Tag Archives: volunteer trip

Say I am you

I have come to drag you out of yourself and take you in my heart.
I have come to bring out the beauty you never knew you had,
And lift you like a prayer to the sky.

– Rumi

It all happened very quickly.  Leaving that is.  The staff that had come back with us to Cusco had dispersed: some headed to new jobs, others to visit family, so it was just Sarah and I saying our goodbyes.  We made plans to see each other again and promised to keep in touch.  I packed my things into the taxi and left Sarah behind with El Hotel el Rosal hovering in the background.  The taxi driver wanted to hear all about our adventures, and when I spoke to him, Spanish didn’t feel so foreign on my tongue anymore.  I didn’t have to translate in my head, and I talked the Peruvian way: softly and quickly.  “Will you come back?” he asked.  “I hope so,” I said sincerely.

On the flight home I expected to be absorbed in thoughts of bittersweet goodbyes, but more than anything, I was surprised.  Surprised at what this trip had become.  I expected to find answers, but I now had more questions than ever.  I expected to give but ended up receiving so much more than I dealt out.  For more than a month I lived outside of myself, and it was such a relief.  I felt so light.  Literally.  (I had lost 16 pounds thanks to those parasites.)  All joking aside, my friends at the MLC had drawn me out, and we became a part of something bigger than ourselves.

There were no walls separating us.  We lived together, worked together, ate together, and laughed together.  There was little need for privacy because there was respect and value in that place.  Love without possession.  And I’ll treasure that for always.

Nice to meet you, Machu Picchu

 (Photo cred: Sarah More)
            It was the day of our voyage to the mystical, magical, wonder of the world, Machu Picchu, and of course I was fantastically, grotesquely sick.  No sleep.  No appetite.  I figured I had better call Harol and give him my tickets because this just wasn’t going to happen.  I forgot about my aversion to medicine and desperately wished for anything, ANYTHING that would set my stomach right again.
             I picked up the phone and dialed Harol’s number.  Darn.  I forgot the phone was broken.  I pathetically knocked at Sarah’s door.  “Sarah… I have a problem.”
I pounded in the mile long number to reach Harol on Sarah’s phone.  “Hola, Tina.  Que tal?”  The sound of his kind voice triggered tears to well up in my eyes.  No, no.  Try not to sound weak, I thought.  “Harol, want to go to Machu Picchu?”  I whined.  “Que?”  “Machu Picchu.  I’ve got tickets.  I’m sick.  I can’t go.  But can you tell me where a clinic is?”  “A clinic?  Aaaah Tina.  You are sick?  Give me some time.”   Harol always knew what to do.  “You will go to Machu Picchu.  Don’t worry,” he assured me, though I was 100% certain he was wrong.
            Harol called some friends to find the best clinic and within a half hour a taxi brought me to the spot and I met Harol outside the doors to my salvation.  The sight of him triggered the tears in my eyes again.  What was wrong with me?  I was finally broken down and I didn’t care anymore.  I just wanted someone to coddle me.  I wanted to be back in my bed at home watching an America’s Next Top Model marathon where jungle parasites couldn’t possibly exist.
            “Aah Tina.  Don’t worry.  You will go to Machu Picchu,” he said again though I was less concerned with Machu Picchu and more concerned with not dying.
            The doctor was a self-possessed woman in heels.  She spoke in brisk Spanish that I understood, but which Harol translated anyway.  I didn’t care to correct him.  The English was a comfort.  I laid down on a tall, cold table and lifted my shirt so the doctor could poke around my stomach.  “What are these?” she asked, pointing to the red spots dotting my skin.  “Picaduras.  Bug bites,” I explained.  She nodded and moved on with the examination, though in retrospect, maybe I should have gotten some kind of treatment for them considering the fact that I still have them months later.
            I told the doctor my symptoms and after listening to my stomach’s gurglings, she stood up and clasped her hands.  “Parasites,” she announced.  She prescribed three different medicines to be taken over the course of the week, and sent us on our way.  Thankfully, the downstairs pharmacy had reasonable prices and speedy service so I didn’t have to leave empty-handed.
            Harol and I took a taxi back to Hotel el Rosal.  I was so grateful for his help I could’ve cried again.  “You see, you will go to Machu Picchu,” he smiled, though I still highly doubted that.
             Sarah had gotten the tickets from the travel agency and we agreed to wait and see how I felt closer to the time we were supposed to be going.  I hated the idea that she would be traveling alone, and I didn’t want to have come all that way and not seen that wonder of the world, so I sincerely hoped that my meds would kick in.
            A few hours later and our things were packed and ready to go.  My stomach had finally stopped grumbling.  It was time.  Do or die.  Or maybe both.
             We made our way to the car Claudia had hired out for us.  Sarah nodded off as we drove through the mountains, and I tried to as well, but couldn’t.  Outside my window was one of the most breathtaking landscapes I had ever seen in my entire life.  It was twilight and the mountains were infused with an orange glow.  People with colorful clothing dotted the landscape, tending to their flocks.
             My family is from the mountains of Greece, and when we visit, I always have the sense of being cradled in their sinewy embrace, but these mountains were different.  They were rugged and rounded, sharp and soft.  I couldn’t understand how with mountains so tall and clouds almost touching the ground there was this feeling of being in a plain: wide open.

