Dear All, Friends and Family,
Some of you may have read my blog and are aware of my movements and pursuits.
I spent about six months at Kapawi Lodge and Tuna High School among the Achuar of the Amazonian jungle and it is my intention to go back to Kapawi Community as a full time volunteer English teacher in February next year.
I have a good reason for returning. I have identified a gifted student (in fact, some of you who came to observe my classes in Tuna High School did, too) who is starting his final year this September and would like to study in Quito once he has taken his school leaving exams. Olger wants to be a national guide and would need to study for two years at a private college that specializes in training guides at the national level. After his studies he will be able to apply for a licence and start working as a self-employed guide. Later on, he hopes to specialize in ecotourism.
Olger’s Dad, Eduardo was actually a colleague of mine at the hotel (again, some of you may remember him). He used to work as a community teacher in Wayusentsa, but lately he was one of the two boat drivers at the Lodge. He has nine children including Olger. In April, as a result of a restructuring exercise at the hotel, he was made redundant. While still employed, he was hoping to put aside some money for Olger’s further studies, just as he did with his eldest daughter, who finished at a state college as an accountant this summer. Unfortunately, saving money without any cash coming in is impossible.
For some time it looked like I managed to identify a Canadian-Polish couple to sponsor Olger’s studies, but they have got so many similar projects running that in the end they decided they could not take on any more. It was at this point that I thought I needed to think of something else. I looked at all available scholarship options, got in touch with the UK-based Condor Trust that supports the education of underprivileged children in Ecuador and started looking for a family that would be prepared to take in Olger for the duration of his studies in Quito.
So far I have a pledge from The Condor Trust for Education for financial and logistical support (minimum USD 3,000) while ecuadorvolunteer.org promised to help set up an appropriate „home stay” arrangement for Olger with a Quito family. It is quite possible that I myself will move to Quito for Olger’s first year in the capital city and work as a volunteer English teacher in one of the impoverished districts of Quito.
For the duration of the coming school year, I would like to focus on Olger and his classmates in their final year of secondary education. I am already paying colleagues at Colegio Tuna (you may remember the Head, Ines and her deputy, Wilmer) to run preparatory courses in Maths and Spanish. These afternoon classes are open to all students at Bachillerato level. Olger will not have to take an exam to get into the college we have chosen, but having spoken to the Head of Tourism there, it is obvious that developing maths and language skills in the time remaining will help him a lot. His English will also improve through the extra classes given by myself and two other volunteers from October this year until May next year. All these sessions will be open to all Bachillerato students.
In January 2014, I would like to bring Olger to Cuenca for 2 weeks so that he can start getting used to city life. In the summer, I hope to visit Quito with him. By now I have identified the private college where he would be studying. The Vice-Rector of ITHI is considering setting up some kind of an official co-operation arrangement with Colegio Tuna: this would benefit not just Olger, but each and every student and teacher in this rain forest community.
The Olger Project will therefore span 3 years. Year 0 will be spent on getting ready followed by two years of study in Quito. I have prepared a budget as well (several versions, actually, until I arrived at one that seems to include all reasonable costs). It looks like I would need to raise USD 15,000 (minus USD 3,000 offered by The Condor Trust).
The main items on the list are as follows:
I am sure you know where this is going: I need your help. Many of you have seen the High School and/or visited one of the Achuar communities. So you can weigh up the probability of a bright Achuar student going into higher education. Without assistance, the chances are nil.
There are various ways to help:
– If you are a UK income tax payer and would like to make a one-off donation, you can send a cheque to the Condor Trust. Please also go to the Condor Trust website and download the Gift Aid form (http://www.condortrust.org/PDF/NewGiftAidForm.pdf), fill it in and send it with your cheque to:
Chris Patrick, The Condor Trust for Education
6 Wyvern Road
Surrey CR8 2NP
Gift Aid is worth 25% on your donation; for example, if you were to pledge GBP 100, the Condor Trust will actually receive GBP 125.
– If you are a UK income tax payer and would like to make a regular donation, please download and fill in the Standing Order form (http://www.condortrust.org/PDF/regular_donations.pdf) and return it with the Gift Aid form to the address above.
The Condor Trust would like to keep the donations for Olger separate from others, so please make sure you mention that the donation is specifically for the Olger Project when you send your cheques, Standing Order and Gift Aid instructions to Chris Patrick of the Trust.
– If you are a UK income tax payer and would like to make a donation using a UK registered debit or credit card, please go to www.bmycharity.com/olger and click on donate. Gift Aid will apply.
– If you are donating from outside the UK, please go to www.bmycharity.com/olger and click on donate. You will be able to make a donation by debit or credit card in British Pounds – your card issuing bank will look after exchanging your money. It may take a day or so for BMyCharity to verify your card and for your donation to appear on their website.
GBP 10-15 (or equivalent) per month for a duration of 3 years from 20 donors would cover the costs mentioned above. Another option is to donate GBP 300 on one occasion: this would cover Olger’s educational and living costs for a month when in Quito. We would need 27 such donors to pay for all the costs over 3 years.
Another option is to donate money using PayPal. My account is in the name of: Erzsebet Agnes Bekes. The e-mail address is:
Any money received through PayPal would then be paid into the BMyCharity account and qualify for Gift Aid.
It goes without saying that any amount is helpful, be it more or less than what I am suggesting above.
I know that you are receiving requests for donations almost every day. I am not even pretending that my cause is more worthy than anybody else’s. But it is my cause and I feel strongly about it, because I believe it is a privilege to change somebody’s life for the better.
I am the primary sponsor and I take the pledge I made to Olger and his community very seriously. This means that I am prepared to pick up any shortfall. Olger wants to study and I will do my best to help him succeed. It won’t be easy. He’s got a long way to go to catch up and compete with students who have had the opportunity of attending a decent school in a town with water, electricity, transport and Internet.
I often look at the photos that were taken while you were at Kapawi Lodge or came to observe my classes. Those of you who actually visited the school were such good sports when engaging with my students! It would be great if you could still be part of the Kapawi Experience by helping me help Olger.
P.S. And, of course, I will keep you posted by starting a new blog series entitled “Educating Olger”.
These excerpts come from the fairly detailed daily diary I kept. I’ve added little titles here to each entry to give a sense of the theme for that excerpt. If you would like to view all of my photos with captions chronicling the beginning to end of my month, click here.
Wading Through The Fish – Day 27
At around 7am Gonzalo came by and asked if I wanted to come fishing with he and his brothers Alex and Ernesto, and some of their family as well. On my second to last day, that is exactly what I wanted to do, I told him. I put on my boots and made sure to grab my camera. I was going to document the adventure this time!
We made the crossing to the other side of the river where they lived and while the boys got ready I went to visit Ernesto. He was working on a canasta, which he said was a gift for my dad. As I’ve mentioned before, the Achuar are sometimes hard to read, but their generosity and thoughtfulness is made clear in their actions more than words or expressions sometimes, and give you a very clear and deep sense of the genuine open-hearted goodness they embody.
Ernesto showed me how to start making one, setting up the reed like vines and demonstrating how to weave them. It is as hard as it looks, at least to me, although once you have the base of the canasta, the side weaving is a bit simpler.
This day they had already harvested the barbasco roots and instead of seeking out a lagoon again we were going to go fishing in a small river/stream in the jungle. With Ernesto and his machete leading the way we left his house and headed into the canopy covered surroundings.
Our group: Gonzalo, Alex, and Ernesto, their mother, Ernesto’s wife (carrying their newborn on her back), a small boy named Lenin (around 9 or 10 years old) and Alex and Gonzalo’s family dog, Meinke. After walking through the thick forest for about 20 minutes we arrived at the stream. This part of it was around 15 feet across and just shin deep, but flowing pretty well. Here was where we were going to set up the net to stop dead fish (to read about this barbasco fishing style, click here) from flowing past.
Ernesto and the boys swiftly cut down some small trees to use as poles and gathered some vines to use to tie them up. Two poles tied together stretched across the stream at surface level. Then eight or nine poles were spaced apart and placed vertically into the water resting against the horizontal poles. These were also tied down. They then slipped the net (after cutting holes along the top for the poles to go through) over the vertical poles and weighed it down with rocks below the surface of the water. The whole process probably took about 15 minutes.
I naively thought we’d just put the barbasco in right there and wait. Not the most exciting fishing venture. However, we left behind the net, took to the jungle again, and walked for another 30 or 40 minutes upriver, sometimes along the little river, sometimes without even the sound of the river to be heard.
We were going way upriver to dump barbasco, which made a lot more sense. The last time Ernesto and the boys harvested fish from this river was many months ago, and I don’t know if there was a trail then, but there certainly wasn’t a trace of one now.
A minute-long peek into this remote jungle trekking.
Even though Ernesto and the rest of the family grew up in and around this forest, it never ceases to amaze me how they can find their way. I suppose it would be like them coming to a big city like San Francisco, and a native of the city showing them around. That would probably also seem as much like an incomprehensible maze to them as this does to me.
When were close to the area where we’d dunk the barbasco in the water, we sat on a large fallen tree and mashed away at the roots, then piled them back into the large canastas the women were carrying and made our way to the nearby river.
Gonzalo and Ernesto waded in about thigh deep and started dunking the baskets full of barbasco. The whole mini river oozed with the poisonous venom as it swiftly traveled downstream with the now deadly current.
Ernesto mashed the barbasco again and again dunked the basket, then more mashing and more dunking until the roots had nothing left to give.
Once more, I naively thought we’d just go back through the jungle to the nets and gather the fish that had accumulated there. Nope. Into and down the river we went, all of us. Any hope of not getting water into my boots quickly vanished, replaced with the hope that nothing would end up squirming around in my boots. We each carried a vine that had been fashioned into a fish rack. One end had been tied into a loop to act as a stopper. The other end sharpened a bit to more easily run it through the gill and out the mouth of a fish, so that one could slide it down to the stopper.
We spent the next three hours (or perhaps longer, after a while I lost track of time) sloshing and wading and scooping and snatching and adding to our growing rack of fish. Most of the fish in our catch was a lot bigger than the lagoon haul, some of the bigger ones a good foot and a half long and four or five inches wide.
I felt like I’d entered the indigenous life previously during our barbasco lagoon harvest, but wading through this small river in the Amazon was a whole other level. At times I was chest deep in water, ducking under fallen trees, tripping over branch after sunken branch underwater, trying not to think of water snakes, eels, caimans, parasites, or the spiders in the brush we sometimes had to hack through, and all the while also focusing on spotting fish that might be surfacing. I was literally chest deep in the jungle, a full immersion into the life of my indigenous friends, and also the lives of all the water creatures that I could not see below me in the murky water.
I couldn’t do anything but keep on trudging and try not to get snagged on a sunken root or branch and face plant into the water. Luckily, when I did have a decent fall or two we were in shallow water and I didn’t get a nostril full of the flowing river.
We stopped several times when Ernesto said we had to wait for the barbasco to catch up. During one of these waits the boys found a tree nearby and started cutting into the bark with their machetes, slicing pieces off of the tree. White sap started seeping out, and the boys said this is used as a natural oil, a natural hair gel. I always wondered how Ernesto “did” his hair kind of spiked up in the front. I thought it was just water and never asked. But here it was, a natural jungle salon product.
