Category Archives: Indigenous

La Reserva Pacaya-Samiría

After squeezing out of the over-stuffed combi from Tarapoto, I found myself wandering through the river port town of Yurimaguas in north-central Perú. The combi, a minivan remodeled to hold 12 (very small Peruvian) passengers, had 16 of us sardined on top of each other careening down from the Highlands.

As the result of endorsements by friends, telling me how pleasant Tarapoto, the “City of Palms” was, I looked forward to getting there after my 4 month Lima sojourn. Facing either a 24hr bus ride or a 1hr flight, I took a taxi from the SAE/Lima clubhouse to the airport. It was a cost difference of about $60 and very much worth it; however Tarapoto wasn’t.

Perhaps I invested too many expectations into this small town, having read so many guide books laying around the SAE/Lima Clubhouse. Perhaps those friends who spoke so highly of Tarapoto aren’t really friends. Perhaps it was just me, unable to define what I was looking for to clear my mind of a city of 10 million. Whatever the cause or causes, Tarapoto disappointed. Perhaps it could have been the haircut.

My First (and last?) Selfie

My First (and last?) Selfie

My last one in Lima had grown out unevenly and I wanted to just comb my hair straight back and keep it simple for the jungle. The young lady who sat me down and snipped away had other ideas. Sadly, I have a feeling that she had failed to articulate those ideas down to her fingers and I ended up stumbling away with perhaps the worst chopping that I’ve ever had; certainly the worst in South America.

But she had recently moved to the “Big City” of Tarapoto from a small village bordering Ecuador and I was her very first Gringo! And the first gringo that she had ever talked to. This was a big day for her tiny shop. She was nervous and flirty and amazed that I could speak Spanish, so we had a thoroughly enjoyable time together talking about all sorts of things.

As part of a larger task, I am learning to forgive perceived injustices I’ve carried as resentments over the years. I have Balkan blood in my veins and it’s normal for a Serb to pass on a grudge through generations or even centuries. If you doubt this, simply ask a Croatian. The two cultures have been at each other’s throats for a millennia. Thus, I have some deep cultural teachings to overcome. It’s now 3 weeks after the haircut and wearing a hat is no longer mandatory. All is forgiven, Floricita. Pretty much.

What truly sealed the deal about my dislike for Tarapoto happened when I found out, after an hour’s walk in searing heat and a truly brutal sun, that the chocolate factory tours were shut down because of a remodeling project. That was it; I’m out of here! I was crammed into the combi the next morning, barreling on to Yurimaguas.

Mototaxis in Yurimaguas

Mototaxis in Yurimaguas

Smaller, dirtier, and far more humid than Tarapoto, Yurimaguas is a major shipping gateway to Iquitos and the Amazon. It is also the end of paved roads in this part of Perú, and even dirt roads end just outside of town. I enjoyed my stay and found it very pleasant. People and goods arrive from the mountains and the coast in Yurimaguas for transshipment down the Huallaga River to the larger, faster Marañón and finally down to Iquitos.

The other option for reaching Iquitos from within Perú by way of water, is to reach, by land or by air, the city of Pucallpa and board a similar type of vessel traveling down the Ucayali. I expect to be in Pucallpa next month for another, very different jungle experience. Just upstream of Iquitos, the distance changing with seasonal flooding and the variable nature of large rivers, both the Ucayali and the Marañón join to become the Amazon.

By any metric the Amazon is the largest river in the world. And even here, more than 2,000 miles from its delta on the Atlantic coast of Brazil, here where it first gets its name, IT’S A BIG RIVER. Certainly at this point the Amazon equals the breadth of the Mississippi at its fullest, and either of the Ucayali or Marañón flows would rival the Missouri or the Ohio. But at this juncture I’m downstream of where I want to be so let’s go back a few days.

Yurimaguas is where I had planned to board one of Eduardo’s Boats. But Eduardo is dead and his 2 sons are now rivals in the transport business, constantly fighting each other for commerce. What was once the shipper of choice, Eduardo’s Boats is now just one of a number of shippers vying for trade. After some consultation with hotel staff and folks on the street I chose another option to make my way downstream. I’m happy that I did.

Passenger/Freighters at Yurimaguas

Passenger/Freighters at Yurimaguas

The idea of fighting for hammock space crammed shoulder to shoulder with other passengers sounded less and less appealing. Without problems (when did that last happen?) the downstream voyage takes about 3 days of constant heat, humidity, and the farts, belches, and snores of scores of unwashed bodies. It didn’t take a lot of convincing for me to break up the trip into 2 segments, going ashore at the village of Lagunas about 1/3 of the way to Iquitos.

Instead of the large and very slow passenger/freighter, I boarded a 3am speedboat in Yurimaguas and came ashore at Lagunas 5 hours later. Standing at the top of the muddy bank, José was waiting to grab my bag and take me to his office. I had signed up for his tour, Huayruro, to take me into the Pacaya-Samiría Reserve. For several days José and his wife Emilia would be my hosts and guides. We floated and paddled downstream in a dugout canoe, staying at mosquito-netted camps along the way.

The 2 of them, members of the Cucama indigenous group, are people who can and do live off the land and the rivers with a fishing line, a skinny bamboo fishing spear, a box of matches, and of course the machete. Oh, and bottled water for the gringo. Along with a roll of toilet paper for the white guy as well.

José and Emilia

José and Emilia

They had never taken someone my age on a trip with them and to say that I was pampered doesn’t do their hospitality justice. I sat amidships in the canoe and was expected to document the journey with photos and witty conversation while the two of them did all the paddling. Spanish is also their 2nd language so we got along very well. But less than a week was more than enough for me.

Near one hundred degree temperatures competing with near one hundred percent humidity takes an ever increasing toll on me each year. The mosquitos, though less in numbers and less voracious than those attacking me in the Everglades years ago, are not my favorites either. But with the oppressive heat/humidity combination and just sitting in the canoe most of each day, I struggled mightily. Though not with food.

