A Travellerspoint blog

Maggie and the Monkeys Pt. II

A day (in a month) in the Bolivian jungle

This is a continuation of Maggie and the Monkeys Pt. I

12:30 PM – Lunch! There were generally anywhere between 25-40 volunteers, and most of us were there for lunch, with some exceptions. After lunch, I’d go and play volleyball with some of the other volunteers and some Bolivians that worked at camp. Some people would nap in their beds under the protection of the mosquito nets each bed had, and others would hang out in the “Fumador,” a little gazebo by the one road that goes through the park where people could smoke. The smoke kept the mosquitoes away, but I preferred volleyball as constant motion helped with the bugs just as much as the smoke, and it was more fun.

We played almost every day if the rain wasn’t coming down too hard, and Gordo, a fat green parrot who had his wings clipped (which means now he can’t be released), would hang out with us and watch the game. Like most parrots, Gordo learned to repeat certain noises, and his best was his imitation of our laughter as every time somebody missed the ball badly and we would laugh, the green parrot overlooking the whole game would suddenly bellow in echoing laughter even louder.


2:00 PM – Kevin and I would prepare for our walk out to Maggie. Kevin was a long-term volunteer from Australia who had been at the park before and had been working with Maggie for a couple months already on this trip. Maggie was the puma we were responsible for taking care of.

We’d walk a kilometer down the road and then head into the jungle to walk another 10 or 15 minutes to Maggie’s cage, a large fenced-in area in the dense jungle.

2:30 PM – We’d announce “Hola Maggie” as we approached. If we didn’t let Maggie know that we were coming before she heard or smelled us, she would feel like we were sneaking up on her and would behave on-edge and defensively the rest of the afternoon, so we always made sure to greet her before we arrived.

As we walked up, Maggie would come to one of the corners of her fence to say hi and give us some affection. We’d put our hands through the fencing and she’d rub up against us, purring loudly. Often times she’d lick my hand, nodding as she licked with same motion cats do when they clean their young. This would cause all my mosquito bites to suddenly appear as my hand quickly became pink and puffy, but it was worth the sweet greeting.

We’d put the meat bucket in a Styrofoam container outside her cage so Maggie wouldn’t smell it and be distracted or anxious, and then we’d prepare for our daily walk. Maggie would normally start to get very excited before her walk, racing through the trees and plants in her cage and then stopping on a dime by her door to hiss or simply stare at us in excitement and then suddenly take off sprinting again. Her acceleration and ability to change directions in an instant was somehow impressive every time.

When Maggie was free and very young in the wild, poachers killed her mother took her to be sold as a house pet, which as it turns out doesn’t work so well for wild pumas. Unfortunately, she cannot be released as pumas normally spend their first two years in the wild learning from their mothers how to survive and without that most cannot survive on their own very long at all.

While she cannot be released into the wild, we try to give Maggie the best and most natural life possible for her. She lives in a large fenced-in area in her natural environment. We come and feed her and give her attention every day and six days a week we take her out for a walk around her very large piece of territory, which has many long trails cut through it.

Like Talia the monkey, Maggie had been abused before, which significantly affected how she dealt with humans. Unlike Talia, Maggie was a puma, so considerably more precautions had to be taken when working with her. For example, when outside of her caged area there always had to be two of us walking with her with two ropes attached to her collar. That way if she became aggressive or warned us in anyway (such as hissing with her ears flat back on her head), we could split the ropes and keep her off of each other. We had to be focused 100% of the time because Maggie was incredibly fast and had the reflexes of… well, of a wild cat.

Normally though, we tried to keep the ropes together so Maggie did not feel controlled. This way she could walk through her trails and focus on her surroundings and her walk without feeling held back.

2:40 PM – Everyday, Kevin and I would switch off whoever was on lead ropes, the person that generally held both ropes and was responsible for guiding the walk and splitting the ropes when necessary. If I was on lead ropes, we’d open the inner door to Maggie’s management cage, a small cage with a door to her main cage and a door to the outside. I’d reach through the outer door and clip our ropes onto her collar.

Once I opened the outer door we were off, running rapidly down Maggie’s trail. We didn’t have much choice as one of the ropes would be tied around my waist. Maggie would look back in frustration if one of the ropes got caught between her legs, or one of us slowed down or stumbled over a fallen log. After a while, Maggie would’ve let out enough energy and excitement and would start sniffing around her trail to see what animals had crossed over her territory in the past 24 hours. This was when Maggie turned into the jungle huntress.

Maggie would slowly stalk around her trails, putting one foot softly in front of the other, and following that pawprint with her next step, stepping in the same spots to minimize sound. Her shoulders stayed stooped and her neck craned forward while her tail silently twitched side to side in anticipation and pent up excitement. We’d follow her quietly as she got into this zone of dominating her territory, stalking invisible prey (or sometimes prey that Kevin and I simply couldn’t see/smell). We’d try to sidestep leaves (which is near impossible in the jungle), and god forbid one of us stepped on a twig and it cracked as Maggie would snap her head back and growl at us as if to say “if you scare off my prey you are gonna become my prey.” We’d just say hola to her and keep walking. To some of the cats people would say “tranquila” too, which is sort of like “calm down,” but just like some people, Maggie seemed to get more pissed off if you told her to calm down instead of just letting her do it on her own.

When it was really hot, Maggie would walk into the puddles of water and lay down to about shoulder height to cool off. She would hold her head above the water line and look up at the trees and plants with her mouth dropped down giving off this satisfied and slightly curious look. It was amazing how expressive Maggie’s face was. You could always tell what mood she was in, and in more specific ways than simply a good or bad mood. She could be feeling adventurous, or hot and lazy but still mildly content, or completely in the zone of being on the hunt and feeling confident and capable of capturing anything that might cross her path. After laying in the water she’d always take a few steps onto dry land and start licking her paws and cleaning herself. She’d roll over, purring lightly with her paws in the air and the white of her belly exposed, and just as you got the impulse to tell her what a pretty girl she was she’d let out this loud hiss/growl to let the whole jungle know there is a wild puma around and you better not think she’s cute.

