Thursday, 22 May 2014

Day 22 - Fear and loathing in las Piedras.

Suddenly, everything was strangely silent. The sounds of the jungle that have been a comfort to me for the past couple of weeks now sent a shiver down my spine. Sat alone, around 5 kilometres from camp, unable to walk, I started to become aware of every minute little sound and movement that was happening around me.

Earlier that morning, I got on a motorbike with Chiki and one of the other interns Zoe. Chiki had been amazing about my injury, and felt sorry for me being stuck in the lodge all day everyday, unable to do anything. So he offered to take me out for the day on his motorbike. Motorbikes are used in the area for local workers who pick and trade Brazil nuts; they transport their heavy products from deep in the jungle to the river on the motorbike before getting a boat back to their village.

Zoe had come with me for company, it was amazing (even if a little uncomfortable) for the three of us to be on this little bike going through the jungle, using the very narrow and muddy tracks. It was surreal. Chiki was a brilliant driver, and took great care, trying to not ruin our track traps, and avoiding muddy puddles and incoming branches. He took us down the Brazil nut trail, which was the furthest trail that we had at PIE, he carried on further down the trail that the workers take and stopped at the end of the road, now we had to walk. Chiki was telling us all about the different trees, and our surroundings. It was great to be out again, it made a nice change from the lodge, and it was always great to learn a thing or two from the locals.

After a few minutes, my ankle was in so much pain I couldn’t possibly go any further. So I sat and told Zoe and Chiki to carry on and to meet me back here – I hated the though of stopping people do what they want to do just because of me and my lousy ankle, so I told them to keep going.

After around 10-15 minutes after they left, I walked down the trail a little further once my ankle felt a little better from rest. The trail turned into 5, and I had no idea which one they had gone down. So I thought it would be a better idea if I just turned back and sat where they left me.

After around 30 minutes, I thought I could hear a machete being used, and neither Zoe nor Chiki had one. Was I alone? Or was someone else there. A slight panic started to rise in me. I tried to stay calm and reassure myself that Chiki and Zo were on their way back. They’ll be here any minute. That thought repeated through my head a thousand times.

Every so often I would shout to them, to see if they were anywhere near, I didn’t get a response. Another 15 minutes past, and that fleeting panic came back even stronger this time. I would have to rationalise the situation, and again, reassure myself that everything was fine. But with every 10 minutes, I couldn’t help to revert back to panic mode. Every possible situation had ran through my head; what if I went down the wrong trail and they passed me without even knowing? What if they left without me? I could never walk all the way back to camp with my foot! What if they’re lost? What if something bad has happened? What if a Brazil nut worker finds me? What if a jaguar finds me? (Although that last one, I definitely wouldn’t have minded). What if, what if, what if.....

It took a lot of self-control to not allow myself to enter a complete state of panic and worry. I gave them a deadline. If they weren’t here by 12:30pm, I would start walking back to camp. Did I know the way back? No. But I’d have to put my Bear grills face on and get on with it. Survive Ffion - I was very pleased at my sensibleness earlier that day that told me to take plenty of water and some crackers! I told myself I would make it, it will just take time and it’ll be painful. But I assured myself I could do it. It felt like it took forever for the time to pass - by now they had been gone for around an hour and a half - but eventually, it hit 12:30pm. There was no sign of them. I needed to make that awful decision…

I walked over to where the path split in all different directions, I gave one last loud call from them. I waited. Nothing, again.

As I was about to give up, and embark on the almost impossible journey back to PIE, beast mode on, I hear something up in the trees. I look up, and spot a squirrel monkey. I couldn’t believe that there was one so close to me, I made sure to keep as still as possible to not disturb him or scare him away. I watched in awe, and then another one appeared, and another, and another! Before I knew it there was a handful of squirrel monkeys above me, playing swinging on trees, jumping from one to another. It was incredible! I kept observing, and more of them appeared, at one point I must have counted around 9 or 10 of them, they do tend to travel and play in groups. It was like nothing I’ve ever seen before, and they didn’t seem to mind me being there, they were only a few metres away from me, and I made eye contact with one, she looked at me, and with no concern whatsoever, she carried on swinging on the branch. They had allowed me to become a part of their journey through the jungle; I stood in complete peace, happiness. All the worry had completely disappeared from my mind and body. I relaxed, for the first time in hours.

