Part One: El Oriente
I am waiting at the tiny airport in Shell, a dusty, ramshackle frontier town named after the oil company; waiting to board a dubious-looking six-seat prop plane and take a 45-minute flight to the minuscule and very remote village of Quehueire’ono, when José, our naturalist guide from Quito, answers his cell phone. He walks away to talk in private.
My mother Ginger, my sister Molly and her good friend Mike are with me, plopped here and there about the grungy boarding area until the pilot gives the thumbs up. The four of us, and our luggage, have already been weighed and already been told that we are too heavy for one trip. Had the larger 8-seat plane not been on the fritz we could do it, all of us fly to the village and the banks of the Shiripuno River together, but alas that’s not gonna happen.
José reappears. The news is not good.
“One of the biologists in the village has been bitten by a coral snake and needs to be air-lifted out, has to get to Quito and to a hospital.”
The four gringos shoot each other a series of quick, alarmed looks. “Is it deadly?” I ask, but I know about coral snakes. I know the answer.
“Yes, the coral snake can be deadly,” José replies. His English is superb, a bit formal sounding with its lack of modern American slang words and casual idioms, and the Ecuadorean accent varnishes his speech with a layer of exotic mahogany tones. He also, we are quickly discovering, is a walking encyclopedia on all things Ecuador. I could listen to the man talk all day.
“It’s so crazy,” he continues, “She has anti-venom for many snakes, but this one is so rare in the area it was not stocked.”
Many snakes? I think to myself. How many snakes?
“Luckily they have a medical suction kit in camp and used it right away. Still, they have to fly her out, get her proper treatment, just in case.”
Moments later the plane is ready for action. Mom, Mike and I squeeze inside; plop down into the frayed rickety seats. I reach for my joke of a seatbelt and buckle it low and tight across my lap. Molly will wait with José and join us after the return flight gets Sierra, the unlucky biologist, back to civilization. Hopefully still alive.
I know mom is nervous – we all are, I’m sure – and I reach back to hold her hand as the plane rumbles to life and zips down the bumpy runway. The rumbling stops as we take flight, but a brief wobble in the wings sends my stomach lurching, and in my mind a gruesome thought emerges. What’s it gonna be, I ask myself: a swift and fiery plane crash or the slow but inevitable, serpentine seep of paralyzing toxins?
We are flying toward the snake. We are heading into the Amazon.
* * *
One of the most potent images from our five-day trip to el Oriente, the local term for the Ecuadorean Amazon basin, which covers more than a third of the country east of the Andes, is seared into my memory during our descent from the clouds to a makeshift landing strip that has been hacked out of the surrounding jungle. I am staring out the window as a patch of runway appears – hell, I stare out the window for the whole flight, watching as the towns and small settlements give way to a carpet of trees, more trees, a few undulating brown rivers, even more trees – and reach back for mom’s hand again as we get ready to land.
Then my breath, which I feel like I’ve been holding the whole time, catches in my throat as the image materializes: Just before the planes wheels make contact, I watch as people slowly emerge from the forest. Like in some National Geographic footage that I feel I’ve seen somewhere before, or like in some shaman-induced dream that I know I haven't, a small collection of brown-skinned indigenous people magically appears in the waist-high grass that borders the landing strip.
Geographically and culturally, the Huaorani (also Waorani or Waodani) are several native Amerindian tribes joined together by their ancestral homeland in the Ecuadorean Amazon basin, the dense rainforest between the Napo River to the north and the Curaray River to the south. Traditionally, they maintained a nomadic hunter/gatherer society and lived in extended family groups. Recently, just over 50 years ago, they were still considered "un-contacted", but illegal logging and the unregulated oil boom changed all that. Linguistically, their language is unrelated to any other on Earth, a sign of just how isolated they have remained for thousands of years. Historically, they were feared as legendary warriors (they still are, and some of their sub-tribes will prove it should you encounter them unannounced and without a guide). Alas, in today's world, they are a people and a land under siege, a people whose way of life stands at a crucial crossroads. And for our visit to the newly established, Huaorani-owned eco-lodge, they are curious and intelligent, kind and generous, hospitable and proud hosts.
Mom and Mike and I squeeze back out of the plane and greet the timid, smiling faces surrounding us: bare-chested, powerfully built men and lithe, handsome younger ones; woman in various states of dress holding babies on their hips; a few silent and beautiful younger girls: several naked, frolicking children. One of the men is named Eweme, our Huaorani guide for the next several days in the jungle. And it's all jungle, including the simple palapa of branches and thatched roof that serves as the "airport" where we will wait for José and Molly to join us.
* * *
I am sipping a refreshing glass of lemonade, watching Eweme's daughters Anita and Nancy swiftly weave palm fronds into small green handbags. The plane has been gone maybe twenty minutes. Some of the Huaorani have melted back into the forest, but Domingo is still with us, as is Dawa and her small children, an older man in a wheelchair (polio, compliments of being "contacted"), a visiting Italian biologist, and Pato, who helps run the eco-lodge and who speaks English, Spanish and a bit of Huaorani. Towering white clouds float in the sky; it is hot and humid and very quiet.