José just speared one of many fish

José just speared one of many fish

José, paddling from the front while his wife sat in the stern, for seemingly no apparent reason would randomly steer toward one bank or the other on the opaque brown river. He’d then reach back behind him to grab his spear and within seconds he had a fresh fish at his feet. After several of these he would slice off a piece of one of the fish and thread it on a hooked fishing line tied to another 1/2-inch thick bamboo pole.

Our first piranha

Our first piranha

Then he would slap the hook onto the water’s surface with a quick flip of the pole and literally in a second or two, one of 3 species of piranha swimming nearby would become the next course in our next meal. Emilia had only packed some salt, a few tomatoes and a bag of onions when we set out. And for the next few days I picked fishbones out of my teeth breakfast, lunch and dinner. Piranha, by the way, is supremely delicious.

We went caiman spotting at night and saw even more birds by day than I had seen in the Cuyabeno Reserve in Ecuador last year. Parrots, Macaws, 3 kinds of Kingfishers, Egrets, Storks and many more took flight around each bend in the river. The Pacaya-Samiría Reserve is a national treasure and surely a place worth the struggle to reach for anyone visiting Perú. One can also visit the Reserve coming upriver from Iquitos, paying 3-5 times as much but with more pampering and fancier accommodations. Your call.

Eventually the torture ended, after the 3 of us each grabbed a paddle and fought our way upstream back to Lagunas. I was so truly taken with my guides that I left Emilia with a princely sum of 50 soles as a tip. That’s about $14.26, not a trivial amount in the jungle. But José was too wiley for me and when he dropped me off at the backpackers’ hostel, I found out that he had already paid for my night! I was humbled mightily.

Dawn on the Huallaga

Dawn on the Huallaga

Early the next morning, just after sunrise, I boarded another speedboat and zipped down the Huallaga. An hour into the trip and the river joined the Marañón, one of the major rivers in South America.

From there it was an uneventful 6hr ride to the port of Nauta where I got off in a driving thunderstorm for yet another crammed, sweaty combi ride, this time into Iquitos. I set aside 3 weeks for Iquitos, and like so many other places, 3 months would not have been enough for this amazing island in the jungle.

The largest landlocked city in the world (nearly 1/2 million population) without a road leading to it, Iquitos is worth a very long look. I’m doing just that.

Sirens’ Song

When Carlo Ponti released Ulysses with Kirk Douglas as The MAN, I was 6 years old. Never one for understatement, Ponti’s over the top epic grabbed my entire being. The direct result of my watching his movie was that year or 2 later I took the plunge and borrowed both the Iliad and the Odyssey from the Bookmobile that parked in front of our house. Reading was my life back then and Homer, if anything, was even more captivating than Ponti and I devoured those 2 books. They were Adventure personified and I fantasized many incredible journeys growing up in those days.

At that age I had to be selective in my choice of adventures, since several of Ulysses’ trials were a bit too nuanced for a 1st-grader. I could understand his battle with the Cyclops; didn’t everyone have a monster under the bed? But the Sirens? I don’t know about you, but they looked pretty good to me! Yeah, there were some rocks and a treacherous sea, but I figured that there must have been some place to drop anchor and take up with all those beautiful women. Hmm, even at 6 years old…

Lima plays its own Sirens’ Song and I must admit the tune had its effect on me. After 3 months going underground in a full immersion, awash in diversions of every choice, I have only now been able to surface and take a breath, conceding that I was spellbound. But that’s not why I’m here in South America. I’m not ready to wash up on the rocks. At least not here, not now.

It will take me another month to wrap up some things. After that I’m gone. It’s been an instructional time here and I could easily call Lima home. The Peruvians that I’ve met are warm, open and love life. I’ve checked out a number of interesting and affordable barrios in several places around Lima and even La Punta in Callao.

As it happens I was in Callao the day before the US Embassy sent out an emergency alert, warning that the bordering city to Lima, the massive port of Callao, was declared a danger zone by the federal police. Finding the Christmas spirit, a number of armed robberies and fatal shootings convinced the police to close the city off and let the bandits fight it out. There really is a war zone there and if you do have the urge to visit, plan carefully. Anyway, I ate a fantastic ceviche in La Punta at a landmark establishment and truly enjoyed the day with one of my 2 Spanish teachers.

I’ve been working with Ely between her shifts in a casino as she scolds me into repeating, ever faster, corrected phrases that I had earlier botched. She’s a quick-witted soul who is striving to improve her lot. Having to quit attending the university when her dad walked out on the family, she’s been helping her mom raise her 11-yr old brother and will probably never have the chance to resume her schooling. Already in her 30’s she knows that time is not on her side.

But she speaks English very well and hopes to set up a personal guide service working through the SAE/Lima Clubhouse. The Club is always being asked for advice on things to do here and Ely is as good as anyone for revealing some of the treasures buried here in a city of millions (I’ve heard “official” population figures of anywhere from 8 to 10 million, but no one will ever really know).

Before he ran off, Ely’s dad was one of thousands upon thousands of independent taxi drivers in Lima. Unlike Ecuador, and especially Quito, taxi drivers in Lima are fully un-regulated and the single most dangerous form of transportation in the city. Every guidebook agrees with the US Embassy and warns about kidnappings, armed robberies and other delights when the unwary hop in for a frightening cross-town ride.

When we ride the taxis Ely does all the interrogation of potential drivers while I stand away from her with my back to the street. Gringos are always charged double. But we have no trouble. She is street-smart and knows where and how to move anywhere one could want to go, so she can spot a weasel and rejects most taxis.

Visiting, day and night, many off of the guidebook listings, we’ve used the taxis; independent, broken-down private buses; combis, which are minivans stripped down with miniature seats bolted in; an occasional city bus; the limited access Metropolitano bus-train and other, less traditional ways of going from A to B. I’m helping Ely draft a brochure for her services and it will be posted prominently here at the Club. I’m rooting for her to make it and I think she’s got the drive to succeed.

