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The Ecuadorian Amazon part 3: Day walk and pirahna fishing

In Ecuador on June 3, 2012 at 5:47 am

For our last day in the Ecuadorian Amazon we ventured into the jungle by day – which was much less terrifying and more informative than our night excursion (though not quite as exciting). We walked for about three hours through mud and over logs, leaving the path and following our guide William into jungle we hoped he knew better than us. It was beautiful – photos of the Amazon don’t do it justice – and while the mud got pretty intense Paddy and I were just glad we had gumboots this time, and a warm, safe place to sleep that night!

William’s a great guide, or at least appears that way to us novices. He shows us a special tree with super sticky sap that fizzes alight and burns with a very bright, very strong flame when lit. He shows us another tree with little branches you can smoke.

“WATCH OUT!” he screams, pointing straight behind my head. I scream. “Just joking!” he laughs. Oh hahaha William.

William shows us a cicada house. They sleep in these little mud cones for a year before hatching and exploding out the end. They’re everywhere!

“Look at this tree. See this bark?” William asks. “Yeah,” says Paddy, stroking it with his finger. “Oh oh. Did you just touch that?!” says William, alarmed. “Yes!” says Paddy, more alarmed. “Ahahaha. Just joking it’s safe”  William says. Oh hahahaha William.

We keep walking. William finds a small clearing and cuts a vine. “Watch this!” he says. He takes a run-up, jumps, and swings like Tarzan across the clearing. Everyone takes turns. I try, but my upper body strength isn’t enough and I just fall to the ground. God damn puny arms.

Eventually we head back to the boat we rowed in on – keen to get back out to the river for some piranha fishing. Paddy is the best fisherman I know, and I’m determined to outfish him.

 Piranha fishing is different than regular fishing. First off, you use a very simple rod – just a piece of bamboo, some fishing line cut to the same length as the bamboo, and a hook. We use meat for bait (beef, I think), and while usually you wanna be pretty quiet fishing, piranha are attracted by kerfuffle. The sound of splashing water signals fallen prey, so as you lower your bait into the water, you shake the surface up with the tip of your rod for a minute before the wait begins.

It’s not long before I’ve got my first fish. This one’s a red piranha – there are more than twenty species in this area and I’m hoping to catch a few more. We can’t keep them – it’s not legal here – so William snaps a picture of me and my catch and then we throw him back.

By the end of the day I’ve well and truly won the fishing contest. The two Germans and the lovely Frenchie in our boat have caught nothing (though I must say they didn’t seem to be trying very hard. No concentration! “Amateurs!” as Paddy would say). William catches a catfish. Paddy catches a piranha. And I catch FOUR!!!! WOOHOOO! William shows off his lovely teeth for our camera, then proceeds to hold him up to a twig which he CHOMPS down on, easily splitting it in two. Trimming a bush with a piranha – there’s something you don’t see everyday.

And so ends our final day in the Amazon. We enjoy a last night with William – who asks me if I have a sister for him to marry after I copy Pablo Neruda’s Puedo Escribir Los Versos Mas Triste out by hand into his journal, and then we pack in for our last night in this little jungle heaven. We have a visit from a little furry friend, keen to remind us what we’re missing out on by leaving.

The next day we take the 2-hour boat, 2-hour bus #1 and 8-hour bus #2 out to Quito again, buying several iceblocks to keep us cool in the 43 degree weather. It’s hard to leave – we could stay here exploring and learning and sighting birds for a lot longer. But we leave to Bogota in two days and we are ACHING to get to Colombia!

CIAO Ecuador!! Til next time!!


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The Ecuadorian Amazon part 2: Monkeys, creepy-crawlies and yuca bread.

In Ecuador on May 23, 2012 at 1:46 am

If you want to skip the yuca bread-making and head straight to the night-time creepy crawlies, scroll down! You’ll see ’em.

Transcribed from a travel journal:

24/11/11

Today we travelled upriver for an hour to make yuca bread with a señora from a local village. The day was hot but cooler on the boat, where trees provide shade and the wind is refreshing. Before heading ot the place where we’d make the bread, we pulled into another village and were approached by a very curious monkey.

Turns out the monkey (a woolly one) is called Nacho, a ‘pet’ of the village, and we quickly got over our nerves about disease and temperament when he climbed up the body of a Frenchman and started to affectionately lick his chest hair. He wouldn’t go to anyone else, but eventually the Frenchman shook him off and I became the next target.

