July 31, 2010: Doing my best to Help Fix the World

As I write this last blog post from Cusco, Peru, I am sitting at one of the 18 computers at Maximo Nivel on the day before I leave my home in Cusco. The other night my housemates and I were talking about how different the words “house” and “home” are. We decided that a “house” is just a shelter that a person is not emotionally connected to. On the other hand, a “home” is where ones family is and a place that holds a lot of sentimental value. I have stayed in many “houses” per say in Peru, but in La Florida neighborhood in Cusco, Peru I have a “home.” I have come to love and appreciate all the people with whom I have had the pleasure of living for the past six weeks. We all started out strangers from all over the world, but before we knew what had happened we grew so close and formed friendships that will undoubtedly last a lifetime. I am really sad that my time living with the people of La Florida Volunteer House has come to an end, but we will always remember the amazing times we have shared during the summer of 2010 in Cusco and traveling all over southern Peru. Now, enough of the sentiment. I want to tell you about my last Peruvian adventure: my stay in the Amazon jungle.

Thursday night July 22, 2010, basically all of my house went out to celebrate what we thought would be most of our last nights together as a whole. Ceremoniously, we hit up all of the dance clubs we have boogied at over the past six weeks and danced the night away. Amy, Nat, Stef, and I were going to stay up all night so that we would be exhausted for our 8-hour day bus ride to the jungle, which was to leave at 5 am Friday morning.  Unfortunately, of the four brave La Floridians who dared spend a week in the jungle, only Amy and I managed to stay up all night. We went to the 24 hour Polleria (chicken place) at around 4 am for a midnight snack/ breakfast chicken.

When we got back to the house, we woke Nat and Stef up and then got picked up in a van that brought us to a small bus station in a little alley. While we awaited our bus, we all started laughing about nothing. Clearly, our lack of sleep had made us all very slap-happy and over-tired. We were handed a lunch bag with minimal food in it, which led us to think that a future devoid of food was in store for us. We brought plenty of snacks to munch on from the supermarket, Mega, with us just in case we were constantly hungry.

At around 5:45 am, we got on one of the dirtiest buses we had ever been on here that was to bring us to our placement in the jungle. Despite the filth, I was able to sleep very well. I shut my eyes, and when I next woke up we were parked in a small town that was clearly not the jungle. This was just a place where we could buy something for breakfast and stop at the bathroom. We did not buy anything, but we watched a little Peruvian boy chace a little dog. Also, we saw some workers carry a couple of headless carcasses past us. At about 8:45 am, we got back on the bus and drove towards the jungle. When I opened my eyes again we were definitely driving on the edge of a cliff on a one lane road in the Amazon rainforest. It was incredible to see the lush green rainforest roll on endlessly over countless mountains into the distance. We were on the edge of a cliff, and I was a little nervous that we would fall off, but the bus driver, like most others in Peru, knew how to cross the dangerous terrain safely.

At 1:15 pm, I woke up again and was told that we had arrived at Atalya lodge where I would be spending the next seven days living in the middle of nowhere. We walked down a relatively short path only to find out that our accomodation was on the other side of a raging river. We needed to cross the river on a zip-line-like contraption. The only difference was that we were not really going down; rather, we had to pull ourselves horizontally across on this small wooden plank suspended on a wire cable. First, we had to wait for some tourists to pass from the lodge side to our side before we could cross. It was about 90 degrees, I was wearing jeans and a winter jacket, and bugs were flying all around me. I was really regreting my decision to go there.

When we finally crossed to the other side of the river, we were brought to the eating building where we ate our bagged lunches. We met a parrot, Polly, that says, “hola” and then we unexpectedly encountered a monkey, Paola, who came right up to us on the table and started eating our apple cores. She was so cool and it was so amazing how domesticated she was. Then, Raul, one of the employees at Atalaya who actually lives in the jungle and who only speaks Spanish, brought us all a plate of spagghetti.

At about 3 or 4 pm, we were taken to our sleeping bungalow and our beds, which had mosquito netting, and I rested on mine reading my book safely away from the tons of bugs that were flying all around me for the past few hours. Do not get me wrong, I do not like bugs by any means, but I was not freaking out at every one that was on and around me. I read my summer reading book about defacation and sanitation, which for once did not bore me to tears, and then passed out and took a nap.

