You’d think after the overwhelming experience of Antarctica, things couldn’t be topped. Well, think again. The Love Revolution continues to amaze and inspire us.
We arrived back to Buenos Aires by plane from Ushuaia, and were invited that evening to a night of music in one of the oldest theaters in Argentina. An evening complete with orchestra, and from what I could gather, four famous tenors of Argentina. What a night! Front row seats. I sat that so thrilled that my sons were once again having another experience of a lifetime, thanks to our friend, Kirk Boswell.
Directly after the show, because we are the guys on the go, we headed straight to the bus station at midnight, for our overnight coach to Cordoba and then our connecting bus to the little town of La Cumbre, in the Argentinian Sierras. We arrived the next morning, quite haggard, and took a taxi up the mountain to our next volunteer location, The Refugio de Monos (also known as Proyecto Caraya)… and the beginning of another mind-blowing adventure.
I have to preface this story by saying that we had no idea what we were getting ourselves into. We knew we wanted to work with at least one animal organization in South America and we found these folk’s website by chance. It described long hours of work and basic accommodation…. No electricity or hot water. Yikes. But working with the rehabilitation of Howler Monkeys sounded too good to pass up.
We arrived on the property, to a field of llamas, wild horses, dogs barking and few people. I have to admit we were a bit nervous. Pia and Juan, the volunteer coordinator, and manager of the property, instantly welcomed us. Little did we know that, over the next three weeks, these two people would become our dear friends.
After dropping off our bags in our room, (it was true… rustic, basic housing), we were introduced to the baby Howler Monkeys. What a blast. They jumped all over us…. pulling at our hair, wrapping around our necks, and even grooming my goatee. The boys and I knew at that very moment, that this was going to be an experience of a lifetime.
Then the real magic began. A teal-green truck pulled up, and out walked a spitfire of a women, who I knew instantly would be a life-long friend… Alejandra Juarez, the inspiration for and owner of The Refugio de Monos. Sometimes you just get hit with that instant connection of friendship… a sort of “past life” thing. Whatever it was, it was instanteous.
She walked over and hugged all three of us, and there and then, began a great journey of three weeks that would change all of our lives forever.
Alejandra came from simple means, with an undeniable love for animals. She received a lot of recognition for her work at the Cordoba Zoo, caring for Tigers, her first love. She’s fearless in the animal department. We saw some footage of her on the local news, rolling around with tigers in a cage that was just stunning. Truly Fearless! And animals love this woman.
But she would outgrow the zoo environment and long for a less confining experience for the animals she loved. A great believer in the Laws of Attraction, she began to visualize creating an oasis for animals to live in freedom. That’s where her work began with the Howler Monkeys.
The Howler Monkey has a rich history in Argentina and the unfortunate part is that it includes being domesticated. These monkey are made to be household pets because they are so adorable, but as they mature, their instincts kick in and they become more aggressive with the host families. The families give them alcohol to mellow them out, but as you might guess, that sometimes makes them even more aggressive. Then these families abandon them.
In steps Alejandra – her goal, to rescue domesticated Howler Monkey. Also she rescues monkeys abandoned in their natural environment rejected by their mothers, and/or from zoos. Then she works to rehabilitate them back into living in their natural environment. This is not an easy task. Much time is spent grouping monkeys together to see if they can co-inhabitate, forming an alpha male and alpha female in a group environment. Groups can vary from 3 to 20 monkeys. The monkeys begin in cages and are let out slowly and then set up into groups. The goal is to have the monkey lose interest in human contact and once again adjust to living in the forests on the property of The Refugio. Currently there are 13 groups set up for monkeys. Those that are successfully living in groups are delivered leaves, fruit, food, and water each day to make sure they are getting ample nutrition, but have little or no human contact – Alejandra’s ultimate goal.
Another interesting note is that they are the loudest mammals on earth. They go through a daily ritual of howling very loudly to establish their home territories and to let other howler monkey groups know not to invade their domain. It’s really fascinating to experience. So freakin’ loud.
Volunteering at the Refugio is not for lightweights. It’s hard work, most of the time between 8 to 10 hours a day of preparing food, cutting leaves, getting water, delivering food and water to each group throughout the forest, helping with the baby monkeys, etc. And the refugio is not exclusive to monkeys. Alejandra’s love for animals includes many other rescues. On the property, they have both Howler Monkeys and Cappuccino Monkeys, llamas, pumas, wild horses, donkeys, cows, geese, dogs, and cats. In addition to all these animals, indigenous to the area, there are “rat rabbits”, foxes, bats and a huge array of exotic birds…an animal lovers paradise! The dog rescue program at the refugio is huge, saving all the dogs that are due to be killed at the local pound. Alejandra just doesn’t allow animals to be killed. They have dozens of dogs and are the leaders in dog adoption in the La Cumbre area.
