29.04.2016 - 29.04.2016
Trip to Ecuador was on an overnight bus. It wasn't quite as impressive as our first two busses, but the seats reclined to provide decent enough legroom for me to sleep. Customs as Ecuador was simple enough despite the itchy little insects everywhere INISDE the building.
The best thing about the trip though was our new friend, Peter. He was an elderly (ish - older than me, anyway) Swedish man who now lives in Queensland, Australia. He was travelling solo but I think he had more than a couple of voices rattling around upstairs keeping him company. When we spoke I genuinely couldn't keep a straight face. Mainly because Katie and Rashid were looking at me and laughing at every comment the guy made.
He informed us all, quite openly, that Ecuador being more expensive that Peru was of no concern to him because he was loaded. He then proudly patted his bag and exclaimed how he had $400 rattling around in his backpack. Which he then left beside me as he went to the toilet (the toilet being perfect for him at that moment, he offered).
Peter was an avid motorbike enthusiast, though. We got on the subject when he asked where I lived and became very animated and excited about the TT races. He would talk to me at length about bikes and models and him racing. As with all our chats up to that moment, he either didn't hear or didn't understood my additions to the conversation, so he stared at me blankly for a moment before continuing at passionate length on his latest tangent.
After we boarded the bus, he came over to my seat and rather loudly pronounced in his clipped-English Swedish-accent, "I like speed!" Of course, he was referring to the speed of his bikes and the best times to cycle at night to avoid the police. He let slip a couple of times how he had suffered many a fall, even ending up in a coma for some time, and didn't so much as blink when I suggested "that explains so much."
Sadly, he departed the bus before we all had a chance to offer him our farewells, but he had already invited himself to the island one year for the TT races. Who knows if we'll meet again...
We arrived at our hostel quite early, but it was a comfortable place. The top floor was a great common place with enough cushions (and bastardly low ceilings) to sleep on the floor, which I did.
I stupidly marked myself "safe" when Facebook asked me if I was still alive after the earthquake. I had no idea it would suddenly and automatically post an overly-dramatic message. I even tried to remove it from my timeline but it would seem everyone else could see it. I am safe and was never close to any danger.
In fact, the most distressing thing to happen to me with regards to the earthquake is that the bars in Cuenca (and I imagine elsewhere in places affected) had not served alcohol since the quake. But otherwise, completely unhurt and not even a little shaken - BA-DUM! Anyone? No? Too soon?
Cuenca is quite a pretty little city. As far as cities go, that is. I'm not a city person, and I don't really get my jollies looking at architecture and all that jazz. Although I will say that the view from our hostel's common area allowed me a view of a great white spire shooting high above the silhouetted rooftops and cutting into the clouded yellow night sky, and the contrast of colours caught me as more than a little impressive. And that was a church spire! So maybe there's hope for me after all.
All in all it's clean, fairly up market (certainly in comparison to Lima), and the street-sellers are conspicuous by their absence. It's very nice to walk around a city and not try to be sold every little handicraft going or have massages offered to you by the under-enthused and unmotivated.
The food is impressive though. Food does it for me in ways buildings generally don't - which has oddly reminded of something Katie asked while in Cusco, which I'll mention later as Katie is of sad relevance while I write this blog, if not the subject of the question itself. Anyway, digression aside, the places we are were incredible. The coffee shop beside our hostel, while small and slow to cater to 12 people, provided amazing French toast with fruit and syrup. They even offered me the chance to try my first ever Nutella muffin - delightful. The restaurant on our last night provided food so tasty Eleanor nearly had a fit over her salad, and I helped finish off about 5 different meals.
Not wanting to waste a free day - and me so completely uninterested in walking the city - we went canyoning! Which, to anyone who's done it is basically gorge walking. I'm not sure if there's a technical difference between the two but it can't be huge.
We donned wetsuits, harnesses, helmets, and followed our excellent guides along a cold and fast flowing river. We slid down smooth surfaces, jumped off boulders into pools, abseiled down waterfalls, and generally made ourselves very wet and very cold. I was foolishly left in charge at the bottom of one slide where I had to guide people down the mint waterfall with the aid of a rope, and provide my body as support. Unfortunately, the problem with that plan was that people had to rely on me to guide and support them. So it can't come as a huge shock when Katie eased herself slowly down the rope towards my reassuring voice. "Don't worry, I'll get you," I said, just as she slipped past me and landed in the pool at my feet. I watched curiosity as, fully submerged, she bobbed towards the next waterfall. In a second when her head broke the surface she shouted something vaguely accusatory like, "thanks for bloody catching me, Andy!" If you think about it, it really is all her fault...