The silence is broken when something angry stings me on the back of my arm. I vault up from the stump I'm using as a chair and slap whatever it was away.
"Yeow!" I yell, then immediately feel a large and painful bite mark erupt on my skin. "Son of a...What the hell?"
"Hey Peter...Wow, look at this bug." That's Mike, from his own stump.
A thin and delicate, burnt orange flying insect of some kind has landed on the pitcher of lemonade. So dainty, so elegant and beautiful, I immediately reach for my camera and draw in for a close-up.
From behind I hear Eweme say something in Wao, his native tongue. I think Pato translates: "He says to stay away from that one. If it feels threatened it gives...how do you say...it shoots some acid at your face, into your eyes."
I slowly retreat and sit back down, now absolutely, positively sure: I need to be afraid of everything.
* * *
The Huaorani Eco-lodge consists of five thatched guest huts (old military tents, set on raised wooden platforms, covered in a frame of traditional palm fronds), a dining pavilion and kitchen, an open-air hammock shack, and quarters for the staff. For the first 24-hours we are the only guests, but the next afternoon three more adventurous American souls arrive: Ann, a single mom who frequently travels to South America to immerse herself in Spanish speaking cultures; and David and Michelle, newlyweds on one hell of a honeymoon that includes the Galápagos Islands and Machu Picchu. They are excellent jungle companions. We get along swimmingly, all supremely content with our decision to visit the Huaorani and learn about their history and culture, but I imagine anyone who decides to make the trek is gonna be cool.
From Quito, our travel to the lodge starts at 6:00 a.m. with a 4-hour van ride: south along the Avenue of the Volcanoes, down the eastern flank of the Andes, through the hip resort town of Baños, where we stop for breakfast, and finally to Shell. After the aforementioned 45-minute flight to the banks of the Shiripuno River, we hop into a dugout canoe for a peaceful, hour-long pole downstream. The entire trip takes eight hours. It's out there.
The natural beauty of Ecuador, however, is not hard to reach. As soon as we leave Quito we are all like "wow" this and "oh my god" and "wow" that. Not long after we stop to pick up José, who walks out of the mountains to where we are parked by the side of the road (A killer entrance!), he says he should buy a clicker for these trips so he can record how many times people say "WOW!"
The Avenue of the Volcanoes alone is worth the trip, home to several of the highest peaks in Ecuador: Chimborazo (the tallest at 20,702'), Cotopaxi (19,347'), Cayambe (18,996'), Cotacachi (16,204') and several more. Small villages and patchwork farms cling to the green, fertile slopes of the snow-covered volcanoes (click). Deep, vertiginous ravines and glacier fed rivers carve up the land (click). Waterfalls abound (click, click, click).
* * *
The trail from the eco-lodge to the village of Quehueire’ono is probably the muddiest I’ve ever hiked. Deep, thick, slippery, gooey, seemingly permanent rainforest mud that would, if you were foolish enough to explore in anything other than the knee-high rubber boots called Wellies, suck a low-top or a high-top shoe right off your foot. Several times. You might stop to put your shoe back on, but it would get suctioned right back off again in minutes.
The trail is not that steep, thank goodness, with just a few brief yet challenging ups and downs as we ford small streams, but I am concentrating (at times struggling) to stay upright even on the flat stretches. Besides the mud, there are roots and rocks and branches and decomposing logs and vines and palm fronds strew about the path. Fallen cedar trees we need to duck under or scoot over. Spider webs.
It is hot and humid, but we are wearing lightweight long sleeve shirts and have our pants tucked inside our boots because there are insects, lots of insects (we were reminded at the start of the trek to watch where we place our hands). Beneath the rich and heady scents of the jungle I smell the fragrant combination of lotion applied before we began: sunscreen and DEET.
Oh, and hiking right behind me is Ginger, my 78-year old mother.
She was a probably a newlywed on the shores of Lake Erie, in Cleveland, Ohio, circa 1956, when she received that first issue of National Geographic, and ever since Ginger has dreamed of traveling to the Amazon. She’s certainly here now, I think to myself, and because of that major truth I am walking not only on mud but also on eggshells: If I return my mother to the rest of the Palmer clan hurt or broken in any way (or just for shits and giggles, with malaria) – well, if I do that I’m a dead man.
And the thing is, my mom is in no way a “hiker”. Hell, she’s not even a walker! (She may need one after this trip, but that’s a different story.) Besides in a mall or in a grocery store or up and down the aisles at Cleveland’s Christmas Connection, I can’t remember ever walking with mom. Certainly not walking with her outside.
Our introduction to the rainforest is fascinating. Eweme and José are very patient, and together their knowledge of the area is astounding. Along the way we stop often and learn the secrets of the jungle: the preferred hardwood tree for crafting a sturdy, lethal Huaorani spear; the best for fashioning a blow gun; the pharmacological assortment of leaves used to ease the symptoms of stomach ache, nausea, fever; the plant that relieves the inevitable pain of bug bites, stings and scratches; the palm frond the people strip to make fiber for jewelry, bags, hammocks and rope, and the one that is woven into the traditional Huaorani headband; the sappy vine that – split, soaked and boiled – produces a toxin capable of immobilizing a large wooly monkey.
