Saturday, October 24, 2014
Yesterday we traveled by plane, “chicken” bus, and motorized canoe from the comfortably cool, dry air of Quito, elevation 9,000 feet, to what feels like a steam bath at the Yarina Ecolodge on the Napo River in Coca, Ecuador, elevation 300 feet.
The lodge has electricity from a generator only from 6 to 10 p.m. each day and no Internet WiFi. Our trip leader, Tzerem “Juan” Kuchikuy, hiked into the jungle last night to a hill where he knew he could get a cellular signal, to call his wife. My Kindle Voyage 3G astonished me by displaying a single bar of “E” service, enough to download A Taste of Ecuador: The Collected Stories of Eugenia Viteri while I swayed in a hammock on the porch of our thatched-roof cabin.
The Napo is one of 1,100 tributaries of the Amazon. It rises in the Andes from the runoff of glaciers. By the time it gets to Coca it is river at least 10 times wider than the Charles River in Camridge, Mass. Our motorized canoe had a blue canopy against the sun and moved quickly enough to cool us with a very welcome breeze. After about 20 minutes on the river, we eased into a tiny creek just wide enough for the canoe to navigate. Ten minutes later we caught our first glimpse of the Yarina lodge’s towering dining pavillion, a thatched-roof structure on a grassy hill surounded by a riot of trees and greenery at multiple levels of the jungle.
Our Trip Leader grew up in Cambantsa, a native village in the Amazon about 300 miles southeast of here, near the Peruvian boarder. On tours he goes by Juan, the name given to him as an infant when his parents carried him to a military base to be registered. In his family he is called by his native first name, Tzerem, pronounced Tseh-REM with the R slightly rolled. He calls me Leonardo, remembering that I said in our opening meeting that I love the sound of my formal name in Spanish.
Juan–I will use that name, because it is how we know him on the tour–became transformed before my eyes as we headed out into the jungle late yesterday afternoon on our first nature walk. At the Hotel Reina Isabel he seemed a tad out of place at a whiteboard in a windowless room during our initial briefing, like a man ably playing a role. On a trail in the jungle he seems bigger, bolder, and totally at ease. He has coal black eyes and wears his black hair in a pony tail. He is a solidly built man of average height, who often smiles but seldom laughs. In the jungle, where the heat made me feel more wilted with every step, drenched in sweat, Juan read every leaf and branch like a smart programmer reviewing code.
He spotted a tiny poison dart frog hiding under a leaf and invited our local guide, Wilson, to capture it, which Wilson did with a lightening-fast grab with one hand. The frog was smaller than the bowl of a teaspoon. Wilson held it gently by one leg so we could take photos. He washed his hands of the toxin, using a large leaf.
On the walk we also saw an iron palm tree, a big rodent named an agouti, a funnel web spider, a wingless grasshopper called a jumping stick and, high up in a tree, a great Patoo, a bird that looked like a black dot to my naked eye but appeared clearly perched on a branch when I borrowed Juan’s binoculars.
When I saw Juan this morning in the dining pavillion, I asked this question that I already knew the answer to: “Do you sleep better here than in Quito?” Oh yes, he replied with a smile. I myself don’t sleep well anywhere, but I didn’t mind being woken up last night at 2 a.m. by a rhythmic “whoo, whoo” that I assumed was being made by a bird. Not quite. Juan said it was a smoky jungle frog; he saw two of them on a stroll he took on his own in the dark. He also saw three stunning snakes that he showed us in photos taken on his digital camera. They were an egg-eating snake, an ornate snail-eating snake, and a ringed earth snake.
Juan begins many of his stories with “Where I come from,” referring to Cambantsa and the Shiwiar, his ethnic group–a term he prefers instead of “tribe.” The Shiwiar now number 2,800 people, and the population has grown in recent years with access to better health care, including vaccinations. He speaks Shiwiar and four other native dialects, in addition to Spanish and English. His English is excellent, with some pauses in which he said he is translating from Shiwiar to Spanish to English to find the word he needs. When he travels to Cambantsa he can fly for $40 to a military base then walk for five days, or for $300 he can charter a flight to the village itself.
My head experiences something like vertigo when I imagine what it must be like to span such completely different worlds as Juan’s. The power of it is that he can translate one world into the other, guiding sweat-soaked tourists from the U.S. through the jungle and working with his brother to bring electricity to the village through a government grant for solar panels. When Juan begins a story with “Where I come from,” I listen closely. Knowing him makes me want to do a better job helping people make connections across the various worlds I inhabit–technology, poetry, politics, and eBooks, to name a few.
Where do you come from? How can you help the rest of us understand how life works there? This is why I love to travel: the chance to ask myself new questions, instead of endlessly revising answers to the old ones.
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