Jenny, on the other hand, is my academic teacher. One of the English and Spanish language faculty at a university here, she’s moonlighting and has been affiliated with the Club for several years. We visit museums, cafes, and some notable highland restaurants. Jenny’s been helping me to understand the immense social upheaval caused by decades of gruesome terror during the years of the Shining Path maoist guerillas. It’s not a pretty lesson and many of the photo-essays on display are very hard to stomach. Yet like the Holocaust museums, the belief in Perú is that if we continue to see we will continue to remember and we must never forget.

At the height of the insurgency, during the 1980’s and 90’s, the Shining Path took few hostages and wiped out entire villages and even regions of the country. They were such a destabilizing force that millions of indigenous families and whole pueblos fled the highlands to flood into an already over-crowded Lima. The city will never be the same.

The shanty-towns that crawl up the steep hillsides circling Lima are now home to a disturbing and restless population entirely unregulated by any standards. Up in the hills, the residents pay 5 times the cost of water delivered within the legal city limits. Water delivered in open barrels with E. coli and other biological goodies at no extra charge. Ahh, city life.

Once the home of the Spanish colonial Viceroy, Lima has been an upper-class city for hundreds of years, with the white criollos ruling a poor and backward country. This tight group of powerful families kept immense riches harvested from all parts of Perú. Even now there are wealthy sections of the city that steal one’s breath with their opulence. Billionaires? They’re quite happy here, thank you. For centuries Lima had a ruling class and an underclass and it was easy to distinguish who was who. Until the Shining Path butchered its way onto the scene.

Never a big fan of television, I watch even less here in Lima. But I’ve seen one commercial many times now and it, in a microcosm, is indicative of the immense social change. The opening shot is of a man stepping down from (what else?) an overcrowded city bus. He looks like millions of other Limeños, an ordinary sort dressed casually and walking purposefully while a voice-over begins extolling the virtues of building wealth. This everyman nods his way past street vendors, shoe-shine men, small shops and other scenes from the bustle of big-city life.

Eventually he enters a doorway and is handed a hardhat, walking past groups of workers in an ever-expanding view of a major construction site. He strides up to face a newly poured concrete pillar, gives it a hearty slap, turns around and gives the OK to the expectant workers. He smiles, they smile and then all hop back to building this skyscraper as the commercial fades to the investment logo. Everyone’s happy.

This man, short of stature with prominent indigenous features, looks like most of the people on the street and the message we received was to judge him by his performance and not his appearance. With so many waves of refugees fleeing the central mountains into Lima for 30 years, the power structure has undergone massive change. This man represents the change.

Whites, while still at the controls of the super-wealth, are no longer necessarily the ones getting things done on the ground. They are frequently no longer the major players nor the ones in charge of running the chaos of 21st Century Lima. It’s been a very painful growth and anti-discrimination signs and posters abound throughout the commercial districts. But discrimination still exists and the signs are simply the admission of a work in progress.

Which is about all that’s working now. Perú holds its general elections in 6 months. My friends tell me that this will be like all the previous pre-election times when all governmental offices essentially close up shop and go home. For the full 6 months. But for me, this was a boon.

Personal and family business mandated a quick spin back to US soil. So this past week I dropped in on my Tampa-based older brother and we connected with my younger brother too. It was great seeing both at once and we ought to do it more than every 1/2 dozen years or so. On my way back into Perú I made the obligatory stop at the immigration booth at the airport.

Known for a dearth of compassion, the airport office almost never gives out more than the standard 90 day tourist permit. Yet when I got to the front of the line and spoke, in Spanish, to the official I pleaded my case for an extended term. And when I asked the officer for the maximum time of 6 months (which is often granted at overland immigration stops but not at the airport), he just glared at me and said NO. But then he wrote 183 days on my passport, smiled and sent me on my way. I think that he was being filmed and wanted to project his limitless powers to the powers that be. Good Man, and by the way: thanks!

So his getting back at the system through his rebellious action gave me the opportunity to invest this wealth of days into a 5 month jaunt around what a number of anthropologists believe to be a cradle of civilization. I’m reading the book 1491 these days and it is riveting. The author is taking revenge on his grade school and high school history teachers by showing what the Western Hemisphere was really like before Columbus and his ilk set sail. To all of you who, like myself, were subjected to standard public school drivel, we’ve been lied to; big time.

New (though some of the conclusions are more than 30 years old) discoveries about just how large and complex indigenous cultures were have trashed what we learned way back when. Although way back when isn’t too far back since the author’s sons are receiving the same old lies. Those pesky Pilgrims were really far more doltish and the surrounding “Indians” were far more advanced than what I learned in Mr. Scandary’s 5th Grade history lessons. Though I did like his collection of old National Geographic Magazines.

I’ll hit the road soon. Though I make no promises, I believe that my posts will resume a more frequent schedule. I’m eluding the Sirens and making a break for the jungle in February. We’ll have to see. In the meantime, happy holidays for and to all. I never did like prepositions.

Dramamine Monologues: Galapagos, Pt. II

After the first week spent exploring the most populous island of Santa Cruz I was ready for a change. Knowing, though not focused on the warning to beware of what one wishes for, I was in store for a very big change on a much deeper and purely personal level.

So I hopped on a 6am speedboat headed to the largest of the islands, Isabela. By now it was mid September and the calm, tranquil waters offshore were gone. By far the best times for diving were over. With rough seas came silt and sediment, so underwater visibility is greatly diminished.

sea_sick_railing_cartoon

Those of you who SCUBA dive would be best served by fighting the hoards of the July-August high season, when the water’s warmer, calmer, and clearer. It’s also rumored that those times don’t demand a wetsuit either. But 2 weeks after US-Labor Day the lazy days of summer are gone. And so was breakfast for at least 1/3 of the 15 or so passengers on board for the commute. Oddly enough though, not for me.

