Volunteering in the Mata Atlantica (Atlantic Rainforest) - one of the most amazing places I have ever been!
We were at REGUA for over 4 months!! And definitely felt like part of the family there - the time just flew by!
REGUA is a reserve in the Atlantic Rainforest with the aims of conserving and restoring as much of the upper Guapiaçu river basin as possible, which at the moment is about 7,000 hectares. They also do environmental education in the community, mainly a Young Rangers programme and School visits; re-introduction of the red-billed curasow; eco-tourism at the Bird lodge; and encourage research of the flora, fauna and ecology of the rainforest. Nicholas and Raquel run the project helped by their very friendly and welcoming staff, and are backed financially by sponsors. It is a dynamic, flexible work-place and every day comes with a new surprise. We have learnt much from being here, particularly about the Brasilian people; they are very happy, welcoming, open people who have a very relaxed attitude towards keeping plans and time but work hard and are always there to help. They have become wonderful friends to us, and most of all have confirmed that you can have very little in terms of money and material possesions and live a very basic lifestyle, and still be genuinely happy!
We were involved in a little of everything at REGUA and Raquel coordinated the weeks with us, helping us solve problems (anything from teeth problems and ear ache to changing sheets and missing guides) and encouraged us to work in areas we were interested in aswel as getting the jobs done that need doing like cleaning and maintenance. When I first got there I was most interested in the reforestation side of things, seeing the forest and seeing what environmental education involved. I have been lucky to do a bit of all of these and also a bit of everything else, including some good hard manual labour and starting an English teaching programme with 2 of the other volunteers and teaching the staffs' children informally on my own. The enthusiasm of the young peole there is amazing and I can't help but be in awe of them, they are so eager to learn and will cycle miles in the rain along dirt tracks to come here for their lessons. The children whom I taught English were always asking for more lessons - it was great! The Young Rangers programme (Jovem Guardas) is a group of children from the surrouding schools aged 10-17 who go to REGUA once a week for an afternoon and get involved in a range of activities such as walking and learning about the rainforest, cleaning up their villages, recycling, learning about the planet, learning ranging skills and generally being immersed in the outdoors; showing them the incredible beauty they have around them and how special it is and that they can have a part in protecting it. We joined in on some of the activities and also went to local schools to do a presentation on recycling, which is something that is beginning to happen here, but is an alien concept, which we were asked to try and explain and promote.
We had a varied 18 weeks and so the easiest way to share this I think is by doing a summary for each week sharing some of the crazy moments, which were a regular occurence at REGUA!
We arrived on the late bus at 6pm one evening and were greeted by 3 other volunteers in the rain! Holly, Sam and Humphrey then spent the next day showing us around the reserve and introducing us to the staff. 2 of them then left that weekend so left just 3 of us, which was nice because it meant meant lots of hard work in the nursery. Mauricio runs the nursery and does such a good job. He manages 25,000 trees, growing them from seeds that they collect and getting them ready for planting. He is one of our closet friends we have made at REGUA; a child trapped in a mans body and we have such fun with him!
We were given a presentation by Nicholas about what REGUA is and what they do, and we chatted about how we could be of help and what areas we were most interested in and had skills in. After this it kind of sunk in a bit more that we were actually in the rainforest in BRASIL and could actually have an opportunity to hopefully make a little bit of a difference in this wonderful project!!
At the weekend we met Tom, Nicholas and Raquel's son. He is much like his parents, energetic and fun and he invited us to Nova Friburgo the following weekend where he is at university, for a few nights out and a tour of the city - wahoo, party time!
(The volunteer houses)
(Our first sunset at REGUA)
(Mauricio's Tree Nursery)
We went on our first proper trail walk this week. We went up the green trail, which is one of the marked trails patrolled by the rangers of REGUA. We had the task of putting out new marker signs and were accompanied by 2 of the rangers, both who were lovely and smiley and put up with out shocking attempts at speaking our non-existent Portuguese! We spent the day running back up and down the trail though, as we measured the markers out accurately, but then found that they had previously been put out a little wrong and so the correseponding map now did not match, so we had to change them all again to match the map! Afterwards we swam in our first waterfall at REGUA - Poço Verde - it was soooo cold but very refreshing after all the running.
(Poço Verde on the Green Trail - very cold but refreshing swimming)
The next day we headed out for a mornings bird spotting with Lelei. He is one of the 2 bird specialists they have here. He was a hunter in the past and stopped when he started work here, but due to his past activities he has a huge knowledge of the rainforest, knows hundreds of bird species and most amazing of all; can call the birds close and seems to be able to communicate with them! It was amazing, I couldn't believe my eyes watching him do it! He actually called birds from the trees using his voice and near perfect imitation of their calls. The birds came into the trees above us from quite some distance away and sang for quite some time, it was amazing!
