Friday, September 30, 2005

And the nominations.....

For the stupidest person to come to Inti Wara Yassi wildlife refuge are:

A: The man who was caught wandering the park trying to sell an Ocelot skin (didn't tell Rico!)

B: The man who decided to poke a monkey with a stick and then complained when the said monkey got sick of being poked and bit him on the ear

C: The local lady who plonked a very dead, very stuffed (and very endangered) giant Anteater on the table of the cafe where us animal loving volunteers eat hoping that someone might want to buy it for the memories....instead she was diverted by one of the volunteers who tried to keep a straight face by asking "do you have anything smaller?" while the park owners called the police and confiscated her anteater.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Testing Times

It seems that everyday the universe likes to throw out a new challenge to me here in the crazy world of Inti Wara Yassi - take the last few days just as an example. Friday, nice walk with the beast, no attacks and all is good. Back to the cage area for a bit of R n R when all of a sudden a tropical storm somewhat akin to Hurricane Katrina rolls in, I get Rico back in his cage and cower under a leaky tarpaulin while rain lashes down on me and lighting flashes across the sky. Then the wind picks up hurling branches and large sections of trees down towards me. At this point I have a quandry, do I get in the cage with a wild cat or do I stay outside and get nutted by a tree? I choose the former and hop in the cage with the beast who fortunately decides claws are not the answer and the two of us ride the thing out.

Saturday, nice walk all going well until Rico dives for something in the bushes and prances back out holding a great big yellow and black snake in his mouth. He dances towards me hurling the snake in my direction looking pleased...I dodge it and he then proceedes to torture / play with the snake for half an hour and at one stage ending up with the snake coiled around his head and I have to use a stick to pluck it off. Then to top things off, Simba a great big Puma arrives, normally Rico will hide in the bushes when Simba walks past but because he has his snake he refuses to move meaning that I have to get in the bushes with a hissing Ocelto and the snake. Then Simba decides to pounce at Rico meaning I am now in the bushes with a spitting Ocelot, a hissing snake and now a huge Puma flying towards me. Fortunately Simba gets pulled back by his minders and the snake seeing a window of opportunity bolts for freedom. Rico is furious and insists on looking for his snake for the next 40 minutes to no avail.

Sunday - nice walk - on the way home walking accross rotten wooden footbridge one of the planks gives way and I fall through the bridge leaving only my arms and head visible. Rico not sympathetic, or helpful. I manage to extract myself and limp home with a swollen and bruised shin, wonder what would happen if I broke my leg? Would they find me half eaten by an Ocelot three days later?

Thursday, September 22, 2005

Hot Hot Hot

With spiders as cute as this who could have arachnophobia?

A spider monkey having an "ooh oooh ooh" moment

It's hot! So hot that today I actually made the things inside my backpack wet from the sweat on my back. Disgusting. Speaking of disgusting one of the monkeys in the monkey psych ward yesterday decided that it would be nice to sit on my shoulders and lick the inside of my ears - eeeewwww! I have to say that now they are very clean but really... these monkeys have no shame.

So things are ticking along here in the jungle at Inti. Us volunteers really must make for a strange sight, every morning a motley crew of gringos gather in a street side cafe wearing sweaty ill fitting clothes covered in mud, monkey poo, cat wee, often shredded to pieces. Most people are nursing some kind of injury from twisted ankles and bung knees to bite marks (monkey people) or long bloodied scratches and chunks of flesh missing(cat people).

But despite this really unattractive look romance is blossoming in the heat of the Bolivian jungle. It seems that I now have a rival for Eds affection. She is quite a brazen hussy too, sitting in his lap at lunchtimes one arm draped around his shoulder, the other playing with his hair. Her name is Tomasita and she is the matriach of the Spider Monkey clan - she's pretty cute too, I don't know if I can compete. The only consolation is that at least her legs are hairier than mine.

