One week into my time in the jungle; I had a fresh scar on my left hand, another on my right leg. Machete gripped in hand, I would cut firewood for our cookfire before heading down to the river to collect water.
I stopped for a moment, and thought to myself, ‘this might be the most interesting thing that’s ever happened to me.’
A lot of our adventures in South America are down to Workaway, a site where you offer yourself as a volunteer worker in exchange for food and a place to lay your head.
We applied for many of these before derparting for this grand continent, and there was one in particular that took our notice.
It was an animal rehabilation centre in the Peruvian jungle, run by an organisation called Cerelias. This place took in animals that had been in captivity, mainly monkeys, and gave them a safe place to become accustomed to the jungle, their rightful home.
I was unsure what to expect, would it be a closed-off compound? Was it big? Was it small? How many people worked there? There wasn’t much information beyond their goals. Despite our relative ignorance, I was excited; this was the kind of experience that surely happens but once in a lifetime.
This was to be one of our final destinations in Peru, we were unsure even of the exact amount of time that we would spend here.
We were accepted for the volunteering while we were still in Ireland, and during our time in Peru we had had no contact with them. A week before we would depart for the jungle we contacted them once more and confirmed that, yes, we were still willing to volunteer if they wanted the help. With that said and any uncertainty put behind us, we made our plans.
We would depart on a bus to our destination, and after a twenty-four hour trip, we arrived in the northern town of Tarapoto.
Blistering heat and armies of moto-taxis dominated this small northern town. Like most Peruvian towns, there were cookfires on the streets, and the smell and sound of sizzling meat was a delight during the sweltering nights.
Meeting with our contacts, I was surprised to learn that there were only two of them. A local journalist, Lenin, and his wife Jhina; together they organised and arranged all the volunteers heading out the reservation centre. We became fast friends, perhaps it was our mutual interest in Cerelias, but I like to think that most Peruvians have an inclination towards friendliness.
We departed for the jungle early on a Sunday morning, catching a ride with Lenin to the entrance of the Cordillera Escalera, the protected national park wherein lay the jungle and the centre. After a short stop at a small wooden shack to sign ourselves in, we began the trek to the centre.
Our guide was an elderly man who was bringing food supplies. He carried this 30 kilo bag in a peculiar way which I’ve only seen in Peru; he had a wide strap tied to the bag, which he hung from his forehead, carrying the bag itself on his back.
We walked for just over two hours, following a winding river through ever denser jungle. The river wound to and fro, requiring us to wade across some fourteen times. Sometimes it was a simple stroll, while at others the water was waist deep. We crested hills and descended again several times, and if you were to look skyward, you would see more trees than you would sky, the foliage being so dense.
At a point we began to climb higher, and found ourselves on something of a path through the trees. I suspected we were approaching our destination; I was certain when we began to hear the call of Capuchin Monkeys, and one deftly leapt from a tree to land on my shoulder, immediately beginning to groom and pick at my hair.
We had arrived.
Finally, we saw where we would be spending the next three months. It was a very small building, surrounded by a fence, all constructed from wood that had been felled from the surrounding forest. There were no walls to speak of, instead a thick rope net kept the various animals outside, while allowing an eye to be kept on them if needed. Imagine a wooden cube walled by a net, with Orlando’s bedroom enclosed in the back.
To the right of this small building, the landscape rose sharply to a mountainside, heavily wooded, and the source of timber and firewood, while to the left the landscape dropped to a shallow valley where the river lay, the sole water-source.
Inside was a simple affair, a packed dirt floor with a carved bench to one side and a cabinet and various buckets and boxes with supplies to the other side. A fireplace and woodstack for cooking sat as a centerpiece.
As we stepped through the doorway, we were greeted by our host, Orlando Zagazeta, a thin, elderly man, sporting a thick beard and a voice made for shouting. We dropped our bags with a thump and fell into the benches. Soaked through and through with sweat, we looked as though we were just out of a swimming pool. During this time Orlando began to speak to us, although I wasn’t able to keep up with his rapid pace of speech, and soon fell to simply nodding, exhaustion still pounding through my bones.
Soon, I was shown to where we would sleep by Orlando’s assistant Javier, while my partner Anabel stayed behind and spoke more with Orlando about the reservation. Javier and I became fast friends, despite the fact my grasp of Spanish was tenuous and his grasp of English was none. He was in his forties, of Quechua descent, and from what I gleaned during my time there his father was a shaman, and Javier had spent most of his life living and working in jungle environments.
It was a ten minute walk along a rough jungle path and a short climb after crossing the winding river. The house was impressive; fairly large and constructed entirely of wood. Inside there nothing but a large dining table, here I set up our tent, and here we would sleep for the next two and half weeks. Before returning, Javier explained to me through a mixture of Spanish and mimes, that I needed to make sure my pockets were empty, as the monkeys all had a habit of stealing anything they could get their hands on.
The rest of the day passed without much occurrence; we whiled away the rest of the day in conversation, enjoying the clear air and the curiosity of the monkeys clinging to the net wall.
Orlando explained some things about the reservation as the sun began its slow descent in the sky.
There was no electricity or running water here, which meant that all of our food was prepared from fresh vegetables, and all our water was sourced from the river below.
Most of the work that I would do here was to help Javier in maintaining the property; because everything was constructed from wood, it regularly needed to be replaced from the surrounding trees.
He explained to us his role here at the reservation; he was the heart of Cerelias, with this name only being the legal entity, while Orlando himself was action behind the scenes. He had dedicated his whole to protecting endangered species, and had been at the reservation for six years without leaving. Six years with only transient company, without running water or electricity, it may seem like a horrendous thing to some, but to me it is something wholly admirable, to be able to completely dedicate everything in your life to a cause. Orlando is not only content at his reservation, he is happy.
The reservation itself is an area of the Cordillera Escalera, the nationally protected jungle area, with the small reservation centre at a prime spot. The monkeys are fed by Orlando every day, and they have a shelter on the roof to sleep, but they are completely free.
The only thing keeping them there is their own will.There are also some other animals that Orlando cares for; three Coati, one of whom was pregnant, and has probably given birth by the time of writing.
There is a small family of Tamarins who visited the house every day for their meals, before returning to their treetop homes alongside the Coati.
There are even a species of wild pig native to the jungle, called Sajinos or Pecaris, that sometimes wander to the reservation where Orlando will find food to give them.
As the sun set and darkness closed in, we said our goodnights and Javier took his torch and led us back through the pitch blackness to the house, where we talked excitedly of what the following weeks would hold, before exhaustion quickly dragged us to sleep.
So far this workaway had shown promise, I knew already, despite this only being the first day, that this was an experience I would not soon forget. The following weeks would see me cutting down trees on a mountainside, obtaining fresh scars from monkeys and the jungle alike, and growing completely sick of the food.
Stay tuned for Part 2