The Monkey’s Tail

How many types of birds do you typically see in your back yard? I’ve counted maybe a dozen at different times – blue jays, cardinals, wrens, robins, pigeons… – the usual urban North American coterie.

In the Amazon rainforest there are 1,300 species and counting.

According to the World Wildlife Fund, of all the known species of creatures on the earth, 1 in 10 are found in the Amazon basin – “40,000 plant species, 3,000 freshwater fish species, and more than 370 types of reptiles. Over 2,000 new species of plants and vertebrates, including a monkey that purrs like a cat, have been described since 1999.” It’s mind-boggling.

The first thing you notice walking through the Amazon Jungle is a battle for life – layers and layers of plant life climbing on top of each other, growing on each other, feeding on each other. Jostling for every nutrient they can wring out of their complex environment.

Parasitic vines will eventually choke the life out of a tree

You look up through layers of green to catch a glimpse of the sky, or downward to a dense layer of new, old and decaying growth littering the ground. Nothing goes to waste in a rainforest.

Layers upon layers cover the forest floor

The jungle is home to myriad creatures as well – carpenter ants carting massive pieces of leaves like banners, spiders clinging to tree trunks, huge butterflies flitting in and out, secretive capuchin monkeys clustered on branches.

A black tarantula ventures a couple of legs out from its burrow near the top right

To celebrate World Rainforest Day this week on June 22, this blog is kicking off a Peru travel series with a peek at exploring that very jungle.

In Peru, typically visitors access the jungle along one of the Amazon’s tributaries, flying from Cusco to one of the jungle’s great frontier towns, Puerto Maldonado. From the Andes mountains your plane swoops down over masses of dense green-ness, sadly patched with barren brown pieces of denuded land, to a murky river snaking through the thick jungle growth.

How fantastic it must have been for the first intrepid explorers to be faced with the undisturbed masses of vegetation, and how daunting to explore for months slowly moving through unknown and difficult terrain.

We arrived at the beginning of the rainy season, easily, landing in muddy, ramshackle, colourful Puerto Maldonado, where any useful supplies for a trip into the jungle can be bought and loaded onto your transportation to the river dock.

Once at the bare-bones wooden dock, we boarded a long motorized canoe that zipped along the Madre de Dios river for just an hour and a half, past steep banks dotted with wrecked wooden canoes and the odd small cabin, residents cruising by in their own motorboats bringing supplies back home from the town, and people using illegal gold-dredging methods that destroy the river ecosystem.

Transferring to our motorized canoe in Puerto Maldonado

The river banks look the same, I imagine, as they must have for the early adventurers, but the river traffic is a modern concoction. The river is wide and flanked by tall green walls of trees – palm, wild papaya and mango, and many other kinds that we didn’t recognize.

Illegal river mining

Eventually we were brought gently up to a jetty peeking out of a clearing in the green wall – the access point to our comfortably rustic lodge, the Eco Amazonia. No hacking our way through the jungle – porters collected our baggage and led the way on raised walkways to the main lodge to check in. Had we arrived a few weeks later, the river would have risen right up to those walkways – the lodge even thoughtfully provides racks of loaner rubber boots for its guests.

Arriving at the lodge

The lodge wasn’t one of the luxury versions, but I loved its green-meshed and wood-sided buildings strewn amongst the brilliant red- and pink-flowered ginger plants with vivid green leaves.

Colourful meals were served in the large dining room – our first lunch led off with a fresh avocado salad, followed by a mysterious banana leaf-wrapped packet that, once we untied the string, revealed a delicious chicken and vegetable rice pilaf.

Our raised cabins were ranged in rows along the grounds, past brilliant green lizards, little brown agouti and parrots lurking in the palm trees. Here we finally heard all the sounds you expect to find, from insects and birds and monkeys in the jungle that surrounded the lodge property, just a short bridge-walk away.

A small agouti roams across the grounds

The accommodations were basic but quite comfortable, straddling the line between civilized and adventurous. Steps lead up to a screened porch, then a large sleeping area with several twin beds, and a dimly-lit bathroom that intermittently had warm water in the shower. At night we could hear the preliminary light rains spattering down on the corrugated tin roofs, and the insects humming safely outside the walls.

