Inti Wara Yassi - takin` the puma for a walk...

Trip Start Aug 07, 2008
Trip End Dec 10, 2009

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Saturday, September 26, 2009

Having been in La Paz for too long, and done too little (i never even went out properly...and that`s pretty much all there is to do!), i moved on from La Paz.

The next destination was quiet the opposite of the mountains, and would well and truly torpedo the 4 months of acclimatisation id built up at altitude. It was time to hit the jungle. Whilst at the farm in Ecuador i`d heard about a remote animal rescue center, deep in the jungle, where volunteers fought their way through jungle (and mosquitoes) with machetes, worked 10 hours a day, drunk from a bore hole and walked jaguars....

...which is why i was a little surprised to be sat in a bar (one of 5 nearby) next to a blaring jukebox with 40 gringos in fancy dress for company (ranging from tipsy to absolutely paralytic) within a few hours of finally getting there.

My destination was Inti Wara Yassis Ambue Ari parkbetween Santa Cruz and Trinidad. Its a volunteer run animal rescue refuge, dealing primarily with big cats - Jags, Pumas an Ocelots.

Getting there involved long bus ride to Santa Cruz, a sweaty meandering walk into the center, a pricey night there and then a 5 hours bus to Guarayos. Whilst both lacked anything to do, Santa Cruz as a pretty big city with nice parts and lots of amenities. G-town, on the other hand, was the end of the world (almost) - a hot dusty one road town. I decided to spend the night here before making the final 45min dash to the park late the following afternoon. After all, I needed to stock up on basic provisions as the park was, from what id heard, remote. 

The park is indeed in the middle of the jungle, sitting conveniently on the long straight road that bisects it. Santa Maria is 8km away (the place with the bars and basic shops). I felt pretty stupid with my stash of toothpaste and other stuff that i could buy even cheaper a short hop from camp. I guess somebody might have been exaggerating a little about the extremeness of the place... Obviously someone had spun a similar yarn for the Israelis who arrived later that week...they`d all turned up with top-of-head to tip-of-toes mosquito net bodysuits. There were practically no mozzies at this time of year. :-)

Formalities were taken care of the following morning (rules, regs and money). The Sun-Thurs drinking ban kinda made sense, having just seen the messiness of the night out. I was allocated a bed in the Santa Cruz room (functional - mozzie net, straw mattress), allocated a cat - Carlos - an 18 month old 50kg puma and given daily/weekly tasks. Life at the camp was basically an invariable routine. Wake, do daily + weekly chores, brekkie (crap - 2 bits of dry bread), 3.5 hrs with cat, lunch, 3.5hrs with cat, dinner. Except on Fri-Sat when you drink in town, Sat, which is a half day and Sun when you spend the morning clearing fire trails to help stop the spread of fires. 

My first task was `Herbie, Bambie and Rudolfo` - prepping the food and feeding a large tapir and 2 small deer. Seemed like an easy start to get acquainted to animals, especially as these three lacked big sharp teeth. That was until Marcelo explained what to do...and showed me several deep puncture woulds inflicted by the deer when they mauled him the previous week. I now was more scared of the 2 deer than of Carlos! 
Carlos, by comparison, was a pussycat. I was to walk him alone in the afternoon and would be joined by B1 in the mornings. And thus we set off with Ruary, the soon-to-depart previous `keeper`, to walk with Carlos around his short trail - our training session. It was pretty brief, Ruary got dragged into the laguna during a momentary lapse of concentration, Carlos got snagged up in a tree...and before we knew it, we were all back at the cage. I got the cat keys - that afternoon he was all mine. Or was i all his? I was later to realise that this training session was below par compared to what they should be and that i only knew the very very basics.

I can only liken that first afternoon alone to what it must be like diffusing a bomb after someone has given you the "dummies guide to..." with a few pages missing and left. Nobody to glance at for a " yep, that`s right" reassurance at certain stages. Oh well. There`s only one way to learn!

Carlos was perfect that afternoon, i suspect he was just being nice to the new guy. I got him out the cage, went around that short loop with him (the cats set the pace, decide when to stop, sleep or go...pretty much everything. Your job is to keep them on their trail and only allow them to walk one way around going back), came back, runnered him, played fetch, fed him and got him back in the cage. Phew!

