Greetings Intrepid Readers, where were we?
Oh, yes, I had just met up with the owner of Sacha Yacu, Flavio, his cousin David and one of the volunteers, who we will call Nancy (this is not her real name, but for the purpose of her privacy, she will be known as Nancy in this blog post.)
We piled into a small pickup truck taxi loaded down with food and supplies that would be used for the week and headed off on our hour car ride into the Amazon Rainforest. I quickly learned that Flavio and Nancy, who was from Germany, both spoke English, so if any trouble arose, I would be able to able to communicate easily, but the plan was to speak in as much Spanish as I could muster. David knew some English, which was helpful, but I did my best to speak in Spanish with everyone, and David was very patient with my limited capacities.
We arrived to Sacha Yacu, meaning Water of the Jungle in Kichwa (side note, Kichwa is the Quechua languages found in Ecuador and Columbia) quite late and past dark, and I quickly remembered I had failed to pack my headlamp, so I was the schmuck that was helping unload the truck using my cell phone as a flash light until Flavio supplied me with a real, actual flashlight. Keep in mind, too, that flashlights past dark are a necessity. The rescue center had a generator that they used 2 hours a day, 6:30-8:30 so that we had light to cook dinner by and recharge some electronics for use the next day, but once the generator is off, it’s really, truly dark. True dark, by the way, is amazing, I slept so well while I was there with no light to disturb me, and the nights that it was clear, there were so many stars to see. The night sky there was beautifully amazing.
Right, well, we unloaded the truck and headed up to the kitchen to have some dinner. Since it was late, Flavio decided not to run the generator and so we had a simple meal under a battery powered LED light and some candles. After dinner, we all trotted off to bed. I was tired, but it was only about 9 PM and not yet ready to sleep, so I took some time to read my Kindle before drifting off into the type of sleep I can only dream about now that I’m back in Lima; absolute silence and darkness. I couldn’t see my hand in front of my face. It was great.
The next morning (and all mornings) was an early start. The alarm on my phone went off at 6:45, early enough that I could slowly drag myself out of bed and make breakfast with enough time to spare before starting work at 8AM. For clarity, every morning, I made myself scrambled eggs, toast with Pineapple Jelly (if you’ve never had pineapple jelly, I recommend that once you finish reading this blog post, find out where you get some and then go acquire it – it’s the best thing ever) and a mug of chamomile tea with honey.
Every day was broken into morning and afternoon shifts. The morning shift was roughly 8-12:30 followed by a 2-hour break for lunch and relaxation, and then an afternoon shift that went from 2:30 to 4:30 or so. This was for the volunteers. Flavio and David? They started at 8 and finished at 6, day after day. I can’t imagine doing grueling work like they were doing every day for 10 hours a day, but it’s great that people like Flavio and David exist, giving chances to wild animals in need of recovery. Flavio has been doing this nearly every day for the last 12 years and David has been at for the past 3. I think I would’ve worked myself away to nothingness in that amount of time.
Glowing adoration aside, my first morning was a tour of their rescue center, and the rainforest lived up to its name. It rained. Hard. All morning. I thought it was pretty cool, and my poncho and quick dry pants did a pretty good job of keeping me from being too wet. The whole time through the tour I couldn’t stop thinking “Holy shit. I’m in the Amazon Rainforest. Like, the actual Amazon Jungle. The one David Attenborough talks about.” And as it turns out, the rescue center is quite large. On top of all the animals they have, they also had a few self-made ponds to grow fish in that are used to feed the wild cats they rehabilitate, they grow various fruits to feed the animals; bananas, papaya, pineapple and coconut to name a few, they have a working cocoa farm and grew some sugar cane, which I got to try. In fact, with sugar cane, you don’t eat, you chew it up and suck out the sweet sugar water in it, then spit out the rest. It was pretty damn good. Now, without going into laborious detail on the layout of the rescue center, here’s a quick rundown of the animals they had while I was there.
10 Capuchin Monkey in 3 different cages, but volunteers are only allowed in one of the cages, as the other two cages housed very aggressive Capuchins that would be happy to eat your face off.
1 Squirrel Monkey and 1 Red Titi Monkey (Spanish Name is Zongo Zongo, which is infinitely more adorable) that are in the same cage.
Umpteen parrots that they had scattered in 3 different cages and around the lodge itself
4 Coatis, which are related to the raccoon, in two different cages. I never saw the one because it was in its own cage, down river, and I was still having ankle issues and not ready to risk walking through the river.