Alex and Gonzalo scooped off the oozing liquid and ran it through their hair. I did the same. It definitely felt much more pleasant than hair gel one might buy in the store that leaves your hair crusty and hard. Ernesto said without washing it out with soap it stays for several days, keeping your hair nicely moisturized. Indeed, my hair never felt so soft and smooth. We took some photos of each other showing off our new do’s.
A little later on during a waiting break, Alex saw another tree, one that you can harvestpalmitas from to eat. He cut down the small tree and cut off parts of it, shearing the outer layers to get to the white, crunchy, edible center layer. He gathered as much as we could carry with our fish and we headed back to the others to share in a midday snack.
The tree he had cut down had fallen partly over the riverbank and river. And as I followed Alex out to the outer end of it, I slipped and crashed to the side onto my back, sinking into the thorny, scratchy, and as my mind would remind me, probably spider infested brush. I was literally hanging in this stuff, over the river, and if Alex hadn’t come back to help me out with a hand, I would have eventually sunk or broke through and plopped into the water below. Needless to say he had a good, howling laugh after he’d got me up. To this point I hadn’t had any falls like this, so after a month I think I was definitely due.
We grabbed our vines of fish and plunked our boots back into the water, back to work. When we were just about back to the net we came across a heavily thicketed area crossing the width of the now chest deep stream. Ernesto tried to hack away with the machete, usually a successful endeavor, but even the powerful blade couldn’t make much headway. He tried squeezing into and through the brush but thorns and thickness didn’t make it possible. Hmm, was swimming under an option? We decided against it, no knowing how thick it was underwater nor how long. We clambered up the bank hacking a path through the forest and made our way to the net, and waited there for a little while gathering fish as they floated towards us. In all, between the whole group we must have had at least 50 fish, probably more. A healthy haul.
On our way back Alex showed me a massive tree called a saybo. Inklings of a giant sequoia, the trunk was a good 15 or 20 feet in diameter and it stretched so far up into the canopy it looked like it must be a ladder all the way to the blue sky hidden somewhere miles above. Alex’s father, the shaman, believes the tree to “have much power,” and indeed standing next to this centuries-old jungle being, it emanated a sage and powerful presence of endurance and strength.
Just before arriving back at their houses I noticed a lot of movement on the now more open and flattened trail. Closer inspection revealed hundreds of ants in a freeway like hustle and bustle scurrying along the path. What made them more visible was their cargo, almost all of them were carrying little slices of green leaves, hauling their load back home which we found a little farther along the path (a little hole in the ground).
Such a fascinating image of life at work, life on a smaller but no less hard-working level. Every little ant a truck driver for the day, heading out to pick up the goods, and joining the crowded commute back home to drop it off. We soon noticed even more scurrying lines around us and as we continued walking the forest seemed alive with movement, alive with purpose, and ourselves an equal part of it today.
Fish. Fish. And more fish. We ate and savored the fresh catch, a massive late afternoon meal around 2:30/3pm.
Alex recounted my headlong foray into the bush and over the river to his mother and the others, and we all had a good laugh at my expense. Hey, no massive bug bites and just a few scratches, I was okay with that. I returned home, itchy, scratchy, smelly, sticky, sweaty, muddy, wet, exhausted and unreservedly and completely happy.
They had invited me back over for dinner so after a bath in the stream by my house and afternoon class with the boys, I returned across the river. Ernesto joined us with his family, and gave me the canasta he had finished that afternoon, the gift for my father. We ate more fish, and I tried hard to implant that fresh, amazing taste in my memory. I can honestly say, I don’t think any plate of restaurant fish will ever match the quality nor experience of those fish-laden meals. After eating and chicha and showing them the photos I’d taken of the day, nighttime had come and it was time for bed.
Walking back home along the airstrip, I noticed one more twinkling touch to the quite fulfilling day, a nightscape above filled with stars. I’d almost forgotten how powerfully stunning the jungle sky can be when it is clear. Most nights this past month have been cloudy, without the chance to see the full night sky. I stopped outside my house, turned off my flashlight and stared into the heavens for a while, relishing the completeness of my jungle reverie.
Dancing the Time Away – Day 28
On one of my last night’s in Quito a gal in the hostel I was staying at left me with some wise words. We were going to go out on the town with the rest of the hostel folks and I mentioned this would be a last hurrah before jungle entry. “You never know,” she said, “maybe your indigenous friends throw huge parties in the jungle.” Turns out she was right.
From 8am Sunday morning to 2am Monday morning, the community threw a fiesta to celebrate my time with them and to bid me a raucous farewell. When I arrived in the morning, at around 8:30am, only a few people were there. And an hour or so later the communal area was mostly full. Rain pounded the roof over our heads and inundated the dirt soccer field and volleyball court outside.
For the first couple hours I and the others simply chatted, moving around and talking to different people, or just sitting in place and shouting across the way. We also embarked on the chicha marathon that was on tap for today. The women were circling the enclosure in full force and they made sure “teacher” was taking good, long sips.
The schedule for the day: Sports were supposed to start in the morning but because the heavy rain didn’t let up we stayed dry and drank chicha instead. Then before lunch, around 11am, “intervenciones” would start. Various people (mostly officials) would stand up and say some words about me and my time there to the community. Then it would be my turn to address the community. After that, around noon, a feast would be had.
The day before most of the men had gone a la cacería, hunting, to provide some food for the large communal meal. More chicha would follow and then sports until about four or five when we’d have time to wash up and change before coming back to the communal area to turn up the radio and dance into the night.
First to speak during the intervenciones was el síndico who, usually succinct in his addresses, said a few words and sat back down. Francisco followed and after speaking in Achuar, addressed me in Spanish giving thanks for all my hard work and for being a part of the community. Rafael, the shaman and “comíte de educación” (he organizes community support for the teachers among other things), had some heartfelt words for me and the community to hear. Ernesto translated as his dad spoke in Achuar and the humbling message was basically that I was one of the best English volunteers they’d had in the community, that I never complained or got sick, he also noted the enthusiasm that I brought to teaching and the extra effort to provide extra classes, and expressed hope that I would again return someday.
Wow. I’ve had few conversations with Rafael, although I have spent a good deal of time with him, because of the Spanish language barrier. But if the Achuar people can be described in any one word it is “observant,” and the special moments when they relay these personal observations and feelings they hit home in a deeply perceptive and truly heartfelt kind of way.
I later went over to Rafael (with Gonzalo to translate) and told him how much I appreciated his beautiful and kind words. Sankap also addressed the community and had equally humbling praise, finishing by saying that there will always be open arms and a place for me in the community should I wish to return.
Then it was my turn. I’d been thinking about what I was going to say the day before and earlier this day, so I had an idea of what I wanted to talk about but hadn’t formally prepared anything. I feel so at home with these people, so welcomed and supported, that no nerves surged, only a determined desire to really make my gratitude felt during my speech.
I first thanked the entire community as a whole for their generosity and for being open to giving me the opportunity to come and live with them. I then thanked them for showing me time and again the deep sense of community that they live every day, for the respect and care that they have for nature and for each other, for the cultural pride they embody in all their actions, and for sharing and letting me live in that sacred way as well.
I thanked all the fathers and mothers for their support, and then thanked the students for their hard work. I gave a special thanks to my adult/afternoon group, mentioning Ernesto, Alex, Gonzalo and David, and as a joke that has been the source of much laugher recently, thanked my best student, Enrique, who came to the first class, must have learned everything, and then didn’t come ever again. We all had a good, hearty, communal belly laugh at this with shouted comical comments flying across the enclosure.
I continued by saying that even though I am leaving, the English learning shouldn’t stop. I urged the students to take just 30 minutes or so a day to study their notebooks and/or practice with a friend, and also urged the parents to encourage this as well. I noted that I understood how hard it is to learn English when volunteers only come every four months or longer (as I’d learned) and for this, I too had work to do after returning. I told them how I had been keeping a detailed diary and would use this to create a narrative of sorts and post blogsabout the program to give publicity to it so that more people would come to know of the opportunity.
I could sense and see the gratitude from them, heads silently and subtly nodding, and extra attention being given to these words, a good feeling when you are public speaking, and an even better feeling because I finally had a chance to concretely relay how I would try and repay the generosity they had imparted to me. I finished with a corny but sincere statement that today was not “goodbye forever” but more like an “until next time,” and with a final maketai, thank you, I sat down to claps and cheers and booming “Ayu’s!” I felt good. I felt as one does in a family that understands, no matter what words you may have said or not said, how deeply you care. It was a special kind of closure for me amongst a people and in a place where sometimes communication is not easy.
After a bit more chicha chat, the table in the center of the enclosure where I sat with Ernesto and Enrique began filling with food. Women brought over more than a dozen bowls of meat in broth, dozens and dozens of maduro and potatoes, all laid out on two or three massive table-sized leaves that acted as a table cloth. I was also brought a special “maito,” which, and I know I’ve said this before, was the best fish meal I’ve eaten in my life. Stuffed with some kind of small pieces of leaf and pepper, the fish was wrapped in these leaves and had been smoked over a fire. Served with some “aji” and maduro and potato, I was a happy man.
The rest of the table had meat in the bowls (everything from monkey to bird meat), which I tried too (pava). Sitting with me were Ernesto and all the teachers, Tómas, el síndico, Francisco, one of his sons-in-law, Saul, Sankap and Enrique. Hands flew rapidly about snatching maduro or potato, scooping up aji, peeling the tender fish meat away from bones. Mouths slurped, teeth ripped fresh flesh, laughter and happy chatter circled the regal lunch before us.
Enrique bore the brunt of more good-hearted teasing. “He became fluent in English in one class!” “You must be good, real good, teacher!” “He came just for the notebook and pen!” In between laughter and chatter, the food vanished quickly, and even with the rapid fire conversation and food devouring, I savored every last chew, every last taste of this unforgettable meal.
After lunch, the rain stopped and with a little more chicha for “energy” we had games of soccer and volleyball in the mud and puddles. During the soccer game it was sons against fathers, and I played for the fathers. We were winning 4-2 but ended up being defeated 6-5 but the youngin’s. Slipping and sliding and spectacularly falling, we all got soaked and muddied pretty well during that game and the subsequent volleyball games that followed.
More chicha followed and some more time to chat and hang out. I had my camera and got some pictures with various people. Francisco, who seems to really like me (and I him, he’s always got the biggest smile for me no matter what), put his arm around me for our photo, a show of public tenderness and affection that I have not seen or experienced amongst adults in any way during my time living with the Achuar (except with parents and their little kids). Again, actions speaking louder than words, and in the end, the “cariño” on their part towards me, ultimately expressed deeply and sincerely.
More photos with Domingo, David, Ernesto and the boys, and others, and I was thoroughly happy that I had those moments captured as I didn’t have many photos with other people in the community until this day. I was also taking photos of the communal area, sitting on the far end, when I noticed a group of ten or so kids had gathered behind me to watch. I flipped the camera around, held it up in front, and snapped a photo of those curious and joyful faces, the most joyful being mine. This turned out to be one of my favorite photos of my entire time with the community.
