Volunteering in the Amazonas

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[ultimate_heading main_heading=”Welcome to Selva Vida”][/ultimate_heading]

Have you ever lived in a place with candles, gas and headlights instead of electricity? Did you ever have to shake out your clothes before putting them on to make sure there is no scorpion sleeping inside? Did you ever have to wash dishes and clothes by hand in the river next door, brush your teeth, take a bath and drink the water from that same river?

Well, that’s basically the description of the living conditions in the Selva Vida project in Ecuador where I worked for 4 weeks as a volunteer.

Living in the tropical rainforest – called Amazonas – in Ecuador was quite different from what I had imagined. What would you have imagined? Little villages with people still dressed in traditional clothes, shamans, lots of exotic, wild and dangerous animals, dirty and dangerous waters, people hunting animals with lances and arrows, making shrink heads of their prey and enemies? That comes close to what I had imagined (maybe a bit less dramatic), but reality is quite different. Let me tell you about it!

“Selva Vida” is a project founded in 2011 by César Tucupi in collaboration with Virginia Nurses, the coordinator of Fundación Ecológica Chiriboga in Ecuador. This project has 2 main goals: 1) It shows outsiders/volunteers how Shuar (traditionally) live; it explains their culture and traditions and how people live in the jungle. 2) With the (financial & practical) support of volunteers, it helps the community and its people to construct things (e.g. bridges, playgrounds for kids, etc.), to employ people from the community and to do some reforestation where it’s needed.

The project is located close to Yukaip, a community 1h from Macuma and 3h from Macas. People here like César very much, respect his project and are grateful for what he does for the community. In this community, people are quite poor; the soil here is very rocky and infertile. The little yuca, papa china and vegetables they can manage to grow are barely enough for their own needs, forget selling them. The only thing that can get them some money is working in the city or cutting and selling wood, but for that you first need to buy an expensive power saw and other instruments. César employing some of the locals to help out in his project helps these people a lot.

Access for people in the communities between the Y – crossing of the road from Taisha to Macas and from Puyo to Macas – and Taisha is difficult. There is maximum 1 bus per hour, often with gaps of 2 or 3 hours without a bus, and they never come on schedule or when you need them; sometimes they pass earlier, sometimes later, sometimes not at all. There are some public taxis going from Taisha or Macuma to Macas and some private persons also take hitchhikers, but you can never be sure that one of them will pass when you need them.

Most people here – except for the “Selva Vida” project – have electricity, but no wifi or phones and there are only few places that have a TV – we had to go to Tunants, 45 minutes by bus, to see the football match between Belgium and France for the World Cup. There is no connection anywhere, so if you need to ask someone something, you have to go there or you must go back to Macas to make a call; same if you need cash, you have to go to Macas. You see, it’s all a bit difficult and either you need to be very well organized and buy everything you might need for a while at once, or you have to be on the bus to/from Macas constantly, like our coordinator César.

Another thing that might seem a bit backward or primitive is that people wash their dishes and clothes in the river, brush their teeth there and take baths there as well. You might think the water here is not good or healthy, but, in reality, the water there is pretty good and clean. I enjoyed bathing and washing in the river a lot.

Besides this, people here live in a rather modern way: they wear modern clothes just like us, they have books, kids go to school, etc. So, yes, there are small villages/communities, but no, people don’t wear traditional clothes. They only wear those for special events and, even then, not often.

Tasks are divided in a very old-fashioned way: men hunt and do heavy tasks, women care for the kids, the garden and the animals and they cook. Funny enough, while it seems that only men can build lances, it’s not necessarily the women who make baskets or bracelets; we learned that from Nelson – who had learned it from his father – while his wife Fanny had no clue how to do that.

In what concerns shamans, yes they do still exist, but there aren’t many anymore and it’s not them you consult if you’re sick or have problems, it’s a doctor. César’s father had been a shaman, but César and his brothers have made him stop practicing a few years ago because today, being a shaman has a negative connotation. People here actually use a lot of modern medicine; as soon as they feel a little bit bad, they asked us if we did not have some medicine for them. They don’t even care what they get, as long as it’s medicine. It’s a bit sad, in my opinion, that they don’t use more herbal remedies anymore, e.g. they have a plant that you can use to inhale if you have a cold, but it took my asking why Lucie (César’s wife) doesn’t take it since she’s sick for them to realize they can actually use it instead of just showing it to tourists!

