The ‘voluntourism’ paradox: three weeks in monkey jungle

Voluntourism? At Parque Machia, it’s a way of life…

The red-headed girl was inconsolable, waving her arms in the air and holding her temples at random intervals. Her face was red and splotchy; tears welled in her eyes. Her boyfriend was worried. Not worried about her – worried someone would hear. He tried to block her from view; looking over his shoulder frequently and trying desperately to calm her. Passersby could only catch snippets of her enraged tirade, but one phrase rang through the air as clear as day.

“It is so unethical, though!”

The couple had been at Parque Machia for less than 24 hours and it was their first day on the ground. Clearly it hadn’t gone well.

I couldn’t blame them. I’d been at the same wildlife centre in the middle of the Bolivian rainforest, nearish to Cochabamba for about two and a half weeks – and I felt those ethical conflicts every day. After all, I was paying for the privilege to tend to dozens of (sometimes violent) monkeys,  held captive in cages no bigger than the size of a bathroom – some, barely an ensuite. All that while playing house in a ramshackle building, on a bed of hay, with a pillow of hay, on one of the most notorious drug trafficking routes in the world. My friend got attacked by monkeys twice. The first time, she needed stitches – by a veterinarian who had never tended to a human patient before. It took me little less than a week for my first breakdown.

But then, I was doing my bit for the world, right?

Yumica

Parque Machia is one of three of nonprofit organisations of Communidad Inti Wara Yassi’s “wildlife custody centres” in Bolivia. The team, made up of young professionals and international volunteers, have been fighting the good fight on (allegedly) one of the busiest drug trafficking roads in the world. They save animals being illegally sold as pets and take in injured wild animals, those who have been found wandering the streets of major metropolitan areas. Some of the monkeys cannot safely be returned to the wild, and are kept on the site. Some take it well, and some take it not so well. This means that there are some really unhappy monkeys in those cages – and they will take it out on you.

For an outsider, this sounded great. Here we were, taking a break from our Western, privileged lifestyle and digging in to fight the injustices of the world via a tiny little wildlife refuge in the Bolivian rainforest.

Marucha

Fair to say, it’s not that simple. In fact, if we’re going to call it a paradox, here’s probably where we went wrong…

​Expectation: Two weeks spent in the Bolivian rainforest, hand-rearing orphaned monkeys and other exotic Amazonian creatures, lying in a sunflower-strewn field during the many hours of down time frolicking with said exotic creatures, and playing a vital role in the rehabilitation of a number of dwindling species.

Reality: Three weeks of back-breaking physical labour, patting monkeys through cages, avoiding having your head ripped off by the particularly scary ones, stitches from a veterinarian after becoming too lax in aforementioned avoidance, sweeping up poo four times a day — and paying good money for the pleasure to do it all.

Am I a global citizen now? Am I saving the world?

After day 6, I rued the day I decided to pursue the path of  a voluntourist.

Balu the Bear

I can tell you one thing — I came no closer to saving the world than I did to curing cancer. In fact, I’m pretty sure my employers may have used that rose-tinted philosophy against me. But, to be honest – fair dos to them. These days, you take the help where you can get it.

The concept of ‘voluntourism’ has exploded upon the backpacker scene in recent years, propelled by the tourism boom and the age of milennials all simultaneously thinking “we can make a difference”. Naysayers have mocked the hordes of young backpackers descending on third world villages, wildlife sanctuaries and refugee camps alike. And time again the question is asked: Are we doing more harm than good?

I’m not here to knock any young people’s lofty aspirations. By all accounts – helping a few monkeys is far more constructive to day-to-day society than spending the summer snorting cocaine in La Paz. I too had valiant intentions when I arrived in the Middle of Nowhere, Cochabamba, Bolivia — smiling, ready and eager to make a difference. My travel partner Michelle was assured it would be the highlight of her 6-month OE.

Without the whiff of a thought, the equivalent of nearly $400 was handed to management. We’d even upgraded ourselves from a two-week stint, to a three-weeker; the do-goodiness of our actions ringing in our ears.

We blocked out the thoughts that reminded us this could have bought us luxury lodging anywhere else in Bolivia for that same timeframe.

Our lodging was as we expected. Basic. Two hay mattresses in a cobweb-covered room, and little else.

Fine, we still fared better than the boys upstairs who had a giant crumbling hole in their wall.

The ‘communal areas’ were just that: areas. A ramshackle hut with haphazard supplies and a gas cooker. And a small lizard scuttling over everything.

The ‘hot shower’ was more a deluge of gathered insects, and an intermittent spray of lukewarm, sometimes cold, water akin to gentle summer rain.

Fine, we thought, we weren’t exactly expecting The Hilton.

The wireless was painfully slow. It took actual minutes to load Facebook.

Fine, we — wait, what? There’s wifi? To be honest, that part was quite disappointing. We had already bid farewell to all our loved ones and promised them all our belongings should anything happen – like we were traveling back in time to the Edwardian era. And the communal trudge to the wifi area by almost each and every one of the volunteers to stare zombie-like at their handheld devices in the middle of the jungle was just plain soul-destroying.