             When we finally arrived at the train station, I was sad for the ride to end, and felt completely revitalized and energized.  Just like Cusco, the place was jam-packed with tourists.  Sarah pointed out to me that this was the most white people we had seen in a long time.  I nodded, saddened that I once more felt short in a sea of towering North American and European men.

             By nightfall we had arrived at Aguas Calientes, the place where we would be spending the night.  Two young women met us at the station with a sign bearing our names.  We were pleasantly surprised to find that our thirty-dollar stay included a private bathroom, flatscreen TV, and a complementary breakfast.  Not sure why I got excited over that last bit though when I couldn’t eat a thing.
            4:30 am: the time we got up the next morning.  Not having slept the night before, I could feel the tiredness in my bones.  We made our way to the bus station.  A long line of white people had formed which we promptly joined.  We waited, tourists among many, for half an hour before we got to the front.  “Tickets?” the bus driver asked.  “Yes.  Wait-what?”  We had been waiting in the line to get on the bus, not the line to buy bus tickets.  Oh, no.  We hurriedly left the line and headed down the road.  Directionally savvy Sarah figured we were close to the Machu Picchu ticket place and that it would be a better to move to buy those tickets first before they ran out, so we headed in that direction.
             “Solo estas cartas,” the ticket seller said when we reached his counter, huffing and puffing.  He pointed to the poster with the student cards that were accepted.  Ours weren’t on the list.  “Solo soles,” he groaned when we took out our dollars.  It might sound strange to use dollars in another country, but it’s quite common in Peru, and we had done so several times, but this man looked at us as if we had asked to live in his house.  “Solo soles,” I sighed, drawing out my dwindling supply.  “Cuanto cuesta?  How much?” I asked.  “130,” he grunted.  One hundred thirty soles?  50 bucks?  “This world wonder better be pretty wonderful,” I thought as we payed our entry fee.
             It was pretty wonderful.  After we finally got our bus tickets and made the short drive to Machu Picchu everything- the illness, tiredness, altitude sickness, and jacked-up prices- became worth it.  A postcard had come to life.  Since we came so early there were only a few tourists blighting the site, and we saw the ancient Incan city in all its glory.
            We were in the clouds.  Blue sparrows like I’d never seen before flitted from rock to rock.  Grown and baby llamas lined the terraces, some refusing to pose for pictures with tourists, turning around and showing them their rumps.
This is Dalai.  Dalai llama.
(Photo cred: Sarah More)
            And then of course, there were the ruins themselves.  Rising up seamlessly from the mountains, this sky city is at once inconspicuous-blending in with its surroundings- and a prominent, eye-cathing emblem of the landscape.
            Small and large stones fit perfectly together without a trace of mortar sullying their close embrace.  Machu Picchu has been around for so long (around 600 years) because of this expert craftsmanship that withstood the test of time and many an earthquake.  And it didn’t hurt that the Spanish never knew it existed.  As for its exact purpose and why it was abandoned so quickly remain a mystery, and archeologists can only speculate on the possibilities.
            As an aspiring archeologist, Sarah was more than a little excited to be at the heart of an ancient Incan civilization.  She told me all she knew about the site, which was terribly helpful considering that I didn’t know crap.  What she didn’t know, we picked up from bits and pieces of what was said by passing tour guides in Spanish, French, and English.  “This is the sacrificial altar,” we heard.  “They escaped to rainforest to avoid the Spanish,” one said.  “They probably grew corn on the terraces to make chicha,” said another.
Sarah was right at home.
             Even though no food was allowed at the site, I saw a couple having a picnic on one of the terraces, out of view from any officials.  I laughed to think that the employee who took our tickets had singled me out and almost accusingly demanded that I not eat inside the grounds.  Considering I only had a pack of stomach-settling crackers, she’d been barking up the wrong tree…
             After a few hours of investigating the scenery and taking many an altitude break, Sarah and I separated for a bit.  She went to a lookout spot some distance away, and I went to hang out with the llamas.
Llama meditations.
(Photo cred: Sarah More)
              I saw an angry chinchilla.  That was cool.  Wish I could show it to you, but sadly, my camera was stolen.  Yep.  With all my Machu Picchu pictures.  Thankfully I had another card that had my older pictures, but these particular ones- especially the ones where I was making peace signs- are probably being laughed at as we speak by a Peruvian drug lord with a brand-new digital camera.
              When we finally left Machu Picchu, I was sad to go (I hadn’t yet discovered my camera was missing), but I was ready as well, because frankly, I was about to pass out.  Another bus ride, train ride, and bus ride later, and we were back in Cusco.  It was poor Sarah’s turn to feel ill, and the babies crying in unison on the bus did little to help her condition, so she rested as I went off to have my first meal in two days.  Harol went with me, and tested me on different Spanish words and told me about his twin brother.
This was my last day in Peru.  I couldn’t wrap my head around the thought.  I still can’t wrap my head around it because, even though I’m back in the US now, it didn’t feel like goodbye.  Hopefully because it’s not.

