Saturday, May 4, 2013


While I was in Vilcabamba I met some enthusiastic Merazonia ex-volunteers. This animal refuge is in the Amazon Jungle near Mera. It is a very well respected volunteering program given how much care is given to animals. While I was in Banos I did some research on it and decided to go there for two weeks, which is the minimum.

During my time at Merazonia, I took a bunch of photos but this place has no electricity (and therefore no WiFi) and my phone was stolen just after I left and before I had a chance to sync them to Dropbox. As a result, I am stealing other volunteers photos from the internet. And also thank you to Jennie for sending the ones she took of me on our rounds. To the person who stole my phone, I hope you get cancer or something.

Anyway, moving on (cos I’m not bitter about losing all my photos AT ALL), I was not sure how best to write this up, but “themes” seems to work, so here goes.

The daily routine
Basically your day starts with first breakfast at about 7am, preparing food (fruit and some veggies) for the animals, then cleaning their cages and feeding them, second breakfast at about 9.30am, then chores, projects, lunch, the second lot of animal rounds, showers, dinner, and bed. It’s not easy and you don’t get a lot of free time. Although it’s better when there are more volunteers.

The volunteers house (which my friend Martijn helped to build. Good job!)

Small birds
The small birds are mostly several kinds of parrots. Most of them are very cute and curious. Some of them land on your back while you’re leaning over to clean the cages. They totally want to know what’s in your bucket, be it the shit/ old food you’ve just picked up, or new food. You have to be really careful not to stand on some of them as they follow you around walking on the ground and try to eat your gum boots/ wellington boots/ rubber boots (pick your noun). 

A hungry blue head parrot

There is also a black head parrot missing a foot. He whistles at you and uses his disability to get sympathy and get down women’s tops. His name is Barbosa. Most of these birds are rescued pets so they will not be released and you can interact with them. This was my favourite round. I loved the small birds.

Barbosa (note: missing right foot)

Baby birds
These three baby birds were in the vet's clinic already when I arrived. They squawked all the time which was kind of annoying. Jennie and I got to feed them one night cos the vet had her day off and no one else wanted to. They got a mixture of mashed fruit and peanut butter. I tasted it and it was pretty yum.

Also I'd just had a shower in case you're wondering what's going on with my hair here.

Big birds
These birds are mostly bigger parrots and macaws. Again, these birds are unlikely to be released so you can interact with them. One of the parrots called Deroy likes to say “hola” a lot and sit on your shoulders while you’re cleaning his cage. My friend Jennie and I were putting more branches in his cage one day (he can’t really fly so he needs branches to walk along) and he kept sitting on my head. 

Imagine this bird:

Doing this:

It was totally the same!

One day I was doing big birds on my own and they all starting screeching like danger was nearby. That freaked me out a lot. I didn’t see anything though and we were all in the cage, so I guess that makes you relatively safe, unless it’s an eky snake.

There is a Macaw in the big birds cage called Merlin. He is a bully and some of the birds have to be kept in their own sections so he doesn’t pick on them. He always wants to know what you’re doing too. He is like a nosey old man.

Here's me trying to clean one of the food trays and him not helping.

Malcolm is a another Macaw that has his own cage. Something happened to him and now he has a brain injury and he can’t remember how to fly. So he only goes in a cage at night for his own safety and is free to walk around during the day since he doesn’t really go far.

Miss Guatin
This lovely lady is an agout who lives in the big bird’s cage. She is a rodent (I think) and very tame and follows you around. I love her, she’s so cute. Like the small birds and Merlin, she always wants to know what’s in your bucket and will climb in if you’re not looking.

These are nocturnal animals and are basically a cross between fat ringtail possums and Yoda. Except unlike possums and Yoda they are angry little shits so you have to lock them in their houses while they are sleeping during the day so you can clean the cages without getting attacked. These are the worst cages to clean. They only eat fruit and basically it comes out looking like it went in except runnier. And they shit SO much. It is quite ridiculous and not fun to pick up.

There are lots of monkeys at Merazonia. You aren’t allowed in the cages with most of them since the intention is to release them at some point. Plus they are really strong and can be dangerous.