Some of my earliest childhood memories, predating Kindergarten no less, were of the times spent puking on Sunday drives with the family. Joining my dad, smoking one cigarette after the other motoring down the highway, my mom riding shotgun and passing around sandwiches and kool-aide, was my older brother pasted against the left side of the back seat, hoping to avoid any backsplash. He was mostly lucky in this regard.

670px-Treat-Motion-Sickness-Step-4

Motion-sickness has whipped me about the head, shoulders and stomach my entire life. I’d get sick in wide-screen movie theaters, riding the ferris wheel, often even a teeter-totter, anything that moved in more than one direction at a time; for-my-entire-life. Often my motion-sickness has been the deciding factor, the weakest link, in determining directions, adventures, roads not taken for more than 65 years. What was going on now, here in the Galapagos?

The chop was breaking over the bow from about 10 o’clock, and we were headed due west with a strong wind from the south. This 40’ sport fisher, with twin 300hp Yamaha outboard engines (and a monster 500hp spare) was battering through, under, and occasionally over waves while fish-tailing and slipping sideways with constant irregular lurches. And I wore the biggest ear-to-ear grin the entire time enjoying the bouncing and pitching and rolling the sea was throwing our way.

So here’s a disclaimer: an hour before launch I had downed a Dramamine. Having grown up using the drug I also knew that it rarely if ever had a damping effect on my upchucks. But I had received what may turn out to be a lifetime supply of the stuff earlier in the year from my support staff back in Hawai’i, specifically delivered to me for my Galapagos trip. I really wanted to visit these islands and overcome my dread of the sea with handsfull of the pills.

But not only didn’t I have the least bit of queasy feelings, I pushed my luck and started reading my Kindle part way through the ride. The chop was so intense though, that I had to stop for fear of cracking the tablet lens on my forehead. Nevertheless, this was a major event; I couldn’t bring on even a hint of discomfort. Another test was in order.

Six days later I boarded another boat, this time from San Cristóbal back to Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz. Believing that I am my own best Guinea Pig, I chose to wait until the boat was underway before downing a pill; normally Dramamine takes 1/2hr to an hour to kick in. 

This trip, if anything, was even more violent than the first and I was sitting amid-ship, inside and away from any views of the horizon or anything else but fellow passengers. This location was where the pitching was far more noticeable. It’s hard to imagine, but my grin was even bigger than during the first trip. What was going on here? An older gentleman taking the commute in the stern of the boat and confined to a wheelchair was thrown to the deck 4 times from the strength of the battering waves (he was grinning though the whole time though, a great sport). I badly needed a reality check.

Back in Puerto Ayora I met with Janina for a deep debriefing. The week before she told me that when she was younger her father had insisted that she have an ayahuasca ceremony. She had been experiencing some very serious health issues that were just not responding to “conventional” medicine and he believed that it was time for a more traditional indigenous approach. So, knowing that this woman is wise beyond her years, I sat down and talked this nausea thing out with her. We both agreed that something deep was going on here.

During my April-May ayahuasca intensive I received 2 separate messages from la medicina. The 2nd message dealt with my immediate future in Ecuador and revealed that it was time to quit Quito, which I subsequently did. But it was the first message that had a connecting link to this motion-sickness issue.

At the time I arrived in Ecuador, and for nearly 5 years previously, I had been plagued with what my primary care physician diagnosed as “intractable nausea.” He was of the notion that a chronic liver condition that I have was the root cause of the nausea, but being cautious he wanted additional opinions. So I spent several years and multiple thousands of (health insurance) dollars with medical specialists trying to pinpoint the origins of this nausea. All of these examinations failed to discover anything definitive, though I did receive several scares of more serious conditions. It was fortunate that those frights were all false alarms, and yet the nausea remained.

So when I received the first message from the ayahuasca ceremony, clearly explaining what the cause was and how to cure it, I was very happy to be lying down at the time. I was rocked to my core. And now, talking to Janina I realized that I was experiencing continued healing from that ceremony from nearly 6 months earlier.

Clinical research, both here in Perú and elsewhere in South America, has frequently shown that ayahuasca can and does have delayed healing effects. While it could be argued that my experiences are purely anecdotal, I’m getting ready for another experiment.

successs-sounds-a-lot-like-motion-sickness_Fotor

A few hours south of Lima are the Ballestas Islands, billed as Perú’s answer to Ecuador’s Galapagos. It is my intent to go there without any Dramamine at all. This Guinea Pig’s ready for some real action. As the year winds down we’re now heading into a showdown with El Niño and the seas are not smooth and they are becoming less so with the passing weeks and months. If I’m truly over my life long motion-sickness I’ll know it pretty clearly. If not, keep your boots on.

But enough about me, what about you? We were talking about Isla Isabela, the largest of the Galapagos Islands, so let’s get back to business.

Where The Writer Bites The Lodge That Fed Him

Here’s the second of the my 2-part posting about my experiences in the Rio Cuyabeno Reserve. If you came upon these 2 postings out of sync, you probably haven’t lost much, but reading the first post first will probably make more sense; so go back and start at the beginning.

Did I mention the fresh-water dolphins? Every afternoon, as we headed to the ole swimmin’ hole, we would stop at a bend in the river where the Rio Negro joined the Cuyabeno and wait, perhaps what? 3 minutes, for a spotting. They are not of the “Flipper” variety and have no interest in human contact, but their lives are predictable and therefore they are pretty easy to locate. At the juncture of the 2 rivers they swim in circles feeding on the numbers of fish passing by. Compared to the familiar ocean-going bottlenose dolphins they are an odd looking bunch and they rarely provided us with more than a glimpse of their blowholes as they surfaced for air.

Each day following the previous was a precious reminder of why the Amazon Basin is so important by ensuring that the world goes ‘round. The bio-diversity can at times be overwhelming, it is that ever-present in one’s consciousness. So what of the people who inhabit this biological cornucopia? Do they exhibit this same richness. I wish it were so.

