The best two weeks of my life were spent in a small volunteer community toward the Amazon Basin, somewhere in between Cochabamba and Santa Cruz, Bolivia, where the air was steamy and we were surrounded by mist-covered peaks wrapped in dense green vegetation.
It started as a snap decision made on a quiet street corner in Santa Cruz. We were drinking soda at the time, and I remember the school day had just finished because kids were flooding out of the school across the road.
I had seen the posters everywhere and they had stayed with me. Suddenly! I leapt to my feet and announced to Boxhead and Ratface that I was going to volunteer with Comunidad Inti Wara Yassi, a local NGO that cares for wildlife rescued from illegal trading or cruelty, for two weeks, in the jungle, and they looked at their leader with their eyes frightened wide open, afraid of abandonment like a puppy when you leave the room, and they said to me: “We’re coming too.”
Santa Cruz is only 400m above sea-level at tropical latitude meaning it was hot hot, man, a dry heat with a warm blow-dryer wind perpetually blowing dust into your face, and did I say that it was HOT?
We decided to volunteer at Parque Ambue Ari, 348km north of Santa Cruz, where there is no telephone or electricity and water has to be taken from a borehole (I’m not sure if this should now be past tense?)
We bought bus tickets for the next morning then headed to a sprawling street market to buy work clothes. We each bought a pair of trousers and a long-sleeve white t-shirt. I also bought a wedding dress which the salesman promised me really was in fact a mosquito net. Already I’d had one made (a net) but I’d gotten my measurements wrong and the square of netting I was given might have covered a testicle.
We waited in the bus station. I was having doubts. Not about volunteering, but about where we were going to volunteer.
“You know”, I said, “Maybe Parque Machia would be better… The volunteers there have told me that they are desperately in need of help and as we only have fifteen days we’d be better suited to go there. Ambue Ari is mainly a cat park, and to work with big cats you have to stay thirty days, there wouldn’t be much else for us there…”
Ratface and I hurried off to get new tickets. There was a bus leaving in an hour. We didn’t really lose out because bus travel is so cheap in Bolivia. As we were waiting for it the button popped off my new work trousers.
I believe it was my first ever chicken bus, certainly not the last
. I had lost rock, paper, scissors and so had to sit on my own. The next thing I was sitting next to a woman whose mass trespassed on half of my seat. She had also blocked the aisle with her luggage, refusing to move it for anybody.
“Can I open the window, please?” I asked her politely.
Parque Machia is in the department of Cochabamba, 337km west of Santa Cruz. It took us around six hours to reach Villa Tunari, a very small town at the entrance to the park. In the meantime, a stinky nappy thrown through a window narrowly missed Boxhead’s face on its way out and my new bottle of water rolled away under the seat never to be seen again.
I clambered over the señora and her things with my trousers falling down. It was like a full frontal movie. Her eyes opened wide enough to see white all around the iris, the same way that you’d look at a winning lottery ticket.
From the edge of town we hiked across the bridge over the brown river to Parque Machia. We were met by a young German girl who gave us a tour of the park together with three newly-arrived Israelis. In the park there are pumas, spider monkeys, squirrel monkeys, jaguars, snakes, tejones, sloths, ocelots, Andean bears, brightly coloured birds… After the tour we had to wait until the end of the working day for our induction.
We received an induction from K. He told us about the park rules and where we were needed. As part of his induction he told us that a lot of people arrived at the park only to leave after a day or two because it wasn’t what they were expecting. The way he spoke about those that snuck off in the middle of the night was all scorn, like a synonym for cancer.
In the morning we crested the little rise in the road in our white t-shirts, and the volunteer workers waiting in the café blinking at the sun-glare coming off us must have thought that three angels had descended from the heavens to reward them for their selfless hard work. The café was about 100 yards from the flop, close but perilous in the night when stray dogs prowled the road.
We waited in the café. I was nervous as hell, wanting to run away in a straight line. The three Israelis that had accompanied us on the tour had decided to go to Parque Ambue Ari instead. I had been assigned to the clinic, right behind the café and next to the veterinary surgery. Shortly, R came to collect me. She was the only other volunteer in the clinic. She walked me around the corner of the café through strips of hanging plastic into a surging and deafening mass. All around me monkeys squealed and shrieked with excitement and rattled rusty iron cages.