There are a lot of things to do in the jungle after a meal and a cup of the thick, dark, concentrated Peruvian coffee that has to be thinned with water to be drinkable.

On our first afternoon we were taken across the river to the lodge’s Monkey Island, a sanctuary for primates rescued from the pet trade. There are golden and brown capuchins, and a particularly cheeky female spider monkey who loves to pluck plastic water bottles from visitors and bite off the caps. I was standing next to a small feeding platform, taking a few photos, when she decided to run across, climb my shoulder and sit on my head, wrapping her long prehensile tail around my neck for balance so tightly that I had to wiggle my finger in between to keep from choking. I could hear cameras going off furiously while I tried to see past a screen of black fur. After a minute or so she’d had enough of her perch on my head and uncoiled herself to see who else looked interesting.

Our spider monkey visitor

As evening fell and we made our way back to the canoe, we could see the deep tracks of a caiman in the cracked dry earth of the river’s edge. Some of us took the opportunity to do a night canoe ride by paddle on the river in the hopes of spotting a black caiman or two along the banks, their eyes gleaming in the darkness. It was eerie and silent, gliding softly through the water under hundreds of stars – that was when I felt closest to the early explorers.

Our long hike through the jungle itself was led by a genuine Amazonian native, Marco, who’d grown up in one of the traditional villages and knew the forest like the back of his hand. He showed us some of the many plants that the villagers have used for a long time to promote fertility, heal maladies, even to send messages – one of the trees makes such a loud, carrying sound when it’s hit with a piece of wood that people would use it as a locator signal.

This tree holds the source of extracts for both male virility (the purplish protrusions) and female fertility (the green vine winding up the trunk)

We ducked under fallen trees, crossed weed-choked streams, took photos of each other dwarfed by just the roots of towering jungle trees. And yes, you can actually swing on the vines.

Our guide demonstrating the proper vine swing technique

Our main destination was an oxbow lake well-hidden by wild papaya trees. There’s a tall viewing platform that some people climbed, but we chose to be paddled around the small lake in a canoe, watching ducks swim along the fringes and a black-collared hawk look for prey from its perch on an old branch. Back on shore, butterflies of all kinds flitted around us and landed on our gear. We felt miles away from anywhere.

In the evenings after dinner everyone congregated in the bar and explored the many intriguing cocktails created by the staff. I believe I sampled an Anaconda and perhaps even a Jaguar, perfect after a day in the jungle.

Our three-week adventure to Peru and Bolivia included just two days in the rainforest, so we weren’t able to catch sight of the area’s most famous residents, like the elusive jaguar or the giant river otters, but it was a window into a mysterious green world that forms one of the greatest natural wonders of our planet. Even today we know so little about it, a place with over 16,000 species of trees alone, and a staggering estimated 2.5 million species of insects!

The sight of a big, bright blue Morpho butterfly landing delicately on a leaf in front of you is a magical thing.

There are numerous rainforests around the world, all rapidly dwindling because of our greed. To learn more about these biodiversity hotspots and how you can help save as much as possible, check out the Rainforest Rescue website.

All photos by Erica Jurus and rights reserved.

Those who garden can, those who can’t enjoy someone else’s

I have many qualities, but a green thumb isn’t one of them. I can manage to get things to grow, but most of the results are short-lived, except for a Peace Lily I brought home from my work office that’s survived for more than a year, amazingly; a Curly Bamboo my hubby gave me in a fit of optimism that must like the light in our living room; and assorted shrubbery outside the house that survives without much assistance from me.

I grew up on a farm, though, surrounded by nature, so I have a love of plants in all their forms. My mother had more skills than me, and we had glorious hollyhocks blooming every spring in the front of the farmhouse, and even a small vegetable garden in the short northern summer. No matter where we lived she always had an assortment of plants in the windows, something I tried to reproduce in my own homes after I got married but failed so miserably that long ago I resorted to nice-looking artificial plants which people often mistake for the real thing.

In university, studying biology, I even took an entire course in Botany, so I can tell you a lot about plants and flowers – I just can’t grow many myself.

Instead, I really enjoy exploring gardens around the world, including our own little corner of it.

