Having seen the scary side of human impact on the jungle we took a tour into a protected part of the Amazon. To experience the jungle of our imaginations and one of the main reason for our travels Ecuador. With unease we waited in the bus station in Quito for our late night bus to Lago Agrio. Although the PA system was crackling loudly and indecipherably in Spanish we knew we were in the right place due to the crowds of gringos obviously waiting for the same bus. Lago Agrio is a largish town on the border with Columbia in the Amazon and in doing research for the trip we realised that the Australian government deems the whole Amazon area of Ecuador as well as the border town of Lago Agrio unsafe for travel. It seems to be due to guerilla activity and drug trafficing and because of this our insurance was void for a huge part of Ecuador. We found and purchased some special insurance specifically for travel within dangerous places, with a 90% recovery rate of kidnappings. After an enjoyable eight hours of trying to sleep on seats which sloped downwards and left us sliding off onto our knees every five minutes we arrived in Lago Agrio awash with sleep deprevation and excitment at six in the morning.
We were to stay in a remote lodge, taking two and a half hours by boat after another three hours on a bus from Largo Argrio. The waters were like a black mirror, slick, shiny and reflective but revealing nothing of what they contained. Our walking was kept to a minimum there, most of the touring was by canoe, motorised or by paddle which kept the impact to a minimum. Heavily populated by birds, monkeys and bugs, the jungle was perhaps different to what we had imagined. Although a very old place, the jungle was constantly changing. Eroding, rotting and growing anew each day. The oldest of the trees were a mere five hundred years with most lasting barely a century. The area of the Amazon which we had decided to visit had the highest level of biodiversity in the world. Being right on the ecuator, some theorists think that the diversity is due to it being a refuge during the ice-age, the last to freeze many species of animal flocked to the area. It was a place which was bug-heavy, dense and most active in the dark with eyes shining in torchlight.
We learned a little of the benefits found in plants and of the environmental impact modern-day desires are having on the Amazon, its use as farmland a shortsighted vision as the topsoil was thin and quickly depleted. Scavenged desperately for timber, especially rarities such as mahogany and pillaged mainly for oil it was rapidly disappearing. Nearby to the reserve was an area which we had glimpsed from the bus fenced high and posted with heavily armed military guards. This was a last bastion of the untouched tribes of the jungle. A tribe which killed any person who entered their land and refused to be tainted by the outside world. They too sat on a wealth of oil which would eventually be given up by the government, desperate for more takings. Our attention was drawn closer to our own dependency on oil and products which rely on oil and hugely unrealistic manufacturing processes. We have never owned a car, but we sure as hell like the conveniences which a world run on oil brings. We relish in the luxuries, travel the world on its jet engines and eat food from afar. We had seen this effect on our earlier jungle trip to Pañacocha and Coca
However, in the Cuyabeno reserve, it was a peaceful and special place. One of the last protected areas of which we were glad to witness.
Excerpt from Emm’s diary
The last hours of daylight begin to fade and create silhouettes of the Amazon forest around me. My feet soak in the luke warm river water, a black mirror reflecting the surrounding trees in ripples. The night critters awaken with calls to each other. Birds, frogs, bats, monkeys and many insects set the air vibrating with their cacophony orchestra. Many a small bat flutters around me, on the hunt for insects and chasing each other in loop de loops.
Cuyabeno reserve is magical. We have spied a variety of flora and fauna drifting along in our canoe and trekking through the dense green. So many monkeys and birds, giant butterflies and grasshoppers with wings patterned with luscious colors. Silhouettes of sloths “Very active” in their slow movements across the canopy. Caimans and snakes with their shiny red eyes installing fear and awe as they lash out and snap their jaws when provoked. Walking through swaps thigh high in search for poison dart frogs, the mud oozing down the inside of our boot as we try not to fall over. When found, the frogs are so small and pretty to be so dangerous. Just as a tree, winding itself through the branches of others looks so innocent of the poison within its bark. Yet with the right knowledge it can heal.
Finally a glimpse of the pink river dolphin, splashing up for air and the promise that below our boat are the shy and endangered manatee. A jungle walk in the pitch dark of night armed with torches includes the interesting experience of holding the long leg of a crab spider and crossing the path of the left overs of a jungle cat. A rare and beautiful owl with only its wings and head with clouded blank eyes to bear witness to its former glory.
