Armed with apalling Spanish and directions vague enough to make a Kenyan proud, I left the bright lights of Lima and headed for Pucallpa in the north east. It´s the gateway to the Peruvian Amazon and is a town of damp desperation famous for its constant halo of vultures. I jumped in a piki piki and handed the driver the address of a place in town where a car would be going to the town of Curimana, 2 hours west. "Car" was a generous word for the smoking, rusty piece of metal that took me to my next stop, sandwiched between a drunk policeman and a banana tree. The road became less graded as the jungle got thicker, and the towns further and further apart. I was eventually dropped by a riverbank, where my instructions were to cross in the boat owned by the bearded man. Well... there was indeed a river and a boat, but I was alone with not a facial hair in sight. Talk about off the beaten track in the middle of nowhere! Eventually a plank of wood came chugging around the corner and although the driver was cleanly chaven I took my chances and hopped aboard. Another hour in a pickup along an old logging route left me in the little stilt house village of Bello Horizonte, where I was to ask for "Don Cesar" - who I imagined to be a retired druglord with sifficient facial hair to make up for my dissapointment earlier. Alas he was a small man with a smile that defied the boundaries of his face, and he crossed me over another river to Esperanza Verde, where Olivia and Douwe greeted me outside their wooden slilt house nestled deep in jungle paradise.
With the focus of the project still on construction, the rehabilitation centre hasn´t got many animals yet, and most of the ones that have come through their doors have been re-released. I spent the first couple of days learning the ropes and the routine. Feeding the resident critters included bottle feeding Elmo, the baby two toed sloth, as well as a tapir, 2 capuchin monkeys, a squirrel monkey, a koati, a tayra, and a tortoise. Pepe the tayra needed two walks a day through the various paths that weaved their way round massive trees, thick vines and over streams. There was a waterfall to cool you off half way round, but going for a swim meant risking Pepe stealing your clothes and carrying them off into oblivion; which left me on two occasions chasing after him, naked, to get my clothes back. Toucans and hummingbirds and the smells of the jungle kept me grinning every sweaty, humid minute of those walks, and I felt so lucky to be in a part of the mighty Amazon. The number one rule of ignoring the hand raised monkeys, to start giving them distance from humans, was hard at first, but I soon got used to walking with a squirrel monkey hanging off the bottom of my shorts and bouncing against my knee until she gave up and fell off. Mika, the oldest of the monkey group found this lesson the toughest, and when I would take Elmo out for a walk and sit by the base of a vine to see if he wanted to climb, Mika would come over and groom me. She was fascinated with little Elmo, and would chatter excitedly with her teeth and steal a poke at him when I wasn´t looking.
Douwe and Olivia have over 14 years experience of living in the jungle and rehabilitating wildlife, so I was eager to tap their brains. They have such a passionate vision for the project, and it was a great vibe to be around.
We went into the nearest village of Bello Horizonte one evening to have a meal with a guy that worked for them. We sat in the house on stilts eating chicken and rice and drinking Masato (fermented cassava juice) and I was soaking up a brand new culture.
I was joined in the second week by 3 new volunteers - a crazy Canadian and a German couple. Amy the Canadian proposed to provide the evening´s entertainment one night by letting me shave her head, and started a trend. The next night one of the German´s lost his locks and then it was my turn. I didn´t go for the full monty but I now have a pretty kick ass mohawk.
2 weeks flew by and I wasn´t ready to leave yesterday, having just got into the groove and learnt the individual animals with all their personalities. I had to spend a night in Pucallpa on the way back, and t just so happened that Olivia and the kids had to spend a few nights there too. Maria used to be the families´ neighbour when they spent a brief time living in Pucallpa, so Olivia suggested we stay there. Maria charged the equivalent of 70p a night, and lived in one of the poorer neighbourhoods of town. We pulled up in a piki piki to a run down wooden house, flanked on one side by dozing street dogs, and on the other by an old man in a rocking chair, with the lifeless dregs of a cigarrette clinging to his shriveled lips. The house had no running water and half an old ceramic toilet, and as Maria led us up the narrow wooden staircase she apologised to Olivia because she was still building what was tonight to be her room. At night the local club music shook the foundations of the house, and a backing chorus of howling street dogs filled the dull air. This was the big city dream Maria and so many had made the journey from the tranquil jungle villages for, and I wondered if she missed that life. Being there with Olivia, who knew the city, meant I saw parts of town and ate in local restaurants I wouldn´t have otherwise had the guts to do, but my first impressions of Pucallpa still remain. A dank and dirty city, caught between an old way of life and money making exploitation.
If I have enough time, I might very well take that crazy journey again and go back to the jungle, but for now it´s off to Cusco tomorrow for 4 days in the shadow of Machu Picchu.