Travel Report 20: Inti Wara Yassi, Volunteers (work).
You all know that's only a few weeks ago that I wrote that I admire everyone who does volunteer work and sacrifices his or her time to help others. I also wrote that I really appreciate my free time and that I find it difficult to use to much of my free time to help others.
However, it seems now that I found a volunteer-job that I like so much that I spend more time doing it than I ever expected...
Before I tell what it is, I first want to say something about the doing of volunteer work;
Although I still don't spend my time really unselfish (for that I like my job to much) to help others, the last few weeks I found out that there're 3 different kind of volunteers; The noble volunteers, who see their work as the most important thing in their life and who are willing to do this totally unselfish; The normal volunteers, who want to do something good, try to find a job the like, do this the best they can and are happy doing this; But if there're animals involved, it seems that there're, unfortunately, also "volunteers" who ONLY want to do some volunteer(work), so they can be close to the animal they like and tell friends that they've been working with that animal. It's good if you've pleasure in doing you're job and I think that you should only do it when you like it. But if you decide to do volunteer work, finish the job you get as good as you can and don't do only the pleasures things. You help nobody with that...
The organisation I'm "working" for is named; Inti Wara Yassi, which means Sun, Star and Moon in the 3 indigenous languages of Bolivia.
The original organisation started in 1985, when Juan Carlos Antezana started different projects and activities in La Paz to teach street children handicrafts, arts and more. He was hoping that this would keep them away from crime and drugs and that it would give them a better change to survive in the future.
During one of these activities the children went on a hiking-trip of 3 days. They came across a strip of land which had been totally destroyed by resent deforestation fires. The sight of death trees and carbonized animals shocked the children so much that they decided to set up a youth-led movement to defend the beauty of their flora and fauna.
In 1992 some of the children saw a monkey that was tied in a bar and constantly drunk, because the guests gave him a lot of beer. The children decided to buy that monkey to let it free. From this moment they started to try to rescue and help as much wild animals as they could.
In 1994 Inti Wara Yassi was officially established and its objectives are:
- To improve the quality of live in general, in both urban and rural areas.
- To establish an ecological movement whose members will work to increase public awareness to prevent damage and depletion of natural ecological resources.
Now, 10 years later, a lot of things have been changed;
The park had to move to another location (Villa Tunari), has increased a lot and most of the Bolivian street-children have been (unfortunately) replaced by volunteers from all over the world. But its objectives are still the same and in a country like this very necessary.
If you want to know more about this organisation, you can visit their website at: www.intiwarayassi.org
There're a lot of things that has to be done to improve the live of the many animals in the park of I.W.Y. The work-conditions can sometimes be a little hard, a work-week of 7 days, at least 8 hours a day and, if you're lucky, 1 day of in the month. But I don't think that's something to complain about. Let me give you an example of what can be a bad day:
Most of the jobs are outside and it can happen that it rains almost all day, until halfway in the afternoon. You're totally wet and muddy of walking through the jungle on muddy and slippery trails and happy when the sun comes through. Until the many mosquitoes wake-up and start to attack you. And because you're working with animals, you're not aloud to use any mosquito-repellent...
In the evening you get back to your hostel to find out that there's no water in the toilets and showers!? You try to clean yourself with a wet towel before you're going to eat. After that you will try to sleep on a very hard mattress of straw and if you're finally sleeping, you wake-up at 4am in the morning to discover that the food of last night perhaps wasn't that good....... And then you hope that today will be a better day.
On a day like that you will maybe ask yourself:" Why am I doing this?" But than you think about the history of some of the animals in the park. For example; Boudecia the ocelot (a big wild cat). She's been kept, for a few years in a very small cage of 1m, by 1m, by 1m and when they found her, she was totally underfeed and the bottom of het cage was covered with a layer of at least 10cm of excreta?! If you hear stories like that about the animals, you know that you've no reason to complain and why the organisation is so important.
I came here on advice of some travellers I met and was suppose to stay for only 2 weeks, to do a job they needed people for. You always get one main job, but next to that there're also a lot of small, but still important, things which has to be done. Before the tour through the park and the explanation about the park, they told me that they only needed people to do construction-work. Sounds like I can use my skills. But after the tour someone came to me to ask if I perhaps could stay for 4 weeks, so I could walk with Roy. Roy? Yes, Roy, a puma of 18 months and about 70kg, who needs to walk a lot to stay in good shape.
Can I sleep one night about that?
Roy is a beautiful mountain puma. When he was about 6 weeks old, he and his brother were rescued from having a life as the pet of a teacher (I don't think that he now still wants to have Roy as a pet...). Unfortunately his brother died soon after, but Roy survived and is now a healthy, almost adult puma of about 70kg. He needs 2 volunteers (for security) to walk with him from about 9am till 5pm, but you need a strong condition and mentality and he doesn't like everyone...
All right, they really need someone and where else in the world do you get the change to walk with a puma in the jungle? I will try to do the job.
