Saturday, November 27, 2010

El Día de Accion de Gracias

 Thanksgiving is here and I have so much to be thankful for that I would be a complete imbecile to take them for granted.

1. LIFE!! Ok ok ok... I know this answer is going to make you want to gag, but I have a story that will make you appreciate my answer as well. So as you know, the jungle can be a treacherous place, but I hadn´t experienced that feeling first hand until a couple of weeks ago when a few friends and I were walking in the jungle. It was dark out so we all had our torches and we were sticking strictly to the path. As we´re walking, Vicki jolts back and her scream pierces the tranquility of the forest. We freeze, and in the light of her headlamp, is a coiled up Fer-de-lance snake, poised to strike. The Fer-de-lance is a venomous pitviper that is extremely dangerous and causes more human fatalities than any other reptile (according to Wikipedia hahah). In our region of the jungle, it is the third most poisonous snake after the Coral snake and the Bushmaster. Our friend Simon had already unknowingly passed over the snake and was on the other side. Stuck on the otherside. In a frantic panic, me and another girl sprinted back to camp to call for help. We were able to get Fernando and he quickly came and killed the snake in one blow to save Simon (No problem for jungle masters like Fernando).
Though the snake didn´t bite anyone that night, we had a close call. That was one aggravated snake and one small bite could have done anything from causing memory loss, or paralysis, to a fatality. We are incredibly lucky that Vicki was vigilent that night! It´s a scaryyyy world out there! I must remain on my toes!

2. Bug repellant and AfterBite: Without these two vital chemicals, I would be one sorry scarred up girl. The other night, I went on a walk wearing leggings with shorts overtop. Two layers of protection is apparently tissue thin to the mosquito´s penetrating probiscous! I woke up the next morning and my bum was SOLID mosquito bites. Rocky mountain range status on my BEHIND!! I´ve been slathering on the AfterBite every chance I get and sneaking in little scratches when I think no one is looking ;)

3. Mosquito Net: While the bugs feast on me all they want while I´m on their turf, there is NO way they are penetrating my sacred bed bubble. I am so thankful for this marvelous piece of fabric that allows me to sleep in peace!

4. Siestas: I have definitely adopted this genious bit of South American culture. Almost every day I take a short nap after lunch to give me that extra energy boost to get me through the rest of the day. While some say this practice is only for lazy fools, I believe it is quite advanced to recognize the needs of the human body. We naturally get sleepy during this part of the afternoon and to structure your life around this energy-dip allows you to be more productive when you are awake.

5. Simple Pleasures: Being down here has made me much more appreciative of the little things. A letter from a friend, spotting wildlife, swimming in the river, tea or hot chocolate, having ice cream and other delicious foods when I come into town, identifying a bird by its call, making chocolate cakes, making a new friend, clean laundry, watching monkeys swing from branches, smuggling snacks back to Taricaya, wellies and raincoats, toast, my opaque waterbottle that allows me not to see all the dirt particles swimming in my water, candlelight, learning a word in another language, crazy dancing, and even just laughing!

6. NOT having mirrors: While Vicki and I have a small mirror in our bedroom, it is easy to avoid and I am thankful that there are few reflective surfaces down here. I´m sure glad I don´t have to look at my grimy, dirt smeared face! Haha! But it is just not important to look a certain way in the jungle and it is very refreshing to not be judged on appearance.

7. Victoria Monreal: Vicki is an amazing girl and I am SOO incredibly thankful that she was crazy enough to agree to come on this trip with me. She makes me laugh and can always amplify the awesomeness of an experience. She is up for anything and we have so much fun together! Sometimes we just start laughing for no apparent reason and can´t stop until our cheeks literally hurt! She is also one of the most caring people I know and I feel blessed to have someone who always has my back. Whether keeping me safe against eager Peruvians, pickpocketers, spiders, jaguars, or myself, she is always there :) We make a good team and I am sooo thankful to have a travel partner who is like my other half. I love you Victoria!

8. Friends/Family: Whether I have just met you or you are keeping up with me long-distance, I love you all! I am very affected by the people around me and I feel so gracious to be surrounded by such outstanding citizens!! I could never be a hermit or Chris McCandless (from Into the Wild) because the warmth and happiness people bring to my life is unmeasurable! Thank you for putting up with my craziness!! Bahaha!