However today I had my revenge, on my way home from Ricos cage I spied a big black spider monkey making a run for it towards the river with a long leash trailing behind him. He had done a runner from his keeper so I chased him and caught the rope, Mr Spider monkey then came marching over going "ooh ooh ooh" in my face and I start to freak out but then he just climbed up and sat on my head (they are HEAVY). His name is Tunari and he is one the big males in the park - once he had done with sitting on my head he then hopped down, took my hand in his, curled his tail around my arm and we had a nice romantic stroll along the river. I think I'm in love.

Not so much in love with Rico today, he growled and tantrumed all over the trail today in between jumping up and trying to attack me. I discovered I can push him off but still - he is so ungrateful....I ever bought a new padlock for his cage the other day. Typical bloody cat.

Monday, September 19, 2005

Hey Hey we're the monkeys!

Every afternoon once I've locked up the beast and left him to enjoy his kilo of steak I like to go to my favourite place at Inti, the monkey park. Here two tribes of semi tame and tame monkeys live, the Capuchins and Spider monkeys. They are really so much fun, the Capuchins are small brown critters who are super intelligent and quite naughty. Often when I walk through the park in the morning they will jump up on me and then try and mug me, tiny hands fiddling with my backpack lock, dipping into my pockets, little hands unzipping and unbuttoning as they go. In fact they are so good at it most days some tourists loses their glasses, cigarettes and the other morning one monkey nicked someones alka seltzer tablets and then sat in a tree eating monkey has to live far away from the rest of the park cause he was trained as a professional thief stealing things from tourists, when he lived in the park he used to pick all the locks on the cages of the birds and other monkeys.

The Spider monkeys are the weirdest things I have ever seen, they are quite large standing to about my hip height, covered in black furry hair, they have looooong arms and legs, strange long four fingered hands and what look like double jointed wrists. Top this off with little beer bellies and a tendency to walk upright on their back legs flapping their big hands about and you have one of the funniest looking sights ever. They are very friendly and will often hold hands with you using their tail as an extra hand curling it about an arm or a wrist.

But it's not all fun and games in the monkey world, they really remind me of nasty schoolchildren, theirs is a real hierachy and quite a lot of bullying goes on. The head monkey of the Capuchins is called "Jefe" which means "boss" in Spanish, he is huge and fat and has a gang of equally big fat evil henchmen who carry out all his dirty work. If you are small, slightly wimpy you won't last long. It is sad watching the little monkeys quiver and eat food off the ground while the Jefe and his evil friends take the food tables. And do they get hysterical, little Daniella is quite the drama queen and sits on the ground shrieking, baring her teeth, raising her eyebrows, hand over the mouth, other hand and tail wrapped around her body until the big ones take their leave from the table.

But the monkeys can be awful to people and other animals too, a gang of wild monkeys have been stealing things from peoples bags, bit one of the girls who was with a puma and even worse the same gang has worked out that they can steal birds from the aviary. They just jump down, wrench open the door and grab a parrot. Yesterday it happened and the monkey then sat in a tree branch above the volunteers ripping the poor parrot apart and eating it while showering the people below in rainbow coloured feathers. It was as the Spanish girl that works there said "orrible".

Alone with a tiger

Rico in my favourite position, asleep and not being a pain in the bum
The beast being sweet

"Tigre!, Tigre" the Bolivian tourists gasp when they spy me crashing through the jungle with a wild cat on the end of a rope. Yes after a couple of anxious days me and the cat are first walk was a scary experience, I had no-one to train me and I had no idea how to walk a cat, the memory of the last girl who walked him being lost out in the jungle til 9pm didn't make me feel better about the whole thing either but all went well. We had a 6 hour walk, I didn't get attacked and he caught a rat so everyone was happy.

We spend about half our time on trails that are also frequented by tourists which can make life interesting. I am glad I can speak some Spanish as the Bolivian tourists are curious but not always totally up on how to behave around a wild cat. They call him a Tiger and always ask me if I am "Sola" with him. When I say yes they often look very impressed yes, I am alone in the jungle with a "tiger". At this point Rico usually likes to throw himself on my boots and purr extravagantly, they then usually ask if he is dangerous....I can't help lying a little and saying "oh yeah he's quite dangerous" before cackling to myself and heading back off into the jungle while they stand and stare.