Just like shamans barely exist nowadays, Shuar stopped making shrink heads a long time ago.

Most people in the Amazonas today live in “normal”, rectangular houses made of wood, rarely of stone. Traditionally, they have oval houses with beds around the fire place where they could keep warm all night long to avoid getting rheumatism. The beds in those houses were made of bamboo because it’s more supple and the rest of the house was made of wood. Today, almost no family lives like that anymore, but in Selva Vida we have one house like that. It’s not finished yet, the beds are missing and, at the moment, it’s used as the kitchen, but one day it will be César’s house.

Like in the old days, people here still get married very young (14-15 years old) and they have lots of kids (4 to 15). That’s why most women of my age, like Fanny, have already been married for 10 years and have a few kids. Crazy right!? Can you imagine?

There exist several organizations in Morona Santiago (the province here) that have as a goal to protect the Shuar (and Atshuar) communities as well as the tropical rainforest where they live, e.g. the Nashe (Nación Shuar del Ecuador). The biggest challenge for them is keeping out the petrol companies and the international companies that try to enter this territory in order to exploit the petrol, uranium and gold here. The ex-president, Rafael Correa – who is currently being judged for kidnapping and corruption – had allowed petrol companies to enter protected areas like the Yasuní national park, but the new president, Lenín Moreno, has banned them. Some petrol companies still try to gain access to poor communities by trying to convince the people of the benefits they would gain, like employment or money. Many poorly educated people believe their unrealistic promises and that has created quite some disagreements and conflicts in some communities. Many people, like César and members of Nashe, try to fight these problems and the exploitation of their natural resources. This, along with deforestation, constitutes the biggest economic and ecological challenges here.

Another challenge is the really bad condition of the roads. Everyday trucks fall over somewhere and you can’t drive any faster than 30 km/h anywhere. On a few spots, there are pretty steep cliffs and it’s super dangerous for the busses. Recently, people have blocked the only road between Macas and Taisha to collect money and they kidnapped some vehicles of the Ministry in order to force them to repair the road. Fortunately, it has worked and now they have started to repair it.

Well, that’s as far as I can tell you about the Shuar civilization and the living conditions there. Now, let me tell you what my life in Selva Vida looked like.

In the job description, it says 7AM breakfast, 8AM start of work, 12PM lunch, 2PM until 5PM work. The reality was quite a bit different. Breakfast rarely was ready before 7:30 or even 8AM and usually we started working only at 9AM. Lunch would be around 11:30AM or 12PM and then we had a break until 2 or 2:30PM  in the afternoon we usually worked until 5PM.

Many days it rained (more or less) heavily either in the morning or in the afternoon and we didn’t work. Other days, we didn’t work because our project leader, César, wasn’t there and hadn’t left any tasks for us. Then there were those days when work was replaced by other activities like tubing, building lances or baskets, hiking to a waterfall, or something else (see below for that). Honestly, sometimes I thought it was pretty boring, especially as there are not many activities you can do in the jungle without electricity or access to anything.

About my coworkers: when I arrived, there were Maja and Jacob from Germany and Antoine, César and Louis from France. Later, Caroline from Germany joined us. Maja and Jacob were not really our coworkers because they had been in Selva Vida for a year, teaching English in schools in two other communities (Tunants and Macuma), but they were really nice. The 3 French guys were very exhausting and annoying because they constantly made fun of Belgians and because, with their 20 years, they thought they know everything about life. Also, they reminded me very much of the students I had when I worked as a teacher 4 years ago – and I didn’t like most of them. I wasn’t a big fan of Caroline either when she arrived; she asked too many (stupid) questions and was too dependent on me and Maja. I changed my opinion later, though; she wasn’t all that bad. She just arrived at a moment when I was pretty annoyed about many things and that put here automatically in a difficult spot.

The thing that made me unhappy about my coworkers was that they were all about 10 years younger than me and that there was just nobody I could talk to about the things I’m interested in because they are missing life and travel experience ; that’s why I often felt lonely.

Another thing was that I have not had to work with other people in a few years. The past couple of years, during my PhD, I have always worked alone; the way I wanted and in my rhythm. Even though I was sick of always working alone, getting used again to coworkers wasn’t easy.