Busco Cusco

(Photo cred: Erica Moutrie)
Cusco.  I woke up that first morning back with the altitude singing in my veins.  I looked over at Sarah and sighed as I got up from bed, knowing that our stay would soon be coming to an end.  I took inventory of my body.  I was covered, I mean covered, in bug bites, my hair looked like Chico had just given me a noogie, and it seemed that I still had part of a thorn lodged in my arm.  Basically, I looked amazing.  On the bright side, my stomach felt surprisingly settled.  And now, I was hungry.
Before we could go for lunch, Harol, one of the coordinators, picked us up with a taxi to go to tie up any loose strings at the office.  Side note: Harol is arguably the nicest person I’ve ever met.
When we got to Jack’s cafe I decided to make up for lost time and ordered the nachos loaded with meat, beans, and cheese.  Sarah and I reminisced over MLC memories and chatted with a couple of British tourists about their South American adventures while I cleared my plate for the first time in days.  Looked like the worst was over.
(Photo cred: Erica Moutrie)
After lunch, Sarah and I tried to find the travel agency Harol recommended, but when we reached the address there was a different agency there.  Tired and hot, we decided to take a look at what sorts of deals they had.  The woman helping us, Claudia, spoke great English and unfortunately for her, did not realize that I spoke Spanish.  “Where did I put my pen?  Oh my, what do I do next?  What do these people need now?” she said in Spanish to herself, not realizing that I understood everything she was saying.  Despite her confusion, she booked the train tickets, found us hired cars and buses, and made us a reservation at a cheap hostel.  It seemed that everything was in order, and after paying the bill, we arranged to pick up all of our tickets later that day.
On the way back, Sarah and I were bombarded with masseuses.  “Massage?  Masaje?  Pedicure?  Manicure?  Shine shoes?”  If I had any doubts about looking rough, they suddenly vanished.
Staying cool in the shade.  Notice the man with the
backward baseball cap.
(Photo cred: Erica Moutrie)
An old man peddling instruments asked if we wanted any pan flutes.  We said our no thank you’s, but as he turned to leave, I remembered the mouth harp that Juvenal had in the jungle.  “Do you have an icarro?” I asked him, not knowing at the time that the instrument was called a dan moi.   I described the instrument, and he nodded.  “Aaaa si. I think I have some at my shop.  Which hotel are you staying at?  I can meet you there with the instrument,” he said.  Erm.  No.  “How about we meet here at 6:00?” I offered.  “No problem,” he responded.  We shook on it, and the man went his merry way.
Sarah rested up in the room as I did some shopping at an outdoor market.  Beautiful tapestries and alpaca textiles, pottery and hand-sewn dolls, and jewelry and pan flutes decorated the myriad of stands.  “Señorita, mira aquí,” the vendors would say, trying to get me to stop and buy their wares.
A plump woman smiled at me and motioned toward her goods.  A gourd with a decorated nativity scene caught my eye.  “Do you have a smaller one of these?” I asked her in Spanish.  “No, no, señorita.  No smaller.  But I give you a special price,” she said temptingly.  From past experience I knew that every price was a “special price.”  Still, this knick knack was too nice to pass up.  She gave me a jacked up price that was still a reasonable one by US standards, so I didn’t bother haggling.
 “How do you like Peru?” she asked me.  “Oh, I love it,” I replied and went into the details of my stay.  “The jungle?  Dios mio.  I’ve never been,” she divulged.  “You’re not afraid to travel alone?”  “Not particularly,” I shrugged as she whipped out the day’s newspaper.  “Mira,” she said pointing to a young man’s picture on the front page.  “This boy, que guapo, so good looking, missing!  From the states!  Yes, yes, he looks dark, I know.  He’s Peruvian, but he lives in the U.S.  And now they’re bringing dogs to look for him.  Yes, dogs!  They can find people by smelling at things.  Can you believe it?  I hope they find him.  So guapo, so good looking.  And from the U.S.!  Que triste.  So sad.  So guapo.  So good looking.”  “Que triste,” I agreed, trying to make my exit after a good ten minutes of hearing the sad tale on repeat.
“Wait, come look in my shop!” she said as I headed toward another stand.  There was more?  We walked in the store behind her stand.  Oh, there was more.  I looked at the first row of shelves and much to my dismay, saw several smaller nativity scenes.  I sighed.  Lies, lies, lies.  I turned toward the jewelry case and saw some earrings my mother might have liked.  “Ah, you like earrings?” the woman asked.  “Mira, look at these,” she said, pulling out a pair bearing a condor, a puma, and a serpent.  “The symbols of the city,” she smiled proudly.  I smiled back.  She wasn’t going to let me leave.  I quickly bought the earrings and left the shop.  I looked at my watch.  Wow.  Twenty minutes had passed.  I shook my head and moved to a stand out of her field of vision.  I knew she was liable to chase me down.
Feed the birds, tuppence a bag.
The pigeons in Cusco are a bit handsy.
(Photo cred: Erica Moutrie)
Finally it was time to make our way back to the travel agency.  “Um, Claudia’s not back,” another travel agent told us when we got there.  “Come back in 45 minutes, yes?”  When we returned another woman was sitting at Claudia’s desk.  “Here,” she said passing me her cell phone.  “Hi,” said Claudia on the other line.  “We have a problem,” she blurted.  Uh-oh.  “I made a mistake and bought the train tickets for a week from now,” she confessed.  “But I’m buying tickets for tomorrow now.  They will be for the middle of the day, yes?  But the thing is, I will have to give you the tickets tomorrow morning, okay?”  I agreed, not really having a choice.  Sarah and I hoped for the best and left.
We stopped in the Plaza de Armas to meet up with the instrument seller.  No mouth harps, but he offered up beautifully painted ocarina flutes.  They were so lovely, and I hated the idea that he went through all that trouble for nothing, so… I let guilt and consumerism get the better of me, broke down, and bought two.  One for me.  One for Sarah.
Fried Guinea pig, anyone?
(Photo cred: Erica Moutrie)
Later that night Sarah and I ate dinner with Harol at the fanciest McDonald’s I’ve ever seen.  My stomach was still feeling fine, and my appetite was alive and well, so once again, I stuffed my face.  A big mac.  Large order of fries.  A chocolate shake.  I was unstoppable.
After we had gorged ourselves, we made our way to a place Harol told us about called Inkateam that had salsa dancing.  After about 11:00, the dj started playing club music and locals and tourists started pouring through the doors.  The music was fun and upbeat, but- I can’t believe I’m saying this- lacking in hip hop.  Hmm was this homesickness I detected?
On the way home my stomach started churning.  Oooooh, no.  Oh.  No.  We took a break and sat on a bench.  Did I really eat nachos and a big mac?  Fries and a shake?  What was I thinking?  The plague doesn’t just disappear in one day!  Back in the hotel things got… worse.  I finally accepted the bitter, stomach turning truth I had been denying for so long: I had parasites.  Jungle parasites.

