Friday, 6 June 2014

If you go down to the woods today........

If you go down to the woods today you’re sure of a big surprise,
If you go down to the woods today you won’t believe your eyes,
Because Lamby’s there, with a bear,
And AJ too, she knew Balu
So please go down to the woods today, for Balu’s teddy bear piiiicccniiicccc –
So that you can be the food instead of us, once he has finished running and caught us!!

So here we go, our special time in the jungle with a bear, a puma and the rest of the crazy animals in Parque Machia at the Inti Wara Yassi animal sanctuary.

Our original aims for our time at the sanctuary were for me to work with a puma and Arancha to work with the spider monkeys but within 10 minutes of our arrival it became apparent that we wouldn’t necessarily be getting what we wished for.
From my point of view, it was only possible for females to work with the cats, that is the puma and the 2 ocelots; a fact which we have now learned to be complete rubbish considering that I went to visit the puma on most days and he really didn’t care if I was sat within 5 metres of him or not; and as for Arancha, the spider monkey team was currently full.
Essentially what we soon learned was that the administration engineered it so that you were allocated to work with an animal where THEY needed you; not where you would like to be.
In one way I do not have a problem with this as we were there to volunteer and help the animals, but when you are actually paying for the privilege of working (a truly bizarre concept) I think you should get some say!
Anyway, Marta, the park administrator said that I was desperately needed to work with the bear (at this point I didn’t even know that there was one at the park) and Arancha was required to work with the puma (damn her). As it was still early in the afternoon and the official tour would not begin until 4pm, at which point our positions would be secured, we could have time to think about it and if it was really going to be a problem then we could lobby for a change.

The park had its own café for the volunteers and this would become the epicentre of most things social and a place that I found myself sitting outside of for at least 4 hours per day. It was here on our first afternoon that I met Paul from Aus, who not only would become a great mate but also one of my fellow Balu boys for nearly my entire stay due to the fact that he and his partner Kez (definite mates for when we get to Aus) had only arrived 3 days before us.
At this point I was still not convinced about working with what I thought would be a small and probably boring bear, so I asked Paul was the deal was.
If he was trying to persuade me that I should take the position he didn’t succeed. Today was Paul’s third day meaning that it was his first day on the ropes and so he was the one most at risk (more on the ‘roles’ later). He recounted his day’s experience and I listened in what I must describe as real horror as firstly he told me the bear was 6 feet tall when stood up on his hind legs and then Paul himself slipped at exactly the wrong moment, slid towards the back of Balu at which point the bear turned around and pounced onto him. He then went on to explain how he had to hold Balu’s mouth away from him (more on this technique later) and his only means of escape was the roll off the side of the trail and down the steep banks into the jungle, which didn’t stop Balu from bounding down the hill after him to finish off the job.
Paul said it was all fine apart from some bruised ribs and a sore back and that working with Balu was really cool and the best job here! All I could think was ‘no f*cking way I am doing this, this is f*cking crazy!’.     
Arancha on the other hand seemed pretty content to work with the puma especially as all we heard from other people was that he was a very chilled out old gentleman of a cat! Lucky bloody Arancha!!

By the time it came around for the tour I had somehow made a 180 degree turnaround and decided that I would work with the bear. There were a combination of reasons for this choice but basically it came down to a couple of things and 1 really important fact:
1)      They wanted me with the bear, so there was that added pressure
2)      I wanted to work with a ‘big’ animal and not with the monkeys as you can see them anywhere
3)      I was truly scared and as far as I am concerned tackling your fears and trying new things is what travel and life in general is about. If you never face up to the fear and try to deal with it then you’ve failed; I needed to do this

So we did the tour with 4 other new arrivals and learned some more about the Communidad Inti Wara Yassi – which in the indigenous language of Quechua translates to The Sun, Moon and Stars Community.
The park was set up by a Bolivian lady called Nena (quite frankly she was a bitch) after she first rescued some capuchin monkeys and from there over a period of 25 years the park has grown so much that there are now over 600 animals in their care!
This number is completely ridiculous and without the constant influx of volunteers to assist the small number of full time Bolivian employees I am not sure what would happen to the care of the animals; which is why Nena needs to be less of a bitch and more grateful to the volunteers that take time out and put some serious money towards the upkeep of the park.
Anyway, we don’t need to talk about her anymore, let’s keep it positive and fun with the animals and the great group of volunteers with whom we spent what would have otherwise been a tough month living on the fringes of the jungle.

With the tour complete and our money paid up we mentally prepared ourselves for the fact that early the next morning we would both come face to face with our new ‘friends’.

As for accommodation the park had 2 buildings and we were placed in the old run down one, it wasn’t pretty but at least we had our own room.

