Thursday, March 26, 2009

Lines and lines and lines and lines

Its been a busy few days, then. Having left the jungle last Wednesday and updating you, I have now got as far as Nazca on my way back to Cusco. That'd be 2159km or there abouts in less than a week, with about 600km left to go. Its been through jungle, up mountains (well I'd call 4500m a mountain even if you wouldn't), across alti-planos, back down mountains, along coasts and through deserts.

The fantastic road I took to get to Santa Maria was marginally less fantastic in the low cloud and drizzle, but when I got some moments of clarity I tried to take a couple of photos. Nothing like the real thing, obviously, and my plans to video part of it were thwarted (now there's a word that doesn't get enough use these days) by the rain. I made it to Copacobana and did get some video of the ride into there, and then instead of heading back to Cusco, I went south-ish to Arequipa, finding my way with ease into town thanks to being led by some bloke coming out of a quadbike store next to where I had pulled over to check the town map. I had a rest day, jumping a tourist bus (will Rich ever forgive me?) at 2am (I actually got up for 1am as I'd forgotten to change my watch when I crossed the Bolivia-Chile border. Doh.) out to Colca Canyon. This, as the name suggests, is a canyon, about 3400m deep, making it deeper than the Grand Canyon, though not as wide. It has a view point at its deepest point called Cruce Del Condors (Cross of the Condors) where on a good day you can see double figures of condors at eye level as they are under the impression they are 2000m up a canyon cliff face. Which, I suppose, they are. They just aren't expecting to see people up that high. Although by now I suppose they might be. Anyway, needless to say I didn't get a good day, but did see several nonetheless, albeit further away than I'd have hoped. Impressive and spectacular it was though, so no complaints here.

From there it was up the coast to Nazca. I had been warned that the coast road was a bit on the dull side, but the person doing the warning had obviously done it in a bus, because it was far from dull. Very winding, very dramatic scenery, with coastlines, craggy bits and big wide open spaces, all leading into the typically scruffy desert town of Nazca. Towns this far out in the desert can't help but be scruffy, with winds blowing across open plains, not enough water to go round (but strangely always enough to keep a beautifully lush and well maintained Plaza), and populated by people tough enough to survive here, even given the presumably large amounts of tourist money coming in. The Plaza de Armas was a nice surprise - not because it was especially fantastic in itself, it just had about a dozen nightjars flying around as dusk fell, chasing the flies that were drawn to the lights. Very pleasant surprise, that, although probably only Mother will really appreciate it!

Anyway, I got hijacked (in a good way) as I came into town. I pulled over to try and decipher the inadequate Lonely Planet town map (or maybe the map was fine and it was the inadequate town signage), and a woman trotted over, offered me a room and board in a hotel on the plaza with parking for the bike for only S/.15 a night. Bargain, and her driver led me through the streets to find the place. All very convenient. She also conveniently ran a tour company and could offer me a flight over the lines in the morning, but all the reservations for tomorrow stopped in 10 minutes at 5 o'clock, so better hurry and choose. Good job my brain wasn't at all befuddled by 9 hours of driving through hot deserts and windy coastlines all day. I coughed up probably more than I needed to, but just as probably not by much, and then, due to lack of communication or bad planning on their part, ended up going on the wrong plane. Saw the same stuff though, I expect, and apart from the briefness of the flight, it was all very impressive. The line shapes are huge, and there are far more of them than the tour companies let on, they're just not all of animals and stuff. Many are just shapes and patterns, but the famous ones are easy enough to pick out, although photos are a bit trickier. Hopefully got some of them on film. I mean chip...And that's the last few days. I reckon its a 2 day ride back to Cusco as I don't want to rush the gravelly bits, where I hope to catch up with David and Judith on Sunday, and Rich on Monday. Or something. Plans are flexible, as always.

So, until I get the chance to add some more photos while I'm in Cusco, fare thee well, and mind those dark lanes on the full moon. Stay off the moors!!

