As I entered Paseo de los Monos, a rescue center for monkeys on the border of a small town right on the edge of the rain forest, I half expected to be greeted by a group of monkeys. Instead, I was greeted by Caroline, a young Ecuadorian biologist and Anabel, a Canadian volunteer. As they both welcomed me and pointed me towards the main house where I would find the volunteer coordinator and learn more about the rescue center and what I would be doing over the next week, a wave of disappointment washed over me. All around the house were monkeys, but unlike the monkeys roaming around freely that I had seen in other traveler/volunteer blogs, the monkeys were now all behind cages.
Over lunch, I met Anabel’s husband, Andrew, a young American volunteer taking a break from a teaching job in Quito, and the rest of the staff of the rescue center. Anabel and Andrew were three or four days shy of completing their second week of volunteering for the rescue center and would soon set off for a tour of the Galapagos Islands.
Before heading off for other adventurers, Anabel and Andrew showed me the ropes around Paseo de los Monos. They taught me how to prepare the food plates for the monkeys and the other animals around the center, how to scrub the fruit house and plates to avoid infection and bacteria growth that could adversely affect the animals, and how to coax Brujita, a one-handed Squirrel monkey out of the house after sneaking in to raid the kitchen.
More importantly, they helped pass the long hours once the center closed and the staff left for their homes in Puyo and we were left alone in the jungle with the chirping birds, screeching monkeys, howling dogs, and the constant sound of rain hammering the tin roof that lasted long into the night.
On Andrew and Anabel’s last night, in the glow of a small bonfire of burning fruit boxes, I asked if they would share their travel experiences with me, and they both agreed. In the morning, shortly before they received their certificates for a job well done and a hearty round of applause from me, they both reflected on their time at Paseo de los Monos. Here is their story:
Names: Andrew Williams and Anabela Amaral
Ages: 49/ —
From: Toronto, Canada
Languages: English/English, Portuguese, a little Spanish, and a little French
Duration of trip: 4 months
Can you tell why you guys decided to take this trip?
Anabel: I did it just to get a different perspective on things. You know, like a little bit of a spiritual type
journey . . . and you know just leaving everything else behind to set out and try something new . . . something I’ve never done before.
Andrew: And we had the time off . . . Anabel had the time off, so we decided to take the trip together. We’d never been here so it was a big step on our part to leave our city, the big city of Toronto, to come to these countries, which are totally different. We didn’t know what to expect. And we’re on a budget, we’re traveling for four months, so we had to pick and plan things to some degree. You get to see a different side of places and the people, than if . . . you know, if you were to travel in high-end hotels. People have been friendly and helpful along the way.
Anabel: And just to get in touch with nature, right? Like down here, it’s easier to get in touch with nature. I’ve always wanted to go to the Galapagos, since I was 12 . . . since I learned about it. And this is an opportunity to do it. I’ve always wanted to work with monkeys, so I thought I would take that opportunity down here. Just experiences that I’ve always wanted to do.
Have you ever taken a trip like this before?
Andrew: No, this is our first time that we’ve traveled like this. Usually it’s just one or two weeks and we’d go to a resort or some place like that.
Why did you pick Central and South America?
Anabel: I’ve just always wanted to do it. You know, I just always thought it was . . . everybody says don’t go down there its pretty scary and stuff . . . and I figured well that’s where I’m going. And you find that once your here, it’s not like everyone says it is. It’s not scary. You’re going to be alright because you meet amazing people along the way.
Can you tell me about where you started your trip, where you’ve been, and your general experiences that led you to this point in your journey?
Anabel: Actually, when we were younger we would spend time, like the whole summer, in the Azores because my dad had a business that went back and forth. So I spent two months of the summer, not in Canada, but in a completely different culture, so I think that helped going into something new. When we decided to come to Central and South America, what we’d planned never really materialized because once we landed in Belize we were there for a while. We just let things evolve and take us wherever. And we ended up in Guatemala for a month. Guatemala wasn’t even on the itinerary. Then we skipped Costa Rica and Panama. Now we’re in Ecuador and we just booked the Monkey volunteer thing in a spur of the moment type thing. And then we’ll go to the Galapagos, which I’ve wanted to do for a while. I don’t know if Andrew . . . if you wanted to there or not. Have you?
Andrew: Yes. We’d booked the Galapagos before we left Toronto, so we knew that somewhere along the way we had to be in Ecuador around the middle of February. So that’s really one of the only set things that we’ve had. The other is a four-day Amazon trip in Peru, which we will be doing shortly after we do the Galapagos. So, we’ve had this four month trip with a few set things, but everything in between was all up in the air. We weren’t sure what direction we wanted to go in, or where it might lead us.