Occasionally, if Maggie had nothing to hunt, she’d pick on the Chocolatte fruit. You’d always know which one she was about to go after because she’d eye it for a couple minutes first, slowly approaching the fruit that was hanging directly off the trunk of a tree. She would silently creep towards it with her eyes locked and her body crouched low as if the fruit might somehow notice her and run off. Then, suddenly, she’d pounce, jumping high at the fruit, grabbing the trunk with her paws and tearing the fruit down with her jaws. She’d then play with it the way cats seem to torture their prey, swatting at it and biting it and then stepping back to look, only to slowly lose interest, growl and choose another chocolatte fruit on the tree. Maggie could jump very high from her crouched position on the ground, staying horizontal as she reached our head-height. If she chose a particularly high fruit, she’d throw herself vertically against the tree, clasp onto the tree with her paws, and then push off with her hind paws again to climb further up the tree, getting herself above us to capture whatever fruit she chose to pick on that day. Chocolatte hunting with Maggie was always good fun.

Very often we’d see other animals in the jungle. Most of the time, they tried to avoid Maggie, but we’d see monkeys, chanchos, a massive snake or a pair of toucans on the way to and from her cage. On the trail though, they were a little more difficult to find, although perhaps that was because the jungle was more dense there and our focus was tightly on Maggie.

One day though, we stumbled upon a jungle rat laying in the middle of one of Maggie’s trails. We didn’t know the real name of the species, but it was basically a large rodent probably twice the size of a house-cat. She pawed at it a little bit and it hardly moved, twitching it’s torso and basically pencil-rolling away. So we realized the animal must’ve been paralyzed somehow and then made the decision we couldn’t let Maggie have it. While it’s natural for a Puma to hunt and eat meat and the animal was clearly going to die anyhow, if it was paralyzed there was a good chance it was bitten by a snake. We couldn’t let Maggie eat an animal that had venom, or possibly even a virus, that causes paralysis and quite potentially death.

Of course, Maggie couldn’t understand our reasoning. I’ll leave it up to your imagination to think about what it must be like to stand in between an angry puma and its prey as your partner holds the puma off of you with a rope. She was furious and it took her quite a while to forgive us. As in days.

5:00 PM - On better days, we’d get back to the cage without such incidents and hook Maggie’s rope up to a runner where she could run around as we prepared her food. The time we got back was inconsistent as sometimes Maggie would stride through her trails on a mission with little interruption and other times she’d obsess over a particular chocolatte tree or a part of her trail, or she'd simply stop for little baths and cleaning sessions and lazily walk through her trails, depending on her mood.

At the end of my month there, Maggie was starting to go into heat, which changed the dynamic of the walks completely. She was particularly affectionate during this time, always looking to be pet more when she was inside of her cage, and walking much more slowly and easily through her trails. She’d often stop, sitting in a submissive position or rolling on the ground, giving out these loud vocalizations that sounded somewhere between a meow and growl and would drawl off quietly and punch back in. This was technically referred to as “calling” as she was literally calling for a mate, letting any males around know that she was willing and able.

Video: Walking Maggie when she was in heat

Wild cats don't normally go into heat in captivity, even in most zoos, as they are too stressed and too far removed from their natural environment and lifestyle. It speaks to the quality of work the park does that all of the female cats in park normally go into heat.

Anyhow, when we got back to Maggie's cage I’d throw Maggie a toy I made for her by stuffing an old volleyball full of hey. We would tie the toy with a rope and throw it into the high-grass, pulling on it slowly. This would cause the grass above the ball to move and Maggie would cock her head towards it, silently flank it from the side and pounce on it, grabbing the ball as it would bounce between her paws until she’d strike it with a claw and then pull it in, proud of her catch. I’d unclip the ball from the rope and let her play with it as we went into prepare her food.

We’d clean up her waste, replace her water, wash down the feeding area we used previously and prepare her food on the other feeding platform. Once we opened the meat bucket we’d have to move quickly as Maggie would get anxious, so we’d put the meat out last and get back outside quickly to unhook Maggie and guide her into her management cage. Once inside the management cage, she would sit with her muscles tight and tense waiting to be unclipped and then with a rapid sprint and a national geographic jump she would be on her platform in an instant. Every time I see the silhouette of the clothes-line company that makes Puma shoes and jackets now, I think of that jump she would do onto her platform. It’s a simultaneously graceful and powerfully muscular curvature. Maggie was truly a spectacular animal to watch. It often felt like a first-hand look at the Planet Earth series.

5:30 PM – Depending on the day and the amount of time we’d have left, we’d go into the jungle and clear out Maggie’s paths a little bit. We each had a machete and when kept sharp it’s surprising how effective and fun they can be at cutting down plants and even some smaller trees or thick branches that start to crowd her path. The more vegetation on the path or branches reaching into it, the more noise we make walking through and the more frustrated Maggie gets. Additionally, if the plants directly on the ground grow to almost her shoulder height, Maggie would start crouching and getting lower, looking back at us as her hunting instinct took over and she felt she was hidden in the vegetation. Simply saying hello to her, you could see the thought pattern in her mind dissipate as she realized you were onto her and she couldn’t surprise you, almost as if she were saying “aww shucks” to herself as she’d turn around and keep walking down her trail.

Clearly, letting her know you saw her helped control the situation, but it was better to not let the vegetation get that high in the first place, so we’d often go down the trail cutting down the growth. The trees and plants incessantly grew back at a ridiculously rapid rate that would leave the trail almost non-existent if we didn’t run through it with the machetes from time to time.

Coming back to Maggie’s cage on the way back, she was always calmer and more affectionate after having eaten. She’d come up to the fence when we called to let her know we were approaching, and she’d pace there until we arrived and then rub up against our hands for a little love.

My last day there she was particularly sweet. Granted, she was going into heat, but I came to say goodbye to her on my own and she came up to the fence, rubbing her head against my hands and letting me pet her for 15 minutes while purring loudly like an idling 1960’s muscle car. She laid down and let me pet her belly as I pulled a couple ticks off of her and talked to her like she knew what I was saying. I pet her head, shoulders and belly and she licked my hands, kissing me goodbye, and I found it particularly difficult to leave. Somehow, it felt like we truly had developed some sort of bond or connection, and I’ve never been good with goodbyes.

6:00 PM – I’d arrive back at camp and go straight to my cold shower. There was no electricity or hot water at camp, but the cold shower was refreshing after a hot and humid day running around the jungle.