As seemed to be the case at least 3 times per week there was an official park gathering / fundraising event that first night, which was a perfect opportunity to meet our fellow volunteers.
Over this dinner and the following 30 nights we met so many good people, some of which we will always try to remain in contact with. They consisted of:
·       Kez & Paul – Sydney-siders who were also our next door neighbours and so became close friends even if they are the fussiest eaters alive (only kidding guys, Paul I like you alive)
·       Turner – one of my favourite Israelis and fellow Balu Boy
·       Tibo – another Balu Boy that completed the 3 guys that I worked with over my time here. Tibo is French but I don’t hold it against him. He sailed to South America from Spain and is definitely one of those intrepid travellers that are a real pleasure to meet
·       Greg – a south London wide boy who was a proper good laugh and never took anything too seriously; as a lot of people seemed to
·       Alice – another Londoner and the biggest day dreamer I have ever met. So many times she nearly went without food because she was away with fairies and if no one answered the call for the food we would just put it in front of her until she returned to the here and now
·       Katie and Hannah – 2 girls from Camden Town that were only 19 years old and so could easily have been Arancha’s daughters. Even though I would’ve been 16 when I had them, we were still called mum and dad in their presence and along with Greg and Alice we will definitely catch up with them in London
·       Michaela – a straight to the point Canadian girl who is actually moving to Leicester this year to complete her Masters by studying the recently discovered body of King Richard III
·       Emma – our favourite Swede and fellow performer for our forthcoming west end musical based on our time with diarrhea
·       Nir – an Israeli guy like no other. Loud, funny, kind and annoying all at the same time. He could drive you crazy but then redeem himself with tales of his best friend Martin the monkey
·       Jeff – a very funny Dutch guy who dedicated so much time to the Coati’s that the new baby was named after him. He is also the co-founder of the ‘Great Balls of Fire’ circus where he trains rats to jump through rings of fire! We are planning a Sept visit to Amsterdam to see this piece of magic to follow another piece of magic when at one of the BBQ’s he lit a firework from his arse and it exploded and burnt his cheeks!
·       Lior and Avia – probably the most in love couple I have ever met and always polite and funny. Definite contacts for life
·       There were also many other great people that we worked with over our time – Danit, Nohar, Charlotte, Disa, Ollie, Brittany; the list goes on……


7:30am and the alarm bell sounds… is time to come face to face with a bear. A BEAR!
Now that I have helped to induct 4 new volunteers in to the caring of Balu I can just imagine what my face looked like as emerged from the bushes in front of Balu’s cage and saw him for the first time.
What the hell was this?
First things first, each morning we had to walk down to the cage door and offer the back of our hands for Balu to sniff, so that he was familiar with our scent and learned to recognise us.
So here I was, stood in front of an Andean bear with it sniffing my hand; and it was a BIG bear.
Even though I was definitely feeling a flutter of panic I had told myself that I would be the master of my own fear and the bear and so each day I used this quick scratch and sniff session to let Balu know that I was here, I was his friend but I wasn’t afraid.
If I allowed my fear to get to better of me he would be able to sense it and he would be able to smell the pheromones emanating from my skin. Obviously I did get a handle on my feelings because one of the guys I did induct did not and all Balu did was completely take the piss out of him on a daily basis – but more on that later.

Here are a few facts about Balu and Andean Bears in general:
Andean bears also known as spectacled bears or locally as Jukumari and they are the only native bear left in South America. Their habitat covers Columbia, Venezuela, Ecuador, Peru, north-western Argentina and Bolivia and they like to live between 1,600ft and 9,000ft, usually in the forest and the males can weigh between 100kgs and 200kgs and grow up to 2 metres tall – which Balu was.
They will always try to evade humans (completely the opposite to Balu) and will do this by climbing trees and hiding amongst the branches in homemade nests.
Never does anyone want to see any animal in captivity but unfortunately due to the cruel nature of humans we always will. Balu’s sad story was that his mother and sister were murdered when he was only a year old and he was rescued by the park when they intercepted a transaction to sell him to the circus. This early trauma could be a reason why Balu will usually cover his head with his hands and cry on a daily basis. Yes, you read that correctly, he cries. However, as this cry can display emotions of happiness, sadness or frustration it is always up to us to judge what is going on based upon what has happened in the previous few moments and whether we need to be on our guard.
Since the rescue he has remained at Inti Wara Yassi (perhaps they should have tried to release him before but the bureaucratic nonsense around releasing animals back into the wild is ridiculous) and he must now be one of the most spoilt and well looked after bears in the world; and we all love him.

