I'm sitting on the lower level of a double decker bus making my way south and west from Guayaquil, Ecuador to Lima, Peru. We paid the extra twenty bucks for first class accommodations: lazyboy-like reclining seats, personal TV screens, leg support, and meals for our 25-hour overland bus trip. Because of time, we opted to go straight for Lima.
There are few things mightier in the world than the collection of rivers that make up the Amazon River basin and its jungle. Like frays of thread that weave together from seven different countries, the churning and turing of waters have created the lungs of the earth -- the Amazon Rainforest -- and is one of the most ecologically diverse places on earth. Visiting it was surreal.
Trees that tower hundreds of feet into the air create a canopy for cacophony from the sounds of the forest chorus. Birds that sing and chirp at particular times of the day and night change the mood from sunrise to well beyond sunset. They make sounds of boiling water, rain drops, scowls, and screeches. Insects provide an ever-humming white noise that birds break to their own beat. A monkey howls to harmonize; flapping bird wings are the subtle strings of the orchestra; splashes of water on the river from fish and dolphins provide percussion; trees fall -- cymbals smashing; the shifting sun acts as conductor, changing the sounds of the jungle as she rises and falls. The rain falls: tremendous applause.
After 3 days in Quito, we decided to head to the Cuyabeno reserve in the Oriente region of north eastern Ecuador. From Quito we took an overnight bus to Lago Agrio, a town that acts as a depressing oil-slicked stepping point to treks east into the jungle. It's not far from Colombia. From there, we boarded a rough jeep and headed out three more hours. We drove a while on paved, winding mountain roads, then made a right turn onto a dusty, bumpy road. Our driver made a right and a left at two separate forks. We passed big transmission plants cut into jungle, and a few oil wells raping the earth of her blackened liquid gold. There were schools and small communities of people. Single houses tucked in amongst the stripped forest to raise cattle and bananas. After a while longer, we made a hard left.
A smattering of small houses and a few buildings appeared. The driver stopped and we were greeted by a couple of nice dogs, a guinean hen, and a momma cow and her baby weren't far away. We ate lunch and then met our guide who would be taking us further into the jungle.
We boarded a 14 meter (that's 42 feet) motorized canoe, along with a few others we had to drop off along our river route. The indigenous tribe in the Cuyabeno region are the Kichwa (catch-wah) people. Not all of them have canoes, so some of the jungle trek groups act as in-kind taxis for those needing to get from their homes deep in the jungle to other less remote places. We had a family of five on board.
On this canoe were Jared and I; a German couple who had been traveling for ten months (more on them later); our guide, Diego; the driver, Franklin; the family of five; four cases of half liter beers (glass bottles); two cases of glass bottled Coke; luggage; boxes of food; 8 5-gallon water jugs; three tanks of fuel; a propane tank; and food for the next five days, including potatoes, lettuce, eggs, and rice. Everyone had seats, cushions on the wood benches that made the seats, rain ponchos (because it's guaranteed you'll see rain at some point in the jungle), and life preservers, too. You'd of thought we'd sink, but sure enough, we barreled along thanks to the 75-horsepower Yamaha motor.
The route was downstream on the Rio Aguarico (Richwater River) and we had been told it would be about two hours on the water. It was a solid three hours in reality. It was impossible not to doze off during the ride. All four of us (those who had taken the overnight bus from Quito) did it. Your heavy eyes would begin to close, then your body lost its muscular control, the head slowly bobbed, leaning to the side, over the edge of the boat and bam: river water in your face. Upright, head front, you're awake again, enjoying the cerulean sky and verdant landscape, if only a bit wet. Repeat if desired or if beyond your control.
There was traffic on the river, and roadblocks, too. Canoes of all sizes (though none as full or long as ours) we'd pass. As someone who knows the general nautical pleasantries of the ocean, I was taken aback by the fact that none of the boat passengers waved to each other. I did it a couple of times and then stopped because I got that look of "what's that idiot doing?"
Several barges transporting dump trucks, cement trucks, and freight trucks moved slowly on the water, their diesel fuel filling the air with particulate matter, the water with sludge. These were all seen in close proximity to where oil companies have built infrastructure along this river to make getting oil out easier. There were four large loading areas along the route where barges loaded and unloaded trucks, workers filed from river ferries provided by the oil giants.