Thursday, September 15, 2005

Cat People

"Will all Cat People please make sure that their bowls are left in the kitchen for refilling ever night"...yep that's me I am now officially a Cat Person. Funny, a few weeks ago I would have always thought that I was a cat person until I met Rico.........

My first day on the job got off to an unusual start, I meet the departing Rico volunteer who is to train me and one of the park managers Annabelle, a hard as nails Frenchwoman whose bark I discovered is worse than her bite. To get to Ricos cage we have to walk through the monkey park where semi tame monkeys roam free, we have to watch our bags closely as they try and steal everything - as I stagger along the steep jungle path clutching my backpack on my front something soft and furry lands on my head, a monkey, whose little hands are now clutching around my head and over my eyes so I can't see a thing - it's like wearing a big heavy furry hat and isn't really condusive to walking jungle trails - he doesnt leave my head for about 5 minutes so I finally have to say "ermm excuse me, I have a monkey on my head" I instantly regret saying anything and feel like a total twat as the Frenchwoman looks at me like I am simple and says "weeel just shake eeem orf". I do and off we head through the wilderness to Ricos cage. First impressions? He is stunningly beautiful, all complicated cream and brown dots and swirls and big huge brown eyes - he is about the size of a Labrador dog and not overly intimidating until he opens his mouth. He sounds like Linda Blair in the Exorcist uttering a series of growls, gutteral demonic sounds interpersed with snorts like a pig. This I discover is normal for an Ocelot, they do it when they are happy, when they are sad, when they are wanting a pat and when they are pissed off. And right about now he is pissed off as the cats don't like different people so he saves up his worst noises for me.

Ocelots are the divas of the park, they don't like the rain, they don't like the heat and if Ricos meat is dirty from the ground he will wash it in his water bowl. Every morning I have to go and pick him the most tender and succulent grass from the garden and armed with a lunchbox of meat and chicken heads in one hand and a bouquet of grass in the other I climb the long climb to his cage like an anxious suitor on a first date.

My biggest problem is that the little bugger wan't walk. I can clip him onto his rope runner which allows him some freedom but he won't take a walk like every other cat in the park. "eee is veerry delicate" says Annabelle as he stomps about growling like a demon. Finally today all alone in the jungle with him I gathered up the courage to try and get him to walk, I approach and holding the lead rope I hope that he will head up his trail, but no, instead he turns around, runs at me and sinks his teeth into my leg. As you can imagine being attacked by a 24 kilo cat is not pleasant. I yell, push him off and he runs off into the bushes to sulk for the rest of the day. I feel like I hate him by this point and I'm ashamed to admit I told him that I wished someone would make a coat out of him.........Mind you, I'm sure that Ed has no sympathy as he has been busy fighting off the attentions of a 70 kilo cat in the shape of Roy the Puma. Apparently Roy has something called "Attack Eyes" and when he has an attack of attack eyes everyone better get ready for a mauling.

As for me, I reckon I'm in for a mauling of lifetime tomrorow. Yep it's back into the jungle along with young Rico tomorrow for 8 hours trying to get him to walk, claws, teeth, demon noises and all. What a delight, did I really ever say that I was a Cat Person?

Saturday, September 10, 2005

Welcome to the Jungle

We have left the high altitudes and have run the gauntlet of the Coca dealer blockades and made our way down low to the village of Villa Tunari in the jungle. Here Eduardo and I have shrugged off our tourist lives to volunteer for a month at the wildlife refuge Inti Wara Yassi.

So we arrive and wander over to a volunteer briefing for all us fresh faced newbies. We are taken on a quick tour of the park by a young American man who is sporting a very large bandage on one ear (how did you get that Cameron? Oh a monkey tried to take my ear off in my first week here) which basically involved a guide to the animals such as "whatever you do don't touch that monkey over there, that is a bad monkey" to "these animals are Coatis, there are extremely agressive, don't touch them" and so on, my mind swelled with the amount of animals I have to remember not to go near or maybe I will risk an ear. After the tour we were sat down to discuss who will take what animals.