So typically this was the pattern to my and Balu’s day:
1.       Prepare and pack his food for the day which consisted of:
a.       3 bags of peanuts – very important and the most effective method of bribery
b.      4 bananas
c.       1 other fruit for lunch – eg. coconut, sugar cane, apples
d.      2 oranges
e.      1 piece of bread
f.       2 litre bottle of Api – a sort of porridge drink with added honey and 2 mashed up bananas which we mashed up with love every morning over breakfast
g.      1 litre bottle of water
2.       Say goodbye to Arancha like every day could be my last
3.       Head to the cage for the morning meet and greet
4.       Attach safety rope number 1 whilst Balu is still in the cage
5.       Release the bear and get out of the way!
6.       Hand feed Balu the bread whilst someone sneaks up behind him and swaps over safety rope number 1 for safety rope number 2 – the walking rope
7.       Clean the cage – a simple clean-up of poo and wet straw, as well as rearranging his bed and food bench. Every Monday we would empty the entire cage and clean it thoroughly with bleach whilst being fully aware that the longer this took the more frustrated Balu would get and the man in front would begin his day with a sprint
8.       Start the day’s walk through the jungle to Balu’s first bench
9.       Feed him his Api as well as the 4 bananas which we would split into two and place all around the area and up in the trees to give him a bit of exercise and mental nourishment
10.   Typically Arancha would walk by with Gato at this point and we would have to do a little manoeuvring in order to get everyone into a safe place. Still, seeing a puma and a bear stare each other out was a very awesome sight   
11.   The first bench was also the only part of the trail that intersected the tourist trail so Balu would sit here for at least 30 minutes waiting for tourists so that he could simply stare at them and enjoy the attention he received in return 
12.   Depending on the weather and the day Balu would have 4 choices here – he was always the one in charge, we were only there to assist him in doing what he wanted
a.       The choice made 5 times out of 7 – head along the jungle trail to his second bench
b.      If it is was Monday, meaning that the park was closed to the public we would take the tourist trail all the way up to the Mirador (look out) where we would chill for a while before heading to the second bench via an alternative route
c.       If it was hot, sunny and there hadn’t been too much rain in the previous days we could head to the riverside beach where we would all get to go swimming; and I mean all of us!
d.      Sometimes if he was feeling a little off or there was rain coming (he absolutely hated rain which was dangerous for us) he would simply turnaround and go home – meaning that our day’s work could be finished by 10:30am; so we either skived or helped out around the park
13.   Normally we would head for the second bench where Balu would settle down and eat a bag of peanuts and have a drink of water with the remnants of the Api bottle – a technique we invented to get him to drink more water
14.   If we were lucky Balu would remain settled and amuse himself for a while and if not he would let us know by pulling hard on his harness and try to get to us. At this point we would complete a loop or 2 of a different section of the trail until it was lunchtime
15.   Feed Balu his lunch by his favourite sleeping tree
16.   Post lunch sleep. This nap could range from 10 minutes to 90 minutes and always had to be in a place where Balu could lie on his back, hands behind his head or on his stomach with one leg up on a tree – the funniest sight
Sometimes he wouldn’t settle unless he had one of us on either side of him as a sort of safety barrier – he might have been a big bear but he was still an 8 year old juvenile and a scared of nearly every sound in the jungle!!
17.   Whilst Balu slept we had our lad time – for the first 2 weeks it was mainly me, Paul and Turner and for the final 2 weeks before we inducted our newbies it was me, Paul and Tibo. This lad time was very special to me; remember I had been traveling with only Arancha for 16 months solid and had missed the random bloke chat. I think the same can be said for Arancha as well because she had the company of a fellow female volunteer with Gato.
Here we would lay back in the jungle and talk about sh*t, movies, travel etc and generally mess about. Also on most days the spider monkeys would come down to sit with us and read our books which was a privilege especially when the mother had a baby and her acceptance of you would mean that the baby would be allowed to climb all over your head!!
However, we had to be weary of the males as they could destroy us.
My favourite moments of all were when the monkeys had awoken Balu by tugging on his rope and running away at exactly the same time and Arancha and Gato were passing on the upper trail. At this point we were surrounded on all sides by a bear, a puma and a troup of spider monkeys causing mischief. The circle of life……’s the wheel of fortune…
These we were real memories to keep stored away for Alzheimer’s time.
18.   Home time – a walk back through the jungle that could take from 30 mins to 90 mins depending on how lively or inquisitive Balu was after his sleep and how many tourists were about ignoring our calls for them to essentially p*ss off
19.   Leave a pile of peanuts on the far corner of his food bench in his home so that he would settle down with his back to us. This would enable the unlucky soul for that day to sneak up behind Balu and unattach his safety rope before getting out of the cage ASAP!
20.   Return at 5pm to give him his evening meal – always honeyed rice with a daily variation of fruit, raw eggs or sardines. His dinner was given to him by one of us entering the cage to place it down and rearrange his food bench whilst another stood outside at the back of the cage and hand fed him peanuts through the bars to keep him very busy. As with the bread in the morning, you always had to have the next piece / nut ready in his eye line so that he would never look back – that was when things went wrong – and inevitably they did!

