Chatter began around the lunch tables about the upcoming trip to the local indigenous community of Maizal up the river from Estacion Biologica Cocha Cashu. Turns out that every year in September, the researchers, support staff and students of Cocha Cashu visit the community and undertake all sorts of outreach activities … such as competing at football, archery and skulling masato (the local fermented yuka drink). Ettore, the Italian ornithologist, stands up at lunch and announces: “I will defend the honour of Cocha Cashu!” Word on the street is that there isn’t a whole lot of sporting honour to be defended, as Maizal has a history of resoundingly beating Cocha Cashu at every challenge.
The next morning we piled into the boats in the dark just after 5 am, to the sound of rumbling thunder. It started to rain, and we were motoring into the wind with the rain coming straight in on us. I was sitting next to Vicki, the cook, who kindly shared her blanket with me. I was starting to question the wisdom of getting out of bed at 4:30 am to be on a 2.5 hour boat ride in the cold, dark, and rain.
We arrived at Maizal around 8 am, piling out of the boats and up the steep muddy slope. One of the students had scored a scorpion bite on the foot the previous day and was limping unhappily. We wandered to the edge of the village to a little shelter next to the sports field, and were welcomed with a speech (which I didn’t manage to understand, damn my crap Spanish). I believe the ladies were invited to play the first football (soccer) match, but were a bit hesitant, so the blokes said “bugger it” (probably the Spanish version) and got playing. At first Ettore was out there on the field with a bag of coca in one hand (“I need it to fire up!”) and we were worried he might keep it the whole game, but eventually he put it down. We brought two sets of jerseys with us, so the teams uniformed up and began. The ladies, kids and injured blokes were on the sidelines cheering, until one of our team realised there was a pair of plumbeous hawks on a nest in the tree behind us, so of course we had to check that out. And the dusky-headed parrot, and yellow tufted woodpecker.
At one point the chickens unwisely headed out onto the field and had to be chased off. The rain started again so we retreated to the shelter to cheer from there. Watching sport isn’t generally my thing, but it was pretty fun cheering the team and getting the Mexican wave going every time a goal was scored, which wasn’t too often on for our team, who were beaten 5-3. My favourite piece of play was when Angel’s glasses went flying, and Jorge swooped into rescue them, narrowly missing the onslaught of players charging in.
The Maizal ladies had been busy making the masato while the blokes were on the field, stirring and straining out the yuka fibres. It was bubbling away as the kids playing in the dirt around us, and they had to shoo away the friendly dusky-headed parrot sitting above the pots after it deposited a contribution of its own. But then it was time for the ladies match, so the ladies threw their jerseys on. The Maizal ladies were all playing with barefoot, but were impressive players. By this stage it was raining heavily and the field became a mud slide.
Sadly, I was stuck on the sidelines due to the strained hamstring and wobbly ankle, but probably wouldn’t have been much use to my ignorance of anything about soccer anyway. I joined the blokes for the enthusiastic cheering. Ettore kept screaming: “Chicas, aggressiva!” and a whole lot of other Spanish I couldn’t understand. His support started to get fancy when he broke off some large banana leaves and started waving them, singing “COCHA CASHU” until they snapped. Vicki the station cook was a star player, kicking Cocha Cashu ladies' first goal. Turns out the Cocha Cashu goalie also may not have been familiar with the rules, because on several occasions after thwarting a goal attempt by the opposition, stepped backwards to prepare to send the ball back into play. As she threatened to give the goal to the other team by stepping backwards, the blokes all erupted into anxious yelling to not move back. The Maizal ladies didn’t need any help getting goals, however, and won 5-3.
The next competition was for archery, using Maizal’s constructed bows and arrows. Cocha Cashu team generally needed a bit of practice to get the arrow to move in the right direction, or in my case, move at all.
However, our station manager got two of his three arrows through the target (a banana flower on a spike); and so did one of the Maizal men – so it was a tie! The final competition was the masato sculling. I didn’t find the masato overly appetising, it tasting strongly of the fermented yuka (cassava) it was. So I was super impressed by all those that managed to scull 1.5 litres (the ladies) or 2 litres (the blokes) in a matter of minutes. Two ladies and two blokes competed from each team, and I was impressed that one Cocha Cashu lady and one bloke won their heats – particularly as I assumed they got less practice. So it was with masato-sculling glory that we were able to return to Cocha Cashu, presumably with renewed resolution for more football practice in the coming year.
The blog post above has been kindly provided with permission by Dr. April Reside, Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Centre for Biodiversity and Conservation Science at the University of Queensland. Please check out her blog Conservation on the Fly for more fascinating entries:
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