First the guys, Ed and two other guys were given the tantilising choice of A: the mirador, a kind of psych ward for "troubled" monkeys - a couple of whom are women haters and biters......hmmm. Choice B: Roy, a rather large, energetic Puma who needs at least three guys to take him walking or more likely running through the jungle for hours on end. Ed choose Roy only to learn that the last guy has had to give up cause his knees have given out. Apparently Roy likes to jump all over his keepers, and when Ed asked the guy whether he should wear shorts or pants the guys said "oh long trousers, he'll definately try and take a piece out of you."

So there I am thinking, how sexist, the boys get all the tough jobs us girls will probably get given a bird to play with. Suddenly the adminstrator turns her eyes to me and another girl and says "Okay girls, we have a jaguar, he is very large, very dangerous, he doesnt like men. You will be alone in the jungle, you have to put your arm inside his cage and attach him to a running device. If you don't catch him the first time he may try and bite do you want to do it?" Half of me wanted to say yes and the wimpier half of me was quaking in her boots imagining being all alone in the jungle with an angry jaguar armed with nothing but a long stick. I pass, and a much braver girl said she would "try". I shouldn't have breathed out too soon as I am then assigned Rico, an Ocelot who also needs to be walked in the jungle. Great an Ocelot sounds a lot more managable. The downside? An Ocelot is much smaller than a Puma and only needs one person to take it for walks so I will be alone, in the jungle all day with nothing but an Ocelot who likes running around catching snakes for company.....I have one days training with his previous keeper tomorrow after that I'm on my own. Apparently after that they might give me a walkie talkie in case Rico and I get lost in the jungle.......I just hope we get on.

Friday, September 09, 2005

Just like WWF but with Petticoats

While still in La Paz Ed and I came accross an ad for a rather interesting wrestling match that was to be held on Sunday night in one of the rough suburbs up the top of the hill.........this wasn't just any kind of wrestling, this was Cholita wrestling, traditionally dressed women in bowler hats duking it out in the ring.....who could resist? So we made the journey. Up, up, up into the outer edges of La Paz to El Alto, the fastest growing city outside the city. Everything is back to front in La Paz, even the fact that here the poorer the area the higher it is. The rich folk live at the bottom of the huge canyon that is La Paz while the poor presumably get by on the thinner air and colder weather up the top. We are dropped off on the highway amongst piles of rubbish and crowds of people and make our way up a set of stairs and over a walkway following the booming voice of an MC yelling "que brutalidad!" from the small brick sports centre perched on the hilltop.

"Eye of the tiger" is blaring though the loudspeakers as we queue amongst the other wrestling fans for our tickets, little shoe shine boys, weather beaten brown skinned men and ladies in embroidered shawls and bowler hats. We splurge and buy 10 bs special ringside seats, inside a girl hands us a pair of plastic chairs that we lug inside and put down wherever. We squeeze next to a whole family complete with tiny baby propped up in his walker to watch. In the ring are Spiderman and another odd character dressed in a red jumpsuit, they are hamming it up for the crowd who lap it up, naughty boys hurl jelly at the villians and wriggle under the barricades to congratulate the winners. After a few rounds of watching various characters duke it out, Batman vs Robin, A handsome cowboy Vs an Indian the crowd are anxiously awaiting the arrival of the divas of the ring.

Suddenly the MC is back and his is introducing the first lady wrestler of the evening, Hilda Lopez or as he puts it “iiiiiiiiilda Lopez” but Hilda is a true diva and doesn’t appear as necks crane in the direction of the dressing rooms. Suddenly there is a burst of rousing pan pipe music and out she comes to a roar from the crowd. Dressed in a purple and pink sparkling shawl, pastel pink flouncy skirt, dainty white pumps and bowler hat Hilda prances about the crowd smiling, dancing and daintily flicking her skirt from side to side. She carries a little basket and throws sweets and kisses to the adoring crowd. Then she throws off her shawl and hands her hat to the ref and strides into the ring. Suddenly the sweet girl is transformed into a true pro as Hilda kicks food off the floor, stretches and stares out of the ring with a face like thunder.

Hildas opponents appear, one is a dumpy women in black and silver La Altena, while the other is in pastel colours who giggles and mocks the professional Hilda who waves her long black plaits like weapons in response.

