Back in Buenos Aires we decided we wanted to stay on holiday for a little longer. So we started to look for somewhere we could camp down for a month or two around October, preferably somewhere nice on the coast, so that we’d hit Central America in December, just as the weather was getting good. Then our thoughts turned to volunteering – gap year kids are doing it all the time but are paying crazy rates (up to £1000 per month for the privilege) so we spent some quality time on the internet and found a great website http://www.volunteersouthamerica.net/.
Looking through hundreds of places, from childcare to building work, teaching to hippy communes, we compiled a shortlist of 10 places we thought looked genuine and where we would like to give a little of our time. We decided early on we were not interested in working with kids. We don’t mind children, I might even have a couple when I grow up, but other people’s kids can get rather annoying. I can’t speak Spanish that well so teaching is out, and after describing our history to a hippy commune (which we thought might be a giggle) they responded with a polite – “are you sure this is for you – dude?”
Luckily the place at the top of our list responded in just a couple of days, and after paying a deposit to hold our place we blocked out the whole of October. We were to spend a full four weeks in the jungle at an animal refuge, feeding the animals, maintaining their enclosures and working on the land. Although very excited, we were apprehensive about giving up electricity for a month and getting down into the jungle. As it happened, we had nothing to worry about.
Merazonia is a rescue centre for trafficked and abused Amazonian animals, located on 250 acres of rainforest, in Mera, Ecuador. After a quick meal in Mera, we jump in a local pick-up truck and bounce our way down a track, at the end of which is a bridge over a crystal clear river into the refuge itself. We have arrived in the middle of feeding time so the place is a bit deserted. A couple of volunteers rush out from various paths and greet us, show us the dorm where we will be staying, a quick tour of the kitchen and toilet and then they disappear back into the trees.
The place itself is far more comfortable then we imagined. It’s rustic, but homely, and the house (containing an eight bed dorm, a communal area, where we eat, and an attic room) sits aside a tool shed, a separate kitchen and bathroom are at the end of short paths. There is no electricity but the kitchen is far better equipped than mine at home and gas canisters provide hot meals and showers. The other volunteers are of various flavours – western, local, just out of school or running away from it all like us. All a nice bunch of people, I guess it takes a certain sort of person to come and do this. We settle in and that night have a communal dinner over candlelight, whilst realising that at some point we’ll have to prepare a meal for all 12(ish) workers on site, not something myself or Leah have ever done before!
A usual day starts around 7am although we actually find ourselves getting up a bit earlier to feed the resident dogs and have a nice cup of tea. The first feeding starts around 7:30, and each person is assigned a particular feeding round, sometimes in groups, sometimes alone, depending on the task or the number of volunteers. When we arrive there are loads of parrots (some in quarantine), tamarin monkeys, woolly monkeys, capuchin monkeys, kinkajous and a puma on site. At first it’s a bit of a struggle to remember all the different food types each animals gets, but after a few days it’s almost second nature. Feeding is a mixture of great fun and hard work, it gets messy and there is no other option than to just get stuck into it, cleaning the cages, filling water and hiding snacks around the enclosures whilst being scrutinised by various critters. After feeding there is a small rota for cleaning jobs around the place, including kitchen, bathroom and washing monkey blankets!
During the day the volunteers work on various other jobs, from building paths, new cages or even just painting new stools to sit on, depending on the weather. On our first day we were fixing new chicken wire to the puma cage (so the live rats that we fed it couldn’t escape!) in the middle of a torrential downpour whilst being eyed continuously by a stunning big cat (above). Not your usual day at the office! I even found time to make a see-saw for the capuchin cage, although I’m sure it’s been torn to shreds by the little cherubs by now.
A second feed takes place at 3pm, after which everybody takes a shower and changes back into some decent clothes (there is a huge collection of second hand clothes to borrow whilst there , which you need as you get covered in mud and poo!)