That was a standard day out with Balu the bear; as standard as a day can be when you look after a bear that is.
However, not every day was a ‘standard’ day, and here are the details of when it didn’t quite go to plan and never have I laughed so much when everything is back under control and we all look around each other with a crazy look of disbelief in our eyes.

·         Getting Balu out of the cage and switching the ropes over was the first point of every day where something could go wrong – and on a few occasions it did!
Firstly whilst someone kept Balu’s attention at the cage door another of us had to fix safety rope number 1 to a long metal pole, feed this in through the side window and attach the open carabiner to the metal loops on one of Balu’s two harnesses; the other end of the rope around a log.
Once this was secured it was time to unleash the beast. From here, there would be a piece of bread placed at precisely the right position on a truck tyre where Balu would amble over to, take the bread and sit down in the middle of it waiting to be fed the rest of the bread by one of us.
Note: you had to place the bread down just before Balu was let out or else the monkeys would take it! Bastards!
Once settled and being fed it was time for someone to gently step up behind Balu, attach safety rope number 2 and then unclip rope number 1.
Well on this particular day we got the angles all wrong. I was hand feeding Balu the bread and the idea was that you should stand front on and always have another piece of bread on offer but held at a right angle away from me. This meant that he wasn’t looking at me and his head was turned well away from the guy behind. So; as I was still new I had the bread in front of me and so not only was I now looking like a giant piece of dough, Balu could also see Turner in his peripheral vision as he came up behind him to change the ropes. He took one look back and within a split second had turned on a sixpence and was now on top of a helpless Turner.
First thought – oh f*ck, what the f*ck?
Second thought – we need to sort this situation out quickly.
Fortunately Turner remembered the most important rules of Balu self-defence ie. you had to grab each of Balu’s cheeks to keep his mouth away from you. Yes he is an extraordinarily strong bear but his one weakness is his neck – grab his cheeks and you can control what his head and more importantly his mouth does.
The rest was up to Paul and myself; we jumped into action and started to pull the rope as hard as we could to try and give Turner the space he needed to edge away and escape. It was no use, he was too strong. All we could do was give him the idea that he had some sort of resistance behind him but it wasn’t until he realised that he couldn’t really get Turner that he backed off a little and allowed him the space to scramble away, at which point we also got well out of the way by tripping over each other.
After a quick check that Turner was ok, we began to laugh and completed the task in hand. 
·         On another day when I was feeding Balu his daily bread, (Get it? We did need the use of prayers) at the right angle I may add, I finished the feeding process and leant a little too far forward to congratulate him on eating it all up like a good boy. Big mistake – never get too close to the bear! He jumped forward and swiped his massive claw at me as I jumped back at just the right moment to avoid ending up as another victim of the rope exchange
·         Hopefully you can understand from these two points that getting rope number 2 in the correct position and attached at just the right length is very, very important. Well, we didn’t always get that spot on either! The idea was that the rope was wound around a very strong tree with just enough slack left out to reach the back of Balu and no more. If the rope had to too much slack, Balu would have too much freedom and could claim us unawares whilst we fed him or then cleaned out his home. The item about me feeding him the bread is a case in point – too much slack and he would have got me, but as I jumped back (letting out a scream) the lack of rope stopped Balu in his tracks.
On one particular day Balu decided that he didn’t want to sit in his tyre and demanded to be fed in a different and more risky position. Instead of refusing to feed him until he settled down in the tyre, Paul decided to get on with the feed and myself and Tibo saw no issue with this; that is until I approached the back of Balu and realised that we didn’t have the slack required. What ensued was a minor comedy sketch as we hurried about trying to give ourselves enough slack to reach Balu and 3 times found that we had come up short.
Eventually we did get him attached but then he had so much slack that every time we went in and out of the cage he was there in our faces. Trust me, it was a frightful sight.
·         Once the cage was cleaned it was time to get walking. The general team formation would be one in front to lead Balu and keep his attention looking forward, then one of us would be on the rope,with the final member of the team behind to rescue the others just in case something went very wrong.
Being on the rope was obviously the most precarious job because there was only so far you could be away from Balu, about 8 metres, but being up front was also a little dicey. The worst moment was once we were ready to set off you would head around the back trail to come out about 10 metres in front of Balu and see him on his hind legs pulling as hard as he could to get going on his day out. Pulling like that only meant one thing – as soon as the rope guy unwound the rope from around the tree you had to run and never in any circumstance trip over.
Communication was always the key to any successful day. Generally this lay with the man on the rope – due to the nature of the trails it would not be uncommon, especially up front to lose sight of Balu and you needed the calls of your fellow team members – the Balu Boys – to let you know what was going on. The standard calls would be, “Walking”, “Walking normal”, “Walking well”, “Sniffing”, “Resting” and “Marking”. You hear this and you know that all is well and it is safe to be a little closer to ensure that he never looks back and keeps looking forward. The call you never wanted to hear, but found it hilarious if you were at the back on the ‘easier’ job for the day was “Running!” You hear that, you run. You do not look back and ask what was said, the difference in pitch and volume lets you know that you need to run. No, not run, sprint, like the wind. Get the hell as far away from Balu as possible.
Paul was the expert when it came to this, he could get his sprint on before you finished the “R” and sense it; but then again, once you have been caught you do not want a repeat performance do you?
The thing is, when you did hear that word it was amazing how your senses went into a heightened state. On the few occasions that I was required to run I can’t explain how it felt to feel you whole body move into a different dimension and as I ran nothing on the jungle floor could get in my way. Not a root, a vine or a steep drop could stop me from gliding over it all and getting myself to a position of safety and it may sound stupid but I will always be thankful to Balu for giving me that experience because not many people will ever attain that feeling. I think it only ever comes when you are in ‘survival mode’ – which I know sounds very cheesy. But trust me, being chased by a bear requires a form of survival! 
·         So my first rope day was fun! The rules are that you take the rope on your third day after you have had a day behind and up front. However, as my second day was the last day of handover for Andrew, meaning that there was 4 of us I felt it was best to have that extra backup just in case.
The way to control Balu on the rope is to try and never stop him in any way. After all, he is a bear and should be allowed to just get on with his own business as much as possible. The only time you needed to hinder him was when he was coming back towards you, or a tourist was in sight. This was when we had to perform a ‘safety’, that is use the nearest tree or root to wrap the rope around once and use this as leverage and friction. The idea was that if he came back to you, the more you retreated WITH the rope in your hand at some point he would come up against the tree and couldn’t get any further. Obviously in the heat of the moment this wasn’t always possible and if you needed to run away, then you did. It was then up to the guy in front to get him going in the right direction.
Also whenever Balu stopped, sniffed or rested you would take up a safety and sometimes a double if it was a prolonged rest like a sleep.
I can’t explain how much you came to rely on the jungle about you which is why my first ever rope day scared me sh*tless. It just so happened that today would be a beach day, meaning that not only did I have to scale a landfall with little in terms of safety options I also had to cross track areas with completely zero safety!! It was horrendous and exhilarating all at the same time, especially when he looks back at you, sizing you up.
I must say that I think he had some modicum of respect for me because apart from my one rope error (detailed later) Balu never once tried it on with me. I made my communication loud and clear and always kept my distance, even if it meant releasing the rope now and again.
Beach days were always fun. Once we finally got him into the right position we would attach him to 2 lengths of rope which would give him a great range to wonder around the beach, rip down trees whilst climbing the cliffs around and of course swim! How he loved to swim especially in our direction to get to us. I am pretty sure he just wanted to play but by no means could we ever get too close to him as his first action would be to use us as a floating devise. The result = we drown! However, whilst he was happy so were we as we also got to swim in the river.
If my first rope day wasn’t hairy enough it got worse. His rope was not attached to the correct tree to allow him sufficient range so we decided to move him. Before I knew it myself and Andrew found ourselves in the middle of the stony beach with no safety options with a bear going exactly where he wanted to go. Not only was this very dangerous he then found the one food source that he can never, ever have – coca leaves. As a recovering addict (true) once he eats coca leaves and has his afternoon nap he awakes in a very aggressive mood. Fortunately there wasn’t too much left in the bag and he didn’t have his afternoon sleep but our walk home that afternoon was very difficult and Balu would not comply. It is fair to say that I was very relieved once we got him home that day and my first rope experience was done!