A kinkajou, also related to the raccoon, but looks a bit like a monkey crossed with a teddy bear. I never saw it out and about as it is nocturnal, but I did see it curled up in its shelter a few times.
A wooly monkey, which is super aggressive, and volunteers aren’t allowed in its cage.
White Lipped Peccaries, a type of jungle pig
Boars, whose Spanish name I cannot remember, that were in a huge natural enclosure in a canyon. Nobody was allowed in there, and only the owners went in if they were tranquilized, because they’re more than happy to kill anyone.
9 tortoises that were too dumb to feed themselves, so we had to force-feed them
One Margay, which looks like an Ocelot, only about half the size, that didn’t like anyone but did like the fish we caught for him.
And a toucan named Zazu, who is the world’s second biggest asshole.
After the morning tour with Flavio, the weather began to clear up as we returned to lodge where I began to refine what would be by afternoon break activity: rocking myself in a hammock while alternatively napping and reading. It was good way to spend a few hours before going back to work.
In the afternoon, I paired up with Nancy to go help her feed the tortoises too dumb to feed themselves. We had to collect all 8 of them, turn them on their backs so they wouldn’t escape, and feed them one by one. While helping Nancy feed the tortoises, I learned that she had already been volunteering for 3 weeks and she had spent most of that time as the sole volunteer and she was now in her final week before going off to explore more of Ecuador for another 2 weeks.
Having successfully fed the Tortoises, we returned to the lodge to find a new arrival sitting on the porch. For her privacy, we will call her Nicole. Nicole was an Ohio native and, just like me, volunteering for 2 weeks at Sacha Yacu. We all sat around and chatted for a little while before I went off to take a shower. Here’s the thing about the showers there; the water was taken directly from the river and filtered, so it was whatever temperature the river happened to be that day. Since it had rained all day and the sun only came out for a little while, the temperature of the shower turned out to be cold. Having been feeding dumb tortoises in the high heat and humidity of the afternoon, it felt nice at first, but it was not a temperature I wanted to just stand in, so I quickly perfected taking military showers while there. Turn the water on, get wet, turn it off, soap up, turn the water back on, rinse off, turn the water back off and then dry off.
After the showers, us volunteers hung around a little more before Flavio and David returned to start the generator. We made ourselves a dinner of a large salad and fried sausages, and we all hung around for the evening learning more about each other before heading off to bed once the generator was turned off and the battery powered light began to die out. I quickly made a ritual out of reading on my Kindle for about an hour before going to sleep.
The next morning Flavio took Nicole out for her morning tour and Nancy and I were tasked to do what I called the parrot circuit. Before we did anything though, we helped David in the food shed cut up all the food for the animals that day, which took about an hour, and then set off to first feed the coatis and the squirrel monkey and Zongo Zongo.
Before we went anywhere though we took care of cleaning up the uneaten food from the previous day for the parrots that hang around the lodge. Once we laid out the food, we had to wait around and scare off the wild squirrel monkeys that would come around and try and steal the parrot’s food. This was my least favorite of all the areas to clean up because there was always so much to pick up and Zazu constantly followed us around, trying to bite our legs.
Our first stop at the Coatis, Nancy gave me a brief rundown of what to do – scoop the uneaten food into the big bucket supplied near the cage, dump the waste in the nearby composting hole, and then use a smaller bucket to gather water from the stream to rinse off the various tables and platforms so they could be scrubbed down for new food. I entered the coati cage and quickly learned that the coatis were quite friendly, they were eager to climb all over me and sniff the tools in my hand. Once they found out I didn’t have food with me quite yet, they became interested in other things while I cleaned the cage. When I finally brought in the bucket with all the food, they were more than happy to climb all over me once again and try and sneak some treats before I had a chance to lay them out. Having a coati climb over you feels a little bit like having a cat climb up you – you can feel they’ve got some claws, but it doesn’t hurt too much.
With the coatis taken care of, we headed back to lodge to gather up everything for the rest of the circuit, the cage with the Squirrel Monkey and Zongo Zongo, and the three parrot cages. The rest of the cages didn’t have any streams nearby, so I also carried a 5-gallon bucket of water around with us. Phew, that’s exhausting just by itself.
On my first visit to the Zongo Zongo cage, Nancy took care of cleaning it because we could not get the resident squirrel monkey into the trap cage and she obviously had more experience around him than I did. To note, some of the enclosures had trap cages to get certain animals into because they were too dangerous to be around. Most notable is the margay. The squirrel monkey also had a trap cage because he had some psychological issues and, while he was nice and friendly 99% of the time, he could switch immediately into a nasty little creature if you did something you did not like, whether you were aware you did it or not.