When I awoke it was dark and time for dinner. Emily leant me her flashlight, so I used it to get to the dining area from the bugalows since there was no electricity anywhere for the seven days I was in the jungle. For dinner we were given an over easy egg, french fries, and the spagghetti leftovers. I really like the food they served us there and the woman, Gloria, who made all of our meals. After dinner, Raul asked any of us if we spoke Spanish. I told him that I was the only one in the group, so he assigned me the task of translating the groundrules he was telling us into English. I felt so useful because I was the only one capable of understanding the people who worked at the lodge. Following my translating debut, we went back to our beds and went to sleep by 9 pm or so. It was so wierd sleeping outside in Peru during the winter and not freezing my butt off. Just 2 days earlier in Puno it was excrutiatingly cold at 4000 meters above sea level, but in the jungle where we were only 1200 meters above seas level it was really warm, even at night.

The next morning was our first day on the job. We got up around 8 am, ate breakfast, and then were told our assignment for the day. Some loggers from Cusco had invaded a neighboring village and have been cutting down primary forest. It was our duty and mission to go and mark the forest as well as create a presence that would hopefully show the loggers that what they were doing was not right. This sounded like a covert mission to me. “The loggers are invading and ruining the forset. They must be stopped. Go in and save those trees from destruction before it is too late.” Unfortunately, top save those trees we had to walk over an hour through dense rainforest in our rubber hightop boots. One of mine had a hole in it, so when we had to cross a river my sock invariably got soaked. The best part of that day involved the fact that we got to carry around machetes. When we finally got to the work site, I had to translate everyones task for the day. The girls cut and wrote on the ribbons that would be used to mark primary vegetation while the men were to use machetes to clear weeds from the areas inhabited by the young trees we were trying to save. This was so fun that I was not even bothered by the bugs flying all around me and in my ears and face. I got a blister from swinging my machete, but I did not care at all because it is the best story behind any wound I have ever gotten.

After our work was done, we headed back to Atalaya and on the way we passed the loggers. We did not do anything to them, obviously, but when we saw the police a little further down the path we were hiking, Raul told them exactle where the loggers were. We eventually got back to our accomodation, had a very satisfying lunch of quinua soup and lentils and rice. Afterwards, I took my dirty, uncomfortable boots off, took a freezing cold, pressureless shower, and rested on my bug-free bed. A few hours later, some of the other people staying in the jungle with us, including Nat, had a Shaman guide them through a spiritual experience with the hallucinogenic drug Ayahuasca. I had no interest in participating, but I enjoyed watching the ceremony. The Shaman had Raul tell everyone involved some disclaimers. ” You may have crazy visions, you cannot have coffee, sex, or alcohol 3 days before or after consumption of Ayahuasca, and you may throw up after drinking the drug because the taste is very ugly, but try to fight the urge.” The next morning, Sunday, when I woke up, I immediately asked Nat is she had an enlightening experience like she was supposed to have. She replied saying that noone really felt anything and it was very disappointing. I was happy that I chose not to participate, but maybe one day somewhere else when I want to find enlightenment or have a spiritual experience I will try Ayahuasca.

that Sunday afternoon, since all the workers were home, most of the ten volunteers came together to cook a really delicious lunch. We just started cooking and the result of our triumphant teamwork was a great vegetable and quinua soup and spagghetti with sauteed onions, eggplant, peppers, tomatoes, and garlic. Lunch was a great success. Afterwards, me housemates and I, as well as another volunteer Greg Zoller (no relation to Emily), waled on a trail for fifteen minutes to a fairly large waterfall where we “swam” in the frigid waters. It was too shallow to swim, but we just chilled. When we got back to base camp, Stefs mosquito net was ripped from the monkey, so we helped her put up another one. Last Sunday, I learned that teamwork is definitely a necessity if one hopes to succeed in the jungle, or anywhere really. For dinner, we cooked an equally delicious meal. We recreated the soup from lunch, but for the entree we made a dish of whote rice cooked in a pan with onions, scallions, garlic, and scrambled eggs and topped off with a fried egg. We ate dinner and were very pleased by the outcome of our efforts. The people who did not help make dinner, which was everyone but the volunteers from La Florida, cleaned the dishes and made pudding for dessert. We all played cards for a while until the bug situation became unbearable at which point we all headed off to bed. It is funny that we got to sleep by 9 pm every night in the Amazon whereas at home in Cusco I do not think I have ever gone to bed before midnight since I have been here.