In Selva Vida, there are 4 houses for volunteers and I shared one with Caroline: me on the ground floor and her on the top floor. The best thing about our house was that I shared my room with a beautiful hummingbird that had its nest there (I saw it twice and heard it every morning fly away). Maja and Jacob each had their own house and the 3 French guys shared one hut. César and his family slept in a big place that will one day be the kitchen of the project – at the moment, the kitchen is located in what will become their house as soon as the real kitchen is finished.

So, I told you that there are hummingbirds in the part of the jungle where we lived. What other animals can be found there? Well, most animals stay in the mountains, far away from the communities. The only animals that come close to the people and houses are snakes (venomous and deadly), spiders (big, but not dangerous), scorpions (poisonous, but not deadly), huge ants (some poisonous, but not deadly), mosquitos, birds, moths and beautiful colorful butterflies. Most of these animals are not exactly my favorite, but we didn’t see them very often – I, for example, never saw a snake there.

We had 3 main tasks in Selva Vida:

1) building dry/compost toilets

2) finishing what now is the kitchen

3) helping out in the kitchen and washing dishes

Most of the time, Nelson, a guy from Yukaip, helped us, mostly when it came to working with the power saw to cut wooden boards, but he is very good at everything and I honestly don’t know what we would have done without him, especially on those many days when César wasn’t there. The thing that was annoying for me, was that with César often being away and us not knowing what to do, the work progressed very slowly; we didn’t even manage with 5 volunteers (+ sometimes Maja) to finish 2 dry toilets…  Problematic was, of course, that we didn’t have all the raw materials and instruments there and, so, we often couldn’t continue. We actually could have finished the toilets in my last week, but the guy who was supposed to sell César the palm leaves for the roof didn’t have them ready yet, only part of them… César told me that he always has problems with the people who sell these leaves and so he is now growing his own palm trees not to depend on them anymore, but it takes a long time for them to grow and you need lots of leaves for a roof…

Maybe one of the problems with my dissatisfaction was my Eastgem (from the East of Belgium, German speaking part, word created by my friend Eddy) attitude of work, but even Nelson said that we progressed very slowly, César not wanting to give us too many tasks. I was a bit disappointed about that, I thought we would work much more. I also thought we would do more work in the community and get more in touch with other Shuar. It’s not like César doesn’t do this, he does, just not at the moment when we were there. So, yes, the money we give partially goes to the community, but we didn’t actively do anything with them when I was there. That was disappointing for me.

Still, when we were actually working, it was fun!

[ultimate_heading main_heading=”Additional Activities”][/ultimate_heading]

On my first weekend, there was a village party in Yukaip for the month of the father; here, it’s not just “father’s day”, it’s “father’s month”!. Maja and I went there around 11AM, while César had been there from the early morning on, because he had to leave at 2PM to go pick up Caroline in Macas. Jacob joined us only later because he had an excursion with his school first. When you get somewhere in a Shuar community, you first have to shake hands with everybody, including the kids; people here don’t give hugs. It’s not a firm handshake like we do it, it’s more a light touching each other’s hand or arm if your hand is dirty or you’re busy and people avoid looking each other in the eyes while shaking hands. Besides the initial contact, it’s not all that easy to get in touch with Shuar people. They are all very nice and friendly, but they are very reserved and not all that open when it comes to talking to people they don’t know. Fortunately, I already had met Césars son Armando and his family the day before when we had visited them in Macuma, as well as Fanny and Nelson. Another factor that played into my favour was Maja already knowing most people, so I could just go sit next to her and join into the conversation. Well, if you know me, you know that I’m not very shy and that I don’t mind meeting new people, so I didn’t have too many problems, just felt a bit uncomfortable. Other shyer people might just have sat down alone somewhere, not getting in touch with the people as they would not have come to talk to you on their own.

What does a Shuar village party look like? The people attending it had bought a big pig (100$!) and the women spent the morning cooking it, while the men were playing volleyball. A few guys stayed to look after the fire and do the heavy lifting; traditionally, keeping the fire going is a thing that the women do, not the men. Around 3PM or so, food was ready and everyone got a huge plate of meat and yuca. The women, including us, had already eaten a big plate earlier while cooking, so we weren’t that hungry anymore, but as it was not only lunch but also dinner, we ate a lot anyway. Usually, I’m not a big fan of pork meat, but this was absolutely delicious; I couldn’t get enough of it. The women also had filled the intestines with rice and meat and cooked it, so that we had very fresh, tasty sausages. It was really good, even though seeing how they filled the intestines (and all the blood that still was around) was a bit disgusting.

