Sunday, October 24, 2015
The creek that connects our home, Yarina Lodge, with the Napo River is barely wide enough for canoes two seats wide. But it contains three species of piraña, electric eels, and stingrays. On our morning paddle yesterday (October 23), I put my hand in the water cautiously, a quick dip, to find out it was somewhere between cool and warm, maybe 75 degrees.
After breakfast we took a ride down the creek powered by pole and paddle instead of the canoe’s two 40-horsepower outboard motors. I love being on the water without a motor. You glide along in a kind of trance, wondering what’s around the bend. Juan and the Yarina staffers pointed out a dead piraña, the kind without sharp teeth. Juan heard a white-throated tucan in the distance and whistled to it in its own language. He pointed out a weaver bird and a wringed kingfisher in flight, candlestick ginger flowers on the bank and big blue morpho butterflies fluttering just above the water. We are in what is referred to as primary forest—untouched by man since the beginning. Some of the trees are hundreds of years old, the oldest is a thousand.
At the mouth of the creek, we heard the yank of the outboard starter from the stern of the canoe and smelled diesel as the engines started, moving us upstream on the Napo. Just past a balsa tree, a black vulture flew overhead. Ten minutes later, our boat nudged up to a set of soft wooden steps where we disembarked for school.
On the way, Juan and Wilson arranged for us to try cacao, from one of the trees on the farm we passed. Wilson cut open a pod with his machete, revealing moist white shapes. We each took one for sucking—don’t chew them, Juan told us. They tasted slimy, odd and only vaguely like chocolate. For fun, Juan organized a cacao-bean-spitting contest, which the men won easily, led by Phil from Bedford, Mass., the retired lawyer who has a damp copy of The New Yorker with him.
As we approached the rectangular, one-room schoolhouse I saw kids peering at us from screened windows, waving. The room was set up for 14 visitors, with chairs arranged on the long side for us and the children’s green desks and benches moved to the ends of the room. Of a dozen pupils, there were only three girls. The children’s ages ranged from five to 11. Their teacher, a young man approaching 30, wore a wide-striped blue and white pollo shirt, dark pants, and new running shoes. His quiet and pretty wife wore a flowered blouse and brown slacks. She assisted in the program by starting a portable music player for indigenous music the kids danced to, costumed in grass skirts and headgear, holding spears or baskets, their cheeks decorated with red marks that looked like the letters M or W. The teacher and his wife have five children, three of whom were in the class. They live in a house next to the school, provided as part of the job.
Tourists and pupils sang songs to each other during our hour at the school. The kids lined up for an energetic rendition of the Ecuadorean national anthem in Spanish, most of them holding their hands over their hearts. At the conclusion of the anthem they shouted in unison, “Viva Ecuador!”
We visitors took a while to settle on a song. I suggested “Amazing Grace,” which went nowhere, and we arrived at a more suitable choice, “The Itsy Bitsy Spider.” Some of the children knew the finger motions and did them along with us as we sang.
After the performances, the teacher opened a long wooden box that contained stations for making jewelry from orange and brown anamora beads. Completed good-luck bracelets were available for purchase at five dollars each, and necklaces were ten. I bought one of the bracelets with five beads on it, my lucky number. I have been wearing it ever since. So far my luck has been above average. Example: the bracelet fell off in the dining room, and Juan found it and returned it to me. Proceeds from our purchases at the school will go toward a field trip the students are planning to Quito, to see the museum about the equator.
Darlene, Deb and I missed the memo about the opportunity to bring gifts for the school, so I improvised and gave the teacher my extra unused spiral pocket notebook and two Uniball pens. Others of us were better prepared and gave pencils and crayons to the pupils, along with coloring books and a math toy. Darlene gave the teacher a cash contribution toward the trip to Quito.
I left the elementary school on the banks of the Napo River feeling hopeful about the world. It was no doubt a naïve, simplistic feeling uninformed by any real understanding of Ecuador’s school system or what is ahead for these children. But the teacher appeared to care about his work, and the classroom was clean and cheery, with a vaulted ceiling and screen windows along each side open to the outdoors. Numbers were displayed at one end of the room and the alphabet along the other.
The real source of my optimism was the openness and beauty of the faces of the children. I sat on one of their green benches, where several of the kids quickly gathered around to mug for my iPhone camera, giggling at their own images and posing with practiced nonchalance. “Es tu hermano?” I asked one boy, pointing to another. No, he was not his brother, but he pointed to the one who was. That one exchange made me grateful for the daily Spanish practice I did before this trip, using the DuoLingo iPhone app.
From the school, we walked across a field to a high, thatched-roof home where we were hosted for lunch by an indigenous family. In a pause before we entered the covered patio area to meet the husband and wife, Juan taught us two phrases in their native language: ali punja (good morning) and aska pagracho (thank you very much). Our dining area had a dirt floor occasionally soiled by chickens walking through. We were not invited to see the living quarters, up another level in the structure. From a balcony, several children watched us with interest.
I volunteered to help prepare part of the meal, coached by the wife. She handed me a folded-leaf package and asked me to unwrap it. I sensed a set-up from her impish grin, so I proceeded carefully, standing at the food-preparation table in front of the charcoal fire. I untied the package and—Yikes!—discovered a dozen wiggling fat maggot-like creatures with little brown heads. They turned out to be a great local delicacy, larvae of the palm weevil, the largest weevil in the world, Juan told us. Our local guide Wilson demonstrated how to eat them uncooked. He bit the head of one to kill it then sucked for a bit before swallowing and eating the whole thing. I really wanted to try it but in the end was unable to take the plunge.
I did not shirk preparation of five of the larvae for cooking, however. Our hostess demonstrated the process by pressing the head of one of them, then skewering it on a pointed wooden stick, slicing the sides to reveal a white ooze of fat. On my first try I screwed up, detaching the head instead of merely crushing it. I received a quick correction and completed the rest of the kabob the right way. The weevil larvae returned as an appetizer, cooked and not moving. One of our group helpfully suggested they tasted like bacon. That put my tastebuds in a receptive mood, and I enjoyed the treat enough to accept the offer of a second one.