Guest Blogger: Connie O’Neill – An Introduction
Hello! My name is Connie and I’m a Zoology graduate originally from Yorkshire in the UK. I am currently here in Peru, volunteering for Plant Your Future. I’m based in the Loreto region, where we will be recording how much carbon is stored in the trees on the farms. We will also be investigating the benefits to the community and to biodiversity that these agro-forestry projects provide. I’ll be helping with these surveys as well as contributing to Plant Your Future’s communications strategy — by writing blog posts, for example!
My time in the Amazon is part of a wider five-month trip to Peru and Colombia. While planning my trip, I was keen to gain experience with an NGO and (hopefully) make a positive contribution to its work! I studied reforestation during my degree and have a strong belief in holistic projects which address socio-economic issues, as well as benefiting the environment. Consequently, I was thrilled when Plant Your Future agreed to take me on!
My first impression of Peru is undoubtedly positive. It is a country so different to the UK that it can feel surreal at times. The metal, roofed neighbourhoods of Iquitos city, and the more rural wooden houses set among endless greenery and exotic fruit trees, don’t seem real.
There have been some experiences that nothing can prepare you for — for example the ‘motocarros’ (essentially motorbikes with a seat on back), cars, motorbikes and trucks simultaneously whizzing down the only tarmac road in the area! The weather also seems like one of extremes. There is intense rainfall so heavy the sound is deafening under metal roofs, followed by sweltering, humid heat which is difficult to work in. Moreover, the humidity means nothing ever properly dries out. Generally, however, it’s manageable and pleasant to relax under the shade of the forest canopy.
The people I have met have all been friendly and love to laugh. In particular Julio and Carlis, who we work with, are always joking. And even when I cannot understand them (my Spanish is pretty limited) I find myself laughing along with them all the same!
The houses here have little in the way of enclosed space. Instead, they are exposed to nature and the elements. During my first couple of nights here, I was startled by the rustling of leaves and the occasional thud landing on the roof of my hut (either an animal or a piece of fruit — I’m still not sure). But now the gentle raucous of the jungle is comforting. Particularly the noise of heavy rain drumming against the wood, which helps me to sleep. It is like all the species in the jungle are simultaneously having a conversation — squawking, croaking, buzzing and whizzing — all trying to be heard over the other. We’ve seen lots of big beautiful butterflies, giant crickets and brightly coloured beetles. On the river we saw lots of birds, particularly the iconic black and yellow ‘Bocholocho’ birds famous in this region. In this species (Psarocolius decumanus) it is the male bird that looks after the young while the female goes out in search of food.
We mostly have ‘juanes’ for lunch while we work, which are bundles of marinated rice and chicken along with a boiled egg and olive — all cooked and wrapped in big Bijao leaves which grow on the rainforest floor. They’re very tasty, and convenient to take as a packed lunch for fieldwork!
When it comes to food in general, I really like the local fish dishes including ‘Pescado asado en hoja,’ which is fresh salt fish and local pepper wrapped in leaves and barbequed. The national dish is Ceviche, which is raw fish marinated in lemon served with raw onion and coriander and is often served with cooked yucca and corn. I also love all the fresh fruit juices and wish we could get them at home e.g. copoazú.
After long days of fieldwork, we are often very tired so enjoy the tranquillity of Varillal village. But during our weekends off, we visit Iquitos to experience the noisy vibrancy of the city. The hectic roads and dilapidated colonial architecture on the banks of the Amazon give it a unique character.
Our stay in Palo Seco, one of the more rural communities where we work, was an unforgettable experience. The boat journey alone was fascinating — seeing the various items that have to be transported by boat; barrels or bunches of fruit, toilet paper, crates of Coca Cola and more were all loaded and unloaded onto the small wooden boat throughout our journey. It was a privilege to stay with the Icahuate family who were so kind and welcoming and it amazing to get a real insight into jungle life. We woke at dawn, ate wild animals caught in Roger Icahuate’s traps and washed in the river. I was very aware that for us it was a short-term experience, but for them, it’s just life.
Peru is an extraordinary place and the Amazon is as magical as you’d imagine. I am really looking forward to spending more time here, particularly the city of Iquitos at night, and gaining a better understanding of the country, and what life in the Amazon basin is really like.