The Magic Of Volunteering In The Jungle
The night air hummed with the sounds of a thousand forms of life. I lay in my bunk, cozily surrounded by a mosquito net, and glimpsed a star in the dark night sky. My bug bites itched, but I shoved the sensation to the back of my mind as I fingered the blister on my thumb thoughtfully. Only two more days here in the jungle, in our little bubble apart from the rest of the world. Two more days of bug bites, mosquito nets, and sweat. Only two more days of hearing the constant rush of the river, watching the colorful bursts of butterflies, and admiring the shy stars when they emerged from wisps of cloud. As I lay there, waiting for sleep and contemplating giving in to the itchiness of my bites (just one little scratch, come on, just one), I thought about the power of a belief and how much it can shape you. A belief can change the entire identity of a person. It can lead you to places of light or dark, and it can build places in reality that never existed before. You can chase a belief halfway around the world, or you can wrestle with it on the morning commuter train. A belief was what brought me here, to the depths of the Peruvian jungle, as is true for all the volunteers here. And it was a belief that had erected the structure above me and had created the whole purpose of this little camp in the forest.
Years ago, Tierra Linda, the volunteer placement, did not exist. It was simply a patch of land next to a small river, occupied by trees, butterflies, ants, and birds. As the years passed, the land grew to know the touch of mankind. It became accustomed to the feeling of trees being cut down, logs dragged away, and the other strange habits of humans. More time passed, and the land came into the ownership of two people: José and Pablo. These men were different from the others. They believed in a potential for the land, that it could become a place of research, outreach, and understanding. They walked among the trees with curiosity and compassion. They observed the insects and looked for the footprints of animals and showed others how to do so. With his own two hands and a little help, Pablo improved the rocky little road and built two open-air wooden buildings by the river and brought Tierra Linda to life.
Today, the life on this little settlement hums along with the surrounding forest. Every sunrise, the people living there begin moving and preparing for a new day. They cook, they laugh, they plant trees, and they cultivate an understanding of the secondary forest. They build trails, they plant gardens, and every night, they sit together around a pair of candles and play games or trade stories. For two weeks, I was one of Tierra Linda’s people. I earned my bug bites and blisters with hard work. I cleared trails and picked up trash and did all the little things that add up to a healthy ecosystem. I adapted to the rhythms of the land and the peace it brings.
Every morning, I ate breakfast and got to work clearing trails or building the garden. As the sun climbed higher in the sky, I’d start sweating more and more. At midday, we all stopped and went for a swim in the river to cool off before eating lunch and enjoying a few hours of siesta time. We’d spend the evenings playing cards or reading books, and lighted candles as the sun went down. Once the candles burned down to waxy stubs, one by one, we’d retire to bed and the whole cycle would start again in the morning. Without cell service or internet, life here slows down to the pace of nature. I’ve stopped making mental checklists about things to pack and assignments to complete. I only use my phone as an alarm clock these days. Life is simple. Life is good.
As I sit and write these words, the afternoon siesta has settled over our camp. The people have retired to hammocks and the cat next to me twitches his tail, deep in a dream. Even the forest around us seems sleepy. The butterflies are gone and the bees are docile. The trees stand patiently, waiting for the clouds above to cascade their rain down, as it does every afternoon.
This is what I believe in. I believe in humans living in harmony in a healthy world. I believe in a future where people view nature as an ally instead of an enemy or an endless resource to be exploited. Here, deep in the Peruvian jungle, Pablo and José’s belief for the future of this rainforest resonated with me. I have been happy to give my time and muscle to the vision they share. When my blisters emerged in force, I remembered all the research and good work that wouldn’t happen without my help. Without clear trails, researchers can’t collect the data they need to determine the health of the forest and its inhabitants. And if trash is allowed to accumulate, it will wash into the rivers and block the flow of water and be eaten by animals. I am happy to contribute in my small way, and if I get a couple blisters in return for a healthy rainforest, so be it.
I sighed as the rain began falling. Only two more days here. I could sit and commiserate about so few hours left here in paradise, or I could enjoy the time I have. There is today. There is the quietness of this afternoon and the gentle sound of rain on the roof. There is the feeling that time stands still here, and we are isolated from the world, adrift in our own bubble. As my time here draws to a close, I find myself noticing all the little things, like the banana trees. I will never tire of the way banana leaves reflect the weather. In the sunshine, they seem to glow with a vibrant, otherworldly green. In the rain, you can see the drops collect and slide off. And in cloudy weather, they are perfectly still; a subdued harmony in shades of green as they are now. A part of my brain will always remember the sound of the river that accompanies everything around here. But I have a feeling my feet will like not being covered in itchy bites anymore.
People are waking up now, and will undoubtedly want to play cards or do a little more work if the weather allows. I’ll leave you with this image of a little camp in the forest isolated from the world, adrift in time and at peace with the forest around it.