Anticipating the Unexpected
It all begins with the packed lunches. The cooks make an extra portion of dinner for the PrimatesPeru team and refrigerate it over night. It’s usually rice with a gravy dish, thickened with some corn flour, bland and gooey. By the morning lunch is nothing more than little tiny white stones with slightly souring goop - unappetising at the start but increasingly tempting as the morning wears on. By about 10am, we are literally begging the monkeys to slow down so we can eat the stones and goop. Nothing is more attractive than the stones and goop, mainly because the s and g is all we’ve got. We wolf it down and return and lately, it’s been having some devastating effects on our collective digestions.
First, I got sick. Then, one by one we fell, like matchsticks precariously lined up against each other. All except Gideon, who isn’t a matchstick at all but some kind of weird candle we all hold a light to, or at least, we bow down before his superior digestive abilities.
So these days, we try to avoid the packed lunches. Much to my dismay, this has lead to a decrease in the number of hours we get each day, but it really means a lot of happy tummies. Just listen to our voice recordings, the rumblings sound like they are smiling, and what you hear is joyful digestion.
At about noon the rumblings peak and then our bodies begin to give up on lunch, settling down into a slow and steady gnawing ache. By 2pm, we are done, 7 hours of behaviour duly recorded and we head back, a large spring in our step the closer to the kitchen we get.
It was with exactly this joie de vivre that Erin and I returned to the station, three days ago. We were zoning in on the kitchen, our nostrils quivering in excitement at the warm, and unspoilt lunch that awaited us. We stopped briefly to drop off our equipment in lab and were stopped short by Gideon, seated at his computer, typing furiously with a grim look in his eye. Lunch was not to be.
Gideon’s mother had just been admitted into the hospital, after experiencing two seizures. The medical details remain fuzzy to this day, but at the time, were even less clear. As I settled down next to him, he was able to connect with his brother via Skype. The window popped open on our screen, a rare occurrence that can only be experienced on warm days in the afternoons, with no one else at camp, due to our dependence on solar energy. We were just that lucky. On the screen was Gid’s mother, resting in a hospital bed, grinning back at us like it was just another adventure. We chatted for a while, relieved that she was doing so well. We directed the computer towards Chiky, squealing in his cage for bugs, as he is wont to do in the late afternoon. They were formally introduced and he even stayed still and let himself be groomed for a bit on screen.
We knew that it was time to face that unwanted decision – do we leave or stay? Only time would tell, and today I’m writing to you from the Lima airport, so leave we did. The twelve hours after our conversation with her revealed that her condition worsened. We even managed to skype with her again at the hospital. It is a conversation with Jane that I will never forget, which is really saying something because conversing with her over the last five years has resulted in several intensely memorable moments. We don’t always agree but we love to try!
This time, my heart broke. This was harder than anything I’d imagined, harder than not trapping more than 12 monkeys in 4 months, harder than all those grant rejections, and definitely harder than any physical exertion I’ve undergone in all these months. Jane was beautiful and calm, quiet and wrapped up in a world that we couldn’t reach. A few minutes into our conversation she leaned forward and began to stroke our faces with the computer mouse on her screen. First she petted Gideon and then I was honoured with her touch. Suddenly, a brilliant smile broke across her face, lighting her up like a child with a new toy, only we didn’t see the toy. She was happy inside but breaking our hearts without even trying.
There was never a doubt from that point onwards - we were going home. I struggled to keep tears back, worrying that she would see them on the screen but when the conversation ended, Gideon and I held each other for a long while. As I clung to him, I realised that I might not be a part of his family, technically speaking, but they were irrevocably a part of mine.
The next few hours involved a flurry of emails and calls and websites and flight information. We crunched numbers, worked out that our budget could just about handle the costs and began to make some bookings. In a few hours we were expecting a new field assistant, Holly, to arrive and leaving her behind was going to be just one of the many hard consequences of this decision. Erin, our only remaining field assistant at this time, I never doubted would be willing to carry on alone. I felt incredibly guilty about Holly, however, and putting myself in her shoes made me wince every time.