More chicha, more talking, enjoying of each other’s company continued. The boys, Gonzalo and Alex, practiced showing off their English to me and looking around and pointing and asking how to say this or that in English. One thing I noted, and have noted before, many of the young adults, men my age, and one’s I’ve never spoken to, came up to me asking how to say “I love you,” in English. Earnest and hopeful, they always practiced the pronunciation until they got it right or close enough, and were always delighted to have learned the phrase. And I was always delighted to be asked. If there is anything more universal than love, I have yet to experience it.
A man from a different indigenous community but who worked at the hospital, had come that day to perform a census so that doctors who visit the communities sometimes could have a better sense of the amount of medicines to bring. He brought a laptop with him and after finishing his work went to play a game of volleyball. He left the computer open and playing music videos for the kids to watch. This was quite a sight. From toddlers to twenty-year-olds, they crowded and pushed and jostled around the computer for a better view, the table and benches straining precariously under all their weight. They watched video after video, for a good hour or more until the computer battery died.
I made my way home to change into shorts for a bath, and then after into pants and a different shirt for the chicha and dancing party. I spent some time packing as well as I wouldn’t have too much time in the morning to do so. Back at the enclosure it took a while for the music to encourage some dancing, but in the end it definitely did, and a whole lot more chicha as well. In the dim light of velas (candles) and other lights, I danced the night away with my Achuar friends.
One of the most memorable partners was the wife of Tómas, who, as I’ve written about before, I feel like I connected with during my conversation with her and Tómas in their home. Anyways, she wanted to dance with me, a bold move not offered by any other women (the men ask). And boy did she dance! She must be in her fifties or so, but she could move. Most of the other women when they dance (at least with me) move slowly and shyly, but Rosa had her arms flying everywhere and feet moving quickly, her body swirling energetically. Surprised at first, I could barely keep up. But the happy energy she exuded was contagious and I had a lot of fun dancing around with her.
That night wasn’t all drinking and dancing. I had some memorable conversations as well. A man named Telmo asked about my family and my family’s names. Ernesto’s mother came by and wanted to hear as well. Ernesto told me his mom had said she was going to miss me and didn’t want me to leave. After a month I was finally getting some connection with the wives and women, who don’t speak to me much to me (almost at all actually), but are always observing, always listening, always caring. She was listening intently to my recounting of my family and what they did and where they lived and how old they were and their names, etc., all with warmth in her eyes and a mother’s smile on her face.
I told them and her that I missed my family as I’d been away for a long time. She nodded, understanding, smiling. It was a moment to remember that night. She held the bowl of chicha out for a long time, making sure I drank enough to last me all the way back to California.
I also spoke with Alex and Gonzalo, Alex imploring that I write to them and send photos. “You will write, won’t you? Send photos of you in California.” He seemed outwardly the most affected by my imminent departure. I’m going to miss him and his brothers very much. I also spoke with Ernesto who, by midnight was getting very tired. He was holding his toddler son Gerardo in his lap, both their heads nodding down in a semi sleep state. He told me lovingly how Gerardo keeps them up at night, peeing the bed without a care in the world while he’s doing it, and how Gerardo likes to draw and play with toy planes. “He’ll be a pilot some day,” Ernesto said proudly.
Rafael also came by and reiterated what he had said earlier, that he’d never seen a volunteer with as much enthusiasm for being there and teaching as I had, and that I’d never gotten sick, and that he looked forward to the day I would return. Again, these people have a way of suddenly saying such things and making you realize just how much they love and they care.
At around 1:30am I had to call it a night. I couldn’t drink more chicha and was very tired, albeit very happy to have had such a great celebration all day. I felt even more connected to these people and their life because of it.
A wink of sleep later and I was up at 5am packing.
At 6:15am I arrived at Sankap’s for a final breakfast and visit.
Then I met Ernesto and his family, Gonzalo and their dad at their dad’s house. They would be taking me downriver. After gathering my belongings and returning to his house, we delicately made our way down the riverbank to the canoe.
I sat next to Ernesto during the forty minute ride to the Achuar community downriver where I’d be flying out. We didn’t speak much.
We arrived at the riverbank at Kusutka and unloaded my things. We bid a quick farewell and I watched them and waved as they pulled away, heading home to continue to live the jungle life I was leaving behind.
I waited for two hours with some employees from the lodge who were also leaving and transporting with them materials from the lodge. The planes eventually arrived, unloaded their tourists and we piled in.
I sat next to the copilot and had a front seat view to the wobbly but efficient power of these small flying miracles. An hour later we touched down in Shell and I stepped out onto the concrete floor of civilization once more.
Thinking of my soon-to-be flight back to San Francisco, I also thought of the song “I left my heart in San Francisco,” and the message it spoke to me in this moment. Indeed, I have left much of my heart and love in the Bay Area, in California, but in this moment, I realized I was leaving my heart in the remote jungle, in my cozy hut, across the airstrip and soccer field, in the classrooms, and with the family I now had in all of those places.
It’s a good thing we all have a lot of love to give, because life certainly calls for it again and again. I feel like I go from place to place, person to person, experience to experience, leaving pieces of me, of my heart and my being, in each place, with each person, and in the memory of each moment. Like a muscle being exercised, I am stronger for it in every way. This is how we keep our hearts whole and new and thriving and singing, these flashes of life and connection creating a necessary and nourishing holistic cadence for the rhythm of our brief but beautiful dance with the human experience.
I do feel different after all my South American experiences, and especially after living the jungle life. I feel more like me. Like I know who that is. I feel like I can do anything. And whatever I do, I’ll carry those people and places and experiences with me precisely because I’ve given my heart fully to all of it and all of them, and no amount of distance or time will ever diminish the strength and beauty of that truth.
These excerpts come from the fairly detailed daily diary I kept. I’ve added little titles here to each entry to give a sense of the theme for that excerpt. If you would like to view all of my photos with captions chronicling the beginning to end of my month, click here.
Making a House Call Achuar Style – Day 19
Earlier in the week Rafael (the shaman) had told me that we could make a visit to a man named Francisco who lives upriver. The past year Francisco has been working on creating a new space for a community (3 families live there now) and wanted me to see it. I arrived at Rafael’s house at 7:30am. Ernesto was also there and told me that when Achuar go to make a visit like this they paint their faces. So he painted mine (see above). Ernesto urged me to bring my camera and I snapped some photos of the upriver journey, as well as photos of the “barrio” when we arrived.
For a year now Francisco (the brother-in-law of Rafael) and his two sons-in-law have been developing this land. He and his sons-in-law have built three houses, made large gardens, and cleared and created an entire airstrip area (350+ meters!). Impressive.
Right now, he is also working on building a canoe and for about an hour we went and worked on it as well. The process is pretty intensive, cutting down a massive tree, slicing a bit off, hollowing it out, etc. He said that at about 7 hours a day for a week and a half he can build a small canoe, and that it takes a month and a half to build a bigger one.
Here’s a brief video of the men at work. Rafael, the shaman, is in the canoe, Francisco is working the front with the ax, and his two sons-in-law are observing.
Afterwards we had a huge lunch at his house. A bowl of saíno soup, a bowl of Achuar potato, maduro and yucca, and more potato (with ají), and a bowl of some kind of bird meat as well. The conversation that had been flowing through the hut quieted to nothing but a slurpy silence as we not so delicately devoured our meals.
Talking, Teaching, and Throwing Fruit – Day 23
I’ll start this entry with a conversation I had with Ernesto at my house just before dinner tonight. It got me thinking about a lot of things. He had come over after class (we had a field trip to the jungle so they could practice their Achuar guide phrases and vocab!). Our conversation stayed within this theme of English learning and soon the questions started pouring in unison with the rain that had just started falling.
Would it be useful to come to the U.S. to learn English? How long should I come to the U.S. for to really learn well? Can I stay with your parents? Can they teach me? Can I work while I’m there? How much would I get paid? Enough to pay for an intensive? (I told him about English learning intensives). How much does a plane ticket cost? A visa?
I hope I wasn’t discouraging Ernesto with the monetary sums that kept piling up for a possible trip to the United States to learn English. Apart from the obvious cultural, social, environmental, etc., complexities of organizing and going through with such a trip, I tried to explain costs like “living” money and then spiraled into describing the monetary space that I occupy in my life back home. One has to pay for drinks, food, gas, materials, etc., etc. I also explained the costs for housing; water, electricity, gas, garbage, internet, phone, cable. He had the greatest “disbelief chuckle” I’ve ever seen when I said we have to pay for firewood too. “Everything really does revolve around money,” he said, remembering what I’d told him before. Yes, it does.
I’m not sure anyone from his community has ever traveled and lived in an extended period of time in the U.S. I’d love to be able to help him if he decided he wanted to do it. He is extremely smart and very motivated to learn English, but just as I need constant supervision in the jungle (I’d be lost in two seconds if I went into the forest by myself), I believe he would at least initially need a great deal of support. In an ideal world he could stay with a host family, have something like a personal assistant, and have his stay funded through fundraising and donors to a scholarship type program, and maybe he could even act as an “ambassador” and give presentations about his Achuar heritage. He has already created the space for this ideal reality through his vision and determination, so if he is not ultimately able to do so, perhaps future generations of Achuar will.
Earlier in the day I spent time reading and writing for a bit and then around midday, Angelo and another boy from his class (4th and 5th graders), along with some toddlers, dropped by to see me. “Quieres bañar?” They wanted to go swimming in the river. Yes, please! I grabbed my camera and followed them down the embankment outside my house.
I got some great pictures of the kids and had a very memorable time playing and swimming in the water. Some of the other children stayed on shore gathering fruit, munching away, laughing with us, tossing us morsels.
I taught the two boys three fly’s up (we played with a small piece of fruit), which turned into 5 fly’s, then 10, then 15!
I showed them the pictures of themselves, including a mid-air shot of one of the boys jumping off the embankment. They stared in delight and awe at that one for a long time.
Later that afternoon I had class with the afternoon group, Ernesto, Alex and Gonzalo. Today we had planned on a guide/tourist outing where they would practice being guides to me the tourist.
We went along a path into the jungle and they practiced phrases like “What is that?” “That is a snake” “Is it dangerous?” “Be careful” “Do not touch it” etc. Basic, but they are progressing!
A Spontaneous Encounter, A Natural Connection – Day 24
Most of the day today (another “minga”) was blazing hot, especially during communal work time after the meeting. Machete weeding on hands and knees for two hours (from 12pm to 2pm, the others had already worked from 8:30am to 10am) makes for one sweaty and tired English teacher! I went home to change and eat to give me some energy before returning to play volleyball (they nourished themselves solely with chicha, aka Achuar Gatorade). Afterwards, since we were all beat, the afternoon class and I decided to cancel for the day.
Earlier I had spoken with Eduardo, Sankap’s brother, and he invited me to dinner at 7pm after class (he said 5 originally). Since class was cancelled I decided to show up earlier, around 5:30pm.
When I arrived no one was there. Then I saw a little boy (probably around 5 or 6 years old) scampering up the path from the river. Naked, sopping wet, carrying dripping shorts, he stopped when he saw me. “Papá…” and then he continued in Achuar and pointed down the path. I understood. Dad was still bathing in the river.
Wide-eyed with glee and with a round face overcome by a beaming smile, this boy was one little ball of radiating excitement. He squeaked his wet shorts on and came bounding toward me. I tried some Spanish without much luck and then picked up a stick to converse in a language we both could understand. Pictures.
