Eilidh Southren - Rainforest Conservation in Peru
“Michael... There's a tarantula on that wall over there..”, I whispered.
It was the end of my first day at Taricaya, and the volunteers were all relaxing together with a movie on the generator-run DVD player. All except me, with my legs curled up against my chest and mouth open in horror at the little creature a few metres from us.
“I know,” he replied, hardly taking his eyes off the film.
“Eilidh”, he laughed, “It's fine.”
Of course it was. Quite a regular occurrence in fact, as I found out in the days that followed. Tarantulas, moths the size of your hand, psychedelic caterpillars, batteries of ants everywhere you looked. And that was just the small critters.
Nature envelops you as soon as you step off the boat into Taricaya. The constant hum of cicadas, bird calls and the odd growl from resident jaguar Preciousa are a little overwhelming at first, but soon become the soothing background noise that you love waking up to in the morning.
The main reason I'd wanted to travel to Peru was to experience a totally different culture, climate and way of life in general. The Conservation project seemed perfect for me, combining my love of nature, travelling and ecology.
Coming from Scotland made my arrival in Puerto Maldonado interesting – coming off the plane into a wall of heat and humidity was a million miles away from the windy autumn I'd just left behind. I was greeted at the airport by Projects Abroad staff member Maria Rosemberg, a resident of Puerto with a fantastic American-twanged accent. After an exhilarating ride into town on a tuk tuk, I was given an overview of everything I'd be doing, before heading off to meet the other volunteers at a local hostel. It was Sunday and they were a little tired from a previous nights' partying, but I felt welcome and relaxed immediately.
The reserve itself is an hour or so downstream from the town, so with a weeks' worth of provisions (including all the food for the animals, fuel, building materials and snack essentials of oreos and coke, of course) we set off. Still buzzed from my arrival, all I could do was gaze in wonder at the dense jungle passing by, with the odd house, farm or lodge in between. It passed by quickly, as all the boat journeys did, and soon I was heaving my rucksack off the boat and onto dry land. A chain of people quickly transported everything from the boat into Taricaya. After a quick tour, I was unpacking into my new home for the next three months, a cosy 4-person bungalow.
After a night of sleeping like the dead, I woke up fresh and ready to start my first day of activities. I'm not a morning person, but with a sunrise at 5am and an alarm clock of bird symphony metres from the front door, you don't have much of a choice. After being in the routine for a few days it becomes surprisingly easy!
My first activity was cutting kudzu (a thick vine) and papaya to feed our two tapirs. Wielding a machete made me feel distinctly Rambo-like, and I managed not to lose any limbs. Success! One activity down, two to go, and I was already exhausted and in need of a shower. Cold showers may seem like your idea of hell, but in the dense heat of the rainforest it's a godsend.
Thankfully the bird watching was a little more relaxing. I rapidly learned the names of the birds that flew overhead, with the odd rare one feverishly looked up in our bible, The Birds of Peru. It sounds dull, but it's a great way to relax, whether it's in the platform overlooking the goats in New Farm, over the swamp or in the beautiful canopy, 42m up in the air. The long trek up the bridge to get there offers spectacular panoramas over the treetops, and gets you really close to the birds that fly overhead.
After what seemed like the longest day of my life, I was content to have a siesta (which sounds more mature than 'nap-time') in the hammocks. Pure bliss. See monkeys hopping in the trees over your head, relax with a book or write up the day’s happenings in a journal, which soon becomes your favourite possession along with your camera.
There's a vast array of activities to look forward to. The turtle project was a favourite of mine; helping to hatch around 2000 eggs and release them back into the wild away from poachers. Everyday the animals needed to be fed, trails through the forest had to be hacked clear with machetes, buildings needed to be maintained, plant data was collected, and every time something new to learn. Evenings were filled with fiestas, lectures from the staff experts, relaxing get-togethers on the bungalow balconies with chill music, and deep sleep.
Be prepared to eat vast quantities of rice, generally the staple of 2 meals a day. Mealtimes are incredibly social, where all the volunteers are together, playing cards, sharing cultures (Danish boot dance, anyone?) or generally moaning about the food. It's good and filling, if a little repetitive. A small volunteer kitchen led to many culinary delights, such as eggy bread and incredible Taricaya cookies, to keep us going.
Taricaya's a magical place. Clichéd, but true. Being there a day feels like a week, and after the first month it feels like home. Some volunteers stay just a week, others stay for months like I did, but it always feels like a giant, multi-cultured family. In the end I just didn't want to leave. I learned about the diversity and importance of the rainforest, brushed up on my Spanish, and made friends for life, from all corners of the globe. Everyday there can greet you with a different adventure. Quite simply, I had the greatest time of my life.