The kitchen became a bit of an obsession whilst we were there, I guess it gave us something to do after dark aside from play cards and drink rum. Leah quickly became pretty good at rustling up a meal for 10 odd people. As we had no refrigeration we only had meat on shopping days (twice a week) and as someone who religiously threw food away on the best before date, I quickly re-adjusted my hygiene levels and realised how overcautious we are back home. Milk, margarine, mayonnaise and eggs seem to do just fine out on the table top for days and days. I didn’t get ill at all, and the saying “what doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger” was bandied around, although what might not kill us might leave us with a lingering parasitic infection to deal with later. Still, the food was great. Fat chance of losing some of the weight gained in Argentina here. We were baking daily, cookies, scones, cakes. We even decided to have a Christmas meal one Sunday with homemade mince pies for the heck of it, although the non-English-Irish there thought we were a bit mad.
After a few days we moved up in to the attic in the hut, as there was a double bed there and we were the only couple which made things even more comfortable. Once a week, we left in the evening to spend the next day in a nearby town, Banos, for our day off, but were always keen to come back and get back into things.
We knew there would be various bugs and beasties around us, but nothing that evil. Mosquito levels were very low, spiders, beetles and moths hung around harmlessly. Occasionally we spotted weird things mooching around, like scorpion spiders, enormous earth worms, a tarantula or two, and on one lucky day a lancehead snake. These are labelled as the third most deadly snake in the world, with venom that can kill in around 20 minutes. He was a small chap and was hanging out near a cabin used by the volunteer coordinator. One of the volunteers chucked him in a bin and released him away from camp.
As for the resident animals, we all had our favourites. The capuchins were great fun to watch, and moving them in and out of cages for cleaning was a battle of wits, made even more difficult by a resident wild capuchin who would aggressively scream at us when he felt like it. The woolly monkeys were cute as hell, greeting us with one arm over their mouths and making ‘snuffling’ noises to say hello. Niamh, a howler monkey, was one of Leah’s favourites. A young monkey, we would take it in turns it get up at 1am to give her a hot water bottle (always gratefully received), whilst cleaning her cage she would almost always initiate a game of tag, swinging around on the new branches we gave her every day. She was an easy one to win over with a grape.
The kinkajous kept themselves to themselves, being nocturnal, the only real sign there were six of them was the incredible amount of crap they would leave for us overnight. A small collection of tamarin monkeys were in cages around wild ones, with a very special one in the clinic. The poor thing had so many things wrong with it. We used to take a few extra crickets for her as consolation; she would go crazy at just the sight of the jar we used to capture them. There were also loads of parrots, some we grew quite attached to, we didn’t realise how much personality they have. Leah discovered this when a particular blue headed parrot took a dislike to her and would bully her incessantly whilst she was in the cage. Whilst sitting happily on my shoulder and cooing, even accepting a scratch, she would attack Leah continuously, and even left a few scars. I found this hilarious.
I must also mention the fantastic Mrs Guatin, a rat like thing that lived on the floor of the largest parrot cage. A favourite of most volunteers, she was totally tame and would greet us when entering the cage, occasionally running off with our cleaning brushes. Leah found it very cute when she ran off to hide her grapes under a leaf.
There were also three resident dogs, who initially were very nervous around new people but over time became friends (feeding and walking them helped!).
It’s was not all hard work, the local jungle provided great walks (the area is around 60% primary rainforest) so gave us our jungle fix. A nearby waterfall was great for a swim, although cold, the water was so clear. Evenings were spent chatting, drinking the local rum and eating, and more eating.
There is so much more we could say. We loved our stay, the work was sometimes hard, but satisfying. We would recommend coming here to anybody, although would say two weeks is probably not enough time to really get into it, make plans for a month or more if you can. If we have the chance, we will be coming back, if not possible we will certainly be trying to help out from afar. The work done here is inspiring, and well worth your time and money.
There are loads more pictures of our time at Merazonia on our gallery pages click here.
If you want to donate, you can do so easily through PayPal here. From our stay at Merazonia we know that every penny goes directly into the animals’ welfare, join them on Facebook to catch up with the day-to-day work and you can see for yourself. If you even fancy giving a few weeks of your time to help out , email them at firstname.lastname@example.org
The day we left, a very sick adult capuchin arrived after being taken from unsuitable conditions in a family home (hope your finger’s healing Frank!). He has been christened Theodore and is yet another mouth to feed!