6:30 PM – Dinner! It was amazing how much we all ate each day. We’d put an Texan all-you-can-eat BBQ buffet to shame and out of business. But yet somehow we were all losing weight. I guess it really does depend on how many calories you burn moving each day. Looking at the scrawny crew of volunteers though, you’d be shocked to see how much food we put down each day.

7:30 PM – After dinner, we’d each do different things to enjoy the night. Sometimes I’d stay in my room and read or play cards in the comador (dining area) with other volunteers. Very often I’d go to Santa Maria, the closest town about a 10 minute hitchhike down the road. To call it a town is gracious. You could drive through the town in 30 seconds, but it did have beer, electricity, very few mosquitoes, a video-jukebox full of latin music and absurd 80’s tunes, tables that could host a large group of us and bottles of “rum” for less than $3. I’d generally splurge and go for splitting the $7 bottle of “whiskey” with a few others.

While extremely fulfilling, the work and environment at the park were exhausting, so everyone welcomed the chance to unwind and we normally had a lot of fun at the “bar” we hung out at. The park attracted a broad diversity of people and almost everyone there was very heartfelt and sincere, so it was easy to make friends. Conversations could quickly shift between lighthearted and comical to deep and meaningful and back again.

10:30 PM – Curfew. We had to be back at the park and be calm and respectful of those sleeping by this time every night. That wasn’t a problem for me as after the long hot and engaging day, knowing another was quickly approaching, I was usually ready for sleep.

I’m generally not one for routine. Ironically, I actually try to systematically remove routine from and build diversity into my daily life. However, I loved this routine. The jungle was packed with life. I could probably predict what I’d likely be doing at any given time the next day, but I also knew it would be fun and meaningful. Tomorrow's another day.


Posted by YoniOsteen 10:10 Archived in Bolivia Comments (1)

Maggie and the Monkeys Pt. I

A day (in a month) in the Bolivian jungle

6:30 AM – “Good Morning Coco!” was the friendly alarm clock I received every morning during my month at Parque Ambue Ari in the jungle of Northeastern Bolivia. I would snooze for another precious 10 minutes after Kate, one of the long-term volunteers, came in to wake up our dorm, named “Coco” after one of the park’s original Howler Monkeys.

Our dorm was relatively clean, with one of the beds being broken, keeping the room to a maximum of seven people. Plus, most of my roommates were women, generally the cleaner the gender. Still, that didn’t keep out the rats and the humidity (and smell) of the jungle.

Surprisingly, these are things you get used to rather quickly. The first night sleeping in that room in the heat and stench with the sound of rats as I lay sweating on my hay and wood bed, I couldn’t fall fully asleep. By the third night, I was hard to wake up.

6:40 AM – I climb out of my top bunk and put on my layers of clothes. It would look like we working in some high altitude mountains, the way we dressed. With three shirts and two pants, you’d think we were cold, but we were just protecting ourselves from the mosquitoes, who apparently have no problem getting through two layers of shirts. I arrived at the end of the summer/rain season, which should probably be named the mosquito season.

This area used to be part of the Amazon rainforest until about 6 decades ago when farmers tried to turn the area into a plantation of “Chocolatte” trees, which bear the fruit carrying cocoa beans. The rainforest didn’t allow that, quickly retaking the land with its rapid and vast vegetative growth. The jungle still sports many of the Chocolatte trees, whose fruits are quite tasty and we often feed to the monkeys.

After getting dressed, I fill up the disinfectant bucket and go pick up some bananas or apples from the fruit shed. I drop these in the disinfectant bucket for 10 minutes and go back to my room to brush my teeth, put my boots on and use the time to get ready for the day.

6:55 AM – I’d take the fruit out of the disinfectant bucket and cut it up into small chunks which are easier for the monkeys to eat. My morning task was to feed the five Howler Monkeys breakfast. If we had milk and oatmeal available, I would bring the fruit into the kitchen where the milk and oatmeal would be cooking and mix the fruit with hot porridge mix. These monkeys honestly had the best breakfast in the entire park. Far better than the volunteers’ food.

7:00 AM – My morning walk from camp into the jungle began. I’d first come upon Chica’s cage, right outside of camp. I’d greet her with “Buenos Dias Chica!” as I walked up and she’d always slowly look up and give this faint smile and groan. She had a blanket that she wrapped over her head like a little old lady. In fact, she was the oldest monkey, and her personality reflected it. She always moved slowly and gently while watching everything with these calm and patient eyes.

Some of the monkeys can be left to climb freely, but I tie a rope to Chica’s belt to keep her from running off. She is a Black Howler Monkey, which is not indigenous to this part of the jungle, and if she ran off alone the wild monkeys might attack her. Additionally, surgery in the Santa Cruz Zoo cut a nerve in her hip, leaving her legs partially paralyzed which leads to her often falling when she climbs too high for her own good.

So, I tie the rope to Chica’s belt and she would climb onto my shoulder or walk outside of her cage as I cleaned up, washed her feeding area and prepared her breakfast. I’d unhook her so she could roam around her cage freely and eat in comfort and then I’d move on to the other monkeys.


7:20 AM – I’d reach the cage of the three Brown Howler monkeys further along a jungle trail. Their cage is larger than many homes in Bolivia, and they’d slowly climb down from their bed at the top of the cage as I walked in each morning. Like me, they would move very slowly as they just woke up. They'd look around as if they were a little confused, sometimes giving off this groaning-yawning sound, but never getting too excited. Once I put down the breakfast though, they’d be climbing over each other and their eyes would open up, especially if there were bananas.

This cage held Bitam, the oldest of the Brown Howler monkeys at four years old and the only male. He is being groomed to be the Alpha monkey as the park hopes to release the Brown Howler Monkeys once they grow older and big enough to survive in the wild. Most likely, more Brown Howlers will be dropped off at the park before that time so they can be released as a larger troupe. For now, Bitam is only about half-grown and the other two monkeys, Faustina (three years old) and Octavia (one year old) are too young to survive in the wild without parental guidance.

Octavia, Bitam and Faustina all "greeting" me in the morning

7:40 AM – I’d reach the cage of Talia, another Black Howler monkey. Yep, that’s right, her name was Talia, like my sister’s name. And this was in Parque Ambue Ari, like my brother’s name. A little strange, I know.