Let’s start with the nicest ones first. The Tamarins are really small and so cute. They love eating grasshoppers (and Vegemite sandwiches - see my Rio post). If you feed them a big grasshopper through the cage, they will bite the head off first and chew it with their mouths open. It’s gross and they remind of children eating before they are taught to eat with their mouths shut.

Next up are the Woolly monkeys. There are two females together in one cage and they are very curious whenever you are cleaning their cages. But they are generally well behaved. I liked them. They look so soft!

Spidey is the originally named Spider monkey. This little guy was cool. He was rescued from a military zoo (WTF?) after being electrocuted. He lost his hand and tail and was not expected to live. But he did and now he likes to escape from his cage, which is currently in the vet’s clinic due to a lack of outside cages. Normally he doesn’t go very far if he does escape since he gets distracted by the food that is in the clinic. He is very cool and a crowd favourite among the volunteers.

Nieve is a Howler monkey and lives on her own, mostly cos she doesn’t play well with others. She was rescued from a hostel and will not be released so you can go in the cage with her. Her behaviour towards humans varies, but she’s not normally aggressive. She played with my hair while I was in the cage with her but that was about it. She also likes to do her daily big shit in her house for the volunteers to clean out. Thanks Nieve.

And then we get to the nasty Capuchins. I think there are seven of these (and two more in quarantine) and a wild one that wants to get in the big cage called Leon. This is Leon:

These are the most intelligent monkeys in South America so you need combination locks on the cages. There is a rumour that you can’t say the numbers in Spanish, cos they will understand. Lol, it wouldn’t surprise me. Some of them seem relatively good natured and are more curious about what you’re doing than intent on attacking you. 

One of the young males (I think it's this guy) has a constant erection, which is amusing. That must get annoying after a while though, surely? 

The alpha female (Tina) hates women, especially blonde women. She managed to get my hair through the fence and pulled it really hard. I was lucky though cos apparently she’s scalped women before and then eaten their hair in front of them. Mmm, that’s nice. Her boyfriend is Leon. He hated me too and tried to attack me on several occasions. At one point I had to lock myself in a cage until one of the guys chased him away. While this was quite a scary experience, their behaviour meant the Capuchin round was never dull!

As part of the monkey rounds you have to go and cut leaves for Nieve and the Woolies since leaves make up a large portion of their diet. This involves going into the jungle with a machete. I was really shit at the beginning but got much better towards the end and was slashing tree branches all over the place. It was pretty fun and I have to admit and I felt a bit like Indiana Jones. One of the coordinators always quoted Bilbo Baggins “I’m going on an adventure” whenever we went out to cut branches. Now I associate this line with machetes and the jungle.

There is a puma there who was also rescued from the same hostel as Nieve. She is unlikely to be released since she does not have a natural killing instinct. For example, she gets fed live guinea pigs and plays with them until they die of heart attacks. There is also a wild puma in the area and they are territorial animals, meaning she is unlikely to win that fight. Only one volunteer is allowed to go on her feeding round each day and I got to go once just before I left. She was a stunning animal, albeit scary.

Guinea Pigs
The guinea pigs are so annoying. They eat so much grass (which you have to pick a lot of every day) and they shit a lot. They also shag their mothers and the inbred guinea pigs have seven toes on each foot as a result. Thankfully they’ve now been separated into a boy’s cage, a girl’s cage and mum’s and babies cage.

Not Margay
While I was there, the Ministry of Environment was supposed to send a rescued margay kitten. However, this is Ecuador, so things don’t always go as planned. The kitten turned up but on inspection it was a tigrillo. Apparently. Looking at pictures on the internet, they look the same to me.

This kitten will be released when she gets older so human interaction is kept to a minimum. She also gets to eat the live guinea pigs. I got to see her one time, when I also saw the puma.

The guest turtles
The same day the not Margay turned up, so did two turtles for a brief stay before being relocated to a zoo. I held one of them and he poked his toe (?) into my splinter and I dropped him. Needless to say the coordinators weren’t happy. I do feel bad cos apparently they have nerve endings in their shells so it would have hurt. But in my defence it was a reflex action and I couldn’t help it.

The otter
Recently an otter was released from Merazonia into the river that runs through the place but he still comes back and steals trout. One night I was there he broke into the trout pond and ate 25 trout. What a porker! Merazonia track him to see where he goes and I didn’t think I was going to see him, but then on my last day I did. He was a good looking animal and not fat (yet).

