Today we welcome Tony James Slater to The Displaced Nation as the newest addition to our team. He makes his debut with a post about his trip to Ecuador for the purposes of volunteering at an animal sanctuary in the Andean Mountains — an experience that led to some deep (as well as humorous) reflections.
My first real trip abroad was to Ecuador. (I made a trip to France once, but since I’m from England, that doesn’t really count.)
I went there in search of adventure. I sure wasn’t going to “find myself.” If I had any deeper motive, it was to reinvent myself — ideally as Indiana Jones.
(NB. If you’re going to Ecuador — take cheese. The stuff they have there has the same taste and consistency as soggy toilet-roll.)
I’d planned to volunteer in an animal refuge; it was my way of doing something more meaningful with my life, of giving a little bit back to nature.
And I was absolutely terrified.
There were reasons for this:
- I’d never really traveled. (As mentioned, France doesn’t really count.)
- I spoke no Spanish.
- I had no experience with animals, other than owning a pet rabbit when I was nine.
- I was, it has to be said, a pretty weedy human being.
But nobody in Ecuador knew me. I could cast off the bits I didn’t like — and that would start with the fear.
It helped that the setting was gorgeous. The refuge, called Santa Martha Animal Rescue Center, was surrounded by cloud-forest, halfway up a mountain in the Avenue of Volcanoes.
Talk with the animals…
I felt an immediate connection with the animals, who were in the sanctuary because they’d been victims of animal trafficking. I even connected with the monkeys, who escaped so often I spent more time chasing them than feeding them.
But you can’t have an adventure inside your comfort zone. That’s like nipping next-door for a cup of tea and calling it a night out.
First I had to strip everything back. My computer couldn’t make the trip as it was the size of a small building. My phone survived for less than a day before committing suicide from the top bunk-bed, but it was only good as an alarm clock anyway.
(I didn’t even need an alarm clock; I had a rooster for that. Which was great, except it went off an hour early every morning.)
Before I knew it I’d slipped into a much simpler pattern. Get up. Feed the animals. Clean the animals. Tend the wounds I’d received whilst feeding and cleaning the animals. Then chop, dig, carry, nail…
The boss would show me a task that needed doing, give me the tools and then leave me to it. Build a cage. Fix a cage. Build a parrot perch…
Generally the tasks were simple, manual, and I got better each day at handling them. (Except one Saturday morning when he tried to teach me welding; I made the mistake of looking at the torch at the exact moment it flared up, like a miniature sun. In fact I did this every time it flared up. As a result, not a lot of welding got done, and I was blind for the rest of the weekend!)
At the end of a long day I could feel how hard I’d worked; tired in body and nothing in mind to concern me beyond wondering what crazy job they’d get me doing tomorrow. I could just kick back in the hammock and day-dream…
As Albert Camus once philosophized:
But what is happiness except the simple harmony between a man and the life he leads?
Swingin’ in a hammock
Ever notice how when people think of “paradise,” there’s almost always hammocks? No corner offices or Mercedes Benzes. Even shoe shops rarely make an appearance.
It’s that idea of “getting away from it all” that holds the allure, I think; relaxing on a beach wouldn’t be the same if you were doing your tax return while you were at it.
Hence the hammocks. Symbolic of the chance to do — and think of — absolutely nothing; at least for as long as your sojourn lasts.
Perhaps I was in fact searching for a simpler life? Perhaps we all are?
In any event, I loved it.
I was getting stronger, more confident, with every week that passed.
(I was also getting bitten, clawed and mauled by everything that could bite, claw and maul, from monkeys to crocodiles — but that’s another story.)
I was learning to focus, to take my time looking for a solution to a problem and to work at it until it was right. I owned less and less each day as my clothes got shredded through work, but it didn’t matter. I wasn’t out to impress anyone, at least not with my fashion sense.
Best of all I had an identity. It didn’t need explaining — I was “that guy from the animal place.” It was a good job to be defined by. It felt positive and honest.
Reality bites as well
Returning to the “real” world back in the UK was like a wet fish in the face — all of a sudden people had places to be and a time-limit for getting there; everyone seemed so busy, so stressed out about it and so worried that something, somewhere was going wrong.
I don’t think a single one of them was about to be eaten alive, but a lot of them acted like it.
I hadn’t even realized what I’d been a part of until I saw it from the outside — and frankly it scared me more than removing the remnants of a jaguar’s breakfast.
I had two choices at that point. I’d gone “back to basics” and knew how rewarding that kind of lifestyle could be. Or I could rejoin my native society, get a real job, get a career even — go corporate.
It wasn’t too hard a choice to make.
Another Albert — Einstein — famously had
Three Rules of Work: Out of clutter find simplicity; From discord find harmony; In the middle of difficulty lies opportunity.
In Ecuador I’d found simplicity and harmony, wrapped up in the most difficulty I’d ever faced, and it had indeed led to opportunity.
I sold my body to medical science (and that’s not even a joke!), bought a one-way ticket to Thailand and spent the next nine months working in an animal clinic that really was in paradise. I didn’t wear shoes for the better part of a year.
I had found myself after all. I’d made my decision not to rejoin the rat race and I’ve been traveling ever since.
Which is probably why I’m broke.
But I couldn’t be happier!
TONY JAMES SLATER is a self-confessed adventureholic. For the last six years he’s been traveling nonstop around the world, working at a variety of jobs including yacht deliverer in the Mediterranean, professional diver in Thailand and snow boarder in New Zealand. He even deprived the world of sandalwood one tree at a time in Australia (though he still maintains it was an accident). Last year, Slater published his first book, That Bear Ate My Pants!, an account of his misadventures while volunteering at the animal refuge in Ecuador. (The book was featured in The Displaced Nation’s list of 2011 expat books.) He is currently working on a second book set in Thailand, while exploring his new home in Perth, Australia.
STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s episode from Libby’s Life. Did the absence of her mother-in-law at Christmas compensate for the absence of Libby’s own mother — and, come to that, the Mother Country? (What, not keeping up with Libby? Read the first three episodes of her expat adventures.)
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Image: “Hammocks are not just for humans” — Slater took this photo of Machita, the dog he befriended at Santa Martha, the Ecuadorian animal sanctuary.