As mesmerizing as the Jamu Lodge stay was, it was not perfect. And yet, the blame cannot be solely the Lodge’s responsibility. This blame must be shared. It must be shared not only with the other lodges located within this river shed, but also with federal agencies and the indigenous communities themselves.

Puerto Bolívar

Puerto Bolívar

Towards the end of my stay, on a Saturday both bright and hot, the guests of Jamu Lodge and the nearby lodges were invited to attend a once-yearly celebration downriver at the Siona community of Puerto Bolívar.

The Siona, the Cofan, the Secoya and other indigenous peoples populate Amazonia. The Cuyabeno reserve is operated by a collective primarily made up of Siona and Cofan, with the latter group also extending into Colombia. The collective puts up pieces of the reserve for bid to outsiders and this is how Jamu Lodge came to be. Jamu, now 15 years old, and the other lodges lease the land they are on and adhere to the guidelines formulated by the collective.

The guidelines dictate how many lodges the reserve can sustain, how many guests the reserve will receive, and how the lodges care for the environment. Jamu has been in the forefront of the “green” movement within this jungle environment and relies solely on electricity generated from solar panels to operate day-to-day activities.

After some pointed questions about their “green” claim, I was invited to inspect their composting system, the solar charging station, the water filtration units, and the bio-digester for black-water (the plumbing kind of black water, not the tannin-based kind). They really do have a green system. If someone wanted to build a new lodge there on the Cuyabeno, using Jamu as a model would be a smart choice.

But the problem I saw was not with Jamu’s environmental footprint, but rather with the manner in which it handles the interaction between us tourists and the folks downriver. We had been invited to come and share with the Siona and join in, not only at the huge community feast, but also to afterwards take part in the festivities and games of skill, like tree-climbing and spear-throwing, swimming and dancing, chicha-drinking and running. I was ready.

So we left right after breakfast and motored downstream until we landed in Puerto Bolívar around 11am. Sulema had arranged for us to first visit with a family that she’s known for years. The the mother, señora Florinda, showed us how to harvest yucca, peel it, grate it (watch the fingers!), strain it and then cook it on a ceramic griddle for a surprisingly tasty (nothing added) tortilla-like flatbread.

Later we went down to the community hall and listened to several elders. They explained how, in the past, they used bows and 7-ft long arrows to fish. The elders showed us how the blow-gun was made and used, with darts soaked in varying strengths of curare, depending on whether you wanted the animal for food or just to knock it out and keep it as a pet; all fascinating stuff. Then it was time to eat. And so we ate and then just picked up and left.

Lovin that Monkey Meat

Lovin that Monkey Meat

As the communal dishes were being set out for a crowd of several hundred I wandered down the tables seeing what I could see, and then seeing more than I wanted. Halfway down the 50-ft long foodline I spotted one of the main dishes and a human-like claw on one of the platters. I had read that folks still eat monkey and I had also read that it should be refused since primates the world over are endangered. I was so glad that Sulema had brought Lodge-made boxed lunches.

What didn’t make me happy was that immediately after our private meal (off to the side and separate from the foodline), we collected the containers, walked back to the canoe and motored back to the lodge. This was disturbing to me. And I let it be known to Sulema and Victor, the head guide. From all I’ve come across and all I’ve seen personally, no one eats and runs, that’s one of the biggest insults imaginable. The answer I received was as vapid as could be.

They “explained” to me that, well, the Siona aren’t very organized. What??! So, you insult them? I’m still trying to figure out just what transpired, but disorganization is not at its root. These folks, the Siona, host the lodges who in turn host us tourists. Why visit, eat, and then vanish? WTF, indeed.

I understand that they live simpler lives. Puerto Bolívar is miles and hours from the nearest road. Their electricity comes from a diesel-powered generator.  Although earlier I had seen a Siona teen teardown and reconstruct a Yamaha 40hp outboard motor. I lead a simpler life than that kid.

But if they lead simpler lives, isn’t it the responsibility of the lodges, depending on the indigenous community for their existence, to help organize a once-yearly event so that there can be real interaction between the tourists and the people who have lived there for millennia? And wouldn’t this organization of efforts give both groups, the indigenous and us, the chance for interchange? To the benefit of all? Jeez Louise.

Based on previous personal experiences contacting indigenous life and customs here in Ecuador, I know that outsiders want more and deeper opportunities for cultural exchange. And after my encounters with the Shuar down south, I realize that the indigenous also want this exchange because it may be their last, best hope of preserving what they have left.

Siona Elder2

Siona Elder2

Earlier, in a completely separate post, I mentioned about the violent confrontations the indigenous have recently had with the Correa government. They do not have a receptive ear within that government and they are desperately looking for other means to get their message to the rest of the world. Here, on the Rio Cuyabeno, they still have that chance.

I came away with feelings of embarrassment (to be included in such an insult), anger (at such insensibility) and confusion (my normal state). Since the visit I’ve communicated with both the lodge and the owner, a Quito-based entrepreneur. Or, I should say that I’ve written to both but not heard back from either.

So, given this lack of perfection, would I repeat my jungle experience again? In a heartbeat. The Amazon Basin is 7 Wonders of the World rolled into one majestic piece of the planet and it deserves to be seen by all who can do so. I would also repeat my stay at Jamu Lodge, which offers both a most restful hideaway and a stimulating chance to be off the grid and unconnected; with some wildlife thrown in to boot.

If I were to repeat this trip, I’d save even more money by flying (or taking a 10-hr bus ride from Quito) to Lago Agrio. Then I’d stop in one of the local agencies and book passage to the Lodge from there. Now that you know it, start planning your trip. Below is a repeat of the images from the first part of this story.

In the Galapagos and Thinking About the Amazon

I’m sitting in the Hostal Gardner here in Puerto Ayora, Galapagos waiting for the Steelers-Pats game. It’s already over (it happened last night) and either Rothlisberger has prevailed or Brady has yet again displayed super-human abilities. Or maybe both. But I don’t know who came out on top and ESPN3/Español will, through pre-recorded programming, lead me to NFL nirvana. It’s still 8 hours until the broadcast, so what to do?

