machetes, the men took the lead.

Sarita helping cut down a tree in our way.

Our mission?  To set the traps with peanut butter and tuna so we could catch and study tiny, furry animals.  The annoyance?  My ridiculous asthma that was fighting me every step of the way.  At first I was fine, but Rambo kept going faster and faster, the terrain became more and more rugged, and then finally, we encountered this steep incline lined with roots and rocks.  I don’t know why, but I had never really thought of the rainforest as being mountainous before.  Incorrect.  By the time I got to the top, my vision had started to blur and my head was spinning.  Erica asked me if I was alright and stayed with me while I recuperated.  Anyway, after a couple of incidents like this, I finally learned to use my inhaler before I got started on this whole trekking through the rainforest business.

I ❤ my machete

We finally arrived at the site.  We took out the aromatic tuna and peanut butter, set the traps, and went on our way.  Juvenal and I struck up a conversation about our families, and ever so often he would freeze mid-sentence to point out some creature in the distance.  He’d stare at it with the intensity of a hunter, pretend he was shooting an imaginary gun, and growl “Ese animal es muy rico.  Muuuy rico.”  Translation:  That animal is very delicious.  Veeeery delicious.  Sometimes I question Juvenal’s conservation efforts.  Just a little.

After lunch at the MLC, at the urging of Tilman, we became “one with nature” and went swimming in the river.  A more “kid friendly” kind of river rather than the mother (literally) of all rivers- the Madre de Dios.  It was very nice and uneventful until we were leaving.  It began to pour down torrentially, and we were a long way from home.  The sheer force of the current and the pounding rain combined with the glass-smooth stones made it a challenge just to stay standing.  I can’t tell you the last time I had properly fallen down before going to the Amazon, but within the span of forty-five minutes I had fallen on my butt four or five times.  In the river, in the streams, on the bank, and on the trail.  You name it, I fell there.

The gang by the river.

Hanako with a stick insect Tilman found on the trail.

By the time we got home, the rain had finally abated a little, but it was still too wet to do any work.  Instead, we learned about Manu and how to behave in the forest.  Most important piece of information?  If you come across a jaguar, DO NOT RUN.  They go in attack mode if you do.  You have to make a lot of noise and raise your arms so it appears you are bigger.

By this point, I already felt a burgeoning love for Manu.  Free and wild, dangerous and vibrant, it has more species of wildlife than you can imagine.  It is beautiful, and above all, a glorious challenge of artful simplicity.  By the end of the day, I had a taste of what this trip was going to be all about.  It wasn’t about fixing or finding something.  It was about loving and learning to be alive.