Darkness spreads and I have now relocated to our lodge to write by candle light. There is only solar electricity to the kitchen at Samona lodge, the rest of the camp relies on the many small flickers of flame for light, creating a romantic glow and moving shadows. This is our last night here, so short and sweet. Tomorrow (mañana mañana) we will be woken with the crashing sounds of trees and the chattering noise of the small squirrel monkeys that plague this jungle. Traveling in troops of 50 to 100 they create a racket behind our lodge jumping, playing and searching for breakfast. In future, when we return home we will look for the Yucca root we have come to love on our travels through this country. A highlight of this tasty plant being the harvesting, grinding and making of bread using nothing but this simple root. A staple of the Siona community, traditional natives of this land. It was a pleasure to watch, learn and eat with them, so gracious to invite us into their home. Another experience never to forget with the Siona community is the visit with the Shaman. Further up river and living alone in his wooden cabin, one of the last remaining medicine men of this practice. Wearing a simple black tunic, nothing else of his attire is as modest. Jewelery of beads, thread, seeds, teeth and feathers hang in colorful abundance around his arms, neck and head. His face lined in red paint with a large feather through his nose. We sit around him in a semicircle listening to our guide, Neisar, explain the Shaman custom and interpreting our questions. He speaks of how they drink their ceremonial hallucinogens to commune and understand nature. Plants communicate with them, sharing the knowledge of their properties to heal or harm. The Shamans see the auras of their patients, and with long dances and chanting they discover the ailment which can then cure accordingly. A defining difference with the Shamans of the jungle and those of the Andes is the jungle men use more hallucinogens and the mountain men use the reading of entrails and eggs as a way to diagnose. As a demonstration of the cleansing process I volunteered to sit before the Shaman as he sang and waved plants around my body. A weird experience surrounded in Gringos taking photos.
Dotahn arrives back from his fishing expedition. Another piranha caught with meat on sticks. Soon we will make our way to the dinning room, walking the boardwalk at night a little treacherous, with its creaking floor boards and wobbly rail. Looking over the side into the dark swamp water on the look out for the resident caiman, of whom the staff feed nightly with chicken feet. I will see if “Fluffy” is out tonight. A tarantula I have named in the dinning room, such a furry critter I almost want to pat him. He kind of reminds me of the huntsmans at home.
It will feel strange when we return to the traffic and concrete. I do, however, look forward to not being a bugs feast.
Some highlights for us were found in the dark, watchful eyes and dismembered things waiting in the swamp. Naseir held up a fish in the torchlight which he had stabbed as it tried to sleep. Emmily dangled a gigantic spider by the leg and it stayed still swinging in the breeze. We marvelled at the bugs and found the tree of life which Dotahn attempted to climb like Tarzan, swinging on large rigid vines. Our boat stopped as our guide spotted the worlds smallest monkey, a pinprick in the distance. No one else clambered from the boat but us as we pushed aside the tangle to reach the spot. Naseir called to us to quicken our pace as there were a lot of ants. We soon realised that we could never move fast enough. We encountered a battalion of army ants, the type that can destroy villages or whole herds of cattle. Millions and millions in number they swarmed across everything in their path, their sheer numbers making them need to move constantly from place to place. Their pincers are used in medicine as they can close wounds and never open. Our pain lasted a while and the monkey was a dot in the canopy.
The night monkeys as they tried to sleep in the morning light, one of them on guard with dozing eyes. The gigantic bugs of all shapes and sizes, the snakes curled asleep in the trees. Caiman just
eyes in the dark until they snapped on their pray leaping from the inky surface of the water. A shaman told us of the ten years of training talking to the jungle. Each plant would tell him of its use, of poisons of healing properties of their delicate thread in the ecosystem. Everyday he drank Ayahuasca, distilled from vine and the jungle opened its secrets to him. Each eager boy who wished to become a shaman was given an extra dose. Once entranced they would be attacked by the most ferocious beasts of the jungle relentlessly. If they awoke and still had the desire for their path then they could continue. Most didn’t. As their training drew to an end they would face their final test. A concoction distilled from Datura, a plant found also in Australia. It made each person die. For twenty-four hours they would leave their body, while it lay in the jungle, far from alive. They returned a shaman.