There were about 30 adults and 20 kids at the party, but most of them left after lunch. We spent the afternoon chatting with the people that stayed and playing with the children. There also was a lot of “trago” (strong alcohol) and chicha involved and, in the end, we all got pretty drunk. Chicha is a typical Ecuadorian drink, mostly amongst the indigenous people. It’s made by the women by chewing yuca for quite some time and then spitting it out into a bucket. In the end, they add water and some old, already fermented chicha, and let it ferment for a few days. It has around 5 or 6% of alcohol I guess, but if you drink enough, it will still get you drunk. It sounds a bit disgusting to drink something other people have chewed and spit out, but after getting used to it, it’s actually pretty good. People here drink it all the time; they say it gives you energy for work. I guess it’s a bit true; in the end, it is yuca. Sometimes they don’t even have breakfast, they just drink a huge cup of chicha. Maybe a bit excessive calling that breakfast, but well.

The night ended around 11PM with a huge cake Maja, Jacob and I had contributed to the party – César had sent it from Macas with the bus that arrived at 10:30PM, but we had paid for it – and  a lot of dancing to traditional and to modern music. This village party had been a lot of fun and I had met many people from the community!

During my second week, we did lots of extra-activities. During a few afternoons, Lucio from our community came by and built lances with the guys – as I said, not something for women. They were really beautiful. Lucio is a very nice guy and, I guess, about my age. It’s a bit difficult to guess someone’s age here; people often look older than they are due to the hard work outside and due to the fact that they get married and have kids so early. Lucio’s wife and kids usually came to Selva Vida with him and, one afternoon, that came in very handy. While the guys were making lances, Caro, Maja and I were working on the dry toilets with César and Nelson. When I was handing Nelson a wooden stick, it slipped and bumped against my eye. It hurt badly and for a couple of hours I couldn’t even open my eye. I was in so much pain, I couldn’t even keep myself from crying. That’s when Lucio’s wife came into the picture: she’s still breastfeeding and has a lot of milk and she dripped some of it into my eye. I know, it sounds disgusting, having someone drip milk from her breast into your eye, but it’s incredible how much it helps. She did this 2 or 3 times and after a couple of hours I started being able to see again. I kept the eye closed for most of the afternoon and evening and bathed it in a chamomile bath which helps with the swelling. The next day, my eye was as good as new.

Selva Vida

The same week, one afternoon, we went with César and Lucio to some waterfalls about 25 minutes away from Selva Vida. Instead of taking the main road, we hiked through the jungle. There was no trail, so César and Lucio had to open one with their machetes. It was fun and we even found a liana on which we could play Tarzan! 😄 I must admit, I wasn’t good at it and crashed into a tree… My back hurt for hours…

The waterfalls were very nice, especially the second, hidden one. To get there, we had to climb behind the first one, so, unfortunately, I couldn’t take any pictures of this beautiful hidden spot…

Another afternoon that same week, César showed us some medicinal plants that grow in or next to our garden, like Ayahuasca. This is a famous drug in Ecuador; it’s a hallucinogenic plant often used in traditional rituals. All Shuar take it from an early age on to purify the body, mind and soul by making  you throw up. I had been thinking about trying it because many tourists do and it’s not really a drug but medicine, but César told us that it’s only useful if you do it several times – and I wasn’t there long enough for that – and you should do it with a shaman. So, I didn’t do it. There are other plants as well in his garden, like curcuma and cinnamon and a plant with red fruits that are used to color food and things. César used it to paint our faces; that was fun! 🙂 The paintings don’t really mean anything, there are no traditional paintings in the Shuar community anymore.

It’s a bit weird and sad that Shuar prefer taking lots of medicine instead of using traditional medicinal plants. For instance, Lucie, César’s wife, was sick, but instead of making an infusion with a plant that would help her, she asked us if we didn’t have any medicine for her. Fanny did the same. They often asked us for medicine, because it’s pretty expensive here in Ecuador, so they preferred taking ours – something I find a bit impudent, stupid and sad.