Pond of Giant Amazon Lilies at Sir Seewoosagur Rangoolam Botanic Garden, Mauritius

Gardening, as a form of manipulating an outdoor space, began over 10,000 years ago when early humanity began to nurture useful food-bearing plants and eliminate the ones they didn’t want. As some people began to accumulate wealth and position, they created formal gardens for their own enjoyment, like the legendary Hanging Gardens of Babylon. There were also medicinal gardens for ready access to plants with healing properties, and temple gardens for producing offerings to the gods.

A quiet shady path meanders through the Japanese Garden at Powerscourt Estate, Ireland

Gardens reflect the cultures that created them, and I find the different styles fascinating. My personal favourite are Japanese and Chinese gardens – I find them soothing to the eye and spirit, places of serenity and quiet contemplation.

The other day I needed to get outside the walls of my home, so I visited our local Butterfly Conservatory. The buildings are closed, but the grounds are open to enjoy. The sun was shining and the air was fresh and not too hot, but there were just a handful of us enjoying this pretty spot, one of the pluses of being in this situation I suppose.

The grounds are fronted by an allée of shade trees and potted plants leading to a gleaming metal sculpture which punctuates the natural world all around it. Although at first glance it might seem out of place, as you get closer to the sculpture, you can see complexities of colour in the metal that pull it into the surroundings.

Most visitors throng the main building to walk among the 2,000-plus butterflies, as I’ve  done myself when I was giving someone a tutorial on animal photography. The gardens don’t dominate the eye – just a few benches and trees to begin with, with some flowers edging the lawns – but as I explored an unobtrusive pathway they began to unfold a soft beauty meant to be enjoyed quietly and slowly.

I took photos as I walked, so I can remember the feeling of sun on my face, a frog croaking in a pond, beautiful flowers bobbing and riffling in the light breeze. And to forever capture the fleeting splendor of nature’s artwork. I hope you enjoy them as well, especially if you can’t get to a garden yourself.

I’ll be profiling other gardens in future posts, and once we’re all able to travel again, I hope to set up garden tours to some of the many lovely paintings-in-landscape around the world.

Serene little pond along the path
Magnificent irises alongside the pond
Downloading photos, I love how they often capture tiny details that my eye didn’t pick up
The perfect spot to rest your legs
I liked the textures of this bird bath
A spectacular red Oriental Poppy in full bloom…
..and as the flower wanes
A dramatically shaped tree trunk in monochrome

All images by me and rights reserved.

Loving the unpredictable

What kind of personality type are you?

Do you like everything planned out, in sequential steps and in every detail? Are you more of a free spirit who  prefers to wing it all or most of the time, embracing life as it comes along? Likely you’re some place in the middle, and you recognize there are situations that work better with some planning while others are more enjoyable in their spontaneity.

There are a variety of personality-typing systems to help you understand that your preferences aren’t an anomaly or a personal quirk – that there are in fact all kinds of people in the world just like you in how you handle life.

In my work at a local college for many years, I had access to analysis several times. If you know yourself fairly well, generally the results won’t surprise you, but they’re interesting to read. They also help you understand people around you and how you can interact with someone without pushing too many of their buttons.

One of the simplest personality profiles is the True Colour system. I’m very Green – both analytical and intuitive. I always want to know why something needs to be done, for example – the reasoning behind it. It helps me understand a task and give it my best effort. However, I imagine it was a challenge for my parents, teachers and managers at my different jobs 😊

There’s a part of me that really enjoys planning, but another side that loves the adventure of spontaneity. The result is that I tend to think like a mind map – central concepts with spokes all over the place as related ideas pop into my head, and then ways that those ideas hook up with others.

My husband used to be very Gold – very structured, hated surprises. He joked that he enjoyed ‘planned spontaneity’. I planned a surprise party for his 30th birthday before I understood personality types well, and you can imagine how that turned out – I had a stiff neck for days both before and after!

During our journey through life together, we’ve balanced each other out well; he keeps me on track, and I’ve cajoled him into all kinds of crazy adventures that he’s grown accustomed to. (Truth be told, they make the best stories!)

More than that, we’re very good at handling the unexpected and thinking on our feet, which has been a great asset in the past couple of months.

