Cats. Let’s start with the cats.
It all began in Colombia. Or Ecuador. The point is, it began a while ago. First there were the rumours, the Did you hear…?’s and the I once heard…’s. Then there were the third hand reports, friends of friends of friends who once knew a guy who once knew a guy. As I travelled south, both became increasingly prevalent. What had once been a fanciful jumble of half-truths and whispers began to take form. By the time I made it to Bolivia the stories began to repeat and collect a theretofore absent strain of believability. The rumours were true, The Park was real.
I’d been hearing about this park. A park where you could volunteer to look after big cats. I’m not talking about obese Scottish Blues here, I’m talking motherhumping pumas, jaguars and the like. Eventually I had a name, Communidad Inti Wara Yassi and after a brief websearch and encounter with a former volunteer, my course was set.
Not that it was particularly easy to get to. Oh it should have been, but as I’m rapidly finding out one of Bolivia’s favourite pastimes is blocking roads with stuff. Anything will do; trees, rocks, smashed up toilet bowls… The most effective though seems to be trucks. Not puny 2 axled jobbies though, I’m talking 18 wheelers crisscrossing major highways like trench lines. What was supposed to be a straightforward 16 hour bus turned out to be a 28 hour bus-foot-watertruck-foot-motorbike-minibus affair. Gruelling, even for someone at the peak of human fitness such as myself.
Anyway, after a lot of faffing around, I eventually found myself at El Parque. It was simple, it was rustic, it lacked what one may consider basic amenities. No hot water, no electricity, certainly no internet or phones. The nearest town with anything resembling any of these was an hour hitchhike away. It was rural to say the least. First impressions were good though; my mind had fretfully conjured a spiritualist colony of hippies feeding the cats soy and lentils while meditating around their feline brethren. Nothing could have been further from the truth. Within ten minutes of arriving pretty much everyone had introduced themselves and most appeared fairly emotionally stable. Not a joss stick in sight.
I was eventually assigned a caged jaguar called Ru for my mornings and the resident howler monkey pack in the afternoons. Initially I was sceptical; this was El Parque, where people walked pumas before breakfast and hand-fed ocelots at dinner! I wanted a piece of that action! As it turns out I was being a silly little girly-girl and had actually gotten the best deal in the place: Ru was the David Beckham of the joint, the best looking, healthiest, most impressive cat in the hood. True he was caged and I’d have minimal physical contact but his personality shone through the wire mesh of his massive enclosure like a jaguar with a headlamp. Before long I was in love, male-on-male, human-to-feline love.
The monkeys were another boon. Four of them there were, three babbies and one, Biton a fully grown bloke. Monkey bloke. Initially our duties involved talking them from their cage, encouraging them into the trees, sitting in hammocks for a bit, feeding them, more hammock time, refilling their hot water bottles and, if possible, fitting in a last bout of hammock. Eventually though Biton’s behaviour deteriorated to the point where more active measures were required. A program of positive reinforcement was established with hammock time cut to a mere hour a day. Didn’t stop him biting the shit out of my head every time I did something he disliked though. Activities in this category included:
– Trying to sit down while he was on your shoulder
– Touching him while he was on your shoulder
– Not walking around enough while he was on your shoulder
– Walking away from interesting/tasty leaves while he was on your shoulder.
– Literally not doing anything at all while he was on your shoulder.
– Breathing. Generally.
The whole thing was a rather transcendental experience. That’s not sarcasm; it was far and away the best experience of my trip, so excuse me if I get all flowery from hereon in. Everything came together perfectly; the people, the place, the job, but especially the people. You don’t often become part of a community while travelling, not really. Sure, you’ll meander about the place in a group for a while but it’s all very transitory. Enjoyable, and often with people you’re incredibly grateful to have met, but more often than not it’s all too brief. When you’re with the same group for 6 weeks as I was at CIWY you begin to feel like you belong. I know I did. I am privileged to have met the people I did, some of whom I count amongst the finest I’ve ever known (you know who you are, you lucky buggers) and was in turn honoured to have them accept me as they did. It says a lot that these folks made the relentless wakeup calls and rainy days not only bearable but downright amazing.
Leaving was horrible but I felt I’d gotten all I could from the experience and given all I could in return. Wasn’t a bad time to set sail actually as most of the folks I’d spent my month and a half with had or were leaving and closing the whole thing down just felt…right.
Since then I’ve wandered around aimlessly like a chicken sans head, wondering where all the mosquitos went and why I still wake at 6.30 each morn with cries of “Wake up bitches!” ringing in my mind’s ear. And despite it all, the blood, the tears, the screaming and the running…I still miss Biton.
Music time: the new Daft Punk album came out! I made it a priority to download every scrap I could on the few sojourns into internetland and the below ended up becoming something of a theme for my time in El Parque. Also helps that it’s funky as shit. Yay!