And the time to disappear into the jungle finally came…
Two days before our planned departure into the jungle we met Karina, one of the coordinators at the eco-reserve Amaru Mayu, where we planned to spend the following 30 days. Karina gave us a very thorough introduction to the reserve, from its socio-political statement, to how to hold a machete and what to do if you get stung by a bullet ant (just pray you won’t, is my only advice). She also explained to us, in a very clear Spanish that even I could understand, that Amaru Mayu is very different from most other non-profit NGO conservation projects… and oh, believe me, we will have plenty of time to get a real taste of what she meant once at reserve! But for now, in all our young naivety, we felt pretty content with the way Karina presented the project to us, insisting on the fact that it’s a small organisation which doesn’t receive foreign nor government support and is only motivated by the desire to protect a patch of pristine land in a national park that is threatened by mining, logging and hunting of endemic animal species. In a very comradely spirit, she also told us that at Amaru Mayu we will all be equals and part of a big family, volunteers and staff alike, and that together we will be on a mission to help the forest (with added string section).
Recruitment calls apart, it sounded pretty good and we soon finalised and confirmed the details of our volunteering contract at the reserve. The deal was that we would be able to work on our project for 3 days a week and volunteer for the association for the remaining 4 days in return for food and accommodation. As we previously discussed in our long exchange of emails from England, our help to the association would come in the form of a promotional video for their website, which would hopefully increase their online visibility and presence. Up to this point, all seemed good and promising… until one of those jaw-dropping adrenaline-bursting moments, when I found out that the reserve didn’t have any form of power supply. Even though the website clearly stated that they owned a generator, this didn’t actually work, which was almost to be expected in South America, where theory and practice are two distinct realms that rarely meet. No electricity, no generator, no solar panels, no water turbines, no power. For a moment, a rush of adrenaline hit me in the head and I felt like passing out on the sofa. How are we going to shoot and edit a film without electricity? How could Karina not tell us before? If she had told us one month before, or even 2 weeks before, we could have done something about it, but now? 48 hours before our planned departure, what could we do? The news felt like a death sentence to our project. Looking back, if there is one thing that I have learnt through the past few months of travels in South America, is to just never, ever believe what people tell you when they are trying to sell you something. I know this sounds like common sense to be applied wherever you go, but this one time I didn’t triple check and ended up paying later on for my mistake. Rant apart, Karina somehow managed to very quickly reassure us, promising that the closest village is just 10 minutes away on a boat and that we can go whenever we want to charge our equipment. She made it sound very simple and easy and again, for some reason, I believed her. After all, at that stage, we didn’t have a choice unless we wanted to abort the whole project and lose our deposit. So we just nodded, tried to convince ourselves that all would be good in the end, and handed over to her the 500 dollars in cash she wanted for our time as volunteers (ironic, I know).
The following day was spent around Cuzco, buying ridiculous amounts of spare batteries for our sound recorder, hunting for good rubber boots and stocking up on enough chocolate and Pisco to last us a month.
And so it begun… not exactly in the glorious way I was hoping for. The next day I woke up with a fever and got on a minibus for a horrendous 9 hour journey, the second part of which was on a rough road, wide enough for only a car to drive through, with no guardrails and vertical drops down rocky mountains at over 4000 meters above sea level. On top of that, our lives were in the hands of an overconfident driver who thundered through the steep muddy roads regardless of dust, clouds, landslides, fallen branches and the occasional river. The clearest memory I have of the whole journey is of Nick, sitting next to me, pale in the face, munching on a pain au chocolat after another because, just in case something was to happen, he didn’t want to be found dead next to a paper bag full of pain au chocolat. That would have been too much of a waste.
But luckily all bad things, just like the good ones, come to an end, and when that doesn’t involve death, there’s always time to look back and laugh. Late in the night we arrived in the tiny village of Atalaya, where we found ourselves a small damp room with a mouldy bed and fell asleep, both feeling slightly sick but glad to be alive. The next day we woke up to the songs of birds, the barking of bogs and the incessant racket of chickens and cocks, the sound signature of any jungle village in Latin America. I smiled and felt immediately happy. The fever was gone, and I finally felt ready to head to the reserve.
The reserve of Amaru Mayu was very close to Atalaya, just a few hundred meters up the river, on the other side of the mountain the village was facing. Karina had arranged for a man to call for us at the hotel and take us to the reserve at 6am. As predicted, the guy didn’t even bother showing up, so we packed our bags and ventured out in the village, in search for someone with a boat to help us cross the river.
Atalaya is your typical small jungle village, with huge women guarding tiny groceries shops, a bunch of middle aged men sitting on the side of the one and only road drinking beer or Inca Kola (a bright yellow hyper sugary fizzy pop that speaks of bad teeth and diabetes), the occasional child running around, free roaming chickens, piles of bananas and coca leaves waiting to be loaded on a truck and wet muddy dogs lying comatose on the ground, trying to survive the heat. That is pretty much all there is to see and do in tiny little Atalaya. Those men who are not sitting around drinking from huge glass bottle are probably engaged in some kind of business, which could be either in the tourist sector, as guides or boat drivers, or logging. If you pay attention and ignore the dog barks, the chickens and the cries of children, you can often hear the dark sound of a chainsaw in the distance. It’s worrying and saddening at the beginning, but it’s even worse when, after a month, you stop noticing it.
After a brief walk around the village we eventually found someone to take us to Amaru Mayu for 20 Peruvian Soles (a fiver). We quickly packed our bags and loaded them on a comfortable river boat which felt safer and sturdier than any of the flimsy canoes that I got used to in Ecuador. The engine roared, and we glided through the waters of the Madre de Dios river, with big smiles on our faces, soaking in the colours, sounds and smells there were seeping from the forest all around us. I remember experiencing a vivid flashback from my time in Ecuador, as the Amazon is always the Amazon, no matter what government is claiming it. I could hear Oropendola calls and spotted the bright red and yellow flowers of the Heliconia Subulata. Lush green bushes were sensually enveloping around the lower trees, just below the thick blanket of leaves that makes up the canopy. Here and there, a few slender trees from the emergent layer would make their way to the sky, like sentinels of the forest, keeping watch of the horizon. And of course, the distinctive smell of mud, mould, mushrooms, decomposing matter and wet vegetation, which sounds so revolting to describe but actually makes for a lovely, lovely aroma. I could see clouds of moisture, like vapour, rising slowly from the trees like the breath of a gigantic creature, and the blue sky opening up gloriously from behind. I was back, finally, and as I got caught in a tempest of good and bad memories from my previous visit to the jungle, my eyes got slightly watery.
As soon as the village of Atalaya disappeared behind us and we followed the river upstream for another hundred meters, the Amaru Mayu lodge appeared in the distance. A small house, clinging to the rocks just over the river, peeking through the trees but still completely surrounded by forest. So this is my home now, I thought with trepidation and joy, and it looks absolutely perfect.