Sometimes you are certain you will like a stranger on first sight…sometimes, you are so very wrong.
In 2014, I was traveling through Mexico and ended up spending a week volunteering at a monkey sanctuary about 7 km outside of Tulum.
Prior to my arrival, I read a number of stories about its founder, Richard, and immediately knew he was the kind of person I would like. Out of pure compassion, after a hurricane devastated his 20+ acres in the jungle, he gathered fruit from local vendors to feed the monkeys and other creatures who otherwise would have starved to death. He later rescued and gave shelter to the hapless baby monkeys that had been ripped from their mother’s arms to be sold as pets, only to be tossed onto the street when they matured into what they are – wild creatures.
For Richard’s cause, I walked nearly a mile in the July Mexico heat down a desolate road (probably not my wisest idea….).
Parched and worn out, with miles to go, I hitched a ride on an armored truck (That’s a story for another day, though!) to get to the sanctuary. Determined and excited, I walked up to this little hut that appeared to be the main office.
Inside, a man and woman were engaged in conversation; s0, I stood there waiting for them to acknowledge my existence…and waited…and waited.
Finally, Richard turned to me. “What do you want?” he grunted. A bit confused why his real life persona was completely out of sync with the animal loving, monkey saving, kindly older gentleman I’d read about online, I stuttered that I was there to volunteer. I simply got a nod, and he turned back to the woman he was speaking with, ignoring me completely. Wtf?
Um, Hi. Yeah. Still here. I was pissed. But, I was hell bent on volunteering there. So, with a smile on my face, I interrupted him – again – and inquired about the whereabouts of the manager with whom I’d made an appointment.
“He’s giving a tour,” growled Richard, turning away from me again.
“Should I wait for him?” I asked. I mean, seriously, I had just come off a 12 hour bus ride, walked a gazillion miles in the heat (well, it felt like it!) and hitchhiked in a freaking armored truck, in Mexico, book-ended by two machine gun toting men to get there. I was not leaving easily.
“Do what you want. He might come back. He might not,” replied Richard, aka now the most hated man in my universe. I had two options. Sit on the chair outside the hut and wait for the manager (all the while fuming about Richard and probably unable to contain my pissedoffedness for long and end up arrested in Mexico) or walk away.
I walked away.
I got as far as the petrol station, about 1/3 mile down the road, and bought something to drink.
Screw you, Richard, I thought. I’ll be back. I pulled out my ipad, cracked open a beer and started updating my personal blog.
Fifteen minutes later (yup, pretty much chugged that beer), I marched right back to the sanctuary and, luckily, came upon the manager. The smiling, welcoming, happy manager.
I spent the week volunteering and living in what looks like such a pretty little jungle paradise. No. No, it wasn’t. Looks are very deceiving!
Don’t get me wrong. I absolutely cherish every minute I spent there. It was invigorating and…well, interesting! Living and volunteering at the sanctuary pretty much meant avoiding being attacked by the wild monkeys while carrying a milk crate full of bananas to feed the sanctuary monkeys, sleeping in a hammock to avoid the scorpions, and fending off the male donkey who seemed to think trying to mount me as I was feeding him was socially acceptable behavior.
Oh, and then there was the camel. The camel that caused the demise of the sanctuary. And, the death of Richard. I didn’t have any experience with camels. None of us did. It seemed fun. Until, it wasn’t.
On my last day volunteering, Richard was driving around the sanctuary in his fancy four wheel drive golf cart thingy. He pulled up next to me and, in an unkindly voice, asked “What are you doing here?” At that point, I’d achieved my goal of volunteering and no longer had the desire or the ability to be nice to him. I was covered in sweat having just spent two hours slicing pineapples with a machete and unloading a truckload of fruit. I was working on less than three hours of sleep and some sauteed cucumbers for food. Screw you, Richard, is what I thought. What am I doing here!? Helping you!
“Volunteering. What do you think I’m doing here?” I replied, glaring at him.
“Well, you don’t look like those other hippies,” he responded. “What do you do when you aren’t volunteering?”
“I’m an attorney. And, by the way, your sanctuary is a walking death-trap.” Fuck you, Richard.
And, with that…he changed his tune. He wasn’t afraid I would sue him. We were in Mexico, not the U.S., after all. He genuinely wanted to know what I thought of the place. He asked me to please (He said, please!) stop by his house on the sanctuary when my shift was over.
Well, damn. I didn’t like the guy; but, I really thought I could offer some suggestions. In my pre-attorney life I had managed a similarly sized farm and oversaw a team of volunteers. So, a few hours later after saying my farewells to the amazing strangers-turned-friends volunteer crew, I gathered my bags and knocked on Richard’s door.
Richard answered – in his boxers and a half unbuttoned shirt – with a beer in his hand. Uh-oh….
[Stay tuned for Richard, part II]
Perception is key to engagement: Do you conceptualize strangers as unknown enemies, or as unknown friends?