The same day, a Thursday, César went to Macas and I joined him, starting an early weekend, as we wouldn’t work the next day anyway. So, we took a car to the Y (90 min) and from there I got a bus to Puyo (2h) and then to Baños (1h-90 min).

I went to Baños that second weekend because I wanted to see my friends Patrick from England – who had done the sailing trip from Panama to Colombia with me – and Elena from Switzerland – whom I had met in Minca, Colombia. I was happy to get there one day earlier than planned, because I knew that Patrick was already there and because I was actually happy to leave the project and get back to civilization.

Unfortunately, our communication was pretty bad because I didn’t have internet everywhere and because the battery of my phone died soon after leaving the hostel to meet Patrick and his friends. We were supposed to meet in some bar and I had told him to pick me up on the way at KFC; I had arrived at 9PM and the only open thing was KFC…. I waited for some time but nobody came, so I went to the bar where I also waited and waited without them showing up. Fortunately, the bar was quite empty and I got to talking with one of the bartenders. At some point, we started dancing – they had a dance floor and played salsa music – and I had a pretty good night even without Patrick and his friends. When I got back to the hostel around midnight and could charge my phone, I saw that he had texted me that they had stayed in the hostel for some time to play pool… They came to the bar around midnight, so we had just missed each other, but I didn’t want to go back, so I just went to bed.

The next day in the hostel I met Rémy from Lille in France and we went to watch the football match Belgium-Brazil together in a super nice German bar with great beer. We had a couple of drinks, celebrating Belgium’s victory, and had a good time together. That evening, Rémy joined me and Patrick and his friends for dinner. It was great seeing him again and his friends were very nice guys. They had ended up partying with some Ecuadorian guys the night before until the early morning and hadn’t slept at all that night, so they were super tired and didn’t want to go out anymore. So, it was just Rémy and me and we went back to the German bar, having some more beer until they kicked us out at 2AM because we were the last guests and they wanted to close.

The next morning, we all went for breakfast together – there is a great breakfast place in Baños (“Coffee, Tea and Honey”) – and then we went to see the match England-Sweden in the German bar; it was the best place in town to see football matches. After the game, Patrick and his friends had to leave because they had to catch a bus to Quito as they were flying from there to the Galápagos Islands the next day. I spent some more time with Rémy, watching the second game of the day (Russia-Croatia) and then he left as well. Being alone in Baños now, I spent the rest of my time there relaxing, eating good food and working a bit on the publication of my PhD.

It had been a great weekend in Baños ; I had seen my friend, had made a new friend, and had had access to internet and electricity. It had given me new energy to go back to the jungle for the last 2 weeks of my volunteering! 😊

The next week in Selva Vida was a pretty short one. On Monday, César and Nelson helped Caro, Maja and me make some baskets of lianas and only the guys worked. It was much more difficult than I thought and I have to admit that I’m not very good at it… Nelson did most of the work, but still, I participated and now I have a beautiful handwoven basket from the jungle.

On Wednesday, the French guys left, their 4 weeks of volunteering were over, and Maja, Jacob and I left for our 4-days-trip to the Yasuní national park (see the corresponding blog entry). César and I only came back on Monday, me in the morning, him in the afternoon, while Maja and Jacob went on holiday, Maja to Colombia and Jacob to Cuba.

That last week was not very productive either. On Monday, Caro and I made bracelets with Nelson because César only arrived in the afternoon and he hadn’t left any work instructions for us. Nelson is really good at making this stuff and I even went back to his house on Thursday afternoon to make a beautiful necklace.

That day, we ran out of gas and had to cook everything on the open fire. Every Shuar family has an open fire in the house; not everyone has a gas stove. It’s pretty impressive: they always keep the embers burning low and when they need to cook something, they make to fire bigger. Apparently, it’s thanks to the kind of wood they use that they can do that.

