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Fireworks at Midnight

Highly Commended in the Bradt New Travel Writer of the Year Competition 2022.

It’s hard to sleep above a cockroach nest. I try to map their movements from the scraping of tiny feet on the wooden floor beneath the bed. Those I can hear bother me less than those padding on the mattress.

Focussing on the jungle outside, the forest keeps me company in my wakefulness while the other primates in the rescue centre snore. The night cricks outside the window, frogs chirp, and moths whirr. A distant crack punches the night. 

Fireworks are going off in the nearby village. The sounds are muffled by the wall of forest between us and the unexpected party in Bello. Trees extend right up to the riverbank. If you want to enter the village on the other side, the advice is to ‘wave down any passing canoe’. I strain my ears for singing or laughter, but none floats my way. Perhaps it can’t penetrate the muggy jungle. I’ve been hoping to feel a wisp of breeze since I wobbled out of the boat that brought me here.

Yawn. Something other than rustling insects unsettles me. Shiver. I hope it’s not poachers after the animals. Shudder. The night is strangely quiet.

I awake before my batteries are fully charged and sleep-fight my way out of the mosquito net that traps me in roach-ridden torment. I squint at the condensation-fuzzed numbers on my watch. There are usually shouts to wake up late risers. Nobody calls. I wrestle damp trousers into cooperation, slink around the tarantula on the doorframe and descend the steps from the stilted volunteer house. Perhaps they are just extra keen to get going this morning with so much work to do every day to look after the animals. They often arrive as orphans sold into the pet trade, are the unwanted offspring of a creature big enough to boil in a pot, or guilty of straying into a plantation with no welcome sign on the gate. They come here to build up their strength and jungle skills before regaining their freedom.

A squeal above my head tells me the capuchins are up. Water drips onto the puddled path as each leaping monkey crash-lands on branches heavy with dew. I slip off my shoes to enter the kitchen, where the cook greets me with half a chuckle.

“Buenas dias, Flor!”

She knows I’ve been learning Spanish from an app and that I am entirely hopeless, but she is kind enough to let me practice anyway. This led to a famished team of workers enduring my salad yesterday. She had trusted me to follow her instructions to add salt to the salad, not thinking me dim enough to need supervision for this simple task. I did think it odd that she wanted heaped spoonfuls of sugar on the lettuce but assumed it might be a Peruvian delicacy. It isn’t. Now she can’t talk to me without shaking her head and grinning.

There are children sat at the breakfast table who would normally be in school. The construction workers haven’t arrived from the village. Nobody is cooking eggs.

“Didn’t you hear the shooting?”

The police came to the village last night. They knew a school playground load of cocaine had exchanged hands and they wanted the proceeds. Every family in the village relies on that money. The villagers refused to hand it over. Fireworks went off at midnight resulting in one policeman down, burnt out cars and a roadblock barricading the only route in and out.

My plastic coffee cup hovers above the tablecloth.

“So we can’t leave?”

“Si” Flor nods.

“And we can’t get food?”

“Si.”

That’s why the children aren’t at school. That’s why we aren’t wasting eggs on breakfast. That’s why I had goosebumps last night. 

Flor walks off to swing her baby in the hammock. The clink of a dropping teaspoon in the sink breaks the silence. Benches scrape on floorboards as we stand up to leave. A man swears. His shoe is now half-way up a tree in the hands of a monkey.

“Oh yeah…” starts one of the volunteers, “the guy who shot the policeman? He’s escaped to the forest. Wanted for murder.” 

In the fruit shed flies buzz as if nothing has happened. Blunt knives thud on mildewed chopping boards. Slices of banana and papaya pile up, ready to meet their demise. With the meal prepared, sandals slip slap on concrete as laden buckets of ripe fruit are heaved to the feeding station.

“Comiiiiiiidaaaaaaaaa!”

The monkeys hear my roar and tumble, chattering, from branch to branch towards their breakfast, grabbing at the fruit to fuel themselves for today’s adventures.

Somewhere, a man with a guilty trigger finger hears my call.

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