At one point José stops by a tall bush full of spiky pods, pulls one off, then demonstrates the Huao toothbrush; it cleans the teeth but leaves them for a while covered in a greenish/black, foamy slime. Further along he breaks a branch from a spindly tree, snaps it open, digs his finger in and produces lemon ants, which he encourages us to sample. We do.
In the mud we find the tracks of ocelot, puma, jaguar, wild dog, deer, tapir and more. On the ground in one stretch, swarming fire ants (we are advised not to linger, lest we soon find ourselves doing the “ant dance”). Exotically hued butterflies flit here and there. Mushrooms and moss and vines cling to any available surface. The high-pitched buzz of insects nearby. From afar the low roar of howler monkeys. And zipping in single file over a fallen log, one of the classic images of the forest: busy leaf-cutter ants.
The hike to the village takes almost four hours. Eweme could do it all barefoot, and he has, in less then 30 minutes.
* * *
The jungle at night is pitch black, and out there in the pitch-black jungle an eerie and kind of intoxicating symphony of sound invades from every direction. Once you get over the cacophony it’s a fantastic place to fall asleep, listening intently then not so much while you slip into dreamland. Granted, that’s if you’re secure in the fact that there’s some sort of barrier between you and whatever is making all the noise, which you should try to do because it’s mostly bugs. There are some amphibians, yes…but most of the mêlée is from insects. After our second night in the jungle Molly says that one of the unseen pests, the one outside the hut but right next to her pillow, sounds exactly like her alarm clock back home. Throughout the night she is startled awake whenever it calls, and whenever it does she thinks it’s time to get up, get her girls some breakfast, and get everyone ready for school. Chirrrup, bwaup, croak, CROAK, peep, urp, beep, click, beep-beep-beep, ZZZZZ, rrribbit, peep, chirp, hum, squeak, shhht, flap-woosh (that's a bat), buzz: I wish there was some kind of reference book for all the crazy sound out there. It would be a big book.
* * *
I am smitten with the cornucopia of fragrant, exotic, tasty Ecuadorean fruit. Every day, it seems, we’re introduced to another one. Most I’ve never heard of or seen before. Mora (blackberry, but different than ours), tomate de arbol (tree tomato), taxo (banana passion fruit), guanábana (soursop, makes my favorite juice), naranjilla (little orange, tart and green-tinged), and several different types of actual banana (plantains and small rosy pink ones included): the list goes on, and the list is simply delicious.
* * *
It’s hunting day, people! And that means another four-hour, muddy, sticky, sweaty trek.
Mom (Jungle Ginger) is ready and raring to go. She emerges from her tent like some decked-out, zuped-up matriarchal anthropologist on a mission. On her feet she’s wearing a pair of knee-high Wellies, on her head a Huao headband and around her neck a tapir tooth necklace. She’s toting a notebook and palm leaf bag, shouldering her knapsack, and wielding the walking stick Eme (short for Eweme) fashioned for her the day before.
Ann and the newlyweds David and Michelle are ready as well, stoked with strong Ecuadorean coffee and a thirst for adventure. José, like José usually is at 7:30 AM in the middle of the feakin’ jungle, is clean as a whistle, freshly showered and waiting patiently for us. Mike and Molly are…Hey, where’s Mike and Molly? We find them down by the river, still wet from an early morning swim.
The hike is longer than our first, and the trail is trickier, with more ups and downs, with more streams to ford, with more mud. The air is thick, lethargic, weighty. All around is quiet. For this outing Eweme is toting a spear and a blowgun. At six and seven feet long respectively they are a pair of simple yet impressive weapons, but we learn later that these are the examples he breaks out for “Show and Tell”. The ones he has stashed back at his house, especially the blowgun, are even longer. In the hands of an experienced hunter, they’re all business.
Along the trail we stop to watch Eme demonstrate the skills he has learned over the years, skills passed down from generation to generation, skills the Huaroani still use to eke out a meal from the rainforest. At the top of the list of skills is the search for meat, and at the top of the list of meat is monkey. Howler monkeys, wooly monkeys, spider monkeys, and a few other species live in the area. Thankfully they are, by nature, curious, which is why it’s good to know a couple monkey calls. Eme does, and as we listen he busts out a quartet for us. He’s talented: each of the calls is unique to my ears, and each, as far as I can tell, sounds like a real, honest to goodness damn monkey.
One by one we take turns using the blowgun, our target a fruit of some type high in the canopy. He shows us how to climb the trunk of a smooth tree, barefoot. How to throw the spear. Even for newbies like us, the silent accuracy and power of the blowgun is a surprise. I don’t actually hit the fruit, but I’m not far off. Much harder, the spear throwing. And almost impossible, the climbing.
A successful hunt can take 24 hours, oftentimes longer. The search for prey involves walking for miles, sleeping overnight in the jungle, lots of stealth and patience, and lots of muscle and coordination. After Eme teaches us the different elements involved in successfully snagging a monkey, and after we feebly try to imitate him, he puts all the pieces together and shows us how it goes down. From the ground he shimmies halfway up the tree trunk, quickly takes a dart out from the wooden canister around his neck, wraps one end in a cottony wad to provide resistance inside the blowgun, dips the other end in the sticky resin that serves as the toxin, loads the blowgun, aims the blowgun, and lets fly. The whole process takes as much time as you would need to read that sentence. Eweme is The Man.