The dogs
There are four dogs at Merazonia. Two of them knowingly bite people and you can’t really pat them. It seems odd to me they allow dogs in the jungle, but anyway.

This fucker is the one that bit me. 

His name is Darwin. I don’t like him. He hates most people cos someone took to him with a machete before he was rescued, which is fair enough. And in fairness to him, I did stand on his leg. However, that would be cos there’s no electricity, so you can’t see where they are, which is in the confined area where we have dinner. This is just stupid cos it leads to a high risk of standing on them and getting biten. Oh wait, that’s exactly what happened.

This is the other one that bites people.

When Darwin bit me, the vets fixed up my leg. I had some awesome photos of them applying antibiotics and bandages to my leg and then of the massive bruises that appeared around the holes (on both the front and back of my leg). Sadly, those photos are gone so you’ll just have use your imagination for how bad it looked.

Rocks and sand
When I arrived, they were trying to finish the not-margay’s cage in time for its arrival. This involved carrying heavy, wet bags of rocks and sand from the river. Half the time this was in the rain, which meant walking a reasonable distance in the mud and rain. Needless to say, I did not enjoy this much at all. Although it was a bit like jungle boot camp and it made me think of the Commando on Australia’s Biggest Loser. Mmm, the Commando. Hot! It's almost worth gaining a hundred kilos just to go on the show!

In the evenings, some people would usually decide on dinner and cook it. Other people would then clean up. Then there were a few lazy people who did neither.  Except on shopping days (Tuesday and Friday) all the food was vegetarian since there is no refrigeration and therefore no way to store meat. During my two weeks I made vegan veggie burgers twice, which got a big thumbs up and made a second attempt at a curry. The Merazonia kitchen is not unlike a hostel kitchen, so there were challenges. However, this was an improvement on my Banos curry as there is a product in Ecuador called Salsa Gourmet which is a sauce, but is quite salty and therefore is a reasonable substitute for veggie stock cubes. It also has less chemicals in it than most stock cubes here, so there's worse things you could eat. This curry was better than the first Banos attempt, but there was still room for improvement.

On one of the shopping days none of the meat eaters would cook the meat and one of the vegetarians did it. I refused to touch it and thought this was total rubbish, especially considering none of the vegetarians standing around the kitchen at the time knew how cook meat anyway. If it had just been me in the kitchen that night, the meat would have been left on the counter. Fuck 'em.

Since Jennie and I arrived on the same day, we both got the Saturday off and went to Puyo. This was a good opportunity to get laundry done (and your clothes get really dirty at Merazonia). I refuse to hand wash clothes. That is just an insult to the person who invented washing machines. Plus it’s rough on your clothes and doesn’t clean properly anyway.

We met Jennie’s friend Gary (another ex Merazonia volunteer) from Scotland who’s setting up another animal project in the area. I like that he teaches English part time, meaning there’s a bunch of Ecuadorians going around speaking English with a Scottish accent. Brilliant.

We went to this really nice restaurant called El Jardin on the river. Gary reckons it’s the best restaurant in Ecuador, but I don’t know about that. However, they do give you a frosted glass if you order a beer and I liked that a lot.

The next time I came to Puyo was a week later when I left. The volunteers had a night out, which was pretty fun and I said my goodbyes to them all here. 

There is one veggie restaurant here, which Jennie and I went to the next day. It was pretty good and cheap and you got quite a lot of food. Can’t complain really.

Puyo has some cool bars and feels relatively safe wandering around. However, there isn’t a whole lot to do so the next day I headed to Tena for a different kind volunteering experience.

Julian Assange's new home?

No electricity or internet means it’s highly unlikely he could live in the Merazonia animal refuge, although he might like it for a few weeks. Puyo didn’t seem overly exciting so computer says no.

Also, I forgot to evaluate Banos in the last post so here goes:

Pros: decent internet, good access to the “jeans town” if he needs some new ones, lots of outdoor activities, can legally drive a buggy, weather generally ok, seven spices coffee, vegan chocolate, good veggie food.

Cons: nearby active volcano could be problematic, high risk of spinal injuries from jumping off bridges, no chickpeas.