The Black Howler Monkeys actually look brownish-grey, sometimes with a little red in their fur, but they are named that for the skin of their face and fingers (and everything below the fur). Like most of the animals in the park, Talia was taken from the wild and kept in captivity in her youngest years. Before she was rescued she had been abused by women in captivity and so now she can only be dealt with by men as she will try to attack any women that approach her. As such, she is also kept on a rope when outside her cage since if she made it back to camp she'd attack the female volunteers, and the local wild monkeys could potentially attack her as well.

Talia is generally very friendly, but not in the mornings. (Yes, that’s true of both Talia’s I know). She would come out of her bed to acknowledge my presence, but every time I spoke to her she would turn her back on me and avoid eye contact. Oh well, I knew that after breakfast she’d be in a better mood.


8:00 AM – Breakfast! Except for certain volunteers who ate earlier and were out with their animals, most of the camp ate together for breakfast. We’d have announcements and someone would inevitably challenge you to a game of rock-papers-scissors, or a “rock-off,” which was the ultimate objective decision maker at camp. The loser of the “rock-off” would have to wash the other person’s dishes, but that could then be handed off to another person in another “rock-off” so in the end one person was left with everyone’s dishes. Somehow, in my entire month there, I never ended up with everyone’s dishes… I kept that a secret until I left.

9:00 AM – I’d start to prepare lunch for the monkeys, again putting the food first in the disinfectant. Lunch normally consisted of lettuce, cucumbers, leaves and other greens as well as potatoes, broccoli, carrots and other veggies whose names I don’t even know in English. I’d fill up two small buckets of such food and once cleaned, cut and prepared, head out to hang with the monkeys in the morning.

First I’d pick up Chica. She was generally happy and excited to see me after breakfast, knowing we were about to go hang with the other monkeys. She’d climb up on my shoulder after I finished cleaning up her breakfast and we’d head to the main monkey cage which held Bitam, Faustina and Octavia, who I came to call the “Amigos.”

We’d hang out in the main cage with the other monkeys while I cleaned up and paid attention to the Amigos for a while. After everyone calmed down a bit, I’d leave to go pick up Talia.

Video: Monkeyin' around in the main cage

9:45 AM – By this time, Talia had eaten and was in a better mood. She’d generally wait for me to arrive, and after taking her outside her cage where she preferred to go to the bathroom, she’d climb on my shoulder and we’d head back to the other cage. She’d normally start grooming me on the walk back to the other monkeys. At first there were too many mosquitoes for me to take off my hat and headnet, but after a couple of weeks I built up a tolerance to the mosquito bites and there were far less around, so we’d walk back with Talia making these grunting noises like she was studiously inspecting things as she groomed through my hair. And yes, even though I had just shaved my hair real short two weeks ago, I was in the jungle, so there were bugs for her to pick out. Besides, she would groom even if there were no bugs. Occasionally she would sit on my arms and groom the sleeves of my outer shirt, even though there were clearly no bugs for her too pick, just some mosquitoes that flew away quicker than her scanning hands could catch.


By the way, when I say there were far less mosquitoes around after a couple weeks, I mean that if you took your gloves off and kept your hands moving, you’d only get bit twice or so a minute on your hands. Any time you stopped moving, a layer of mosquitoes would surround the area that wasn’t moving, which was why even at the end I still wore three baggy layers to keep the mosquitoes at bay. At first, the mosquitoes were seriously like some biblical plague. You could swat almost randomly and be sure to land 10 mosquitoes in one swing. Luckily, by the end of it, I stopped reacting the same way and the rain had slowed enough, which the mosquitoes seemed to follow, so I could work without gloves and the headnet for a few minutes without being constantly bitten. We couldn’t wear repellent unfortunately because we worked with the animals’ food and even without the food aspect, some of the animals had experienced allergic reactions to repellent.

On the way back to the other monkeys we’d often see Chanchos (wild pigs), wild monkeys or some vibrantly beautiful butterflies. The butterflies in the jungle weaved across each other’s paths and had colors and patterns that were plastered onto 1970s black-light posters, or they’d have the design of an eye staring back at you from between the branches, blinking as their wings flapped.

On a normal day I’d arrive back at the Amigos’ place and either buckle Talia’s rope to the playplace outside their cage or keep walking and take her to “Monkey Park,” a huge tree with ropes hanging around it that the monkeys love to play in. I’d return for the other monkeys, putting Chica on my back and normally holding Bitam, who would climb onto my arm and drape across my chest holding onto my other shoulder, leaving me cradling him like a baby. With those two together and ready to go, normally I would just open the door and start walking towards monkey park and Faustina and Octavia would simply follow, scampering along the path behind me, looking up and giving off soft vocal sounds along the way.


Everyone was excited when we’d meet up with Talia at Monkey Park! Bitam would normally go straight for Talia, tugging on her rope, grabbing her face or pushing her and running away. She would normally play along, but she lost patience quickly and would start looking at me for help and making these loud groaning sounds before he approached. So, I’d position myself between them and play around with Bitam myself, who was happy to have someone who would play-wrestle back. Often times though, Talia would manage to pin Bitam down, and then slyly start grooming him, and then he’d relax and stretch out one arm or leg that he wanted her to groom and calm down and stop messing with her.

After hiding and covering the food buckets, I’d climb up into the trees with them to hang out. Octavia and Faustina often went out on their own and played amongst themselves, but Octavia eventually took a liking to me and would climb onto my shoulders, sit on the back of my neck and hold herself there by wrapping her tail around my neck. She was tiny and wouldn’t fight for my attention if a larger monkey was around, but in times when the others were playing amongst themselves or she had been there first, she would crawl down to my stomach or arms and look around at the other monkeys or prod at me and the others that climbed by. At one year old, she was just starting to learn the trade of being part of the troupe. She was starting to figure out grooming, but didn’t quite get it as she’d normally try grooming my hands, which had no hair and few bugs. Still, it was cute when she’d push and pull with her tiny fingers, creating a small space between them, and then would pull her head towards the gap and make an eating motion as if she had caught a bug.

Faustina loved surprising me and would hang behind a branch above me and then drop down and hit my head or grab my hat, often dangling and poking until I poked her back and other times just tapping me and running off as if we were playing tag.