Images from our second foray into the forest will stay with me for a long time. It is a fascinating and memorable experience, so far removed from anything I have ever had to think about in my life, so alien from my white-boy upbringing in Ohio, that…well, I don’t know what to say. I can watch, and I can try to comprehend, but the reality is beyond me. Find food, kill food, take food back to the family: Yeah, I don’t think so.
* * *
Halfway through our 2-hour kayak trip down the murky Rio Shiripuno, from the eco-lodge to the single-family village of Apaika, it starts to rain.
Ann and I are in the lead kayak, quite deftly, I notice, navigating the twists and turns, the ebbs and flows, the narrow channels and hidden sandbars, the jumble of submerged rocks and logs. Mom and José are right behind us; he’s paddling, and she looks like the Queen of Sheba (my mother…in a kayak!). David and Michelle follow in their wake, and somewhere hopelessly out of sight, even though we were told to stay together, Molly and Mike are bringing up the rear.
At first a warmish sprinkle, then a drizzle, then a bit harder, the rain is actually a welcome and pleasant way to wash away the sticky jungle humidity. With each bend in the river, however, the sky darkens, the shower intensifies, and soon lightning flashes on the horizon. The ensuing clap of thunder rouses a flock of toucans, and they take flight. Toucans!
A bright blue Amazon kingfisher zips down the river highway and takes cover under the trees. My poncho sure would come in handy, but I am smiling and happy, totally Zen with the weather and with the fact that we have another 30 minutes before we reach our destination. Hey, look…We’re in the rainforest, and it’s raining!
More lightning, more thunder; the sky turns black as the storm gets closer. I’m just beginning to wonder if we should be concerned, and am about to ask José if we should stop, when the heavens open up and it starts to freaking pour. Buckets and buckets, cats and dogs, capybaras and tapirs. Big, fat tropical raindrops pounding straight down. Where water meets water the entire surface of the river erupts in tiny dancing splashes like it’s been electrified.
In minutes we are completely drenched. Rain is cascading off my wide-brimmed hat. My glasses could use mini windshield wipers, so I take them off. Somehow the seat of the kayak is already a squishy puddle. I suppose we could pull over to a sandy spot and hunker down under some palm fronds (that’s probably what Eweme would suggest), but it’s too late for that. There is absolutely nothing any of us can do but keep paddling.
And I can no longer contain myself. I'm loving it and yell for all the jungle to hear, if they can above the deluge: “That’s right…You’re in the fucking Amazon now, aren’t you?”
* * *
Bai, his wife Bebantoke and their six young girls know how to throw a party.
The patriarch of Apaika and a fellow guide for the eco-lodge, Bai is a somewhat silent, stoic type. Like most Huao men he is smallish in stature but powerfully built; for our arrival he is wearing faded blue jeans, and his bare chest is crisscrossed in the Huao fashion with strands of beads.
Bebantoke, however, is all show, and a good one at that. She is also naked from the waist up and draped with beads. Her long black hair is crowned with a woven headband and her face, like the faces of her daughters, is painted about the eyes with a mask of red achiote paste.
We greet our hosts one by one. “Waponi.” Hello. “Waponi beneke.” Good morning.
Then Benantoke takes control. “Waponi…waaaponi,” she says, patting each visitor on the arm as she sizes him or her up. Looking into our eyes, pausing for a moment as she tries to glimpse within our soul, she bestows each us with a Huaorani name. Mine is Pika, the bearded fish. It’s an interesting choice as I am indeed a Pisces, but in my mind Catfish is a little disappointing, way too mundane, and certainly not as cool as, say, Jaguar, or some of the other forest critters out there. Formalities finished, satisfied, she passes us off to her elder daughters, who promptly break out the achiote pods. Before long we are painted up like the family.
The festivities kick into high gear as Bebantoke leads her brood in lengthy, a capella Huao chants. The songs are rustic, a bit staccato, primal, but pure magic as well. Dancing ensues: one performance for the women, who all join hands and step back and forth while Bebantoke continues chanting, and a slightly more raucous one for the men, a kind of conga line of hoots and whoops and other yelps. I see myself stomping on the bare dirt floor of their lofty, open-ended thatched hut, fruitlessly blowing into a bamboo pipe, trying, as Bai and his comrades are, to make some damn noise with the thing, and whipping a palm frond back and forth above my head. The women are laughing.
Our afternoon visit is kind of a dreamlike blur, but a pleasant one, and a highlight for me and for my fellow gringos, I’m sure. It is certainly for our enjoyment, staged for us, but just barely. This is The Real McCoy, I think. I know. Although most Huaorani now live in permanent forest settlements, and often have a basic lumber house somewhere behind the traditional thatched one, we are being treated to what their life was like before the rubber and lumber and oil boom invaded their homeland. And that, I remind myself, was for many of them within my own lifetime.
* * *
A word on chicha.
