We decided a long time ago that we wanted to volunteer at at least one place while we were travelling. I wanted to hang out with animals and Chris wanted to do some sort of manual labor (dumb dumb). Our search lead us to Merazonia, an animal rehabilitation/rescue center near Mera, Ecuador. They house monkeys, birds, kinkajous and even a puma, with the goal of reintroducing the animals the can back into the wild. Their website reads like any five star resort description: no electricity, no internet, compost toilets, no cell service, but hot showers! Living in luxury, people.
I will be honest and admit that although those things now seem trivial to me (in fact, I might even prefer doing without those things), I was hella homesick the first few days here. I'm talking Big Bird in Japan homesick. New people who all loved each other more than they loved me, no phone to call my beasties, french accents I couldn't understand, and monkeys that didn't instantly want to SNUGGLE ME...the list could go on.
Fast forward 3 weeks and we were not ready to leave.
First off, the people have proved warm-hearted, hard-working, hilarious and best of all incredibly dedicated to the care and well-being of the animals here.
Everyday, rain or shine (mostly rain) we'd all crawl out of bed early in the morning for a full day of mud, bugs and monkey poop. We'd cut ourselves on razor grass, haul buckets of food, hack down branches with machetes, trip and fall on our asses or faces, and I don't think I ever heard a single complaint. Days were filled with jokes, laughing, card games, coffee and hearty breakfasts (I think I ate about a dozen eggs a day), and after work the MacGuvyer chefs in the group would cook up the biggest most delicious feasts (and cakes) by candle light, with no refrigeration and a temperamental stove. I'd expected to lose weight, slaving away in the jungle, but I probably put on a few pounds (maybe five, shut up, who asked you anyway?!).
So why do all these people choose to toil in the mud for weeks, months, even years? The animals of Merazonia are amazing.
Malcolm and Sophie have a morning convo about dancing
Among the monkeys, there were a group of six capuchin monkeys, by far the most intelligent monkey at Merazonia, and therefore the most crafty, which made them equally fascinating to watch and terrifying to have to clean up after. Thilly, the lower ranking female in the group would take an onion and rub it over herself to keep mosquitos away, and Sam, one of the boys in the group scrape the papaya against the wires of the cage to remove the seeds before he ate it (super adorable right). Then there was Tina. Tina is the alpha female in this group of monkeys and she had to prove it whenever possible. There's really no better way to describe Tina, so I'm just going to say it: Tina is a stone cold bitch. We were warned from the beginning that Tina does not like women (understatement). I think her favorite activity was seeing how bad she could scare us. When we came to clean her cage, she would wait patiently until we were in the middle of a conversation or daydreaming of washing our hands and BAM-she would throw her shrieking self against the fence closest to you in hopes that you would jump, cry, startle badly or drop whatever you were holding. Then after you collected yourself and glanced her way, she would be there showing you all of her gorgeous sharp teeth. I would not wish Tina on my worst enemy. But wait...Tina is not all bad :)
Chris here. At the same time, Tina is infatuated with the male volunteers. Often I'd look up from cleaning the cage to see her doing the monkey equivalent of a sexy fan dance for me. She likes to bob back and forth, and then turn her shoulder to you, then look back and practically blow you a kiss. One day, the monkeys were being particularly difficult and would not move from one cage to another, so that we could close them off and clean up after them. After about a half an hour in the pouring rain, Tina was the last hold out. Out of desperation, I did something I'm not proud of, I started flirting back.
Picture of Tina the capuchin by Kerrie Nichols via facebook:
Bobbing back and forth, I put on quite a show, and Tina sure thought so too. She followed me dancing and squeaking as I moved to the far corner of the cage, jumping up on the fence in front of me captivated. And then SLAM, my partner in the deception closed the door behind her and she was truly captive... and PISSED!
She immediately realized she had been tricked and leaped at me, grabbing my rain coat through the cage and letting out a piercing shriek. Unfortunately for me, the corner I had led her too had very little room on the outside to maneuver and I had to squeeze though thick jungle brush to escape her. I then waited out the rest of the cage cleaning clinging to a tree as Tina calmed down. Then to add injury to insult, as I was climbing out, I accidentally splashed her in the face with mud. Needless to say, I didn't get many dances after that.
I don't want to give the impression that this was some kind of primate Hunger Games, though, it was absolutely amazing to watch these monkeys interact with each other. They are incredibly intelligent and sensitive and I could watch them for hours. And they are very well cared for. They eat better than most people I know-fresh fruits and veggies according to the diets of each animal and their cages are cleaner than most hostels I have been in. We will miss it tons...and I know we will be back someday for sure. To find out more about Merazonia (or even give them a buck or two) click http://www.merazonia.org/index.html.
Stef with Ollie, the adorable tamarin monkey
Part of our work day included using a machete to cut down large branches for the monkeys to eat. V and I felt really cool doing it...see how cool we look?
One day the Ministry of Wildlife showed up with this sweet little sloth and we got to release her right back into the wild. The BEST thing about her was her adorable squeak. She looks so ready to hug the crap out of a tree! She did too...she was gone really fast (for a sloth).
Sweet boy Diego. He is saying "I love you, Trischa". I know he is. I love you right back, Diego. Look at that sweet Woolly monkey woolly coat.
We ended our time in Ecuador with a trip to the crater lake, Quilotoa. It was gorgeous and we hiked down to the bottom and took a boat out. Then we realized we had to hike out and we cried a little. Then cried some more...luckily we found wi-fi down here. So, we live here in a mud hut we made, and survive by scaring tourist and stealing whatever snacks they have on them.