Jackson has never worked so hard. Up at 8:30am, he gathered leaves, food, and a bucket of water and hauled it over a mile to the furthest groups of monkeys in the forest. After that, he helped build dog enclosures, watched the baby monkeys, observed behavior of the groups of monkeys in the forest, stood guard so that two groups in the forest didn’t invade each other’s areas, herded llamas and brought water to the pumas. Needless to say he was exhausted by day’s end.
Buck was given a bit of an easier task, as the youngest volunteer ever at the refugio. He was in charge of the newborn kittens, caring for the baby monkeys and herding the llamas. It was amazing to see all the baby monkeys jumping all over him, Buck calling each of them by name. I mean how many kids get to make friends with baby monkeys, know them all by name, and swing them around by their tails all day? Or herd llamas? Two lucky kids.
And yes, they put me to work as well. I delivered food and water to monkeys, observed a number of groups in the forest, painted the volunteer quarters and the kitchen, cleaned the “banos”, and even cleaned the monkey houses. Phew…
I fell in love with a few monkeys. One was a “special needs” monkey named Lennon. He was born with a physical challenge, was rejected by his mother, and had a hard time walking. As some of you know, Yoko Ono sent us a note encouraging us on our journey and so to come across Lennon (named after John), we had an instant connection. What an adorable animal. Unfortunately, while we were there, he had a bit of a stroke. I was elected to carry him around in my sweatshirt all day and keep him warm. The bad news, Lennon past away a few days before we left. I was devastated. A great lesson in the circle of life thing. Broke my heart. Another monkey crush was Cookie. She took an instant liking to me and everywhere I went in the forest she followed me. The goal in the wild, is limited human connect, so it was hard for me to keep putting her down when she would want to jump on me and cuddle.
Pia and Juan run a tight ship at the refugio, keeping all the volunteers on their toes. Most of the volunteers were from Germany, Norway, Denmark and Australia. A huge shout out to Eja, Sandra, Anna, Joshua and Morton, some of our favorites.
The greatest part of our time there was spent watching Alejandra at work. I had the good fortune of spending a lot of time with her. She is truly an extraordinary woman doing great things in the world of animal rescue and rehabilitation. She is also the director of the Argentinian division of Projecto Gap, an organization working with primates all over the world. Alejandra is a woman with a point of view. She’s a tough cookie and knows what she wants to do and gets it done, all while raising two amazing daughters, Marlen, 15, and Mayu, 17. She is a woman of vision and an inspiration to be around. But her sense of humor was the best of all. We spent the days laughing our heads off communicating in broken English and Spanish, building a bond that I know will last a life-time.
The boys and I will always remember the great family meals we had together. And, of course, the Mate! The tea they drink in South America that is so awesome and I think majorly addicting. I’m returning home with my own Mate cup in my baggage.
You can check out their website at: http://www.proyectocaraya.com.ar
This is a project going places. They are going to be expanding their project in the northern region of Argentina in Chaco (which is the more natural environment for Howler Monkey) and also including chimpanzee to the mixed of animals at the refugio. Alejandra has dedicated her life to helping abused and displaced animals live freely. She also does her work quietly without looking for praises or accolades.
If you want to help The Refugio de Monos go to their website and donate or you can also volunteer. Do yourself the favor – Volunteer! It will change your life! When’s the last time you got to visit Argentina and work with Howler Monkeys?… Monkeys you can hold, feed, play with, and love. It’s a life-changing experience. And you’ll get to meet the one and only, Alejandra Juarez! And the coolest, Juan Pablo and Pia! So if you are interested in a visit to the Refugio, let me know and I’ll hook you up!
So with tears, we leave the Refugio and have just arrived, after a 2 day bus ride – Arghhh! – in Uyuni, Bolivia for a visit to the famous Salt Flats and a few days off (definitely needed), then on to La Paz and Lake Titicaca, enroute to Cusco, Peru to the Casa De Milagros, our next volunteer location.
As always, thanks for your continued support. We love and appreciate you all.
And the Love Revolution continues… getting so much closer to home all the time.