I drew a fish in the dirt, and handed him the stick. He drew one too and giggled. Then I drew a snake. And he had a go. Bird. Turtle. Jaguar. Monkey. Caiman! Genuine, simple, joyful human connection carved creatively and playfully into the soil beneath us. The earth; our playground. Imagery; our play set. Humanity; our bond.
“Alan,” I said, hand to my chest. “Nixon,” he chirped with an even bigger grin. Communication. Not all toddlers here are so open, so willing to approach and engage me (in fact, some are downright terrified of this bearded foreigner), but there are always those sprightly youngsters who are born with a little extra trust to go with their universal childlike curiosity.
We can all learn from such trusting freedom, such open-hearted wonder, and I think this is one reason I like working with kids, playing, and being around them. They exude an unconditional humanity that at some point along the way many adults smother completely with layers of cultural and social “learning.”
For Nixon, this was another moment in the flash of playtime that is childhood. For me, it was a moment I’ll cherish fondly, in gratitude for Nixon’s show of human purity and the utter joy we created in the playful simplicity we shared.
Conversations With an Eager Listener- Day 25
I had my final morning class today with the eldest group. Another somewhat inconceivable reminder that I’ve already completed four weeks of volunteer teaching here.
The day before at the “minga” a man named Tómas had asked if I could come take photos of the wooden bridge he’d just finished building. He said the contractors needed final photos of the project. So after class I followed his daughter to the end of the airstrip, past Sankap’s house and down the muddy trail to this bridge.
Tómas lives even farther down the river so sometimes his kids stay at Rafael’s (one of the teachers) house just after the bridge. The bridge was contracted because this area of the path is prone to flooding and the students (and Rafael) end up coming to class drenched in water some days after having to wade through.
The bridge is about 50 feet long and covered. It took him 22 days to build it. Paid a set amount for the job, he had to use the money to pay workers, buy some materials, etc. He said in the end he was not left with much, if anything, for his work. I took some photos and agreed I’d print them and send them from Quito.
He invited me to his house for chicha afterwards and I must have stayed there for three hours or so talking. He also gave me food, four corn on the cobs, three hard boiled eggs, two roasted plantains, and a potato. I’m used to the immense offerings of food by now, but still as the foreign guest feel a bit guilty leaving food on the plate.
In the time I was there we talked about many things, and the conversation flowed well because Tómas is one of those people that is just easy to talk to. I think another reason I enjoyed sitting there and talking with him so much was that his wife also sat down next to him after a while and, although she didn’t speak to me directly, I felt like she was a part of the conversation. For the most part, in my visits to homes women in the house hadn’t engaged me very much besides bringing a bowl of chicha and refills. Perhaps a cultural custom, perhaps this would change should I stay longer, perhaps I don’t shower enough here. In any case, the presence of Tómas’ wife was a nice change.
I talked about the ocean, waves, salt, tides, airplanes, big, big, airplanes with TV’s and waiters and bathrooms, and our agriculture and climate and environment. Through all of this I could tell his wife understood me. Mouth open, a look of transfixed, imaginative wonder in her eyes, at times I felt like I was narrating more for her than Tómas. She asked Tómas questions which he then asked me in Spanish. It was a truly family conversation, more than I’ve had with even Sankap and his wife.
She also asked to see the photos of the completed bridge, playfully saying that she was going to give her own grade for the project. It was the first conversation I could joke and laugh and share eye contact with her, the wife, and her toothy grin.
Perhaps people are indeed getting more comfortable with my presence, or perhaps it’s just in her nature to be more involved. Either way, it made the conversation, and the experience, very memorable for me.
I left Tómas’ with two more corn on the cobs in hand and a heavy, heavy chicha buzz in the afternoon heat. A siesta and afternoon class later and I settled in at home for a dinner of one massive pineapple and some reading, while trying not to destroy my legs and arms which remain covered in unthinkable amounts of unthinkably itchy bug bites. Not going to miss that part of the jungle life, that’s for sure.
Seems a tad unseemly (not to mention unsightly) to leave you with this parting image, but hey, be thankful it wasn’t your foot!
Alan Pierce shares his personal views and opinions of working collaboratively with Wayusentsa community…
To view Part 1, click here.
These excerpts come from the fairly detailed daily diary I kept. I’ve added little titles here to each entry to give a sense of the theme for that excerpt. If you would like to view all of my photos with captions chronicling the beginning to end of my month, click here.
My Name is Nanki – Day 14
I flicked on my flashlight and shone it out into the watery darkness. It cast a narrow and distracting gaze on the scene at hand and I quickly shut it off. My motorist and I were puttering against the now invisible current heading upriver back to Wayusentsa after I’d spent several days R&R at the Kapawi Eco-Lodge and Reserve. Night had already fallen and I wondered how my driver could not only navigate, but know when we’d arrived. An even blanket of moonbeams and starlight did provide the slightest visibility, and hope, for an eventual arrival.
I had wanted to arrive early in the morning, however, as today was the big Father’s Day celebration in Wayusentsa it had taken a little while for someone to make it downriver to fetch me. We had left at 5, darkness comes around 6/615 here, and it was now 7pm.
It’s slightly eerie being out on the water after dark. Greenish brown and murky by day, the water was a shiny marble black, ripples glinting in the moonlight. Fireflies burst and faded around us along the shoreline like little green supernovas exploring the raucous jungle night.
We arrived around 15 minutes later and I went home quickly to change before joining the fiesta, which had been going strong since 8am that morning. The day had included lots of sports competitions (the sons beat the dads in the soccer game), a feast at noon from the previous day’s casería (hunting). Now it was time for a communal gathering, brief remarks, chicha (even more than what had surely been flowing all day), and dancing. Everyone was in the communal enclosed area where the mingas are held.
Since it was pitch dark outside, small candles and lanterns dimly lit the large area. One could make out silhouettes of people on the other side, but not the faces that went with them. A large radio (more like a boombox) was hooked up to a car battery, it’s neon red light flickering to the blasting music.
Women were making the rounds, more than usual, with especially strong (for the occasion) batches of chicha. It seemed like every sentence or two of our conversation would be paused to address the chicha bowl that had appeared before our faces. People were getting properly tipsy. Not belligerently or excessively, but joyfully so. Everyone was happy. Everyone was together, letting loose, chatting, gulping, laughing, embracing, or simply sitting blissfully watching it all unfold.
Some of the elected officials (el síndico, vice síndico, secretary, etc.) stood up to say some words, things like, “Let’s all celebrate Father’s Day right now, be happy, enjoy everyone’s company, no squabbling, etc.” Once this was over, with an applause and “ayu, ayu!” after each one, they cranked up the music once more and sporadic dancing began. I say sporadic because after every song people sit down again and then gradually make their way back to the dance floor.
I sat down next to Sankap to hear more about the day and share more chicha laden conversation. I was getting very full of liquid and feeling the fermented effects in my head along with everyone else. Throughout the whole night Ernesto, Sankap, Rafael or others would make sure I always had a dancing partner, coming to me with either their wife, sister, or a “soltera” and say “Baile, teacher, baile!” Up and down I went, baila to chicha, baila to chicha.
The music was the same five to ten songs over and over again for most of the night, which they didn’t seem to tire of. It was kind of a mix between cumbia, Mexican and pop sounds. I learned later that a lot of it was Grupo Tuna, an indigenous group.
You dance with a partner but this mostly consists of just hopping around in place or in slow circles without touching. The spectacle kind of looks like a two bird mating dance. Shuffle your feet one way, move your hips, swing your arms a bit if you like, clap, whoop. I also soon learned to dance with a bowl of chicha in hand. Not exactly jungle self reliance skills, but a cultural learning experience nonetheless!
Many of the people didn’t dance, in fact many times it would just be me pulled up there with someone. I’d say the most people dancing at one time was five or six pairs, and mostly people I knew; Ernesto, Sankap, Alex, Rafuel, Rafael and their wives. One of the profesores, Mercedes, was out there a lot. When we were dancing I asked her if more people dance in her home community, Sharamentsa. She said the whole lot are out there. “Here, as it is Evangelical, not as many let loose and dance like my Catholic community does.” I thought this was an interesting statement and wondered, before there were Evangelical Achuar and Catholic Achuar, how many Achuar Achuar would be up here dancing?
In between dances I was sitting with two of my older students, Alex and Gonzalo, for most of the night. We’ve spent a good deal of time together outside of class and grown a lot closer. Since they’ve gotten more comfortable around me, they buzzed me with questions. How was the hotel? Did you write your family? Did they ask what you’ve been doing? What did you tell them? How did you know about the Achuar before coming? Why did you come?
It was definitely a bonding conversation and by the end of the night (2:30am) Gonzalo had taken off one of his bracelets and tied it on my wrist, and Alex had thrust his head band on my head (te la regalo!), and they had made sure every 5 minutes or so to gush that they wanted to learn English!
Also, amidst all of this, I learned some new Achuar phrases. Ernesto had given me an Achuar name, Nanki (spear), and I learned to say “Winia naarka Nanki!” My name is Nanki! And a phrase to follow it, “Wikia nembekjai!” I am drunk!
Place your Fishing Bets – Day 15
A prolonged silence had fallen between Gonzalo and I. But it was not an awkward silence, there is no such thing as an awkward silence when you’re fishing. A fisherman’s most reliable and treasured companion, every prolonged ripple of quietude is most welcome, and comes and goes as effortlessly and with as much certitude as the steady current of water that flows through it. Thus, while we remained alert, our fisherman’s focus lay cradled in this seabed of serenity, and we rested in blissful cohesion with the natural flow of our pristine surroundings.
It was just me and him in a small oar-powered canoe. No barbasco roots this time, it was old-fashioned throw out your line and haul ’em in kind of fishing.
Perhaps our reflective mood was also the result of the little sleep and lots of chicha from the night before. I’d gone to sleep just before 3am inundated with a staggering amount of chicha, then woken up at 6am to go eat breakfast with the shaman, Gonzalo’s father Rafael (at his invitation the night before). It seems that the concept of “sleeping in” doesn’t quite exist here, no matter the longitude or chicha-tude of the previous night’s activities. He and much of his family were already awake when I arrived, although notably sleepy as I was.
The night before Gonzalo had also offered me an invitation, to go fishing with him in the morning. After breakfast with his father, at around 8am I tracked him down and we set out. At first we didn’t go to the river, we headed out of the clearing where he lives and went a few paces into the jungle carrying machetes. He said we first had to get “lombri” (I had no idea what that was).
At an area where several feet of ground had already been partially dug up and cleared away, we stopped and he motioned for me to help him clear away the top layer of leaves and sticks so that more underlying earth would be visible. We then dug into the ground pulling and pushing out small clumps. He found a worm and stopped to place it on a leaf he had set out. Lombri! Of course, no lures or plastic worms here, we had to go to the jungle’s fish and tackle shop behind his house to procure some bait first. For about 20 minutes we scavenged for those squirmy morsels and when we had about 25 or so Gonzalo said that was probably enough.