It’s surprisingly cool today, 10 feet above sea level and a few miles south of the Equator. The proprietress of the hostal, Janina, has invited me to take a trip to the highlands of this island to view giant land tortoises, see 2 collapsed craters, and walk through some lava tubes. Her recently married cousin, the cousin’s husband, and Janina’s boyfriend will be going with us too. This should eat up some time before kickoff.

I’d also like to review the jungle trip that I took last month. But I saw so much and La Amazonia is such a critically important region of the world that I’m going to split my account into 2 postings. I’m also going to post more images to go along with the postings, since this was a visual journey. WordPress, the group that hosts my blog, has a feature called a photo-carrousel, so I’m going to try that out too. Let’s see how this works; in Spanish: ¡Vamos a Ver, Compañeros!

I had decided to follow my nose and hook up with a place called Jamu Lodge. It’s located on the right bank of the Rio Cuyabeno, one of the major tributaries in Ecuador leading down to the Amazon River. Though I didn’t know it when I signed up, I later learned that the Cuyabeno is a “black-water” river, fully saturated with tannins from trees growing in the surrounding forests.

These tannins not only stain stain the water dark but they also lower the pH to around 5.4, which makes for an acidic environment. It also means NO MOSQUITOS! It’s hard to believe that one can visit the Amazon basin and not be eaten alive by these parasites, but sadly (not!) this was the case.

After a 7hr overnight bus ride from La Mariscal in Quito I found myself at dawn in Lago Agrio. This is an oil-drillers town hard up against the Colombian border (across the Rio Putumayo) and reputed to frequently host visiting FARC guerrillas on their best behavior. Well, I didn’t see any.

An Interesting pair of bluejeans in Lago Agrio

An Interesting pair of bluejeans in Lago Agrio

But I did have breakfast at Hostal D’Mario while waiting for another bus which would take us to the end of the road. In the meantime I was entertained by a vendor selling medicinal tonics. These folks with their pushcarts are fairly common in cities and towns throughout Ecuador. Here in Lago Agrio this young lady was pouring liquified herbs from jug to jar to jug to jar with a brilliantly choreographed style. And her bluejeans were one-of-a-kind.

Finally by mid-morning this other, much smaller van showed up. The driver stuffed me and nearly a dozen fellow trippers inside and we took off. I was surrounded by Germans, Dutch, Belgians, a Scotsman and his French wife. Except for the Scotsman they all spoke passable English. We had 2 more hours of sitting in the van until we ran out of pavement and boarded a long canoa for yet another pair of hours motoring down the Cuyabeno to the lodge. By this time I was done with sitting for the day. Or so I thought.

After an hour or so of unpacking, introducing ourselves and settling in, we gathered back at the dock to go up the river for a sunset swim in huge lake formed by the Cuyabeno. Since by then I’d already been back in Quito for a month, wearing layers of fleece for the ever changing high-elevation climate of the capital, it was downright paradisiacal to be clad only in a bathing suit floating, splashing, blowing bubbles and stroking around the boat while watching a beautiful sunset in one direction and a moonrise in the other. I haven’t been to heaven yet but if it’s anything like swimming in that lake at sunset, I’ll be knocking on its door.

The real wonder though, was that this was the first of successive evenings that we spent swimming at sunset. And as the moon was on the wax, each night was more stunning than the night before. After several of these swims we stayed out late for either a nighttime walk through the forest or we floated down the river spotting caimans or a tree boa or we were enchanted by the hundreds of fisher bats, the largest of the bats in Cuyabeno Reserve, swooping down to the water for a night’s feast of small fish.

By day we also traveled either up the river or down it or on one of the feeder streams with our guide Sulema. She was a fantastic set of eyes for us, motioning the motorman to halt the canoe countless numbers of times as she spotted monkeys or birds or sleeping bats, plus 1/2 dozen anacondas throughout the week. I knew through readings that this part of Ecuador has some of the highest concentrations of wildlife in the world. But to be there, on the water, and witness this abundance is a spellbinding experience.

A day-walk through the forest is a great example of our time there. We were sloshing (knee-high Wellington boots are the only way to do this) up a trail when Sulema stopped at one of the trees. It could have been any tree as far as I could tell, there were so many of them. Some scientists argue that this portion of the rainforest contains more vegetation per square foot than any other spot on earth. I surely won’t contest that point of view.

As it happens she stood in front of a cinchona tree, where quinine comes from. She explained how the bark is stripped, then dried to a powder and used as an anti-malarial medicine. This bark, in powdered form, was the basis for Samuel Hahnemann’s development of homeopathy for treating diseases. Here, growing wild in the rainforest, it seemed to me like just another tree. Who knew? It turns out many, and for thousands of years in the Quechua culture.

After much oohing and aahing from her charges Sulema then proceeded to blow our minds. In a fold in the bark of the cinchona, known as quina locally,  she pointed out what appeared to be a sleeping beetle about 2 inches long. She ordered each of us to get close enough to see a tiny thread with a white dot protruding from the head of the bug. This insect wasn’t sleeping, it was dead.

And the dot on the filament were spores of a microscopic fungus the beetle had ingested. The fungus feeds on the brains of this and other insects. She explained that eventually the fungus causes the insects to act like zombies and find protected locales for their final resting places. To complete its cycle the fungus bores through the head of the bug and the spores on the end of the stalk are released into the atmosphere to find new hosts. How’s that for nightmares?

I noticed that several of the group seemed to be trying to hold their breaths until she said that this fungus was very specific to insects. The collective sigh was short-lived though when she continued by saying that there were literally thousands of different kinds of air borne fungi like that and we were breathing them in all the time. Sleep well tonight will you? Actually, I did.