When I walked to Roy´s cage, with his 2 volunteers who would train me, I got immediately a good impression of his trails. "Is this the kind of trails we're going to walk with Roy, small, muddy and slippery?" "Yes, and some will be even more difficult."
At 9:15 I see Roy for the first time. Wow! What a beautiful puma, but how tame is he really? I will find out soon.
His volunteers let Roy out of his cage and put him, with a long rope and a carbine on a runner. On this runner (a long strong rope) he can run down and up a little hill in front of his cage, to chase after empty plastic bottles, soft toys and rocks, we throw down. He likes it and he can lose already some of his energy with it before we start to walk.
After a while he stopped playing and came up to have a closer look at me. The other volunteers had already told me that he would probable try to test me by trying to bite me in the leg/knee and having a little fight with me. They told me that I should put my fist in front of his mouth and say with an authority voice (never shout, that makes him angry): "No, no Roy." When that doesn't work and he starts a fight, you should never step back, when you do that he will think that you're afraid of him, you can't be his stronger leader and he will never listen to you. You should take his collar and push him to the ground until he doesn't like it anymore.
I tried to do everything they'd told me, but when Roy got his claws around my leg it hurted a little and one of the volunteers had to help me to get him of. When Roy walked away I had to admit that he scared me a little, with his strong and sharp claws. But he looks nice and if those 2 volunteers can walk with him, I should be able to do the same...
Because it was my first day, I didn't really walked much with him on the line and the day ended at 5pm without new tests.
Today we gave Roy some grass, long fresh ones from which he only eats the top ends, to scrub his stomach. Roy is really a nice pussy-cat when he's eating grass out of you're hand :-) But I also discover that he's a little strange cat, because he will come to you when you've some grass for him, but when you've meat, you've to bring it to him?
Today I walked a lot more with Roy. He walks about 2m in front of me on a rope of about 8m in total. I've to hold it very tight, but for security of losing him, it's also tied around my waist.
Roy is nice and calm today and, other than we expected, he didn't try to test me again...
I started today with cleaning Roy´s Cage. It's funny to see him looking through the bars at you, instead of the other way around.
Today would've been my last day of training, but because one of his volunteers had to much trouble with his knees, I would walk today already only with the other volunteer and Roy.
If we're halfway on one of Roy´s trails and I'm running downhill after him, I lose my balance and as soon as Roy noticed, he turns on instinct and jumps on me. We both fall down the steep side of the hill. With his 4 feet´s, he's sooner on his feet than I am, walks around me until he's above and jumps again on me. I push him away and the second time that he tries to do the same again, I had a better position and got grip on his collar. I managed to keep him long enough on the ground that he didn't liked it anymore and let him go. He looked a little wronged to me, but then he went slowly uphill with me.
Wow, that was an adrenaline experience! But somehow I never really felt afraid. If Roy really wanted to hurt me, he had there a big opportunity to do a lot more damage than those few scratches I've now. After this experience I really felt not afraid of him anymore and I knew that it would be nice to walk with him for a month.
Now, after a month, it seems that Roy and I have a good understanding and that we both like each other. It also gives me a special feeling when I walk with him through the jungle and he listens to me :-) And what´s even more special, is when we sometimes leave his cage at 5pm and when he's not eating and looks sad at us. It seems that he really likes us and than it gives me a little sad feeling to leave him behind in his cage :-(
If he's in a playful mood he will still try to jump on me or start a little fight, but by reading his body-language I can predict most of his actions to avoid a fight or keep it as short as possible. How nice he can be, he's still only aloud to play with his toys and not with me. So it can happen that one moment he jumps on me and after I pushed him away, the next he will come back to lick my arm :-)
The working with Roy still causes me some scratches, but to me the presence of him feels not more dangerous than the presence of the poisonous snakes, the spiky trees, the giant ants or the many mosquitoes you can find on his trails, luckily there are also monkeys, lizards, nice birds and even turtles on his trails. The biggest injuries that he gave his volunteers, until now, are knee-troubles from the walking and sometimes running up and down his small slippery trails.
Saying this and however I'm not afraid of Roy, he's still a predator who weighs only 8kg less than me, has more muscles than I have and I've seem some bad scratches he gave to other volunteers when he was in a very bad mood. So I still like to keep some healthy respect for him...
Yes, I think that's a big privilege that I can walk with him and I hope that I can contribute in making his live in prison more valuable.
If you, after reading this story, also have the feeling that you want to do something for the animals of I.W.Y., but you don't have the time to go to Bolivia, you can donate some money on their English (better) account. All information about this and more about I.W.Y. you can find on their website: www.intiwarayassi.org
They will use the money to buy new land, to let some animals free. Or to use it to repair some of the rot cages of animals that can't be released anymore, Roy...
I hope you liked this special travel story and that it will give you something to think about.
If you've more questions, you can also send me an e-mail and I will try to answer them.