This whole time Chica would sit quietly, patiently watching everyone grab at each other and run away, and when the commotion subsided and we had all taken our seats among the tree limbs, she’d slowly clamber over and sit on my lap and wait for me to groom her. We’d sit there for a while as I pet her, and if I stopped for a few moments for whatever reason, she’d softly take my hand and put it back on whatever part of her back she wanted me to pet.

After about 10 minutes or so, a cloud of mosquitoes would have gathered, literally changing the lighting as if a raincloud appeared just above me. So, much to Chica’s confusion, I’d climb down the tree and run in a zig-zag circle with my arms flailing for a while until they had mostly left me alone, and then I'd climb back to continue grooming and hanging out with everyone.

After a week or so, I started taking my headnet off as Chica walked up, just long enough for her to make eye contact and say hello. She began a sweet ritual of walking up, sitting on my lap and facing me, and then grabbing my nose in her hand the way people do to a two-year old when they play that whole “got your nose” trick. She’d hold it between her knuckles, but then she’d lean forward and sort of nibble on it, and then hold her arm out full length and make this half-smile thing she does. It seemed like a sweet ritual the way some cultures kiss close friends on the cheek upon greeting. Occasionally, she’d take to doing this after I would groom her for a while, almost as if she was thanking me.

Bitam and the other monkeys would normally get excited and go run and jump amongst the treetops, which I always encouraged as one day they will be out there on their own and will have to be comfortable with that. Faustina and Octavia would usually follow Bitam, but occasionally they’d see Chica or Talia being groomed and they’d come down from the top of the trees to the areas that could actually hold my weight and would sit there with me. I had to find places in the trees where I could fully sprawl out because if I stood in the tree, they would start to fight and wrestle for space on my shoulders. If I had a spot where I could lean far back enough, one or two monkeys could chill on my shoulder and one could lay on my lap and another hang across my torso. The monkeys could quickly get jealous, so it was often a juggling game of paying enough attention to each to prevent them from getting envious and combative with each other.

Talia would normally help with this by grooming one or two of the monkeys, but she definitely did not like it if I was petting one of the other monkeys for a while and not paying attention to her. She would then start pulling on her rope and making a high pitched growling sort of sound until me or one of the monkeys would pay attention to her.

Talia was unquestionably the most vocal of the monkeys. Howler Monkeys get their name from the sound they make, which far away sounds like a deep and heavy wind, but close up sounds like a deep loud howl that moves up and down the scale in both notes and volume. It wasn’t common, but occasionally she’d start a full on howling session, normally when it was raining in the morning. She’d rock back and forth and start howling and then suddenly Bitam and Faustina were following suit. Chica would stay still but would occasionally mimic the sound, and even little Octavia would try to make the sound, but it always came out sounding like a child grunting.

Every morning I would chill out with the monkeys, often in the tree limbs of monkey park and often in the playplace of branches, toys and swings outside the Amigos’ home. Bitam, Faustina and Octavia would occasionally run off, which would again ideally help with them adjusting to independently moving around the jungle, so I’d report that they’d run off to whomever was working the afternoon shift. If they stayed, I would leave Chica in their cage, wash and clean the feeding area, and pull out a large flat leaf to put lunch on for them. Then I’d return Talia to her cage and prepare lunch for her the same way before returning back to camp myself.


Video: Hangin' with the Monkeys

This post continues in "Maggie and the Monkeys Pt. II"

Posted by YoniOsteen 10:06 Archived in Bolivia Comments (0)

Kufunda Learning Village

Sustainability in Zimbabwe

The bus slowed to a stop less than a minute after crossing the border to let the elephant cross the road. The locals stood up and smiled, showing their pride in the wildlife and landscape the country is blessed with. Though the economic and political problems the country faces are very real, Zimbabwe does not feel like the war-torn nation of constant stress and strife that the international media depicts it as.

I found the culture in Zimbabwe to be one of relative optimism; relative to the West and relative to their situation. While people are generally smiling, welcoming and proud, the country still faces some significant difficulties and could use a serious amount of help.

That is one reason why I really appreciate the work that Kufunda Learning Village does. The organization does a variety of sustainability projects aimed at helping people in poor rural communities learn how to provide for themselves in a sustainable manner. They learn about how to improve quality of life in a sustainable way, and then reach out to communities and teach them about it, learning in the process and developing a cooperative network for the sustainable development of rural communities. For example, they are experimenting with permaculture, trying out different methods such as using locally available dead leaves as fertilizer or specific trees as windbreakers, helping to improve knowledge pertinent to development in the area. They have learned and shared knowledge about how to grow herbs and process food with locally available resources, among many similar initiatives.

Kufunda also runs a free pre-school for locals and hosts a youth program for teenagers where they come to live at Kufunda for three to four months to learn about sustainability initiatives, community development, leadership skills and other valuable resources relevant to improving the quality of life for people in their own communities back home.

I lived in the peaceful and gorgeous Kufunda Village for three weeks to contribute as much as I could do their mission. I helped with the permaculture farming and tutoring some students in mathematics, but I focused on two main initiatives for the organization. The first was to draft a proposal of funding for an interesting project the organization is undertaking. The “Solar GoGos” project means the Solar Grandmothers project, and the aim is to train grandmothers from different communities on how to install and maintain solar power housing units and to support these women in creating a system to effectively electrify their own communities in a self-reliant manner.

A handful of “Kufundees”, or members of the Kufunda village, put in a lot of hard work and had some great success with the project so far, managing to get women from three different communities trained at the Barefoot Solar College in India. They also managed to get an agreement for the equipment to be donated, but hit a roadblock with a lack of funding for some key costs, such as the shipping and delivery of the equipment that would help solar electrify 800 different households in Zimbabwe. While at Kufunda, I worked on some information gathering and organization for the project, putting together a proposal for funding in hopes that we can garner enough funds to take the next step and make this project a reality.

While environmentally friendly, this is not just a green project. These communities don’t have any electricity at all, so the project is expected to contribute significantly to economic opportunity, community sustainability, environmental awareness, education, communication and countless other goals relevant to development and sustainability. The project also set up systems for it to remain self-sustainable, not requiring new funding every time a unit breaks down and not requiring external help with any maintenance. Clearly, it was a very exciting project to work on as it really has meaningful and far-reaching potential.