9. Andy, Jan, and Allison: I love you!! I am a lucky girl to have been raised in such a loving family. Especially being down here, I feel so grateful to have had a family that has been stable enough to give me everything I need and more. I have been granted with opportunities that I know most of the world does not get to enjoy. I admire my Dad for working so hard and never letting it show. He is one of the happiest, goofiest people I know and I am astounded that he has shaped his life around what he loves. I hope I can be like that. My Mom is so kind and I thank her for all the knowledge, advice, home cooked meals, care packages, and everything else she has provided/sacrificed for me over the years. I only hope that I can give her as much recognition as she deserves! And Allison. My beautiful older sister who is always so wise and composed. She is so warm-hearted and I love that as well as the sarcastic, witty, devil side she has to her (don´t deny it Allison ;))! I hope you know how much I love you all and how much I miss you!

10. Thanksgiving Feasts: No matter where you are in the world, a thanksgiving dinner IS possible!! A few days before Thanksgiving, the three Americans (me, Vicki, and Zack) got together and discussed our options. It was simply not possible to let Thanksgiving fly by unappreciated- that would be totally against EVERYTHING the holiday stands for!! But we were a little apprehensive. We would be using foreign cooking appliances, substitue ingredients, we would have about 35 anxious mouths to feed (most of which was there first thanksgiving so they were expecting something grand!), and none of us had ever done it before, let alone cooked for that many people. It was a big endeavour but we decided to take it on. In the spirit of THANKSGIVING!

So, the day before, we went into the market and rounded up the goods. The ingredients we purchased were somewhat sketchy but we hoped that they would get the job done. And then, contrary to popular belief, we found the impossible: A GRAND TURKEY!! Whoohoo! It would be a real Thanksgiving feast.
We started that night on the pies so we would have enough oven space for the turkey the next day. And low and behold, with about half of the normal ingredients from the recipie, and some weird sort of gourd, we made PUMPKIN PIE!! Starting early the next day, we did the rest. And we did it with gusto! The whole ordeal! We made an apple crisp, apple cider, mashed potatoes, stuffing, salad, jello, popcorn (which apparently the Indians invented), bread rolls (well we bought the rolls), and of course turkey and gravy! We were nervous the whole day, but when it came time to eat, everyone was blown by how amazing it all tasted and quickly went for seconds! Even the turkey turned out perfectly tender! Not to toot my own horn or anything, but I must say three inexperienced Americans did pretty frickin awesome!! I haven´t been that full since last Thanksgiving I believe :)

It was a dinner of a lifetime. We had everyone say something they were thankful for and it was so touching that I literally had to holdback tears (my mother cursed me with weak tear ducts I think haha). Everyone was so appreciative as well (especially the cooks who got the night off) and told us we made their first Thanksgiving unforgettable!

In the end, I´m grateful I was able to bring a little piece of home to Peru and I must thank my lucky stars for helping me pull it off!

Thank you!!

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Treacherous Happenings

The jungle is a very volatile place to live, and sometimes I forget that. But other times, I feel lucky to escape unscathed....

Vicki and I had spent a nice, quiet weekend at Taricaya, free of stress and drama. We relaxed all day, got some reading done, and ate way too much food for how inactive we were. After a splendid evening, we strolled back to our bungalow to get ready for bed. Vicki brushed her teeth, and I went to grab my towel to wash my face. And that´s when things took a turn for the worse. There, cleverly tucked behind the folds of my towel, was a snarling, purely EVIL, spider. With GLOWING EYES!! And this wasn´t just ANY spider. This was the Mother of All Spiders. She was eerily translucent, spindly, and about the size of my hand. She was so big, I swore I could see the purple filigree of her veins pulsing through rancid limbs.

And this over-grown, over-disgusting creature was in OUR room. While we were trying to sleep! The nerve! So much for sweet dreams. We´ve gotten used to most spiders, but there was NO way in the world we could sleep in peace knowing that the eight-legged devil was creeping over us.