(Lelei calling the birds)
At the weekend we headed to Friburgo and graced the local club with Tom. Everyone was so friendly and attempted English for us. We got to know Friburgo a little, which is a swiss looking town named after Freiburg where the first people who lived here came from. We spent a lot of time in the sauna nearby, had a BBQ and in 2 days I somehow managed to pick up the nickname 'Barbie' from his friends! It was a bank holiday on the monday and so we came back to Guapiacu for a glorious day in the sunshine, and my first visit to the jumping spot at the river. It is such a beautiful place, secluded and surrounded by rainforest with the perfect tree branch and rocks to do quite high jumps - incredible.
More nursery work, planting ferns around the wetlands and raking leaves. They have the raking done regularly here to give a clean, neat first impression, to encourage people to look after the place whilst visiting. We also did a lot of planting this week - so we can come back in 10 years and see the rainforest that we helped plant!!
A new volunteer, Alex, arrived late thursday night so we spent time showing her around and getting to know her. We all went to Rio for the weekend for some shopping and to say goodbye to Matan, our friend we had met spent time with in Salvador and Rio de Janeiro.
Another new volunteer arrives (Paul). More nursery work and some planting. I completed my community outreach purely by accident by missing the last bus home from Cachoeiras de Macacu (the nearest big town an hour away) and eventually having to have a lift back off the police - oops!
We walked on the newly purchased land with Nicholas trying to find the original land markers and then walked back through Matumbo - which was a scorchingly hot walk, but beautiful too. In true Brasilian under-estimation style, Nicholas said it was an obvious route back, only one path and would take us an hour. So after 2 T-junctions on the path and 2 and a half hours later we arrived at the reserve!HAHA! Oh and we saw some huge spiders on the way back - I know I'm a Zoologist, but GROSS!!
(Walking back through Matumbo)
(A typical bar here)
Me and Alex did a huge sort of the recycling, which was disgusting as it was weeks and weeks worth of rubbish mixed in, and with the heat and all the bugs/maggots/cockroaches - it was pretty awful! Was good to have it all sorted though and we decided to design a banner and some signs for the bins to make it even more clear that only clean recycling was to go in. We completed and presented our recycling presentation to the staff and rangers this week too. They were very open and all seemed to really enjoy it and take in what we had said - success!
On Saturday there was a cycle ride followed by a party to raise money for one of the schools in the village of Matumbo. Josh had spent the week assesing and mending the reserves bikes so that we could all participate. Somehow he worked a miracle and got 4 bikes up and running - so off we went at 7am on saturday morning, joined by the Young Rangers and school children. Unfortunately disaster struck quite quickly and one of the bikes gears fell off, followed by another bikes' wheel rim splitting in half and then another losing its pedal! It was crazy, but showed how old and neglected the bikes were. So we spent the rest of the cycle ride taking it in turns. Luckily we were followed by REGUA's red van in case of emergencies so we were able to hop in and out. We then planted some trees with the children and headed to the party. Much to our surprise there was BINGO and the prizes were.......... bikes! So we all brought cards and sat for HOURS playing 10 games of BINGO! I was the only one mad enough to play right through to the end, but no luck whatsoever, so back to the drawing board about the broken bikes! It was Mauricio's birthday and we were joined by Lelei, Andre and some of the other rangers for a bit of a celebration. Then later the frog researches joined us too so we were quite a crowd! We went back to the Research House (Casa Pesquisa) after the party and were shown their dead frog collection and photos of the frogs they had found - very interesting activities for a party! LOL!
('A Fantastic little blue bike' HAHA!)
(Guapiaçu bike ride)
(Mass tree planting after the bike ride)
(pasture land and palm oil plantations together - 2 of the biggest causes of rainforest destruction!
(Me and Mauricio at the Matumbo party)
More raking and nursery work this week aswel as the task of clearing the wetlands of Duck Weed that covers the whole of the surface. Josh set to work problem solving what sort of net or scoop device we should make and then the 5 of us (including another new volunteer, Jenny) sat sewing and moulding lead to make a weighted net and headed to the wetlands in he rain to try it out with their 2 little boats. Unfortunately no success as there was just so much of it that it got clogged in seconds! Back to the drawing board!
We helped Nicholas photograph the wetlands before the drainage was to be blocked up.
(Nicholas taking pics)
(The 'new' wetalnds before they were full)
(Jararaca - the most deadly snake here - found in the wetlands behind our house!)