As the world moves forward into the unknown future, things are going to change. That’s not necessarily a bad thing – there are many reports of lessening air pollution and wildlife rebounds as a result of decreased human impact.

For the past couple of decades, people have been absorbed in thinking about themselves and the next exciting thing to come along, instead of the long-term effects of materialism and endless self-promo on social media. Life has for too long largely been about the next quick fix.

But that doesn’t help you grow as a person. It doesn’t teach you anything about resilience when a major shift comes along.

It’s time to develop the skills that will carry us through whatever the ‘new normal’ may turn out to be. Everyone in the world has suddenly been ejected right out of their comfort zone, and those with tiny, restricted comfort zones have fared the worst, I think.

What skills are going to serve you well in the future?

Adaptability – it’s critical to get comfortable with change, and to understand that the best laid plans are not always going to work out. It’s a given on adventure travel, and we rather like that sense of not knowing entirely what’s around the corner. One of my favourite mantras is from Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: Keep calm and don’t panic. Be flexible. View the unexpected as an intriguing fork in the road, not a dead end.

Willingness to learn new things – you may need to learn some new skills for your résumé so that you can be available for types of employment you haven’t done before. When I used to help university students put together their job-hunting packages, I always advised them to develop as broad a skill-base as possible. These days, you never know what may become useful. You’re never too old to learn – you’re only too close-minded if you decide to stop.

Embracing a shift in thinking – there’s always a different way to look at life, something which has fascinated my hubby and I on our travels. If you’ve been reading my blog, you’ll have had a taste of life in other parts of the world and how much fun it is to explore the differences! In the near future, we may all need new ways to find fulfillment, in how we work, how we play, what really means something to us.

This past weekend, my hubby and I took an impromptu walk along the Welland Canal, which happens to be not too far from where we live. People come from all over the world to see the Canal system, watching the big Laker ships pass through the lock system that raises or lowers them between Lake Ontario and Lake Erie. I’ve even spent a day on one of the ships as part of my work. We drive by it a lot but rarely stop because it’s been a part of our lives for decades.

It wasn’t the nicest day – the sky was filled with clouds, tinting the canal waters a steely blue, and rain was threatening, but we were able to get in a nice walk. There were a few people out, carefully distancing. We watched Canada geese parents hiss at walkers who got too close to their fluffy younglings, and I started taking photos for a series I’ve been thinking of doing about the Garden City Skyway that dominates our skyline. We walked below one of the lift bridges and got a closer look at the structure (we’re both construction geeks). I found a solitary buttercup, a flower that used to line every sidewalk when we were kids – we would pick them and hold them under our chins to tint our skin yellow — but for some reason have all but disappeared now.

As raindrops started to fall, we crossed the Canal to a local country diner that’s been a fixture for years here. They were still serving only through a takeout window, so as my hubby waited for our order – a chili cheese dog for me, a Whistle Dog and onion rings for him – I took some photos of the blossoming fruit trees as well.

We took our food treasures back home to eat in warmer surroundings. It was a relaxing, fun afternoon – a very off-the-cuff exploration of our own ‘backyard’. There’s value in small things these days, in things that we thought we were too busy for before. My hubby, who doesn’t actually like walking so much as a pastime (now put a golf fairway under his feet and it’s an entirely different story), remarked that he’d really enjoyed himself. There’s still a whole world out there; we just need to adjust our perspective a bit.

Exploring outside the box – Andean cloud forest

Machu Picchu is one of those superstar archeological sites that people want to tick off on their bucket list, for good reason. It is an amazing site — the photos you typically see don’t come anywhere near what it’s like to be there in person.

A lot of people want to get there by hiking the strenuous Inca trail, but the tours I see offered most often are quick one-week excursions that give you a couple of days in Lima, Peru’s capital city, a day or two in Cuzco, the gateway to Machu Picchu, and a quick day trip to the Machu Picchu site by train to the engaging little town of Machu Picchu Pueblo, formerly called Aguas Calientes, where trekkers tend to base themselves and buses leave for the winding drive up the mountain atop which sits the ancient citadel that was lost and forgotten for many years until Hiram Bingham made his famous discovery in 1911.

But Machu Picchu sits amid the Andean cloud forest, a truly wondrous habitat that almost no one ever stops to look at.