Finally, the boat arrived and we went down to meet everyone at the dock. Upon breaking the news to the other researchers, Erin, Holly and the staff, we realised that we really weren’t in this alone. A flurry of offers to help with little aspects soon followed and we worked steadily into the night, preparing to leave the project in Erin’s capable hands. At about 11pm, we were packed and ready to go. For the last time, we turned in at our beautiful cabin overlooking the embankment. When we return, we will have a back cabin, with an entirely different kind of charm.
The alarm went off about 2 minutes after I fell asleep, or at least, that’s how it felt. Groggily we grabbed the last of our things and moved them to the lab. After taking a moment to grab some cookies, we proceeded down to the dock, where the mosquitoes happily received us. Gideon paced back and forth while I cuddled up on our bags, keeping awake with the constant flapping of arms necessary so as to not be eaten alive. It was 4:15am.
Three hours later, we were still there. Things were looking a bit grim, although the sun was up and valiantly trying to melt away the heavy fog that blanketed the river. With at least a five-hour commute on the colectivo, and a reservation to go on to Lima on a 12:30-flight, we were really pushing it. Half an hour later, the colectivo arrived and swung around to pick us up.
Acting on a suggestion made by Leo, one of the motoristas, or boat drivers, we proceeded to offer the driver of the colectivo a higher fare to get us downstream faster.
“You have a plane for 12:30? No problem! I reach you there by 10:30!” he declared, allowing us to heave a giant sigh of relief. Gideon returned from the back of the boat to the front where I was seated with our bags and we got comfortable. The fog was thick but had risen, allowing the driver to see the river, which was rather a relief as well.
Glancing back at him for a moment, my jaw nearly hit the floor. One hand casually on the rudder, he was swigging a beer. At 6:49am!
It was going to be an interesting ride all right.
I suppose it came as no surprise that we did not make it there until 11:00, nor that the driver asked us for a higher fare anyway. Along the way we made friends with some miners, dressed in trousers and clean t-shirts, indicating their obviously elevated economic status. One would not believe that I was from India, and not cusqueña. The other wanted to know the price of gold in my country (“Asia, no? O Europa?” Sigh.) I told them that we Indians didn’t trust banks and stored all our money as gold. Forgive my exaggeration, but it’s about all my Spanish could manage at the time. One of them blinked, a blank look on his face. And then the other gentleman explained to the first: “Los arabes…”
The arab cusqueña hindú travelling with the gringo was clearly puzzling to them. What on earth could she be doing in Perú? Business perhaps?
“Oh no! I study monkeys. The small ones. Pichicos”
The arab cusqueña hindú biologist? Only made things worse. Oh well. There’s only so much I can do about people that think India is a country full of hindoos located in Europe anyway, so I let it go at that.
We docked at Puerto at 10 minutes past 11:00, and Gideon scrambled out of the boat, in the process dropping one of our bags overboard and catching it just as it skimmed the surface of the water. Several minutes of fast walking later we had found a taxi with an enthusiastic driver, who leapt into his car, instructed us to put on our seatbelts, neglected to fasten his, and began racing down to Puerto Maldonado’s airport, an hour’s drive away. He made it in 45 minutes flat and we were deposited, dishevelled, stomachs churning, smelling of huangana and colectivo, at the desk of LAN.
The next ten minutes were fraught with misguided efforts to rectify a series of losses in translation. We tried to show her our reservation saved in a pdf on our computers (CICRA hasn’t a fully functioning printer) and explain why we were so late, but she would have none of it. She kept disappearing into the back office and making calls on her cell phone to unseen authorities in far places and by the time we figured out that we didn’t have tickets but just reservations, it was so late that her system wouldn’t allow her to sell us tickets for the flight, which we were willing to buy on the spot.
