After our emotionally filling farewell in Salasaca we arose early to gather the majority of our group and set off on a new adventure. We had all decided to go into the jungle, starting at a town called Tena and moving deeper from there. With bags packed and room swept we emerged for a final time from our hiding place in the loft of Pachamama. With a quick last breakfast and a mass exodus of the hostal we made our way down the road to begin our journey. All in all we were travelling with Ed, Tanya, Damir, Emma, Nicholas, Googie, Pedro and Abraham. Lizzy had to part ways to further her adventures in the north and we bid goodbye to her at the junction in Salasaca Central with later plans to meet up with her in Quito. Thanks to the insatiable haggling prowess of Ed and Tanya we negotiated a camioneta to take us to Baños to save the hassle of standing on a bus and to enjoy the company and sunshine in the relative freedom of the tray of a ute. All ten of us squeezed into the back in a cosey pile and at 10 in the morning it was decided it was beer O’clock and we quickly pulled out the beers and the songs as the camioneta raced among the mountains on the beautiful route to Baños. By the time we had reached our destination we were all in the swing of things, enjoying our freedom riding in the back of a ute. We decided to try to convince the driver to take us all the way into the jungle. With a little pressure and a little money we managed to convince him to take us on the five-hour trek to Tena. Stocking up on more beer and snacks we resumed our journey in high spirits. With many a song, joke and re-creation of our seminal masterpiece, Patito Feo we flew along the mountain roads soon descending into the thick air of the jungle. Often banging on the roof of the car for a quick stop to run into the wilderness and urinate.
On our arrival to Tena we were saturated by the jungle storm that hit us on the road, but in our drunken high spirits and the warmth of spicy fish soup from a cute little grass hut, the night had just began. We settled into our $4 a night rooms and then terrorized the local pizza place before slipping and swaying into a long night of silly shenanigans.
The next morning was greeted with the groans of hangovers and the day was declared as a day of eating and relaxing. And eat we did. And relaxing we indulged. Pedro, Googie, Nico and Abe left to go back to Salasaca and then there was six. Tanya and Ed said there was an animal reserve last time they came through, however now there was no bridge to get across to the island it was situated. Apparently a few weeks before flash floods destroyed the bridge by carrying away many of the houses down river. We decided to wade across anyway and were confronted by a huge animal wading across the river in the opposite direction. In amazement we stared at the Tapir before we heard a man abruptly telling us to leave. The whole island was in ruins and the park had been closed. But Ed and Tanya worked their magic and the man softened and let us stay for half an hour. He showed us around, telling us that many of the animals had died or fled into the river. But as we wandered the path a little furry critter run up along side us and then started leading us around. Having no fear the Coati walked us to the enclosure of the monkeys. A spider monkey was caged and seemed to be quite angry at his plight. He was screaming incessantly and shaking the wire. Another monkey, who closely resembled a fat and indignant old man, strutted up to the cage on hind legs and began to argue with the enraged spider monkey. We left them to their fight and wandered amongst the other animals, including four pythons in a tiny cage, a couple of Caimans, a porcupine and more. As we were watching the Squirrel Monkeys playing in the branches a baby monkey came running up to us. Ed put his arm out and the little fellow quickly climbed up and passionately clung to his chest. When we tried to remove him he squealed. With a newly proffered arm the monkey reluctantly let go and we all had a turn of being mother monkey. He was fascinated by Dotahn’s beard and would play with it, tug it and suck on it obsessively. When the time came to leave the guard had to forcibly remove the upset little monkey, who hit him and ran back to us. It was so hard to leave him.
The next day we decided to get out of Tena for the day to find something jungly in the area to do. We agreed on making our way to Sereas, a tiny village outside of Tena. There was said to be a museum of Kechwan culture there as well as great swimming. Crossing a large suspension bridge over a huge river leading into the heavy growth, we wandered for ages with very little sign of a museum. Finally we came across what used to be some sort of museum, long closed and cobwebbed. The heat became overwhelming so we found refuge in a crystal clear river which struck us as being odd, most rivers in the jungle being murky. After playing on rocks and cooling down we made our way back to the hostal.
We all wanted a jungle experience and although Tena was a jungle town it was still too close to the surface and we wanted to venture deeper. We decided to take a bus to Coca, another jungle town ruled by oil and industry and a good launch pad to go far deeper in the Amazon. From there we would then try to organise a boat down the Rio Napo river to somewhere removed from civilisation. Once in Coca and settled in a nice set of rooms we realised we would have to wait another day to catch a boat and so decided to take advantage of a crumbling hotel and its fantastic pool, after the girls all got ManniePedies to pretty themselves for the jungle. The hotel was a remnant of Coca’s once heavy flow of money. A seventies behemoth of decadence long since forgotten. With the clamp down on the drug trade in Ecuador and a slowing of industry the hotel was used only for military and a few oil executives. Still, it had a great pool complete with waterslide. Monkeys squealed and chased each other around the fences, two toucans fought ferociously by the pool and a large furry shape slowly climbed the waterslide. We rushed to get a closer look and found a huge three-toed sloth climbing ever so slowly up the slide. It was unperturbed by our intimate closeness, moving to reveal another sloth, its baby, clutching the fur of its belly. Both sloths paused for a minute and stared at us with beautiful eyes, so close we could reach out and pat it, before resuming the climb.
