to The Jungle
This a true story… I’m sitting on a log, in the Amazon Basin, with bugs flying into my eyeballs, I squint and pick another one out. There’s sweat dripping down my face, down my back, my crack. Even my knuckles are sweating. I’m in the Amazon Basin in Bolivia and it’s hot, really hot. Like stuck inside a car with the heater on, all the windows shut and eating a curry, hot.
I’m wearing gumboots, baggy pants and a shirt, covering the thousands – I’m not kidding – of mosquito bites all over my body. They itch, oh boy do they itch, and the antihistamines I take daily make… it... just… bearable.
I’m sitting on this log and thinking, what the fuck am I doing here?
I’m sitting on this log and thinking, what the fuck am I doing here? The ground is swarming and moving like a bad acid trip; huge ants, bugs, and god-knows-what are creeping, crawling and slithering through the leaves, over my feet and beyond. I’m sitting on a log in the Amazon Basin and waiting. Like the girl in those CCF TV ads from the 90s, I wait. And wait.
And wait for the 80kg puma I’ve been walking for the past 4 hours to end its rest and keep walking. You don’t tell the puma when he’s done; he tells you. And yes you heard me right… my volunteering job in Bolivia, four years ago, was to walk a wild animal through marked trails in the jungle.
This particular puma is called Lishou, and after resting for 40 minutes he gets up and starts to walk around. Myself and another volunteer - an Italian called Alfonso - take the two ropes attached to Lishou’s collar and continue the walk along the trail. We walk and walk, stopping by streams for Lishou to drink water, and then walk and walk some more.
By now it’s the afternoon so we take Lishou back to his enclosure, and then head back to our home base in this very small, rudimentary animal refuge park called Jacj Cuisi. There are four pumas here, they’ve all been rescued because of abuse by their owners, or they were sold in markets, or simply abandoned when they grew too big and rough to keep as a pet.
There’s also a resident monkey - who was actually pretty cute - and the unofficial animals include the local tarantula, several scorpions, beetles, borabora, and the friendliest cockroaches you could ever meet. Those cockroaches, boy they just loved to hang out, in your clothes, in your bed, in your socks, on your friend’s back, in your food…
There’s nothing like peeing into a long drop and feeling the tickle of bees somewhere where you’d never expect bees to roam.
Our living conditions are basic at best; straw mattresses under mosquito nets, long drops surrounded by sweatbees. There’s nothing like peeing into a long drop and feeling the tickle of bees somewhere where you’d never expect bees to roam. I used to hold in my pee for as long as possible, and think I only passed a bowl motion once or twice in 10 days as I just couldn't relax long enough to let one out.
So perhaps you can get an idea of how uncomfortable the living situation is. It’s day 9 (and I have to count each day as I’m amazed every time I make it through to the next one). I don’t even like animals, so spending all day being with one, and talking to it “bueno Lisho, vamos Lishou” and THEN hanging out all evening with people who REALLY like animals is about as far away from a good time as I can get. It’s like Animal Rescue- Survivor-Fear Factor with no prize.
I’d joke with my friend Gemma that I felt like we were in purgatory because a least in Hell the people would be more interesting... But it’s day 9 and there’s something wrong with Lishou. Some of the volunteers have already requested not to walk with him due to his ‘jumping’ and scratching, so there are only a few of us left who can look after him. His two leashes are attached to myself and Gemma, and the 3rd volunteer, a 60yr old Swiss man called Franz, walks behind us.
We’re walking along, and something’s not quite right. Lishou is growling and hissing at us. He stops to pee frequently and there’s blood in his urine. As the day passes he growls and hisses even more.
We’ve been walking slowly for 4 hours by now, and I’m getting nervous as I’ve never seen him this irritable – he keeps turning to look at us and flexes his body like he wants to jump. The pumas do tend to jump on you to play, but if they jump out of anger that’s when you’re in real trouble.
We turn around in horror to see Lishou’s jaw firmly locked around Franz’s head.
So we’re walking Gemma and I, and this big, grumpy 80kilo cat. And in one quick moment is where we fuck up. We let Lishou walk higher than us up a hill and he runs up a fallen tree and jumps onto Franz. We turn around in horror to see Lishou’s jaw firmly locked around Franz’s head. His teeth penetrating the skin of his forehead just missing his left eye. We’re stunned. In shock. Franz looks at us and says, “Get. Him. Off. Me”.
With one of Lishou’s ropes attached to the harness around my waist I walk towards him, adrenalin pumping through my body. I really have NO IDEA what to do and I’m terrified that Lishou will turn around and attack me… but I couldn’t just stand there. So I go up to the cat and slowly try to peel his paw off Franz’s shoulder. Lishou starts to lose his balance and jumps off him, growling.
Meanwhile Franz’s face is streaming with blood and his eyeball is turning red. His face is starting to turn patchy and purple. Gemma and I are still silent, standing there in shock. We know we have to get Lishou back to his enclosure as fast as possible to so we head back watching him closely for any sudden movements.
After he’s locked inside we quickly head back to Franz - who is astonishingly brave and calm I might add - and we apply pressure to his puncture wounds to try and reduce the bleeding, and pour antiseptic into his open flesh. The three of us walk back quietly to our home base and the disbelief and guilt – for not acting sooner… for letting the Puma walk higher than us – all becomes a bit too much and I cry.
As soon as we’re back Franz finds the volunteer with the most medical training (which isn’t much) who then treats him for shock and dresses his wounds. I go sit down on a tree stump with Gemma.
Once the story and the situation has sunk in, I look over at her and she’s wearing this t-shirt she brought from the Loki La Paz hostel we’d just finished working in. It said Count Your Loki Stars.
That's it, I’ve had enough.
Tears of laughter at this atrocious pun stream down my face, mixing with sweat. I wipe my face on my dusty t-shirt. That‘s it, I’ve had enough. The next morning, day 10, I wake up when the sun rises like usual. The sweatbees are up and swarming, the cockroaches are scuttling around. I pack my bags, say goodbye to the other volunteers and head out to the dirt road, ready to hitch-hike with anyone, in any vehicle, that’s driving in the direction of the nearest town.
I’d had enough close encounters with animals, it was time for something a little more suited to my sensibilities: a close encounter with a cool swimming pool, a hot shower, and a llama steak.