Time was now playing tricks on me. It had been moving so slowly, and now I was having a moment with nature, time passed quicker than ever. 15 minutes past in what felt like seconds. I heard some rustling, and so did the monkeys – they quickly darted off into the distance away from the oncoming sound. It was Zoe and Chiki. Overwhelmed with relief, and I’ve gotta be honest, I was angry too "you didn't think to come back sooner?!" Zoe apologised, saying she had no idea how far Chiki was going to take her, and didn’t think to tell him to come back as I could be worried. Above all else though, I was glad to see them. I didn't need to walk to camp. I didn't have to worry anymore. The relief soon overrode the anger. Everyones safe, now we can ride home.

On the way back to camp, we saw some adorable saddleback tamarin monkeys, who seemed curious and happy. I’ve been spoilt for choice of monkeys today. As the gentle breeze cooled my hot face on the bike, I closed my eyes and exhaled a breath of relief and happiness. Even though I had just had possibly the most unnerving experience of my life, it in turn gave me one of the best experiences I have had in the jungle – seeing all those squirrel monkeys in their natural environment, playing, communicating, it was truly incredible. It’s what it’s all about really. Why I’m here. To observe this amazing life that these creatures deserve, and that every other species in the jungle deserves – a happy, safe, environment, where they can thrive. 

Note to self: always confirm a time for when to expect people to arrive. 
And always take your camera, even when on a motorbike, a gopro won't do for monkeys. Rookie mistake. But it did allow me to fully enjoy the experience without worrying about shutter speed I needed... 


Monday, 19 May 2014

Day 19 - Happy Mondays

Today all the guys here at Pie arranged to take the boat down to Lucerna, which is a very small community just down the river (people here often go down on a Sunday to play football/volleyball with them – Sunday Funday, as I’ve mentioned before!). Luix, one of the coordinators is keen to engage with the community there and especially the children. It was clearly very important to him; working with local people could greatly improve not only the way that people see the Amazon, but also the way that they treat the jungle too, so he invited everyone from Fauna Forever to come and help with the kids. Last night all the crew had a meeting explaining what was going to happen, and we were asked to try and practice our Spanish so that we could interact as much as possible with the kids – I sat from a distance watching the meeting go ahead, if I’m honest, I was feeling a little emotional that I wouldn’t be able to go, so distance was my armour.

As predicted, I was still poorly with my foot this morning, and I knew that I wouldn’t be able to go. I haven’t been able to do squat for days and I still couldn’t walk well on my foot, so I just let things slip now and try not to get upset about it. Just before leaving, Luix came up to me to ask if I was going, which was a clear NO, unfortunately. But he insisted that Chiki would be able to carry me to the boat and help me get around. Which again was a clear NO from me – I really, really, didn’t want someone to have to suffer because of me, the heat and humidity is enough let alone carrying a 57 kilo sack of potatoes too! I started to feel a little overwhelmed because I really did want to go, and I felt as if they thought I just wasn’t interested. For the first time, my emotions got the better of me and I could no longer hold in my frustration and sadness. Hayley and Katrin noticed, and assured me, along with Luix, that it is perfectly acceptable to be helped, and that they wanted me to come. I very soon caved in and allowed the guys to help me get there.

It felt so good to be out of the camp, the wind on my skin and blowing through my hair on the boat was just wonderful; I finally genuinely smiled to myself for the first time in days.
Unfortunately there was a bit of a mix up with the professor, and the children weren’t actually in school this morning. Vladi, the chef at Pie, managed to round up a few of the younger kids so that we could still do something with them so it wasn’t a waste of a journey. The school at Puerto Lucerna is a very simple wooden hut, it isn’t draped with maps and posters - it simply accommodates a couple of benches, tables and a white board. The school is still very young, a year old in fact, but the community itself is only young, they settled there around five years ago. The coordinators are very interested in helping develop the school and teach the children more about the animals and plants that surround them, about sustainability, conservation and how they can thrive in their environment while also caring for the Amazon.

Everyone from Fauna Forever introduced themselves to the children and said a little about what they are doing; with my pretty bad broken Spanish I said something along the lines of “My names Ffion, I’m a photographer and I love animals”. By now I can understand some Spanish, read a fair bit, and speak very little, but I’m trying. Juancarlos and Luix took charge of the class and once we told them about what we did and the work that Fauna Forever aim to achieve we played a game with the kids to fully engage with them. The game was fun, perfect for the kids, you have to be deadly serious and keep a straight face, while one player goes around pretending to be a cat, and the first one to laugh at the ‘cat’ then has to take their turn to be the cat. It was so wonderful to see the niƱos getting involved in the game and having fun – I think that this is really what conservation needs; teaching young children how important our forests, animals, and habitat is, they are the ones who hold the future in their hands. With a lot of hard work, and maybe even some luck, hopefully the next generation will have a better understanding of the rainforest and have the knowledge to allow it to grow and thrive alongside them without the need to destroy it for the rest of the worlds’ greed. Now, who will teach the rest of the world to not be greedy?