The other major initiative I worked on there was to assist with some broader strategic planning. Kufunda has historically operated with the assistance of external funding, covering the expenses of initiatives like the Youth Program and the Preschool, among many other projects. Additionally, external funding has provided a stipend for working members of Kufunda Learning Village, enabling them to work full-time to implement these projects.

Unfortunately, international funding has dried up as the global economic recession has spread and developed. The funding for key projects and stipends has been exhausted, creating a crisis for the organization and its members. As any organization would, Kufunda is facing some difficulty with the situation, trying to adapt to the reality of it while improving prospects for funding and transitioning into a new era of the organization’s development.

As such, my goal was to help Kufunda gain some clarity, focus and strategic direction to help it manage its current situation and progress. Despite drawing from external information and resources, Kufunda is a grassroots organization and its development and success has always been organic and internally driven. So my approach was to gather as much information as possible from the Kufundees themselves.

I interviewed everyone that was available about Kufunda’s current situation, where they would like to go, and how they would like to get there, providing one document with the organized results of the interviews and another with conclusions about the findings from the interviews and advice and suggestions for the strategic direction of the organization based upon those findings.

I asked everyone 12 critical questions, having 30 minute to 2 hour interviews with 23 Kufundees, including the security staff. My questions were direct and intended to get people in a conversational mood, which proved effective as individuals provided impassioned, intelligent and creative answers to my questions. Having such thorough conversations with the full breadth of the organization was extremely interesting and provided me a lot of insight into an organization that proved, unsurprisingly, to be truly special. Despite all the difficulties of life in Zimbabwe, these individuals chose to dedicate their time towards helping others learn how to live in positive “life-affirming” communities. When funding for their own livelihood dried up, these individuals believed in their mission so passionately that they stayed and worked anyhow.

Of course, the interviews revealed the frustration of the impact that the loss of funding is having on a variety of important projects, but the interviews also shed light on the impact the loss of funding had on the individual Kufundees themselves. I felt deeply for these altruistic people as they continued to show up for Kufunda tasks and responsibilities despite struggling to find part-time work to live off of.

As one woman explained, “my problem is I have [4] kids who need to go to school, my husband passed away and I don’t have any money. I don’t have any money and Christmas is coming. The ARVs”, (AntiRetroViral drug or AIDS medication), “make me very weak as I’m not supposed to be in the sun when I take them, so I can only work on people’s fields in the morning as if I stay out there longer I get dizzy and have a hard time continuing to work. It feels like these days things are not ok with me. We are not getting enough food for my family, but I don’t know how else to get the food and things I need. My kids may not be able to go to school next year, I am struggling so I am not feeling settled. I am now accepting everything because I don’t know what else to do.” However, like all the others who I interviewed, this individual continues to show up consistently and make meaningful contributions to Kufunda's goals and activities.

Of course, I used the interviews to explore why people continue to stay around and contribute as actively as they can despite the loss of stipends, and the answers tended to be similar. As one Kufundee explained, "I have this journey that I feel like I am working for my people, for my surroundings, for the world. I feel like I am living in a place that I have a platform to do that. The other things I do I do for money so I can make things work, I don’t love that work. I don’t even enjoy it, but the work that I have passion for, that I love, that I feel I am making an impact, that is here.”

I genuinely believe in Kufunda’s mission, as well as the passion and sincerity of its members, so I hope that the strategic planning work helps them get through this tumultuous phase and back to making a difference on the ground without having to worry about their children’s school fees and basic health needs. As I wrote in a previous post, I am a deep believer in the power of the ripple effect. I think process improvement and anything that can have a long-term impact on a system or how things work is better than an equivalent amount of energy spent on a short-term fix.

Kufunda does a lot of work where their impact is visible, but the vast majority of it is more subtle and yet more powerful. Their focus on sharing knowledge and skill-building really does have the potential for far-reaching impact. Covering the high initial costs and teaching a community how to install and maintain a community solar-power system would prove more effective than paying a month of their electric bill. Similarly, Kufunda’s broader philosophy of helping people to help themselves not only humanizes and empowers those they work with, but has much greater potential for improving their quality of life in the long-term than providing them a meal or a set of clothing would.

Two and a half millennia ago, Lao Tzu, the founder of Taoism, wisely said “Give a man a fish; feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish; feed him for a lifetime.” It may be a cliché, but clichés are overused or “tried and true” for a reason – because there is truth in them.

If anyone knows somebody that is looking for an effective way to contribute or is interested in learning more about the Solar Gogo Project or Kufunda as a whole, please let me know. In these tough economic times, I can certainly understand if people don’t have the time or ability to help the organization, so if nothing else, I hope their story can provide inspiration about the human spirit and the ability to remain altruistic in the face adversity.

With love,


Posted by YoniOsteen 06:21 Archived in Zimbabwe Comments (0)

Short Stories from East Africa

I was speaking with the owner of a backpacker’s lodge in Kenya when I discovered she and her husband have adopted 274 kids! She clearly can't be an ideal mother to any of them when she has to split her time between all of them and manage a guesthouse, but many of them would've died without the adoption, and it seems like the work she does is really making a big difference for them. 2 to 20 kids live at the guesthouse at any given time, and the rest are in boarding school. She has 23 birthdays this month!

She and her husband cover all the education and healthcare for these kids. Unfortunately, she was in a pretty depressed mood when we were speaking because one of her children had just died. His name was David. His mother tried to abort him late in the third trimester and he came out alive anyhow, but clearly undernourished and underweight. His mother, who must be some sort of evil, was angry that the abortion did not work and threw the baby across the room, breaking his pelvis and creating further health issues. He was .9 kg when they took him in.

They had already said they were at least putting a pause on adopting new kids, but they've had success in rehabilitating such cases before and couldn't say no when they were approached. The boy lived for three months but developed complications. They tried to take him out of the country for medical treatment but the Kenyan government wouldn't allow it because they were not the biological parents, and the boy passed away a week after they were denied medical access outside of the country. It was clearly weighing on her soul. I felt so bad for her. Such compassion brings such pain, but I'm sure she has more fulfillment from her compassion in the long-run. If it weren’t for their care and support, I’m sure many of these children would’ve faced a similar fate as David sadly has. Two of her kids just got accepted on full-scholarship to the University of Chicago.