While Nancy was busy cleaning the cage, I was trying to keep the squirrel monkey distracted at the edge of the enclosure with bananas. Zongo Zongo was content to just sit on or near Nancy while she cleaned and fed them.
I think it also important to bring up here that nearly all the animals that Sacha Yacu brings in get released, usually in about 1 to 2 years, though some stay longer and others might stay much shorter. In the case of Zongo Zongo, she is a lifetime resident. Red Titi Monkeys mate for life, and her companion was hunted down and Zongo Zongo was kept illegally as a pet. She became very use to human company, and cannot be released because she has no mate and would be at risk to troupes of paired Red Titi Monkeys. As a result, she’ll be with Sacha Yacu until the end of her days. The coatis are another example of lifetime residents. They’ve been released multiple times and have always found their way back to the rescue center, so they’ve joined the always and forever club.
Right, back to the adventure at hand. After Nancy finished up with the monkeys we headed up to the parrot cages where I was given responsibility of cleaning them by myself so I knew all the aspects of the job that were expected of me and so I could teach it to the next group of volunteers the following week. Cleaning was much the same as the other cages, pick up the uneaten fruit, scrub down the tables and set out new food, only with the added adventure of trying to not be shit on by the parrots. Luckily, over the course of two weeks, I was never once shit on by parrots, but I had plenty of them land on me. They had four different kinds of parrots; adorable little blue headed parrots that liked to sit on my shoulder and get their necks scratched, mealy parrots, a larger all green parrot with yellow cheeks that also liked to sit on my shoulder and try and bit my ears and neck, and Red and Scarlet Macaws, which we avoided at all costs because they were hateful, vengeful assholes.
Once I had finished up with the parrot cages, we headed back to the lodge for a small lunch and, my favorite, hammock time. Once 2:30 or so rolled around, Nancy and I headed out with the new volunteer Nicole for our afternoon chore of catching grasshoppers, which would be breakfast for the Coatis and Kinkajou the following day. The plan was each for us to catch around 20 grasshoppers and put them in plastic bottles. As it turns out, I am horrendous at catching grasshoppers, I mean just really, truly awful. I could never find them until after they were moving. Over the course of 2 hours, I caught exactly 1 grasshopper and didn’t even manage to bottle it. Little boys all over the world are laughing at me. Luckily, Nicole is an all-time pro at grasshopper catching and picked up my slack and the animals would not have to fear about going without delicious grasshopper snacks.
With the girls triumphant in their task of catching grasshoppers and me mulling over how I could manage to be so terrible, we headed back to the lodge to take some showers and relax for the evening. That night we cut up some tomatoes and made ourselves homemade tomato sauce, cooked some pasta and gourmet Amazonian spaghetti with sausage.
Side note about these sausages; they’re in plastic casings, not tradition intestine casings, to allow for warm storage and improve shelf life. I thought they would be gross, but they were pretty good.
Anyway, with dinner consumed, Flavio and David decided they wanted to play some card games, but not just any card games, drinking card games. Flavio busted out this alcohol called Puro Puyo which is a refined and distilled sugar cane liquor that smells and tastes approximately like rubbing alcohol. Taking shots of it straight up is not advised, and usually it is mixed with Coke. It is truly awful. Needless to say, I drank a lot of that crap.
That night, we all got rip-roaring drunk playing a game called Chancho. The game is played with a number of full suites of cards equal to the number of players, and each player always has four cards in their hand. The dealer then calls for players to pass a certain number of cards to the left or to the right, or throw them into the middle, where everyone scrambles to get enough to have four cards in their hands. The first player with a full suite of cards in their hand shouts “Chancho” and everyone puts their hand in the middle. The last person to do so takes a drink. It’s a very fast game, so plenty of opportunity for drinking Puro Puyo.
Drunk and questioning our decisions, we all stumbled to bed. I attempted to read a little bit but only managed to pass out with my Kindle over my face. I woke up in the middle of the night to drunkenly pee off the side of the porch and then had the presence of mind to wander into the kitchen, drink four or five glasses of water and shove a piece of bread or two into my mouth before going back to sleep. Miraculously, I woke up without a hangover. Nicole was in pretty bad shape, but she soldiered through it.