Apparently it was my red hair that did it, and Nacho definitely had a very firm grip on it (at one point hanging solely from a handful of hair!) He was super affectionate… if you managed to get him off he’d quickly run in for a bear hug of your leg, nibbling gently on your knee. It got a bit much when he was cuddling my face while biting my eyebrow (breathing made difficult)… but you don’t often get love-attacked by a monkey so I let him continue.

William (manager of the lodge and awesome guide) pulled a fruit from a tree and cracked it open, revealing red pomegranate-like seeds inside. Then he stuck a little stick in it and painted mine and the Frenchman’s faces with tribal tattooing. We were the only two painted in the end, because Nacho ate the fruit before he got to anyone else.

We left to the second village -the heat in full swing and all of us dripping with sweat. I was nervous when we booked the tour that ‘visit an indigenous community’ might be an over-touristic venture… Paddy and I laughed on the boat imagining the villagers sighing, removing their jeans and putting on ‘traditional’ dress for their show for the tourists, but we needn’t have worried.

It was very relaxed in the village, nothing felt put on just for us. The señora who showed us how to make bread was wearing a simple, loose-fitting skirt and top – beautiful and cool for the weather – and had bare brown feet on the tamped dirt floor. She led us out of the kitchen – a hut with a fire in the corner – and down a path to where the yuca trees grow. The tree seems so insignificant, its spindly branches climb to just a few metres and it is all thin, bare trunk with a few bunches of leaves. But this is a serious Amazonian staple- used how we use wheat, and present in almost every meal in some form.

The señora asked someone to pull on the tree, and as they pull hard on the trunk the earth falls away and its roots appear – huge starchy vegetables that look like kumara and not at all like the roots of this slender tree.

The dirt is brushed off and one cut made in the yuca with a machete – and then we peel them. The thick skin comes of easily and reveals firm, slippery white insides.

From one tree we got 8-10 big yuca. The señora then cuts off one section of the tree with her machete (any section will do), sticks it back in the earth and halfheartedly brushes some soil over it. It will be ready to harvest again in 7 months. Amazing.

We walk back to the cooking hut where there is a small elevated boat-shaped trough and a large piece of thick metal pierced with holes to make a grater. The señora washes the yuca and shows us how to grate the root- a job made hard (and dangerous) by its slipperiness.

After all this, we have a big, wet pile of grated starch – and the señora tells us we need ot make it into flour. Impossible! We think. Not so…

The señora pulls out a long woven instrument with a loop ay each end. She scoops the yuca into its middle and loops one end over a post, positioning a bucket on the floor underneath. She turns the stick, levering it against a pole to wring out the liquid from the yuca (which we find out later is toxic in some plants).

It takes maybe 5 minutes, is checked once and given another short go over, then the señora unhooks the flax and puts it in the boat basin, opening it to reveal perfectly dry, coarse flour. It feels like dried coconut, but has very little flavour.

A big, thick plate has been heating on the fire, and the señora now scoops a bowl of flour and pours it on the plate, spreading it out into a pizza-sized circle and tamping it down with a rhythmic wrist. Within a minute, the yuca is somwhow moving as one object – like a pizza base – and is lovely and brown on its bottom.

She flips it and a few minutes later it is done. William opens a can of tuna and a jar of marmalade and we eat amazing, fresh bread that half an hour ago was a root in the ground. I LOVE THIS SHIT! The simple life is what I want and it doesn’t get much more simple than that, it’s the highlight of my day and one of the best moments of the trip.

After the bread, William brings out a packed lunch and we eat tilwe’re stuffed. Paddy starts to feel nauseous and notices rapidly appearing red spots all over his calves… which brings on a mild panic attack as he considers that maybe Nacho’s ‘friendly’ bites weren’t so harmless after all.  After food, water and some calming conversation he starts to feel better (we think it was probably dehydration and heatstroke in the end)… and we depart, feeling good, for the Shaman’s house.

I notice as we arrive at the Shaman’s house that I am already skeptical, although I’m not sure why – I’m often idealistic and easily convinced. It may be the environment. I try to use the bathroom and find it to be the worst I’ve ever visited – used feminine hygeine pads and toilet paper are all over the floor and there’s shit all up the seat. “Doesn’t look like the medicine man’s medicine is doing the trick”, I think – but I force an open mind, block out the stink (hold on to my bursting bladder!) and head to the shaman’s room.

