We had such an amazing turn out for our inspirational travel series that we couldn’t wait any longer to share everyone’s stories. People have been waiting patiently for their submissions since well before Christmas and rather than spread everyone’s stories out over the next few months, we decided to have a week of inspiration. There’s no better way to beat the February Blues than to read inspirational stories, Enjoy! 

Real Men Don’t Cry by Tony James Slater

I was climbing a tree. By itself this was fine – I like climbing trees. If only I hadn’t mentioned this fact to the boss of the animal refuge where I was volunteering… I never would have ended up in this situation.
I was climbing a tree with a bear in it. She grinned down at me from the uppermost branches, looking remarkably cuddly and unthreatening at this distance.
Only she weighed more than I did, had four legs and a mouth full of sharp things, and if she decided to come down she was going to have to do it through me.
Clinging to the smooth bole of the tree with my whole body, shaking just with the effort of holding on, I don’t think I would have offered much resistance.
It was about the hundredth time I had the thought; ‘What the HELL was I doing in Ecuador?”

Bear Up A Skinny Tree

Bear Up A Skinny Tree

I’d only been there a week.

Volunteering at Santa Martha Animal Rescue Centre had seemed like the perfect way to reinvent myself – until about ten minutes after I got there.
That was around the time I made my first recapture of an escaping animal – a small, snuffly, raccoon-like animal called a coatamundi. I caught the thing easily enough, because it had chosen to escape in the general direction of my feet; he clearly wasn’t the smartest of critters. Cute as hell though, with bright red fur and a ridiculously bendy nose, but about as bright as a beanbag.

Baby Bear Breakfast Bottle
 Apparently he escaped every day at some point – but he never made it very far because he was blind.
There were bears here, big cats, monkeys, parrots, and some things I had never seen before and doubted I’d ever see again. (I swear they had at least one live Pikachu). If anything bigger than a bunny rabbit escaped… well, what the hell would I do about it?

The answer: climb a tree.

That’s where the bear had gone, after somehow liberating herself from her high-security enclosure, so that’s where we were now; my boss, standing at the bottom, shouting at me to climb higher; the other volunteers, watching from a safe distance with a mix of dread and curiosity. Somehow we had to get that bear out of that tree – and quickly, before the boss’s men took matters into their own hands.
These Ecuadorians were Real Men. They didn’t do touchy-feely. When I’d suggested sitting at the bottom of the tree with a bowl of fruit, they’d look at me and laughed. And sent for axes.

Coatamundi!

A Coatamundi!

One way or another this tree would be bear-free by mid morning, and I wanted to be the one to do it. I had my reasons; for starters, I loved that bear. I’d sneakily fed her my jam sandwiches only a few days ago, while we were in her enclosure doing some cleaning. Also, there was the pride thing. By this time I’d worked at the refuge for over a month. Things that had appeared impossible when I first arrived – like cutting down a tree with a rusty machete the size of a bread-knife – were now easy.

Jaguar Dentistry

My day started with feeding almost a hundred animals, plugging the narrow door to freedom with my vulnerable body whilst ladling out their gooey, fruity breakfast – yet none escaped. Not any more. At least, not during feeding. The point is, I was getting good. I was sure of it – and I could tell the Ecuadorians thought so too. I was slowly building a reputation for being strong, for being useful, and for being fearless… Or possibly stupid, depending on who you asked – but it amounted to the same thing. If I could get that bear out of the tree, all by myself…

It never happened.

After many clever strategies had been tried, we resorted to tying a rope to the tree (which was rather skinny) and pulling on it until the tree bent down to the ground. This was even more difficult than it sounds – seven grown men throwing all their weight into it, sweating, straining, cursing…
But we nearly had her!
Then she ran down, out of the tree, across the ground for a short distance – and up the next tree over.
It was days like this, when I laughed so hard I almost cried, that really made my volunteer experience. By the time I was done I’d been bitten, clawed, shot at and shaved, electrocuted, temporarily blinded, and had spent more time chasing monkeys than most people would consider healthy.
You know what though? I survived. And it was without a doubt the craziest, most incredible, most transformational experience of my life.

Chains I Removed

Chains I Removed

Not only had I become close to so many amazing animals, I’d also helped rescue them from cruelty. Taken chains from around their necks, nursed them back to health, and then – when the refuge was full almost to bursting – had driven with them clear across the country, to release them all into the Amazon Jungle.
Words can hardly do justice to the mix of emotions roiling through me on that day.

Elation.
Sorrow – it was like saying goodbye to a load of really good friends.
Awe – at the splendor and the majesty of the rainforest and it’s rivers.
And pride – because after all I’d been through, all I’d achieved, the boss had one bit of praise for me; ‘Now you’re a man,’ he said.