And yet, despite all the above, we remained optimistic. Excited, even.

It was just over a week before one of us was in tears in the manager’s office, blood streaming down one arm and desperate to get out.

Day one was a wake-up call. For starters, Michelle and I were told we weren’t allowed to work together, so part of the dreamy illusion was shattered from the get-go. Like wayward schoolchildren we were marched off to separate camps; I, to the capuchin monkeys. She, to the spider monkeys.

The schedule was explained to us as so: The day started at the crack of dawn. The monkeys were given breakfast. After breakfast, you cleaned and swept up poo. Then, time for “enrichment” – or plants-the-monkeys-can-play-with-to-keep-their-brains-alive. Then, time for snack. Then, lunchtime. Then we clean again. Snack and more enrichment followed lunch, with more cleaning. Then it was dinner time and more cleaning. Then, about 6pm or so, you could relax.

My monkeys were also mostly in cages, so there too went my sunlight-drenched, sunflower field illusion of monkey activities.

Naively, I was shocked. I actually have to work here?! I was expecting “work”. Perhaps the odd chore or meal cooking. And lots of playing with baby monkeys.

Perhaps that’s the problem with this whole notion. And by whole notion, I mean me. The person who trots along and expects to just be allowed a free bed and maybe some food for doing some sub-par work. I’m not proud of my naivety.

By day three, I was physically broken. As the last piece of monkey poo was swept, we would trudge back up to our rooms, shower in bugs, toddle off into the four or five family-run ‘restaurants’ that doubled as the town centre, and drag ourselves back to bed. Most of the time, this was all achieved within the hour and we were tucked up in our spider-infested sleeping bags by 8pm. I longed for my long-forgotten Western comforts. A bed that didn’t remind me of a horse stable, mostly. Surviving for another 288 hours was unthinkable. The managers gave us the option of leaving if we wanted to, though we wouldn’t be able to get any of our money back.

But then the heat, the back-breaking work, the never-ending cleaning of monkey poo and having that aforementioned monkey poo flung at your face by one very aggressive monkey who just irrevocably hated you, and actually made it a daily game to poo in his hand and chuck it at your head – all became worth it. We became integrated into a Bolivian family. Group dinners, campfires and birthday parties; it was like we’d been here years.

It was the day after we’d decided to see out our stay. And it all came back to the baby monkeys. And Dave.

BebesThese elusive baby monkeys did exist, and suddenly they were my responsibility. One of the more rambunctious ones had taken an instant disliking to my Canadian colleague – apparently he had an aversion to people of Asian descent. Yes, racist monkeys do exist.

So three times a day I got to crawl into their cage and hand feed them, and sit back and let them crawl over me and play peek-a-boo through the holes in my ripped t-shirt. Suddenly I was Queen of the baby monkeys. And just as quickly, my outlook brightened.

Similarly, Dave the monkey was one of my favourites. A lanky black spider monkey with a horrendous wound on his upper arm, he used to reach outside his cage and pull passersby in to him, pointing at his wound and blowing on it, and then indicating that you should so so. He was in so much pain all he wanted his tenders to do was blow on his stitches. There were plenty of other monkeys that were feeding my initial expectations: Pepper, whose tiny wee baby was not eating and was unwell, but loved to play and force your hands to clap for them, and Yumica who loved to play with water.

Whilst being in charge of 45 monkeys seems ludicrous for anyone – it was even more laughable that they’d left responsible a 24-year-old novice with walking the dog as her highest qualification of working with animals. But for some reason, it works. And you grow and learn, too.

DaveBut we had to stay vigilant nonetheless. The other monkeys under my charge, weren’t exactly the furry, friendly kind.

I’ll never forget the blood-curdling scream that came from the bushes in my section one afternoon, when one of the volunteers accidentally strolled into the vicinity of the ageing matriarch of the monkey clan – who just so happened to be an all-encompassing misogynist.

The little blonde fuzzball was waiting in the wings of the nearby shrubbery to swing from the ether and latch onto Monica’s arm as she trod into view. She emerged from the altercation dazed, and holding her blood-soaked arm as far away from her as physically possible. The monkey was well-known for her hatred of women.

These strange pet hates on the monkeys’ behalf didn’t sprout out of nowhere though, they could mostly be traced back to previous owners who abused them. So, if one of the monkeys was held by a violent, American man with black hair, and you fit that description – you may want to start practising your best British accent. And wearing a wig.

Yumica

Then there was Finn, who foolishly thought gifting one of the most vicious monkeys his finger through a cage was a swell idea. Rupert took hold of that finger in both hands and bit into it in one quick motion. Such was the vice-like grip of his jaw that Finn split his finger clean in half trying to pull it back out.

And yet, Michelle still fared worse.