Let’s take a moment and give Nicole some due credit. Nicole is 19 and just finished her first year of college, and was somehow brave and bold enough to travel internationally, figure out a foreign bus system in a different language, and make her way into the Amazon rainforest to do volunteer work; all alone. These are not the type of decisions 19 years old make. When I was 19, I was trying to figure how to make it to work on time without waking up an earlier, so I think Nicole needs some well-deserved congratulations.
Okay, moving on. Wednesday Nicole joined Nancy and I for the parrot circuit and in the afternoon, we went and force fed the stupid tortoises.
That night we finished off the sausage for dinner and we were all wise enough to not indulge in anymore Puro Puyo, so we headed off to bed a little earlier than normal, so I got to catch up on my reading from the previous night when I was not sober enough to do so.
On Thursday, Nicole and I joined Nancy to feed the peccaries, the boars and the capuchins. The capuchins were an awesome experience! As we went around cleaning the cage, the capuchins followed us, using us as jungle gyms to climb on and hanging off of us with just their tails. That was a really cool feeling; capuchins are deceptively strong; though when you consider they use all their limbs (tail included) to swing from branch to branch, it makes sense they would be so strong.
I had to be wary of the monkeys not taking my cleaning supplies because they would run off with them, chew them to find they weren’t food and drop them, leaving me to need to go find them. They also had a little drinking pond with some piping in it that needed to be removed to be cleaned, and I struggled with one of the capuchins over a piece of PVC piping. Little shit got all wet trying to fight me for the pipe, and when he lost, climbed all over me; soaking wet.
While we were in the enclosure, we had to be wary of an older capuchin named Little, which was short for Little Fucker. Little got jealous of the attention the other monkeys got when we were playing with them and giving them little hugs and would try and attack them. Most of the time was fine and after we’d been in there for a bit, he settled down, but at first no other monkey was allowed near us under his watchful eye.
Finishing up with capuchins was bitter sweet. We moved on to a nearby cage that held a new capuchin monkey that Sacha Yacu had gotten just a few days prior and was being kept in quarantine as it had some mites. On the other side of the quarantined capuchin was a coati that had also been put into quarantine after becoming sick. Once we cleaned their cages and fed them, we went back to the lodge for lunch and hammock time.
That afternoon, we went fishing using homemade fishing poles made from long pieces of bamboo with fishing line tied to it. The fish that we caught were for the margay to eat. When we say we, I mean David and the girls, because it turns out I am only marginally better at catching fish than I am at catching grasshoppers. Thanks to my inability to catch fish, I think the Margay was a little hungrier than normal that evening.
Once Flavio and David returned and started up the generator, we made empanadas and then begrudgingly acquiesced to another evening of Chancho, which meant another evening of Puro Puyo. Nicole and Nancy made the mistake of starting to drink before they even ate anything, but I? I have the past experience of learning the hard way to not drink anything before eating if you know you’re up for a long night of hard alcohol.
Naturally, Friday morning rolled around and I had somehow managed to escape another hangover. Nicole and Nancy? Not so much. We spent the morning doing the parrot circuit and developed a good system of working together, each doing separate items that needed done, that we finished up early and enjoyed the extra time of relaxing in the hammock.
In the afternoon, we dug a new composting hole by the quarantined animals which didn’t take too long, and then David came and told of us a party that was happening a little further down the road. Down the road, you ask? Aren’t you in the jungle? Well yes, but I guess we should take another side bar here.
There is a stone road that goes through the jungle with farms and small houses on either side, so in some areas, the jungle is cleared back from the roads quite a way. Unfortunately, logging is becoming more frequent in this area of the Amazon, and two Chinese companies are beginning to drill for oil. This means when these drilling stations that finally set up, power lines will be run to them and cell towers will more than likely pop up nearby, resulting in another area of the Amazon jungle that had been off the grid coming into constant 4G coverage.
To note, however, there was already spotty cell coverage in the area. Nancy was able to use WhatsApp to keep in contact with some friends on the Claro phone network. I had no coverage using Movistar, but Nancy was nice enough to allow me to use her cell phone occasionally so I could let Melissa know that I was still alive and not bitten by any dangerous snakes.
Also also, I saw a few poisonous snakes.
Friday afternoon we headed to this party down the road from the lodge and further into the jungle.
Let me set the scene; the house where the party was more of two small shacks with ½ height walls. The rest was open the air, and then each small building had a corrugate metal roof. The one building was made up of a gathering room with a bench around the entire perimeter of the building, and attached to it was a bedroom with a bunch of bunk beds where the family slept. The other building was the kitchen and a more personal dining area for I would imagine just the family. There was no running water and no electricity. They grew a lot of their own food, including protein, which was evidenced by the chickens running around.