On Tuesday morning, César went to pick up 2 charges of palm leaves for the roof of the dry toilets. Unfortunately, the guy he bought it from hadn’t finished all of them yet. In the afternoon, César, Nelson, Caro, and I started building the roof of the dry toilets and, about 1h before finishing for the day, I suddenly got bitten in the finger by something while handing César some leaves. It hurt like crazy and you could see 2 small holes where blood came out. César believed it was a scorpion bite and I was freaking out! He told me to take some painkillers; I thought he had other medication against scorpion bites, but apparently you can only take painkillers… He tried to suck out the venom with some special device. It hurt and burnt a lot, but fortunately Nelson found the source of my bite: it wasn’t a scorpion, but a huge (2 cm) venomous ant! Apparently, it’s not the worst kind of ant there is, César showed me one that’s even bigger and worse, and it’s not as bad as a scorpion bite, fortunately. It still hurt until the next day, but it could have been much worse.

There are 2 kinds of scorpions in the part of the jungle where we lived: small brown ones and big black one. Usually, people say the smaller the scorpion are the worst, but here, it’s the opposite. The small brown one isn’t as bad as the big black one. César once has been bitten by a black one; you can’t sleep because of the pain: it hurts for days and you get a big bowl below the armpit from the venom. The bite from the brown scorpion only hurts for a couple of hours, but then it’s alright again.

That evening, Caro left the project and I was alone with César and his family. The good thing about that was that they didn’t cook anything special for me anymore, except for the breakfast pancakes, and I like eating more traditionally.

About that, I haven’t even told you about the food in Selva Vida yet. Usually it was pretty good, except for the overcooked pasta. For some reason, César was convinced that volunteers wouldn’t like the traditional food and so we always got some special dish. Every morning, we got pancakes and scrambled eggs, while he and his family ate potatoes or rice with fish. Yes, the food was really good and the plates huge, but we would have liked to eat more like them and not get something “continental” and eat apart from them; we always got food earlier than them. So, it was nice at the end of my stay when I was alone with them and ate with them and the same things as them.

The next day, I was pretty angry, because it was my penultimate day and instead of spending it with me like promised, César just left to Macas for the day. Again, no project leader present… He had left me a task for the morning, but, in the afternoon, I had to help his wife with the work in the garden. I was angry because I don’t like working in the garden, especially if it’s not mine; also, I really didn’t like César’s wife Lucie and I wasn’t keen on helping her with her work. Nobody really likes Lucie; she’s super lazy and every time César isn’t around, she just sits around and doesn’t do anything, pretending she’s sick. I had to push her, saying César had told me to help her and asking if she would be working in the afternoon or not. I guess if I hadn’t said anything, she just wouldn’t have done anything in the afternoon either. She also pretends to have a job and, so, she leaves very often, but nobody really believes that she actually has a job. We believe she just says that to be able to leave the house and not work.

If it had been her sister Selina, I would have been happy to help. She’s super nice and she doesn’t mind getting her hands dirty. Selina is in vacation at Selva Vida, visiting her sister for a month. She lives in Cuenca and works there in a shrimp factory; I like her very much. 🙂

That night, we got a visit from a friend of Maja and Jacob, Martin, and from his American friend Scarlet and her brother (don’t remember his name). Fortunately, this gave me some work: making tea – we didn’t have any purification tablets left for the water, only pure chlorine, and I didn’t know how many drops to put in the bucket of water, so we could only drink tea -, washing dishes, helping Selina with preparing the food.

Fortunately, the end of my stay there was much better, with a great tour that César gave me around the site of Selva Vida, showing me how to make traps for small animals and explaining the trees. I was a bit surprised that they still know how to make traps for animals but don’t use this anymore to get fresh meat for free instead of buying expensive meat in town.

César cut a palm tree for me and gave me fresh palm heart to eat. That was delicious! We took the rest back to the house where he prepared it for lunch with a huge larva that he had found in another palm. Baked larva is actually really good.

I think this tour might have been my favourite part of this volunteering and I wish we had done more like this to get to know the jungle and the vegetation there better.

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So, that were my 4 weeks of volunteering in the jungle. I had some really good moments, like the village party in Yukaip and our trip to Yasuní, and some bad moments.

I’m very happy I could learn something about the Shuar civilization living in the tropical rainforest of Ecuador and about its culture. I’m happy that my supporting this project helped supporting the community by employing local people, by building bridges and playgrounds and by doing reforestation. I want to thank everybody who gave me the opportunity of being here and doing this by donating money to my fundraiser! We’ll see soon how other volunteering projects are and if you want to see more about this project, check out the video on YouTube about Selva Vida !

Selva Vida
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