Friday, March 20, 2009

Jungle Fever

Right, some thoughts and stuff. First though, for those interested enough, I forgot to give the park details if you want to check web sites etc. The organisation is called Inti Wara Yassi, and they have 2 working parks and one being set up. The web site is a bit dated (far more animals now, and the info about numbers of volunteers is a bit off - they routinely get 40-50 volunteers in Parque Ambue Ari at peak times of the year, and there were 23 while I was there). I went to Parque Ambue Ari, and I forget the names of the other two.

So, where was I? The park is run by the head vet, Zandro, and he, the other vet and the local women who come in to cook for the volunteers are the only people who get paid. There are a bunch (6 or so) of locals who live at the the park, all quite young, many living there due to being orphans, and Zandro acts as their guardian for school registration etc. They work at the park after school and weekends to earn there keep, and none of them pay to be there. Its a great system, gets them educated, interested in their environment, and safe from harm.

While I was there, there were about 23 other volunteers, but that number changed as people came and went fairly randomly, some staying the minimum 2 weeks (ahem), others several months, or returning for 2nd or 3rd visits. Of the people there, only one was a bit of a tosser, and he was from Australia, so it's only to be expected. The other Australians there redeemed their nation however, so all is not lost. I met some great people there who I hope to see again, either in NZ or else where. My first impression of arriving in the park was of a shabby funeral, with everyone walking about in a variety of hats with black mourning veils and gardening clothes. Or maybe a group of badly dressed bee-keepers. A few moments later as I was crossing the "patio" to my room, Morocha the spider monkey climbed up me and sat on my head. Welcome to Ambue Ari.

And all that leaves to do is jot down some final memories of what the jungle is to me. It's hot. And wet. Very hot (mid-30ÂșC) and wet (80%+ humidity). When it rains, it doesn't mess about and sticks at it for about 4 days non-stop. It's more mosquitos than I've ever seen before, and more bites than I ever want again. It's 2 pairs of trousers and 2 shirts and mosquito net hat all the time, regardless of how hot it is. Did I mention the Mozzies? let me tell you about the mozzies. When you're in the jungle, all you can hear is the whine of mosquitos as they circle your head, searching for a way in. The camp record for "number of mozzies killed with one slap of one hand", achieved at the peak of the season, is 42. My personal best was 12, but then I was there as the season was dwindling. There is nothing more depressing than sitting at the tables in the comedor in the evenings and seeing a mozzie, so full of blood that it can't actually fly any more, plop on to the table in front of you, and then make its way along in 3 inch hops. They make quite a stain if squashed, let me tell you, and an attractive ornament in trapped in molten wax from a candle. It's monkeys in the compound that giggle when you tickle them. It's not being able to sleep at night due the heat and humidity, the rock hard mattress and the stifling, but vital, mosquito net. It's seeing large snakes, hairy tarantulas and monkeys (but no chickens) crossing the road. It's having your jungle path go from thick mud today to thigh deep water tomorrow thanks to a rain shower. And staying that way. It's walking carefully on the paths to avoid getting water in your boots, even though you know you'll be thigh deep round the next bend. It's seeing cappuchin, howler and squirrel monkeys in the trees as you walk about. It's glimpsing a lizard as it scrambles out of your way. Its millions of ants of all sizes, colours and shapes, many of them off to the races to judge by the head gear they are carrying. or maybe they are off windsurfing, sails hoisted to catch the breeze. It's astonishment at how much some of them carry and how neat and tidy their trails are. It's a cacophany of noise from insects, and frogs that sound like the whine of a firework that forgets to explode (luckily for the frogs), or maybe the zoom sound of a passing Formula 1 racing car. It's walking a short rope length behind a large, partly untamed jaguar, and then playing rough and tumble with it. It's being tackled to the ground before your eyes even realise the cat has moved. It's having your arm licked by the jaguar, with a tongue that will draw blood if you don't rotate your arm fast enough. It's walking across the compound and having your hand taken by Morocha as she walks alongside you, and then scales you to sit on your shoulders, resting her head on yours and draping herself around your neck. Its standing in a group below Faustino who is sat on the roof, and wailing his name full volume at him in order to get him howling in return. It's being woken up at the crack of dawn by the most unearthly of sounds: a troop of howlers doing their thing. It's wishing you had a tail so you could climb as well as Morocha. It's regret that I picked the worst time of year for weather and bugs, and hope that I get back there some day. It's The Jungle: not the most comfortable of places, but one of the most unforgettable. Another golden moment, despite (or maybe because of) the difficulties.