The whistle blows and they’re off circling each other like wolves before getting stuck in. These women literally don’t pull any punches, or anything else for that matter, there is hair pulling, flying kicks and punches.Hilda throws La Altena to the ground at one stage and then skips away like a little girl. In response La Altena picks her up by the plaits.This is returned with a series of audible face slaps. The ladies are not spared from the food pelting as the crowd gets revved up and start throwing anything they can get their hands on. La Altena gets hit in the head with a flying pork knuckle and hurls it back in fury, the crowd collapse in laughter. Hilda appears back on stage with wet hair. Things get really rough now as they launch themselves across the ring, skirts flying as they throw each other to the ground. A true showwoman Hilda is wearing a pair of sparkly blue knickers that are on full view as she wrestles the other two on the ground.

Another Chollita appears now, in long white skirts and a dainty yellow cardigan – there are now four women in the ring and chaos ensues as the crowd go wild. There is a temporary lull in the proceedings as La ALtena perches on the edge of the ring and does an interview with a tv crew as the crowd boo her and throw yet more food.

Finally, the ref declares Hilda Lopez the winner, she jumps onto the ropes gesturing at the crowd with her fists. La Altera is on the ground gesturing at the heavens and the ref in a dramatic way while the crowd pelt her with more food. A little girl jumps the barrier to hand the victorious Hilda a plastic cup of soft drink which she downs in one go before flouncing off to her dressing room in an imperious manner.

Afterwards, the MC reappears to introduce the final boy wrestlers who take to the stage amongst cheers from the crowd, but in my mind they can't really compete with drama of the fighting chollitas. So we give our plastic chairs and our bottle of Pepsi to a pair of little girls and head out into the thin cold night air accompanied by the strains of "I was made for lovin you" by Kiss.

Monday, September 05, 2005

La Paz

A stall in the Witches market
After our beach holiday we rolled into La Paz. As the bus drew closer to what we guessed was the city we were still none the wiser apart from the odd building and an increase in traffic. Where was the city? Suddenly our bus took a corner which put us on the rim of a massive drop into a canyon – my jaw dropped open as we took in La Paz, which looks like it has just been spilled down the inside of the canyon littering the place with houses, highways and highrises.

Out of the three main Sth American cities I have visited La Paz is definitely the most strange but also the most affable. It is like the Adams family of cities – not quite aware of it’s kookiness and almost falling over itself to be friendly. It is a city of narrow twisty streets, buildings that have seen better days and a fascinating array of people walking the streets. Most women still dress the way they did in the 18th century. The “Chollas” sport long black plaits, multilayered skirts and petticoats, little cardigans, elaborate embroidered shawls all topped with the ubiquitous way too small bowler hat in brown, black or green perched at a rakish angle on the head. They look so demure and dainty – until they open their gold filled mouths. These are not women to be messed with.

Although it is a country of staunch Catholics the Bolivans like to mix their religion with a big helping of witchcraft and superstition. Cars are blessed with beer in the cathedrals, people carry talismans for luck and plenty of people have the little household god ekeko in their homes laden down with things they would like in the next year (money, food, cars, even first class plane tickets to Miami!). Best of all are the Witches stalls where wizened old crones sell all manner of charms and herbs for luck. The strangest item in their stalls would have to be the dried Llama foetuses. Looking like tiny dinosaurs they come in either small ( furless with huge big eyes) or large (looking just about ready to be born with fur n all.) It is estimated that up to 98 percent of buildings in La Paz have a Llama foetus buried in the foundations to ensure it's good fortune. Of course rich people don’t go in for all this palaver, they just buy a live Llama and then sacrifice it on the spot where they need the luck.

Had dinner in a 300 year old building last night, it was all low ceilings and wonky walls, lit with candelabras and decorated with odd antiquities and a whole wall covered in different clocks, all set at different times. I felt like a character in a Harry Potter book.

Old US Dodge school buses plough through the tiny streets

Trying to be a Cholla in a bowler hat - it is a mystery how they keep them on their heads

Talismans galore in the Witches market - for about 1 dollar I picked up some luck in the intelligence, travel and relationship areas - a bargain.