·         How’s my luck? The next time we went to the beach also happened to be my rope day but by this time I had much more experience with handing a bear! Wonderful. Being a little OCD when it comes to details I planned everything out ahead of me so that we could eliminate errors and I also told the guys exactly what I wanted from them and where I needed them to be. Therefore, everything went as smoothly as possible until we began walking back towards home and he caught the scent of some ants. Whenever Balu sniffs ants, he sniffs too hard, ingests them, panics and makes a run for it – it never fails to happen.
On this occasion we were in the middle of a land fall canyon and for once Paul was caught off guard. Instead of running along the trail Paul decided to go off-road and scramble up the side of a cliff and of course Balu followed him meaning that I also had to follow. Whereas as Paul knew what he wanted out of this mad scramble, Balu didn’t, and hallway up he got scared by the height and turned to run straight back down – to me!! With a little panic and maybe anger I told Paul to “get the f*ck back” and call him as loudly as possible. He did and we survived another a hectic moment and sniggered all the way back home.

-    Tourists – absolute idiots. Just because a bear is on a rope, relaxed and leaning on his bench like a drunken man, it doesn’t mean he is safe and you can approach him – he is a wild animal!
No matter what we said (in Spanish), some of the locals wouldn’t listen and when one man just walked up to Balu with his infant daughter to stroke the bear we went ballistic. We could see Balu shifting his weight to make a move – why can’t you? And why would you get too close anyway?
Another stupid tourist decided to sit on the floor a little too close to Balu, turn his back on him to take a selfie photo and then had to move like a lightning fast crab to get out of the way when Balu did make the jump over the bench to give him a hug. We didn’t even tell this guy off, we just p*ssed ourselves laughing at his reaction and the reaction of those other tourists standing around who were now moving off very quickly indeed.   