Later on, as we sat in silence downriver with Gonzalo’s leg holding down a vine from the riverbank so we wouldn’t drift away, I looked down at my fishing apparatus. Not exactly “natural,” it was a spool of 10 lb fishing line (Araty brand, made in Brazil) that his dad had bought in Puyo. Gonzalo had a small ruler-sized stick with two pitchfork-like ends carved into it through which his line ran through. We had hooks, and the worms on the hooks for bait. No poles or reels, just unravel some line and toss it outward and into the water (the hooks also had little weights on them as well).
Not long after we had stopped at our first place downriver, Gonzalo, with eyes attentively poised on the line, swiftly gave a yank and caught his first fish. About 6 inches long and a couple inches wide, it had a streak of black along its body and two giant whiskers sprouting from either side of its mouth.
A little while later as we were rocking gently back and forth I suddenly saw my line wiggle and twitch. I pulled fast and quick on the line and felt immediate resistance. An Amazonian natural I was! I pulled my line in with my hands and quickly realized something was not right. There was no burst-to-burst pull back. No wriggle. No fight. This would be the first of five or so times I would “catch” a stick that day, a true Amazonian logger I turned out to be.
About half an hour later after we’d moved upriver a ways I had a different, more appropriate kind of success. I felt a few tentative tugs on my line and once I felt another twitch come I copied Gonzalo’s form and snapped the line back. Wriggle, dart, dart, wriggle. Definitely a fish! It was pretty much exactly the same as his. Flushed with confidence now I inquired if he and his brothers or friends place bets when they fish. He said they sure do, and we put a dollar on this match. I tried to place a river logging bet too but he wasn’t having any of that.
For four hours we meandered our way back upriver. In one spot he caught two fish quickly (same kind), and then I caught one too, which was several inches bigger and wider. When we were just about back home I caught a third which was the size of about half a pinkie finger, still counted though! So we ended up tied and will have to have a rematch someday. He took the fish home and said he’d come by the next day with my haul and some other food to go with it.
This is what he brought me the next day. On the left is what they call maito, fish wrapped and tied up in leaves, which is then cooked by smoking it over a fire. Delicious. On the right he had also wrapped up some plantain and potato to accompany the meal.
Mirrorless and Feeling Just Fine – Day 16
I am increasingly aware of the how content I am here. Last night, walking back from Rafael’s house to mine, as my rubber boots crunched the dirt below my feet and I looked around at the community lit by the setting sun, I felt a very strong, very present sense of this contentment. I think this comes from a deepening feeling of belonging. Sure, some adapting on my part continues, but much of this adaptation period has past. I know who lives in the houses I walk past, I’ve spoken to them, drank chicha with them, shared meals, danced, taught their children. My relationships here are evolving, strengthening, expanding. I have roots extending deeper and deeper into the fertile culture and life here. I walk around with a sense of familiarity and embark on new jungle experiences with confidence. In just two weeks I feel at home.
That’s not to say I don’t miss my true home, I do, dearly, but arriving back to my home last night, tucking into bed for some writing and reading, I felt that tangible warmth at my core that only home can bring. I nudged a few cockroaches from my blankets, listened to the fluttering bats, the drizzling rain falling outside, and I was cozy, filled with a natural and peaceful content.
Another random thought; I don’t have a mirror here. Apart from the few photos I’ve taken of myself I don’t know what I look like day to day. I don’t know if I have tousled hair in the morning or dirt on my face. I don’t know if a little pimple sprouted up, or the scraggly extent of my increasingly wild beard growth. This preoccupation, or even awareness about those subtle imperfections in appearance (that we sometimes exorbitantly stress over) have simply, almost unnoticeably, disappeared. I just haven’t thought about it.
Choosing an “outfit” or putting on make-up, designing one’s image for the day, these things do not exist here. Or at least very little. Everyone knows everyone else, for one thing, so your actions and words day-to-day within the community shine much brighter than a new pair of jeans ever would. The sort of beauty hierarchy that powerfully drives much of the social current where I am from simply doesn’t have that kind of play here, and would, I believe, seem quite bizarre.
I’ve realized that I have shed some of these layers of cultural and social conditioning. Amusingly enough, when I “mirrored” myself in the eco-lodge several days ago, in a “civilized” place, I immediately shaved and “straightened” up just a tad. I obviously haven’t completely shed this aspect of my social upbringing, but living free from its constant presence for a while has given me a clearer sense of how superfluous and often unnecessarily complicating and stressful it makes our lives in many ways.
A Watery Jungle Excursion – Day 17
For the first time since I arrived, not a drop of rain fell during the day today. Mostly sunny and warm, very warm, we had good weather for our “minga” day. After teaching class I made my way over to the communal area. This was a much shorter group discussion and during it Ernesto asked me if I wanted to go take a walk through the jungle to a nearby waterfall.
To get there we took the path right outside my house that goes down to the river. Ernesto deftly stepped into a small, narrow canoe and waited as I plunked myself awkwardly in after him causing the canoe to teeter precariously back and forth. Sabe nadar? he asked me. I told him that I did indeed know how to swim. Such charming canoe chit chat prior to departure.
A short canoe ride down and across the river and we “docked.” Our landing area reminded me of the “riverbank” we stopped at during the barbasco fishing day. It was pretty much just plant growth. And lots of it.
Ernesto began chopping away with the machete and sure enough, pretty soon inklings of a path opened up. He said it had been about a month since he’d been to this waterfall, and assuming no one else had come during that time, the jungle had certainly already claimed back much of the path in the past month. I tried not to think of encyclopedic film reels of poisonous spiders and frogs and plants and other insects and beings of the Amazon as we pushed through some of the denser areas. I was wearing long pants, tall rubber boots and a T-shirt.
Along the way, Ernesto (can you spot him in the picture above?!) pointed out various plants and things, sharing some of the knowledge his father taught him about the jungle. As less and less Achuar learn this knowledge I am grateful that one of my closest friends here still carries this rich traditional wisdom with him. He pointed out fruit that certain jungle animals eat, which helps he and other Achuar know where to hunt. He also showed me the leaves used to make traditional Achuar thatched roofs. Another plant he explained was used to make hammocks by extracting the fibers from within it. The internal stringy fibers are cooked, then dried, before being used like thread.
We arrived at the waterfall after about 20 minutes walking in the jungle. This waterfall was fairly small, at least from what I was expecting. About 15 feet high, and perhaps twice as wide, and tucked under the jungle canopy, it was a watery oasis amidst the dense vegetation. I’m not sure why I expected Yosemite-like falls, it’s not like there are any huge mountains in the jungle nearby.
Our path took us right to the top of the waterfall and through the stream to the other side (about a foot deep). We made our way down the side and stood in front of the falls. After a few pictures we clambered into the fresh, invigorating water. Standing under the falls was completely exhilarating and the perfect antidote to the hot day. The force of the water could knock you down a bit if you didn’t have sure footing (and it did knock us both down several times), but while standing in the water you felt like you were getting a shower and a massage at the same time, a little natural spa treatment in the depths of the Amazon.
I’m glad Ernesto thought of bringing me to this isolated falls. I was hoping to have these sort of experiences during my time here and this watery jungle immersion gave me yet another healthy taste of jungle life. I thanked Ernesto as we were leaving for being my indigenous guide for the day and for being a friend with whom I could experience the simple purity and beauty of the Achuar home.
A month as a volunteer English teacher with the Achuar of Wayusentsa in the Ecuadorian Amazon has come and gone. Perhaps a “looking back” post is in store for the future, but first I want to place you in the life I led, the people I shared it with, and in the evolving feelings and thoughts I had during the moments and days as they flew by.
These excerpts come from the fairly detailed daily diary I kept. I’ve added little titles here to each entry to give a sense of the theme for that excerpt. More posts like this to come, but if you would like to view all my photos with captions chronicling the beginning to end of my month, click here.
The Staples and the Rhythm – Days 1 & 2
It was in one of the classrooms while we were planning the week’s schedule that I experienced my first Amazon downpour. I’m sure a sprinkle and a drizzle are the norm here as well, but this first outburst was a powerful display of tropical proportions. First, a bank of dark, wind-strewn clouds came together swiftly and not so subtly across the sun-streaked sky. Perched above us they took a deep, shuddering breath, then, an inevitable, cathartic, exhale. The murmur of this mounting force overhead swelled quickly and unstoppably all around us. Somewhere between that first quivering sigh and the now thunderous roar, a tidal wave of sound crashed relentlessly into our senses, rushing down and through our ear canals, inundating our bodies and our beings with an ultimately cleansing and humbling reminder of nature’s sublime power. All conversation stopped, our vocal chords no match for the screaming water now plummeting to the earth and clamoring against the roof above our heads.
The bowl pictured above, called a mocawa, is filled with chicha (a fermented drink usually made out of manioc). It’d be easy to say the Achuar here drink chicha like Americans drink coffee or soda, but it’s much more than that. It is their morning coffee, and their afternoon tea, their glass of wine with dinner, and their generous nightcap before bed. And then everything in between as well. In fact, in these first two days I haven’t seen anyone drink anything other than chicha, but getting oneself drunk off its fermented element is not its purpose. It plays a deeply social, culturally significant role in Achuar life. Above all, it is a bonding element, an instrument of social cohesion, from large public communal events to life within the home. The best way I can describe its customary use in the home when visitors are present is as a tool for ‘growing-closer,’ whether between a host and a stranger, or two good friends, or a father and a son, or neighboring families. As the dent in the chicha bowl deepens, so does the connection between its conversing consumers.
Sitting in Sankap’s home the second night, I offered my bowl of remaining potatoes to Napoleón who politely refused, saying, “No thanks, I have chicha. For us, chicha is all we need sometimes. It’s like a meal.” Indeed, I was the only one eating. With the food and the several bowls of chicha in me, I was getting quite full, and even a bit of a buzz from the fermented brew.
I’d heard that visitors taking the drink for the first time (which, if I could compare it to anything I’ve had before is something like Kombucha) often get upset stomachs. Foreigners certainly aren’t used to be being served something that’s been prepared by a bit of chewing in someone else’s mouth, or a mashing up and mixing up of the drink with bare hands, and served in anything but dishwasher clean cups or bowls. However, from the first sip of this alimentary and social staple, it suited me and my stomach quite well.
One reflection before finishing up. Time moves at a leisurely pace here. Like the heavy, humid air it seems to sit still at times. The Achuar (when they’re not playing soccer or volleyball, at least) move at a similar pace, deliberate, present, with the purposeful and unhurried steps of a people accustomed to a rhythm of life that remains simply, local. This tranquil pace suits me, at least for now. I’m up with the sun and crowing roosters at 6am and retiring some time after the sunset and a social chicha meeting with someone. The night before I had asked Napoleón while we were drinking chicha and talking with Sankap what time they go to sleep. He leaned back, with two hands on his belly and had a healthy chuckle before saying with a grin, “We don’t really have a specific hour of bedtime here. You go to bed when you can’t drink any more chicha.” We both had a good laugh and took another sip. It was definitely bedtime for me.
Meeting the “Minga” – Day 3
Most every Wednesday, I’m told, is dedicated to the “minga,” a community gathering where community matters are discussed before everyone shares in some communal work, then sports, and interspersed chicha chatting. This would be my first intro to much of the community members and I was excited for the opportunity to introduce myself officially. Here is a picture of the minga scene I arrived to.
