The Jungle Day 3 + 4

Our Italian group members left so we banded with the new arrivals, some Ecuadorian women who were quite nice and with whom we spent a good deal of time chatting. Our plan on Day 3 entailed fresh water dolphin watching, another hike through a forest, and another trip to the lagoon.

We saw only glimpses of dolphins. In fact, we didn’t see nearly as many animals as I expected. You think "jungle" or "rainforest" and you think animals galore. But the reality is most of these just aren’t accessible to humans on a canoe. We saw some monkeys and some cool colored birds. Anything that wasn’t green stood out against the endlessly green background.

My brother and I decided to take the afternoon off and read in the hammocks. (Hammocks, in Ecuador, are omnipresent and awesome.) That night, during and after dinner, we chatted for a couple hours in Spanish to the Ecuadorian women we met. Most fun.

We had assimilated pretty well, I think, into the jungle. Knew the routine around the campsite. Enjoyed the weather and scenery. Knew how to optimize one’s sitting position in a canoe.

Our long, weighed-down canoe ride back to Cuyabeno the next morning couldn’t have a come a moment too soon — I was ready for a warm shower. But I’m so glad I at least experienced the inside of a jungle, saw plants and animals that live nowhere else, and chatted with people from all over the world.P1010017

There one was last hiccup, though, before our Jungle experience was over. After getting out of the canoe and piling into a decrepit van (majorly cracked front window shield, duct tape covering one side of windows), we were stopped an hour into our drive to the airport by a man waving his hands. He spoke great English — a shocker — and told us that he worked for a tour company and had been informed that our flight from Lago Agria had been cancelled. He seemed credible, at least to our driver. He then told us that there was another flight out of Coca that we could try to get if it turned at the fork. After some deliberation, we decided to go to Lago Agria ourselves to see if the flight was actually cancelled.

We got to the terminal and, seeing that my brother and I were the only ones of our group who spoke any type of Spanish, he and I jumped out and asked the ticket agent. She said the flight was NOT cancelled and scheduled for on-time departure. At least this is what we thought we heard.P1030107

As we all waited around the flight to take off, the Europeans — such smokers and drinkers! — decided to buy everyone a beer. Everyone except John and I accepted. While they were out drinking a beer, celebrating their jungle experience and the fact that they made it to the airport on time with a flight that was still departing to Quito, John and I were approached by a ticket agent who spoke only Spanish. She said something about ha cancellado and that there were four tickets left for another flight. We weren’t quite sure what was going on. In the next few minutes, we were magically booked on another flight and took off 5 minutes later to Quito, earlier than expected. Our fellow Jungle travelers were left scratching their heads, begging for more info in English — and holding their beer.

As John and I savored our luck and our remedial Spanish skills on the plane, John turned to me and said, "Good things happen to good people."P1030109

The Amazon – Day 2 in the Jungle

Our first full day in the Jungle. I woke up feeling disgusting. Sweaty and tired. Another square meal in the morning boosted my spirits, though.

Our itinerary for the day called for a hike one of the parts of the forest / swamp / jungle (I need to learn the precise differences between those terms) and then a visit to a "Shaman" – a healer who uses plants in the jungle for medicinal purposes.

P1020065 Trekking through the forest in boots provided a nice change of pace from canoe life. We stopped every now and then to inspect some tree that had a medicinal purpose or in some other way was used by natives for everyday living.

The forest was dusty, bug-filled, and somewhat dark as light couldn’t always stream through the top of the canopy. At one point, our guide picked up a dead tarantula with his fingers. Yuck.

We arrived a couple hours later, by foot, at the home of the Shaman and a small, indigenous family. They speak an indigenous language. The Shaman did a presentation about his healing ways and how they use trees and plants in all sorts of novel ways. Apparently, they work – for the locals. He was dressed in indigenous attire with a long arrow horizontally stuck through both his nostrils. We ate our boxed lunch and then headed back to the canoe.

We stopped at a "community". La communidad is where people live in the Amazon. Incredible to see their set-up. They live very much off the land, no electricity (except some solar power). I’m sure they ship in food or something but they get very far off the land. The indigenous Ecuadorians are dark skinned and have darker eyes. We pulled out some yucca plant — one of the staple plants in this area, along with bananas. It was blazingly hot and the bugs don’t stop.

P1010040 I’m not sure how many "white men" these indigenous people see, or whether any of them have been to modern civilization. In this sense, it was cool to see how these people live and play.

After stopping in the lagoon for more swimming and admiring of the sunset, we let darkness fall and slowly navigated home looking for the bright eyes of alligators. Fortunately (ok – unfortunately) we didn’t see any crocs. But they’re there.P1010032 P1010047

The Amazon – Entering the Jungle and Day 1

Cuyabeno is a small town designed to help travelers entering the Ecuadorian jungle and the Cuyabeno Wildlife Reserve. It is connected to the main road from Lago Agria and has a port of sorts to allow canoes to pull up close.