So Long, Amazon

 (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:
Rambo goes in for the kill…
Nelson retaliates.  
Obviously, Tomas is invincible.
And I thought I was safe…
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.

Parasites and Larvae: A Match Made in Heaven

 Say it ain’t so.
The day we left Pilcopata was a day for many firsts.  That morning, Dioni informed us that we would be white water rafting to Atalaya.  Now, I knew we would be rafting at some point, but I figured it would simply be for recreation, not one of our main modes of transportation.  But there we were, strapped up in our life jackets and ready to brave the waters to get back to the MLC.  Since I hadn’t eaten much of anything since the day before, I was feeling much better, and was excited about trying something new.  We left our belongings in a large SUV that would meet us down the river, and followed Chito, our instructor/guide down to the river.
Chito was a gregarious, smiling man who spoke good English and had an almost religious reverence for the river.  “Do you see the water there?,” he would ask, eyes wide like a kid in a candy store.  “Imagine all those trees covered up.  All of them gone!  That’s how high the river was before.  Entire plantations ruined!”
For some reason Chito was convinced we were all afraid.  “Your first time, yes?  Don’t be scared, don’t be scared.  Only if you fall out should you be scared.  Feet first, on your back!  Don’t try to swim down the river with your head in front.  No, no, no, no.  Because what will happen?”  He picked up his hand and jokingly slapped himself in the face. “You will be knocked out.  And then you will drown.”
 After a few more words of watery wisdom and a lot of pumping air into plastic tubes, Chito loaded us into the raft.  Erica and I sat in the front.  “Okay, now we will learn how to row together,” Chito said, and began to yell out orders as we practiced rowing on dry land.  Once we got the hang of it, we pushed the raft into the water and began to drift down the river.
At first, rowing felt easy, but soon we came to a rapid with a whirlpool swirling by a rocky cliff and things got difficult very quickly.  “Left reverse!  Left reverse!” Chito yelled out over the roaring water.  We put our backs into it.  “Faster!  Faster!”  We avoided the cliff and struggled against the choppy waters toward the middle of the river.  “Tina!  You’re not doing it right!” Chito called out.  “Use your back, not just your arms.”  I tried to do what he asked, but after a few attempts where we narrowly missed some massive rocks, Chito thought it best for all involved if I moved to the back of the craft.
After the stinking smell of failure dissipated, I was pretty happy to be at the back of the boat where rowing was more of a formality than an actual need.  I could have kicked up my heels, drank a pisco sour, and we would have gotten to Atalaya in one piece and no thanks to me.
By the time we got to Atalaya, we were drenched and content.  The chicas locas climbed out of the raft, thanked Chito for his troubles, and dragged the raft up to the road.  We walked into a restaurant that had given us the go ahead to use their bathrooms to change, and left an embarrassing trail of water in our wake.
After a long ride no the peke peke, I struggled more than usual up the stairs to the MLC.  After getting reacquainted with the staff, I headed to my usual spot- the laundry area- to take my mind off my stomach pangs by scrubbing some clothes.  As I neared the end of my laundry load, Reynaldo emerged from around the corner.
“Tina!  We missed you!” he exclaimed in Spanish.  I noticed a white bag in his hands.  He presented it to me.  “Un regalo de la selva,” he declared.  A gift from the forest.  I opened the bag and pulled out the tupperware within.  I took off the lid.  The musty smell of wood chips hit my nostrils and momentarily distracted me, increasing my nausea and foreshadowing what was to come.
I peered inside and couldn’t believe what I saw.  I forced a smile for Reynaldo’s sake, but my insides were wriggling like the contents of the tupperware: slimy, fat larvae convulsed and jabbed each other with pinchers like Edward Scissorhands.  “Suris!” I squealed in a high-pitched voice of terror that could be misconstrued as excitement.  Reynaldo smiled proudly.  He had caught wind of my discussion with Juvenal about my asthma and had found the remedy after a week of searching.  Lucky, lucky me.
I counted the larvae in the box.  Eight.  Eight live larvae I was going to have to eat.  I silently cursed Juvenal who had told me that suris were “little worms.”  These were no worms, and they sure weren’t little.  “Reynaldo, thank you so much.  But I have a problem.  I’m sick.  My stomach has been hurting, and I just don’t know if… I don’t know if I can eat these… suris.”  Reynaldo’s face dropped.  “I understand,” he said quietly and smiled in sympathy.  Aw man.  I hated letting the guy down, but it’s not like I could eat these little monsters even if I wanted to in the state I was in.
Later that night, I visited with the staff in the kitchen.  “Tina,” Lilia said in a serious tone.  “You must eat the suris.  Reynaldo looked a very long time for them.”  “I know, but I’m feeling sick and-” “No, no, you must.  He walked in the forest for three hours and cut down a palm tree to find them.”  My head jerked up.  Three hours?  “Yes, Tina,” Carla whined, “you have to eat them.”  Something shifted inside of me and I don’t mean my stomach.  I was going to have to eat these little boogers.  I sighed possibly the biggest sigh of my life.  “Can we cook them at least?”