We are thoroughly enjoying the festivities in Apaika - the dancing, the chanting, taking pictures, talking with the family through our interpreters José and Eweme, shopping for homemade souvenirs the clan has fashioned from the surrounding forest, and saying waponi whenever we have the chance - when I turn around and freeze in place.
Huddled together in a group at the far side of the hut, Bai, Bebantoke, Eweme and José are passing around a metal bowl filled to the brim with a white liquid.
Oh, shit! I think to myself. Chicha.
Made from the rainforest root called yucca, also know as cassava or manioc, chicha is a mildly fermented beer-like drink, shared in any kind of formal (or not so much) ceremony or visit or celebration. Yucca is a staple for the Huaorani, kind of like taro in the South Pacific, and they cultivate it in cleared fields surrounding their house. I have read about yucca in my planning for our trip – it is their main starch and carbohydrate – and I have read about chicha.
“Jose,” I ask, pulling him aside as the bowl makes its way in my direction, “Can you ask if it’s been masticated?” Mastication, in this case, for those of you who don’t already know, is the quaint and oh-so hygienic practice of chewing a starchy substance like yucca, then spitting it back into a bowl to help start fermentation: a big communal bowl, which, after you have an intoxicant, is then shared with family, friends, neighbors, countrymen, visiting tourist. Us. You can make chicha without all the spit, but that’s not the traditional way.
The answer is not one I wish to hear (Bebantoke!), so I scoot away to occupy myself as the bowl of chicha is passed to Mike, to Molly and to…gulp, Ginger. I am hoping that I can hide; take pictures with my back turned to the group, and that no one will notice me. And the plan works, for about a minute.
“Don’t worry,” José says, as he does throughout the trip, “It’s not going to kill you.”
Yup, I drink it. The chicha is white and milky and starchy, mild tasting, kinda slimy, and gross. It has also been “started” not long before our arrival, not really had enough time to fully ferment. Which means that I may not get a buzz, but I will still have the chance, along with my traveling companions, to contract a good old-fashioned case of hepatitis.
* * *
The Shiripuno, like all rainforest rivers, is in a non-stop state of flux, constantly reinventing itself, sometimes even drastically changing its course: ripping into a bank here, tearing down tress and mud cliffs, building up a sandbar there, creating new channels and oxbow lakes and islands or erasing old ones. With heavy rain in the highlands, José says, it can rise 20 feet in less than two days. The cast of human and animal characters from our five-day stay in the Amazon is long and varied and extremely memorable, but the Shiripuno, I come to understand, is as important as any of them, a star player in the story of life in the jungle. The river is alive.
We are swimming in the Shiripuno, Molly, Mike and me, letting the current carry us back downstream to the lodge, when I encounter one of the many submerged trees that crisscross the river, hidden from view. My concerns over bacterial infection, plus my fear of piranha and caiman and the candiru, a tiny fish that has been known to swim up the male urethra and lodge itself there, are still in the back of my mind, but just barely. On our first day I watch as Molly and Mike splash into the river like they’ve been doing it forever, but I enter timidly and don’t stay in long. By the second day, though, I am jumping from a rock ledge and using a rope swing just to get wet. It’s way too hot, and the water is way too refreshing, to not go swimming.
Mike and Molly avoid the hidden tree, but I’m brought to a standstill and have to scoot my butt over the impasse. As Mike floats by he delivers one of the best quips of the trip, a phrase he apparently thought of back home in Ohio and has been waiting to use.
“Log on to Amazon.com,” he mutters.
* * *
I am in the presence of something important. I can feel it.
We are sitting on wooden benches inside the clapboard, makeshift biology lab in the village of Quehueire’ono, still sweaty from our hike. The small room is crammed with cardboard boxes, metal shipping crates, microscopes, piles of books and papers, cameras, rubber boots and raingear. A handful of inquisitive Huaorani children are outside looking in, their faces pressed against the open-air, chain-link fence that serves as part of a wall. Sierra, we learn upon our arrival, is now on a plane to Miami. After hearing about her encounter with the coral snake, her father apparently thought the hospital in Quito wasn’t gonna cut the mustard and requested that she return to the States for further treatment, just in case. A fellow biologist, a dark-featured and handsome young man from some other South American country, I think, has remained behind and is explaining to us their research, the reason they are spending several months among the Huaorani.
The idea is simple. The idea is also profound.
As the modern world continues its incessant and unavoidable assault on the Amazon, as younger generations of indigenous people feel the allure of towns like Coca and cities like Quito, the lasting knowledge of the Huaorani elders is in danger of disappearing. Family stories, creation lore, food culture, medicine, language, an intimate relationship with the forest, with plants, with animals, and whole tribal histories are at risk of being forgotten. Forever. Dissected by the influx of unwanted roads, violently raped by oil speculation and unregulated logging, trampled by white men and missionaries, tempted with the promise of money, the promise of a better life somewhere else, the traditional Huaorani lifestyle is rapidly changing. Change, of course, can be good, but for a people who have remained in isolation for thousands of years, and who went from the nomadic lifestyle of the jungle to the industrial free-for-all of the 1950’s in a geologic flash, the abrupt transition from “primitive” to “modern” has been dizzying, confusing, alarming, ugly, and, most importantly, not of their design.