There were 27 Capuchin monkeys and one Albifron monkey housed in the clinic. During the day some were allowed out of their cages attached to a rope. This was my first task. R showed me the routine. Three times a day I’d prepare meals, wash the floor until it sparkled; twice a day I would prepare snacks; and once a day I’d hand wash their blankets. In the afternoon I always had a couple of hours to play with the monkeys.
Meanwhile, Boxhead was swallowed by the jungle each day and surrounded by wild monkeys that bullied him into a monkey cage. Ratface was in the Quarantine area next to the clinic. It was a similar operation to mine.
I walked around to the café on break. Two new arrivals were waiting there. Their names were A and C. They remain two of the best people I have ever met.
“Hi”, I said.
“Hey, you’re one of the White T-Shirt gang! We’ve heard about you guys!”
“Yeah, three guys turned up yesterday all wearing the same white t-shirt!”
I looked down at it already stained. I can’t believe we all bought the same t-shirt, I thought, those two idiots…
“So what’s it like?”
“It’s difficult to say really, it’s only my second day”
“Where are you from?” A asked me.
“Wales” I said. “You?”
How about that. In the real world we lived real close.
The heat was sadistic, and often there wasn’t enough water pressure, or water for that matter, to shower. My bed sheets were dirty and sweat-stained, the things hadn’t been washed in 25 years, and bugs crawled on the walls and clustered in the corners of our shared house.
Only one person in the bedroom had a fan and I happened to be in its line of fire, thank Christ. Still, as soon as Boxhead fell asleep I’d turn it away from him to face me more. Heh heh.
One evening, Ratface was in bed and there was a roach under the covers with him. He was screaming like a little girl, screaming, trying to get out from under his bug net.
“What are you doing Ratface?” I chuckled, raking my bed with a steel rake before getting in, “do you have any idea how ridiculous you look?”
There was a jungle-themed party in the first week. I put on a brown t-shirt and trousers and went as a tree. An auction was typically held at the party to raise money for the park. At this auction the naming-rights to four baby monkeys were being sold off. Three siblings and another unrelated monkey. All four babies lived in the clinic. I decided earlier in the day that I was going to name the big brother. He didn’t move a lot; he’d move to gather food, and he’d move to take his sister’s food after he’d finished his own. He’d achieve this by pulling her ear. I liked him.
A bidding war erupted between me and a Dutch girl. I wasn’t about to lose, and we threw money at him like two extravagant billionaires with no understanding of its value and the price went up and up, and she looked at me, looked at me, with her mouth pinched close together and her eyes worried, and that’s when I knew I had her beat, and the price went up but my thirst was terrible and my resolve was strong and I indicated to the auctioneer yes, yes, yes!, until finally, formerly, she was defeated.
I christened him ‘Homer’. The Dutch girl went on to buy his sister. She named her ‘Apple’. There was nothing I could do about that but look disgusted.
Homer wasn’t even my favourite monkey. My favourite monkey was an old and broken monkey called Platon. He’d been chained up by a fortune teller; apparently he was part of the act until he’d bitten a child. The old hags beat him and pulled his fangs out. Platon lay on my lap as if in that little body he carried the pain and weight of the centuries, and I’d feel sadder than a monkey.
Then there was the football match. A game had been arranged between Parque Machia and Villa Tunari. Boxhead and A were also playing. I was intending to impress the girls that had come to watch. I threw my leg over the ball.
“See that girls?” They looked at me wide-eyed. “That’s right.” I said.
The whistle went. The ball was rolled to me. A short, heavy man without a neck came into the back of me, my ankle rolled over the deflated ball, a flash of white light like the bomb had dropped, and I went down like a hot turd. Immediately I had to be carried off, a useless carbon blob. I went pale, thought I was going to be sick from the rush of adrenaline that came with the injury, managed to keep it down. My ankle had trebled in size, quadrupled maybe, six hours from the nearest hospital, that’s it then, I thought, I’m done for.
A should have stayed at home. I should have too.
I limped on, however, not missing a day. The morning after the match, R told me that she was leaving the following week to go to Ambue Ari. The apprentice was to become the master. I was going to be on my own!
“OH JESUS CHRIST! What will I do!? How am I going to make it on my own? …AND WITH A BUSTED ANKLE!”
