From the cold and clear expanse of the salt flats to the intense heat and closeness of the jungle, I've literally travelled from one extreme to another (via a sedentary stopover in the lovely town of Sucre; funny stories here involving drinking wine in the park but remind me to tell you some other time). Sitting in the comparative luxury of this hostel with mod cons like electricity, flushing toilets and only the odd cockroach, I don't really know how to begin to write about my experience over the last two weeks, except for the fact that I feel not a little overwhelmed to be back in the 'real world'.
So for those of you who don't know, I've just been to Parque Ambue Ari, part of the Inti Wara Yassi community, an animal refuge in the Bolivian jungle around six hours from Santa Cruz de la Sierra. The location is basic, with no electricity or telephone, let alone Internet, where you sleep on straw mattresses with rats as neighbours, share the long drop with every insect known to man, and the nearest place you can buy a beer is 8km away. Sounds like hell on earth, no? Well surprisingly not actually. Ambue Ari was created with land reclaimed from a local farmer - the remaining neighbouring land has suffered severe deforestation due to farming and means that the park now provides refuge to loads of wild animals, including pumas, jaguars, and monkeys. And it's all about the animals and the amazing people who volunteer to look after them.
Don't stop reading! I promise not to get too worthy on you! You're probably wondering how this meat-loving, vegetarian-loathing, city girl ended up in such a place huh? I thought much the same thing when we arrived after another harrowing Bolivian road journey (4 to a seat, driving on whichever side of the road has less potholes) to be greeted by a bunch of hippies in stripy pyjama trousers with too much facial hair and clearly no notion of deodorant. We being Jen, Emma and I, who had decided on a whim to come and join Nathan and Ben of salt flat fame for a couple of weeks in the jungle. How hard could it be?!
The first thing that hits you is the heat. I never knew I could sweat so much or that I could smell so bad! I kept thinking it was the person next to me but when you are wet through with sweat literally two minutes after drying from a shower you come to accept that no deodorant is going to help you. The next thing are the mosquitos. Oh my god, they are huge! And I got bitten. A lot. At one point I'm pretty sure I looked like I had measles. So you wear loads of layers to try and protect against them but then sweat yourself silly. Its safe to say that by the end of day one we were indistinguishable from the rest of the grubby, smelly camp.
Still confused as to what I'm doing here? Well the next day we got assigned to our animals and Jen and I got to work in Quarantine, the section that looks after the new arrivals until they can be housed elsewhere in the park. This included two squirrel monkeys, two toucans, a macaw, two pig-like creatures called choncos, a baby tapir, an otter (who knew they had them in South America?) and a baby howler monkey that hung around your neck all day and needed hand-feeding. Beginning to see it? Well it's probably easiest to explain if I describe a typical day for you...
We are woken at 6:30am by the lovely Tania and the camp parrot called Gordo who can only say "ola" and "Gordo". We are assigned daily tasks to complete between 7am and 8am, when we all have breakfast together - two bread rolls and lashings of marmite (thanks for the jar Pa!) A game of rock, paper, scissors is then played to see who has to wash up and more often than not I ended up losing to the entire camp.
At 9am we head off to our various animals and in Quarantine our first job of the day is to feed all the animals, then to clean up after them. It's a little bit like being a zoo keeper!
We break for lunch at 12:30pm which is vegetarian unless it's Chicken Monday or Meat Thursday. We have free time until 2pm where we usually hang out in the fumador eating ice creams bought from the crazy 12 year old Bolivian entrepreneur who catches the bus every day just to sell ice lollies to some sweaty gringos!
Work in the afternoons involves 'enriching' the animals environment so for example one day we will clean the otters pool or replace branches in the bird cages, plant in the tapir's enclosure, or make toys out of old pringles tubes for the monkeys...
Then it's feeding time for the animals again before finally it's feeding time for us at 6:30pm. It's a long old day and more often than not we will either hitch a ride or catch the bus to the nearest town of Santa Maria for a couple of well-earned cold beers, whilst listening to Hotel California (sometimes 5 times in a row - shout out to new posse member Paula!) and other classics on the jukebox while being bombarded by flying beetles.
Still don't get it? Well let me tell you about my animals. Beatrix Otter, who actually goes by the name of Peppa, was probably my favourite. She was basically like a little dog and you could let her out of her enclosure and she would follow you round like a puppy, always wanting attention and biting at your heels. She even made a barking sound, crossed with a squeak, which she would make constantly if you were working in a different enclosure, whilst trying to escape (which she did a lot). And then there was Octavia, the baby howler monkey who was of course absolutely adorable when she clung round your shoulders, but also a bit of a minx when she went a bit schizo and decided to bite you for no particular reason! Capitan the macaw and JR the toucan constantly needed breaking up because they liked to fight, and it often felt like a daily battle to keep the animals at bay! But this is obviously not a petting zoo and the idea is to rehabilitate these animals back into the wild if at all possible, so there is a huge amount of responsibility and it's amazing how quickly you become attached to your animals and protective over their care and well-being.
And then there are the people. They basically range from short- termers like ourselves to long- termers who've been there on and off for 5 years or more. And you can see why. It's like living in a bubble with no notion of whats going on in the outside world, a cross between the tv show 'shipwrecked' and being back at school! There were of course clicks and camp gossip, but also party nights on a Friday and your afternoon off on Saturday spent drinking beer by the river, getting to know these incredible people from all walks of life, with one thing in common - the animals in their care. God I'm beginning to sound like a hippy again but I'm nearly done!
I can't neglect to mention what the park is actually all about and that's the big cats. As we were only there for two weeks we couldn't be assigned a cat to look after as it would be too disruptive for their routine but on our last day we were able to go out and walk with one. I got to go out with a puma called Inti and I have to say I was petrified. She was so huge and when she walked towards you with those big eyes and even bigger teeth I couldn't help but feel like 'dinner'. But then she was so cat like in her other mannerisms that I eventually overcame my fear and was able to stroke her under the chin and let her rub against my legs! Awesome.
So that's it for now. There are so many other stories in these two weeks but I've bored you enough. Needless to say it was an experience I am unlikely to forget and coming back to civilisation has been a bit mind-blowing. This was quickly remedied by a pedicure and some cocktails however! You can take the girl out of the city...