You mentioned that Guatemala wasn’t in your plans, how did you end up there? And why did you stay there a month?
Anabel: We just went with the flow. We met people and they said were going here, “do you want to come?” And we said, sure why not.
So you traveled with another couple?
Anabel: It’s interesting because I’d wanted to . . . along with getting in touch with nature, I also wanted it to be a spiritual type journey. We ran into a lot of people, and one person we ran into had spent 15 years studying with a guru in India. And he said one day, “I’m going to Monterrico, if you want to come with me I’ll teach you a very basic mediation type thing.” So we decided to go with him. And he taught us. We were there for a week and half, it was a great experience. And, then we went on our way. But, like I was telling you before, just to do something where you have to face your fears . . . and every time I mentioned Central and South America everybody would say, “Oh don’t go there. You’ll be killed. It’s very unstable. Stay away from there.” I wanted to see it for myself. I’m going to face this fear that everyone has – that’s why their not coming . . . and just do it. Yeah, all their fears are pretty much unfounded. Even in Toronto, I’m always aware of the people around me, just like I am down here. But, I don’t find it any different. I thought it was something that I had to do because for the last 12 years, I’ve been saying that my mission is to face every fear that you have, because I . . . that’s what I teach to the kids. You have to face your fears. You know the world is not as scary as everyone telling you that is.
Andrew, I wanted to ask you . . . I know when Anabel returns she’ll still be teaching . . . you gave up your job to travel, are you nervous about finding work when you return?
Andrew: No, I’m not really nervous at all. There was a lot of work going on we left, so it might take a week or two when I get back to get another job, but I’m not nervous. I’ll find a job one way or another.
Was this a place that you always wanted to come too, as well?
Andrew: Yeah. I said to Anabel, let’s go to Belize first because I had read a few things about it and it seemed pretty similar to Costa Rica and the speak English there. I don’t speak any second languages so it’s been tough for me, but Anabel has other languages. But, I thought if we start somewhere that speaks English. . . it’ll be more comfortable and easier on us to integrate into this trip. We had talked to a few people about going down to Honduras, and a couple of people said no don’t go there and other some other people said it was great. I think everybody has different experiences and if you’re lucky enough to talk to people who had good experiences then it makes your decision a lot easier. If someone has a bad experience and they tell you everything that went wrong and stuff like that, right away it extenuates your own fears. And then you risk missing out on a great opportunity to see a very beautiful country and what they have to offer.
You’re right about at your halfway point in your trip. How are feeling?
Andrew: I’m comfortable where we’re at. You know four months in my mind is a long time. There have been some times along the trip that I wished it was a little shorter. A little homesick, I’d guess you’d say. Like we both enjoy winter sports, skiing and stuff like that, and there’s been a lot of snow this winter back home and we’re missing out on that. And you miss family and friends too, but I know they’ll still be there when we get back and I’ll get to share experiences with them.
Anabel: I wish it were a lot longer. I could do this for the rest of my life . . . just going country to country just experiences different cultures, different people, different environments. And it also gives you a sense of what’s going on in the world, environmentally. I think when I go back, I want to try to do something like trying to raise some money to buy land for the monkeys.
Can you tell me some of comprises you’ve had to make to travel for this amount of time?
Andrew: Well this is a first for me, so as far as some of the comprises . . . we’re in the middle of the jungle right now and you don’t know when you’re going to get hot running water. Back home, it’s always on demand. Here in Central and South America, you don’t put toilet paper in the toilet bowl. That’s not an issue back home, it’s just little things like that. The quality of food isn’t up to the same par or standard I’m used too, so I find myself thinking well, I’m not back home I’m in this country and this may not be my standard of quality, but you know. . . it is what it is. It makes me appreciate more what I have at home. And I look at people here, and they are very polite and they seem happy all the time. I think, they have so much less than we have . . . is it because they don’t know what its like to have more, or is it just part or their culture?
Or would we be happier with less?
Andrew: Or would I be happier with less too. Like some of the things I think I need to have, do I really need it?
I’ve met a lot of single travelers and some couples, but I havemet a married couple. Has this changed your relationship at all?
Andrew: To some degree I think its brought us closer. You have to rely on each other a lot more. I know I rely on Anabel because she speaks Spanish and me, I feel like I’m useless. And that’s tough because I’m used to being more self-sufficient when I do stuff. I appericate her more, because of what she’s bringing to this trip. Back home, its easy to fall into a groove in a relationship and you take each other for granted at times, its just human nature . . . but this trip has helped me see that.