Til next time, then.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

More Than a Match for Me

OK. I'll come clean from the off. I caved. I tried to stay strong, even gave myself options, but when push came to shove, I threw in the towel, after using it to flap about my head to try and keep the bugs at bay.

Here's the scoop. After my last entry (written in Guarayos, mosquito-free haven 50km from the park), I returned to Ambue Ari with renewed hope. Only to find that hope vastly misplaced. I spoke to the volunteer coordinator on the Sunday night and said that if the mozzies didn't quit, I would have to, and that I realised it was letting them down, so I would try to do at least 2 weeks and make a final decision then. If that meant being taken off the jaguar, so be it; the animal's well being came before mine. The decision was then made that I would stay with the jag, and closer to the 2 weeks, if new volunteers had turned up and I still planned to go, a replacement would be trained up then.

The next day, it started to rain in the late afternoon. Just a shower, but it scared the mozzies off a bit. Then, for the rest of the week it bucketed down, almost non-stop, and the previously muddy paths on the 2km trail to Ru's house became thigh-deep-in-water paths. The bug numbers dwindled to almost acceptable levels, the temperature became almost bearable, the humidty plummeted from about 90% to maybe 85%, and things were looking up. OK, so now we were all soaking all day, but with some careful planning there were dry clothes for the evenings, and its not like it ever got cold along with the wet.

But after 4 days, the rain stopped, the sun came out, the humidity went up again, and even though the frogs had arrived and were doing there best to make tadpoles to eat mozzie larvae, and subsequently adult frogs to eat mozzies, unfortunately the bugs were back. Not as bad as before, certainly livable-with, had I been planning to stay a couple of months, but having mucked the management about already, and having a bunch of new blokes arrive, and because it actually gave me more time to do other things, I stuck with the leaving idea, and skipped town this morning. Leaving was actually far harder than I thought it would be, as every day Ru became friendlier and I enjoyed hanging out with him more, so to have to leave that behind was very difficult. I would love to go back some day, preferably at a better time of year, and do a full month, and see how he's doing. In the meantime, its on the road again, and an extended return trip to Cusco, via Arequipa and Nazcar.

But before that (because I'm not there yet), a little more about the park. Its about 600ha of reclaimed jungle, housing 23 cats (5 jaguars, 13 pumas, 4 ocelots and a mini bolivian wild cat), a bunch of monkeys (howlers and a spider), a tapir called Herbie, 2 deers and some parrots and macaws. All the animals have been rescued from illegal collections, peoples' homes or zoos and circuses, and for some it marks the start of a rehabilitation and release programme. Not for the cats, unfortunately, as the governement requires all sorts of licences and red tape which they almost never grant due to the problems associated with releasing large, dangerous cats into the wild, not to mention the shrinking rainforests and habitats etc. But many of the parrots and macaws are released, and if enough monkeys of the same sort are gathered, they can be encouraged to form a troop, allowing them to be released as well. We actually have a small group of Howler monkeys that visit the camp now and again, as they used to live there, which disturbs the resident Howler no end, and gives the resident spider monkey all sorts of fun.

