My Life in the Amazon: Goodbye Amazoonico?

Goodbye Amazoonico?

From  1 August 2009

I kept thinking during my last feeding tour, with squawking macaws making me bleed from the ears and ants on my shirt from the spider monkey cage, How can I ever say goodbye to this place?  Now I’m realizing, after a week in Quito, that I don’t ever have to say goodbye.

This Scarlet Macaw is non-releasable because as an ex-pet, his wings were mutilated to prevent him from flying. Normally, if a bird’s wings are just clipped, the feathers will grow back. However, some illegal pet owners don’t want to the hassle of clipping repeatedly.

I have found myself laughing out loud in a bout of silence on a car ride when I picture Beata.  An image is embedded in my mind of her vehemently shaking her head when she doesn’t want to do something, backing away with her pink lips pursed in a perfect O as she makes a sound I can only imagine E.T. would make.  I can still hear the voices of volunteers yelling ”No!'” to the mischievous monkeys that found their way into the kitchen after someone forgot to lock the door.  The smell of ocelet pee, though not an inviting scent, is still fresh in my mind and nostrils.  I often find myself trying to perfect the trumpet call of Trompi.  I still see Gino’s face pressed up against the peccaries’ pen because, having been a pet, he adores attention.  The frustration of volunteers trying to shoo squirrel monkeys out of the bodéga (our fruit cutting and storage place) is laughable now.  I can’t possibly count the number of times ”Âh stupid barizo!” was yelled at Amazoonico.

By far, the barizos (squirrel monkeys) were the award winning thieves during feeding time.  I laugh every time I picture Huahuasupay’s face with a discolored, half-closed eye and a hairdo that prompted my nickname for him: Elvis the Pirate.  Pirate is fitting not only because of the pirate eye but because he is also a nasty booty stealer.  I’m beginning to think I might acutally miss his temper tantrums after he attacks me but is unsuccessful in gaining access to the food bucket.  While I’m still recovering from temporary hearing loss in the aviary of fifty some parrots, I’m a little nostalgic when I realize I’ll soon be back to one hundred percent hearing.

When I arrived in Quito, I was abnormally excited by the sight of grass.  I quickly discarded my sandals and ran onto a patch of green sanctity, literally feeling every blade on my overworked feet.  There’s no such thing as lawn in the jungle.  But my excitement, though still existent, is now coupled with feelings of nostalgia.  Moving from the primitive, candlelight, cold water shower lifestyle of the Amazon to the blinding city lights of Quito without time for a transition was far from overwhelming.  I happily welcomed my first actually hot shower (not just warm like Tena).  Yet after a week, I’m finding an ice cold shower–so cold that one cannot stand fully under the running water but must wash a body part at a time–isn’t that bad.  If it means living in the jungle, I’ll take it.

I still have yet to turn a TV on though there’s one in every room but two in Carolina’s house.  (Carolina is my Quiteño friend with whom I worked for a month at Amazoonico.  Did I mention her family is highly wealthy… on American standards?)  I miss dinner by candlelight, hearing the “Comiiiiiiiiiida!‘” dinner call every night, the prospect of looking forward to a free day.

I’m still accustomed to waking up with the sun, but I’ve pushed my bedtime back from 8:30 to 10:30.  (Quite an accomplishment in one week, I must say. Although I’m certainly not killing my body anymore carrying fifty kilos of carrots or two giant bunches of plantains up more than one hundred stairs.)  Sure, life in the jungle can really make you appreciate what you have.  But for some people, the jungle life shows why primitive conditions might make for a preferred lifetstyle.

Ane, my closest friend from Amazoonico, is a stylish chica accustomed to wearing dresses every day.  At first glance, you might think, “She’ll never survive two months.”  But she did!  (I recently discovered some volunteers thought that about me when I ran for help after seeing my first free-roaming tarantula.  Give me a break!  He was right outside my room!)

