Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Out of the Amazonian Jungle–Ecuador

We’re out of the jungle and what an experience! We had an absolute fantastic time at the Napo Wildlife Center (NWC) in Yasuni National Park. The region is located in the Northeast corner of Ecuador and is referred to as the Oriente. The United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) designated this area as one of the most biodiverse regions in the world.
In 1998, realizing that the rainforest habitat and wildlife were rapidly disappearing, twenty-seven Kichwa families living in the village of Añangu decided put aside their traditional hunter-gatherer lifestyle and develop an eco-tourist destination as a way to educate the outside world and generate income for the community while conserving their rai
nforest home

To get to the NWC you take a half-hour plane ride from Quito to Coca, then a motorized canoe for 2 hours then a paddle canoe for the final hour and half journey to the lodge. The stretch up the Tiputini is referred to as black water because of the tannin (also called tanic acid) from the overhanging plants and trees that fall into the river turning the water very dark. This is the stretch where I truly began to feel like I was in the jungle with all the vines, smells and sounds from the plants and animals…like something out of a Tarzan movie.

The actual lodge is located on a hillside overlooking a large lagoon that is full of cayman (reptiles closely resembling alligators) and other warm water fish including piranhas. There are eight or nine cabins for the guests, and in the central dining room there is a kitchen, bar and towering observatory that looks out onto the lagoon. There are usually no more than 16-18 guests at the lodge at one time and upon arrival 6-8 guests are assigned to a group led by an English-speaking naturalist, a local Kichwa guide from Añangu and a paddleman also from the community. You eat all your meals together with the guides and they accompany the group on excursions away from the lodge.

Our naturalist was Delfin, (dolphin in Español) a thirty-two year old “jungle boy” (his self-definition) who had the most heart-warming smile and demeanor of anyone I have ever met. He was Kichwa and an Amazon jungle native that started hunting with a blow-gun at five years old. He left the jungle for the first time at age 13 to attend a high school in Quito. It was a huge challenge for him as he knew the ways of the jungle but had to learn a new language–Spanish. It was the first time he had ever seen a car and only then did he realize they required human navigation for steering and manipulation of the controls to stop and go. At age seventeen he came to the USA where he enrolled in ESL courses eventually developing a broad command of the English language.

Every day was an adventure outing into the jungle by foot or canoe. The first day we climbed an observatory tower 150 feet into the air to get above the canopy where you can get a clear view of the animals that live at that level. From the tower we were able to see spider monkeys, howler monkeys, toucans, macaws, hawks and so many different kinds of birds that I can’t even remember…many with bright intense colors that are unmatched by anything I have ever seen.

The next day we visited the parrot clay licks and the Añangu village where our local guide from the community, Jorge, and paddle man, Romigio grew up. The clay licks are where pa
rrots and other birds come each day to eat clay, nature’s way of neutralizing the toxins ingested when they eat the nuts and seeds from jungle plants. The village just recently opened a high school where students from the village and other surrounding villages can come and learn. Before the opening of the high school there students would have to go to school in Coca, which is about 4-5 hours away by boat. The high school is a great improvement for the community and area, because now students can continue studying and still live at home instead of having to go live in Coca and be forced to choose between their family and their studies.

The community has also built dorms for students who live in far away or remote villages so that they can be able to attend the school as well. It was summer vacation for the little kids so only the high schoolers were at school. The high school consisted of about twenty students in a barren concrete complex of three rooms with no more than 20-25 books in s
ight…. a far cry from what we westerners consider a place of learning, but a huge step forward for the Añagu community allowing many more students to pursue a higher level of education than previously available to them.

It was on this trip that Jorge showed us the milk of a poisonous plant used for fishing and blowgun darts. The powerful poison is squeezed from the plant and put in the water where fish congregate essentially causing them to die and rise to the top within a few seconds of exposure. He also showed us the plants the villagers grow for making panama hats, hammocks and other items of value. It was on this outing that we saw the Napo River rise rapidly as the result of torrential rains high in the Andes, causing a foam substance that looks like snow to float on the surface. Delfin said it was fermented organic matter that appears after a rainstorm up river.

The guests in our group had returned to Coca earlier in the week and on our last day at the lodge Soph and I had Delfin, Jorge and Romigio all to ourselves. Knowing that we are not afraid of a good hike they took us deep into the jungle for a walk of more that 9.5 hours. We were up at 5:00am, across the lagoon by 6:00am and we did not return to the lodge until about 4:00pm. Delfin and Jorge were teaching us how they hunt using numerous call sounds and techniques for spotting wildlife.

At one point along the trail we came across a herd of white-lipped picari that are very similar to what we know as wild pigs. They were able to smell them long before we could see them and Jorge circled wide spooking them in our direction so they came past us at a roaring pace where we got a fleeting view from 30 to 40 feet away. We also were taught about palm weevils a culinary delicacy–essentially larva found in the rotted core of fallen palm trees. They are eaten raw or sometimes fried…I was too chicken to eat one, but watched as Delfin popped the wiggly slimmey worm like object into his mouth. Both Sophie and I tried lemon ants and the fruit of the cocoa plant whose seeds are used for making chocolate.

The whole jungle experience was something that Sophie and I will forever cherish. We especially appreciated getting to know Delfin, Jorge and Romigio and invited Romigio to come and live with us in SF so he can learn English and fulfill his dream of becoming a naturalist guide like Delfiin. The day of our extra-long jungle walk Delfin confided that his older brother was chosen by the village Shaman at the age of five to learn the ways of the spirits, often ingesting the Shaman's sacred drink made from hayahuasca, the "soul vine” as a ritual means for communication. These people are a bridge to another world that many westerners are totally unaware of and I truly hope they can develop more places like the NWC to educate and preserve the resources and lifestyle of the Amazonian Kichwas…before it is too late!

Monday, February 1, 2010

Otavalo, Ecuador

Hello Friends and Family

We made it from Santiago to Quito, Ecuador since my last posting and I'll note a stark contrast between the two cities/countries...everything is much cheaper in Ecuador but also more dangerous. Before I discuss Quito, I'd like to talk about our excursion to the rural city of Otavalo, an indigenous community (mainly of Kichwa descent) about two hours northeast of Quito.

We especially wanted to go there to attend the market that takes place every Saturday. We rode in an old but comfortable bus over numerous mountains through the Andes and arrived on Friday afternoon. We arose early the next day so that we could visit the sale of livestock that starts at 6:00am...what an experience!

The locals show up with all sorts of animals for sale/exchange including sheep, hogs, ducks, guinea pigs, cows and chickens...unbelievable but very cool. Growing up in rural San Joaquin Valley, I went to many livestock auctions with my father but this gathering of people and livestock was as unique as anything I have ever seen.

In addition to the livestock there was every kind of item imaginable at the market, beautiful woven blankets, bags, tapestries, silver work, leather goods, beads, paintings, spices and an incredible array of food...whole pigs being cooked and carved away for consumption. I fell in love with the attire worn by the native women that included multiple strands of beads and beautifully embroidered blouses. This place and the people that live here touched a nerve in my soul and I would love to come back sometime in June for the annual Intiraymi Festival of the Sun in Otavalo.