The early morning heat found us cramming into a large motor canoe with a crowd of locals and what looked to be a market full of produce complete with chickens. (as always) It was to be a long and cramped 6 hour journey far up the river to a town called Pañacocha. Relief for our bums came when we were finally told we had arrived. But we were not met with the jungle paradise we had envisioned. Once a small town of a few grass huts, Pañacocha now hosted four wooden shacks posing as restaurants and accommodation with a giant blue building to the side, surrounded in barbed wire and an electric fence with menacing warning signs. There were no other gringos, just a couple of locals and many men in bright red overalls. We asked around for lunch and were met with indifferent service and when we asked for lodging or tried to buy something from the shop we experienced our first dose of unwelcoming racism. It seemed they had nothing to offer us, as everything was for “the Company” (el Compañía) But before our hopes were dashed a nice fat, hairy, drunk man offered us rooms. Asking us to wait down stairs so he could make up the rooms, we waited for over two hours. “What the hell, is he actually making the beds?” we joked. Yep, he was. As we wandered up stairs we found him saw in hand. This was only the beginning details of our luxury accommodation. Having to share a tiny single bed for each couple we scrounged around for netting to keep out the bugs as there was no windows only holes. Eventually we found old dirty ones with unrecognisable grime on them. The mattresses were only a vague step up from a plank of wood and the roof leaked mouldy water above our heads. But the memorable part was the smell. Our host mopped all the walls and floor with petrol for reasons unknown. A stench that provoked fear when one of the men lit up a cigarette.
As we had waited for our rooms a small teenage boy had offered us a tour of the jungle for a very reasonable price, but for three days. As we only had one we decided to venture into the jungle by ourselves. We found a path, quite well-marked and set off. We were soon followed by the boy and a couple of his friends and they overtook us and hurried ahead. We soon came upon the boy with a large stick, poking a bee’s nest in a tree. He seemed to enjoy his game and his audience and from then on he became our guide. He had grown up in the jungle and was quick to point out edible plants, different trees and to talk about the wildlife of the area. The trek proved muddy and wild with a few giant trees along the way. Soon, however, the jungle cleared out to make way for farmland and we trudged through past small wood huts and a young woman peering from a window. As we came to a large bridge we were told it was the entrance to a reserve, but given the hour we were forced to turn back. The reappearance of men in red jumpsuits coincided with a large amount of construction going on to build a road in the area. To be used by the oil companies, it is financed by local community. What was once a tiny village with a few farms had turned into a dark and rough town as the oil company moved in, swapping the use of electricity and some money for their raping of the jungle surrounds. The rest of our tour included the brutal slaying of a snake which had startled Tanya, and the destruction of a tree in an attempt to show us how to make a dart gun from its branches. Although the jungle was beautiful we had begun to see its dark side.
Upon returning to the village we were met with loud music and a disco setup complete with disco ball. Already the place was filling with large drunken men dancing wildly to the South American pop music. As the sun began to set the men got drunker and before long a brawl had broken out between to large and intoxicated men. One was quickly beaten, quite brutally, and the fight was broken up. It was a threatening atmosphere and we sat together not all that comfortable, watching a huge fire deep in the jungle on the horizon. We soon found out that this was ‘the company’ an oil fire all to familiar in the area. As we quickly went to bed we passed two gigantic men, an African and an Ecuadorian, watching soap operas on a small television outside of our room. Perhaps it was the petrol fumes, but we somehow managed to sleep.
As the morning broke and Dotahn went to the terrifying toilets outside our lodgings he was met with quite a sight. Our host was in his underwear slaughtering and gutting chickens in the dirt out back of the building. A swarm of buzzards, large, black and stooped, perched above him waiting for a chance to swoop. Sweating and jumpy from a strange night we eagerly awaited the morning boat which was to take us back to Coca.
In Coca we were forced to part ways with Tanya and Ed whom we had grown close to and enjoyed our time with. Ed left us with a parting gift of the wise and venerable South American saying – “El Mundo es tu Baño.” A sentiment Dotahn will never forget. On we continued that evening for another hideous night bus back to Quito with the Swedes. With a nice violent movie to go to sleep to we were woken three times during the night by machine guns, ID checks and a patting down from the military, an experience made all the weirder in the middle of nowhere in the rain. As we emerged bedraggled and disoriented from the bus we found a new comfort in the streets of Quito. No more was it an intimidating place, we had been to places far more foreboding. It was familiar, the beds were comfortable, the toilets were clean and we could finally shower.
For our last evening with Damir and Emma we decided to treat ourselves to the pricey ($17 oooooh) but worthwhile experience of all you can eat and drink tapas in the Mariscal. We managed to get in contact with Lizzy and she joined us as we ate and drank our way through a hideously gigantic amount of wine and nibbles. The food was great and the Chilean wine went down a treat. From there it was suggested by a pleasantly intoxicated Emma that we should go dancing, which we did with great fervour late into the night.
Parting in the lights of a taxi we were reminded again of the bitter-sweet realities of meeting friends while travelling. A sentiment well put by our friend Lizzy whom we were forced to part ways with the following day.