Ecuador, 2. Jatun Sacha, 23-26 Sept, 20

Harold has mentioned that he is going down to the lowlands, to do some work at the Shiripuno Lodge. Our ears immediately perk up. Last year, we did an extensive search about the lodges in the rainforest, but I don’t think we have heard about this particular one. Turns out, Harold is friend with the “manager”, Fernando Vaca, who is a well-known bird expert (he is even mentioned in the Lonely Planet guidebook). So we send out some e-mails and a few days later we get an answer: there is a group going down to the lodge on Sept. 27.; if we want, we can join them.

I love the organic way our journey unfolds…You meet somebody, who knows somebody, who has a station, who also knows somebody who has a lodge…and you end up in a place you have never even heard of…

But first, since we have a few days before the 27th, we decide to head down to Tena, to the Jatun Sacha station (just to warm up a little bit).

Last year we visited their Bilsa station in the Machu Chindu reserve area, which is toward the coast, and is part of the last remaining cloud-forest in that area. I did a little bit of volunteer work there, but this time we only have a few days, so volunteering is out of the question.

Harold takes us down to the main road, where we flag down a bus (this is how it works: you stand at the side of the road, and when the bus comes, you wave), and are immediately confronted with some very loud Ecuadorian music – another staple of the Ecuadorian travel (just like those people /from age 5 to 85/ who get on the bus wherever, just to try to sell a few pieces of fruit or candy). The ride is not more than 3 hours, and in Tena we try to find a taxi that would take us to the station for less than 15 bucks. Finally somebody agrees and we pile in. Another 55 minutes go by. The road is quite new – there is a plan for an international airport, like 2 kms down from the Jatun Sacha station, and they needed a road, informs us the driver.

The station is literally next to the road. A small, soft-spoken guy comes out to meet us – Mario, who turns out to be fluent not only in English, but in German as well (thanks to a year of study in Germany). One of the young volunteers come to greet us, also – with a tarantulla sitting on his shoulder. Obviously, this is kind of a right of passage for new volunteers…expect in the last few years we had our share of tarantulas already (I never forget that night, when we were sitting on the floor in our cabin at Yarina lodge, and less than half a meter from us a plastic bag started to rustle and a HUGE tarantula poked his head out….turned out it lived under our hut, so we got to see him (her?) every night. Very nice neighbor, though, never had any problems with him. Not like that loud rain-frog that could not shut up for a whole night…) So, nice try kid, but we are not that easily scared…Well, that said, the scorpion on our doorstep the first night scared the hell out of us. It was not huge or anything (the next few nights we bumped into some, that were a lot bigger) but…well, it was a scorpion. Warm and fuzzy they aren’t.

The night walks were always packed with “hey, look at this spider!” or “hey, look at this salamander!” or “Hey, check out this leaf-insect/frog/caterpillar!”. During the day, we did not see many animals (besides the frogs, caterpillars, butterflies – but again, the road is right next to the station!) and the forest did not look like it was a primary forest, but maybe we just did not go deep enough…

ecuador-2008-619-kis-kep

ecuador-2008-684-kis-kep

The average age of the volunteers were around 22 years, most of them from the US and Germany, so the conversations were conducted mostly in English, German and Spanish. The kitchen stuff had pretty much the same attitude as in Bilsa, namely, that they looked at the volunteers (and at the guests) as nuisances, and tried to get away with giving as little food as possible sometimes.

The volunteers – as much as I could see – mainly worked at the organic garden. The main object is to demonstrate that there is an alternative to slash-and-burn agriculture, which exhausts the soil in 3-4 years, which means that the farmers have to move and cut down another piece of forest for a new “chakra”. But when I asked how many communities adopted this organic method, Mario said, that so far, no one. It seemed that the volunteers were eager to do something worhtwhile, something meaningful, (and I have seen that at other places, too) but their enthusiasm slowly got chipped away with the boring, meaningless stuff they were required to do sometimes. Of course, that brings up the question, what is this whole volunteer thing about? Is it mainly a good way for young kids (or even older folks) to see the world, make some new friends, learn a language? And for the organization to get some easy money? Can they really contribute to the community? I guess, in a way, their presence can raise awareness of some environmental or social issue, but sometimes the time they spend at the location is simply not enough to become part of the solution (in fact, sometimes it is quite the opposite). Last year, when I was volunteering in Bilsa, one day I was asked to draw a map of the orchid-garden, and indicate what species are located on which tree. I remember thinking: “To do WHAT? Don’t you know that I am here to SAVE THE FOREST? What does this task have to do with the forest??” I wanted to plant hundreds of trees; I wanted to get dirty and sweaty, so I could feel that I am actually doing something…(Well, the next day I had to carry up 50 small trees on a steep, muddy slope, from the nursery to the station…talking about dirty and sweaty…see below.)

Bilsa, July 2007. Taking a break

Bilsa, July 2007. Taking a break

That said I still applaud those, who take a week/month/2 monts/year out of their lives (and usually pay a hefty fee) to go to another country to do some volunteer-work. Be the change you wanna see in the world! Cheers!!

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