I think very few people “don’t have it in them” to live in the jungle.  Half the volunteers (myself included) despise tarantulas, but we made it out alive.  (I still fear their hairiness and creepy crawling legs nonetheless.)  It definitely takes some getting used to, but I swear primitive living is better than any trip to the spa .  If you really want to clear your mind and face a reality free from everyday troubles, forget for a day that you have electricity.  Cook and eat by candlelight.  Sing your own songs instead of letting the CD player do it for you.  Turn off your cell phone and ignore the emails that bog all of us down.  Make your own bread, marmalade and juice from scratch. And lay in a hammock. Seriously, folks, for one day you can relax without a hefty fee.  (I feel like I just ran an advertisement for Life in the Amazon.  But my eyes are a little slippery just from writing this.)

After the hard work at Amazoonico, I owe myself a trip to the beach to go whale watching.  We leave today, but Carolina and I aren’t planning any cruise or resort-type stay.  Keep it cheap because cheap means simple.  I guarantee I’ll enjoy myself just as much if not more than I would at any one hundred dollar a night hotel.  I’ve enjoyed my sight seeing thus far despite my craving for manual labor. (Psh.)

Carolina and I met up with Ane and Sophia for a day in Quito. We climbed to the top of La Virgen, a skyscraper-tall statue that looks out over the capital city, said to protect the inhabitants.

I enjoyed a trip to Baños where we saw waterfalls galore, thermal pools and, forever kids at heart, played with four niños on the teeter totter.  Carolina and I stopped at a zoocriadero in Fatima.  I’m not sure how to explain what all that entails but it’s a rescue center set-up but ethically more-so a zoo.  A really really under-educated, dirty zoo with small cages and only one man running the place who calls every animal “my life, my love, my dear.”  A bit of a cuckoo but a nice man.  I got to pet a tapir.  Great Aunt Sally, they are massive.

We visited an actual zoo like the Toledo Zoo but with bears in cages smaller than a front yard.  Many of the animals had stereotypies. The visitors enjoyed watching the bears pace back and forth, pausing for a moment to stand on their hind legs as if they were following a command.  Sadly, this entertainment is a sign of animal suffering in an under-enriched, small environment.

We went to a rescue center in Otávalo where I saw three birds native to North America.  There’s a sign of animal trafficking from the U.S. to Ecuador.  Many of the birds, as in Amazoonico, were rescued ex-pets.  We stopped at another animal rescue center that was beautifully landscaped and non-profit but seemed to spend more money on pathways than animal enrichment.  The volunteers were a little confused about the release part of the rescue center.  They release some animals but still pet all of them regardless of release potential.  That’s not helping the animal at all.  I got to pet an ostrich that was running in place as he tried to push through the fence. Very strong and very cool, but perhaps he was trying to tell me something?  There were two full-grown lions at this rescue center in a cage the size of two walk-in closets.  That was the worst of it.  But in all honesty, the volunteers are trying and I think doing the best they know how to do.

In the city of Mindo, I jumped twelve meters from a cliff into a waterfall.  And then I went back for more.  I’m not sure why I jumped again as I was just as scared out of my mind the second time.  I could actually feel pressure from the spray of the waterfall pushing my legs upward.  I had to fight to keep them down.   Back in Quito, Carolina, her friend Namdev and I went to an amusement park called Vulqano Park, a lovely mixture of Spanish and English in the name there.  It was no Cedar Point but we rode three rides and I screamed bloody murder on every one while simultaneously taking in the city lights of Quito.  Near Tena, we took a flashlight aided trek through an otherwise pitch black cave.  Carolina’s Shiatsu dog, Negrita, came, too.  At one point, we came across a  small waterfall with such strong pressure that it made a five meter deep hole in the rocks, the perfect width for a human body.  I jumped in and nearly drowned from the pressure of the waterfall but still enjoyed every second of it.  By the end of our hike, we were both almost as muddy as we were at the end of an Amazoonico work day, but smelling much better, of course.

Surprising yet true, I really do miss the dirty work. Even raking up a mess in the peccaries’ pen, as seen here, is an oddly fulfilling task. Cleaning poop is one of many steps in the field of conservation through animal rehab.

Without a doubt, all of this traveling is exciting.  It is a cultural eye-opener to have the comparisons between the indigenous, poor folk and the city-dwelling, rich people.  But it is very different not hearing the high-pitched puppy-like sounds of the toucans all the way at the volunteer house, or to dread the sound of a passing canoe because it either means tourists or carrying loads of food.  I am enjoying myself, but I miss my life in the Amazon.

Until next week,



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