Eight days into our stint, Michelle entered the kitchen where I was washing poop-covered monkey bowls, her arm outstretched and blood dripping to the floor. She indicated a nasty wound halfway up her bicep, surrounded by nasty scratches five inches long each. She simply extended her bottom lip. Alarmed, I called the bosses and Michelle was whisked away for emergency stitches – from a veterinarian who had never stitched up a human before, no less.

Turns out Michelle had fallen victim to the Donald Trump of monkey kingdom; a misogynist AND racist spider monkey. Marocha had an acute dislike for blonde, female women – yes actually, this was even recorded in her file – and since Michelle was both of those, she never stood a chance. The moment she entered the cage they were on her – tearing at her hair, scratching at her arms and sinking their teeth into her flesh.

And then I kid you not, just like groundhog day, it happened again.

It was just three days later, when Michelle showed up in the same spot in the kitchen, arm (and lip) extended, blood dripping from two punctures in her forearm.

This time, she had been walking alone when she was attacked with a rogue, crazy capuchin, who liked to terrorise lone walkers. This one was wild, so there was no way of protecting anyone from it, aside from ensuring people were escorted pretty much everywhere.

This place was becoming a minefield. Like navigating Game of Thrones without spilling a drop of blood. I contemplated buying a suit of armour.

Why were we helping these little cretins, again?

Marucha. Am I about to get strangled?

Though I hadn’t spilled any significant portions of blood yet, I did think my time was up when I felt a black arm around my neck whilst alone in my area one morning. I was half asleep handing out bananas, and next thing I know something black was swinging from a rope out of the corner of my eye and was suddenly latched to the side of my neck. During the first moment of panic and immediate thoughts of how I was going to explain strangulation via monkey to my parents, I realised the lack of bone-crunching and pain.

I knew without looking it was Marucha – the only free monkey in my section, and newbie-hater extraordinnaire. Anecdotes of her wrapping a rope around one of the new girls’ necks and attempting to strangle her rang in my ears, as my heart raced and my brain found no viable ways of escaping her grasp. Suddenly, her legs were on my shoulders, and I felt her other arm reach round the other side of my neck. If I wasn’t so close to death, I could’ve swore she was embracing me. In fact, she was.

I’d seen it before – a couple of the other long-term volunteers were frequently doled out Marucha hugs, while I had watched on jealously and gifted nothing but an upturned lip. Literally, every time I looked at her and tried to smile, she responded with an over-exaggerated pout, and sometimes even a huff and crossed arms, like a fed-up teenager. This is not a word of a lie – I think once she even stuck her tongue out at me.

And then, suddenly, on this day, we became the best of friends. My tears of fear froze up somewhere in my tear ducts, and welled up in my eyes instead as tears of joy. I timidly grabbed her arm and rubbed, a friendly return gesture. It was the most beautiful moment of my whole volunteering experience. And it was the one when I knew I could continue.

Marucha: Wed gone from mortal enemies to holding hands on our walks

At the end of those three weeks, Michelle and I left with bittersweet emotions. While well and truly happy to not be put through our paces in manual labour each day, we’d created such a bond with these little creatures that it almost seemed a waste to leave now. And that, unfortunately is part of the problem. One of the main gripes locals have about voluntourists is that they come in – whether it be for five days, five weeks or five months – do great work no doubt, but then leave, and leave the children, the animals or whatever they’ve been seeing day in and out dejected and confused. These orphans or animals see so many people passing through their doors their emotions get messed up too – it’s easy to forget how hard it is for them to forge new relationships.

Volunteers come and go, some stay longer than others, sometimes there is few, sometimes there is many. In the end, what remains is the park and the animals; an image we will certainly always carry with us, even if our stay was fleeting. The experience will never – and can never – be forgotten, for it’s embedded with scars that tell a story.

Our send-off was fitting – our volunteer family all came out for a few (too many) drinks and laughs that lasted further into the wee hours of the morning that anyone that had to wake up at 6 am and work for 12 hours should have to endure.

And then, the day I left – she refused to let me goWould I do it again? Honestly, yes. While I didn’t think I was making a difference in the wider world, I did think I was helping this small organisation keep its wheels going. It was obvious to see the money paid from the volunteers wasn’t going into plushing up the director’s house, or down some back alley.  One of the most extraordinary things to watch and hear was when the woman who started the refuge two decades ago walked into the compound. The entire place erupted in squawks, screams and banging, such was the love they had for her, they were willing to tear down their cages just to be in contact with her. This women could go up to even the most violent of monkey’s cages and be granted a hug.

One girl had come for a couple of weeks and stayed there over a year. One guy we worked with left and then came back because he just couldn’t hack being away from them. A lot of the less transient staff we met while we were there are still there.

Everything we paid in time and money went into keeping that place going.

And that was enough.

I think I have the hang of this now.

Peppers offspring
The monkey version of the “Follow Me To” couple
Marucha: putty in your hands after shes done trying to kill you

Voluntourists and proud
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