Since we came in a taxi and not with our official tour group, we had to figure out how to proceed. We spoke with an official-looking lady, avoided the New Year’s drunks, and 15 minutes later had found a driver for our canoe. As we climbed aboard the boat, lots of Ecuadorian children peered at us from above. They waved.

It was just my brother and I and the guy navigating the canoe, which had a motor on the back. So no rowing. With our bags in front and we in the back, we set off down the river and into the jungle.

Almost immediately we saw for ourselves the endless, lush, intensely green primary forest that lined our river. Stunning, especially when contrasted with the bright blue sky. Our canoe ride took about 2.5 hours. We would travel the river several times in the next few days, so this first time is when the majesty of the green rainforest seemed most special.P1010012

Our "driver" knew the route inside and out. To foreigners, it looks all the same and impossible to distinguish one strip of forest / river from another. But this guy knew exactly where to turn at every fork. They must use certain kinds of trees or word as their markers.

Occasionally, we would have to duck our head. Fallen trees on the river is typical.

We finally reached our camp site. At a certain section of the forest tour companies have carved out their campsites. More precisely, huts built on large slabs of word sticking out from the water. The Samona camp site is mostly on top of water – held up by wood tree-house like beams – though there is some packed earth in the middle of the site. Unclear whether it’s man-made or natural.

We pulled up to the dock and a guide met us. His first words: "Welcome to the jungle."

He told us we had 20 minutes to put our stuff down and "check in" to our room, and then we were headed out to do piranha fishing and swimming. We made our way over to our hut. We had our own room. Pretty rustic. Old mattresses below mosquito nets. Dead bug blood all over the floor. Bathrooms with no hot water. Oh – most importantly – no electricity anywhere on the compound except in the kitchen during meals. Candlelight and flashlights, baby.

After throwing our stuff down we re-joined our group and guide and went back out to the canoe. It was 4:30 PM. We were tired but didn’t want to miss out on whatever this would entail.Pc310001

An Italian group of five and my brother and I winded our way through the river and then out into a lagoon. The lagoon — a wide, open swath of water, with trees sticking out here and there — was by far the most beautiful place in the Amazon that we saw.

We fished for piranhas off our stationary canoe. I almost fell asleep, because of the day’s travels.

Then swimming the lagoon as the sun set. The sunset was beautiful. People jumped off the canoe and swam around. It was quite deep. Pretty magical moment to have the huge, open sky above you, the sun setting in the distance, and endless forest all around you.

We returned to camp for dinner. The most surprising part about our trip was how good the food was. I mean really good. Of course the juices and soups were good, but all parts of the meal were tasty and filling. Over dinner, we met the other people staying at Samona. About 20 in all. From all over the world. More on this later.

Getting to sleep that first night proved challenging. Bugs, bugs, bugs. Darkness. Sweating. Uncomfortable mattress. Weird noises outside. Mosquito net above us. Needless to say, I didn’t sleep much the first night in the Jungle.

The Amazon – Getting to the Jungle

I spent three nights, four days in the Amazon jungle in Northeast Ecuador (near the border of Colombia). Pretty intense – I’ve never done anything like it.

My brother and I arrived at Quito airport early in the morning for our flight to Lago Agria, the city closest to the part of the Amazon we were staying in. Our flight was scheduled for 10:00 AM. We checked in and were handed a boarding pass that said our flight was at 9:15 AM. The TV monitors in the airport listed NO flight to Lago Agria. As we sat in the terminal trying to figure out which gate was ours, I saw a bunch of people scurrying through what appeared to be a gate out into the runway. There was no sign or monitor. My brother ran over and, indeed, that was our 30 min flight to Lago Agria. At 8:40 AM.

Lago Agria is a dangerous city. Its proximity to Colombia (the Colombian militia stations itself on the border with Ecuador) means that as a gringo you don’t want to be wandering around at night. Or, in my view, during day. When you get off or board the plane in Lago Agria and walk the 1.5 minutes to the terminal on the runway, there are two military guys holding long, automatic rifles guarding your path to the terminal.

Safe and sound in the Lago Agria airport, we waited for our tour company to pick us up. Through Samona Expeditions, we paid $180 for three nights lodging, transit to and from the jungle from Lago Agria, all meals, guides. Ecuador is SO cheap. Almost ridiculously cheap. Almost so cheap that you wonder about the credibility of the company. (In the end, these fears were unfounded.)

We waited and waited, no one came to pick us up. Being phoneless, I made my way over to a gate agent and convinced him – in Spanish – to call our tour company. A few phone calls later and our tour company dispatched a taxi to the airport to pick us up. Some mix-up prevented the normal van/bus. The taxi came, a rep from the tour company in tow, and he told us the taxi would take us to the Cuyabeno bridge where we would board the canoe.