The camp is very basic, with no electricity or mains water supply (they have a gas run generator that pumps water to the header tank in the trees and a gas run freezer for minimal food storage), long drop toilets that got washed out in the big rain, leaving us with the "poop in the woods" option, or the "large, precarious hole dug on the top of a very muddy hill with a tarp roof" option, both of which left the brave soul rudely exposed (quite literally) to the mercy of the mozzies. And they had no mercy, let me tell you! In camp, we have a resident howler monkey called Faustino (10 years old, ex-hotel owned, and apparently ex-smoker and -alcoholic) and a resident spider monkey called Morocha, who is the funniest creature I have ever met. Highly acrobatic (unlike Faustino, who is very slow about the place, and whose only real trick is to howl like a fury at any invading monkeys or volunteers who wail at him first), very chatty, hugely comical, and very ticklish. It is hilarious to watch her wriggle around and laugh when you tickle her, like a wee kid. Always looking for an opportunity to get into rooms or the comedor (the other day she snuck in via the back door and ran out the front waving two captured bread rolls above her head in the classic monkey fashion), chasing the 3 resident peccaries (pigs) and pulling at their legs, lying flat out, trying to be invisible, or generally crashing about in the trees, defying gravity.

Work is from about 7am to 5.30pm-ish, and for me consisted of camp chores (that's chores around the camp, not mincing about with a duster and a pinnie) followed by a 2km, 40 min walk through the flooded jungle to Ru's house, and taking him out round his paths on a long, double rope lead, one for each person. Ru is 5 years old, and came to the park, aged about 8 months, from a private family who had him as a pet, and were convinced by someone from the park that he would have a better life at Ambue Ari. Which he does. He picks his route, and we follow behind, letting him stop, sleep, turn around or whatever he wants. He has access to the river and often goes for a swim, and generally mooches about until 3, when he goes back to his cage for food. He is generally scared of everything in the jungle, be it snapping sticks, lizards that run across the path or sudden loud stamping behind him (hey, its funny to watch him jump in the air and run off, OK?), but did, on one auspicious day, catch a careless agouti (large rodent) and thoroughly enjoyed eating it as the afternoon wore on. He is wary of new folks at first, not showing them much attention other than trying to jump them for a bit of a dry hump (and you know when you've been humped by a 100kg jaguar, let me tell you!), but as he gets used to you, he gets very house-cat like, with head rubbing, hand licking and generally enjoying hanging with the boys. Jaguars are not noisy cats, and can't purr or yowl or roar (unlike pumas that are like max volume house cats with purrs and meowing), but he does sometimes make groaning and grunting noises when he is having a particularly satisfying belly-rub or nap in the sun. He never fully gives up the humping though, and is always trying to out-flank the walkers so he can get them from behind. If that fails, he hooks a huge paw around the back of one of your knees from in front of you and pretty much hauls you to the ground. He is generally slow moving, however, so it is usually easy to spot when he is making his move, and thus relatively easy to avoid, especially with help from the other walker on the other lead (pumas are again opposite, and move very fast and unexpectedly). His other favourite game is a full on pounce, this time at high speed, when no-one is expecting it. He never jumps high, always to the legs or waist, and again, when 100kg of jaguar hits you in the knees, the only place you're going is to the ground! But he never uses claws, and always lets go when he has you down and has made his point. He's just a big kid, playing and making sure you know whose jungle it is.

So, yes, hard to go in the end but overall the best decision, both for my physical comfort and for the greater good of the trip in general. Only about 7 weeks to go until the bikes get packed away, and we still have to get to Colombia! I want to write a bit more about the jungle in general, but that can have an entry to itself. Its another of those "things I want to remember" efforts, so you can take it or leave it when the time comes. It'll be for me, more than you. Sorry 'bout that.

So beaten by mozzies, but still in the fight, know what I mean, 'Arry? Seconds away, round 2 tomorrow.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Once bitten, twice bitten.

So there I was, pootling along the deserted Bolivian highways, heading further and further away from the big cities, and closer and closer to the unknown, when a thought drifted into my head. They do that, thoughts, as you ride along by yourself, ipod-less due to previously encountered thieves etc. This particular thought was roughly along the lines of: "aren't the remotest areas of Bolivia supposed to be teeming with drug barons and unscrupulous muggers and stuff? At least there's two of us travelling together, we'll be safe as houses as long as we stic....hang on, Rich is back in Cusco....." I cut that thought off about there, and tried to think of more pleasant things. Like the fact that, thanks to the bus drivers in Copacobana who laughed at me when I asked them whether I could ride my bike along the road to Trinidad, I decided to give "death road" a miss and stick to the tarmac. This was a great decision out of Copacobana, especially when I saw the horrendously black storm clouds ahead and somehow managed to skirt round them on about 3 sides, avoiding a drenching.

