Out of my comfort zone and into the jungle

After being the typical flashpacker tourist for a couple of weeks, I desperately needed to try something else, get out of my comfort zone and travel like I imagined I would, alone and with no clue. This time I decided to give the jungle a try. I’m not an immediate fan of the jungle. The heat and strangling humidity, which barely make you able to walk, isn’t my idea of a perfect climate, but like I said, I needed to get out of my comfort zone.

So I got in touch with a couple living in Shintuya on Workaway.info for some volunteer work and they were happy to have me. They were currently building a traditional hut for treatments of the medicinal plants kind and as a recently graduated architect I figured this would be a good opportunity for some practical experience.

From Cusco, Peru, I first had to get an 9 hour bus to Salvacíon, and from there make my way with the local bus to Shintuya. Even though Salvacíon is suppose to be the Manú jungle hub, it has not yet made google maps. Luckily Shintuya has, so I had some idea of where I was heading. But that was basically it, no use googling this place before you go.

As the bus bumped its way over the Andes I could feel the air changing. The further we went, the warmer and more humid it got, and after about 4-5 hours I could smell the rain forest. It smelled like an early sunny summer morning after a rainy night. After more than two months in the South American winterlands it smelled like happiness. At that moment, the jungle felt right.

After a night in one of the several mini-hostels in Salvacíon the bus for Shintuya left at 5:30 in the morning, and even though I’d barely slept, a large amount of anxiety and excitement kept me wide awake. Shintuya does not offer internet or cell service, so my future employer didn’t actually know about me arriving as I had had been emailing his wife currently abroad. But arriving in Shintuya, there was no problem in finding a volunteer to take me to his house, although he did look a little taking aback getting a new visitor out of the blue. However, luck had it he was just about to leave his house with two other volunteers for a day-long hike around a nearby mountain. And arriving all excited and ready for new adventures I wasn’t going to say no to that, even though I’d had no sleep.

The hike was both to show us around and for hunting. Monkeys. Hunting cute furry monkeys. Definitely out of the comfort zone. And hiking uphill in thick, humid air wasn’t exactly easy, I guess the no sleep thing really didn’t help. But somehow I managed. At least I wasn’t asked to step up front and do the macheteing. The jungle was denser than anything I’ve seen, and the path had to be created as we went. But the jungle was beautiful. We got to see some amazing waterfalls, butterflies as big as birds and birds as small as butterflies. And monkeys, loads of monkeys. Resulting in getting to see a very dead one up close as well. The hunt had been successful.

The machete had to be sharpened several times because of the frequent use in the dense jungle. A rock and some water seemed to do the job. And yes, that’s a quarter of a dead monkey to the right.

After nine hours walking around, I was exhausted. My feet hurt, my back hurt, and I was too tired to have any appetite. But returning back to a village without electricity means that you have to cook your meat the same day. So no sleep yet, we had a monkey to fry. The volunteers were exempt from the plucking of the fur and parting of the body, as this monkey fed a quite a few families. However, it took some rationalising to get over the fact that it looked a lot like a human baby. Roasting it over the fire wasn’t a last minute thing however, it would take hours, and we all fell asleep before it was done. It strangely made for a nice breakfast though.

The following days we would do some more rummaging around the jungle, lighting for Caymans (small crocodiles), catch our own dinners, do loads of cooking and then cleaning. The work wasn’t as I expected. The description given was three hours of  work a day, but our activities couldn’t really be divided up like that. We might do one hour of work for whatever project our employer had going on, and then the rest of the day would be preparing food and being shown the jungle and the what the area around the village could offer. It didn’t really feel like work at all, more like living together. But I was exhausted! The energy of my host was fascinating, I’ve never seen anyone do harder work in extreme heat and go play football afterwards. He always had something planned. Whenever we’d have half an hours rest he would get up and say “let’s go”. We’d have no idea where, and frankly, most of the time my first though would be “no way!”. I was expecting a tranquil jungle hut, perfect for some r&r, but not here. I started going to bed around 8-9 pm.

After a couple of days the first other couple had left and two new girls arrived. Since the house in Shintuya wasn’t very big, we all moved out into jungle to our employers medicinal where we all slept on pillows and the rare mattress on one, big floor. This also meant cooking over the fire and bathing in the river. Living the simple life. Going out of my comfort zone.

Our hut in the jungle

The volunteer girls, my black feet and our little mouse pets who abandoned by their mother.

I grew to like the simple life, although I never appreciated a cooker more. Cooking took ages. But what got to me were the bug bites. It wasn’t even mosquitos, but little, small devil flies that would go crazy on your arms and ankles. I’m certain I was covered in at least 250 bites. It was basically just like a rash that spread out across my skin. And the itch was insane!! To help with the itch, my employer would find medicinal plants around the area and rub them on the bites, which would help for a couple of hours but then it’d start again. So to prevent further bites around my ankles, he painted my feet blue with natural colour made of a local fruit. This was the paint the native tribes would use to decorate their bodies for ceremonies or war. Only thing was, you couldn’t actually see what you were painting as the colour would only appear over night.

Living like this, in the middle of the jungle without any of the usual comforts but working together, sharing everything was definitely the most different thing I’ve ever done. It was challenging, the heat was exhausting, but also rewarding. In the end it wasn’t for me. Like I mentioned I’m not a jungle person, I need the ocean breeze, but living and learning from someone the way we did should be a part of everyone’s journey when they decide to travel. It changes you a little bit. Taking part in a way of living so far from your own. And I am deeply grateful to my host who would share his home and all that he knows.

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