Tito fried the suris in a pan on the stove.  “Don’t watch,” Reynaldo told me.  I wasn’t going to argue with him there.  “I can’t cook them too much because then they will lose all of their health benefits,” Tito said matter-of-factly.  God forbid the larvae lost their health benefits.  The only way my health was going to be benefitted right then was if I decided to throw those larvae back into the forest where they came from.
Tito placed the bowl of suris in front of me.  I couldn’t fake it anymore.  Disgust was written all over my face.  I looked up at the staff.  And down at the larvae again.  Up at the staff.  Down at the larvae.  “Here,” Juvenal said, taking a suri in his hand and eating it in one gulp.  As usual, he made everything look easy, but I appreciated the gesture since I knew he abhorred suris.  One by one, the rest of the staff ate a suri in a ritual-like procession that felt like some strange communion that bound us all together.  The Brotherhood of the Suris.  The Fellowship of the Ringworms.
Lilia and Carla who had pressured me the most of all the other staff members were the only ones who abstained from the communal eating of the larvae.  Finally, it was my turn to go.  I delicately picked up a larvae between two fingers.  I sent one more pleading look to the staff.  Anyone, anyone going to save me??  There were no takers.
I took a breath and bit the suri in half.  Big mistake.  Suri guts sprayed out the bottom, covering my hands in their juices.  “Eeeewww,” I groaned with a mouth full of larvae.  The staff laughed at my expense.  I chewed as quickly as I could manage.  It was tough, chewy, slimy, and tasted like… butter.  I resisted the urge to throw up and downed the other half of the suri.
“That wasn’t as bad as you thought, no?” Lilia asked.  “No.  It was worse,” I said trying to figure a way out of eating the rest.
Erica and Hanako came into the kitchen and after a few pointers from the staff, downed the larvae like champs.  Sarah, smart girl, refused to eat any of the suris.  “More for me,” I thought.  Lucky, lucky me.
After the chicas locas had their fill, there were still two more suris.  I ate the first in one gulp, drawing upon Juvenal as inspiration.  The second was almost too much for me to bear.  My nemesis.  The bane of my existence.  I didn’t care if I never had asthma again, THIS WAS NOT WORTH IT.
I pulled out a couple of slices of bread.  I slapped the larvae on one slice and covered it up with the other.  Suri sandwich, anyone?  As I bit into this bizarre concoction, I realized my mistake.  This was just extending the agony.  I threw off the bread much to Carla’s distress who made a tsking sound at the waste of food.  I held my nose and ate the suri to the sound of applause.  It was done.  It was over with, I was still alive, and surprisingly, my stomach wasn’t objecting any more than usual.  I considered testing its effects on my asthma by chasing down Juvenal and making him pay for downplaying what a suri was.
As I laid in bed that night, I thought I had gotten off scott free.  My stomach had settled.  Maybe it was food poisoning after all.  But when I started to drift off to sleep, my stomach spasmed again.  “Oh no, ooooh no!” I said out loud.  I tore my mosquito net out from under my mattress and ran to the building with the bathrooms.
I made four more trips to the restroom that night.  The fourth time I got a quarter of the way there when I heard a growl.
A potoo bird, I thought, suddenly all too aware that I wasn’t supposed to be outside alone at night.  But what if it wasn’t a bird.  What if it wasn’t, and my stubborness to not wake anyone up led to an unexpected meeting with a certain jungle cat.
I swallowed my pride and ran back upstairs, not caring who I woke in the process.  Time was of the essence.  I dashed into the room I shared with Sarah.  “Sarah,” I bleated.  “Sarah, are you awake?”  No response.  I tried again.  Nothing.  I grabbed the pump that we had bought to give the men as a parting gift.  If worst came to worse, I could always defend myself with it, or at least entice the jaguar with a game of soccer.  My stomach seized again.  No time for games.
I moved toward the exit, but then I thought to wake up Erica or Hanako.  I ran to their room.  “Erica!  Erica!” I cried out.  “Can you please come with me to the bathroom?”  I heard her shift beneath her mosquito net.  “Sure, I’ll come,” she said groggily and I breathed a sigh of relief.  She laughed at the sight of the pump and when I told her about possibly, maybe, not really hearing a jaguar growling.  She had another giggle when I got faster as I got closer to the bathrooms because she thought I was afraid of the jaguar.
But my sudden burst of speed had nothing to do with that predator.
“Oh God, are you alright?” Erica asked as I wretched out all the contents of my stomach.  I had made it to the stall but just barely.  “I’m fine, thanks,” I said unconvincingly.  After I was finished, a sense of misery was replaced by one of gratitude.  I was a little embarrassed about the situation, but I was so grateful that Erica was there.  It was comforting to know that I wasn’t sick and alone in the middle of nowhere.  Still felt terrible though.  “I don’t think this is food poisoning,” I murmered.  “I think Queros gave me parasites.”