The first stop was to drop off the family where the oil companies have herded the Kichwa people and built cookie cutter elevated houses on the river front for them. Playas de Cuyabeno they call it. There is a slew of controversy around the presence of oil companies in the jungle, the environmental impact the operations have, and how it has fundamentally altered the way of life for thousands of people who called the jungle their home for centuries. There are several cases in court about how the oil companies have destroyed land and endangered people who live by them. But Shell, the main oil miner in the area, is refusing to abide by any rulings, claiming that Ecuadorian courts have no jurisdiction because they are not an Ecuadorian company. Lest we forget that the case involved people that got rare and obscure cancers and diseases never seen in indigenous people before the oil companies arrived. But you know, corporations are harmless and can do whatever they want, no matter what.
As for the roadblocks in the river: the water was low (it's the dry season) and felled trees were seen with their branches breeching the water all over the place. Strong currents would catch our canoe and shake us a bit before Franklin put us back on track. There were also large sandbars that waters will eventually run over. At certain points, the river was well over 100 meters wide.
Family dropped off now, we headed slightly back upstream and turned off the Rio Aguarico and onto the Rio Cuyabeno. It's a dark river, rich from the rains that create it. Whereas the Aguarico is muddy and brown, filled with silt, the Cuyabeno is referred to as Rio Agua Negro for its rich black waters, derived straight from rains.
This river was more narrow and winding. In places, currents have carved out depths of 20 meters or more -- that's where the Pink and Gray River Dolphins like to hang out -- mostly in the sharp, snaking corners. The exposed riverbanks were filled with with fluttering butterflies in neon hues of solid yellow and orange. A thick forest surrounded the river on all sides.
After another hour upstream on the Cuyabeno, we turned left off the river into a narrow break that lead into a lake. San Francisco Lagua was its name, and a ways off the river was the Nicky Lodge where we'd be camping out for the next five days.
Perched above the river lake, uneven and unstable stairs brought you up to a large open air common space and dining area. Boardwalk paths, raised above the terra firma lead you to nine other cabins, where anywhere from 3-6 people could sleep. They were all handmade by the Kechwa community and they continue to benefit from maintaing the lodge, staffing parts of it, and acting as local guides.
The roofs towered high -- the common lodge had peaks of at least 10 meters -- and all were made from palm leaves. And through all the rain, we stayed totally dry, too. Bamoboo (which is not native to South America but is commonly planted for building purposes, to the detriment of the native species it overtakes) made the walls and stair handles, local wood made the floors and boardwalks. Many planks weren't secured and on the path to the river side of the camp, big gaps were between each plank.
We settled in and rested, drank a few beers and ate popcorn before dinner. After dinner -- around 20:30 -- Diego took us for our first trek into the jungle. Headlamps and cameras handy, off we went on a path not far from the camp.
The ground was wet and at times we sank in deep below our ankles as we made our way. Thankfully, they provided us with puddle jumpers.
The evening ring of the forest was loud. Insects of all sizes buzzed by your face. The flash and gust of breeze from a bat whipping by could make you hit the deck. And while none of us dropped completely to the ground, each of us were stopped and stunned by bats, bugs, and giant mosquitos.
We found some giant creatures: an Ecuadorian Cricket, brown and shiny, its body was about five inches long, it's antenna another five or six. Tiny transparent frogs and big toads that looked just like leaves were pointed out by the eyes of our sharp guide. At one point, we heard the rustling of nocturnal monkeys, but we couldn't find them.
Diego was a few steps ahead and with a grin on his face said, "Volunteer, por favor?" Since there were only four of us total, everyone somehow knew to look at me. So with what happened next I became the go-to Guinea pig, or volunteer, for all things that needed a volunteer in the jungle. Diego asked if I was stressed, and said that if I was he had the perfect way to get rid of my stress. He asked me to turn around and for others in the group to stand close by my back and watch.
He asked me to close my eyes. I did. I knew that he was probably going to put something live on me and my fear was that the animal would sense my fear and then sting, attack, or eat me at that point. I stood there trembling as something began crawling on the back of my neck. I opened my eyes to look at everyone who was looking on at me with shear terror on their faces. The creature was quickly making its way to the front of my neck and face. I calmly begged Diego to take whatever was crawling all over me off.