Once I turned off the alti plano road and started along the route for Cochabamba, the road turned spectacular, with twists, curves, ups downs and all the good stuff bikers love. I had a night in Cochabamba, then headed on to the sanctuary, or so I hoped. It was going to be a big day if I made it, and it started well, with another great road out of town. Things went well until about 3pm, when the road marked as a main one on the map turned into gravel. Not so bad I thought, but then it ran out altogether, and I had to ask some local villagers who lived in the swamp in which I found myself if I was still on the right road. With difficulty, I understood that I was. I say "with difficulty" because, having boasted to various people that I now understood about 70% of Spanish spoken to me, these locals in the back end of Bolivia spoke the laziest, worst Spanish ever, dropping letters, slurring words, mumbling and mixing in local dialect, I suspect, so I struggled.

Anyhow, on I went, until I got stuck in a deep mud puddle. Luckily a local bloke with no shoes came along and helped pull me out. It was during this stage that I wondered again if it was possible to grow cocaine in the swamps, or not, and whether I'd stumbled upon something best left un-stumbled on. But he was a helpful chap, waved me on, and about 1/2km further on, I was lost in the bushes. I found the river bank (river bank? what river bank?) but the river was way to big and fast to cross - we're talking 400m or so and very muddy and deep looking. I left the bike and went a-wandering, as I had seen what looked like a bridge up river a ways, then heard a bike heading to where I'd left my bike, and tried to rush back, only to find I was nearly lost. Luckily, I stumbled across my bike, and also a bloke keen to lead me to the river crossing.

So, I followed him into the bushes a bit further, with a little voice in my head suggesting following strange Bolivians deeper into marshy bushes might not be the wisest thing to do. Sure enough, though, he led me to the "ferries" that would take me across, and rather nervously I drove up the rickety ramp onto the tiny boat and was taken across. To be met by about 10 other men. Who wanted paying. I think they were honest chaps though, and even though they asked for 50 bolivianos for the ride, the loading and unloading, and holding the bike while I relaoded the boxes, which seemed a bit high, I paid up. And realised I rather foolishly had all my cash in my wallet. No probs, though, and they even had change for a 100! And helped me up when I dropped the bike in the mud on the way off the river bank! Despite their honest dispositions, I have to admit I high-tailed it out of there along the gravel road, watching my mirror carefully for signs of pursuit, in case they had changed their minds, but they were just friendly blokes making a living. Given a choice, however, I'll find a different route back, if only for the mud avoidance!

That night, I never made it to Santa Maria and the animal park, it got dark too early, and I was exhausted, hot, hungry and dehydrated. I stopped in a small town, and noticed my box frame was broken again, so I got that welded, and in the process got more badly bitten by mosquitos, on my shoulders, through my thin top, than I had ever been in my life before. Unfortunately, this was to be a sign of things to come. It was such a small town as well, that I was unable to buy food, so went to bed hungry. In the morning at crack of sparrow's, I was off, and the rest of the way was a breeze, all be it a warm, humid breeze. I rolled into the the sanctuary at about 10am, and was mozzie bitten all over my head by 10.15. And it hasn't gotten any better. At the risk of being a whinging pom, its too hot, too humid, everything is wet, the beds are too hard, there are too many mozzies (like millions too many) and even a mozzie net is not up to the job. If I was to shake hands with a blind man right now, his braille skills would tell a very bizarre story as he felt the bumps on my hands, and if he ran his fingers over my neck or hairline, he would have almost enough words to write War and Peace (or some other lenghty book)! I have to be honest, I'm not gonna lie to you, I'm not sure I can stand a month of this. I'm 4 days in and have nearly been driven insane. Its only the fact that I am walking a real live jaguar through the jungle every day that is keeping me there. And not because its fascinating either, because its not. He just sleeps a lot, usually in areas of maximum mozzie concentration, but its a committment to the animal, and I want to do the right thing by him (Ru, the Jaguar). I will see how the rest of the week goes, and maybe reduce my time to the minimum fortnight, which is still jipping a bit, as I should do a month if I'm with a big cat. But I don't know if I can. We'll see. On the up side - because there is always an up side - we have spider and howler monkeys in the compound, the food is great, and the jungle is an interesting place to go for a walk. It could work, possibly. We'll see.