Dejectedly, we returned to the streets of Puerto Maldonado in search of the local LAN office. Of course, we got there to find that prices for a flight out the next day were almost double our original estimates. Biting our tongue we forked out the cash and evacuated the premises before Gideon blew a fuse in Spanish. Somewhere along the way, we realised that one of his credit cards had stopped working, that we’d been tricked into buying tickets in the office even though the original cheap fares were available online, and that the single most precious document I own, my I-20 that proves that I’m a WashU student, was safely hidden away from mould and humidity in the laboratory in CICRA. In short, we were broker than planned and I was never going to be allowed into the US. Associating with Gideon in the money-free utopia that CICRA is had completely wiped from my mind the large and obvious fact that the US wasn’t home legally. I couldn’t just go back any time I liked on short notice.
The next twenty four hours passed in a blur. Gideon and I spent numerous hours talking about options and in the end, Gideon went to Lima the next day, I paid LAN even more money to postpone my ticket for one more day, and I begged and pleaded to have someone send my form down on the local ferry. To cut a long story short, even though we tried everything we could, the form did not make it down before his flight. So he did go on alone, and eventually flew standby to Chicago later that night. I cuddled up with my computer, guilty about my forgetfulness, worried about the project and really anxious about Jane.
The next morning I hired a taxi and took it to Laberinto to pick up my form from a boat arriving at 9am. Along the way my heart nearly stopped at the sight of an anaconda crossing the Interoceanic highway. We screeched to a halt but couldn’t find the snake in the bushes…at least things were working out for some creatures! Eventually, I got the form, took a shared taxi back, put on my one nice shirt that had been stored in a ziplock bag for 6 months, and got on the plane. About 12 hours later I was back in Chicago.
Such an unexpected return literally turned our lives upside down. Suddenly, we could drink tap water, flush toilet paper down the toilet, take baths, and open a refrigerator any time of day for a snack. Of course, we had no refresco, awoke to silence or cars passing by, and worried constantly about the project. I will not elaborate on the trying time the family was having, but suffice it to say, we didn’t regret being back to help for one moment.
Our new field assistant was turning out to be a reliable young lady, with a calm understanding of the trials of field work. In fact, she was so calm that one morinng after she accidentally slicked off the tip of her finger while chopping bananas, she dressed it and went straight out to the field any way! The most remarkable thing about her arrival, of course, was the fact that it had somehow triggered a switch in the collective tamarin consciousness in that part of the jungle and they had , overnight, begun to eat the bananas. The whole two weeks we spent in Chicago we held our breath for evening emails from the station – “they ate the bananas above the trap today”, “they perched on top of the trap!”, and finally, “they went in, all of them, and they’re doing it every single day!”
When it turned out that we could indeed leave and return to Peru in two weeks, we began to attend to flight tickets, bookings, hotels, and buses - all going in the other direction this time. Before we knew it, we were packing more chocolate into our bags than we could possibly eat, saying sad goodbyes, and we were in the air once more. Getting back into Peru felt acutely familiar. We arrived late at night and headed straight for the Starbucks in Lima airport, not for the coffee but for the couches and the internet. At 3:30am, the counter opened for our early morning flight to Cusco. We struggled, bleary-eyed, to the counter and gratefully handed our bags over to the airline. Unable to sleep comfortably, we ended up in Cusco, at about 7am, wishing for a warm bed and a long nap.
However, this was not to be. We had to figure out how to get from Cusco to Puerto Maldonado and eventually, after being hounded by several suspiciously similar bus companies, selected a bus and deposited our bags in a locker. We were going to have to wait till 5pm for the bus, though, and we proceeded onward to the plaza for breakfast.
The air in Cusco was sharp and chilly but clean enough to take your breath away. We passed the familiar streets, recalling our wonderful winter holiday with my parents at the turn of the year. We found ourselves in the plaza at an hour in which the city lies quiet. Other than a few people crossing the large square, and some pigeons swooping down from one church gable into another, we were pretty much alone. We found a little café, situated on the first floor of an old cusqueña building, and were seated comfortably in a small table on a verandah overlooking the square. Gideon ordered a fruit salad and I, being my father’s girl, went for the eggs and sausage. A young traveler at a table nearby let us in on the secret of internet at the café by lending us the password to the neighbouring posh hotel’s wi-fi internet account. Soon we were plugged in, carelessly spending time, of which we had so much, on an unhurried meal.