I pathetically whined to Vicki to come see the horror that was our life. She came out and we were both frozen there, not knowing how to deal with this THING. After ten minutes or so of pannicking, we decided to arm ourselves for battle. As if cotton could sheild us, we covered our bodies in pants, long-sleeve shirts, gloves, and shoes.
We strategized our plan of attack. The least amount of commotion was ideal because we knew that the second the giant started scurrying, there would be total chaos and all would be lost!! We had to be quick and efficient in our movements. Ninja status. We desperately searched around, for ideas, for lethal weapons, for a god, we needed SOMETHING! I know we´re supposed to be doing conservation here, but screw it, that THING had to go. It was either me or him. We also wanted to be good bungalow-mates and not just sweep it into our neighbors room. That´s just asking for bad karma. The arachnid had to be obliterated! (for the sake of the people)!

So it was decided. Murder. A foolhardy scheme to bring the spider to it´s impending doom. Vicki had killed the last irksome insect, so we both knew it was my turn. I had to face my fear, slay the DRAGON!!! Weapon of choice: Vicki´s old tennis shoe (By the way, thank you Vicki for gallantly volunteering those shoes. You brave SOLE hehe). Armed with blugeroon in hand, we positioned ourselves. Vicki on standby with another weapon to get a second hit in if needed. I took a few moments to steady my shaking hand and catch my breath. I lined up, and as I swung, I let out a manic war cry, "PREPARE TO DIEEEEEE!!!"

I swear time stopped for an instant. Had my clobbering job WORKED?!?!?! Was the spider still at LARGE (haha)?? But sure enough, to my relief, I had hit the spider "dead" on and it´s massive corpse collapsed to the floor in an ugly heap. Vicki quickly sweeped out the twitching carnage for the vultures and the maggots to finish. That´s right, don´t mess with us. Resistance is futile.

SIGGHHHH. Just recounting this story gives me the heebie-jeebies. Especially because after the first enormous spider, we found three others that looked similar to it but smaller. We fear that the spider layed eggs in our bungalow in a final act of revenge and that we will now have 8 billion 8-legged freaks running around, haunting us.

If I come out of the jungle insane, you can blame the spider.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Fake It til You Make It

Being in the jungle, resources limited, you have no choice but to get creative. Sometimes, you get lucky and fly right on through by the seat of your pants, and other times.... well let´s just say you always learn from your mistakes :)

Just every little-day things that I take for granted back at home, I´ve been having to relearn or make up here. For example, Vicki and I have been doing some cooking and baking this past month. At home, on
the rare occasion that I do enter the kitchen with an apron, I have a microwave, recipies, and a plethora of ingredients at my disposal. Here: none of the above. And another obstacle is that I can only recognize what half of the ingredients even are due to their incriminating labels. But you can´t get choked up because when someone´s birthday comes around, they deserve cake right? Right, so I´ve become accustomed to just throwing mysterious ingredients in left and right (and doing lots of taste testing :)) until it tastes like it could potentially be edible. And though some of the recipies should never be repeated (i.e. mistaking amounts of salt and yeast, or accidently putting corn flour in a coffee cake), other cakes have been to die for!... Though it could just be my sweet-deprived stomach overexaggerating the delictable-ness.

Another interesting cooking experience was Vicki and I learning how to make popcorn on a stove. I would definitely say we learned the hard way. We had a strong start though- we turned the stove on high, we poured some oil and salt in a small sacue pan, and then we threw some kernals in. No problem. All we had to do was calmly wait for the kernals to heat. But a minute later and we´re diving to the floor, desperately trying to escape the oily balls of fire exploding everywhere. We scrambled to turn the stove off but we were too late. The kitchen was trashed. I imagine we´ll be finding little suprise kernals in random places for years. As we swept up the mess, we scolded ourselves for our lack of common sense. But we learned our lesson and now have a new understanding for how the tasty corn snack got its name.