Sierra’s unfortunate and possibly deadly accident happened because she’s cocky (we hear) and let her guard down (for sure), but also because she and her comrades are in the thick of it, trying to make a difference, trying to document in photographs the local flora and fauna. Of course, they have to find the stuff first. Some creatures are easy to see, like plants and toucans and macaws and the bugs that are freakin’ everywhere. Some, however, take time and are dangerous, like many things in the competitive world of the Amazon rainforest. But once they have the photo, and after they consult the few remaining elders who remember, they then tag each with the English, the Spanish and the traditional Huaorani name, preserving the image and the information for an eternity. That’s the gist, anyway, and that, my fellow Earthlings, is enough to get me going. I feel the tears well up in my eyes and realize once again that, although I was opting for a more wildlife-oriented trip to the Amazon when we planned this whole thing, I am witnessing, first hand, a mind-bogglingly unique cultural experience. Part of it is idyllic, in a romantic, innocent kind of way, but most of what I see is a struggle: a struggle to preserve the remaining knowledge, and a struggle against unwanted interference. Back in San Francisco, while I roam the dining room floor at a couple of swank restaurants, serving wine to entitled, privileged Americans, I cannot forget my time with the Huaorani, cannot shake the reality that the struggle is happening now, right now. In the simplest of terms is it not over oil or logging or roads or encroachment or religious beliefs, although those are huge issues. In the simplest of terms it is about allowing the people, the Huaorani, an opportunity to create their own future.
* * *
“Lemon ants!” my mother exclaims, whenever the subject rears its tiny head and waving, black antennas. “They are so delicious!”
Really mom? I think, and sometimes say out loud. “Are they really ‘delicious’, or would they, perhaps, if you absolutely, positively needed them, do in a pinch should you ever find yourself stranded in the jungle, starving, and in need of protein?”
Her smile flattens. Her eyes droop. “Well, I thought they tasted good.”
* * *
Mike is down at waters edge, digging into the mud and throwing large clumps of clay up to Molly. They are both filthy.
The day before, one of our hosts placed a carved, model wooden boat on a hefty tree trunk, which stands on the crumbly cliff overlooking the Shiripuno. Apparently the boat was too plain, too lonely, because the two high school art teachers from Ohio are now busy decorating it with armadillos, inchworms, owls, parrots and other rain forest denizens. Animals finished, they include several Huaorani figurines as well: Eme is perched halfway up the mast of the wooden boat, blowgun poised for action; and Domingo, the hard-working bloke who helps pole our white butts up and down the river in dugout canoes, is at the stern of a second clay “Pato-boat” that Molly sculpts. The word pato, it turns out, means duck in Spanish, so her clay craft is accordingly shaped like a large waterfowl. Pato, however, is also short for Patricio, and Patricio is the on-site manager for the eco-lodge, besides José the only non-native in camp. The Huaorani already find Patricio’s shortened name kind of funny, so to them the Pato-pato-boat is hysterical. They also love the clay animal and human additions; almost two weeks later, when we meet José for dinner in Quito, I learn that the boats are still out there, and that a tarp has been erected to cover and preserve them for as long as possible.
* * *
There’s some kind of puny-ass, scraggly black primate crawling on my shoulder – oops, now on my head – and two furry brown primates of a different species are peering down from their lofty perch atop a bamboo pole. All three monkeys seem kinda freaked out and are, thus, kinda freaking me out. The one on my head is chirping into my ear. As far as I know it may strike at any moment, and the two on the pole just keep staring, staring, staring down with those creepy, oversized, nocturnal eyes. I’m not sure why they’re buggin’, but it may have something to do with the fact that one by one we are passing around their brethren: a pair of large, heavy and utterly dead wooly monkeys that have just been brought back in from an overnight hunt. For all of us, the chance to hold a freshly killed monkey is a surprising, certainly unique and somewhat gruesome photo-op. For the other monkeys, I imagine, the image is probably way too close to home.
At my feet a small campfire quietly smolders on the dirt floor. Periodically the pile of embers will be moved around; the rising smoke helps keeps unwanted parasites and insects from inhabiting the thatched roof above. Lengthy spears and blowguns lean against the wall; large bunches of ripening bananas hang from the frame of the hut, and some sort of parrot perches next to the suspended fruit. A bowl of curare, the dark resinous toxin that is applied to the tips of wooden blowgun darts, is being passed around for people to inspect. Oh, look…José is encouraging them to taste it as well!
That’s just great, I think to myself: ants, chicha, and now homemade poison.
It is our last day in the Amazon, our last on the banks of the Shiripuno River, our last with the Huaorani. Yup, we’re almost out…alive. Just as I imagined, the jungle is an intense place, both physically and mentally, but in a few short hours the plane will deposit another band of tourists and we’ll be on our way back to Shell. Maybe not totally intact but, as of now – if no one keels over from some weird reaction to curare – relatively safe and sound.