In my head I saw a giant spider, with its eight legs, fluffy and furry, crawling all over me. But it wasn't a spider. It was a giant millipede, probably about 4-5 inches long. He was a charcoal grey, with a covering that looked like chiseled armor. He smelled of almonds and its tiny legs never stopped moving.
Millipedes are harmless. I was relived but my heart was still pounding. Jared, Rafael, and Andrea all couldn't believe what they saw. I can vividly picture the three of them huddled together just staring at me as this thing crawled on my neck -- none of us knew what the fuck it was. And they were all in such shock and fear, none even snapped a picture. But we saw many more after that, and go figure -- then everyone wanted to touch them.
Never did I think that spiders would be the highlight of the first night trek. All colors, sizes, and shapes, the Bridge Spider constructs a nest that rivals bridges that traverse the East River; the Social Spider casts a wide, tight-knit web where hundreds of tiny Social Spiders can be found socializing and dining on the evening fare. But the Tiger Spider was the site to see that first night. The web we saw was about two feet across (not terribly huge). The spider itself, when spread out, was probably about 3-4 inches. It was busy dining on a large winged insect when we spotted it. As we stood there and snapped pictures and watched this eight-legged creature dance about its wed and feed, a fly became entangled in the web. Within seconds, the Tiger Spider was on the move, finding its way by the vibrations created by the trapped fly who will now fall victim to the Tiger.
In under a minute, we watched the spider grab hold of the fly and delicately, spinning the fly with all its legs, entomb it in a tight mass of silk. When it returned to its larger prey, it looked as though the fly had been transformed into a piece of silken-white cotton, a puffy mass built into the web. This cocoon was created just to preserve the fly for a later meal.
After about two hours, we were back at camp. Exhausted, we agreed to rise just before 06:00 to go for a morning boat ride.
Diego came by to wake us with "Buenos Dias, amigos," but Jared and I were already awake, brought to life by screeching birds and crickets and frogs saying good day as we rose for the morning.
We boarded the motorized canoe, with Franklin at the motor and a guy named Mesi on the bow. Mesi is a native Columbian but a member of the Kechwa tribe. He lives at Playas de Cuyabeno (Franklin does, too) and was our local guide. He was an older man, aged by the sun, his skin thick and tan, a leather brown. He spoke slowly and with conviction. His Spanish was clean and calm. In his wisdom, he repeated phrases and would add perfect encouragements at the right time: the "muy buenos," "que buenos," "muy bien," "si, si, sis." I found his slow, deep voice to be a compliment to the sounds of the chaotic jungle. When we walked, he did so slowly and assuredly. He often lead the pack, in part to keep us going the right direction, but also because he's got a trained eye for snakes and other dangers of the rainforest.
Morning in the jungle is busy. We spotted a pocket monkey high in a tree over the break that leads from lake to river. Pocket Monkeys find a tree and live there for two years, then move on to another. They like trees with sap because they drink it.
We made our way back downstream. The sky was bright blue with puffy cotton clouds scattered about. We were heading towards the natural salt lick where macaws, parrots, and parakeets take their morning nutrients. But on the way, there was a lot to see.
We saw two or three river dolphins swimming about in one of the deep corners, likely catching their breakfast of piraña. For as many dolphins as we saw, I wasn't able to catch a picture of them. They only rise for air -- they don't jump like ocean dolphins, or have that big of a dorsal fin either -- so catching them is tough.
We saw eight Morfo Butterflies on that morning ride. The wings of this beauty are an electric cobalt, its wingspan just under six inches. They flutter along the shorelines, and a few went across our boat. The trick of this beauty is that their wings are toxic. Which is why it only has one predator: the White Eared Jackhammer bird. It's the only thing this bird eats and it does so by catching it in its long beak and then using said long beak to cut the wings off. Dinner is the body. At one point, we watched a Morfo fly along the shore, come near our boat and flutter back into the edge of the forest. Suddenly, a Jackhammer flew down from nowhere and caught breakfast: it plucked the wings quickly, and downed the body. Then it hung out on a branch for a while, satisfied with the morning meal.
A couple trees fell into the water by where the salt lick was, so not as much is exposed as it used to be. But the avian magnet still provided us with a show of hundreds of parakeets, blue and gold macaws, Amazon parrots (two varieties of them), and the chestnut fronted macaw, too. It was loud. And it was awesome.