Once the game finished, we stopped off at the local shop for a few essential supplies like beer, cigarettes and cookies. Yes, all those things are essential, I can hear you tutting from here - you don't want to bump into an addict of cookies or cigarettes who hasn't had their daily dosage in the jungle, it's dangerous! Once our super important supplies were bought, the guys went to play volleyball. Unfortunately I couldn’t take part this time thanks to my shitty foot, but it was nice to have a cheeky cold beer in the heat watching them all getting sweaty.

On the way back to Pie, we went down a small entrance off the river; this is apparently where the guys here go fishing. Chiki is apparently an excellent fisherman too, and it’s one of his favourite spots. There was a huge tree fall in the middle of the stream/river, and we stopped here for a late lunch that Vladi had prepared and packed earlier that morning. Everyone went off exploring, and eventually ended up jumping into the river from the tree trunk.

Me being helped onto the boat by Chiki and a hand made stick, just for me.
Pedro contemplating the meaning of life; trees already have meaning 

Even though I couldn’t really join in, and no matter how tempted I was, jumping off trees and swimming probably wouldn’t have been the best idea for my foot, so I was sensible and stayed on the boat. Pedro, the botanist, was kind enough to bring back some leaflets and seeds to the boat to show me, I am endlessly impressed with his knowledge, and the different smells and details that seems so subtle to me, makes the world of difference to him. I was glad to have his company while the others blissfully played.

The difference between the way I was feeling this morning, and now, are like two polar-opposite worlds. Today would have been truly depressing being totally alone in the lodge all day while the others were out. Luix, Chiki and everyone’s kindness, yet again, has brought happiness and light through this cloud of darkness that had overcome me. 


Thursday, 15 May 2014

Day 15 - Spear of the moment.

This is now my third day of sitting, in pain, and unable to do anything. The situation with my foot is now really starting to effect me. No longer can I keep saying "2 days max, and I'll be back out in the jungle", the seriousness of my injury is starting to sink in, being stuck for this long resting when I feel I should be out exploring and making the most of my time here is starting to grind my gears. It’s funny how something seemingly so small can have a chain reaction of effects not only physically but mentally too. It's only one singly part of my body that is damaged, yet it has a detremental effect on almost everything I do; it’s frustrating that even just going to the bathroom or getting a cup of tea is a hassle, and with everyone being down in the other camp does make being at the lodge here pretty lonely. But the yoga guys leave tomorrow morning so hopefully by tomorrow afternoon the guys will be back up at the lodge and things will settle in a little and maybe it'll go back to the way they were before.

I had a little moment of calmness today however, one of the guys brought a handmade spear onto camp, so Chiki and others were teaching me how to throw. There were a few of us who joined in, we took it in turns to throw, and people would go and fetch the spear for me to save me from hobbling around, it was fun to be able to join in, even if balancing on one foot while throwing has it's difficulties.  It was actually surprising how good a few of us were, to begin with most of us were a mess, but by the end, we were throwing hard, hitting targets and almost looked as if we knew what we were doing! Getting praised by the experts is pretty cool (they most likely just felt sorry for me and wanted to cheer me up).

Unfortunately, boys will be boys, and they made the target harder and harder, they made a makeshift life size target out of large tree stumps - unfortunately it was unstable, and after a hard throw, it toppled over, landing on the spear and broke it. No more spear fun for us!

Paul, the guy leading the yoga group organised a boat to go to the local community today to get some supplies (mainly alcohol) for them to have a bit of a party on their last night. We ordered some in too and we're allowed to stay up at the lodge after dinner tonight. Maybe some rum will help ease my pain! 


Wednesday, 14 May 2014

Day 14 - Jungle Treatment

Screw the NHS, I have Chiki and botanists.

I'm told that certain leaflets and sap from a special tree has healing properties. Pedro, who studies trees and plants, went out along with Hayley and Derio (an ex hunter, and jungle expert who is visiting Pie) to find some. 