Monday morning, we all woke up around 8 am, ate breakfast, and I translated the days tasks. I love being the only means of communication between the workers and volunteers. It makes me feel as if my education has been worth something and can actually be applied to real life situations. The volunteers from La Florida and one other girl, Julie, were to go with Raul along the Trocha de Mono, or Mokey Path, to look for seeds to plant. Sure enough, soon after we started hiking, we saw Paola the monkey following us. We hiked for about 45 minutes up steep jungle terrain and across streams in our rubber boots. Raul was wielding his sharpened machete and seemed to be cutting down tons of bamboo to clear out path. It is amazing how much destruction a machete can cause when it is used properly. Eventually, we reached a pretty high point in the jungle and were told to enter in and among the trees to look for seeds and certain seedlings. We were really in the jungle with no footpaths around us for about an hour surrounded by bugs and unknown plant species. I thought this piece of information would make my mom, who thought I would freak out at every sighting of a bug, proud. After our work was done, and we started headed back to camp, Raul was showing us some cool jungle secrets. He showed us a vine we could safely swing from like tarzan, an ant kingdom whose queen was a poisonous frog, and the “labios de puta” (lips of a whore) flower that apparently had powers comparable to those of the sexual stimulant Viagra. When we got back to camp, we started filling bags with dirt and then added seedlings to each bag. I spotted a belligerent ant species and told Raul that two nights ago i saw a bullet ant almost bite Stef. He said that they are super dangerous because a bite from them causes 24 hours of unbearable pain and fever. If one were to get bit 4 to 10 times by a bullet ant, one could die. I got a little nervous after Raul told me this because it just made me think of all the little creatures that probably lived in the jungle that I would never suspect to be extremely dangerous. Sunday night, I used another volunteers duck tape to patch up my mosquito net to insure that no bugs could ever enter. At lunch on Monday it downpoured for about an hour, and I loved every moment of it. It had barely rained since I have been here, and for that reason I was really excited to listen to it and watch it pour in the rainforest.

Tuesday morning I woke up and it was still terentially raining. When Raul got to camp he told us we had no work and then told the group of volunteers, with help from my translating, jungle stories about poisonous snakes and spiders as well as bears and jaguars. He said that once he was a little drunk and he almost urinated on a huge bear. He also showed us the scars from where he was bitten by a poisonous snake and spider. Since we could not work, I had to cross the river with a bunch of the other volunteers via the zipline and help carry a huge new shipment of food back to camp. We got a lot of good new snacks, so my La Florida pals and I horded all the best cookies and crackers. On Wednesday we finished bagging the seedlings in the small bags and then had the rest of the day to relax and read and just contemplate life. It was so nice to go to the jungle and get away from the city for a bit just so that I could pause and catch my breath and live a simple life devoid of any of the pleasures of civilization. The jungle was so quiet but so loud at the same time, for the sounds of the thousands of species of birds, bugs, and other animals just fills the air with an awesome symphony of different sounds. On Thursday, we were waiting all morning to take a combis back to Cusco. We were not supposed to leave until Friday night, but since Amys flight left today, Saturday afternoon, we thought it would be too risky to take the Friday bus back. We paid an extra ten soles and got back to Cusco at 9 pm on Thursday night. We also wanted to go home on Thursday because we really missed Cusco and had our fill of the jungle. I am so happy to be back in Cusco, and I have been enjoying my last few days and nights in what I think is the best city on earth.

Last night we all went out to all the clubs in Cusco for one last night out all together. Amy, Stef, Nat, and I all are really close because we spent so much time together in the jungle and go out dancing a lot, and for that reason we all decided that the Incan Chacana symbol would be a cool way to represent our frendship since it has four corners and there are four of us and it has a lot of other relevant meanings. This morning Amy, Nat, and Stef got small Chacana tattoos on their wrists and will forever remember all of the amazing times we shared together in Cusco. I just bought a bracelet that has the Chacana symbols on it since Judaism does not permit me to get tattooed. The four of us went to the airport today to send Amy off, and it was so sad thinking that we will probably never be in Cusco together again. But at the same time we all understand that all great things must at one time or another come to an end.

Have you ever tried to think about what it truly means to be somewhere with its own culture, its own terrain, its own people, and its own beauty? I have tried really hard to understand the fact that I have been in Peru for the past six weeks of my life and everything I have witnessed and everyone I have come to know has been part of my Peruvian experience during the summer of 2010. However, I have a lot of trouble mentally placing myself in such a foreign country when here, in Peru, I feel so at home.

I will leave you all with the words of a good friend of mine, Julia Convissor, from La Florida. She once said to me, ” Mike, there is beauty everywhere and in everyone. All you need to do is find it. ” In Peru, I have found true beauty both in the countryside and in the people, and I will never forget the incredible memories I have from my first big trip abroad in Cusco.


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