I do 100% believe that there are people with a profound knowledge of medicinal plants and alternative methods of treatment, and perhaps even that hallucinogens could provide access to a spiritual world of guidance. I also believe the man we met was raised and trained as a shaman – but the experience was still pretty underwhelming (the ONLY underwhelming thing about the Amazon). The trip to see him cost $2, and we sat in a room listening to a kind man in robes, feathers, paint and many beads tell us for a very long time about how he came to be a shaman – which was really just a lot of talk about daytura. He gave us a short demonstration of how he cleans a spirit before he treats the patient – I was his volunteer and ot be honest despite my skepticism I felt afterwards, for a short period of time, more open to it all – as if the weight of judgement had been lifted. But overall, we paid $2 to listen to a middle-aged man’s long-winded drug stories – which I can do for free at any NZ music festival or on any street corner in Newtown.

We hopped back on the boat and went ‘home’ for some bird watching from the tower at dusk (photos taken through binoculars!). I didn’t expect to be so into birds during this trip – but we’re so excited by sightings of new species that I’ve begun to list them all.  We’re turning into birders…

After bird watching we covered up our limbs, donned gumboots and set out for a night walk.

The night walk as an idea is very exciting. In actuality it’s freakin terrifying – you only need to take a few steps into the pitch black jungle to feel the terror of ‘oh-my-God-what-the-fuck-are-we-doing-here’ sweep over you. There are spiders and scorpions and other poisonous bugs EVERYWHERE. You can trust nothing you touch, and it’s pitch black except when you stop and put torches on, so it’s difficult to avoid touching branches and leaves and cobwebs. And EVERY TIME you stop, put torches on and look around there’s at LEAST one huge, terrifying, hugely poisonous bug RIGHT over your head or RIGHT next to your hand. There were many screams and we all hugged the stranger next to us at least once, but back in the safety of our little jungle hut we talked excitedly about how awesome it had all been.. now that we were safely home.

“Wolf spider”

Scorpion spider!!

Scorpion eating a lizard!

Baby tarantula in her little house!

A moment’s respite from the terror.

 Tomorrow’s our last day in the Amazon, and we’ve got plans for a day walk and pirahna fishing. I could happily stay here for a hundred times this long, but Colombia and the rest of this grand adventure awaits. We may not see many more toucans and anaconda once we leave… but there’s certain to be other strange new things awaiting us. Bring it on!

The Ecuadorian Amazon part 1: The journey in

In Ecuador on April 17, 2012 at 2:24 am

Transcribed from a travel journal:

23/11/2011

We have been in the Amazon for less than 24 hours and already we have seen more than a dozen species of animal – not including the hundreds of insects (mostly spiders) and the most amazingly coloured butterflies – so bright you come within dangerous reach of believing in God.

We have four days here, and when we’re not off adventuring (which we do most of the day) we are relaxing in small, beautiful cabins with thatched rooves, watching birds in the canopy from the bird tower, reclining in hammocks or stripping down to escape the afternoon heat.

To get here we took an overnight bus from Quito to Lago Agria, on the jungle’s northern edge, followed by a two-hour bus ride into the jungle and a three-hour boat ride up a series of large-ish and very small rivers to get here – to Guacamayo Lodge.

We rested at the lodge a while, blissed out by this heaven we have somehow found ourselves in. The river runs past the front of the dining /kitchen/hammock hut – boats speeding past every few hours or so carrying travellers or small families or a local football team, come to battle our kitchen boys on their makeshift pitch. Wooden walkways connect los habistaciones and a giant bird-viewing tower climbs 20 metres into the sky.

We are surrounded by green. Hundreds and thousands of species of grass, bush, tree, vine, flower, weed and fern sprout up and clamber for time in the sun. If there weren’t paths it would be a nightmare – impenetrable. I forget the term exactly, but you can tell why people refer to it as the Green Devil or whatnot… it could so easily be the death of you. You can forget that in these easy, adapted-for-the-tourist surroundings where you awake to fresh fruit, empanadas and eggs, follow a guide over the easiest parts of the trail, and come home to a cabaña with mosquito net and hot shower – a candle already lit for you. 

Yesterday was easily one of the most magical days of my life. We weren’t sure how easy the boat ride in would be – flashbacks came to us from Thailand, of too-loud and too-fast boats racing past, disturbing wildlife and occasionally hitting a whirlpool and flipping over, emptying its contents into the river. We needn’t have worried – it was the most beautiful way you could imagine entering the jungle. Our driver took it very slowly. The water lapped softly right at your feet. It was warm and comfortable – the seats cushioned, which is an unusual luxury round here (at least on the budget we’ve been living off).