When we first got the house, we were seated into the gathering room and given beautiful wooden bowls full of a fibrous liquid that had almonds floating in it. This was yuca based Amazon chicha, different from the corn bases Chicha Morada found everywhere. It was not very good, but I started drinking it because, well, here are people with very little offering what they have to a very spoiled “westerner.” It felt a little bit like that scene from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom where the tribe offers Indiana and Willie all the weird food, but Willie is afraid to eat it, so Indiana tells her they’re offering her more than they eat in a month and it would be a great dishonor. Yeah, it was kind of that situation, only I’m not as cool or as interesting as Indian Jones.
Then, as I was drinking my chicha, women started circulating through the gathering room with a giant pot of chicha and a small bowl that they would dip into the pot, and literally force feed you more chicha from this communal bowl. After about the fourth communal bowl was served, people started filtering in and out of the gathering room, it seemed that it was now polite to not drink anymore chicha, and believe me, after getting Puro Puyo drunk the previous night, I did not want to be chicha drunk.
By the way, chicha amazona is super alcoholic.
It seemed that speaking with people outside of the house and entertaining the kids was an acceptable alternative to being part of the chicha crowd, so that’s what I did. Being in the gathering room would have forced more chicha on me and made me privy to conversations I couldn’t understand, everyone there spoke Kichwa as a first language and I don’t know a lick of it. So, I entertained the kids on merit of being super freaking pale and very tall. Also, they liked wearing my sunglasses and baseball hat, or as they called, sombrero americano.
Later in the evening, we were all called back into the gathering room for dinner, which consisted of a delicious plantain soup with bread and chicken, no doubt butchered earlier that day, and yuca that was set out in the middle of room after having been steamed in plantain leaves. All the adults were served first, followed by the children. This was really truly an anthropological experience, eating with indigenous and native kichwa speakers, sharking a traditional meal out in the middle of the jungle, and Melissa wasn’t around to experience it. Luckily, I was and can share this experience with you.
Well, after dinner, the chicha came back out and David and Nicole decided it would be wise to leave early, so I joined them and headed back up to the lodge to do some extra reading and go to bed early. When I woke up Saturday morning, Nancy and Flavio were still nowhere to be found. Nicole and I set off to do the parrot circuit and when we returned, poor Nancy was sprawled out on the little sofa in the kitchen area. Clearly, she had had a rough night and was still having a rough go of it. She began to recover slightly when Flavio returned later in the afternoon, and he wasn’t anyone’s spring chicken either. It appeared leaving early was the right choice to make.
After Flavio and Nancy recovered a bit, we called a taxi and headed back to Puyo for the night so that Nancy, who was headed out for other parts of Ecuador, could get her bus in the morning and so Flavio could do his shopping for supplies for the next week. I was looking forward to being able to put all my muddy clothes through a laundry service and speaking to my wife. Well, as it turned out, the hotel I got for the evening overlooked a music festival where all the performers either sung off key, drummers couldn’t keep the beat and guitarists couldn’t maintain a rhythm. Seriously, everyone that performed was not particularly good, except the last band that came on at around 12:30 in the morning after the tiny crowd had already drifted away. The music festival really hampered my abilities to have a nice conversation with Melissa, and it was annoying that none of them were all that good.
Sunday morning, I woke up earlier than I would have liked and had breakfast at a nearby restaurant and tracked down one of the few laundry services open on a Sunday. I didn’t get a chance to say goodbye to Nancy as she left very early in the morning, so I was a little bit bummed. My spirits were lifted when I called Melissa again and was able to have a nice conversation with her without trying to yell over crappy bands.
While the laundry service had my clothes, I worked my way down to big open-air marker to pick up some additional groceries that Sacha Yacu didn’t always provide, namely more sausage and cheese. I also stopped in at a small convenience market to pick up some Oreos, which I was craving for some reason, and more pineapple jelly.
Afterwards, I was able to pick my laundry back up and met up with Flavio to head back to Sacha Yacu for my second week. In the taxi, I met the new volunteer who was joining Sacha Yacu for 4 weeks, a Danish girl that we will call Mary. I’ll tell you about the second week and some of the misadventures Mary faced in first few days at Sacha Yacu tomorrow, as this post is getting far too long. Until then, enjoy some of these non-animal photos of Sacha Yacu.