May 25 - June 1, 2007
Alvaro, Simba, and I at the beach.
Simba must have known that I was going to be leaving soon because he got quite jumpy in my last week at the park. It seemed like every time he had any kind of positional advantage on me he attacked. On top of that, he got smarter and sneakier in the end. Once after having a rest while tied to a tree, he started walking around, which usually means he's ready to go. Except this time, he just seemed to be testing how far the rope would reach because when he couldn't walk any further, he went back to his resting spot. Then instead of laying down, he crouched in his usual attack stance. He must have known that neither Nick nor I would dare entering his range when he was in that position, because he closed his eyes and turned his head as if to say, "It's OK guys, I'm just sleeping. You can come near me and I won't attack you." Yeah right. Another time when we put him on the long metal runner to go down a hill, he instantly ran halfway down and hid in the trees. He knew that as soon as we came looking for him, he'd be able to jump from his hiding spot and easily attack us. Instead, we stayed put and lied to him: "We see you Simba, come out of there." We actually had no idea where he was at the time. Eventually he tired of his game, emerged from the trees, and walked to us like a nice little puma.
One of his attacks was particularly bad. My shoe came untied at the top of a tall, steep hill. I figured if I didn't tie it right away I'd fall face-first down the hill. Simba was ahead of me halfway down the hill when I squatted down to tie my shoe. As soon as he saw that I was near the ground, he came charging at me, bit me hard in the thigh, and wrapped his claws around my arms. I wrestled with him for a few minutes and tried to get Nick to take his short leash so I could get away from him, but the rope was wrapped several times around my leg. I got his mouth away from me, but his claws kept digging in. Finally I was able to stick my leg straight up so Nick could unravel the rope. In the end my arms were good and bloody, but I couldn't get mad because I knew that Simba was just playing. Whenever he sharpens his claws on a tree, he does to the bark what the Swedish Chef does to lettuce, so I'm sure he could have done a lot worse to me if he wanted.
Simba smelling another cat's urine.
Several of the other volunteers this last week haven't been as lucky as me. About four people sprained their ankles while walking their pumas and were put out of commission. One guy got bitten by something on his leg and it got infected so badly it produced a baseball-sized puss pocket and he was in too much pain to walk. Then Li Shu, the park's biggest puma, decided to test a new volunteer and attacked him so hard he broke his arm. I was fortunate to walk away from the park with only a few bumps, bruises, bites, and scratches.
I began training a Spaniard named Alvaro to take over for me a few days before I left. He's the most interesting guy I've met in months. A few years ago he got married for one month. He got divorced but liked his wedding ring too much to take it off. Then he was living with a different girlfriend for several years and decided on a whim to quit everything and go traveling. Two weeks later, he was on a plane to South America. Now he wants to travel for six months, but he only has $3000. That's easily possible in Bolivia, but pushing it in the rest of the continent. His main way of saving money is by skipping meals. We'll see how long that lasts. The really strange thing is that he's afraid of getting robbed, but he doesn't have a camera or anything else expensive to rob, and he has long hair, a big beard, a collection of Black Sabbath shirts, and bears an uncanny resemblance to Charles Manson. If I were a robber searching for a victim, he'd be the last person I'd choose.
Alvaro shows off his skills on the saw.
Working with Simba was tough going for poor old Alvaro. On his first day, we took Simba to the beach again and he got completely worn out. Then I told him that we only had seen about 20% of Simba's trails and he almost fell over. Later we did Simba's long trail, and I gave Alvaro the rope for the first time at the end where it was relatively easy. Within three seconds, Alvaro was sliding and rolling down the hill and ended up upside-down at the bottom. Simba just couldn't resist that opportunity and lunged for his neck, luckily in a playful fashion. I think Alvaro broke the record for quickest time to get jumped. Another time we were on a hill and Simba turned around and had a sneaky look on his face that said he was going to jump for sure. Alvaro's reaction was to clasp his hands together and say, "Simba, I just want you to know that I love you, so please don't jump me." I don't know if Simba understood it, but he looked confused and actually backed down from the game. In the end, Alvaro didn't mind the attacks, but he didn't want to walk on the long trails every day. He went back to working with his first love, the birds.
My last day was quite sad. I tried to give Simba a hug, but he just wanted to give me some more of his love scratches. I'll miss him.
Pumas aren't the only animals in the park.
Still, I knew it was time for me to go. I had many infected wounds that refused to heal in the humidity of the jungle. The leather on my shoe got torn apart from end to end and I'm not sure if I'll be able to fix it. The weather continued to be cold and rainy with only one day where the sun came out for a bit. Every other day I had to walk around all day in the rain with no way of escaping. It was so cold I started shivering as soon as I sat down. A month under those conditions was enough for me.
Despite the minor problems, I've really enjoyed working at the park. A lot of people have complained about the administration, how inefficiently things sometimes run, and that it's too expensive. It's true that normally you don't think of volunteering as something you should pay for, but it only costs $5 per day, which includes a place to sleep. Most of the park's money comes from the volunteers (some comes from outside donations as well), and there's no way the park could run without us paying something. I know the park isn't an ideal situation for the volunteers or the animals (the park doesn't even own the land and more of the forest gets chopped down every day), but considering that it's located in Bolivia (the poorest country in South America), and that anyone can come in and start working right away without any previous notice, I'd say it's actually run pretty well. Walking with Simba will undoubtedly go down as one of my best experiences in South America.
Worst part of working at the park: Having to walk across an extremely dangerous bridge on the way to and from work each day. It's part of the main route between Santa Cruz and Cochabamba, so there's constant traffic, the bridge is barely wide enough for one big truck, let alone two passing each other, there's no sidewalks to hide from the traffic, and vehicles constantly pass each other despite the fact that the bridge is so narrow and there's a blind curve right after it. I seriously felt like I was risking my life every time I walked across it.
Best part of working at the park: Being able to fart and blame it on the puma.