Anyway, aside from my blundering the whole experience was fantastic. The guides were brilliant, it was exhilarating and adrenaline-pumping. The drops and falls were mighty and fast-flowing. The surroundings were impressive and I really got the sense of walking places few tourists have, despite the contrary probably being the case. Considering it cost us less than $70 a head for nearly 6 hours, including transport and snacks, it's excellent value. If you're in the area check the company out - they're well worth the money and you won't be disappointed:
But Cuenca, Ecuador was just a brief stop on our way to the Amazon, where we'll be working at an animal sanctuary. We woke around 4:30am to get on a(nother) bus for several hours. Unfortunately, we woke to some bad news.
Katie was quite poorly and had been up vomiting most of the night. Frank, our guide, took her to hospital as the suspicion was she might be having a bad reaction to the Malaria tablets she'd just started taking. As it transpired Katie was suffering from appendicitis, and had to be operated on that very morning. Sadly we could not wait and Katie (obviously) could not continue on with us. It feels pretty rough, both that we all miss her presence in the group, but more so that it must be an awful thing to suffer through while on holiday. As yet, we know nothing more than the fact of her operation, but I hope everything goes smoothly and she recovers as quickly and speedily as anyone before her. Perhaps she might still be able to join us in the weeks to come? We can hope!
Katie, if you're reading this (why would a sick person read this?! Can you imagine anything more depressing than reading this when you're unwell?) then I'm thinking of you and you get well soon. Hoping you can make fun of me in person again!
It never failed to impress me her ability to know the lyrics of seemingly any song; and loved loved loved the fact that you knew all of Tenacious D's songs off by heart - even rocking Wonderboy at karaoke!
I was in awe of Katie's appetite for good food, too. Somebody idly said that when they have a big breakfast they don't need much else for lunch. To which Katie retorted that if she had a big breakfast she still wanted a big lunch and dinner. Which struck me as rather impressive as that's exactly how I feel about food - I like it when someone other than me is like "fuck it, I'm hungry and I want food". It was an extra (and slightly guilty) treat, when we all went out as a group to a cafe or restaurant, to watch Katie's hunger grow and grow as everyone around her was served their food...and Katie waited until the very end, served last for no apparent reason on multiple occasions. Strange that she didn't find it quite as amusing as I did...
And this may perhaps be a touch inappropriate given the circumstances (but given I've never cared terribly much for propriety, I don't really care!) but way back in Cusco, Katie asked me and a few others a hypothetical question over lunch. Would I rather: 1) have no more sexual pleasure again for the rest of my life; or 2) have everything I ate or drank taste like cardboard (therefore never eating or drinking anything tasty ever again) for the rest of my life?
I must admit I'm still back-and-forth about which one I'd prefer!
Anyway, these are just a few examples which remind me of the fun I've had travelling with Katie so far. It's with heavy hearts we go on while she's so poorly. We're a lesser group without you!
So we all finally arrived at the animal sanctuary, Sacha Yacu. It's built into the Amazon and is home to various birds, monkeys, turtles, saimiris, pigs, coatis, guacamayos, kinkajous, ocelots, dogs, cats, a cheeky fucking toucan, a shit-ton of insects, spiders, and other nefarious beasties - whose sole purpose it is to bite and/or get in my way - and more animals besides! (Please forgive my spelling of these animals)
Basically, the sanctuary takes in and rehabilitates animals that have been kept in captivity and/or are being mistreated, are being sold on the black market, or need rehousing because their territory has been damaged or lost for whatever reason. The sanctuary was actually seeing a sharp influx of new animals because the recent earthquake has left natural habitats a little damaged.
The lodgings are as basic as you might expect, with only a couple of hours of electricity to use a day. But being out in the Amazon you don't really have much in the need for electricity. We take it in turns to cook and we cool for everyone. The supplies are basic but oddly enough, apart from the lack of meat, we've probably had access to more fruit and veg here than in Cuenca.
