The toucan was trying to kill me. He wouldn’t let me leave my room; every time I cracked open the door, he would appear directly in front of it, snapping his long beak at me menacingly and gazing at me sideways out of one large, crazy eye. When I walked to the feed shed or the bathroom, he would be there barring my way, trying to bite my feet and growling at me – yes, growling, with a frightening, birdlike noise like knocking on wood too quickly. As I lay on the hammock, I would all of a sudden see the tip of a yellow beak attempting to reach up over the fabric like in a horror movie, rapidly opening and closing as if he was zeroing in on his prey.
Predictably, the toucan’s name was Zazu. He had come to the reserve after the environmental police took him away from someone that had been keeping him illegally as a pet. They had clipped his wings, so all he could do was hop around our cabins and sometimes make a pathetic attempt at flying a few feet down some steps.
The local guy that runs the reserve, Flavio, suggested that I show the maniacal bird who’s boss. He told me to quickly grab his beak when he tried to bite me and hold it shut, so I bravely stood my ground and did exactly that the next time he hopped up next to my hammock.
It didn’t work. He still wasn’t afraid of me and I, for some reason, felt bad for the lunatic.
My next approach was a daredevil one. Crouching down, I reached out my hand towards the toucan. He looked curiously down his wide beak at my palm as best as he could with his eyes on opposite sides of his head, and gave my fingers a gentle nibble. Creeping closer and continuing to gnaw at my fingers like a teething puppy, he closed his eyes and bent his head sideways in a catlike way as I scratched his head and the feathers on his chest.
From then on, Zazu the Misunderstood Toucan and I were friends – more or less, I still had to take a firm hand when he terrorized the cats and dogs. In the mornings, the silly bird would peck at my toes as I brushed my teeth or swept the cabins and wouldn’t leave me alone until I pet him. His menacing growls became more like tame purrs, and he begged for pieces of banana alongside the dogs (all three of which were terrified of him).
We decided to volunteer at the animal reserve extremely last-minute, after our contact in the indigenous community we were supposed to go to didn’t respond to us when we reached the set meeting point. Spontaneously, we called up Flavio after finding his info on the Sacha Yacu Rescue Center site. He met us in the small town of Puyo on the edge of the Amazon where we were staying and took the hour and a half bus ride with us east into the jungle. We walked down into the forest, a vast expanse of deep, emerald green that stretched as far as the eye could see over the horizon. Patches of treetops illuminated by rays of sun stood out brightly like stripes on the endless canvas. After half an hour, we reached a small cluster of cabins that we would call home for over two weeks.
As we traipsed into the clearing with our heavy backpacks on our shoulders, a scene like no other unfolded in front of me. There was Zazu the Toucan hopping down the stairs in front of the kitchen, followed closely by a couple cats. A dozen green parrots sat dispersed on low branches where I could reach out and touch them, chatting to themselves with words that sounded as if I was listening to the muffled speech of people conversing behind a wall. A red macaw couple nuzzled each other on the path, squirrel monkeys swung wildly from tree branches overhead, and two dogs came bounding up, making the parrots flap away in annoyance. It was the most unrealistic, comical spectacle I’d ever seen, and the whole thing would become more like a circus every single day.
The mornings were for feeding the animals. Apart from the ones that roamed around freely, staying of their own accord because they’d grown accustomed to getting fed or couldn’t fly well anymore, there were 16 cages that were dispersed through many acres of the jungle; it took us four hours to visit all of them the first day. The mission of the reserve is to rehabilitate native Amazonian animals that have mostly been kept as pets and, if possible, release them back into the wild. When we were there, they had dozens of parrots, many monkeys of various sorts, adorable coatis (small, anteater-like animals that liked to climb on me), two species of wild pig, a margay (similar to an ocelot – a wild jungle cat), and aquatic and land turtles. There were also small plantations of cocoa, sugar cane, and banana, as well as ponds of tilapia and piranhas that we would fish out of to feed the margay.
In the afternoons, we would busy ourselves with various tasks – catching grasshoppers with our hands to feed to the monkeys and coatis; harvesting cocoa fruits and cutting them open to slide the soft, white seeds into buckets (this was fun because we could snack while we worked, sucking on the sweet, gooey exteriors of the seeds until our jaws hurt); catching the turtles in their enclosure and hand-feeding them like babies; digging for worms in the mud and then fishing with them in the piranha ponds; building a new set of cabins – the work was never ending.
As one does, we quickly fell into the routine of daily life in the jungle. The parrots shrieking like little girls, the toucan coming over to nip at me until I pet him, and watching the PDA macaw couple on the kitchen steps became normal. But in moments when I looked outside of myself, I was reminded of how simply ridiculous it was that I was there, shooing away mischievous squirrel monkeys from bird food and having parrots greet me with an “Hola!” when I passed by. “Normal”, it seems, is a highly subjective term.
Although the days were sometimes repetitive, they were never monotonous. It was impossible to predict what each morning would bring. One day, it was an endangered species of monkey climbing onto your shoulder or a coati curling up on your lap for an afternoon nap, other times it was coming across a worm the size of a snake or finding a tarantula in the kitchen (this happened twice). Each day held its own adventure, waiting for you to snatch it out of outstretched palms.