Outside the window, Cusco was slowly awakening. The temperature rose a tenth of a degree and the residents, sensing a change in scene, began to pour into the square. Before we knew it, on the stairs of the large cathedral facing us, workers were unloading and setting up a sort of platform. In the time it took me to finish my papaya juice, they had a little stage erected, complete with red carpet, white chairs, and a tent like structure to protect the delicate mountain-loving folks from the harsh glare of the day.
To our right, in a few moments, appeared a large collection of soldiers, armed to the hilt. Steadily they marched across the square, and out the other end.
“Hmm,” thought I, “this is strange, but possibly some sort of parade”. I returned to my eggs and fried tomato.
No sooner had I looked up once more than I noticed a strange change coming over the square. It began to fill up alarmingly fast with people in brightly coloured costumes. Before long, Gideon and I were recognising the various dancers from in and around the city that we’d seen perform at a show in December. There were the young girls in high socks, frilly skirts and beautifully embroidered hats. Then the young men arrived carrying fake stuffed lambs, swinging their whips and showing off their ghoulish Pinocchio-style masks. The square was a riot of colour and disorder.
Suddenly, as if on cue, they organised themselves into rows and began to dance gaily around the square. A melancholy band of musicians accompanied them with the lilting melodies of the Andes, every piece of music blending into the next. The girls and boys sang along in high nasal voices, swinging their skirts and whips and dancing along like it was a perfectly normal morning. Simultaneously, on the othr side o the square, the national guard or it’s allies began to march back into the square. Gideon and I peered eagerly out the balcony at the square. In five minutes, the guard had encountered the dancers, and in charming Andean style, scattered them far and wide. Momentarily disconcerted, the dancers began to catch on and quickly formed two thin rows on either edge of the street, allowing the cavalry to march between them. At one point, the military marching band encountered the traditional mariachis and pandemonium ensued with plenty of the musicians forgetting their music entirely.
Bemused, we watched them thrash out their disagreements and then, thankfully, part. The whole thing was most surreal. Later we discovered that the military did a Sunday morning march regularly. The dancers, however, were gathering to honour the founder of the Dance Institute of Cusco and in typical Peruvian style, had to work around the military.
After breakfast we did the natural thing and wandered over to San Blas to find a place to spend a long time at lunch. Gideon managed to nap during lunch while the puzzled waitress looked pityingly at me. I don’t know if sleepless nights alters ones palettes but the burger I had in that little restaurant was one of the best ever!
Finally, 5pm rolled around and we dragged ourselves to the bus station. There we discovered that the photographs that the girl at the counter showed us of impossibly reclining seats, sparkling white, and packed dinner, were taken either of a different bus or at least a decade ago. We kept a watchful eye on our bags and saw that they were loaded onto the underside of the vehicle. The top of the bus had about 2 metres of cardboard boxes – the primary purpose of the bus seemed to be to carry cargo and not passengers! Dinner was two types of bread, one stuffed with suspicious looking cream and the other just a bun. All washed down with a glass, and one glass only, of canary yellow Inka Kola – Peru’s syrupy answer to Coke.
The drive from the Andes to the Amazon is renowned for its beauty. I was so looking forward to the first part, which was occurring in daylight. However, all it was was a stream of cities and dwellings. Unfortunately, the really gorgeous parts would be passing us by at night, unseen and unappreciated by anybody. By the time the sun dawned on our journey, we were in the floodplain, amongst human dwellings once more. The ride, however, shall always have a flavour of danger to me that I owe to the screening of three Mel Gibson war movies at the very highest volume, one after the other, all night. Machine guns will always remind me of the Andes now. Or the other way around. Pity!
We were dumped on the side of the highway, still a few miles on a dirt road to Laberinto where the boat awaited us. The last part of our journey took place crammed into the trunk of a Maruti 800 with all our bags– for those of you who don’t know this car, google it. We just made it onto the boat in time, and soon, were on the last leg of our three-day, showerless and bedless journey to the Amazon. CICRA beckoned, the tamarins were enticing, and it felt like coming home.