The day before our VISAs were to run out, Josh and I headed to Rio de Janeiro airport with Alçeni to go to the VISA office. Alçeni is one of the drivers and general helpers here. He is a little man with a huge smile, who always dresses smartly, unfortunately giving him a look of an African dictator. He knows quite a lot of English and talks so much, always asking what everything is in English and teaching us Portuguese. He has been known to talk his way out of any situation including not having the right documents with him for the van he was driving, which usually would result in quite a hefty fine and not being able to drive any further, but he apparently managed to talk at the policeman for so long that they let him off! He always greets everyone with a big smile and the girls with 2 kisses on the cheeks, even if you have seen him a few hours previously! He was as usual on top form on this occasion. We left at 6am and discussed the words for clouds, right through to saying you had arrived at the airport! Luckily Josh was more awake than me so he held the fort. Alçeni also pointed out some of the local Japanese community by shouting "Japo" out of the window - which he acted like was a perfectly normal thing to do. We couldn't believe he had done it, i laughed so hard i nearly fell out of the van door! We got our VISA extended so spent the rest of the day walking around Rio and travelling back to REGUA, very happy to still be there!!
(Alçeni - the guy on the left)
We had a physically hard week this week - which I LOVED! It started with moving wheelbarrows and wheelbarrows of soil for Mauricio in the nursery in the blazing sun, but it was fun and we all felt great when it was done. The week continued this way and by the weekend when me and Josh and Jenny headed to Rio, we felt grateful of the rest. We tried out a new hostel, where we stayed in a lovely room and headed to the cinema as the rain would not relent. I bid Josh farewell at the bus station and headed back to REGUA as he went off for an adventure of his own. I ran into trouble straight away alone as they had double booked my seat on the coach and told me I had to wait 2 hours for the last bus where there were free seats! This meant I would miss the last bus back to REGUA, which was not good news! I pleaded for them to let me on, and evenutally was let on with the help of 6 people, one lady who spoke some English, all trying to help me and arguing with the bus driver and cashier ladies to let me on! It was amazing, I couldn't believe that they had all gone out of their way to help me and to such lengths too - I couldn't stop smiling all the way back!
There was a Fereado Naçional (Bank Holiday) on Monday so we headed into Guapiaçu (one of the 2 nearby villages) with Raquel who took us for a swim at Prainha - a small beach like area on the curve of the river. It was quite busy, with people coming all the way from Rio for the bank holiday weekend in Guapiaçu! It was a great swimming spot.
We gave our recycling presentation to the children of Guapiaçu school, which they seemed to enjoy and were invited to dinner at Zilma's house (a local lady interested in telling us about the local folklore) the next evening. It was an interesting evening at Zilma's. We met Erika, her daughter, a lovely girl my age who is learning English and kept me company whilst the others were waffling away in Portuguese. I had tried to get out of going for the meal as I didn't want Zilma to be put out cooking vegetarian for me, but she insisted that she would be cooking beans anyway so it was fine. It ended up with me being a bit of a spectacle to her and her friends who kept popping in though; they couldn't believe someone would choose not to eat meat!
(Teaching at Guapiaçu school)
That weekend was Sidinei'is birthday so there was celebrations at REGUA. Sidinei is the groundskeeper here, the one we help with all the raking and maintenance. He walks like a cowboy and can fix and do anything anyone needs, much like Josue who is the handyman. He lives on site with his wife Lisangela (one of the cooks here) and their 2 children, Cassiano and Mayara. I have fallen in love with both of these children. Mayara is 8 and is a feral child who is a complete DIVA already. She is so strong willed and has such a character but is a real sweety too. Cassiano is 15 and very shy but over time has come out of himself with me and Josh.
Anyway, the family and also most of the staff are Evangelical, so for his brithday they arranged that the church would come to their house. So we had an evening filled with preaching, shouting and very loud singing and the biggest cake I have ever seen. It was as big as 2 of the dining tables here and I helped serve enormous wedges of it to the huge conregation that had turned up on the local Gupiaçu-Cachoeiras bus! The next day the celebrations continued with a BBQ and after we swam in the river with Tom.
(The famous 'Colletivo Guapiaçu)
Another hard and varied week, starting with lunch delivery up the Green Trail to some tourists on a walk. Then filling in all the holes along the access road to REGUA with Paul, which took us all day, about 50 wheelbarrows full of gravel and a whole swimming pool of sweat! We also weeded all around the volunteer houses with large hoes (an amazing tool which we just don't use at home and should!) and I kept one of the tourists company at hospital for a couple of afternoons as his wife was quite ill and wanted to go home. He happened to be from a Banking family in England and was a rather interesting, extroverted, very friendly character, who kept us all entertained with his ideas and stories.