Indeed, he was probably too perfect, as you only learn the finer points of what the hell you should be doing when the cat is being a complete bastard. That happened on days 3/4. He`d stop for long breaks, refuse to head back to the cage, try and take alternate routes...and jump a lot. That`s when i learned how to really handle him - and although it`s rarely physically demanding, it requires 110% of your concentration to try to second guess the cat all the time,  from body language and behavior - `crazy eyes` being a surefire indicator to brace yourself  -so that you can stop it trying to jump you - and you end up sweating like hell and knackered. When they jump, they are really just playing. Carlos never bit me hard and did not use his claws, but that does not detract from the scariness of the 1st few jumps and the desire to always stop them quickly. Its how they play, a Puma attacking is a whole different matter - i`m sure you`d be totally screwed - but the playfulness escalates and so does the force, to the point where teeth and claws start getting used in a painful way. Another puma would barely feel it through its fur and skin, but we`re a bit more fragile, and thus jumping is actively discouraged and playing with them as `equals` is banned.

After that, it all really became somewhat routine. I was allocated 2 Capuchin monkeys, Chemuchin and Mema, for my weekly job. Dailies changed daily, I livened up brekkie with porridge, walked Carlos with B1 in the mornings and by myself in the afternoons.

B1 left Carlos after a few days as she had issues with her ankle and was having difficulty not getting dragged when he ran - and he was giving her a far harder time than me (I think being big helps as i also got off more lightly than my two shorter replacements that i trained last week :-) Thus i was alone with him all day, which i rather enjoyed for a week. Man with cat in jungle :-) Monkeys in the trees, macaws screeching about - it was nice just spending time in the jungle and not getting rushed about like you do on tours. But it certainly isnt all action, and probably most of the time was spent reading and snoozing whilst Carlos rested between laps of his trails. As much as i was enjoying being alone in the jungle, i was also pretty relieved when Karl, a new volunteer from New Zealand, was allocated to Carlos - and we were Team Carlos until i trained my replacement, Mary from Oz, on my penultimate day.

In the following weeks we discovered Carlos actually had a long train trail too, a real jungle one - it needed to be cleared first (a fun afternoon`s machete work) - it had dense foliage and swamp up to your knees. On the first lap of this, i bumped my head against a hanging termites nest, a chunk of which broke off and crumbled down the back of my shirt. Those little bastards sure bite - especially when youre too preoccupied with the cat to clear them off you! We did a day`s photo shooting to get the pics done, swam with Carlos, made him a new toy (ball on a rope - you can now play with Carlos whilst laying down...) and began constructing double doors for his cage.

The big night outs were always Fridays, when the whole camp descended on Santa Maria, the 1-horse, no-road but 5-bar town. Usually in fancy dress, having creatively modified anything we could find in the work clothes storage room. Wed get there on the 7pm bus (sometimes hitch-hiking) and then pretty much all buy ourselves a bottle of the local watered down rum for $2 (until Dan and I discovered the alcohol potable - 96% strong drinking alcohol - $0.30 bought enough to get us both pretty wasted, and $0.60 bought sufficient mixers for it). By then end of the night, there would be drunk people rolling around the floor, wrestling, covered in drink and cake (seriously, head to toe) - others dancing, others passed out around the place. Carnage. And at the end of the bar were always 20 or so locals, sat in rows, watching it like some kind of Gringo soap opera. Cant blame them, Id stop and watch if that was going on down my local! I wonder if that`s how they think all us white people are! Lol. :-)

I think it was an awesome month, all things considered. Routine, heat/humidity, crap breakfast and mozzies certainly would not put me off staying here for longer, but the somewhat bandcampy atmosphere did. The root cause of this was that there were perhaps 10-15 people too many at times and a some of them were a tad off the rails, necessitating (or not?) a raft of somewhat heavy handed and broadbrush rules to keep them in line. Perhaps it was only like that during the weeks i was there and im sure it will be very different in 3 or 4 months when the rainy season is in full swing - 45C heat, humidity, clouds of mozzies, swamp everywhere and not enough volunteers. I certainly want to come back sometime in the future, and that would be the time id pick for a return trip.
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