Until then, I have to go buy meat for a BBQ tonight, and food to supplement my breakfast, and have a cold beer. and maybe some more long sleeved/legged clothes to fight off the bugs. Wish me luck. More than ever I think I'm going to need it for this part of the trip.

Monday, March 2, 2009

On The Road Again

Wow. And double wow. I have just left Cusco after finishing my 2 months with Bruce Peru, and I have to say that, despite the stress and mental and physical exhaustion, it has been one of the best times I have ever had. A bit emotional towards the end, when we had to say goodbye to the kids, but seeing as most of them didn't really seem to register that we (4 of the volunteers, and all of the kids, as they are of to big school in a week) will never see each other again. Probably. If I've learned anyting on this trip its to never say never, so maybe I'll be back some time. I certanly can't imagine never returning, and could well sign up for a month of voluntary work down the line. Todo es posible en Peru, as they say.

So anyway, the last few weeks were tiring, I got in a power strop just because I was finding it hard to live in a tiny shack with 10 people, and spent part of the time trying to keep myself to myself, but I should make it clear (in case any of them ever read this) that it was entirely me that was having issues, and nothing any of the volunteers had done. They were just far too energetic all of the time for an old fudder like me, who every now and then needs to have a bit of peace and quiet to watch crap on the telly and unwind. Being completely honest, we (Rich and I, temporary Co-Directors) could not have asked for a better, more motivated, friendly bunch of volunteers, and we got so much done in such a short space of time exactly because they were young and energtic. Long may it continue, and I hope the long-stayers enjoy the rest of their time. I'll be back to pick up some stuff in early April, so will see how they're doing then.

The last week was made even more interesting as Bruce himself and Ana Tere his wife, came to town for a visit and a chat. Its not often that you meet truly inspirational people in life (OK, apart from you. And you...and you...), but Bruce would have to up there near the top. The sacrifices he has made in his life to provide funds for his projects; the amount of work he has to do now, at the age of 67 (sorry Bruce, I'm making a point), is truly astounding. He pretty much works with his laptop in bed until he falls asleep in front of it, and when he wakes up later he carries straight on, just to earn enough money through his internet streamlining job (too complicated for a dimble-brain like me to fully understand what he does) that he can keep his centres and schools open. And he's been doing it for abut 40 years. It was a privilege to meet himw, and I hope to pop in to the headquarters in Trujillo on my way north to see how them both again. I imagine I will have my work cut out in NZ trying to raise money to send over, once I get back.

But what for the daring duo now? Well, Rich is hanging out in Cusco for another month, while I am heading back to Bolivia to do a month of voluntary work for an animal rescue centre deep in the jungle. If I score the jack pot for jobs going, I could be spending the month walking a jaguar through the jungle as it recooperates from whatever mistreatment it has suffered. Alternatively, I could be working with monkeys, parrots or any number of other critters, so I am pretty excited about the whole thing. On the down side, there is no internet access at the sanctuary, so I'll be struggling to find opportunities to keep you up to date as things happen. Rest assured, however, that as soon as I get a chance to fill people in, you'll be the first to know.

Anyow, that's just a quick update for you. I rode my bike for about 10 hours door to door today, covering about 520km at 3500-4000m about sea level, so I'm pretty weary and need my bed. And you're looking pretty tired yourself, so how's about we all go and get some shut eye? See you in the morning. Sleep tight. Unfortunately for me, the bedbugs have already bitten. Probably won't be the last time over the next month, either. And don't forget to brush your teeth.