Expedition Chicas Locas: Pilcopata

Gotta Pilcopata.
(Photo cred: Erica Moutrie)
After spending almost the entire night awake, it seemed that I had food poisoning.  Or… something else.  I had no appetite, no energy, and my stomach growled like some angry mountain lion.  This was the day we were leaving the native Wachiperi community in Queros for Pilcopata.  How was I going to walk two and half hours in the heat with my stomach churning like Dr. Von Dark’s Tunnel of Terror?
Thankfully, I didn’t have to worry about that quite yet.  “Chicas locas,” Dioni called out for the umpteenth time.  “We are going to have an archery competition now, okay?  The Wachiperi will show us how to do this.”
My stomach continued to turn, but not as much now that it was empty, and I didn’t want to let down the audience that had gathered to watch us embarrass ourselves, so I followed the chicas locas to the middle of the lawn where a bullseye had been taped to a soccer goal.  Eddie stood by as the older gentleman who had sang and danced for us that night before beamed at us, bow and arrow in hand.  He held up the weapon and shot at a point in the distance.  The arrow flew through the air and pierced the grass at the far end of the field, feather pointing toward the sky.  He made it look so easy, but as with most things in the jungle, it really wasn’t.
Shooting the arrow was like trying to shoot a pool cue with a piece of floss.  On my first try, the arrow collapsed a few inches in front of me.  “Well this is promising,” I thought to myself.  On my third try, I mustered all my concentration, pulled the arrow back with all my might, and let go.  Miraculously, the arrow grazed the target.  I looked at the old man who smiled at me.  Now I understood why a seventy-something-year-old had biceps like Schwarzenegger.
All the chicas locas improved over time, and the laughs from the locals came less frequently.  By the end, we had hit the target multiple times; Hanako even managed to knock down the entire thing, which for some reason sent Eddie into a fit of uncontrollable, unending laughter.  Erica was the master, and with one final well-placed shot, she won the championship by several points.  Her prizes were a necklace, an arrow, and a woven purse she got to paint with dye made from crushed purple seeds.  But just like the Ellen show, no one went home empty-handed, and the rest of the chicas locas got necklaces and arrows decorated with macaw feathers.  As I ran my hands over the beautiful craftsmanship of my arrow, I thought about how much fun it was going to be trying to get a weapon with feathers from an endangered animal across security at the airport.  Lots I was sure.
Sarah beastin’ the bow and arrow.
(Photo cred: Erica Moutrie)
After our impressive display of athletic prowess, it was time to leave Queros.  We came, we saw, and we were conquered.  Between the bugs, moon shine, and possible parasites that were dwelling in my guts, I was ready to go.  But I wasn’t ready for the two and half hour walk that was necessary to get to the main road.  Once again, Dioni managed to swoop in at just the right moment, possibly saving my life: “Chicas locas, today we are not walking.  We will take a car to the road, okay?”
The car was like a tiny clown truck you’d see at the circus, and we piled way too many people in, accordingly.  It was a bumpy, bumpy ride, and at times, I clutched at my stomach like a soon-to-be mother with labor pains.  Hanako and Sarah sat with their backs to the driver and I was in charge of warning them of incoming branches, which turned out not to be the best idea, since I kept forgetting about my charges and they were continuously being beaten in the head.
Loading up the clown truck.
Toward the end of our journey, the truck stopped in front of a small bridge stretching across the river.  “Okay, chicas locas,” Dioni addressed us.  “Now we are going to walk because last week the bridge broke and two people died.”  Right.
We jumped off the truck and steadily walked across the bridge, getting vertigo by watching the river crashing meters below between the floor boards.  Thankfully, we all survived the crossing and safely reboarded on the other side of the river.  Soon we were at the main road where another slightly larger automobile drove us to Pilcopata, Dioni’s hometown.
Staying alive.
Pilcopata was more of a “city” than our dear old Salvación.  There were more cars, more stores, and more people than livestock.  Young people filled the square who stood around looking at each other, trying to exude coolness and sophistication.  Erica and Hanako laughed as they filmed two curious teenage boys who had settled on a small decorative bridge behind us, playing Justin Bieber on their mp3 player.  In the distance was a large tent filled with carnival games and prizes that only a handful of children were taking advantage of.  There were even coolers with ice cream in that place.  My stomach was feeling better, so I gladly ate an ice cream cone as we sat on a bench, taking in the scenery.
In Pilcopata.
Taking it all in.
(Photo cred: Erica Moutrie)
No matter where you go, you can’t escape Bieber Fever.
(Photo cred: Erica Moutrie)
Pilcopata’s permanent carnival.
(Photo cred: Erica Moutrie)
Dioni strikes his model pose.
(Photo cred: Erica Moutrie)
“What do you want to eat for dinner?” Dioni asked us.  None of us really minded, and after the ice cream, my stomach was beginning to object, so Dioni made the decision.
After we returned to our hotel for a bit, he took us to an empty restaurant.  No one was talking very much- we were all exhausted from the trip.
A young woman brought out some soup.  I looked down at my bowl.  Normally I have a voracious appetite, but the sight of the watery liquid sent my stomach into spasms.  I hate leaving food on my plate, especially in the jungle where it was considered disrespectful to the cook and wasteful, but after a few bites, I couldn’t stomach any more and pushed the plate away.
Suddenly, everything went dark.  Not the apocalypse, just a power outage.  I turned on my headlamp as the waitress dashed to light the candles on all of the tables.  After a few minutes, we were once more thrust into the light, nullifying the warm ambiance of the candles.  Just as our eyes had finally adjusted, we were sitting in the dark again.  Back and forth, back and forth it went.  By the time we left, my eyes were as confused as my stomach.
Back in our hostel, Sarah and I talked about things back home and played card games until the lights cut off again.  We forgot to turn the light switch off before we fell asleep, and we were so tired that we didn’t wake up when the lights came back on, so they blazed on for hours.  We were in yet another hotel without a real ceiling so Erica and Hanako wondered what the heck we were doing up, and our other neighbors were probably not too happy with us either.  I felt a bit guilty, but not too much considering one of our neighbors had taken to traipsing about in the nude.