Macaws are monogamous once they find a partner. When you see one flying alone, it is usually for one of two reasons: they are young or their partner recently died. Interestingly, when you see a group of three macaws, it's because the third lost its partner and found a duo that welcomed them for company. The three then stay together.
Back at camp we ate breakfast and then I napped again until our afternoon hike. For the record, I ate the whites of THREE (yes, 3) hardboiled eggs while in the jungle. It wasn't easy, but I felt bad wasting the whole thing. Salt and hot sauce helped me get them down.
Into the woods and down a new path we went. We spotted howler monkeys this time, as well as Bullet Ants, Leaf Cutter Ants (my favorite), more millipedes, termites, lemon ants, medicinal plants, and other creatures, too. The bullet ants are dangerous. The biggest ones are about two inches. When they get you, they bite once then inject a stinger in four separate times. The symptoms are a strong and painful flu. For a lot of the insects and spiders that pose a risk to humans, the result is flu-like and painful. Sometimes you die. Certainly you can if you're bit by one of the four venomous snakes that are in this region.
It poured for a while on this hike, too. But the dense canopy helps keep you from getting drenched, though eventually, you're soaked through and through. And we forgot to bring the rain ponchos. Thankfully, a pocket in my hiking pants was waterproof and fit one of my camera lenses perfectly; I brought some ziplocks with me, too.
Another volunteer opportunity appeared. This time, it was for something medicinal. Guess who went first? Me. Mesi used his machete -- which never left his side -- to shave back the bark of a tree. Then he began digging out the soft, pulpy wood. It reeked of a strong and intense garlic quickly. He sliced a large leaf from a nearby palm, folded it a couple of times and began adding the tree pulp to it. I was told that sniffing this up your nose, when mixed with water, was good for the flu and cleared the sinuses. I didn't have the flu, but I was a bit stuffy.
Mesi added water to the jungle garlic and folded the leaf to make a channel. I was forced to my knees and Diego held my head steady and back. I was told to sniff hard when I felt the water hit my nose. Waiting, waiting, waiting...water -- SNIFFFFFFFFF. "Aaaahhhh! [cough cough cough cough, choke, eyes water, tears]." It BURNED. And then I had to do the second nostril. WHOA. Hot fire, did it burn and make you choke and salivate and eyes water. But you know what? Within ten minutes, my sinuses were clear and my breathing was great. A light taste of garlic loomed, and when I sniffed again later in the day, the drip would burn a bit.
Again, once I survived the task, everyone went ahead and did it, too. I was relived that everyone's reactions to sniffing water and jungle garlic were the same as mine. The cough, scream, spit, eyes water, burn.
At 16:00 Franklin brought us a ways upstream in the motorized canoe. Then we switched to a paddle one where we'd be spending the next 4 hours slowly making our way downstream as the sun fell and darkness ensued.
Without a motor, the sounds on the river are even richer. Birds of dusk and night are different than those of the morning. At around 18:00 fishing bats began buzzing all around us. It was dinner time for them. They flew up and down and around, skimming the water, using radar to detect dinner and flight path obstructions. They had black wings and rust bellies. Regular bats, feasting on mosquitos, flew high over our heads.
When it gets dark and you're on the river, you use your flashlight to look for caiman, jaguar, and other nocturnal animals whose eyes will reflect when hit with the light. Sadly, we didn't see any Jags (though we did see trees they'd used to sharpen their claws). But there's a caiman story.
We spotted a little guy along the shore. We made our way over there and peered at him from just a few meters away. I got some cool shots of him in the water with only his eyes popping out. Then Jared asked Mesi in Spanish if he was going to catch him. Within a minute or two, the boat was turned around. Grab, splash, splash. Turn around and there's Mesi with a god damn caiman in his hands. This guy was young and was just over a meter long.
We brought him back to the lake because they're safer there. Local tribes hunt and eat caiman, but they don't go into the lakes for them. His name is Stephen now, and he lives with about a half-dozen other caimans in this lake. Though admittedly, he's the smallest of the lot. He didn't leave the shore we dropped him at, right where we boarded our canoes. So we got to say hello and goodnight to him each day. I think he'll be happy there.