Potoo

Potoo

The next morning we were up before dawn engaged in a bird-watching venture, floating among the semi-submerged trees and looking for avians just stirring. While we saw many “Stinking Turkeys,” or Hoatzin which are the most common bird seen in the Cuyabeno, the Potoo was the fascinating one for me. It is one of the few nocturnal birds in the reserve and it took me a good 5 minutes to finally see one while Sulema patiently waited for these old eyes to figure out what to look for. During the day they perch with their beaks pointed skyward and freeze in that posture, becoming (truly) one with the tree. I was pretty excited about this one. You really have to watch this video:

https://youtu.be/ZtjFG16ADZQ?t=1s

For my part the image that I grabbed was of a Potoo perched about 5-6’ above the water on a branch of a dead tree, their favorite hangouts. (On my Mac, if I double-click on the image and then click again on the enlargement, I can then see the bird. Give it a try.)

After finally identifying this bird I came to realize that it was impossible for an outsider to “know” the Amazon even in several lifetimes. Sulema was showing us the easy stuff, animals large enough or common enough for even us lumbering, loud, and camera-flashing tourists to see. And to know that we were only scratching the surface of the abundance of life here is a very humbling realization. But you take what you can get and what we got was a lot, so we continued on.

One of my hopes while in the reserve was to finally see monkeys in the wild. When I was in Guayaquil I took a guided day-trip to Manglares Churute, a vast mangrove reserve and we hoped to catch a glimpse of howler monkeys, the largest in this part of the world.

But a rambunctious group of teens had proceeded us on the path half an hour before, both laughing and chasing the monkeys deeper into the forest with their noise. Though I fully enjoyed myself (except for the snake encounter), I really was disappointed that we could only hear them and occasionally see a shadow or two.

Fortunately the Cuyabeno, and more specifically Sulema, didn’t let us down in this respect either. Of the 9 or so species of monkey in the reserve, we were able to spot 6, including the tiniest, the Pocket Marmoset, smaller than my hand. We saw the Wooly Monkey, with a tail as bushy as a raccoon’s but twice as long as the entire raccoon. We saw White-faced Marmosets and a few others of the marmoset family but I’ve forgotten their names.

Yet the real stars in the region are the Spider Monkeys, flitting through the trees in tribes of many dozens of animals at a time and not too worried about human trespassers. While we didn’t have the good fortune of 2 other groups at the lodge, where the monkeys actually came down to just a few feet from their canoes, I had my needs met to be sure.

In the tea caddy

In the tea caddy

Tarantulas, and scads of other spiders as well, were pretty common near the lodge. And we even had a juvenile who made itself at home in the tea caddy. Each night and on the same tree there were 2 trophy specimens that lumbered slowly on, in search of smaller prey. The lodge also hosted a mild tempered parrot (loro, in Spanish) who often decided to perch on a guest and tour the facilities.

Of the lodge itself, nothing could be found amiss. From the mosquito netting covering each bed that prevented intruders from disturbing our sleep, to the inexhaustible and delicious food for each meal, to the friendly and attentive staff, this was the way to see the Amazon Basin. Elías, the head waiter, could give the best of English butlers a run for their money in his unobtrusive yet excellent and cordial way of anticipating every need. We were living the life.

So with that, I’m going to end part one here.

Not All Volcanoes are Geologic

Cotopaxi from Quito

Cotopaxi from Quito

Ecuador endured 2 very different eruptions on the same day this past month. The first was geologic and the second was societal. And both left scars.

On August 14th the world learned that Cotopaxi, 30 miles south of Quito, had erupted once again. One of the tallest, most picturesque, and one of the most dangerous volcanoes in the world, it is readily visible from here in the capital on clear days. After months of ground swells along the flanks and mild tremblors from within the crater, the volcano sent an ash cloud skyward that inflamed our eyes.

Cotopaxi is an important spiritual center for many people in Ecuador. The Quechua, who inhabit the Andes not only in Ecuador but also the other countries making up the spine of South America, regard the mountain as the “Sender of Rain.” Until it became a national park with attendant admission fees, the volcano was the site of regular pilgrimages. Now, though not visited by large numbers of Quechua as before, it is still regarded as sacred. So when it did erupt, they were listening.

But the volcano was not the only disturbance in the country that day. Here in Quito indigenous people met barricades and tear gas. This second eruption though did not register on the Richter Scale, nor did it capture the attention of many beyond Ecuador’s borders. Yet this eruption was felt around the country and even as it is repressed here in Quito it continues in other towns and cities in all parts of Ecuador.    

Both of these tectonic disturbances, Cotopaxi and the people’s riots, elicited immediate and far-reaching actions from Rafael Correa, the President of Ecuador. And he has used Cotopaxi as a reason to declare a state of emergency with a clampdown on the media “to discourage false rumors.”

One month earlier, during mid-July and in the southern province of Zamora Chinchipe, a small but swelling group of indigenous collectives began their long march north. Their plans were to join other indigenous groups from south and central Ecuador and meet in Cuenca, long a center of anti-Correa sentiment. Their ultimate goal was to reach Quito on August 13th and present the government with ultimatums from his voting base.

The president’s rise to power and his subsequent re-election were both due to a large extent from strong backing by the indigenous segment of the population. Historically, once he entered politics he had capitalized on the country’s endemic marginalization of the indigenous way of life. While more than 70% of the country’s population is of mestizo heritage, the old ways had always been seen as 2nd class and therefore unfit for the modern world.

Correa defied this old-guard attitude and argued successfully for the inclusion of traditional beliefs and even changed the constitution to reflect a new reverence for nature and those who are guided by it. His courts allowed Pachamama (mother earth) to bring suit against environmental violators and he gained a great deal of world-wide approval for such enlightened regard for this view of the country and by extension, the planet. Sadly, this enlightenment was not to last.

Declaring that it was foolish for a pauper to be sitting on a bag of gold, Correa, in his second term in office, began instituting changes in policy that are now viewed as inimical to Pachamama. The biggest of these changes involved treaties he has made for extractive rights given to the Chinese. New mineral rights contracts allowing for gold and other precious metals mining on indigenous lands now threaten the existence of the lives and lifestyles of the very people who elected him. They are not happy.

https://youtu.be/exdhIw4KpPY

The above video was recorded by John Caselli, the director of SAEX/Quito. John’s an ex-Marine who served (combat) in Viet Nam and never ran from a fight. Thanks for the permission to use it, John.

