After having a rambunctious birthday celebration for Gabe, with a day to recover of course, we hear all about her adventures in the jungles of Manu. Working with a reforestation organization called Atalaya, the volunteers focus on eradicating the foreign bamboo and replanting with native plant species. She also happens to fall in love with the coordinator, Ben, who is the driving force for the organization. These two ‘smitten-kittens’ share such wonderful stories about Atalaya that it doesn’t take much convincing for the two of us to want to spend a week out there in the jungle. Volunteering for a day with the school kids had just wet our appetite to do more good works on our travels. We hadn’t done any solid volunteer work since Costa Rica with the leatherback sea turtles, so we were jonsing for a good volunteer opportunity, and this was the ticket. Also, in traveling through Ecuador and northern Peru we had to skip going into the amazon due to our time schedule so we were doubly excited to go into the jungle. Yet again, the universe has proven that we are well taken care of and has us on the right path, fulfilling our hopes and dreams in the most magnificent and unplanned ways. Fist pump for the Universe!
We head to the main office in Cusco and coordinate all of our tickets and timeline at the Atalaya Reserve, the four of us set to leave in the couple of days. In the meantime Erin, Meaghan, and Gabe are able to sit down and hash out the travel logistics for the next month together. First, a week in the Peruvian jungle, then back to Cusco to celebrate Erin’s 30th birthday, Bolivia for two weeks, and back to Cusco for the hike to Machu Picchu as planned for Gabe and Erin’s milestone birthdays. Finishing just in time for Meaghan and Erin to fly out to Asia at the end of August. It’s amazing how fast time is flying by. Even for having a full year to travel, time is running short on all the things we want to see and experience.
Welcome to the Jungle…
At 5am we’re all picked up for an 8 hour bus ride into the Peruvian amazon. Good luck sleeping in the back row of a public bus, winding through the jagged unpaved road that’s half washed out from the recent rain storm. The road was so bumpy that we would have to hang on to the seat in front of us as we were catapulted into the air. It was sort of like a rollercoaster ride, with a dash of motion sickness, and not very fun. At one point, in the middle of nowhere, the bus comes to a screeching halt and the driver starts frantically yelling at our group to “get off, get off, get off the bus” like a Latin drill sargent. Trying to make our way down the center aisle, tripping over the people packed in the middle, we stumble into the fresh jungle air wondering where the hell we are. Making sure we all made it safely off the rickety bus, Ben leads us past a wooden sign for Atalaya and down a jungle trail. This was one of those “blink and you’ll miss it” turn offs. As we hear a river in the distance, we round the corner and there it is, rushing below with a harmonious roar. In order to get to the reserve across the river, we need to ride on a little pulley-platform.
Just imagine a tiny metal A-frame with wooden planks large enough to seat a maximum of four people, or two people hauling a load of goods across. With a white-knuckle grip, we zip across the river to a platform covered in beautiful butterflies of all shapes sizes and colors fluttering around us. It felt like a fairy tale welcoming, or stepping onto the pages of a children’s book. As we transfer all of our stuff across the river, we make our way down a short trail, cross the little bridge over a crystal clear stream, and into the main lodge. Open air on three sides facing the river, this is the meeting area and dining hall with the kitchen attached to the rear.
We were introduced to Gloria the local cook, Polly the green parrot, Tyra the mongoose, Paula and Chico the resident troublemaking monkeys, and then taken to check out the sleeping quarters. Laid out like a bamboo sleeping porch with two cots to a chest-high cubicle, mosquito nets are hanging all over the place with laundry drying in between. We’re introduced to a group of young volunteers finishing up their work day and trying to chase the monkeys out. You’d think it’s cute to have monkeys jumping on the bed and rolling over the mosquito nets, but when they rip your net it gets real old real quick. And since there’s no electricity, sewing up the holes with a headlamp on is no fun. Before you know it, we were trying to catch those little rascals too.
We would usually wake up at 8am, stumble over to wash our face and brush our teeth. There aren’t any mirrors at the reserve, so there’s no need for makeup or caring if your hair is a mess. We make ourselves breakfast and do the dishes before Gloria arrives, and then go over which trail we’re headed on to machete bamboo, plant native species, and take data on the new plants. After finding a pair of boots, or “wellies”, and testing them in the creek for holes we gather our gear and head out into the humid jungle.
Chico the monkey likes to join, but doesn’t like to walk. Even if you try to dodge him, he gets a hold of your leg and climbs up to your shoulders for a free ride. He secures himself on your shoulders by wrapping his tail around your neck, which leaves his little monkey balls resting right on the nape of your neck. Did we mention that monkeys stink? So, by the end of the day, after sweating profusely, you also happen to smell like monkey balls.
The best way to wash off the sweat and monkey-stank is with a swim at the waterfall. After lunch, a five minute walk from the reserve leads you to the magical waterfall with a swimming hole. There’s something to be said for cleansing your mind, body, and soul in the pure crystal clear water of the jungle, it truly is refreshing!