When we went, we opted out of the 4-day Inca Trail hike and chose to spend two nights at a magical place called Inkaterra Machu Picchu Pueblo Hotel, set at the edge of Aguas Calientes in its own 12 acres of beautiful and peaceful cloud forest.

Now, normally my hubby and I eschew costly high-end accommodations, which we often find to be glossy and unauthentic, in favour of smaller places saturated with atmosphere and in great locations for exploring.

For this trip, there were a lot of places we wanted to cover — there’s so much more to Peru than just Machu Picchu. I found an adventurous, budget-friendly 3-week tour that included all our must-sees, from the Ballestas Islands to the Nazca Lines, to Colca Canyon to see the massive Andean condors to the floating reed islands on Lake Titicaca and finally the mysterious and rarely-visited ancient city of Tiwanaku in Bolivia.

All the lodgings were basically 3-star, clean, basic but well-chosen for their proximity to area sights, They were all very authentic; we felt like we were embedded in Peruvian life.

Our hotel in Lima, Hotel Maury, had an unprepossessing exterior. The rooms were unremarkable, but the bar off the lobby was woodsy with wonderful murals that made us feel like we’d stepped back in time to the glamorous era of Eva Peron.

The location was fantastic — just a couple of blocks from the Plaza de Mayor, where most of the main sights in Lima were ranged around, with pretty parks and a wide assortment of delicious restaurants. One morning we heard music drifting in from outside while we were at breakfast, and went out the front doors to find a parade passing down the street right past the hotel. All we had to do was stand on the sidewalk and watch (no idea what the unusual costumes represented, but it was fascinating to watch).

In the little town of Pisco, where the fabulous Pisco Sour was invented, our overland truck shoe-horned itself down a narrow side street and burped us out in front of a tiny yellow-walled place that looked more like someone’s home from the outside.

The interior climbed up a maze of staircases around a small central courtyard, and was decorated in wood and Peruvian textiles.

The rooms were basic but comfortable enough and clean. Off the main lobby there was a wonderful little restaurant that gave us our first taste of a Pisco Sour.

As Pisco is on the ocean, there was fabulous fresh seafood to eat for dinner.

But once in a while you stumble across a place that’s truly magical and worth a splurge. That place was the Inkaterra hotel below Machu Picchu.

Sitting along the banks of the Urubamba river, the hotel consists of several buildings tucked into the lush cloud forest. As you can see from the photo above, the property is not flat, so for anyone with mobility issues, this might not be the ideal spot.

If you can manage the walking, though, you’ll be treated to your own cozy casita furnished with hand-made Peruvian wood furniture and warm woven blankets for the night chill.

The hotel makes its own toiletries from botanicals on the property.

You can book a privately-led tour of Machu Picchu with one of the hotel’s excellent guides.

But after that mainstay, leave yourself some time to explore the hotel’s cloud-forest surroundings, a rare treat.

The hotel has a wonderful little spa that you might want to visit to work out some high-altitude kinks.

Meals at the hotel are delicious. They also make an excellent, if very potent, Pisco Sour, by the way.

The hotel even has its own small tea plantation, and you can drink its teas during your stay, as well as visiting the plantation and making your own bag of tea.

There are birds everywhere — although snagging a photo of a zippy little hummingbird is a challenge.

If you can, visit in November. Why? Because it’s orchid season, and the hotel has 372 species of wild orchid on its grounds. Wild orchids look nothing like the cultivated varieties you see in florist shops. The wild varieties come in an astonishing array of shapes and sizes.

Orchid walks are a complimentary activity at the hotel, led by knowledgeable guides who will show you all the wonders of the orchid kingdom.

Inkaterra has also runs the Spectacled Bear Project, rescuing South America’s only native, and endangered, bear from the pet trade and rehabituating as many back into the wild as possible.

The rescued bears spend several months at the Machu Picchu Pueblo hotel, learning how to forage for food and all the other skills they need to survive in their natural habitat. You can visit the resident bears with an onsite guide as they get their tutorials within a large enclosure (visitors have no actual contact with the bears). They are adorable.

This past April veterinarian Dr. Evan Antin visited the project on his Animal Planet show, Evan Goes Wild.

