Today I write to you with a belly full of arepas, eggs, and chocolate, just like in Colombia. Today I also write with much on my mind, not all of which may make it into this one entry – I will likely need an entirely separate entry to describe some events that have transpired over the last month or so since my previous missive, but we'll see what happens.
On one of my days off each week I usually spend an hour or so in the morning cooking a breakfast pretty typical of what we ate each day no matter where we were in the country. I found a Spanish grocery store near my house here where I can get arepa flour (though I cried a little when it said “made in the States;” I had been hoping for “made in Colombia” like the herbal tea I drink every day) and the same hot chocolate we had in the village. I listen to Spanish rock and alternative music and enjoy that little bit of vacation back to this wonderful country, and it's a fun reminder to me that yes, I did live that, and it isn't just something I thought about doing.
This week, if anyone's been watching the news, you know things in Colombia have been a bit dicey with protests against free trade agreements that began with farmers and have now spread to students and various labor groups. I have been in touch with David and he's fine, though he said a cousin was injured in a protest. Trade is absolutely important (more in a later entry, I'm sure) for economic growth in Colombia, but of course, providers need to be properly compensated for whatever they're trading.
Anyway...today's entry is from 1 July (I missed a morning, but for good reason – the morning in between I went to Peru!), which, sadly, feels so long ago already. It's only been a bit over two months but it feels much longer. Luckily, each time I review and edit my notes, it puts me right back into our little cabin on the side of the hill in the village, so here goes! This one's pretty long, but it was a very exciting time!
I made it to yet another country! Yesterday we went to Peru so I could see the animals at the nature preserve. We woke up very early and cooked a quick breakfast of arepas, and then Gustavo took his wife, baby, Estefani (the 7 year old who helped me clean up the school building), David, and me out to his canoe – the very same one Ben was stuck in during the storm. Now having seen it, I'm even more impressed neither he nor anyone else nor any gear was lost during that great adventure! Exactly one week ago today I boarded a plane for my first international trip ever, and now I've been to three countries.
Ben had told me there would be a baby jaguar but I wasn't sure what else we'd find. I need to take a moment here and say how amazing it is that Gustavo knows where everything is, and where he is, and how to get everywhere. There aren't roads, very few signs, no GPS, no maps, and yet those who have grown up here in the jungle have an innate sense of where everything is located. In my vida aburrida I balked at using a GPS for years, until my band was touring to unfamiliar areas too often and it became much easier to rely on the GPS than read a map. Four years later, I GPS myself just about everywhere and have a fairly poor sense of direction a vehicle (though I am okay on foot). But here in the jungle, Gustavo can just walk or get in his boat and know exactly where he's going and how he's going to get there. Once again, my modern life is thrown into perspective, thanks to the deceptive complex simplicity of jungle life.
In Peru we pulled the boat up and a lady holding a sloth met us first. I got to hold the sloth while Gustavo asked her about other animals. In Peru animals don't have the same rights they do in the US, so places like “nature preserves” are very different as well. In the US, nature preserves are often natural habitats protected by fences or borders with little to no human development or impact, save for a few trails or the like. In Peru, this nature preserve had private homes, a school, a large kitchen/sleeping area for group tours, a gift shop, and more – but of course, jungle-style. The school was one long building with one classroom per grade and the children wore uniforms. The homes were the stilted buildings with ladders like we had in La Libertad. The most developed section was the kitchen and sleeping building for group tours.
The most surprising aspect of this preserve for me was that the animals weren't hanging out in enclosed natural environments...they were living in the private homes and to see them, we went into these families' homes and they'd show us the enclosures they'd built to house the animals. In one home I met a macaw, baby sloth, huge anaconda, caiman, land tortoise babies, and water turtle babies. And a baby puppy, of course. One home!! I love animals, but this house was about the size of my apartment back in New York, there were at least three humans living there (that we met), plus all these animals. Such a reality check. We took many photos with the animals and paid the family for letting us come in. In some homes, the fees are by the animal, some are one fee for the entire home. I was glad to have David and Gustavo with me so they were able to negotiate. My Spanish is decent but my accent is decidedly foreign – not necessarily from the States, but Colombians have a distinct manner of speaking I absolutely haven't mastered, so it's clear I'm not from there.
We also met an 8-month-old manatee being housed in a kiddie pool under a wall-less roofed building, an 8-year-old water turtle (the mata-mata) also kept in another small pool, and finally the baby jaguar, which they referred to as the tiger. We were warned prior to seeing her that she was in heat and was tied up because she was very angry about it. She too was kept in a private house. Just an aside here, but how cool would it be to have a baby jaguar live in your house? But as we entered and waited for our guide to unlock the door to her room and I could hear her first, my though process changed from how cool to how sad. She lived in a wooden room in a wooden house – the room about 10x10 feet – and had a makeshift halter tied around her forelegs connected to the wall to keep her from getting out and hurting someone. She wasn't happy at all to see us, and I wouldn't have been, had I been in her situation. We took photos of her beautiful coat while she kept her low growl steady and I felt sad about her living situation. Jaguars should be outside running, not kept in windowless rooms with wooden floors...(Note added after I got home, I now believe the cat to be an ocelot, not a jaguar, based on her size and coat pattern, but still, it was sad to see her locked up just the same).
