In my first week of travel I met a young Greek guy who had just completed two months of his three-month trip in Colombia living with a local family in a remote village in the mountains picking coffee beans in exchange for housing and food. As he told me about his day-to-day experience: not having electricity or hot water, working eight hours a day scouring coffee plants for ripe red coffee beans to pluck and toss into a large burlap sack, and spending his free time reading Russian novels by candle light . . . a look of horror must have flashed across my face, because he quickly added what an amazing life changing experience it had been. Thinking that I would rather spend my time volunteering elsewhere, I figured, I’d take him at his word.
I came across Paseo de Los Monos, a rescue center for abused, neglected, and abandoned wild animals that unfortunately had become people’s pets by doing a general internet search for places to volunteer in Ecuador. There were tons of photos with happy looking volunteers pushing wheelbarrows covered shoulder to shoulder with curious monkeys. I sent a quick email asking if they had any space for an additional volunteer, and two days later I was on a bus making my way to the small town of Puyo. As I made my way through the jungle clearing and took in the rescue center, it was clear that the center, a place where a group of woolly monkeys, spider monkeys, white capuchins, and squirrel monkeys called home had undergone a major transformation. Ecuador’s Minister of the Environment had imposed a restriction on the center, no free monkeys. All the monkey’s were now living behind gated enclosures for safety of the tourists, as well as, the safety of the monkeys.
At first, I wasn’t sure I wanted to finish the first week I agreed to volunteer . . . as far as first impressions go, my first few days at Paseo de Los Monos was like being trapped on the worst blind date that just wouldn’t end. But, has I cleared my head of my expectations and got to know the people running the center and got to the animals . . . the long days of grueling physical labor, the beauty and magic of living in the jungle, and the time spent with free roaming squirrel monkeys and a young woolly monkey who was living in an enclosed porch recuperating from a broken arm he had received a few months before my arrival all convinced me that one week wasn’t enough time. I extended my volunteer assignment by another week.
Here’s a day-in-the-life of a volunteer at Paseo de Los Monos:
7AM Wake up
8AM Cut up fruit and feed the animals (monkeys, turtles, parrots, dogs, guatusa. and coatis)
9AM Park opens
9:30AM Breakfast for staff and volunteers
10AM – 2PM Work (which for me consisted of lugging heavy stones to building a walking path for visitors)
2:30PM – 5PM (feed animals second time) work until the center closes
Free time until you fall asleep (8/9PM)
It’s hard to summarize two weeks into a couple of paragraphs because has the days progressed seamlessly into the next there was little to no variation from the schedule above. Each day measured by a chart of tasks that needed to be completed followed by a serious of corresponding check marks. Each day did, however, have tons of unexpected interruptions to whatever task had been assigned for the day . . . there were tons of interactions with the animals, moments of personal triumph, and daily reminders that as even though humans have had such a negative impact on this planet – there are still people out there devoting their lives to repair that damage and help other species that have been long forgotten by our collective consciousness.
The highlight of my experience volunteering at Paseo de Los Monos happened just a day or two before I would depart for the town of Baños, my return to civilization. I had been asked if I wanted to go to the veterinarian’s office to accompany Bebe to get his broken arm x-rayed and Paulina, a cocker spaniel who needed dental surgery on my last day off. Little did I know, I too would also be one the vet’s patients. The night before our visit, I woke up in the middle of the night with a severe pain in my left eye. By the morning, the pain was so intense I could barely keep my eye open.
Once we arrived at the vet’s office the animals were taken into their respective holding rooms. As, I sat down in the lobby and contemplated making my way towards a doctor for my eye, a man came to the lobby and asked if I was Lee? I nodded, yes that’s me. The vet had heard that Bebe trusted me and wondered if I would help assist in the x-ray process. Help, however, is a very relative word. Bebe spent the entire time on my shoulders and refused to come down to my chest. As I contorted and twisted and turned to try to position Bebe in front of the x-ray machine, it was agreed that it would be best if they gave him a sedative.
As we waited for the x-rays to develop, the doctor said he would tend to my eye. After passing a bright light over my eye it was determined that I had a small splinter or shard stuck deep below my pupil. As he pulled out a tray of various medical instruments that could have been directly delivered from the set of a horror movie, I was beginning to have doubts that this was in fact the right course of treatment. The first attempt with a pair of scissors was unsuccessful. “Don’t worry” he told me, I also have needles, that should do the trick.” As he started speaking spanish to the staff members of Paseo de Los Monos, I found a new level of compassion for what Bebe and Paulina had just endured. I clamped my hand down on the metal table, took a deep breath, a moment later my eye was free of the shard or splinter or whatever it was . . . and toothless Paulina, sedate Bebe, and I were ready to return home in need of a little normalcy.
Though I’d gone to volunteer at the recuse center with the best intention to work hard and give myself fully to the cause and mission of the center, it’s now clear that I clearly benefited the most during my two-week stay.
I complied a small video montage of some of the video and pictures I took with the animals, people, and a quick walk down the path I built for the rescue center. You can watch it here.
If you are interested in finding out more about the history of the center and its conversation programs for two endangered species, the woolly monkeys and the spider monkeys, please read my interview with President and Founder of Paseo de Los Monos by clicking here.