I guess that's part of what I love about Africa. There is a raw humanity, something deeply human, cut and crude, but not scarred and covered, to the interactions with people here. On the plane from Bahrain to Africa I sat next to a woman named Shuffah who was crying to me about her situation. She had been working for 6 months as a maid in Saudi Arabia and wasn't paid a cent because she went home early in the midst of a 2-year contract. She left to try to make money for her parents as her brother is in jail and her other sister "is not responsible," and her parents are aging and her father is sick and can no longer work. But the family she worked for were "evil people" and made her feel worthless and inhuman.

She wouldn't go into the details and I clearly did not want to pry about something like that, but I don't think she was just being picky because she was happy with her work as a maid in Libya - she was just forced to leave when the war started up there. You could also tell that she felt she was too intelligent to be a maid, and she is probably right about that, but that circumstances were forcing her into that situation. She would've accepted that circumstance if it weren't for how she was treated there, but in America we talk about "the right to self-determination" and providing a country and environment where people can reach their true potential. We may not always reach that ideal, but at least it something we an shoot for. Traveling in Africa always makes me thankful for all of that and sympathetic to all the people here who have given up hope on becoming who they want to be or reaching their full potential in sacrifice of meeting the immediate needs of survival and family, always needing to focus on the short-term.

She was coming home with guilt and a feeling of failing her father, so I reminded her that 6 months was just a step in her life and she is about to take a new step and with each one she can become closer to reaching her goals. She said she didn't know what she wanted to do, to which I replied that my situation was not as difficult as hers, admittedly, but I also did not know what I wanted to do with my life. She smiled and gave me advice that she clearly needed to hear herself and I wish I had told her - "Keep faith in God and just keep looking at it. Good people live hard lives but they are rewarded in the end."

While I respect the religious context of faith, I think she meant the afterlife by "the end," and that is honestly not my reasoning. Still, I felt the strength and hope in what she was saying and I grew from it in a way. I hope just saying it to somebody that was there to listen to her and treat her like a human was helpful for her. She clearly hadn't had anyone who looked at her as a person in half a year. She had tears floating in her eyes and we smiled together and just felt that raw human connection that reminds us we're alive.

And by the way, while I don’t believe in traditional religious views of the afterlife, I do believe good people are rewarded in the end because no amount of ill-earned gain can compare to the feeling of self-worth, self-awareness, fulfillment and integrity that an honest person sleeps with.

From Nairobi I needed to get to Zimbabwe where I’d be volunteering in a small village outside of Harare. I traveled by bus to Arusha, in Northern Tanzania, and moved through the center of the country to Mbeya in the South, where I’d be able to take a train into Zambia, and ultimately take more buses to Zimbabwe.

There are no tourists buses for most of this route. I was taking one of the old public buses to a town called Kondoa when the broken window kept sliding open to let dry dust and desert sand wheeze in. Other passengers kept asking me in Swahili to close the window, and I would, but in less than a minute it would slide open again. That was when I decided to take my shoelaces out and tie the window to the bus using two holes in the window. People talk about traveling on a shoestring, so I guess I literally was.

The buses are an experience themselves. There are generally some pantomime conversations and you always get nice and cozy with your neighbors. When the bus stops, people come up to the windows to try and sell snacks and drinks, and in this case, chickens. Live chickens. One of the passenger bought one of the live chickens, handing some shillings out the window, after which the villager took the chicken by the legs, slammed its head against the bus wall and tied it by the legs to the roof of the bus as it dangled off the side, smacking against our shoestring windows with each bump in the road.

The bus ended in Kondoa, where I checked into a local guesthouse using the now-familiar check-in form with the column for “tribe.” The following morning I took another bus to a place called Kolo, which has the oldest cave paintings in Tanzania, some over 3,000 years old!

I arrived at the world heritage site to find the government office for entry to the site closed. A local guy went and got the ranger who worked there, who arranged a motorcycle ride and a tour out to the caves for about $5.

I was thinking about all the independent travel required to get here when another equally dingy local bus dropped off a tiny old lady who explained to me that she was travelling from Cape Town to Nairobi overland by bus on her own. It's essentially the reverse path of what I'm doing, but - she is 82 years old!

I spoke with the woman for a while as we were waiting for our motorcycles/guides to arrive and as we walked around the caves later. She was born in Yugoslavia as a Serbian and for such a birth was sent to the concentration camps where her father perished. I have to say, the willpower and spirit to be traveling independently through the bush of Africa as an 82 year old woman impressed me about as much as the ancient cave paintings themselves.

By including “woman” in that sentence, I’m not suggesting any different value in the genders, but the reality is there are different qualities in the genders, especially when put in a cultural context, and this makes it much easier to travel in this part of the world as a man. Not to mention as a man in his 20’s.

The cave paintings were of course fascinating. It's amazing to think about, nevertheless visit and view art and expression from so long ago. Anthropologists believe the caves were once the homes of Bushmen hunters, and have in the recent millennium served as a religious site for local tribes. One of the caves is for rain, another for healing, and another for fertility. It’s amazing how all over the world, amongst ancient peoples who had no communication with each other, humans all prayed. And we all prayed for the same things. It is all ultimately the same experience.

I previously posted about a few days I had spent in Lake Naivasha. On my third day, two Danish girls from the backpackers lodge in Nairobi, Anna and Carlota, joined me for an adventure through Hell’s Gate park. They are among the many medical students and doctors volunteering at clinics in and around Nairobi staying at the backpacker’s lodge. They tell me stories about switching frantically between patients in rooms of 8 un-anaesthetized women delivering babies in a clinic so understaffed that they have first-year medical students delivering babies and patients have to bring their own cotton to clean up the blood.

They’ve saved lives, and yet it is just a drop in an ocean of medical needs this continent faces. Mind you, each drop affects real people with real emotions and love and pain and lives we often distance ourselves from, so I deeply admire the work anyone does to help just one person here.

As we biked through the park, the views shouted stereotypes of an African landscape painting; giraffe and zebras grazed softly across light green plains with spattered stretches of orange dust and dark yellow trees whose limbs could be mistaken for giraffe necks. The trees conservative foliage umbrella’d outwards with the underbelly of the leafy canopy laying flat and then slowly sloping downwards along the edges. The top layer of leaves seemed a lighter shade than the bottom layers, brightened by the sun like light green cumulous clouds.