Their efforts were a success and they brought back a few different plants that apparently help to reduce swelling and have some healing properties for the bone too. Chiki, one of the locals who work here also does a little Doctroring on the side, apparently. He attended to my foot and reassured me it wasn’t broken or dislocated, it was likely to be muscular; torn ligament, ripped tendon, or something of that sort. The tree sap that he had brought might not be as appropriate as it's meant to heal joints, but it will still help with the healing and swelling, he told me, so it's worth a shot. 

He brought out a large leaf and a torn up old t shirt with some powder on it, after massaging my foot for a while and trying to locate where the pain/damage was he then started to mix in the sap of a tree in with the powder before then evenly spreading it onto the rag. He then put it on my foot and instructed me to not move for 20 minutes while it dries; this stuff was seriously sticky, we didn't want to spread it all around the room, so I remained as still as I could. I will keep this on my foot until it eventually falls off, I cannot get it wet (No showers!), and I just have to leave it alone and do its thing. 

Pat seems to be enjoying me in pain. 

The treatment is almost ready to be put on.
The final steps of moulding the treatment onto the ankle

It was great to experience a treatment that has been part of the amazons history and heritage for centuries. It's also great to have the experience and knowledge of the locals to attend to my injury, they are very caring here - I cannot be more grateful to Chiki and the rest of the team here for being so wonderful. It’ll be interesting to see if it actually helps my ankle at all, the jungle is so majestic and magical that I’d love to say that it helped heal me in my time of need. 

Even though I feel very useless and disconnected to the jungle right now, I do hope that in some way this will not only help me with my recovery but also make me feel part of my surroundings again... Here's to hope.


Tuesday, 13 May 2014

Day 13 - Super Spy Gone Bad

So, last night we ended up having a campfire with the locals who work here at the biodiversity station along with us ‘scientists’ (yoga people were out doing cool yoga things). We had a couple of beers and Roy made a rum punch with some local fruit, which was divine - it was Marcus’ last night in the jungle so we all wanted to give him a little send off. The fire was a typical men’s fire, so much wood and gas that it was blazing hot and hardly any of us could actually stand the heat coming from it. The circle we had made around the fire was quickly dispersing, but we had some nice conversation and time to just chill – even if it felt like we were in a volcano.

Gonna miss your Marcus' big smile!
Campfire was so hot we started stripping!

Me and Hayley decided to go on a spy mission to get some more beer from the kitchen, which was on yoga territory, and they were back from their adventures by now. Our mission was successful - we upgraded to 'Super Spies' - we got the beer, but in our haste to get out, and my lack of a headlight (so that I didn’t draw attention to myself) meant that I missed one of the steps leaving the lodge and completely twisted my foot in a catastrophic fall into the mud. And before you say anything, I had two cans of beer, two little cans of beer, oh, and a rum punch! 

I howled with laughter over how ridiculous I must have looked, and at how much pain I was in. The Super spy badge was quickly removed from me, I must have woken everyone at the lodge. Hayley however, in complete super spy mode, came to my rescue, thinking I was ok from my hysteric laughing, but proceeded to helped me walk back to our new camp. Things became apparent quite quickly that I had fucked my ankle up pretty bad… I was sure I hadn’t broken it but it was not good. Thank goodness I had some beer to numb the pain (used as an icepack, and medicinally, who knew beer could be so useful). We stayed up chatting for a couple of hours and in that time my foot had completely swollen up and I could barely make it to bed. It’s the closest I’ve come to praying in a while – not that it would work – but my last thoughts before bed were “please don't let this ruin my last month in the jungle… Please.”


I woke up this morning, and I couldn’t even put my foot on the floor it was so painful. A sudden rush of worry and sadness came over me. No way in hell am I not being able to walk around and make the most of living out in the jungle. I held in my need for the toilet for about 4 hours. A few of the gang were chatting outside the Platform when I finally had to raise my mosquito net from the intense heat it was creating in my little bed. Hayley was kind enough to ask if I wanted breakfast, "I don't want to say it out loud, but I genuinely can't walk, Hayley". As if someone muttering those words would make it an official problem. She insisted of bringing breakfast to me, her kindness was almost overwhelming, the pain certainly was. After eating, I couldn't hold it in any longer, I had to go to the toilet. Luix, one of the co coordinators saw me struggling on the way so insisted on carrying me - this was potentially the most embarrassing 3 minutes ever, especially watching him now struggle. Am I really that heavy? Shit! I need to lose some weight. Fast!

