By SarahIt does exist! Blackberries have no service bars in the Amazon! Considering the work-connected crew of us occasionally caught a few bars on and between islands in the Galapagos, I think the Amazon is one of the rare connectionless places left on earth. It feels special to visit such a place.
I joined a group of my fllow NYU Stern students for a Spring Break trip through Ecuador. I was late due to work but caught them in Quito just before they left for the Amazon portion of the trip. We departed for the “Oriente” early in the morning so we could finish the 6-hour journey through the Andes highlands while there was still daylight. The roads were fairly well paved, though bumps and hairpin curves frequently threw us two inches off our seats and forced us to abandon a poker game when we couldn’t keep the cards from scattering. We were perfectly content to gape out the window at the stunning bright green mountains, waterfalls and granite cliffs. I imagined the Incans, nearly 500 years ago, trying to defend their lands from the Spanish while running up and down the steep hillsides. They must have been attractively manly.
It was almost sad when our ride came to an end, just outside the city of Teno. There, a carriage of long canoes and a crew of quick-moving Ecuadorian men waited to take us down the Rio Napo to our resort. We felt guilty loading our oversized American suitcases onboard until we realized there was a motor on the end and the Ecuadorian boaters would not actually have to row us themselves.
After a 15-minute ride downstream, we arrived at a paradise resort carved into the side of the hill. This Casa de Suiza was a Swiss-Ecuadorian venture and it was clear as men ran past us with our suitcases that the Swiss provided the capital and the Ecuadorians did the daily grunt work.
As we walked up a long, steep pathway from the water to the lobby, we passed Birds of Paradise and hanging fruits. We wandered around the pools, ordered pina coladas and sat in hammocks overlooking the river. When one of our trip mates (the only non-NYUer, a brother-in-law to full-timer Ajay), Jason went to drop his stuff in his room, he discovered Ajay’s bag had leaked their Duty Free tequila. He ran to put the dripping backpack in the sink when he slipped and smashed his head open on the side of the wall. Jason emerged from his room into this paradise with blood pouring down the side of his face yelling “Banana! Ayudame!” (while dancing with locals the night before we decided to yell “Banana!” if we needed our friends to rescue us from creeps). Our English-speaking tour guide Pedro quickly whisked him away to a hut of a hospital with one surgeon ready to stitch him back up. Apparently a Gringo covered in blood caused quite a scare. Children were running into the nursing room staring and asking questions and the locals crowded around to see the mess. Ajay also noted that the nurse on duty was on Facebook the entire time. So we know internet did exist somewhere! Needless to say, the doctors fixed Jason up with four stitches as quickly as possible and he was back 30 minutes later, clean and ready to join us for happy hour and dinner. We took comfort in knowing that injuries could easily be managed locally.
We woke at 6:30am the next morning to pouring rain, creating what we believed to be a more authentic Amazon experience. We meandered back down the hillside to the canoes and powered up the river 15 minutes to a small opening in the vast jungle that surrounded us. There, we changed into thick rubber galoshes that were so water and mud resistant, we all wished we could bring them back with us to New York. Spanish explorers actually discovered rubber when they were visiting Ecuador in 1535 and brought it back to be replicated in their home countries. Bless all the men on that expedition.
At the base of the trail, we grabbed wood walking sticks and began to power through thick woods. Ten minutes in we took a break to swing like Jungle Book monkeys from a previously constructed rope swing that hung from a branch 50 feet above. I can only imagine what kind of man-turned-monkey climbed up a tree to hang it in the first place.
Other highlights were a tree that produced “Dragon’s Blood”, a deep red sap-like material that, when rubbed onto skin turns to a white, creamy ointment that locals use to treat any wounds, remove scars, improve fertility and more!; and stoic, thick wooded trees with ancient looking vines squeezed tightly around like needy children.
After a lunch at the hotel we went out into the local village. We quickly learned that we had arrived at the resort through the scenic route. Out the back door, Ecuadorians lived in simple square wooden homes with boarded up windows & thatched roofs. Villagers seemed very calm and content going about their business, and a group of small children ran at our heals and tried to sell us homemade woven bracelets. We visited an empty 15×15 home that housed a family of 12 and an older woman in the village made us Yuca juice, using a slab of naturally spiked bark from a tree called The Working Tree as a grater. It felt pretentious and disrespectful to be trekking through someone’s home on a tourist expedition. We imagined what we would show these villagers if they visited our similarly-sized apartments in Manhattan: furniture miraculously crammed in, dinner appears at the door like magic with one click on Seamless.com and women who are 30 living alone! They would probably think “no thank you!”.
Speaking of marriage, the women in the village get married around the age of 12 or 13 and start their families around 14. The children all travel across the river to school, and many of the older ones were just getting home as we left. I did not see one person with shoes on.
We also stopped to play a game of blow darts, in which we blew into a long, wooden tube and shot out pointy sticks at a hanging replica monkey. I was shocked by how excited I was when I first hit the monkey on the ankle, even if a real animal would have been much affected by the wound. I was suddenly overcome with an urge to shoot down a chicken for dinner! So much more active than Seamless!
The older local boys had started a game of volleyball with a simple green net on two sticks and a soccer ball. We also stopped into a pottery shop, where a woman was crafting bowls and vases. After our tour of the city we walked down a gravel road and slipped into a nondescript gate that led us back into paradise.
We finished our Amazon journey by white water rafting through the lush and sharply steep mountains we had been admiring from our bus windows. We did our adventure in Puyo, which means “cloudy” but was anything but that on the day of our excursion. Three men met us by the entrance of the Sinachu river and gave us a safety spiel that mostly just left me impressed by their English. They told us to pull our life vests tightly around like “corsets” and did a little demonstration on how to get out from under a capsized boat: crawl like spiderman against the bottom. They then put five of our newbie rafters on what they called the “Chicken Boat” (I found it amusing that other cultures also referred to easily scared people as “chickens”. I think many other animals could equally be classified as easily frightenable) and split the others into groups of 6 or 7 and set us down the river.
Our guide got us expertly downstream through booming waves and, in the calm moments let us stand on the edge of the boat and play a game he called “open and close the flower”, in which we held hands and rocked in and out and tried to pull each other off without actually falling off ourselves.
We were all exhausted and happy at the end of the ride and finished our morning at a beautiful village restaurant called El Jardin. True to form it was hidden in the forest (you had to cross a make-shift unstable bridge on foot to get there) and the electricity went out halfway through the meal. Nonethless, the food was the best we had on the trip. The Tilapia with ginger sauce and chicken with cinnamon were winners. Then we climbed back on the bus for our 6-hour journey back to Quito. We were supposed to take a short-cut home and stop at hot springs along the way, but an avalanche had blocked the road we were supposed to take, making the route impassible. Getting to this kind of paradise was not easy.