I asked David at one point how these families got all these animals and were able to keep them and he responded simply “Porque es la selva” (Because it's the jungle). Out here, it was basically finders-keepers. If you found an animal and you could take it home, it was yours, whether a sloth, a caiman, whatever. On one hand, that's kind of exciting, but on the other hand, it doesn't bode well for the animals. They can be kept in conditions that can't possibly be happy for many of them, eating food that's very different from their natural diets. These families don't have a lot of money to build special enclosures for the animals or buy specific food, and there's not a lot of work to go around in the jungle, so keeping the animals provides a source of income. It seemed somewhat of a vicious cycle to me, as an animal lover with a completely different set of cultural norms.
We stopped for some sodas at the kitchen building and talked to our guide a little bit about the different adventures they offer there, so Gustavo could network and can bring future tours here. We took a lot of photos so Gustavo can have them to show tour groups as well, so the trip not only was fun for me, but helpful for Gustavo's financial future, since he makes most of his money by guiding tour groups from Leticia.
On the boat ride back to La Libertad, in the little canoe on the Amazon river, I kept thinking, “This is my real life. I am really in a canoe on the Amazon and I really just held a baby sloth and shook hands with a manatee. Look what happens when you can change your mind and get focused. I went from growing up poor (relative to the States) to teaching English and holding a sloth in the Amazon, walking through Peru, and drinking a $1 bottle of Brasilian cachasa in good company last night. Who gets to do this if they don't have a travel show on TV?”
In the afternoon I taught one class since we skipped the morning class while I was in Peru. The markers Ben got helped SO much as I was able to write out specific words the kids wanted, and they were able to write both the words and translations. They were also doing really well remembering words from previous lessons.
After class but before dinner I played catch with some of my children – ages probably from about 5-8. The older kids played soccer with David at the base of the hill and the little ones and I tossed the ball around at the top of the hill. After basic catch got boring I introduced them to the brilliance that is “monkey in the middle” and they got a kick out of that. We ended up playing for hours. Then the really little girls – about 4 years old – came to sit with me and slowly started gathering flowers and leaves from nearby plants. I don't remember who started it but one of them tied a leaf around my head and they all began sticking flowers and grasses into the “crown.” One put tiny flowers in my empty earring holes and another put a tiny flower on the bridge of my sunglasses. When they decided I was finally done, one announced, “You're the queen now. The Queen of the Amazon!” I was blown away by the love and kindness shown to me by these tiny humans. Queen of the Amazon is quite a title and I was honored to have it bestowed upon me, so we made sure to get photos of me with my “subjects.”
While playing, kids would occasionally step out of the circle and climb to the top of a tree to pick some fruit. I was the only crazy person cautioning them to “be careful, be careful!” and everyone looked at me like something was inherently wrong with my way of thinking. I realized these kids are far more self-sufficient and strong than I imagined. They're adept at climbing and will often climb up a tree, get the fruit, and jump down from the top of the tree, no harm done. They're very athletic and they know what they're capable of. The kids shared the fruit with me and once again I was struck by their kindness. They have so little – they pick the fruit because they are hungry – and yet they wanted me to have some of everything they had. I would generally take a bite or two and pass it along to a smaller child because I didn't want to eat all of their food. I did get to try some really crazy fruits unlike anything we have here though.
After playing it was time to cook dinner. Ben and David handled the cooking and I sang while they cooked. I actually had children request a song I'd written myself and played a couple of days before. The chorus has the words “baby, baby please don't, baby don't bring me down” in it, and two children said to me in Spanish, “Sarah, sing the baby song.” I was utterly confused and asked them what baby song a few times before one started singing and it hit me that it was my song – MY song, a song in English that I had written – that had made such an impact on them that they remembered it and wanted to hear it. That one word stuck out to them because it's repeated over and over and they latched on to it. Amazed and humbled once again, I obliged them, feeling more appreciation for my craft than I'd felt in a long time, and they sang along with me, making up words to the English ones they didn't understand.
Not only did I have children singing along with me, but at one point, Yuki, the motherless baby monkey, climbed into my lap, and actually started howling along with me. I was shocked. It had taken him a little time to warm up to the three of us “outsiders” and now here he was, sitting in my lap, singing along with me. A wild animal of a different species who doesn't speak English and isn't a pet had willingly and of his own accord climbed into my lap to sing with me. Even now, writing this entry in my apartment months later, I feel the same sense of surprise and unity I felt then with him in my lap.
I want my life to be full of such adventure always. I realize how much I missed out on because of my mindset. And it's not just about music and my tunnel-vision way of life for the past ten years. I will always be a musician. Now it is time to be a human too. To experience, to love, try, take risks, explore, throw caution to the wind (within reason – I still take my malaria pills and wear bug spray, but if the kids hand me food, I eat it. They don't have much so it's a big deal).
It is time for me to keep living and enjoy and embrace life.