During the trip Molly has ripped off a large callous on the bottom of her foot while climbing up from the river. It was a bloody mess and rife for infection (I immediately thought), especially with all the swimming she’s been doing, but the wound seems not to have gotten worse. On hunting day Mike bruised his ribcage while attempting to channel Eweme and climb a tree; since then every time he laughs he clutches his side. And my mother pulled a muscle in her lower back on the kayak trip (I hope it’s just a muscle). This last injury is the one I’ve been dreading, wishing would not come to pass, but she’s a trooper and is doing okay. Much better today than yesterday, when it happened. Advil helps, as does her dogged determination, because she certainly - I know this for a fact - is not gonna let a little lower back pain stand in the way of this, our final excursion.
His mother, who we meet on arrival, remembers the days of warfare and bears the scars to prove it; as a young girl she was speared during an attack from a neighboring tribe. Her earlobes dangle to the shoulders like long ropey U’s, and her bare feet are bent inward, permanently reshaped from decades of climbing trees. She is skinny and fragile looking, but at 70 years old (Eweme thinks) she certainly knows how to survive in the jungle.
She is also not too fond of me. At least it doesn’t initially seem that way. After my mom and Ann get their pictures taken with the grand old dame I ask if I can do the same, miming a camera shape and smiling politely. Immediately she throws up her hands and shakes her head, speaking loudly and rapidly in Huao. I’m kinda taken aback – people usually like me – and although I have absolutely no idea what she’s saying I get the gist. Hmmm, I think, as I turn my attention elsewhere…Maybe she’s not crazy about Catfish?
The two wooly monkeys have their long tails tied around their necks; you can tote them on your shoulder like a purse. The pair is so freshly dead they, A: are still almost warm to the touch, B: have dried blood around the mouth, and the tongue is hanging out, and C: have those little cartoon X’s over their eyes (okay, maybe not, but they should).
Eweme’s wife Dawa is resting in a hammock, twisting together the long strands of plant fiber used to make…pretty much everything, including the hammock. Her youngest boy, naked as a jaybird, climbs on her lap and hops off, eyeing our band shyly. Mike and David are crouched down on the floor, taking turns; with their hands they are vigorously drilling the point of a hard piece of wood into a softer wooden base they hold underfoot. It’s an ancient and time consuming ritual, but with help from José and Eme a ribbon of silvery smoke soon appears; they dump the red ashes onto a wad of forest cotton, softly blow several times, and voila! Fire.
We were supposed to visit Eme and his family earlier in the week, but shit happens in the jungle, and thus the schedule at the eco-lodge is fluid, malleable, like the Shiripuno itself. Knowing the man like we do now, having spent just a few days on his home turf – watching him calmly and ably make his way in the forest, listening to him patiently explain his world, learning from him the history of his people and the complex, difficult challenges ahead – it occurs to me that the change in plans was some heavenly twist of fate, one that only now makes sense.
Our entire stay with the Huaorani is extraordinary, far beyond my expectations, far beyond ours, and beautifully executed by everyone involved. As a guy who has, throughout his career in the restaurant biz, been a part of what we refer to as “off-site events”, I am in awe of what the eco-lodge is trying to accomplish, not just off-site, but in the middle of the freaking jungle. For the Huaorani to host tourists like us, week after week – with style, comfort and kindness – is an amazing feat. To be invited into their homes is an honor. And to financially support them by visiting this grand experiment in the jungle, supplying them with a source of income that does not compromise the surrounding natural resources, is our pleasure. After five days I certainly have a better understanding of their story: past, present and future. I have gained a deep respect for the people, as well, especially for those we have come to know at the eco-lodge.
Foremost in that cast of characters is Eweme. I’m sure the other guides are just as adept, just as knowledgeable, just as friendly and patient, but by the time we step inside his house I think we all feel we got the best of the best. Which brings me back to my point: had we stuck to the original schedule our time with Eme and Dawa and their family may not have been so meaningful, so potent, so personal, and so filled with respect and admiration. We have obviously saved the best for last, and I count myself as privileged to have made the trek.
* * *
“Hey, Pete; you wanna go to the Galápagos with me and mom?” It’s my sister Molly, calling from Ohio.
I stare into the phone. Sure I do. You bet.
Within a few short weeks the trip is pretty much set. Our itinerary turns out to be much more complex than what we initially discussed: Yes, seven nights on a yacht cruising the islands, but also a three-day land-based stay in the archipelago, plus Quito and the Amazon. We’re in up to our necks. Still, a few last details need to be decided. One of them is how long we want to spend with the Huaorani, as the eco-lodge offers four- and five-night packages.
I’m back and forth on this. To me the Amazon means Peru and Brazil – I’ve never heard of el Oriente before – and still kinda wish we going on a trip that focused more on animals. I’m also concerned about connection times. The extra night means we’ll have a brief stay in Quito, a mere 12 hours, before we have to get back on a plane and head to the islands. If the weather is so bad that the plane can’t fly us out of the Amazon, we may miss our LAN flight completely. But Molly is determined, and she emails me all sorts of information. One night, as we chat on the phone, she relates her most current conversation with Allie Savage, the woman helping us arrange our whirlwind tour of Ecuador: “Allie says that her clients all wish they’d stayed longer at the eco-lodge, spent more time with the Huaorani.”