That weekend Alex, Paul and Jenny (the 3 other volunteers) headed to Teresopolis to explore. I decided to stay behind and have a bit of quiet time to myself. It was nice to just read and write my journal and walk all alone for a change, but a little scary being alone at night, especially with the monster that lives in our roof!
I met up with Josh this week and together we went to explore Sana, a place we had told we could not miss, by Jonathon in Itacare. Unfortunately we got the wrong time of year for it and everything was shut. We enjoyed the tranquility though and had a lovely walk up towards a famous stone on the mountain. After Sana, which was a bit of an anti-climax, we headed back into Rio for the weekend to meet Alex and Jenny for some partying. We went to the strangest exhibition in Lapa, it was a mixture of documentary showing, ballet, clowns, tight-rope walking, interactive art and displays - really fun. After we hit Lapa's finest club, the one of the corner with no windows, just an enormous sound system, a lot of Brasilian Funk and lots of people dancing. It was perfect and we danced the night away, Jenny and Alex seeing the Brasilian Funk dancing for the first time - much to their horror. A Brasilian lasy helped us and I remembered a few moves I'd learnt, and away we went - it must have looked ridiculous!
Another Bank Holiday, which meant the horses had the day off, so me Cassiano, Mayara, Reginal (Cassiano and Mayara's friend) and Paul headed to the river for a swim on the horses! The horses were a little fresh after 3 days of no work, but Cassiano was amazing with them and rode the most nuts horse, controlling it in a calm and impressive manner. We swam in Prainha then rode back in the thunder storm. This resulted in us cantering through the village (not very wise) and most of the way back to REGUA in the huge storm - we were soaked, but all still smiling and enjoying the exhiliration.
The rest of the week was filled with various tasks, cleaning windows, cleaning the pool, and walking in the forest on the newly purchased Lengruber land with Mauricio and Masias (one of the rangers) to collect seeds.
It was scorching hot so every afternoon we played in the pool with Cassiano, Mayara and Reginald as there were no tourists at the lodge. It was such a welcome relief from the ever rising, stifling heat, and lots of fun being silly for hours with the children. Mayara's hair amazed me every day, it was like a sponge and didn't really get wet, it was baffling!
That weekend was hot still so we headed to Guapiaçu and spent most of the day by the river. Tom came with us and arranged to meet us for some drinks as it had been his brithday that week. After the river we all sat in a bar by the river; Jo, Bruce Baby Jetson, Paul, Josh, Lisa and I, then me and Josh stayed to wait for Tom. He never showed so we hung out with Mauricio and Irdes his friend, who had a gorgeous big motorbike, which everyone wanted a go on.
The next day we went back to Guapiaçu, Jo and Bruce had some interviews to do there so we all met at the river again and then me Josh and Lisa stayed in for a drink with Tom and Irdes. It was so hot that when it rained we all stayed sitting in it and got soaked and a little cooler....for a few minutes until the sun came back out!
(Jetson and Josh)
(View from the bridge at Guapiaçu)
I spent most of this week ill with a middle ear infection. Josue kindly took me into Cachoeiras to the hospital, as he had the shopping to do there. We ended up seeing one doctor then driving around 6 other clinics on his referral to try and find an ear specialist to see me! Josue was so nice and went into every clinic asking for me and trying to sort it out. By this point I couldn't believe how much pain I was in, from something as simple as an ear infection! I hadn't eaten for a while as my jaw hurt, and now my head and back were throbbing too and I couldn't take any medication as they didn't know what the specialist would give me so I nearlly fainted whilst waiting 7 hours for an open clinic that evening - I felt like such a wimp! Josue was my hero though and looked after me so well, he even brought me Doce de Leite (condensed milk toffee) filled cake to try and get me to eat! He is such a good man, and one of the main staff here. He is very shy, but very friendly and kind too and works very hard. His wife is Patricia, one of the cooks who works in the kitchens here. She is the opposite of him and is very strong and domineering, but lovely too.
I finally saw the specialist and she gave me 7 DIFFERENT DRUGS!! I couldn't believe it, I don't think I have taken this many before all at once, but withing half an hour of taking them I felt a whole world better.
Later that week we all went to a planting site about half an hours drive away, with Alçeni in the Land Rover. Unfortunatley there had been an ongoing problem with the car and whilst waiting for the part to mend it, it had just been welded to keep it going. Well at the moment we had just crossed a Ford in the Land Rover and were going up a steep hill, the car decided to give out, so we ended up rolling back down the hill, into the river and luckily hitting a boulder which stopped us - thank goodness it hadn't been one of the bridges we had crossed earlier that we crashed back into!! Anyway, it was a close call with Paul and Alçeni escaping going under the car, but everyone was ok. Another adventure at REGUA!