The German couple that was in our group left the day before we did. They were just lovely. For the past ten months, they had been traveling the globe. They bought a One-World ticket and began flying east from Switzerland to Singapore and the Phillapines, Australia, Canada, and then Ecuador. Their journey was ending in Argentina at the end of December. They spent no less than six weeks in each country, and rented in RVs in Australia and the Canadian Rockies. She would return to Switzerland, where they lived, and become a resident in Gynecology and he'd go back to his practice as a therapist.
They had been together for ten years and were married for just two. And like all good Germans, they drank like fish. So they were good company.
The night we got bombed was quite a night. Jared had brought a bottle of cane liquor with him, Aguardiente: the brand was Cristal so he made everyone feel like ballers. I wasn't feeling great when the festivities began, so I dozed in a hammock right by it all. (I was having stomach and stool issues, but nothing that I couldn't control with some good ol' Pepto. And besides, as we said on Semester at Sea, while Travelers Diarrhea is annoying, TD doubles as travelers diet -- keeping you slim while on the go!)
They killed the bottle of Aguardiente in no time. The guitar came out. Jared played a bit, then Mesi began to play and sing. It was lovely. Jared had them sing a song for his girlfriend and recorded it. Then all the songs became dedicated to her, they seemed to love saying her name, Marisa. (Which they pronounced Mareee-sa.)
I came to life as Jared was sinking. Rafael started cheering, buying me beers. I began to pound them, the half liter pilsners. Everyone was singing songs and cheering. We were sharing war travel stories and Diego talked about his wife and young son he sees six days a month.
Andrea didn't drink as much as all of us, but she stayed up with the troop no problem. Rafael and I started talking (well, more like yelling across the table at each other). He said, "you remind me of someone I work with." This is not an uncommon way for someone to start talking about a person they know who is gay. It's a standard opening line to what usually comes next: "they boisterious and like Elton John," or something of that nature.
I grinned and said, "Oh really?! Who are they?" He tread carefully and said something like "I don't want you to take this the wrong way...yaddah, yaddah." "The person is gay." I laughed. Yes, I'm gay and no, it's not offensive that you wanted to ask. I figured they'd seen it right away being Europeans. I let him know that that I do happen to love Elton John and theater, too.
Moments like this happen and they also seems more stressful for the person who is curious about ones sexuality, and in these situations it's mine. I'm happy to share if someone asks me, but it's not like I'm walking around with a fucking rainbow flag flying from the backpack in Catholic, machismo South America. Even though there's places we're visiting that have vibrant gay scenes and neighborhoods (and lets not forget four countries (including the two biggest -- Brazil and Argentina) permit legal same-sex marriage; two others, Ecuador and Colombia, allow domestic partnership).
On the last morning for Andrea and Rafael, we went for another morning canoe ride. We went to another lake where Diego and Mesi began screaming out the name Liana and making a wooly monkey call. Suddenly, a little wooly monkey appeared in the tree in front of us. I was naturally freaking out since she was getting close and pictures were great. Little did I realize she'd be boarding our canoe and making her way to all our laps. She spent the morning with us on the ride, eating a banana and a granola bar.
Liana was rescued by one of the guides. Her mother had been killed for food by one of the locals. When they found out there was a little orphan, they paid $80 for her. Now she splits her time between the jungle -- where she sleeps and lives -- and occasionally coming along for rides on the river with those from the outside world. She's adorable and acts as Queen when she's on board.
At several points, she tried to take my camera as I snapped pictures of her. She played with my water bottle and almost got a hold of Jared's phone, which we were sure she'd quickly throw in the water.
In the evening she joined us again. We had a banana for her. After she finished it, she roamed the boat looking for more food. When she found none, she began chomping on the banana skin -- you know, because it was there. Wooly Monkeys eat all the time -- it's why they're one of the biggest in this region of the world. She snuck her hands into Diego's pockets in search of snacks. When she was thirsty, she'd come to one of us and stare from the edge of the boat. You'd put your hand in the water like a spoon and then she's drink from the well of your palm. This type of monkey doesn't like the water (in part because of the predators that lurk in its darkness).
With pictures of Liana on both mine and Jared's laps, we said it was one of the best days of our lives. I stand by that statement still. She'd even curl up and sleep in a little ball on your lap, too. Heart = melted.