Halloween at Taricaya was probably the most creative holiday I´ve ever witnessed. Everyone here is traveling lightly so it´s not like anyone brought along any gorilla suits or devil costumes or anything. Nope, we really had to scrounge to pull something together. But low and behold, they were some of the best costumes I´ve ever seen! Talcum powder and mosquito nets were a high commodity and people cleverly fashioned themselves into ghosts. Or in ways I cannot begin to explain, one volunteer named Sam shaped his mosquito net into a poisonous mushroom- it was quite clever! There was an ace bandage mummy, a machete bearing ninja, a turtle with a tub for a shell, and then some volunteers used our best resource: sticks and leaves! They were able to harness the jungle to cover their vital areas and totally transform themselves into native Amazonian people. It was hilarious and I applaud their efforts! Though I personally didn´t use the jungle in my costume, I was able to become part of the jungle by spending all of two minutes to twist and tie my yellow blanket into a Chiquita Banana! The resemblance wasn´t perfectly accurate (many thought I was a neo KKK member or an Indian woman) but I was pretty proud of my last minute resourcefulness!

The other day, Jack Hanna and his film crew were here. Jack Hanna is a famous zookeeper/zoologist and now he does a television series about different species of animals all over the world. He´s done over 400 shows and has been to every continent at least three times. He´s pretty much the animal expert. So Taricaya is pretty excited because Jack has been traveling about Peru and Chile and he decided to do a whole TV episode on Taricaya and what we do here!! The volunteers were also pretty excited to try out their acting skills. We got to tell him all about what we do here and all the different jungle animals. Though a lot of the footage was just rolling, some of it was staged a little. It was pretty hilarious and so fun to see all the behind the scenes stuff. I was very intrigued. I´m also incredibly jealous of Jack and his employee´s lives- they get paid to travel around the world and learn about all these exotic animals and meet all these crazy people. If anyone knows how to get me a job like this, please let me know!!

In the past few weeks, I´ve been learning most about the reptiles and the amphibians. The other night, Stuart taught us all about the Caiman (reptile similar to an alligator or a crocodile). We have them all around the river, though they are mostly nocturnal. The average caiman is 1-3 meters long but apparently they can grow to 7 meters long if the environment allows. So that night, after Stuart gave us the talk, we all silently piled into a boat and had to remain perfectly still and quiet. Gigo drove the boat from the light of one torch, while Stuart was on the lookout. Stuart was quick to spot multiple caiman and he fearlessly jumped out of the boat and wrestled them into his arms-- Crocodile Dundee style. He brought them into the boat and we all got to examine the creatures and their interesting features. Caiman have this nifty second eyelid that is like a natural goggle and allows them to see underwater! Caiman have been around since the prehistoric times and are so effiicient at what they do that adaptions since then have not been necessary. In the end, it was just amazing to see this creature who predates us by over 17 million years.

The other reptile of interest these past few weeks has been the turtle. Our lodge, Taricaya, is named after the yellow spotted turtle from these parts. In the months before I got here, volunteers had collected almost 50 turtle nests to preserve in our artificial beaches. This way, the eggs were safe from being eaten by illegal poachers. But it´s time and the turtles have been hatching like mad! After they hatched, we took them back to the lab and weighed, measured, and marked them. Then yesterday, on Taricaya´s 9th anniversary (Nov. 5), we took over 500 turtles and simaltaneously released them into the river! It was so cute to watch them blubbering their way towards the water! Knowing that the survival rate is less than 5%, we wished the baby turtles the best of luck as they floated away in the strong current! Only the few and the strong survive, but we already know our repopulation strategies have been helping because they´ve been seeing an increase in the population. It felt really great to be apart of this project and I would say that Taricaya had a successful anniversary!

So basically, I´m on a steep learning curve and my stupidity is finally turning into knowledge! My Spanish is improving a little and I´m learning more about the jungle everyday. Vicki and I have become some of the more experienced volunteers now and it feels good to know the ropes and be able instruct the "newbies" on what to do. We´ve recently picked up a few new French volunteers, another Australian woman, a German girl, and a girl from Japan. The Japanese girl is named Yuuri and she is now mine and Vicki´s roommate. She is very sweet but I think somewhat overwhelmed with the language and the culture shock. She will be with us for a month though, so I´m sure in a few days she´ll have picked up my "Fake it til you make it" motto that I´ve been using. While some may feel this expression comes with a negative connotation, you have to believe me that it´s really all you can do when you´re thrown into a situation like this. I may make a fool of myself along the way, but I´ll learn and I´ll come around... eventually :)

Love to all!