As we descended into the mist I repeated it won’t be like last time, it won’t be bad. This time will be better, I reassured myself. I felt the familiar panic as the jungle-claustrophobia that gripped my stomach pinned me to my seat. The small, toothless child that sat squeezed in between myself and her mother spat chunks of slimy potato on me as she ate. Alright. Here we go. Jungle, I’m back.
The work was hard. Every day I returned from the jungle beaten and tattered. I lived with rats slept on hay. The fear of snakes rose when a highly toxic one was found in the kitchen. We tried to keep the doors closed. The stray tortoise would wander into my room and I’d have to haul his heavy ass back outside. The toilet didn’t flush and the shower had no hot water. And the sweat bees. Sweat bees are an insect sent from hell to make you leave the jungle and never come back. As a local told me, it’s the jungles defense mechanism, nature’s way of saying “GET OUT”.
Sweat bees, as the name would suggest are insatiably attracted to your sweat. They will climb down your shirt to burrow into areas where you sweat the most. They will burrow through your hair to get to your sweaty scalp. But this isn’t the worst part. The worst part is there shameless attraction to eyes. More than any other part of my body the sweat bees had it out for my eyes. Diving down they’d hit the tear duct and scurry under my eyelid before I could catch them where they would undoubtedly die as I plunged all 10 of my fingers into the frantic task of finding and removing the nasty little fucker. The fact that they die there is the biggest problem with sweat bees. Even in death they defy all that is good in this world. Upon breathing their last, disgusting, sweat bee breath they release an odor that smells like the cleaning agent used in outhouses; this odor attracts more sweat bees and you, my friend, are fucked.
I was assigned to Spider Park, the location where a group of almost 30 spider monkeys lives. The site is hidden in the jungle so the locals cannot find and hurt or torment the monkeys. The Locals do not have a good reputation at the park.
Each morning and afternoon I would trek out to Spider Park with 20 pounds of fruit or 12 liters of oatmeal strapped to my back in a bucket. The climb was steep and sketchy, it was nothing more than a dried up waterfall (unless it was raining, then it was just a waterfall). We were told not to blindly grab anything because there are so many bullet ants in this area of the jungle. But sometimes clinging to rocks or grabbing roots were the only things keeping me and the rocks below from colliding. Once we reached the summit it was time to open cages. As the monkeys saw us coming excitement grew until the cage doors were released and an explosion of black arms and legs leapt into the trees above.
Touching moments with the spiders were not uncommon; they are group animals and willingly accept you as one of their own. One particularly hot afternoon I took the food bucket as a chair and climbed into an enclosed part of a jungle viewpoint where I would find shade and hide from the incessant “sweat bees”. Pacing my breath, as I often did when I was overheating or dehydrated, Bibi climbed down from a tree and walked over to me. Briefly putting her hand on my leg before fully committing, she climbed into my lap, wrapping all four of her arms and legs around me and, as a final measure of security, her tail. She buried her face in my armpit and there she stayed, squeezing me tight. I squeezed her back, running my fingers through her hair and talking quietly. Even when I stood up later she didn’t budge, she held on tight to my torso as I maneuvered to grab the bucket. It was then that I saw Goria, the alpha male, walking steadily towards me. Bibi had retreated to a nearby tree and I slowly put the bucket down, took my seat, and bent over so my head was in my lap; It’s better to not make eye contact with him. Goria is the largest of the monkeys and is known to be aggressive. His slack-jaw under bite isn’t so bad until its full of food and he is running full speed at you screeching monkey murder, pieces of papaya slipping down his face, stuck in his teeth, his mouth open wide to bare his massive teeth, arms in the air. Jesus. But today I was lucky, he just slipped his piss ridden tale across my face and up over my hair and continued on his way. I need a shower.
There are two resident capuchins in Spider Park: Lulu and Danielito. Capuchins are, sometimes simultaneously, adorable and psychotic. They are emotional animals who want nothing more than your attention. Lulu in particular wanted my attention. Often when I was sitting at the mirador she would climb up to sit on my shoulders and pick things out of my hair, chatting monkey chatter all the while. Then she would see the sweat, just a tiny trickle down the side of my face. She stopped biting my ponytail and pulling sweat-bees out of my hair and touched the line of sweat with her finger. She licked her finger. Then, quickly, fully pivoting so we were face to face she began licking my face. Starting at my forehead and only stopping briefly when I strongly advised she stay the fuck out of my eyes and nose.
The problem is that the stronger the bond you have with a capuchin is the more likely they are to bite or attack you. They become more confident with your relationship and as soon as you tell them “NO, you cannot have the lid to my bucket!” they freak out. One day Lulu grabbed an earring of another volunteer and I grabbed her hand to stop her. Her mouth wide, screeching loudly she pounced on my head, pulling my hair and trying to bite me. The other time I took something away from Lulu she climbed me like a latter, gripping my t-shirt with both hands opened her mouth to bare her teeth and feigned like she was going to bite my boob! She was looking up, making direct eye contact while screaming bloody murder; you could practically HEAR her saying, “I’M GONNA FUCKIN DO IT! I’M GONNA BITE YOUR TIT! IM GONNA DO IT!” and I’m running around in circles screaming “do NOT BITE MY TIT LULU. LULU I SWEAR TO GOD IF YOU BITE MY TIT. BAJO. DOWN LULU. BAJO BAJO. NO. NO BITING TITS. NO” until she figured she’s sufficiently freaked me out and ditched me for the nearest tree branch to sit and scream at me from a distance as if I’d just killed her first born.
Every day the work load wore me down. On the third day I cried on the climb up the waterfall. On the fourth day I was way too deep inside my head for my own good. As I walked through the jungle carting a shit ridden broom with me I looked up to see another volunteer losing her mind. She had been there 20 days and everyday seemed to get harder for her to stay. She collapsed at the upper bank of cages. She was curled up in a ball, swaying back and forth and sobbing. There is a no crying / no hugging rule at Spider Park, apparently it can be misinterpreted as aggression. I slowly climbed the hill to where she was and quietly sat down beside her; I put my hand on her shoulder and sat in silence while she cried. Mikaela, a mother spider monkey with a small infant monkey clinging to her stomach, descended the branches of a nearby tree and walked over. She sat down on the other side of the girl and put her hand on her other shoulder, and there we sat; the distant calls of the spider monkeys was all that disrupted the silence that consumed our moment. It was a true and genuine display of understanding and empathy. All of the animals up there have experienced such hardships in their short lives; it would be hard to prove that they cannot empathize with pain and sadness.
The work wasn’t appreciated; all that mattered was your money. There were a lot of politics in the park that weren’t right, backwards thinking. The safety standards were non-existent and for these reasons I ended up leaving early. I felt like I had failed by leaving early but I couldn’t really justify staying somewhere I wasn’t happy during my travels. I miss the monkeys more than I thought I would. I miss Monkey hugs, holding monkey hands and tails, happy monkey greetings and loud monkey laughs. I will miss the curious and empathetic look in their eyes. For this I am sad to leave but, as always: onward and upward.