All of the work we do is rotated amongst our group and a handful of other volunteers who are staying at the same time. We have a variety of tasks: feeding the animals and cleaning out their dwellings, cleaning the volunteer house, cooking, washing up, hunting grasshoppers (to feed to some lazy-ass animals), catching piranhas (again, to feed to the lazy animals who can't be bothered to go fishing themselves), monitoring the animals (for research purposes, probably...I don't know), building platforms and branches and feeding stations for birds, harvesting cocoa plants - then roasting, peeling, and grinding the beans into cocoa grains, digging trenches for new buildings and dwellings, sifting sand ready for cement, mixing the cement and laying bricks, fixing tools, and basically trying to not get bitten or die.
A couple of the girls were attacked by vicious little monkeys trying to assert their alpha-male dominance - I think? Or maybe the girls just talked back...who's to say?! Seriously though, the nuggets can be very nasty. The birds too. One cheeky shite is called Pascal, and is easily identified by his speech-mimicry, "Hola Pascal, hahaha" right before he tries to peck at you. Gobshite.
And then there are the insects. Our time here is regularly broken up by someone shouting "what the fuck is that?" or "NOPE!" Spiders are a frequent cause of intrigue but they're not the only things that cause a quick re-think of a particular path you're walking along. They're just everywhere. Big hairy fuckers and little nasty looking ones! You might think tarantulas are bad but they're not even poisonous. There was one particularly savage looking bastard of a spider under the bonfire hut. It was more skeleton than flesh, with daggers for feet, about the size of my hand and not even the good grace to be skinny either. Oh, and it had glowing green eyes (well, they glowed when I took a picture of it). It looked like something a demon would shit out!
So far nobody has gotten bitten but I'm still looking for bullet ants. I just want to know HOW painful the "most painful sting" can really be. That's all...
There's a massive tree close to the sanctuary that has more ants in this solitary tree than in the whole of the U.K.- not quite sure there needs to be that many ants.
But it's not just the insects that have it lit for us! Even the trees and plants are getting in on the action. One tree in particular can leave you with either a very painful, or else a completely numb, appendage for a few days, depending where you prick yourself on it. There is a white plant that will give you shooting pains and the sensation of ants crawling under your skin. Basically, in the rainforest, everything wants to kill and eat you, so touch nothing.
Strange then that I've decided to make this my home for nearly a month!
The rainforest itself is hot and sweaty, and I more than most sweat like a demon. Which causes a problem by midday when I've sweated through every item of clothing I'm wearing. But luckily there is a fresh-water pool I can frolic in - it might not dry me off but it fucking well cools me down! I gave up on the idea of fresh, clean clothes everyday, and simply rotated two pairs of shirts and shorts every day, washing them when not in use. The weather switches almost in seconds from roasting-hot sun to torrential downpour. On our penultimate day it rained more than a week's worth in a few hours but in the late afternoon, the mist clung to the trees and cloaked the horizon. And when night falls, you know it. Darkness consumes all and what scant illumination the moon and stars provide is not enough to navigate by.
But I feel as though I've been harsh on the place. Despite everything being geared towards discomfit and/or death, it's a remarkable place to be in. The group really helps each other out and in the evening We eat until pregnant with food babies. We gather and split wood with axe and machete for our bonfire (I nearly - but didn't - lose a toe!); Sam brings his guitar, and we lie in hammocks and laugh with the noise of the Amazon all around us. The sky flashes with thunder-less lightning and fireflies dance in the lull. Sam even learned to play Good Riddance by Green Day (for me, obvs) and made up an impromptu song about Rashid's fascination with a warm log from the bonfire ("Rashid's toasty log - it's brown, brown, brown - Rashid's toasty log - it's fucking brown! - Rashid's toasty log...its sticky...").
The work can be pretty hardcore, especially digging the trenches and sifting the sand (as well as other jobs!), but it feels rewarding. I'm sweating my body weight and I ache fully at the end of the day, but still. To see your efforts go towards building a shelter, a quarantine, and enclosure, a clinic. It really makes me appreciate again why it was I came on a trip like this.
Our last morning of the first week saw us having to say farewell to Sara, Sarra, Yas, and Stefan, our Serbian guide. Unfortunately they were only doing one month with us for various reasons, but I've invited them all to the glorious seaside resort: the Isle of Man. Hopefully I'll see them again soon but if not I'm sure I'll annoy them online.
And with our food running out and washing piling up, it was time to take an early weekend (well, Friday afternoon) visit to Baños for supplies and extreme sports - I'll have an update for you on the next blog!