On two sides of the vast open space that marks the (I think) regulation size dirt soccer field, sit a few houses, the airstrip marks the edge of another side (with a small classroom in between), and on the final side is a large squared off area about the size of a basketball court covered by corrugated tin and lined with benches running along each of the four sides and a line of benches running long-ways for part of the way in the center.
On these benches, three sides at least, sat the men from the community, casually chatting and sipping chicha. The women occupied the final edge of the enclosure, tending to the “chicha” bar and walking around and serving the men, or sitting there sipping or making chicha, or hush-hushing crying babies. They never entered in the communal cross-enclosure conversation, although they seemed to be listening intently.
When I arrived people were still slowly showing up as well. I asked for el síndico, basically the elected head of the community, and several men pointed across the enclosure. There sat a man lounging on the tabletop in front of him, arms out in front and his chin just about resting on the wooden surface. He raised a leathery hand and motioned me over. As I approached I could see that his quite leisurely countenance (which he seems to maintain all the time) only slightly veiled the strong presence of an established and confident leader. I introduced myself, telling him I was the English volunteer, that I would be here for a month, etc. He nodded politely to show he understood and motioned for me to have a seat.
The chicha flowed and flowed. I was given a bowl by one of the wives, every man had a bowl in hand or on the bench next to them. A bowl in hand or next to you is not sufficient chicha at these gatherings I soon realized. The women also made rounds circling the enclosure with a bowl of their brew stopping at each man to have him take a sip. Or two. Or three.
After everyone was settled el síndico said some words and then a general discussion followed. Each person who spoke did so standing up, addressing the whole community. It was all in Achuar so I didn’t know what was being said, although I did hear the word “voluntario” thrown in quite a lot. It’s strange, at least to me, but often if not all the time when speaking Achuar, these people will also mix in the occasional Spanish word or phrase. I hear numbers and days of the week a lot, or random words like “voluntario.” I asked Napoleón about this and he didn’t really have a clear answer as to why. “We just speak ‘Sp-achuar’ sometimes,” he said laughing.
After a while, and many more sips of chicha, I was asked to speak. I stood up and introduced myself to everyone, thanking them all for the opportunity to be there, and for their generosity in hosting me. I also briefly mentioned how I would be conducting classes and that I hoped to get to know everyone during my month and experience everything I could of their day to day life.
There was to be another meeting the next day of all the “padres de familia” in order to, among other things, include me in a logistical discussion of how they would organize my presence in the community.
After community discussion was over, I was informed that it was now a communal work time. For about an hour the entire community toiled away happily and dutifully together under the afternoon sun, chatting, laughing and amusedly watching the newbie, the gringo, or apach as they say here. El síndico had given me a machete to work with and so with the rest of the community that hour I was busy on my hands and knees slicing away at inch high weeds sprouting up in clumps in an area a little ways away from the enclosure we had just been in.
With a belly full of chicha and amidst the intense heat I wasn’t exactly feeling energized, but it was my first public and group activity with the community and I certainly wanted to make a good impression.
With the sounds of the Achuar language surrounding me I steadily got better at grazing the ground with the machete and worked alongside this new family of mine for the duration of that hour. I commented to Sankap that I enjoyed the work and being a part of this communal process. “Así vivimos, unidos,” he said. This is how we live, united.
Afterwards, it was time to rest a bit before sports time. Kids, adults, me, everyone playing a game of friendly but intense soccer. Sankap seems to be one of the better players, whipping through defenders with shrieks of laughter and scoring most of our goals (against el síndicowho was the goalie for the other team).
Towards the end of the game it started pouring, but there was no stoppage. We continued, drenched, and in the flowing mud for some time. What fun! I played on the defensive end and our team ended up winning 4-0. Back under the enclosure we shook off the rain and mud, catching our breath and warming up. Then I noticed five children standing out in the rain throwing a ball back and forth over the volleyball net. Why not?
I tore off my shoes and socks and shirt and dashed out into the rain. They looked surprised, but excited that an adult had joined them, not to mention the foreign English teacher. Now that they had six, a game of three on three it was. And what a game we had.
With over a dozen Achuar men turning to witness this spectacle from the covered benches, these six kids had the time of their lives. Additional opponents in this swampy slosh of volleyball soon made their presence felt. First, the pelting rain made sure we were blinded in a fury of plummeting water any time we tried to look skyward at the ball. Ankle deep in the mud slush, now turning into a murky lake, our slippery pitch then made sure that footing was impossible and that sure face planting was probable. Lastly, our uncontrollable laughter left us breathless and at times helpless to reach that soaring rain-soaked ball and score a point to bring us closer to ending that muddy madness of a game.
And to add to the thrill of it all, I even made us count in English to which the dutiful and thoroughly mud-drenched students responded by positively screaming out the score (after a quick look at me for a little reminder). Nine! Ten! Eleven?! I’m pretty sure none of us really wanted it to end. I’m also pretty sure the big kid was having the most fun out of any of us.
Back home I tried to dry off before dinner. Dinner tonight, a giant papaya in my own front yard. Earlier, Sankap and two of his children had dropped by carrying a bundle of maduro(plantain), two large papayas, and a coconut. I couldn’t say maketai, thank you, enough for such thoughtful generosity.
I grabbed my papaya, a knife, and a book and sat outside to eat it. A careful cut in half, a gouging of the seeds and I dug in. Now, I’ve eaten papaya before and mostly thought it was without much taste. This papaya literally exploded in my mouth with every glorious, juicy bite and I closed my book to savor this Amazonian gift in all its effortless culinary splendor. What a perfect way to end such a rich and memorable day.
While writing these words tonight, one more experience lay in wait for this day. I heard a soft, “Alan, Alan,” outside my walls and turned to see Pedro and one of the young boys I’d played volleyball with earlier, Ishmael. “Tienes cámara?” Pedro asked. I told him I did have a camera and went to get it. I showed them some photos I’d taken of the runway and airplanes at Shell and of the jungle from the air.
Captivated by the images, they whispered to each other rapidly in Achuar. Then I played videos I’d taken from inside the airplane, one on take off and the other while landing. I’ll never forget the look on this young boy’s face. Illuminated only by the light of the screen, I wish I had a camera to capture those moments of pure and absolute wonder.
If dictionaries used images instead of words to define each entry, under the word “wonder,” a photo of this boy’s face would have been understood in any language, by any culture.
Only this child was a witness to his own surreal subjective experience of seeing the earth race furiously forward, hearing the roar of the airplane, witnessing the view of his home and his river in miniature, and weathering the chaos of landing on a dirt runway, all for the first time, and on tiny battery powered video screen no less. It was definitely a special moment and I feel privileged to have played a part in it. This was truly a wonderful end to a wonderful day. Well, after three more urgently requested viewings, of course.
Project Leave No Peanut Behind – Day 4
Napoleón’s brother Ernesto offered to let me borrow a pair of rubber boots from him (for the month) so I put these on over my pants and headed out to meet the pair of brothers for our rendezvous with the peanut harvest. We went down to the river, me, Napoleón, his wife (carrying their young child), Ernesto and two older boys named Alex (15 years old) and Gonzalo (14 years old, pictured below).
Downriver we went, all squeezing into the same canoe. I’m not sure what kind of wood they are carved out of but these canoes are extremely sturdy and while wobbly — totteringly so — I’ve yet to see one tip completely one way or another. With our load of people we cut it close, water rippling by only inches from the top edge of the canoe in some places. After about twenty minutes we glided to the riverbank once more, coming up alongside a row of other canoes already tied up and probably with peanut harvesting owners already somewhere deeper in the jungle.
Towards this destination and these people we went. There is certainly no park service maintaining these “trails,” only the initial machete and then possibly weekly foot journeys through the newly carved paths to keep the leaves trampled down and the spider webs (at least most of them) at bay.
We walked for about 15 minutes into the jungle. Parts of the path were fairly open, if not thick with mud or the occasional fallen tree to clamber over. Other parts were more overgrown and one had to push through leaves and branches to get by, trying not to think of the ants or spiders or other jungle critters that might be bothered by your intruding hand or forehead.
There were just a few rays of warm yellow sunlight gleaming through the thick jungle on most of this walk. A full spectrum of vibrant green surrounded us as we marched swiftly towards our destination. I didn’t know where exactly we were going, and also realized slightly embarrassingly that I didn’t even know how peanuts grow, obviously a product of the disconnected nature of my “modern” culture and my “modern” life from the things that nourish me. So here my jungle education would begin. Not hunting or fishing. Not pottery making nor hut building. Not leaf learning nor snake dodging. Peanuts. First lesson, utter jungle ground zero, what do they look like and how do they grow?
We began to enter less dense, more sunlit areas and eventually burst out into the brilliant and heavily hot sunshine. Plants still covered most of this area, although there was a break in the first canopy above and part of the land had already been harvested.
Ernesto’s wife Leticia and their young child was there along with several other women and young children, all barefoot, standing or sitting or working next to mountains of peanut plants and peanut shells. A few of them were munching on peanuts, and all them were positively goggling at my presence there. Did they see my probing eyes trying to discern the size and shape and appearance of those mysterious peanut plants?
As the heat pounded my face and neck, the mound of already harvested peanut shells fixed me with a cool stare, threatening to bellow out my socially borne secret to these sage jungle companions. Luckily, they remained silent peanuts, as peanuts are, and I got to work amidst the stares, whispers and giggles which I am used to by now and certainly don’t mind. I must have looked very out of place in that group.
For a little over an hour we worked in that clearing harvesting the peanut plants that had been planted there. Apparently (I am learning!), peanut shells and the peanuts inside them are the seeds attached to roots of the peanut plant. So harvesting meant ripping up the plant and plucking the peanut shells off the roots.
None of them were using gloves and I didn’t bring any with me here so it was true “hands-on” work. Other than some sort of stinging nettle that gave me a few unpleasant but non life-threatening surprises, digging my hands into the earth and helping pile up the peanut plants for plucking was quite enjoyable, in a meditative, hard-working, sweaty, peanut-plant-epiphany kind of way.
When I sat down next to Napoleón and the pile of plants to begin taking the peanut shells off the roots I noticed one of the women, the woman who had planted this small peanut field, get up and go to the loose earth where we had just ripped up the plants. There she got on her hands and knees searching for any peanut shells that had remained in the soil. She scoured the area for a good twenty minutes before returning satisfied with a handful of peanuts in one hand to add to the pile.
With the direct work she had put into that field and the very present mouths they were going to feed, not to mention the money to be received from selling a sack of those peanuts downriver, every single peanut counted. She wasn’t about to leave behind even a single one. After our trek back we piled into the canoe once more. Napoleón stumbled a bit getting in with one of the peanut sacks, but managed not to tumble into the water.
Then he seemed to be washing his hands very carefully in the river by the canoe. Only when he raised his hands up again did I see the five or six peanut shells he had rescued from the water. As we set out once more, with the canoe edge sagging even more precariously close to the watery surface, I drank in the feeling of a good afternoon’s work and the success of our mission to lead all peanuts home.