It was not my lucky week with vehicles that week though as 2 days after that at the weekend I had 2 small accidents on Motorbikes with the boys, in the same night, and ended up rather battered and bruised. Don't worry Mum, lesson learnt - I don't like motorbikes anymore!
We had a slower week this week, with 2 of the guided walks we were supposed to do called off due to no show of guides But they were replaced with lots of digging and helping Marley (Sidinei's mum) and Mauricio in the nursery, which is always fun! I also got to play vet to one of the dogs who had two 10 pence sized holes in his side from what they call 'Berny', which is like a bot fly. It inserts its eggs under the skin and then they eat their way out, getting bigger and bigger. Well this one maggot had grown to an enormous size and was sticking out of the dogs side. No-one else wanted to touch it so I pulled it out, along with about 12 other smaller maggots - GROSS!
There was yet another fereado (bank holiday) that friday (i'm not complaining!) and so we all chilled out together with Tom too, then headed into Cachoeiras for the 'African day' celebrations, which turned out to be like a school show, of children doing dancing and capoeira etc. Whilst we were gone, there was a HUGE storm with 100km+ winds which blew some of the trees down and the electricity pylons too. It was very very localised, which is what is even more amazing, because we were only half an hours drive away and had no wind, rain or anything, just sun!
We spent the first couple of days collecting the sacks that they use to grow the saplings in, from the planting sites. Unfortunatley they have to use plastic sacks (like a big plant pot) at the moment as they don't know what else to use. It creates a huge amount of waste because when the saplings are planted out the bag has to be ripped and so is unusable again! Me and Josh have been brainstorming this at Nicholas and Raquel's encouragement to see
what else could be used.....watch this space, lol!
We finally did one of the famous walks that Raquel often talked about this week - to Salina's, Friburgo. It was all uphill (or should i say up-mounthrough secondary rainforest, which was beautiful and we couldn't believe we were actually walking to Friburgo, a city that takes an hour on the bus around the mountains, and we were just going to walk over them! We walked all up the 'paved way', which is actually just stones put on a very narrow path, all uphill. It was done by slaves, which must have taken them forever. It used to be the main pass to Friburgo from this side of the mountains, so people would grow their goods and than walk this way to sell them in Friburgo. This was very hard with donkeys so they decided to have it paved, crazy! Unfortunately the paving actually makes it more dangerous now as they rocks are slick, wet and covered in moss and algae - perfect conditions for a slide all the way down the mountain. We all fell whilst walking down, and it was exhausting, so we were very glad when we eventually arrived back at the car!
(Josh in a fallen tree on the walk to Salina's)
The next day there was an end of year BBQ for the staff and their families. It was lovely to see everyone and all the children and was a nice way for everyone to say goodbye to Paul (one of the voilunteers) who was leaving the next day. We woke up super early the next day - at 5.30am (i bet you didnt think i could ever wake up that early did you Dad!)- to go to Rio Water Planet with Erica and Irdes and some other people form Guapiaçu. It was ace, and we had a day running around like children on all the slides! It was very sweet of them to all include us like we had known them for ages!
(Sidinei doing the BBQ)
(Wendesson, me, Mayara and Marlesson)
(Guapiaçu crew at Rio Water Planet)
Josh had his next 2 wisdom teeth removed so I was basically working alone this week, as he needed to rest and stay out of the sun, and Lisa (the only other volunteer left) was doing her own thing. I did get to go to Friburgo though and hang out with Tom - shopping! We said goodbye to Jo, Bruce, Jetson and Lisa.........and then there was 2!! We also said goodbye to Raquel and Nicholas as they were heading to England for 3 weeks for talks with the donors of REGUA.
At the weekend we woke up early again for the super early bus to go to Aleni's house with Mauricio for the day. Aleni is the reforester here, she works independantly from REGUA on a government project but works with Mauricio too, collecting seeds, making a catalogue etc. We had a BBQ, a swim and she took us to see Jequitiba (pronounced Yikitchiba). It is one of the last few remaining 'giant' trees - it is truly amazing. This tree is so big it takes 13 men to get around its circumference holding hands and is 40 metres tall! AMAZING! I planted one of these in memory of Grandad, as did Josh, so my great-great-great grandchildren can come back in 1000 years and see how special it is!
(Giant Jequitiba tree)
(Mauricio and his daughter, Aleni, me and Josh in front of Jequtiba tree)
The last 3 weeks are on a separate blog entry as I wrote too much to fit on one page - oops!