On that last evening boat ride, Diego said he and Mesi had another surprise for us. Made may our way downstream with the current, occasionally paddling. We turned left off the river into another lake. I spotted my first Manta Ray and the bats were out again. We pulled up to a precarious set of steps and moored the canoe. Up the steps we went and Liana followed along.
Ahead and in front of us was a twisting and towering bird watch tower. We had been told that the tower was closed for renovations. But since Jared and I were only two, and Diego liked us, we got to climb it.
I wanted to run up the thing. It was built around a massive Ceibo Tree (The Mayan tree of life). The wood was slippery, covered in moss, and in places rotting. As we climbed higher and higher, stairs were missing, the handle rails were shaking a lot, and some steps felt as if they'd give way to flies. I was at the end of the pack and was wondering why Jared was moving so slowly up the stairs when I wanted to run up them. Come to find out, he's terrified of heights.
But we made it to the top! It was at least 100 feet high (we climbed more than ten stories). Liana met us up there and we posed for a group picture. I set my camera, tied it to a plank so Liana couldn't throw it when I walked away. It was gorgeous from up there. With the canopy just below us, some other trees at the same level it was an entirely different perspective. And a marvelous tequila sunrise pink sunset was taking shape.
I forgot to mention that two tarantulas live at the camp. One is named Violetta, after the ex-wife of the chef. She lives in one of the rails around the edge of the deck. There was also one who lives up in the ceiling rafters and we spotted five while on a night trek. We got within feet of Violetta and when spread out, she'd be about the size of a dessert plate. Huge and furry, with beady eyes and visible fangs, they're the lion of their species. They only create webs when they breed. They kill their prey by catching it and biting them with their toxic fangs. When humans get nailed, it's flu like symptoms -- and while death is possible, it's rare.
We drank beer at night to forget about them, knowing they could just as easily be living in our cabins, too.
The next morning we made the all day journey back to the mainland. This time we took a truck-cab from the canoe dock to Lago Agrio. We picked up five different passengers along the way who were hailing cabs from the roadside. Since there was room, the driver stopped to pick them up. What did we care?
We got back to Quito late at night. We found a hostel in La Mariscal. We shared a room with two Australian sisters who had been traveling for a few months. The plan was the head to Peru the next night, but that was stopped when the bus from Guyaquil to Lima was sold out. So we had another night in Quite, which was great. It was someone's birthday at the hostel (and young 23-year old Brit) and so we celebrated and went out dancing until late. I tried a vodka, lime, and water and it was delicious. I drank a lot of them.
The extra day gave us time to head to the Museo de Guayasamin at the home of the late artist Oswaldo Guayasamin. He'd built a stunning house and studio tucked into the hills of the Bellavista neighborhood in Quito. It was designed by his brother and he oversaw its construction. He was a prolific artists who painted in a predominatly Cubist style.
Born in 1919, he had three stages in his paintings: Huaycañan (Trail of tears); Ira (anger); and Terdura (tenderness). He depicted in great scale the struggles of human beings from around the world. From Vietnam to Africa, Ecuador to Spain his large cubist canvases, painted in dark colors with huge pallet knifes, showed the ravages of war, slavery, and economic struggle. He saw himself as global and in the last twenty years of his life, began planning to build the La Capilla del Hombre (The Chapel of Man), which was dedicated to lives of human beings around the world, starting with the family.
In his last phase, tenderness, the facial depictions grew softer and his colors warmer. He was prolific and I'm jealous of the gorgeous studio he spent his days painting in. He died in 1999 three years before the Chapel of Man opened to the public. But his vision has come through and many of the paintings he planned for it he finished and are on display there.
It was wonderful.
But now I'm in Peru. Lima was a surprise -- in a good way. We made our way south to Huacachina, a little desert oasis tucked into the valley of enormous sand dunes. Stories from here will follow, along with the rest from Peru.
I'm off to go wine tasting and then we take an over night bus to Arequipa where we'll see condors and visit the valley of canyons.
Ecuador was just fantastic. It's a little country with a lot to see and we barely scratched the surface. The people were warm and happy and it seems to hold some progressive ideals for urban life and for preserving and protecting its jungles and natural wonders -- from volcanos to jungles and the Galagos Islands, too.
Now it is time for wine tasting, the trail of the Inca, and Pisco Sours, too.