Cultural Gifts – Day 5
For several hours with Sankap in his home, we talked and drank chicha. We talked about religion, about how deer in Achuar culture (traditionally) have not been eaten because they contain departed souls, about the delicate balance between maintaining cultural heritage and developing for the future, about education, about many things. Above all, I was – we were – living a deeply Achuar experience right there in his home that night. Talking, getting to know one another on a deeper level, over many bowls of chicha and around a fire with family, these kinds of days and evenings and shared experience are what the Achuar do, how they live, “solidarios,” he said. “Aislados,” I told him, was how I would describe much of my society. Isolated.
In huge crowded cities and a no-time-to-stop-by-for-a-chat daily rhythm, I thought about how much my society has forgotten the sense of community that comes so easily, that’s lived so joyfully and fully and purposefully here. Only once this aspect of Achuar culture fades away will their cultural heritage be truly lost. Until that time, we will always have something deeply meaningful to learn from them.
Cultural Chasms, Human Bridges – Day 10
Later that evening I went to visit Rafuel across the river, but he was out fishing when I arrived so I stayed and chatted with Ernesto and Alex and Gonzalo, and ended up being there for several hours. They gave me a bowl of food with potato and more tasty tapir. We talked about so many things it’s hard to remember them all, but there was a lot of joking around and cultural exchange going on. One theme of our conversation was food.
I tried to explain how much of our food system works; massive farms produce massive quantities of food, which is then usually transported massive distances by truck to massive grocery stores where we go to buy ingredients for our massive meals. There are also farms and factories which grow animals for slaughter and packaging and then distribution to these same grocery stores. We in turn have to have a skill like being a teacher or a lawyer or a painter or a writer or whatever it may be so that we have money to buy food. I tried to explain these increasingly foreign sounding things to them as simply as I could, but each attempt sounded increasingly bizarre even to me.
Ernesto seemed to know that we also put chemicals onto our plants during the growing process and I explained why many farms do this, and how a growing number of people and organizations are trying to change this norm to return to more naturally grown food.
This brought us to the topic of money and how my culture is built so completely around it. I told them how much a house might cost as I had done with Sankap, and from the look on their faces I’m not sure they believed me that some houses could cost upwards of half a million to a million dollars, and more. I continued saying that in my society some of the highest paid people are actually sports players who make millions in one year for their one specific finely tuned athletic skill.
The social and cultural chasm between our backgrounds certainly became more and more apparent around these narratives. It certainly is a different kind of “hard work” and “dedication” needed to learn to live in my society (manage your money, pay your taxes on time, pad the resumé, etc.) and theirs (hold your cultural traditions close, hunt, fish, build houses, etc.). However, in the end we do arrive at similar places. Provide for your family. Treat those in your community well. Mentor your children. Live with integrity. Love. These are values we all strive for, their culture or ours, and remind us that in some ways, in the ways that matter most, we are not so different. There is no cultural or social chasm so wide it cannot be connected by a bridge, or many bridges of deeply shared values. Talking, laughing and comparing that evening, even though we marveled at the many gaping cultural disparities, we also reveled in the simple but powerful reality of our ability to deeply connect on a human level, and that our shared humanity was the most important comparison of all.
Two weeks have already passed living with the Achuar in the Wayusentsa community. These past couple days, I’ve had some scheduled R&R time at the Kapawi Eco Lodge & Reservedownriver where I’ve been working on getting my journal writing into a Word document and enjoying a few good showers.
First, a couple pictures I managed to upload here on the shaky internet.
Me eating eating a freshly found papaya. SO. GOOD.
A look inside my cozy home.
The main part of the Wayusentsa community is centered around this airstrip. Houses line both sides, and some are deeper into the jungle in other clearings (up to an hour’s walk away, or just across the river). My home is just behind this photo to the left.
I’ll post lots of detailed updates (and photos, the very first one above the title is my jungle home) about my time in the community after I return to Quito in a couple weeks, but for now, I’ll leave you with a day in the indigenous life, day number 6 to be exact, to give you a peek into my jungle experience from my daily diary.
Day 6 – “The Fish Market”
There are moments in your life that you will always remember, and then there are whole days that remain vividly, wonderfully, forever ingrained in memory. This is one of those days.
It started early, very early. At 3:30 AM my alarm slapped me out of my slumber and back to the reality of the night jungle blackness. The evening before as I visited with Sankap, he told me of some traditional Achuar customs and mentioned that he performs a morning ritual with a tea called wayusa, and invited me to come the next morning to do it with him.
As I’ve noted before, with one month here I am trying to do as much as I can, and I agreed that I’d be there at 4am for the wayusa ritual. “I’ll be waiting for you,” he said, “at four exactly, a ver si venga!” he finished with a burst of laughter. Too see if I came? Of course I would come…how many more lifetimes before I get these kinds of opportunities again?! Still, as I lay there at half past three in the morning, sleepiness heavily tipped the scales of motivation.
I did end up groggily making my way out of bed and into the pitch dark insect symphony to walk back to his house. I arrived and immediately noticed a massive pot, and I mean massive – think crock pot times three – heating over a fire and Sankap sitting in the dark morning air staring into it. His wife handed us some long oval shaped wooden saucer’s/bowls and took the pot off the fire, setting it down between us two.
“Careful, it’s very hot,” Sankap warned as we each scooped some of the brew with our bowls. Filled with leaves, the aroma from this steaming water in the pot swirled around our two person circle. Like an herbal tea, it smelled innocent enough, but as I raised it to my lips I already knew that this was about to be a very new and different experience for me.
From what I had read and understood about the wayusa ritual prior to coming here is that it is something the Achuar do every morning before they gather for dream sharing. One’s dreams are then interpreted by elders and others in your wayusa group. What Sankap explained to me as it is now was a bit different, however. He said not much dream sharing occurs in this community anymore. If one has a particularly strong or scary dream one might consult with others in the community, otherwise it is not a daily morning activity.
The wayusa ritual, if not as widely practiced on a daily schedule, is still an important part of Achuar culture. During the wayusa time is when you give advice to your children on how to live and be. It is also the time when Achuar men ask permission from the father of the woman they wish to marry. These are the kinds of important discussions that happen during this ritual.
Apart from being a ritualized time when important matters are discussed, the wayusa ritual is also an energy giving act, which is why Sankap continues to do it regularly. If you have been feeling lazy or tired and not wanting to do work then it is an especially good time to take wayusa, he told me.
The ritual itself involves waking up very early in the morning and drinking the wayusa brew very rapidly, and as much of it as you can to the point of throwing up. Then you drink even more. And go and throw up. Once it’s all out of you, you return inside and drink some chicha. You do not go back to sleep.
On this occasion he was drinking wayusa and performing the ritual simply for its energy inducing benefits, as he was going to go fishing that day. For me, well, I was going to fishing with Ernesto so I could have used the good energy too.
I drank down the first bowl. Then gulped down a second, and dunked the bowl for another. We weren’t exactly chugging the liquid but each bowl went down within a minute or two. Drinking it slowly would have been quite pleasant as it tasted like a light herbal tea. Swallowing bowlfuls, however, did make the stomach feel a bit queasy. “When you can’t drink absolutely anything more, go outside to vomit,” he reminded me between deep gulps.
Nearing the bottom of the pot, I was definitely close to this point and he seemed to be as well. After a final sip he stood up quickly and made for the door. I followed very shortly after and could just make out Sankap staggering toward the jungle already vomiting along the way. Although I felt queasy, I wasn’t sure my wayusa load would depart so easily. Luckily, when I arrived to the edge of the jungle he handed me a leaf. “Con la hoja en la boca, “ he said, and crouched down again thrusting his own leaf partly down his throat to fetch the rest of the wayusa from his belly.
I did as the ritual entails and emptied my herbal contents, purging myself, renewing and cleaning and energizing my system for the coming day. In the lifting darkness, under dark clouds and fading stars, here I was hunched over next to a man, whose ancestors had tamed this same land for centuries past, emptying a sacred infusion of jungle concocted brew back onto the jungle floor. It was a very raw, very primal experience. Doing this multiple times a week as he does one must get used to the sensation of reverse bowel movements. I’m certainly not used to it, but even though the vomiting part wasn’t particularly pleasant in the normal sense of the word, I did, somehow, feel “clean,” and after returning inside to his house for some chicha and several more hours of chatting, with plenty of energy for the coming day.
On tap for this day, as I briefly mentioned, a fishing expedition at the invitation of Ernesto. He came by my house around 8am and as we made our way to the riverbank, we quizzed each other on the previous day’s English and Achuar vocabulary we had taught one another during our ride downriver (we both aced our quiz).
Apart from having to cross the river in canoe, getting to his house is an interesting venture by itself. Much of the way we tread carefully with our muddy boots on the slippery logs that had been laid down as a path through a swampy area of the jungle. Then it’s up an even muddier, steep hill before reaching a large clearing that contains his and his father’s house. From there we continued on into the jungle behind the clearing.
“Change of plans,” he said. We were going to go fishing with fishing poles and line, but now we were going to harvest some poisonous roots called barbasco (timiu in Achuar) to use instead. For me, this would certainly be a new way to fish!
During the trek into the jungle we arrived at a sort of natural obstacle course part of the “path.” Suspended five feet above a fairly wide stream, which was a murky mud color so you couldn’t see how deep it was, was a wet, rounded, tree trunk about the width of your rubber boot (and perhaps a bit more) and 10 or 15 feet in length.
This looked like the perfect place for the gringo to give the locals a good splashing laugh. I teetered and I tottered and slowly made my way across. Luckily, I lived up to my Libra birthright, safely finding my balance from one end to the other. My companions nimbly made their way across as well and we continued deeper into the morning light of the jungle.
After about 20 minutes we arrived at a semi cleared area where two young men, Alex and Gonzalo (students of mine around 15 years old), and another man named Roman (from a different Achuar community called Tinkias) were working. He was here because his wife had been sick and they’d come to see the shaman (Rajuel, Ernesto’s dad) so he could cure her. They had cleared away the brush during the early morning, “to make sure there are no culebras,” Romano informed me. Making sure there were no snakes was a good start and I didn’t mind too much not having been a part of that clear and discover work. They had also sheared the barbasco plant, which is like a small, small tree with many trunks, down to its many stumps.
The work now, dig, dig, and dig some more with your hands to unearth all the roots you can find. So we dug. I’ve never felt such purely rich soil, so fertile and ripe and unchanged by anything but nature’s touch. Slightly damp and full plant and critter nutrients, this earthen matter is where life here begins and ends. And borne from this potent blend of life and death is all that the Achuar have ever needed, for generations and generations; and in fact for all life on this planet, this earth is both our womb and our grave, eventually, always has and always will be.
These thoughts ran through my mind as I worked with the earth during this time, grateful that this part of the rainforest remains potently pure, so full of the complex yet effortless natural cycle of life, and that the Achuar also remain as tangible reminders that coexistence with this biological flow was once and still is our most basic birthright as human beings.
For an hour or two we pulled up roots and used the machete to cut them up. These would then be chopped into foot-long pieces and tied together in bundles for the later journey downriver. We eventually finished this work and with the roots tied together using vine, and streams of sweat washing the dirt from our faces, we set off back towards the houses. I made it across the tree trunk bridge crossing, roots in hand and all, and back to the house without incident.