·         The jungle is not without its creepy crawlies and not only did I have to remove a blood-sucking tick from the base of my hairline, Balu also suffered on a couple of occasions. The resulting medication left him feeling not only a little groggy at times – he nearly fell out of a tree, but he got a little aggressive during these days and ran after us like we were juicy salmon.

·         Whilst making the jungle loop trail to waste time before lunch (I was on the rope again) a couple of the guys when we had 4 of us got too far ahead and ended up below Balu on the trail. Upon hearing them Balu went off trail to investigate, caught sight of them near to his food tree and put and 2 and 2 together. Forget the trail, Balu ran straight down the side of the jungle cliff and all I could do was warn them and let go of the rope. At times his speed was phenomenal, especially where food was concerned and I just made my way slowly but surely down the side of the slope until I could get close enough to Balu to get the rope back.

·         The same thing happened when Tibo was on the rope and I was in front inducting a new-boy. He took the same and horribly wrong path down to us but this time he slipped, slid towards the path before catching on to a looped vine and swung down like Tarzan. What else could we do but completely break down into hysterics to which Balu took exception to our joy and first ran after me, gave up and then chased Tibo and another new-boy Dan back up the hill.

·         As mentioned Balu hates the rain; detests it. Only once did we get caught out in a real storm, because Balu was asleep and missed his chance to smell it before it was coming – he could really do this and could make his way home an hour before the storm came our way!
Well this one time we could do nothing but watch him go completely nuts as he tried to escape the storm and find shelter. The problem was that if we released him we would not be able to control him and he would run off in some unknown and potentially hazardous direction, so we had no choice but to sit it out and wait for the rain to stop.
An hour later it did and Balu blamed Paul for the torture because it was his rope day. All Balu wanted to do was to get hold of Paul and when it came to the rope release at the end of the day Tibo had to take over because Balu just wouldn’t let Paul get near without showing his intentions to take him down and thank him personally for the uncomfortable afternoon.
Incidentally, the next day we went out into the jungle and spent 2 hours building Balu a rain shelter in his favourite sleeping spot. His first reaction when he saw it was to climb the tree and rip it down! We tried but what can you do?

·         I made one mistake with Balu and it taught me a very valuable lesson – never work with a bear when you are still drunk from the night before!
It was a Sunday morning, Saturday night was discoteca and karaoke night at the local nightclub and too add to the omens it was my last rope day after a month long 100% safety record.
Basically Balu got a little tangled around a tree, I stupidly tried to untangle him and before I realised it I was too close, my reactions were slow, he knew it, we locked eyes and then I turned and ran. Apparently the double tree tangle and lack of slack saved me and I was only 30 centimetres away from receiving the sharp end of a bear claw to the leg which would have upended me and allowed him to pounce. I saw none of this as I dropped the rope and ran! Lesson learnt and I finished my time with only that and the bread feeding close shaves. Phew!

·         Someone who wasn’t so lucky was Liron. A new-boy I inducted who Balu sized up immediately and knew he was there for the taking.
In 3 days he was singled out for special treatment on 4 occasions.
1)      Bread feeding time – he was too close, Balu swiped him, tore his trousers and left him with a big scratch on the shin. Our reaction = we laughed
2)      Leading the group – it turns out Liron was scared of snakes as well as bears and stood paralysed on the jungle trail. As I came over the brow of the hill with Balu I could see that he was too close to me, so of course he was really close to Balu. The result this time was a sprint to the finish and Balu would not let up, he could smell him. Our reaction = sternly telling him never stop on the trail again and then we laughed
3)      Liron’s first rope day – I assisted him in ‘learning the ropes’ and even without my animal instincts I could smell the fear and the power of his pheromones and sweat pumping out of him. He was completely terrified and to some extent I can of course empathise. Still, you have got to get a control of the fear and he never did so of course Balu never respected him. Balu could hear the panic in his voice so when given the opportunity he turned back and ran after him on 2 separate occasions as I stood at a safe distance and of course laughed – once we were all safe

4)      At the end of his horrific rope day we decided that he may as well go the whole way and enter the cage of doom to unlatch the rope. Never before have I seen Balu react in the way that he did when he turned around, stared at Liron and then bared his entire set of fangs at him. This usually placid bear really did not like Liron. Standing at the cage window looking in we couldn’t help it but to laugh after we let out a “wwwhhhooaaaa!”

In the end Liron had to quit and leave Balu early but I don’t blame him. When a bear doesn’t like you what can you do? It is not like you can have a chat to sort your issues out is it?