Anabel: It does bring you closer because you’re relying on each other. And you spend a lot of time together . . . it’s not like when you go to work and they go to work . . . so you get to know each other quite a bit.
Have you learned anything about yourself on this trip that you didn’t know before?
Andrew: I guess that it’s opened me more towards . . . like this, this is taking me out of my comfort zone because I like to know what’s coming my way and prepare things. So just to do spur of the moment things . . . just coming here and learning that a lot of my fears are false for whatever reason. Maybe the news . . . or whatever’s been instilled in me . . . I’ve been able to prove that those fears aren’t true.
Anabel: I’m more confidant in going to new places that I’m not familiar with . . . like out of your comfort zone . . . rather to go to resorts and stuff where everything is done for you. This is a little bit more out in the open where you’re learning about different cultures. Meeting different types of people. This has been a great start to explore other areas of the world without being anxious about it.
Any advice for friends or family who might consider doing a trip like this?
Andrew: Just spend a little bit of time just researching before you go so that if you have specific things that you want to do . . . or certain goals . . . then do some research so that when you get there it’ll be that much easier. Other than that, just pick your countries and go.
Anabel: I would tell them, don’t worry about the planning. Don’t worry about booking all your hotels and structuring it so that you know where you’re going to be all the time. Just buy your plane ticket, get off the plane and just go with the flow. It’ll all work out. You’ll meet the right people, you’ll have a place to stay, it’ll all work out.
Just a practical question, you have a house, you have a dog and cat . . . what sort of planning or adjustment did you have to make to take this trip?
Andrew: It took a little bit of extra effort. We were going to rent out our place while we were gone, but I didn’t really feel comfortable with that so I did some extra savings so we wouldn’t have to do that. So our niece is looking after our dog and a friend of Anabel’s is looking after our cat. But these are things that came up long before we actually left, so we had already pre-planed who would look after our pets about a year in advance.
Can you tell me a little bit about your experience here at Paseo de los Monos?
Anabel: Yeah, its been very . . . I liked it. The only thing I was disappointed in was that I thought more monkeys would be free and there were only a few of them walking about. Overall, I’ve enjoyed it. The people were nice. And I got to meet a lot people coming a going. And we got a chance to attend a Shaman ceremony, which was interesting.
Andrew: Well, my exceptions were . . . well I wasn’t sure what to expect. I thought there would be more monkey’s roaming around, so I was a little bit disappointed when there wasn’t. But it didn’t take long to readjust my thinking that this is a sanctuary and there needed to be barriers. You’re here to protect the animals and hopefully reintroduce them back into the forest, therefore human contact is not always a good thing with these monkeys. As afar as interacting with the monkeys there is one that . . . Bebe is in a room because he’d been hurt and you got to see him when ever you wanted. There were a couple of other monkeys wandering around that would come up to you and sit in your lap and stuff like that. So that was cool. Overall, we’ve been here two weeks and its been good. We’ve done things . . . experienced the jungle, the animals, that’s not something you could have done if you’d come here as a tourist.
What are you going to miss?
Andrew: Well I’m not going to miss getting up at 8 am to go feed the animals, that’s for sure. I’ll miss some of the interactions with the animals. They have some very nice dogs here . . . they’re great animals. And the monkeys, there just there when ever you walk out the door.
I’m honestly surprised to hear you say you’re not going to miss feeding the animals because you both took it so seriously.
Andrew: Well its a responsibility and it has to be done. It would have been nice to sleep a little later, but I didn’t come here as a volunteer to sleep all day and do things on my own whim.
Sure. but you went and bought treats for the dogs, when I first saw you . . . when I first arrived you were feeding the Woolley monkeys maybe dog food pellets? It felt like you were doing more than just meeting your responsibilities.
Andrew: If you have any love for animals, if you care for them, you want to try to do extra for them for the short time that you’re here.
What was it like day-to-day?
Anabel: Like cutting up the fruit? Yeah each day started with cutting up fruit or things that you needed to do, but other than that there was the odd job . . . like sweeping the floors or for the guys, digging holes and building fences.
Do you feel like you bonded with any of the animals?
Anabel: Oh definitely. You definitely have your favorite monkeys that you bond with.
Who was your favorite?
Anabel: My favorite, believe it or not, was the one that I liked the least at the beginning. Brujita.
Why didn’t you like her at first?
Anabel: She bite me twice. But in the end, she need up being very friendly.
She seems to gravitate to you actually.
Would you do another volunteer experience like this again?
Anabel: definitely, yeah.
Andrew: I can’t compare this to other rescue centers around the world, but we had a good experience here.