This morning in New York City bundled up at a poker table on the East River, I write of this story that seemed to give such meaning to my life, and certainly shape it to what it is today. If I didn’t just come across my photo album in a binder at my folks home, this would almost feel fictional. I realize right here and now, that it has been almost exactly one decade ago when I boarded that boat on the Amazon River with a new friend. Funny how tonight I am impulsively taking the redeye back to South America for only the second time in my life, to board a sailboat with my newest friend. As curious as I am of any environmental changes to my South American memory, the urge for something new and never seen before is stronger than anything in my life, right now.
Long ago a friend of mine, Cassandra, a passionate primate activist and the Chimpanzee keeper at New Zealand’s Wellington Zoo, gave me a call one special day. I had recently had the privilege to go to New Zealand , stay with her and shadow her work. It was my first true encounter with great Apes, a week that made me a better human forever.
When you have such an experience, especially with a family, the bond between us and the natural world becomes so obvious, and man made stress eases away.
Cassandra was called in to help finish the development and building of a primate rescue center, known as Inrena of Iquitos, Peru, and she contacted me knowing I’d want to help. I said yes with zero hesitation, and I’ll never forget the spark in my brain when I heard the words, Peruvian Amazon. Nowhere sounded more exotic to me at that moment, like I had dreamt about it the night before.
This was back in 2004 when foreigners were a rare sight around here, but these days I even think one of the National Geographic Expedition boats stops in Iquitos, a bit hard for me to imagine from what I saw. The wake of such a boat I feel would swallow up the floating homes of the surprisingly populous city, homes that may not even be there anymore. I would like to point out that a city of 370,000 people here in the Peruvian Amazon looks nothing like a city of the same size in the U.S. There are far less resources being used, and a lot more sharing. It was my first lesson of living beyond my means. A lesson that I continue to live up to.
Change is full of mixed feelings. I would like to think that the visitors will learn much respect from this different way of life and maybe even learn some of my same lessons. The native adults can benefit from the dockers by selling “good” goods in the market, and the village kids I can guarantee will certainly be entertained. I do wonder though, is the arrival of Amazonian tour boats fueling the street slavery that Cassandra and I were trying to stop?
Iquitos, being an accessible city right on the mighty Amazon River with access to the jungles “resources,” is a home base for Wildlife Trafficking and Rainforest Exploitation. Wildlife trafficking is almost as profitable as the illegal drug trade world wide, and a very serious threat to all life on earth. Millions of animals are being exported out of the Amazon basin for the exotic pet trade, or to fuel in my opinion, cursed traditions. If the keepers of the largest rainforest on Earth aren’t around to play their natural role, the rainforest will die within a blink of an eye. The Amazon Rainforest is a vital asset to maintaining life on Planet Earth as we know it. This one mega ecosystem is responsible for absorbing 20% of the planet’s atmospheric carbon and turning it into oxygen, and it is the source for 1/5 of the planet’s freshwater supply which makes it a key player for creating weather circulation directly throughout South America, at the least. Sao Paulo of Brazil, the largest city in the Americas with a population of over 27 million inhabitants, now in 2014 is running out of water due to the lack of precipitation in the region. Is this our consequence for deforestation? One of many to come, I’m sure of it.
Cassandra and I at the time weren’t taking on the war of wildlife trafficking, but we were at least trying to do what’s best for our planet, by simply saving some jungle life that is rapidly becoming more and more precious. The spicy South American culture is alive with street music and dance in between the frequent rain showers, but unfortunately some people bring wild lives into the streets. This is “illegal,” but ironically the natural jungle is not prone to mans’ corruption. In fact, it is targeted.
We are not here to enforce laws that don’t work, we had a different approach. As these “street performers” age, they become grumpy and resistant. Their entertaining chiquiness escalades to “that is one pissed off monkey!.” A few obnoxious scenes and facial wrinkles, or too many sick days and the star gets the boot, only to be easily replaced by young, energetic, and naive talent fresh out of the jungle. Sound familiar? The biggest problem here that seems to be completely unrecognized by many, is that the wooly or spider monkey, the two species “most likely to be famous,” are so similar to humans that they can contract a virus from us and spread it to their species in the wild. It could wipe out an entire population.
Our time here is dedicated to physically building enclosures for the refugees, providing a better option than abandonment and death. Inrena will never be a home compared to the vastness of the jungle, but it is safe, reliable and comparatively tranquil to the nightmare these animals just barely survived. It can also provide an opportunity for educating people, satisfying curiosity, and developing a different kind of relationship.
Still young in my career, this effort was my first live taste of how the worldwide war on wildlife is handled on a global scale. Cassandra and I worked at Inrena long enough to help finish a few enclosures and make some friends from Zoo Peru, but time was hinting to us to go. The longterm plan was to bring in school children and use the ex -exploited animals to educate the new generation, but funding was pulled by someone, and the project came to a halt. What happened to Inrena is a mystery to me to this day, but at least a few caged monkeys are now able to show off their natural skills, in the trees. One of my favorite thoughts I have during my travels is , ” the kindness one does for an animal may not change the world, but it will change the world for that one animal.”
When my time came to an end at Inrena I found myself suddenly up in the air for the first time in my adult life. I know now that these are the moments when I learned to make decisions that will guide me to my feeding grounds, but at that moment I still remember feeling confident and content. I didn’t want to go back to the U.S or Australia I wanted to stay, but with purpose. I wasn’t happy to simply walk around and explore, I was craving to continue my accountability to be here. I remember sitting down by the river, watching it flow and noticing how high it had risen from when I first arrived and immediately made my way down the bank of The Amazon River. I sat there feeling lost, but I still would rather have not been anywhere else. I think I had been craving that feeling my entire life, and always wondered, “ if I put myself in this position, where would it take me?”
Cassandra had worked on dreading my hair every night, just something to do while we chatted about our day and laughed about Poncho, the needy Woolly monkey. It looked spiky and bizarre and I was a bit nervous it would make me unapproachable, but I was wrong. A guy around my age, Davilla, came up from behind at the river bank and started tugging on my hair. For some reason, I barely reacted, like it was simply one of the lion cubs in Australia chewing at my shoelaces while I cleaned up after them. Davilla was teaching himself English, and was eager to make a North American friend. His original language was a mixture of Spanish and Portugese, with its own village flare. That took me a while though to figure out.
Davilla had come into town to sell his brothers’ art work in the market in exchange for some rice for the family. The ferry had already left for the day so he was planning on boarding the next one, thought to depart the next morning. I asked, “can I come with you?” Like me, with zero hesitation, he happily said, “ yes, my friend!” We make plans to meet at the dock at sunrise, and just like that, I was steaming down the mighty Amazon River, creating my most authentic adventure.
Over the next few weeks I lived a primitive life with Davilla and his village. My days were casually full of fishing, going on overnight hunting walkabouts with the men, digging out and grinding Yucca to make what reminds me of grits, swimming, trying trippy foods, and learning how to truly be a part of the natural world. The photos are what really can tell my story this time. I hope they teach you human life, in The Amazon Jungle.
The very little ones running around brought almost all the life, love, and laughter to the community, and my trip. I’m hoping their happiness, curiosity, and acceptance is revealed to you through my photographs.
CUTIES OF IQUITOS