“You’ll be fine” R reassured me, “You know what to do”
“O lord o jesus…”
This revelation was followed by a particularly bad day. I went to bed early and ranted in my notebook about the injustice of it all. Boxhead and I discussed sneaking off in the middle of the night.
In the morning I was feeling a bit better. Maybe a good night’s sleep was all I needed. It will be hell, I thought, but I am tough and what’s a better way to go than making these little monkeys happy?
I wasn’t on my own for long because Kath had recently arrived and had been assigned to the clinic to replace R. I liked Kath a lot, although she was always in a hurry to complete all of the day’s jobs as quickly as possible. It was nothing to give the monkeys breakfast, lunch and dinner in the space of a few hours, as long as we were finished for the day. I tried explaining that it didn’t work that way, and that the monkeys were on a routine and we couldn’t just put them back in the cages at 3pm and cover them with a tarp then sit on our asses. The day ended at 6. Several times I entered the clinic in a hurtled rush like an automatic rifle and told her breathless to drop the knife, put the piece of fruit down, lunch wasn’t to be served for another two hours.
I cleaned the floor, chopped up fruit, washed blankets, washed dishes, made toys, swept the floor, chased escaped monkeys, looked like the restroom of some skid-row monkey bar, and the sun burned my neck like gasoline. It was great.
My last day of work and another guy had been assigned to the clinic to replace me. I went to meet him in the café.
“Hello”, I said. “I’m Jon.”
I didn’t hear what he said his name was. Uh oh, I thought, I’ll just ask Kath.
“What’s the new guy’s name?” I asked her
“Philippe” she told me.
“So, Philippe”, I said, “We start by removing some of the monkeys from their cages…” I showed him the correct technique. “But we’ll ask one of the vets to get the other alpha out. He’s a crazy bastard”
“Oh no, ‘ee will like me. If you do not show dem fear, dey will not ‘urt you”
“No, don’t go near him!”
But he didn’t listen to me. He went over and got him out and took him to his spot in the clinic. I was gutted. There he was, jumping all over and playing with this new kid when I couldn’t go near him. But he’d been all right with me the in the beginning before I narrowly escaped violent death.
I strolled back into the clinic off my morning break. Philippe and Kath were huddled over something. What’s this! I thought, they’re plotting against me! But there was scarlet running from Philippe’s hand. He had been playing with the alpha when the monkey had suddenly changed and attacked him. It was his MO it seemed, to lure people into a sense of security.
“EE IZ A CRAZY BASTARD!!”
“Yes…” I said, doing my best to hide my delight.
Philippe was bitten again in the afternoon, on this occasion by another monkey, and a monkey that Kath was feuding with gave her three stitches. I had the clinic running like a well-oiled machine. I feared the worst when I left.
And that was it, I was done, we were done. A party was thrown in the evening in our honour. The dress code was white. I blew my chance with a beauty and we decided stay an extra day for Thanksgiving dinner which some of the volunteers were preparing. This also meant that we would leave Villa Tunari with A and C.
And it’s good to end it there instead of telling you how we got out, which took a very long time and involved some full-of-shit hippies in the market in Villa Tunari and a strawberry milkshake. I didn’t want to leave. I was hopelessly devoted to my monkeys and we’d become close friends with the other volunteers. I heard afterwards that R had returned to Machia shortly after leaving because she didn’t enjoy Ambue Ari so much, and I was relieved, the monkeys would be all right. Life was decidedly optimistic.
There are three parks in total, always in need of volunteers. The minimum stay to volunteer is 15 days. If you happen to be in the area but cannot afford the time Villa Tunari is damn well worth a stopover. You can walk the tourist trail at Parque Machia and deliver something on the park’s wish list. Unfortunately, none of the entrance fee goes to the park as the land is owned by Villa Tunari, but you can still see some of the animals living within it.
And you don’t even have to be in Bolivia to help. You can donate through the website or buy a calendar or jewellery from the online shop.
If you’re looking to donate to somebody but don’t know who and you don’t want to give to one of the multimillion pound juggernauts, then Inti Wara Yassi is a good choice. Just a quick look at the website will tell you how good the work is, and how much they need your help.
So now I’ve written this, I feel a little better. Support Inti Wara Yassi by kindness or in some decent way and certainly some relief or good feeling will manifest itself in you too.