·         In conclusion Balu never wanted to hurt you, he just wanted to play. In the past he had had very close relations with a couple of Bolivians, cuddles and play fighting etc and I think all he ever wanted to do was replicate that contact. This thing is that when a bear is weighing in at close to 120kgs wants to cuddle you, it can be risky for your ribs and your breathing capabilities.
In the end we all grew very fond of Balu and although we could never get too close and have the intimate contact that the other volunteers had with their respective animals, I don’t think any other volunteer had the same amount of respect that we did with Balu. Afterall, if you didn’t respect him and concentrate 100% he would capitalise on this and let you know that you had f*ked up. End of!
As far as I am concerned we had without doubt the best job in the park. In equal amounts we had joy, laughter, plenty of chill time, a healthy amount of fear and huge rushes of adrenalin with a bear of real character.

Viva Balu and long live the Balu Boys, Apr / May 2014!!


Whenever Balu went home early I had a choice:
1)      Do nothing and watch a movie
2)      Help out around the park in the other sections – inevitably this meant cleaning away monkey shit
3)      Go and hang out with Arancha and Gato – which I chose to do a lot because who doesn’t want to sit in the company of a puma?

Gato was a very special boy and my favourite after Balu and here I will let Arancha describe her time with Gato, the gentlemanly puma:

The gentlemanly puma would definitely describe Gato, a creature of habit who loved his daily walks through the jungle, but first a brief history about Gato. Gato was saved from a circus at the age of two after poachers had killed his mother for her fur. During 2 years in the circus he was made to jump through hoops of fire and perform other ridiculous tricks.  The CIWY rescued Gato from a life of horror and when they found him, he was malnourished and his back legs were broken. Not being able to be released into the wild, Gato made his home at Parque Machia, with the love of the volunteers that come to spend time with him and help to create a life that would reflect that of his own environment. So over the next 4 weeks I would spend a good 8 hours a day with him and we got to know one another quite well. I understood his moods at a moment notice, his daily ritual markings, I knew exactly what paths he preferred and the ones he didn’t like, I knew that if he didn’t like the sound of our voices it was time to move away from him to give him peace and of course what patch of ground he would spend the next few hours sleeping on. As I too became part of that daily ritual! Unlike Adam’s experience with Balu, Gato was like your regular domesticated cat, only slightly much larger! He loved his own space but would welcome a good pat when he was in the mood and fortunately for me we did become good mates.

So my time with Gato:
Firstly I shared my experiences with two other volunteers, each at different times but I also got to have Gato all to myself.  One of us would generally walk in front and the other holding the lead at the back, all very straight forward and no risk involved.  Even though Gato loved humans he did have his moody moments and would try and bite you, especially when it rained because there wasn’t a dry patch to sit on in the jungle and this of course was always my fault!
Gato loved an early morning welcome, from a few metres from his enclosure he would hear us and would cry out his croaky meow in acknowledgement. He knew the morning ritual, excited to get amongst the jungle, Gato would allow one of us to put his lead on and off and he would wait outside whilst we would do a quick clean- up of his home. Once the cleaning was complete, we began his anticipated walk through the jungle, with alternating routes every other day.
There was the short walk day which was mostly taken up by Gato sleeping and us volunteers reading and then there was the long walk that took us up to the top of ridges, down into valleys, crossing creeks, climbing over fallen trees, abseiling down ropes whilst all the time Gato is sniffing the scent of Millie the female Ocelot and rolling around in her shit, just for good measure.
Eventually we would find rest where the spider monkeys would seek us out and I had the privilege on multiple occasions when Michaela the spider monkey would come over and insist on me grooming her as she relaxed in my lap. Awesome to say the least and was one of the highlights of my jungle experience.

The only downside to the days was trying to get Gato to go home when we he was in a stubborn mood. Sometimes it would take hours to get him back to the cage and myself and my first volunteer partner, Regina, were on one occasion stuck out in the jungle until 8:30pm in the evening. Not a great second day but how could I ever be angry with a face like Gato’s?
On days like this the only ways to get him moving were:
a)      Let go of the rope, hide behind a tree and shout “Ciao Gato” and wait 5 to 10 minutes to hear his cry and hope he would start to move (which rarely worked)
b)      Start dancing and making annoying banging sounds
c)       Chanting (my least fave but with my 2nd volunteer partner Tslil, he was always on the go with her deep voice!)
d)      Play music on the i-pod, such as Miley Cyrus – who doesn’t want to get away from Cyrus?
e)      And finally after weeks of walking I discovered  showing Gato his favourite treat ‘grass’ was the only thing to entice him to move! If only I knew this on day 2!!

In the 4 weeks I worked with Gato he showed that at 19 years old (an old aged pensioner in puma terms) he still has his killer instincts, not directly to me, but over one week he killed two jungle possums and later a baby spider monkey.  Not bad for an old gentleman, but the poor spider monkey!
All in all Gato has a super personality, he was by far on of the most amazing experiences and privileges I was able to encounter and work with on all my travels.
4 weeks of adventure, fun and cuddles.