But since the Cotopaxi eruption allowed Correa to declare a national emergency with the subsequent media clampdown (already one of the most repressive in South America), Pachamama has worked in his favor. At this point he is safely in office and his party holds an overwhelming majority in congress. It is widely believed that this formula will allow a change in the constitution, removing term limits and setting up a move to see him re-elected as often as he likes. The vote on revising term limits comes up early in 2016.

In 2 days I fly to the Galapagos Islands, where I’ll be schmoozing with the sealions, the tortoises, the iguanas, and laughing at the blue-footed boobies. I’ll be there for 15 days, arranging day-trips out from the capital, Puerto Ayora. After that I return to Quito, pack my bags and say good-bye to Ecuador by flying to Lima, Perú, my new home. I picked a fine time for leaving, Lucille.

Night Bus to Guayaquil

By now I had already extended my stay here in Otavalo by several additional days. There is so much to do, so many kind people, and the hostal is very peaceful. But somehow today I knew that I was ready to be moving on. Maybe it was the train I couldn’t ride. Rejection is usually the time to end relations.

Before I arrived in Otavalo I planned to visit the famous weavings market in addition to attending Inti-Raymi festivities. The Saturday morning animal sales across the Pan American Highway was also a strong attraction. Then too, there’s the train that runs from Otavalo to the coast, stopping at a small town called Salinas. This is not the popular beach town of Salinas, near Guayaquil, but an Afro-Ecuadorian village up near the Colombian border. Sadly, the train is overbooked and over sold, so I’m not going to stick around another week in hopes the seating fiasco will sort itself out.

Animal Market

Animal Market

One traveling idea I’ve had is/was to head to the northwest coast near Esmeralda and then work my way down to Guayaquil. But after some conversations last week, I discovered that a trip to the Amazonian jungle, like a cruise in the Galapagos, is not an unreasonable possibility. Bam! This changes everything. My priorities just changed and rearranged. No more, the notion of a slow trail down the coast. I’m off to Guayaquil now instead of visiting at some vague time at a later date.

In a bit over 2 weeks I’m scheduled for a 12-day retreat south of Cuenca, so Guayaquil just got moved up the list to number one. After the retreat I will head to Lago Agrio for a trip to the Amazon, and pretty much duplicate the strategy that I have already planned for the Galapagos in September: hurry-up and wait.

The standard routes to these 2 destinations is through one of countless travel agencies, which is in so many ways a smart move. There are branches of these agencies in not just the major cities, but also in the Galapagos and the gateway cities to the Amazon: Lago Agrio and Napo, though choices at the last 2 locations are severely limited in these tiny, oil industry settlements.

Trying to plan one of these trips independently without an agency can well be a nightmare. Both the islands and the jungle encompass vast areas and the success (or not) of either visit is driven by a complex coordination of elements, not the least of which are time and timing. If you don’t have one you will never have the other. Both destinations are also highly restricted biospheres and wandering on one’s own is strictly prohibited.

The best of the travel agencies (do your research before you get here) will not only devise a trip for you but they will listen to you as well. If you want to SCUBA dive with sharks, but are turned off by iguanas, they want to know this. If you want to see pink river dolphins but are not that interested in visiting indigenous jungle villages, they want to know this too.

By thoroughly interviewing their clients these highly professional agencies can create tours that will provide tourists with a genuine trip of a lifetime and the trip will be based on the desires of the traveler. Both the Galapagos and the Amazonian Basin are unlike any other places in the world. And an experienced and committed travel agency will ensure you receive memories never forgotten. But it won’t be cheap. Like anything of quality and singularity, you really do get what you pay for and these 2 destinations don’t come for free.

Yet one can greatly reduce the costs if time is on your side. A two-week break from the normalcy of life won’t make it though. For that, just accept the breathtaking costs and know that you will have purchased opportunities unavailable elsewhere and worth every bit of the expense you incurred. But if you do find that you have more time than money, fly to the Galapagos, or arrange for time in one of the Amazon gateways.

People are changeable creatures and if you have the patience to wait for change, visiting either of these destinations need not cost so dearly. The travel agencies who book these tours must frequently face cancellations and subsequently must deal with them as quickly as possible. Because all of the Galapagos are part of a national park, the schedule of tour vessels is very tightly controlled.

These schedules are assigned once yearly and each separate vessel, whether  a small sailing yacht or a 100-passenger cruise liner, must adhere to this pre-set timeline or risk losing their license for that year. So if they have cancellations they must fill them quickly or possibly lose money for that particular cruise. A full passenger manifest is more important at this point than maximum profit. Because of the strict governmental rationing, having fewer visitors than allowed for a particular vessel can mean a reduced quota for the following year. At this point head-count trumps all. 

This being the case, if a potential passenger (with more time than money) is there on the dock when such an opening occurs, then the chance for a discounted passage opens, however briefly, and very often at a discount approaching 50% or more. Though not as dramatic, a similar opportunity can and does happen with the jungle excursions. My physics professor friend from New Zealand happened to be at the right place at the right time, so she took a 2nd Amazon trip for 1/3 the cost of her first one. While it didn’t provide her with the luxury of the first one, she saw a different area of the Basin in a non-motorized canoe and without the outboard motor noise she saw far more animals than during the first, expensive high-end trip.

We Are Otavalo!

We Are Otavalo!

Thus, my night bus to Guayaquil. It leaves at 9PM, in about 5hrs time, taking close to 12hrs to make it there. I’ll arrive in city-center about rush-hour, looking for breakfast and booked into a hotel in the historic district.

My bags are packed and I’m taking a last stroll through Otavalo. This is a place I’d love to return to. There are so many great experiences that I’ve had here and the “Valley of the Sunrise” has so many more.