The Inkaterra hotels in Peru continue to win awards, and since we visited in 2012 they have become part of National Geographic’s Stays of Distinction, which unfortunately has roughly tripled the stay rates over what we paid. Nevertheless, I would rate a stay at this hotel a very worth-it splurge. You might also want to check out Inkaterra’s volunteering opportunities.

If you can only manage a week in Peru, so be it, but do your very best to spend more time and research all the fascinating sites beyond its most famous landmark.

World Elephant Day

When you think of Africa, what animal do you think of most? A good bet that it’s an elephant – their distinctive shape with widespread ears is such an iconic symbol. There are Asian elephants as well, which have smaller ears and a large twin bump at the top of their heads.

This is a special early post this week in honour of World Elephant Day.

African elephants are a wonderful sight in the wild. These massive creatures – they can weigh up to 12 tons) can be surprisingly silent when they choose – we have spotted them emerging from the bush unexpectedly without us even having been aware that they were moving about.

When watching them on safari, they are remarkably laid back as long as you don’t impinge on their personal space. A good safari guide knows how close to get without making them feel threatened.

If you do get a little too close, they will usually mock-charge by running towards you with ears flared and trunk raised, perhaps even blaring through their trunk. In certain situations they can get quite pissy, however.

There’s a large resident herd in Chobe National Park in Botswana, and most safari-goers embark on a short cruise on the Chobe River to see them trudge en masse down to the river for a drink and a bathe. There’s also a large and rambunctious resident troop of Chacma baboons. On one occasion we were watching the elephant herd peacefully roaming the river’s edge when the baboons decided to join the party. The baboons were making lots of noise and running all over the place, which really irritated the elephants, who proceeded to stamp up and down the river front, blaring loudly and shaking the trees with their trunks. The baboons were unrepentant, scampering around and creating chaos for several minutes. Eventually they seemed to tire of the game, leaving the elephants in peace once more.

In Kenya in Aberdare National Park, at a wonderful treetop lodge called the Ark, we watched animals at the watering hole while we were having afternoon tea in the lounge on the second level. We were highly entertained watching the water buffalo do end runs behind the back of a feisty teenage male elephant who seemed to feel that the watering hole was his and his alone and tried to evict them, with little effect.

As placid as elephants can be when you’re viewing them from a safari vehicle, any time that baby elephants are present, the adult elephants will be more protective, and male elephants in musth (heat) are essentially hormone-crazed and very dangerous.

If an elephant is in the road you’re travelling on, it owns it for the duration. Don’t ever try to bypass the elephant (as this tourist in Kruger National Park found out the hard way back in 2014).

It is amazing to watch them in the wild, doing what they do naturally, whether congregating for a sunset drink, bathing in a muddy puddle, or wading through the water to tear up great mouthfuls of vegetation for breakfast.

Elephants – in fact, all animals – are a gift, and we are privileged to be able to spend a little time with them in places like Africa. You can find out more about one of the world’s most majestic and enigmatic creatures, and how you can help ensure that other generations can continue to be amazed by them at the World Elephant Day website.

If you’d like to travel to Africa yourself and would like more information about where these images were taken, or about going on safari, please email me at liontailmagic@gmail.com.

Summer doldrums

Summer is not my favourite season — I often find it enervating. I’m really an autumn person.

Sometimes I just hide inside our house, but the outdoors always beckons. According to a recent article in the NY Times, scientists have quantified how much time spent in nature is optimal for our health (trust scientists to nail an actual figure, I say with amusement because I have a degree in Biology), and it’s 2 hours a week.

I generally manage that much just going out for my weekly round of golf, but a few days ago, on a really hot day with my head aching, I dragged hubby out to Lake Ontario to try to capture photos of a storm over the lake.

The storm never really materialized, but the outdoors still worked its magic. Here are a few shots I did capture. Sometimes summer has its moments.

The startling split sky when we left the house
Monarch butterfly on a milkweed pod along the shore
A cormorant perched on the masting of a wrecked boat
Pair of darners on the water
Summer colours in the harbour
This gorgeous German shepherd pooch was having a great time exploring the dock
Driftwood log having a frolic in the waves
A gull and I share a peaceful moment as the sun begins to set