Once there, it started to pour and we waited in the shaman’s house and drank chicha until it stopped. We clambered carefully back down the muddy slope, tiptoed gingerly over the swamp logs once more, and piled into two canoes. With me were Ernesto, the two adolescent boys, Gonzalo and Alex, and Rajuel and Roman. The older men’s wives also came along carrying lunch fixings with them. With three smaller canoes in tow we made our way downriver.
At a stretch in the curving river similar to all the others Rajuel suddenly slowed down, turning us in a wide arc so that we glided sideways, facing upriver into the riverbank. In this case, “riverbank,” was simply dense vegetation hanging over the water. One of the boys stood up with the machete and started hacking away. I wasn’t sure exactly what was happening. As the machete worked its destructive magic there was some soon an actual riverbank to step out on, and then the beginnings of a path into the jungle.
At first I thought someone just needed to go to the bathroom really bad, then I thought maybe were leaving the other canoes here for some reason. This was closer to the truth, but we were in fact staying with the canoes too.
After hacking away about 20 or 30 feet of plant growth a swampy overgrown passageway deeper into the dripping jungle started to materialize. We pulled the canoes up the bank and pushed them slowly forward, us and the canoes both sloshing and sliding farther into this swampish jungle tunnel. This was how we were going to get to the lagoon.
I had envisioned an extra bend in the river off in another direction, a small stream to paddle through and an eventual arrival out into a vast lagoon. Reality turned out to be a much better adventure and I still didn’t even know how or when we’d arrive at the fishing area.
Before pushing forward further, the others chopped away some thick sturdy branches and handed one to me. We’d use these as mashing instruments to flatten and partially shred (while keeping intact) the roots. One by one, we prepared the roots in this manner, opening them up so that when they were tied into bundles again, and then dunked in the water, the poisonous juices would seep out.
With that task done it was back to canoe pushing. Eventually the swampy sludge gave way to more watery pastures. After some final heaves and a quick hop in the canoes (two per canoe) we pulled our way forward, grabbing onto tube like plants growing up and out of the water until at last we slid slowly from the jungle and out into our “secret” lagoon pond. I say “secret” only to describe my sense of the place. My indigenous friends obviously knew of its location, but to me this fishing ground was already an absolute legend.
About the size of a basketball court and engulfed on all sides by endless jungle, you couldn’t really tell where this watery haven began and where it ended, where swamp became pond and where pond oozed into swamp. All I knew was that if I still had any doubt about it, I certainly wasn’t a tourist anymore. This was truly a day in the indigenous life. My life, as it was now.
We spread out to different parts of the pond, Ernesto and I in one canoe, Rajuel and Roman in another, and Alex and Gonzalo in a third. Finally, it was time to fish!
A lot of the fishing I’ve done has been catch and release, a concept as foreign to these people as poison fishing is to me. The Achuar do fish with poles and line as I’ve done, but what we were about to do was an entirely new way of fishing for my part. Ernesto grabbed the tied up bundle of roots and holding the length of vine strung to it he tossed the natural chemical harpoon into the dark lagoon.
As it sank a few inches below the surface he tugged one way, and then the other. A milky cloud of water borne venom billowed forth out of the mashed barbasco roots, fading ominously into the murky depths. He continued with this routine, taking out the bundle, smashing it some more, plunking it in again, and our trio of canoes circled every part of this hidden fish market, inundating it with our fatal morning harvest.
I asked Ernesto how long it would be before dead fish appeared and he told me it takes about 20-25 minutes for the first to start surfacing. I thought about the population of fish swimming beneath us, helpless against the ancestral ingenuity of these indigenous hunters. Eat or be eaten is the law of the land, and today we were going to eat very well.
Ernesto and the others continued to dunk the roots as we waited. The sounds of raucous birds serenaded are silent killing endeavor, and then the rain came again. A timid drizzle gradually swelled into a slightly heavier outburst, sprinkling an ever so slight amount of poison free hope into the venomous well of doom we had created. Constellations of raindrops animated the otherwise demure surface water that surrounded us, and we continued waiting, circling, patient, confident, ready.
Suddenly, the rain stopped and the sun peeked out between the parting clouds, fetching a golden gaze on our brooding pond. A short five minutes later and it appeared that once again more water droplets were cascading from above causing little ripples around us. But these ripples didn’t descend from the sky, they had ascended from below. Floating up from the depths of our hunting ground were groggy fish, still with a wee bit of waning energy left.
For Ernesto and I, our first “catch” was also our biggest. He spotted a briefly surfacing fish to our right and as it paused slowly in its venom induced stupor he speared it with a short flick of his wrist and the five foot long metal pointed pole it held. He plucked it from the tip and plopped it in the boat where it flipped around quite energetically, almost reaching the edge of the canoe several times. It made it’s way down toward me and I grabbed it (thanks to my pops for showing me how to hold a fish properly!), holding tight until its gills gave a final flutter.
Slightly bigger than my hand, it had a row of small, sharp teeth which pointed upwards at me through its gaping mouth. It’s mostly silvery flesh had a few streaks of black and the edge of its fins were lined with a translucent red. I silently gave thanks for this future nourishing meal on someone’s dinner table and placed it back on the floor of the canoe.
For the next two or three hours we all paddled slowly around, eyes peeled for surfacing fish. We didn’t spear any more, as none were big enough, and we simply had to swiftly scoop them into the canoe, with the occasional lively one squirting away in the water at the last moment, some flopping wildly about in the boat as the first had, and still others already spent of energy and life when we snatched them from the water.
The majority were only the length of my middle finger and perhaps a few inches wide. Ernesto said there weren’t many bigger fish in these small lagoons anymore. For one reason or another, they’re not to be found. I then asked him how they found this lagoon in the first place. Apparently, the loud birds I’d heard earlier are usually hanging out by such ponds, so the Achuar listen for them to discover such fishing areas, which are frequent if not a bit hidden along edges of the river.
He said it had been about six or seven months since they’d been to this particular one. And how do they decide which pond to visit? Maybe the loudest group of birds signifies a full pond? Or perhaps a telling dream the night before gives a hint? “We just pick one,” Ernesto told me simply. Good ‘ole fisherman’s gut feeling. I could certainly help with that!
In all, we had about forty mostly small fish in our haul. And the others with similar numbers. Not bad. Ernesto strung them up with a vine (through the gill and out the mouth, about 20 to a vine). We left behind our watery graveyard and made our way back and through the swampy tunnel, leaving the canoes behind for now before jumping in Rajuel’s larger motor canoe (called a pekay pekay) that we’d left tied up at the riverbank. We headed downriver for lunch.
Not too far down we arrived at a small casita along the riverbank where the women had come with some of the catch earlier. We washed up in the river, took a seat, warmed our hands by the smoldering fire. And then we ate like kings.
I really wish I had a picture of that meal. Placed before me on a bed of two vibrant green massive leaves was the large fish I’d held in my hand earlier. Although it had been gutted, the rest of the fish remained intact. That same eye stared motionlessly at me, and those same teeth jutted outward in a final petrified pout. A bowl of roasted yucca accompanied this main course. And I even had a pinch of salt to garnish one of the freshest meals I’ll ever eat.
With the rest chowing down on a massive pile of the other small fish and another bout of aggressive rain pounding the earth outside our open air hut, I reached for the fish and began to devour this regal feast, savoring the flavors of the jungle and the indigenous knowledge that helped reap this beautiful bounty.
Ernesto also invited me to dine with him and his family that night so after returning to tug the canoes out of the jungle, and the return trip back upriver, I ventured back through the obstacle course to his house. Another bed of leaves and about 12-15 of the small cooked fish (whole), with more roasted yucca awaited. When you’ve worked a whole day for this meal, there’s no way you’d ever tire of eating it.
I sat on a small bench on one side of the hut and he and his small family crowded around a small table on the other. Our day’s work had quite literally brought this food to the table, as did his wife’s work to harvest the yucca and cook it all. I watched the happy family seated together eating this hard-earned meal, picking out small fish bones and making sure the chicha bowl wasn’t left unattended too long. I ate my generous portion thinking about the generations of Achuar who also made this possible. The jungle had provided for another day, and these new friends had shown me a small portion of their daily life within it using the ancient and enduring ancestral knowledge needed to thrive amongst the grace of the jungle’s bountiful gifts.
As the entirety of the days events washed over me, from wayusa at 4am, to barbasco harvesting, to canoe transporting, poison root fishing, and the two deeply satisfying meals, I felt like I’d really and truly rediscovered an indigenous part of myself, enjoying with every bite how connected I felt with the land and the people (including myself) that had made it possible.
After dinner, with healthy bowls of chicha in hand, and the children asleep, Ernesto and I chatted for several more hours. He told me that he and his wife met in school and that he asked for her hand in marriage over wayusa with her father. “If the father says no, that’s that,” he said. “He will ask you if you are a good hunter and fisherman, and if you can build a house, and know the ways of the community. You have to be a good worker and a good person.”
Ernesto is also very passionate about the traditional aspects of Achuar culture. His father taught him about all the forest can give you, if you know how and where to look. One example of this was the light we had in his hut. It came from a plant he’d gathered, which when lit, bursts into a lasting flame that acts as a brilliant candle. When wrapped in appropriate leaves it lasts even longer. This jungle candle lay in a small bowl in the center of his home, casting a flickering, but strong and powerful light over our flowing conversation.
Ernesto also drinks wayusa many times a week and also told me of rites of passage many young boys must do. This involves going into the forest for three or four days and fasting the whole time. Each day they consume a different kind of plant medicine from tobacco to ayahuasca. In doing this experience they learn among other things to respect their elders, the importance of integrity, and the courage and strength it will take to live and function as an adult.
He said they first do this around 12 years old, accompanied by their father. He did at 13. After arguing disrespectfully with his mother, his father decided it was time they went. His first solo trip came when he was 18 years old, an age when he was “wild,” “disrespectful” and got too drunk during fiestas. He said after the powerful experience alone in the jungle he never got out of control again.
I tried to think of similar rights of passage in my culture. What enduring tests of courage and strength and integrity do we have? I couldn’t think of anything to compare. Ernesto joked that at the next community celebration, Father’s Day in the coming weekend, there would be lots of solteras, single women, so I’d better learn to build a house and hunt and fish and all the Achuar ways if I wanted any chance of their father’s saying ‘yes.’ Considering it took six months for Ernesto to build his house, I don’t think I’ll make the cut in a month, but I’ll see what kind of Achuar I can become in that time, if not the best English teacher they’ve seen.
During the course of our conversation about Achuar culture, I certainly had many, many questions, and Ernesto seemed to revel in sharing the rich cultural heritage of his people. After describing a certain ritual or piece of plant knowledge, he kept repeating one phrase: “Así es cómo vivimos. Así es cómo vivimos.” This is how we live. He always said it with a distant look and twinkle in his eye, a faint smile on his face, and with a tangible air of pride about his whole being. Sankap would also say this to me during our conversations. And with them both I also felt proud to be a part this enduring way of life, sharing in their rich traditions, observing and living amidst a people and a culture so proud of how they live, where they’ve been, and who they remain to this day.
With a belly filled with a good day’s work (and lots of chicha, of course) it was eventually time for bed. He took me across the river and I made my way home. It was quite a fulfilling day in many ways, and this budding Achuar slept deeply that night, dreaming of perhaps a past indigenous life that today had been partially relived, and that for the rest of my life, would never be forgotten.