We ate lunch at a picnic table outside of The Gorge, a deep cut into the rocky walls of stone with hot water perspirating around the edges, trickling out of tiny holes in the stone like sweat. As we ate, a baboon charged our table to grab some lunch. Having spent some time around baboons at Cape Point, I stood up and slammed on the table while screaming, scaring the monkey off. This clearly attracted some attention and one of the park rangers approached us.

The park ranger, Ledama, is in the reserves and is being called upon to go to Somalia. He was on the verge of tears as he explained that he had an intuition that he was going to die this time. He said he wasn’t against his government’s decision, but he doesn’t understand it and doesn’t see the point on thinking about the reasons for the war. He said surviving the battlefield is just luck and he used up all of his. He spoke of a photo he had of his old unit and how he had recently looked at it in a drunken depressed state, and realizing all his friends there were now dead, wished them well and told them he’d be joining them soon.

It was a strange juxtaposition when I got back to the campsite guesthouse and heard the barman there, Benson, complaining about how he didn’t have the 240,000 Kenyan Shillings ($2,400) necessary to bribe his way into the military. It’s a bribe recruiters can often receive because of the job opportunities that open up after service.

That's the paradox of Africa. Sometimes situations are so desperate that people act selfishly and you have to be defensive minded to protect yourself. You have to create a separation. Other times, situations are so desperate that you can't help but experience the pure humanity of it, exposed in a deep, rough, unrefined and organic way. You instinctively feel a connection.

I've always loved Africa, despite all its flaws, and I think it's largely because of this trait. Traveling here, I gain a feeling of it being an incisively human experience.

May we always remember we are all in this together. We are all human.

With love,


Posted by YoniOsteen 00:48 Comments (4)

What's in a Name?

Most of you reading this probably know me as Yoni, although many of you know me as Jonathan as well, and many people know me only by the name of Jonathan.

Legally, my name is Jonathan Samuel Osteen. My Israeli passport has in Hebrew letters Yonatan Shmuel Osteen, although the English letters show Jonathan Samuel Osteen. Yonatan is Hebrew for Jonathan. Growing up, most people called me Yoni, the equivalent of Johnny. It didn’t take long for it to get confusing for people. Yoni is not a common name in the States, and people often got it wrong. A friend in San Diego recently pointed out that an easy way to explain the name is that it sounds like “Tony” but it starts with a Y. I don’t know why I had never thought of that before, but it seems to work well.

Anyhow, growing up, people butchered my name, which is immaturely but understandably frustrating for a young boy. Also, as young kids are prone to do, many of my schoolmates teased me for the name Yoni, drawing references to Yogi the bear and Yanni the strange pianist guy and other things that only an 8 year old would be deeply insulted about. But I was.

So between the name-calling and people consistently botching genuine attempts to pronounce it, I stopped correcting teachers who read the name “Jonathan” off the school list, and by the time I reached high school the only people that called me “Yoni” were people who had called me that for some time beforehand. By college, few of my friends even knew the name “Yoni” existed and only friends from Orlando, Israel and friends of the family knew me by that name.

When I was in San Diego, I ran into an old friend from elementary and middle school who had lived in the same neighborhood as me in Longwood, Florida and somehow got posted in San Diego across the country as a helicopter pilot for his Navy service. He walked up to me at a bar during my first week in San Diego, asking “excuse me, is that you Yoni?” Wow. What a crazy coincidence.

Asher and I hung out after that before he got posted to Guam, and one day he asked me why I don’t go by the name Yoni anymore. I didn’t really know the answer at first. For the most part, it just kind of happened and I wasn’t completely aware of the reasons. Some people still call me Yoni and I just let people call me whatever they’re most comfortable with. I introduce myself as Jonathan, but I do feel more like a Yoni than a Jonathan, whatever that means.

So he asked, “well, why don’t you go by Yoni again?” At first, the question posed seemed ridiculous. You can’t just start introducing yourself by a different name. “Why not?” Asher probed, and it took me a while, but I realized he’s right – why not? It was one of those moments where you suddenly realize something you weren’t even aware you were assuming, you had been assuming with absolute certainty, and it wasn’t even true. I think it’s important to look for those moments in life; while this one changed my behavior, sometimes they can change the way you think.

Anyhow, I’ve been introducing myself as Yoni again. I’ve told my friends that call me Jonathan that I am introducing myself as Yoni, but they are free to call me whatever feels right for them as I am, strangely, also Jonathan and I’ll still respond to people calling me that.

It’s a strange identity crisis I suppose. What does it mean that I feel more like Yoni? Does it really matter? How do I introduce myself as Yoni on job interviews when my transcript reads Jonathan? How would a potential employer read into that? What’s in a name anyhow? Is it really just a label?

Recently, the issue of my name legally being Jonathan is confusing people who I introduce myself to as Yoni… again. Instead of a teacher reading a name off a list, people see Jonathan when I sign in to campsites and guesthouses using my passport. I’m getting tired of the short but confusing and old story explaining that Jonathan is my legal name, but I’m also tired of the schizophrenic solution of just using the legal name with some people and turning around and introducing myself as somebody else to other people.

So, what it comes down to is I’m considering changing my name – legally. There are many pros to this. Most importantly, I feel more like Yoni and my legal name should reflect that, plus it will help skip all the confusing situations that arise from having two names. Of course, there are cons too. New confusion will arise with people that know me as Jonathan, and things like my transcript will still have the name Jonathan on it, so how much of that confusion and annoyance with the dual identities will actually disappear?

Anyhow, I’m not really sure on which way to go. I consider myself Yoni and can introduce myself that way, but does it really matter if that’s not my name legally? Is it worth the hassle? It's probably obvious which way I am leaning, but I figured I should share my thoughts and open myself up to input, so feel free to e-mail me your thoughts.

With love,

Yoni (Jonathan) Osteen
Jonathan “Yoni” Osteen
Yoni, but technically, Jonathan, Osteen

Just kiddng… kinda

Posted by YoniOsteen 03:15 Comments (0)

(Entries 1 - 5 of 21) Page [1] 2 3 4 5 »