Living in the heart of the Amazon rainforest, in the city of Iquitos, Peru, I stood in the living room of my traditional house with Ricky Martin hanging on my neck. No, not the singer Ricky Martin, instead a baby monkey that the neighbor girl had brought to me. It clung to my neck, and clung, and clung…continuously clung. It was apparent that I had become the baby’s new mother. Every few minutes, I would feel a dampness running down my chest and back. I was sweating ferociously because, well, I was in the Amazon after all, but I knew this particular warm stream of dampness was not sweat and this was not something I could live with until Ricky reached adulthood. I had to do something. A few days later, it became apparent while showering, with Ricky still attached to my neck, that I needed to return him to the jungle. He belonged there. It was his true home. And, to be honest, I just couldn’t handle the intermittent trickle down my back any longer.
I spent several days with Ricky attached before I learned that there was a non-profit lodge in the jungle, near the source of the Amazon, that rehabilitated monkeys and returned them to the jungle. Perfect!
If I said it was an adventure getting Ricky to the lodge, it would be grossly understated. Leaving in the early hours of the morning, I hopped on a launcha, a barge type boat with hammocks hanging all over, and up the Amazon River we went until we disembarked in the darkness of night. I say we, because not only was I traveling with my sidekick, Ricky, but I was accompanied by a so-called jungle guide. I found out not much later that he had taken guide training in Lima and had never been to the jungle before.
After the launcha docked and we made our way to shore, we hiked about an hour through the jungle in the darkness of night (not the best idea under any circumstance!) until we arrived at a tributary. The mosquitoes were the size of Volkswagens and all I could hear was the incessant buzzing around my head. On the edge of the tributary, hidden in the overgrowth near the shore, we located a dugout canoe. The guide climbed in, followed by me. We adjusted our seating, so as to balance ourselves. In this carved out log, we headed off into the a darkness like I had never seen before. As he paddled the canoe forward, all that I could think was that this was not the best idea. Really, not the best idea. Here I am being guided by a city guide through crocodile and piranha infested waters. If we were to tip over, it would be all over, except for the crocodile’s burp and a smile on the piranha’s face.
After about a half hour of slowly moving down the tributary, we arrived at the lodge. By this time it was about 4 o’clock in the morning. Down the steps came the lodge manager. “What are you doing here?” he asked. “I was told you would take this baby monkey.” He looked confused and said, “I know nothing about it. Follow me. I’ll take you to a hut to get some rest. We can talk about it at breakfast.” Oh, this is great. He didn’t even know I was coming.
After a few hours of restless sleep, I arose with Ricky still attached to my neck, and after a very much needed shower we headed to the main lodge for breakfast. I was offered pancakes. Ricky got a banana. We were both starved.
I looked up from my pancake to see a beautiful woman entering the dining room. She seemed kind and gentle. She greeted me warmly, quietly sat down and began eating. An American, I thought. She seemed very calm and content. I, on the other hand, was in the process of a heated circular conversation with the lodge manager. “I was told that you would take this monkey,” I said. “No, I will not take that monkey.” “But I came all this way…so you have to!” It continued. He said firmly this time, “I am not taking the monkey!” Yes, you are. No, I’m not. Yes. No. Yes. No. There was a long pause. We were at a standoff. I didn’t know what I was going to do. I was annoyed and frustrated.
Finally, after some time of staring each other down, he looked at me and said, “OK, fine. I will take the monkey.” I responded immediately with “No you won’t.” “Yes,” he said,” I will!” “Well, you didn’t want him a minute ago, so you I am not leaving him now.”
Finally, I bolted from my seat to leave with Ricky, my permanently attached monkey, and a very confused jungle guide. As we exited the dining room, the woman who had entered earlier and who quietly watched this contest of wills said, “Do you mind if I go back to Iquitos with you?” I turned her way and calmly replied, “Sure. Not a problem. Are you ready to leave now?” She collected her belongings from her hut and for the next 18 hours we reversed the sequence to get back to Iquitos…dugout canoe, jungle hike with giant mosquitoes and a very long and very hot boat ride back to Iquitos on the launcha.
It was during this time, as the boat moved slowly along the Amazon River, that the woman that I came to call the Amazon Queen and I had a chance to talk. She had spent a month at that jungle lodge, volunteering at a local clinic, and I was in Peru doing startup work for a non-profit that I had founded. Diana and I talked endlessly throughout that journey about life, the jungle, the needs of the people in Peru, and volunteering. I ultimately returned back to the United States after coordinating a nutritional program for 12 communities along the Amazon. And, the Amazon Queen? She stayed on. She made Lima her home base and created a successful ONG that provides very much needed medical education and community medical care through volunteer efforts for the people of the river communities of the Amazon.
And that is the story of the day that I met the Amazon Queen.
What happened to Ricky Martin you may ask? Well, upon my return from the jungle, I connected with a young man who was involved with the University of the Peru in the Amazon. He arranged for Ricky Martin to be returned to the jungle to live out his days. I guess that would have been the easier route to get him back to the jungle in the first place, but then again, if I hadn’t taken the route I did, I wouldn’t have met the Amazon Queen!
Have you volunteered in a foreign country? What was your experience like? Comment below.
To learn more about Diana Bowie and DB Peru’s medical projects and volunteer opportunities in Peru, CLICK HERE.
Copyright 2014 Budget Retirement / Debra Zulawski All rights reserved.