Coming from him that really meant something.
It was all I could do to keep from crying.
But of course, Real Men Don’t Cry…

Croc-got-me-225x300Tony James Slater is the author of ‘That Bear Ate My Pants!’ – a comedy travel book chronicling his misadventures whilst volunteering at an exotic animal refuge in Ecuador. He now splits his time between doing ridiculous things all over the world – often involving animals – and writing about them. He gets hurt quite a lot.

That Bear Ate My Pants! Is available from:
Amazon.com (US): http://amzn.to/thatbearatemypantsus
Amazon.co.uk (UK): http://amzn.to/thatbear

You can get in touch with Tony via his website at Adventure Without End
Or on Facebook: Tony James Slater
Or Twitter: @TonyJamesSlater

Inspirational Series 

This is an ongoing series of Inspirational travel. If you have an experience in travel that changed your life, made you look at the world differently or an amazing moment that you want to share, please contact us for more details and we will email you right back.. You can also read more about submitting an article to this series at Calling All Writers, Share your Inspirational Travel Story

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14 Comments

  1. Tony James Slater

    Hi Laurence!
    Yeah, I have a bad habit of doing things, and then thinking about them… the kicker to this story was when we tried to figure out how the bear escaped – her electric fence must be broken, but where? So my boss made me touch it, one section at a time, until we found one that threw me back into the bushes in a shower of sparks! Then we knew exactly where the break was… :0)
    Tony

  2. Jock

    Great article! I always regret not travelling like you did. Reading this, though, it does make me want to do something like volunteer, even if only for a few weeks. :-)

    Jock

    1. Tony James Slater

      It’s good for you! No, it really is – it literally made me who I was. Beforehand a nervous, insecure, clumsy idiot, and afterwards a strong, confident, clumsy idiot!
      It feels incredible to be doing something so overtly ‘good’ – and to have everyone else around you involved in the same thing. I’ve done so many different jobs as I’ve travelled around and none of them have ever been more than a way to earn money. This is the only time my work has been so important to me that I not only wanted to do it, but happily let it absorb my life completely! It was an identity as well as a personal crusade and I found I could really get into it without fear that I was wasting my time or getting obsessed with something silly and trivial… Ah, go do it! You know you want to… :0)
      Tony

  3. Krista

    Sounds like crazy fun….how on earth did you get the bear back into her cage?!
    I know what you mean, when you volunteer it means so much more than just ‘earning more money!’ When you go home at the end of the day dirty and bone tired it feels so satisfying because you know you are one of the good people who has taken the time to help others. Keep up the good work, can’t wait to read your second book!

    1. Tony James Slater

      Krista, getting her back in was the easy part – catching her was a whole different story! There was a net involved at one point, and about six sweaty volunteers panting up and down the hillside… couldn’t escape in a flat field could she? No… ah well. I loved her regardless. Though was even less keen on trying to fix her electric fence (see comment above)!
      Glad you enjoyed it – the second book should be out around May/June. He says… :0)
      Tony

      1. Tony James Slater

        Thanks to you awesome pair for having me over! Cheers Tiffany, for your kind words. Maybe I’ll come back and write something else here one fine day? I do like a friendly crowd :0)
        Tony

      2. debndave Post author

        We’d love to have you back Tony, anytime you want to share a story with our readers, the door is always open. Really love your stuff and I am definitely going to get your book when we get home from Antarctica! Cheers.

  4. Abby

    I don’t know what’s more impressive — your bravery or the way you wrote about it. What an adventure. I’m sure you hear this a lot: be careful!!

    1. Tony James Slater

      Ha ha! Thanks Abby! I used to hear that a lot – mostly from my poor old Mum. Now, when I call her to say I’ve decided to do something particularly stupid – like a two-month hike in the wilderness – I just get a resigned sigh, and something like “Alright. Just don’t kill yourself.”
      I gave up trying to be careful because I’m so monumentally clumsy, it only ends up getting me into more trouble…
      But at least it gives me something to write about!
      Thanks for reading :0)
      Tony

  5. Tony James Slater

    Hi Kerry! Thanks :0)
    It was amazing, unforgettable… the words just pale into comparison compared to the experience. I don’t think the actual place is still open, but there are so many great places to volunteer with animals – you just have to decide to go, in place of a regular holiday perhaps, and face the fear of the unknown – it will be weird, possibly scary, maybe difficult – but you will never regret it!
    There’s a brilliant book by a friend of mine called ’700 places to volunteer before you die’ – it’s like a phone book, and it lists almost every voluntary project going – listed by the cost, from free to ridiculously expensive, and tells you a little about each place and gives you their contact details! If anyone ever asks me about how to do some foreign volunteering with cool animals, that’s the first place I point them!
    Thanks for stopping by!
    Tony

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