Expedition Chicas Locas: Queros

Much to Chico the monkey’s dismay, the chicas locas were off again after a night’s stay at Atalaya Lodge.  I tried to offer him apples as a parting gift (i.e. left-over apples Carla had forced upon us when we left the MLC), but he took a bite from one, threw it on the ground, and gave me a look of disgust.  I sighed and one of the “pirates” came up to us and pulled out a banana from behind his back.  Chico lunged at him and consumed the fruit within moments.  “Yeah, this monkey is spoiled,” I thought to myself.  “A year with humans and he’s already picky about his fruit.”

I took the apples to Gabriela in the kitchen who gratefully accepted them.  I tried to warn her that Chico had already done a number on one of them, but she didn’t seem concerned and placed them all in the icebox.  “No problem.  Muchas gracias, Tina.  Visit again?”

We said our goodbyes and another pirate helped us across the river with the cable.  And then we began our journey to Queros, the village of the Wachiperi community.

After a twenty-minute drive and a two hour walk in the heat down a dirt road, we arrived at Queros in record time.  It was… empty.  With the exception of Eddie, our guide, and his friend, no one else was around.  A bare lawn between a set of houses made me think of an abandoned school playground over summer vacation.  That is if the school playground had been overrun by chickens.  I laughed to think that I was just reflecting on how nice it was to be back in civilization again, and there we were in a village where the foul were more plentiful than inhabitants.

Twilight Zone Amazon style

Sarah with one of the many chickens in Queros.

Eddie and Dioni took us to a wooden cabin at the entrance of the village.  After my experience with Reynaldo, I was expecting squat toilets and cockroach-friendly accommodations, so I was pleasantly surprised to find that we had a REAL toilet, REAL beds, REAL walls, and wait for it… electricity.  Really.  Mind you, they only ran the generator for two hours at night, but hey, after a month of living in complete darkness at night, a couple of hours of synthetic light felt like an extravagant luxury.  In fact, I was a little suspicious of it.  It was blindingly bright, just glowing away when it wasn’t even necessary.  So in your face.  So flashy.  Still, I was glad to finally charge my camera which had died out halfway through our Atalaya experience.

After our long walk, all of the girls including myself were too exhausted to move.  I felt obligated to go talk to Eddie and find out more about his community, but I couldn’t help it, I was so tired, so I collapsed on my bed with the rest of the chicas locas in our room.  By that point, all of the volunteers had gotten bitten on nearly every inch of flesh, so we passed around the cortisone cream like it was a peace pipe, taking relief in its soothing chill.

We laid there for nearly two hours, barely moving an inch.  Some slept, but personally, I was just staring blankly at the top bunk, feeling my brain curdle from tiredness and heat.

“Chicas locas,” we heard from the dining room.  Dioni, who had survived ten days in the forest eating nothing but leaves, probably thought we were the biggest sissies of all time.  “It is time to get up.  We are going to make jewelry and baskets with the women now, okay?”  We quietly groaned and dragged ourselves out of bed.

Outside, the women had already gotten started.  They threaded beads onto strings and wove baskets out of thin, bendable leaves.  An elderly man was polishing a smooth arrow with macaw feathers protruding out the end.

“Girls, the woman pokes holes in these seeds and puts them on the string,” Dioni told us.  “You can try now.”  We began to make our own necklaces and bracelets while Dioni and the woman told us the different seed names: sera sera, walking palms, and huayruro seeds- the luckiest, most sacred seeds of the Amazon.  The red of the seed symbolizes the earth, and the black represents all life.  Drape yourself in these seeds, and you will be protected against evil and attract abundance.  Once I had finished, I tied my necklace around my neck, but even the huayruro seeds couldn’t prevent was soon to come.

Dioni asked us if we wanted to escape the heat by going to the river.  Erica and Hanako wanted to relax in the room, so Sarah and I joined him.  Sarah just wanted to take pictures, so she sat on the bank as Dioni and I tried to find a safe place to swim.  The water was frigid.  The current tugged at my legs.  “Are you sure about this?” I asked Dioni who was already several yards ahead, diving into the cold waters and laughing.  “No problem!  Come, Tina,” he called out to me.  I followed him but kept my feet on the ground.