Ok, I'm back now. 
When we weren’t both frolicking with our respective animals we did get around to helping out in the other areas of the park.
There were the foxes located way up in the jungle, a good 30 minute walk over precarious landslides and these 3 couldn’t have been more different from each other. There was the nervous one, the lively one and the crazy one that was some sort of breed between a fox and a Tasmanian devil.
Another decent walk up through the fauna was the route up to the spider monkey park, where the spider monkeys deemed not safe enough to be loose resided. I never got into the actual park as it was supposed to be risky for ‘outsiders’ – more admin’ bullsh*t, but from what I could see it looked like a fun place to be and if the bear hadn’t worked out this is where I would have liked to work given that the cats do not supposedly like males.

We also helped out in the quarantine section of the park, split between Heaven and Earth. Earth was scary and one day helping out there was enough for me. In earth the capuchin monkeys are lunatics – actual real loonies. When it came to feeding time it was how you see patients in a mental asylum in a movie. All of the monkeys would begin to screech and grab their metal trays / dishes and bang them against the bars. Pure mayhem.
Also when I was assisting in cleaning up their poo you had to be very careful as they were just waiting for you to get a little too close. I did and I nearly ended up with a bald patch when one grabbed and pulled my hair! 
One of the monkeys, Roberto was downs syndrome but apart from some odd behaviour he was still as bonkers as all the rest.

Heaven was a little easier as the monkeys here were free to roam around on runners and they were a little better natured – if you were male.
Apart from helping here we also spent time with the coatis (racoon type creatures) and in the aviary where Carolina especially had to be seen to be believed. She was a real-life possessed by a demonic child parrot who could speak, scream and laugh like a little child and it completely freaked me out.    

All of the animals had their own associated risks. Those who worked with the monkeys were always sporting bites and some were very bad; we are talking about stitches and torn muscles.
But that wasn’t the end of it; what about insects and parasites?
The biggest threat to our sanity was the Bora Bora; a fly that would land on you and lay eggs under your skin which would eventually hatch into a larvae before bursting out of you. This wasn’t just here say as Turner had 3 of them and I filmed him in the clinic squeezing one of them, to then see it shoot out from his knee and across the room. It was gross!!
There are also the parasites – I have had the sh*ts for 3 weeks now. It is great for weight loss and inventing songs such as ‘Butt piss curry’. Classy.

As previously stated, we had a number of fundraisers and social gatherings and on the final Saturday before we left it was The Balu Boy’s turn. We hosted our Balu-BQ combined with Ollie’s firework extravaganza and we did a f*cking great job – with the great help of Arancha and Kez.
We made hamburgers, veggie burgers, chicken and chips for more than 30 people as well as providing enough alcohol to keep 60 people happy. Booze in Villa Tunari was cheap; we are talking about 10 litres of rum / vodka for £6!! We made buckets of vodka orange and mojitos and the party rocked.
The best thing though was Ollie’s fireworks extravaganza and seeing Nena running over to us to “STOP!” as we were frightening and killing her precious monkeys.
So we just set them off anyway.
As usual on a Saturday night it was then off to the nightclub / karaoke to dance to awful Bolivian music and sing the night away to Ricky Martin and Julio Iglesias.


It is strange to say it but before we knew it an entire month had passed by, once we settled into the routine time just tick-tocked away.
By the end of it we were ready to go though. The volunteer café was killing us as there are only so many eggs you can eat. Fried, scrambled, boiled or omelette with a variety of cheese or salad on bread – excellent. Also the town of Villa Tunari only offered a range of deep fried chicken or deep fried catfish. Now don’t get me wrong, the Surubi (Catfish) was excellent but there is only so much of that you can eat.
Also the walk to town over the bridge of death was a serious risk each and every night. Trucks and cars would whizz by us as 80km/h so close that we could feel them touch the hairs on our arms.
This is no exaggeration and to prove it one of the local Bolivian long term employees was killed only last week on that very road. A complete tragedy and horrible for our fellow volunteers who saw it happen and tried to revive her but to no avail!

Finally it was time to leave and once we painted our signatures on the wall of fame we got out of there as soon as we could.
It was time to get back to the real world and leave the jungle behind and get back to altitude.

This was my first volunteer experience and what a ride. Whereas there might have been tears and tantrums from some of the other volunteers and we didn’t enjoy every single minute, we had an extraordinary time with Balu and Gato and the only tears we shed were those from laughing so hard at the day’s events and things the other volunteers said.
We made some friends for life and created memories that will last for a lifetime; to add to the pile that we already have and hopefully this small clip will going someway to show the fun we had:

Viva Balu and Viva Gato; what a totally wild adventure!

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