So off we went in the taxi. It’s a 2.5 hour drive. Within 20 minutes we started seeing green forest – all different types of trees. Lush forest. Every 10 minutes we passed through shanty towns and every minute or so there’d be another shack. I expected the poverty in this part of rural Ecuador but still, it can be moving. Literally dusty pieces-of-shit huts surrounded by abandonment and rubble.

The second half of the drive to Cuyabeno is not paved. It’s on a pothole rich rock road. Bump. Bump. Bump. Bump. Our taxi driver almost fell asleep. My brother smartly asked him to stop and splash water on his face.

We also suspected our driver was drunk. This being January 1st, most of the people we encountered in the service industry were drunk.

We finally pulled up to Cuyabeno, where travelers board canoes and enter the jungle.

Soups and Juices

Ecuadorian soups and juices are REALLY good. Don’t really know why, but if you visit this country, drink up.

Ecuadorian Obsession with the Dead

Ecuadorian culture seems obsessed with the dead. There’s Dia De Los Muertes, a separate holiday. New Year’s, which is being celebrated outside as I write this, is all about burning dolls dressed as people in huge bondfires. The idea is you are burning the unpleasant things that happened to you in 2007. Below is a pic of one such doll, though instead of it being rugged and on a street corner or on a car bumper (both typical places), it’s nicely dressed with a mask, sitting in a chair in a restaurant.
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Spanglish

Why oh why does this sign in Mindo start with English and end with Spanish?
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Mindo, Ecuador

Assorted, unorganized musings

Mindo is 2.5 hours by bus from Quito. My brother and I went there for a two-day, one-night trip. Mindo is known for their cloud forests, butterfly population, waterfalls, and birdwatching (#1 birdwatching place in the world).

The bus ride was better than I expected — third world buses are always hit or miss. This bus was far better than the one I took from Shanghai to Suzhou; about equal to the one from Beijing airport to downtown Beijing.

Mindo itself is a quant lil’ town serving mostly tourists. Wild dogs roam the streets more than they do in Quito. Not nearly as much as in India, but enough to make you a bit uneasy. My brother and I referred to them as "rabies".

We found a hostel ($8/night/person) run by "Norma" — she amazingly spoke English, which was a surprise, and nicely outlined what there is to do. Her husband is an expert birdwatcher. By western standards, of course, the hostel was a piece of shit — little hot water, word floors that creaked all night, etc etc. But nothing beats next-to-nothing prices, a homemade desayuno the next morning, and a husband-and-wife team who talk to you in Spanish.

That afternoon, against the advice of Norma, we trekked out to the waterfalls. It was about 2 hours of hiking — mostly on a muddy road, then down into the forest / jungle area. Mindo had received rain for the past few days so we were sure it was going to pour at any moment. Luckily, it didn’t. The hike was grueling at times — sloshing through mud, climbing down rickety stairs, crossing three-board-wide bridges over fast-flowing rivers. We finally reached the waterfall area. Lots of people swimming around in the water and jumping off the cliff into the water.

We only rested there for 20 minutes or so before turning around and headed home. Rain seemed imminent and we weren’t well prepared to deal with it, so we hedged our bets and got an early start. The views during our hike to and from waterfalls were incredible — endless forest and brush.

Mindo is called "cloudforest" because the clouds hug the tops of the trees. Its elevation is lower than Quito but higher than the Amazon, so it creates an interesting atmospheric dynamic.

After dinner I read in the awesome hammocks on the deck outside our room — looking out into the forest and the small town below. Peoplewatching is always fun as well.

The following morning — after another disastrous night of sleep — we checked out the butterfly collection. Nice. Then back to town for lunch and the bus back to Quito.

Every interaction is an opportunity to deploy our Spanish language skills. We did so with varying success. Often, we’d remember a better phrase (or any phrase at all) after the fact. Either way, I know I’m very close to being fluent — if I spent 6-12 months immersed in the country, I’d experience quantum leaps in improvement. Hopefully.

Day 1, Quito, Ecuador

Random musings from day 1:

  • The popular route to Quito from the US is via Houston. Houston is really halfway to South America. SO much Spanish speaking.
  • Quito is a nice city — various signs of third worldness, but also some surpringsly cleaned up and laid back sections. Not nearly as loud or dirty as Indian or Chinese cities.
  • Spanish – accent neutral – wonderful.
  • Almuerzo – you order almuerzo and they give you the special of the day. No menu.
  • Ecuador uses US Dollars as currency. This makes it so much easier to buy stuff. You know exactly how much you’re paying.
  • Living – my brother has an apartment here (he teaches English) and living in an apt in foreign city is much different than hostel /hotelling it. Obvious, I know, but it really is different, and I like it.
  • Indigenous women are interesting. Much darker skin, wear distinctive hats.
  • Quito as a city is really LONG. North/south. The Andes border the city on either side.