Once, we braved the Amazon forest at night to get to a party in an indigenous community. Flavio’s brother, Julio, was leading us and had said it would be a five minute walk through the jungle, which didn’t sound so bad. First, we hitchhiked a ride down the rocky road in the back of a police truck that was driving by (it was the first car I had seen since we arrived). After a few minutes, Julio jumped out and pointed straight into the darkest thicket of trees. The sun had completely set, and we were armed only with a couple of phone lights and one diving headlight which someone had dug up from somewhere.
After 45 minutes of stumbling over tree roots, recoiling from branches that looked like snakes in the darkness, balancing across a log over a stream, shining lights onto massive spiders in their webs, and hopping over stones in a river, there were still no signs of human life around us.
And then, all of a sudden, there was a clearing of all trees and vegetation. Out of nowhere the forest seemed to just stop in an unnatural way, as if it had come upon an invisible wall that it wouldn’t grow past. As someone let the beam of their flashlight fall ahead of us, I could make out something giant running across the jungle, like an enormous snake clearing everything in its path.
“Petrol,” Julio summarized in one word.
We continued to walk along the massive oil pipeline, and soon we began to hear the beat of the base from amplified music. Julio told us that the oil companies had given the indigenous community many things – houses of concrete, a generator for electricity, even speakers – as if to say, “We’re destroying your land, but keep up the dancing, friends.”
We had finally arrived at a larger clearing and I could see lights from a house in the distance and hear native music with an odd electronic twist thumping through the air. Here, we turned off our lights and looked up at the clear sky, dusted with more stars than I’d ever seen – like someone had accidentally spilled the whole jar of sprinkles on a cake. I could make out the path of the Milky Way, flowing through the night sky like a river.
As we neared the small community, I didn’t know what to expect. Was I about to walk in on tribal dancing around a bonfire, the people half-naked with faces painted and feathers in their hair? The overload of cultural appropriation wasn’t lost on me, but what should any of us expect when we’re ignorant to so many different ways in the world? After all, the only way to dispel prejudice is discovery.
Of course, the party was nothing of the sort. The closest to half-naked anybody got were the breast-feeding women dancing with their babies in their arms. They wore normal clothes – jeans, T-shirts, and tank tops.
There were three houses set in a triangle, each about 50 meters away from each other, that people party-hopped between. All were the same: two levels tall and made of wood and concrete. The bottom was an open concrete floor with no walls, and a wooden staircase outside led up to the top where they presumably had a bedroom.
It was on these ground-level concrete “porches” where everyone was dancing to the odd but catchy modern-Amazonian music bellowing out of speakers. At one house, a 90’s-style music-video played on a computer, which included a man decked out in the native garb I had originally pictured (complete with feathers atop his head) playing a keyboard against a white backdrop, his name twirling in WordArt in the corner.
Not dancing wasn’t an option. The moment I tried to sit down on a bench, a man would come drag me up by the hands and insist that I dance with him. We couldn’t communicate; their native tongue is Kichwa, and although most speak decent Spanish, I do not. Nevertheless, I laughed past the slight awkwardness of the situation and danced in the jungle of foreignness.
At every house, a woman would walk around with a large bowl of a milky, yellow-white liquid, scooping a smaller bowl into it and pouring the whole thing down every person’s throat in turn. No matter how much I protested, even as the liquid poured down my chin and spilled onto my shirt, I was forced over and over again to drink entire bowlfuls of what turned out to be fermented yuca juice. The sour, tangy flavor never quite left my mouth, and I can’t say it was pleasant.
At one point, I was stung on the neck by a wasp, but still I kept dancing to the uneven music, which was regularly breaking up through the speakers. Far from dismaying the locals, this added to their gusto; they cheered every time the song started again and continued to dance even more enthusiastically. Everyone smelled of earth, sweat, and the sharp, sour scent of fermented yuca.
On the way back, Julio, our trusted guide through the jungle, was drunk. He kept stopping to “rest”, laying on a rock and turning off his light, plunging us into total blackness. Clouds had covered up every star in the sky, and the only things visible were the dark outlines of monstrous trees towering far above us. The constant background noise of grasshoppers and rustling leaves enveloped us, punctured by the distant grunts of wild pigs and the loud croak of a nearby frog. Needless to say, I’ve never been happier to somehow finally find myself back in bed at the end of a night.
The work at the animal reserve was difficult and often not “Instagram-worthy” (digging up worms with your bare hands and traipsing through mud in the rain rarely is). We would end each day exhausted, enjoying the two hours of electricity every night but almost always going to sleep when they turned off the generator at 8:30 pm. But the work was the sort that you could feel waking up your soul: real and dirty and strenuous and frightening and exhilarating – the exact opposite of the time I spent sitting in an office, every day droning on in endless monotony and meaningless pressure.
However, meaningfulness, passion, and every other feeling worth having has a price that is often paid with the opposite emotion. In this case, it was frustration and sadness – at seeing the oil pipeline running smoothly along its path of destruction, at hearing about the macaw that finally decided to fly free in our second week only to be caught by animal traffickers the next day, even at the simple fact of having to leave this slice of paradise. But the fact remains that we were there, it was real, and we did something to help, and for now, that is enough.
Out in the world surrounded by nature, despite your fears – whether they be ones you later laugh off like tarantulas, daily anxieties like finances, or melodramatic ones (that are actually legit) like the destruction of the Earth – you feel at peace. In the jungle, it’s only you, the animals, and the cloud-touching trees. The buzzing you hear is not the buzz of a cell phone, a vine is not a video, and the only web is the spider’s, not that of the entire world.