So it is decided. I check into travel insurance and forward the information to mom, just in case, but the price is shockingly expensive. In the end we throw caution to the wind and head south without it. From the States we’ll fly to Quito for two nights, travel to the Amazon for five, hopefully get back to Quito for that measly 12 hours, fly bright and early the next morning to Isla Baltra in the Galapagos, take a ferry to Isla Isabela for three nights, take the ferry back to Baltra, board our yacht for a weeklong cruise, fly back to Quito for our four remaining nights, and finally, catch our flights back home.
Fingers crossed…Let’s do this Ecuador thing!
* * *
We are waiting in the boarding area of the Quehueire’ono airport, which means that we are sitting on tree stumps beneath the palm-thatched roof of an open-air palapa, sheltered from the intense equatorial sun; waiting for the plane that will whisk us back to Shell, from a land of dugout canoes to one of automobiles, from rivers to asphalt roads, from the riotous yet somehow soothing sounds of the jungle at night to a dull, manmade, urban drone.
Little by little, people emerge from the surrounding forest to join us, to bid us farewell and to welcome the newcomers, who are on their way. Dawa walks slowly across the grass runway with her youngest boy. He clings shyly to her leg, and as usual is buck-naked. Diego arrives with his wife and new baby girl; during our stay he has competently fulfilled his role in the dining room, serving us three square meals a day, and she has taken care of all our housekeeping needs. The lovely and studious Anita is proudly showing Molly her school homework; her sister Nancy looks on, smiling mischievously. Domingo, with two handsome young men named Eloy and Pedro, trudges up the path from the river, schlepping another tedious load of luggage from the canoes. Sierra’s boys, her fellow biologists, show up and chat with José and Eweme, with us, and with the villagers they haven’t seen in a while. Some type of nasty insect promptly stings one of the men, and for a moment he hops around yelling as a big red welt swells on his back. Three young boys play with a scrawny dog. And although I still have no idea how he gets around, given the terrain we’ve seen, the man in the wheelchair reappears.
“Watch this”, José says. “The Huao have excellent hearing. They’ll say the plane is approaching, but it will be a while longer until we are able hear it.”
The Huao also have an excellent friend in José. The man is an amazing ambassador for the eco-lodge, for the Huaorani, and for their plight. I can’t help but compare our lives, our work: me, running around a restaurant serving wine; and him, running around the jungle, trying to change the world. José is my hero.
Pato opens a cooler and serves up one final treat before we leave: bananas drizzled with chocolate sauce (Ginger is in heaven). From start to finish the food at the eco-lodge has been abundant and delicious: a hearty combination of regional products and more international fare. Fresh coffee is available at 6:30 a.m. when I wake with the sunrise, and as we return to the lodge after our daytime excursions another batch is ready and waiting. Big bottles of Pilsaner, the national beer of Ecuador, are also on hand should we desire. Given the jungle heat the beer is never as cold as I might like, but we gladly drink most of the stock on hand, and while relaxing in a hammock above the Shiripuno, too boot!
Before long Eme looks up to the sky, cocks his head and pauses: the plane is coming. We all strain to listen, but José is correct; several minutes pass before any of us can hear the engine.
I wonder what the passengers are thinking. Are they excited, anxious, nervous? Have they done their research: on this place, on these people? I wonder if they realize they’re about to embark an extraordinary, eye-opening experience: one that will remain with them for the rest of their lives. I wonder if their guide is going to be as good as Eweme (he has the next week off). I wonder if all the huts are gonna be filled with this next group, and if not, I wonder if can I stay? As we watch the newcomers greet the timid, smiling faces surrounding the plane, I remember Allie’s advice. I know mom and Molly and Mike remember it, as well: Secretly I wish we were the ones arriving, again – able to spend another five fascinating days in el Oriente, in the jungle, in the Ecuadorean Amazon basin, in the homeland of the legendary Huaorani.
* * *
Part Two: Galápagos
My first full day in the Islands of the Galápagos is spent on a hefty, ten-mile hike to the caldera of an active volcano named Sierra Negro; on a walk through a mangrove swamp to La Perla lagoon for some snorkeling, where we encounter and swim with a pair of playful, inquisitive, juvenile sea lions; watching the sunset from our charming, beach-side hotel, La Casa de Marita; enjoying a good (not great) dinner at said hotel with mom, Molly and Mike; and finally, falling asleep on the equator to the sound of ocean surf. My first thought the next morning, when I awake and remember the images from the day before and realize that we have another 10 days to go, is a happy revelation: Oh my god, I was born for this place!
* * *
I’ve snorkeled with white tipped reef sharks before, but never such big ones and never so many. Every time we don our gear and splash into the ocean they are there, silently cruising, waiting for us. When the water is clear and we can see it/them approach I’m fine with the experience, thrilled by it; I know that in the annals of shark-dom the white tip is not that aggressive and we’re not preferred food. When visibility is not so great and they (surprise!) emerge from the blue void, from the shadows, like some toothy, soulless and black-eyed apparition…well, let’s just say that’s not so much fun. Cool, yes, especially after I get safely back on board with all my arms and legs intact, but freaky. Way too freaky.
* * *
To be continued...
Peter J. Palmer