We saw such a huge abundance of wildlife… herons that looked like those at home but striped like a tiger, monkeys that jumped from tree to tree with no care for where they may land, tiny monkeys – with little curious faces. The sounds can be deafening sometimes – cicadas provide the white noise and birds fill in the rest. We heard macaws (the blue and yellow ones) before we spotted them – huge, and cuddled up with their lifelong partner. We saw two small anaconda, relaxing in the heat to digest their food. We could go 40 minutes without seeing anything – sinking into reflection or something like meditation, and then suddenly there’d be a flurry of activity and animals would be everywhere.

Even though you’ve heard and you ‘know’ that there’s an abundance of life in the Amazon, it still takes you by surprise. And this jungle covers about 40% of South America’s land mass. It’s all a bit too much to compute – especially when you’re deep inside it – and as New Zealander’s I think maybe it’s even harder… you find yourself looking out over immense jungle, and in your mental picture there is ocean, out of sight but there nonetheless – just over the horizon. You have to consciously snap yourself out of the assumption because there is no ocean – not for thousands and thousands of kilometres. It’s all jungle, and if you wanted to (with the help of an excellent map), you could cross it’s width from Pacific to Atlantic.

We arrived yesterday en la tarde (in the afternoon) and after some rest/oh-my-god-where-the-fuck-are-we time we jumped back on the boat for our first expedition – hunting for the local giant anaconda, which at an epic 6m long still isn’t a scratch on the 13m snake they found in Argentina.)

We set out downstream until we come to the lagoon – flooded, massive and beautiful now but apparently empty and desolate in the dry season – and then head across to its far side to explore the mangrove-y, more swampy area. Stunning trees sprout up  in all directions – only a few metres tall but spreading far out over the water, dispersing their flat disc-shaped seeds.

Suddenly the Anaconda has been spotted (a thing like this deserves to have its name capitalised)- although it always takes us a few seconds to see what the guide is pointing out. It’s huge, but coiled up around itself so it’s width is what surprises us most. It must be the same distance round as my waist, or a good, thick thigh. It could almost be fake, because it doesn’t move – but the detail in its scales and spots is proof of its reality. We sat for 10 or 15 minutes just watching this beast digest – and trying (but largely failing) to get photos that captured it accurately. There’s something about seeing a creature like that in its natural habitat that is very different, and much more awesome, than seeing it in an enclosure – and apparently we are very lucky to have seen it, as it only comes out of the water at certain times of the year.

Eventually we said goodbye to the Anaconda and took the boat back to the lagoon – where William (owner of the lodge and super-guide) told us to swim. You’d think after seeing an Anaconda that you’d hesitate to get in the water, but despite their size they’re not especially dangerous to humans, and it was so hot that we just took our guide’s word for it that there were no piranha around (the lagoon is huge, but only 2 metres deep), and we all stripped down and jumped in. The water was more warm than refreshing, and we swam alongside the boat as the sun set over a rainforest horizon.

After our swim – exhausted and very content – we got back in the boat and went searching for caiman, an Amazonian cousin of the alligator. We didn’t find them, but while we drove the boat quietly over the black water, with just the treeline visible against a quickly darkening sky, stars as far as the eye could see, scattered in their thousands, and with the warm, fragrant smell of the Amazon rainforest filling our nostrils – I felt more content than I have in a long time. The kind of contentment that fills your bones and makes you warm – intense but more solid than happiness, which always threatens to leave the moment it arrives.

I remember another time I felt like this –  visiting a family friend as a teenager about to turn 20, in the countryside in Pauatahanui, where I grew up. I stepped outside the house, looked up, and was met with the most awesome collection of stars I have ever seen – the milky way completely clouded with millions of tiny stars, sparkling and shining madly, far away from the distraction of city lights. I fell to my knees and literally gasped in wonder, feeling my eyes cloud with tears and watching the sky blur as they did.

This was like that – complete awe in the face of nature, and an understanding that I am truly blessed. If everyone saw this, I don’t see how we could continue to deplete this precious environment anymore. Send the top 1% of the world’s wealthy to the Amazon, and watch the fall of capitalism…

But then I’m an idealist, made still more idealistic by my ridiculously idyllic surroundings, so what would I know?