I looked back at Sarah who was barely visible close to the horizon.  I turned back, shivering, took a breath, and dove in.  Ice.  I imagined the blood in my veins congealing.  As cold as it was, the current was not as intense as it looked.  “You see!” Dioni laughed.  “No problem!”  I laughed too and started doing the backstroke against the rushing water.  No problem.

After a few minutes, Dioni swam to another bend in the river.  He turned toward me and motioned for me to follow.  I decided to walk there again.  I didn’t want to take any chances with this river.

Once I got close, I felt the current turn colder and stronger.  My foot met a large rock jutting out from the bottom of the riverbed, and I tried to readjust my footing, but it was too late.  That one misstep sent me backwards, and before I knew it, I was being dragged along the river on my back, unable to stop myself.  It was just for a few seconds close to the bank of the river, and I laughed, not taking what was happening seriously, but looking back, I remember how strong the pull of the water was- a siren impossible to resist.

“Give me your hand!”  Dioni called out over the roaring water, and I reached out to him.  He grabbed ahold of me and pulled me out.  He laughed.  A fish out of water.  “Dioni, you quite possibly just saved my life,” I said somewhere in between sincerity and jest.  What had just happened?  Was that real or had I imagined it?

The sun was going down.  We found Sarah where we had left her, beginning to look very bored.  “I saw you out there, but then you disappeared for a bit,” she said.  “Well, yeah,” I squirmed.  “I kind of, possibly, almost drowned out there, so that’s probably why you didn’t see me.”

When we returned back to the community center, it was time for dinner.  Now this is my speed, I thought.  Food.  Delicious and filling food.  Nothing to fear.

The main component of the meal was yucca- the most common food in the Amazon, and sadly, the most boring food in the world.  It has the carbyness of potatoes without any of their buttery goodness, and it leaves your mouth dry and your body constipated.  The other dish we had was palmito.  It’s the inside of a palm tree, and tastes surprisingly like buttered corn.  I. Loved. It.

“Señora, this is the most delicious food I’ve had this whole month!” I beamed at the cook.  She smiled and offered me more.  I ate seconds.  I ate thirds.  I had three glasses of banana juice and some water from the tank that was deemed safe by our guide.  Now I was content.  All the heat exhaustion was gone and my bites were even itching less, and a vague sleepiness settled in my bones.

“Chicas,” Dioni addressed us.  “Now we are going to a bonfire with some of the Wachiperi.  They will show some typical dances and typical songs and tell some typical stories for us, okay?”  Okay.  We were sleepy, but we could swing this.  How often do you get to experience the culture of an Amazonian community, anyway?

We got to the fire and were joined by Eddie, his friend, and the older gentleman who had been polishing the arrow earlier who was now dressed in traditional clothes made from squished plant fibers.  He was proudly holding his arrow polished with a special blend of honey and minerals.

In traditional Wachiperi clothing about to dance.

Eddie lit the fire in the traditional way, by rubbing two pieces of wood together, representing the meeting of the male and female.  Then he offered us a drink called chuchuwasa.  “It’s very good.  Strong,” he said.  I took a sip.  It was strong alright.

The older man told Dioni in Spanish with a Wachiperi lilt that he should translate his stories for us.  In the first, there was a man named Ananewa who was the strongest of the Wachiperi.  He would fight with jaguars and win.  After the man died, the people of the village began to name their sons Ananewa out of respect.  Until.  All of the jaguars began to come after these boys and kill them.  You see, the name had become a challenge to the jaguars.  This is the reason why the Wachiperi never name their sons Ananewa.  To do so would be to guarantee their untimely death.  And apparently, there hasn’t been a strong man in Queros ever since.

The next one had something to do with a fox and a fire.  Firefox?  I tried to concentrate, but couldn’t manage it.  All I know is that the stories came fast and furiously, with lots of repetition and lots of reprimands.  “No, you’re not translating right, I know,” the man would say to Dioni.  “Uy, no, no, no.”  The stories went on and on.  We were too tired to focus on discerning the man’s Wachiperi tinged Spanish or Dioni’s English, so we all sat there, smiling and nodding, not understanding a word.

When it was time to leave, we thanked the men and dragged ourselves to bed.  I was so happy to finally sleep.  Such a long day.  Such a long, long day.  Something stirred in my belly.  I turned on my side.  My stomach growled.  I turned to my other side.  Nope.  I wasn’t going to let a little stomach ache stop me from sleeping.  As I was drifting off, my stomach spasmed like an alien was trying to break through.  “Oh, no,” I whispered as I instinctively jumped out of bed and ran to the outhouse.

A frog was perched on the toilet seat, staring at me with huge, buggy eyes.  “Oh no.  Oooooh no,” I said, opening the door to give him a path of escape.  Any other time, I would have flipped out and ran to grab my camera, but not. right. now.  I turned back to the toilet.  He sat there watching me.  “This is my toilet!” I said, shooing him away, my stomach seizing.  He didn’t move.  I took my shoe and poked him.  He hopped off and disappeared.  “Where did you go?” I said, checking inside the commode just in case.  My stomach seized again. “I don’t have time for this,” I told the phantom frog and slammed the door.

Eight hours and many trips to the bathroom later, I determined that I must have food poisoning.  I cursed the palmito that I had loved so dearly just hours before.  But then I remembered the water I drank.  It had something floating in it.  Something white.  I ran to the bathroom again for good measure.

As the sun came up and I stared wide-eyed at the top bunk, I hoped that what happened in Queros would stay in Queros.