Just like a tropical island - only freezing

We arrived in the tiny Bolivian beachside town of Copacabana - complete with little pebbly beach, cafes, restaurants and a freezing cold climate. Everyone we met complained about not being able to get Barry Manilow out of their head for the whole time they were there.

Copa is a stange place, it has the feel of a summer beach resort in winter, the only problem is that it's summer right now.

We also visited the Isla del Sol which sounds like a tacky British package holiday destination in Spain but is really just a little island in the middle of the lake - again it was a strange feeling to walk along white beaches and crystal blue water wearing sunscreen cause the sun is so strong but still wrapped up in four layers of clothes because it is so cold. We went walking to see some Inca ruins (well I huffed and puffed and complained in the altitude) and Ed walked like a normal person. An idyllic island but just quietly I prefer my holiday islands a little warmer.

Goodbye Peru - Hello Bolivia

Ed peddles to the border

After the floating islands we decided to hotfoot it that afternoon to Boliva. It was an unusual border crossing - once that involved a ride in a mini bus, then a ride in a bicycle rickshaw and then we completed our passage by foot. The bicycle rickshaw was odd, it's 4000 metres above sea level and one rather small peruvian man was attempting to pedal the two gordo australians and our equally large backpacks up a small hill. Finally Ed offered to pedal which was very gallant but only lasted about 200 metres before the altitude was killing him and he demanded that I get off too. Finally all three of us walked pushing the rickshaw and the bags along with us.

Can't say that I was too grief stricken to leave Peru, it's a strange land that I had a real love hate relationship with. I have to say as I sailed along on my bike through the silent streets towards the frontier my head and my heart were already turned towards to Bolivia.

The Floating Islands

The People of Uros are certainly ingenious. Over 500 years ago they got fed up with being hassled and persecuted by the Incas and another group and decided to take refuge out in the middle of Lake Titicaca. There was only one problem, there weren't any available islands for them to take move to. Undeterred and just like something from a Dr Seuss book these industrious creatures knitted themselves their very own islands from reeds.

Still living on them today and making a tidy living from the tourists that come to visit the Uros people and their Islands are amazing. We arrived by boat and as I took my first tentative step upon land I was greeted by the sensation of being on a giant water bed. The reeds float well, but they also rot which means the Uros have to constantly layer up their little island homes so they don't sink- this means in certain spots you will more than likely lurch drunkenly as the rotten reeds give way underfoot. One girl wondered what happened to the little houses when a new layer of reeds was put down - I joked that perhaps they just pick them up and move them. Five minutes later we saw the locals doing just that - the perfect temporary accomodation.

Sunday, September 04, 2005

Leg Dandruff

High, higher, at 3800 metres. For the last month we have exsisted at somewhere over 3000 metres in various locations, the result, total breathlessness, sleeplessness and an overall feeling of malaise that is hard to pin down. I never thought I could render myself out of breath by brushing my teeth but up here it's possible. It also never rains so everything is so dry, we wake with our mouths stuck together, lips chafed and everyday my nose bleeds. The skin on my hands is so dry it cracks and tears with ease and as for my legs...who would have thought it was possible to develop leg dandruff?

On the upside, thanks to the total lack of any moisture in the air my normally unruly hair is sitting atop of my head all flat, shiny and as meek and mild as a lamb.

Thursday, September 01, 2005

Peruvian Mystery No: 6

The Electric Shower.

Remember when you were little and your Mum told you that water and electricity should never, ever mix? Well it seems that no-one told the Peruvians this as they are huge fans of this nasty invention. Imagine a regular shower head rendered Frankenstein-like with all manner of electrical switches and wires poking out all within splish splashing distance of the barely warm water that it delivers.

Add to this mix water that fluctuates from barely warm to freezing to barely there at all and electric shocks whenever you dare to touch the tap or put your head too close to the shower head.

Forget a strong cup of coffee or a splash of water to the face in order to wake up in the mornings – I can assure you that NOTHING will wake you up faster on a cold Andean morning than standing stark naked under a dribble of lukewarm water while receiving an electric shock to the head. Goooooood mooooooorning Peru!