Luix was nice enough to arrange for me to move back up to the lodge so that I am closer to the facilities, and more importantly, so he was most likely to never have to carry me again. A few people helped carry my stuff back up to the lodge which was so lovely, Zoe has also moved back into the lodge bedroom with me, so that I’m not a complete loner. The kindness of people today has genuinely been overwhelming, it's nice to be reminded that there are such kind people in the world, it’s also nice to feel looked after, even if I am stubborn and don’t like to ask. 


Sunday, 11 May 2014

Day 11 - Ride the Rio

So today, a new group with a different friend of Las Piedras,  now known as the "yoga people", will arrive at site. We’ve been told by one of the guys that’s helping organise their stay that we basically have to disappear. They are coming for a tranquil zen stay, so having a bunch of unsocialised scientists isn't cool. We’ve been moved to a small campsite (that the workers built just this week) not too far from the lodge. We had to be packed and out of our rooms by mid morning so that there was plenty of time to sort the place out before their arrival.  We were told “You guys can’t be here when they arrive”. So basically, fuck off and be invisible. I told him that my invisibility coat was still in the post, but I'll do my best. It hasn’t been so helpful that we’ve been given wrong/differing information from different people - again, the difficulties with communications in the jungle showing it's face again. We were packed to leave yesterday, then told we could have an extra night in the room as they weren’t arriving til mid morning. We didn't complain, as this was great - we had one last sleep in a room, but a little annoying as everything was now already packed, it was just prolonging the situation. We all enjoyed the last of the freedom we had around the lodge; making the most of tables, a roof, easy access to toilet/showers, the kitchen for tea, and a socialising area with comfy seats/hammocks that we all become so familiar with. 

The new campsite, "Platforms" pic by Marcus Rhodes

Inside the campsite, pic my Marcus Rhodes

To get away from the hustle, bustle and stress from the whole thing, me, Zoe, Tom and Harry went with one of the workers, Melo, to deliver a message for someone at Arcc. Arcc is another field site, which is about a three and a half hour boat ride up river. A few tourists made the journey a few days ago and were lucky enough to see a Jaguar on a beach on the river bank, so we were keen to go check it out and see if luck was on our side....

Looking fabulous in the Amazon
Fresh brazil nut
Digging in to the delicious brazil nut


Julia butterfly that drinks salt from sweat, also decided to poo on me. Lovely. 
Tom the Explorer
We fell at the first hurdle; the boat we were travelling in had a motor that sounded like a fucking chainsaw (a different boat to the one that the other tourists used the other day). It was SO loud, so unless there was a deaf big cat out there that had no idea we were coming, we weren’t likely to see one. And we didn’t. We did however see some tracks, which were most likely a big cat. We couldn’t see the tracks well enough so couldn’t make out what kind of mammal it was but it looked like it could have been a puma/jaguar track – and they were so fresh, seems like this cat was unfortunately, not deaf. What we did see what some turtles, lots of birds and a Caiman though!

An Amazonian beauty - butterflies drinking turtles tears

Once we got to arc, our butts hurt and the sun had gotten to us – today was particularly hot and being on a boat with no cover didn’t help. We were told we had half an hour to chill at Arcc and then we were off again. We had just enough time to see the lake at Arc and the accommodation there, which was fancy!

Lake at Arcc

We made it back to the port at 3pm, but Melo, who was driving, didn’t actually come back ‘til 4pm. Not knowing where he was meant we hung around near the boat waiting for him, where there were hungry sand flies and mosquitoes, so we all got bitten to shit. Sandflies are quickly becoming my #2 enemy after Mozzies. But, in return, we were travelling back through dusk, and it was so beautiful. It felt like the stress and frustration that’s been consuming us the last couple of days just disappeared along with the sunset. I’ve never seen so many colours in one sunset, purples, pinks, blues, yellows, oranges, and red. It was incredible. The sheer beauty of the rainforest never ceases to amaze me, it just reinforces the idea that we need to protect and preserve this incredible place. 



When we got back it was dark, and we still had to put sheets on our beds and hang up our mosquito nets at the new campsite. This was harder than it felt it should be, but in the middle of the dark jungle, bugs everywhere, flying into your face thanks to the head light, ants and other bugs all over the bed, and trying to hang nets on sticks that were definitely not designed around mosquito nets - it was a challenge, I'll give ya that. It turns out that the yoga group didn't actually arrive in the morning, but they passed our campsite at around 8pm "glad we're not staying there", we giggled as we overheard one of them. "This'll be a fun few days" said a scientist! 

It'll be interesting to see how we all sleep tonight... Let's hope no bullet ants fit through the gaps of the bed. Eeek.