Alberto, the local medicine man, gave us a tour through the gardens that surround the reserve. Gabe, who became our translator, explained the medicinal uses for all the plants. By the end it felt like walking through natures pharmacy, reaffirming that all the answers we need already exist in nature. Alberto also explains to us how the local villager don’t have the money to go to the pharmacy for pills, so they rely on the fruits of the jungle to heal their ailments – headaches, joint pain, depression, open wounds, broken bones, diabetes, alzheimer’s, cancer preventatives, and the list goes on and on for remedies. Most were utilized by being steeped into tea, some to use only the roots, stems, or leaves, and others were used to cook with- like lemongrass!
It was nice to hear firsthand how the health of the jungle directly supports the health of the people, and how the small bit of volunteer work we were doing was having a positive effect on the locals and the ecosystem. For all the synthetic, laboratory produced pills lining the shelves of pharmacies at home, what a pleasure it was to see how all those pills began as plants produced by the wonders of mother nature.
With time to relax and enjoy a siesta before dinner, we all sit together and enjoy Gloria’s cooking by candlelight. The monkeys like to curl up in your lap, but you have to keep an eye on their little hands reaching for your food. The night winds down by playing cards and sharing funny stories with each other. The illumination from the candles would bring out some of the most peculiar looking bugs we’ve ever encountered, some of them were so big you could hear them approaching from a few meters away. We nicknamed them “flying dogs” because they were massive enough to put a leash on them and teach it tricks. When it came time to crawl into bed, the tricky part would be to secure the bug net and keep any stinky monkeys from crawling in. Chico would end up sleeping next to Meaghan and in the morning you would hear her say, “ugh, I smell like monkey.” The sounds of the jungle nightlife became the orchestra that lulled us to sleep in our sagging little cots.
Ben was telling us about the blasting in the area, big enough to shake the reserve. Turns out, huge corporations are blasting away chunks of the jungle in search of oil and valuable minerals, not realizing that the real value is the jungle itself. Just because the jungle is located in a nationally protected area doesn’t mean that the government isn’t willing and able to sell the land off as they please, especially to the highest bidder and with no regard to the local communities or ecosystem. With the amount of time it would take to rally the locals and make their voices heard to the government, it may be too late to save the land from destruction. Living near the jungle has been like living in a fairytale, and if you’ve seen the movie Fern Gully, you know it needs to be saved.
We were all in shock when a week had flown by and it was time to head back to Cusco. Erin, Meaghan, and Gabe were hesitant and sad to catch the public night bus, knowing how uncomfortable it was going to be, and how much we would miss Atalaya. As the bus slid and skidded it’s way through the mountains, we were surrounded by chatty locals and little kids sleeping in the center aisle. Filled with the stench of coca leaves, layered with dirt, and back poking springs, we were on our way. At around 3am, the bus is pulled over by the police to be searched. We all exchange looks, wondering what’s going on, and the locals start to fidget with nervousness. A stern police officer climbs onto the bus, shining his flashlight into everyone’s eyes, demanding to see paperwork. He takes one look at the woman sitting in front of us, throws aside the blanket on her lap, and starts to throw bag upon bag of coca leaves off the bus while she’s screaming and complaining. We come to find out it’s only legal to transport one kilo of coca leaves, not ten.
The sweet, matronly old lady sitting next to us turned out to be quit the rebel-rouser. She starts complaining about the corruption of the police force, “quick, someone just give him some money already so he’ll leave us innocent people alone, and why aren’t you out catching criminals instead of hassling locals, you’re making us late, some of us have another bus to catch,” and so on. She roused all the other locals to start complaining and causing a ruckus. After almost an hour, someone must have bribed them because they let us go.
Arriving back in Cusco during the wee hours of the morning, we weren’t able to check in to our room at Loki until noon. That’s okay, with seven hours to wait we certainly drank a lot of coffee while hanging out in the sunny courtyard. By the time we checked in, we were in a state of silly delirium from being awake for over 32 hours. At one point Erin turned to Meaghan and said, “I don’t think I’ve ever been up for this many hours … sober!” After managing to not fall asleep in the shower, washing off the jungle-funk that seemed to permeate everything, Erin hit the pillow in a cloud of zzz’s while Meaghan somehow found the energy to go drop off laundry and do some shopping. She is a rock star after all.
Look Out Thirties!
Although Erin was in denial about turning thirty, Meaghan and Gabe made sure it was a memorable one. The night before, Meaghan had taken her out to a nice restaurant for lemon-mint smoothies and delicious bacon burgers. Traditionally birthdays are celebrated with our entire family, and since we were on the road, it was nice to have each other. Meaghan had our server put a candle in our chocolate dessert and sang for her in the restaurant, in spanish! Before sunrise on the morning of Erin’s birthday, we both mustered ourselves out of bed to catch the first light of the day. Sunrise over Cusco was a beautiful moment to share together and will be remembered forever. We met up with Gabe later that afternoon for shopping, a decadent lunch of grilled alpaca and followed by a spa day, complete with sauna, massages, and pedicures.