I've just finished my first week at Manu Learning Centre. It's a private property of 646 hectares in Manu National Park on the Madre de Dios river. It took 11 hours on the bus (with breaks) to cover about 250km (90km as the crow flies) of unsurfaced roads which winded up and down two mountains before reaching the river. We then took a half hour boat ride to MLC in the dark as we hadn't been able to make it there before sunset.
The MLC was set up to monitor the return of secondary forest to primary forest. It was a plantation in th 60s and 70s and is now a research centre. It's hoped that data collected here will be of use to other rainforest areas. There is also researach into how the rainforest can be lived in sustainably and provide an income for the local people, for example, there is a biogarden and orchid garden. I'm doing research into therapeutic plants in the area with the objective of a) mapping them so that the people here can easily find them and b) producing a guide with photos and instructions to help correctly identify and use them.One of the guides has a lot of knowledge because his father was a shaman, while the manager is a botanist.There are currently 15 volunteers here: 8 Brits, 3 Americans (of the US kind), an Irish guy, a Russian, an Aussie and a Canadian.The 9 staff members are locals from the rainforest villages or Cusco, and have a variety of skills.Projects I've worked on so far are monitoring the macaws, parrots and parakeets on a clay lick between 6am and 7.30am; moving rocks from the stream bed to the edge to protect the wall below the orchid garden; in the biogarden, moving compost made from termite nests, planting lettuce and tomato seeds, and making a path around the beds; and going on a 6-hour, 11km hike through the jungle to monitor woolly monkeys.Oh, and of course I've ended up teaching English to the staff every other day and to the local kids every fortnight!The weather has been beautiful, though as I'm typing this there is a thunderstorm outside.We're in the dry season now so it's comfortably cool overnight, warm in the morning and evening and hot from late morning to afternoon, though there are cold nights when cold fronts move in.To my absolute joy there are hardly any mosquitoes and when I have been bitten by bugs (usually mites) I haven't noticed because they don't itch much.The humidity does mean that we all get really hot and sweaty as soon as we look at a jungle trail or garden spade, and it's a real trick to do laundry when it's sunny and then not forget about it when it starts to rain.So far I've seen various birds, including the rare blue-headed macaw, and the rarer pale-winged trumpeter, which delighted the manager as it's a bio-indicator that the area is successfully returning to primary forest.I've also seen woolly, squirrel, brown capuchin and saddleback tamarind monkeys, plus a group of dusky titi monkeys that climbed through the bamboo round the biogarden while we were trying to work.Most exciting has been seeing the tracks of pumas, jaguars, ocelots and jaguarundis.One of the volunteers actually -saw- a jaguar last week while it was drinking at a creek, before disturbing it, but I don't think I'll be so lucky.The nearest I've been to a cat is finding one of Freddie's hairs on my t-shirt the other day (!?!?!).Apart from tracks, we observe other evidence such as faeces, piles of bird feathers and scratch marks.Now I know why Freddie scratches the floor before eating dinner!The food here is cooked by a team of three locals, and is delicious.It's not much different from British food and with all the exercise and manual labour I'm doing, I'm eating even more than usual!We sleep in dormitories of 6 with mosquito nets over the beds as the lodges are open-sided.Our water comes from the creek and goes back into the river so we use environmentally-friendly products (it means less work for the treatment system so even in cities we should all be using them to reduce energy expenditure) and are only allowed one shower a day because it's the dry season and the water has to be manually pumped due to there not being enough water in the creek to drive the water wheel.The biogarden is still under construction so all the supplies come in by boat and last week I had to wait two days for more tea (which I drink black now because there's no milk here)!I don't have much spare time to learn Spanish but I'm getting good at recognizing the different calls of macaws and the prints of the big cats.Yes, a valuable skill which I'll be able to put on my CV, I know.