Story last updated at 10/2/2013 - 2:27 pm
Morning of Day 1
I'm sitting on the port bench of a 50-foot river bus passively observing my legs going numb. In front of me, the middle row of chairs limits the extent of my comfort bubble. To my left sits an Ecuadorian high school art teacher from the city of Ibarra. To my right is a British traveler who just finished a month of teaching English in Quito. Behind me the wake of the public transportation vessel cuts through the Río Napo with a soothing constant splatter.
I drag my hand along the surface, but then retreat to just fingertips when I realize that I'm probably splashing my neighbors. The cool, chocolate milk-brown water reaches out to the dense banks of the jungle. Occasionally the wall of multi-dimensional shades of green is interrupted by an oil drilling rig burrowing away, or the front yard of a safari lodge. Small villages of mowed lawns pop up every hour or so.
This is the beginning of an uncertain journey into and out of the Amazon, the largest river system in the world. We don't know how many different boats, or how many days it will take us to get out of Ecuador, through the northeast corner of Perú and back up to the Andes, but this 60-person canoe with about 80 people on it was the cheapest option for the first leg.
It takes two people to drive the boat, one steering in back and one directing up front. They navigate the ship expertly, zigzagging back and forth across the river to avoid the shallow spots or drop off a passenger. We pull up to a bank that looks like a thick blanket of pure jungle and let a small, tough, stout looking family off with a box of groceries and some chickens. They disappear into the forest down a narrow path and the boat quickly pulls away and continues downstream. Most of the passengers are making their way home to their families. They are accustomed to this way of commuting; they are river people.
For my friends and I, this is a whole new world. We've entered the bloodstream of the Amazonian watershed, the carotid artery of this planet.
Morning of Day 2
It's 7 a.m. and we're aboard the watercraft of Pepe Lopez, a local of the Napo. After a series of negotiations last night, he agreed to take us to the Amazon in his boat. Or two boats, rather, one carrying us and our gear and the other strapped to the side carrying our bicycles. Our makeshift 20-foot catamaran is captained by our guide Pepe and his first mate Celer at the motor. Our creaky, leaky boats seem to be nearing the end of long lives, but with a decent amount of sitting space and a shade cave made from tree branches and a black plastic tarp, the accommodations are pretty deluxe.
With a Buddha-like body and matching chuckle, middle-aged Pepe Lopez sits up front looking for rogue logs. Celer squints his eyes and extends large pointed lips as he watches the commands from his senior officer. Half Pepe's age and with half the charisma, Celer mans the violent convulsions of the motor, turning his arm into jelly for the first of a few 10-hour days driving downstream. Pepe calls the shots and leaves the labor to the young gun. By supplying the boat and negotiating with the customers, his part of the job is done.
Pepe points out a creek and informs us that this is the end of Ecuador. Perú awaits quietly downstream, tranquil and curious. This region of the Napo is less populated, and the boat traffic has slowed down. Choirs of birds belt a gospel song toward the river. The depths of the jungle beckon for discovery and dare the explorer to enter.
Evening of Day 3
The silty grey mud squishes around our bare feet as we hop off the river rocket onto the shore of Diamante Azul. It's one of the only villages we've seen in the past two days of moving, and we're hoping we'll be allowed to stay the night, as the sun is nearly setting. Along the edge of the double overhead flood bank appear a handful of small faces peeking at the new arrivals and giggling. I climb to the next level to find that we've landed in munchkin land. The field is full of children of all ages playing their games. Futbol, tag, and lets-go-stare-at-the-new-kids seem to be the favorites.
Twenty pairs of eyes about a meter off the ground follow our movements as we bring our bags up the bank. Our friendly questions are answered shyly and when one of us walks toward a pack they run and scurry and push to get out of the way in fear, in case we might be feeling hungry for small Peruvians. The potential for a fun game has revealed itself, and we start growling and chasing the young ones, slowly turning their embarrassment into laughter. The chase evolves into hide-and-go-seek, which becomes get-as-close-to-the-tall-hairy-monster-as-you-can-without-getting-your-brain-eaten.
The structure of the town walkway and the excitement of the children inspire one compadre to point out the resemblance of this village to Hartley Bay, the most isolated community that we visited in Canada while kayaking down toward this direction. More than a year later, we again find ourselves the main source of entertainment for a town full of youngsters deep in the wilderness. Slopping around in the mud with the buffalo cattle, the kids follow our every move and try to remember our names. The friendliness of the people of the Napo shines through the children, copious as they are welcoming.
Evening of Day 4
The sun has finally found a comfortable angle where its rays are softer and starting to filter through the tallest layer of the canopy. We have just emerged from a brief bushwhack exploration of the jungle behind Puerto Arica, a tiny community of five families on a beautiful field of swampy ponds and grassy rolling sand bars. Two young boys have assumed the role of our hiking guides, clearing the way with machetes. The wide buffalo trail leading back to the village bears treasures along the way for our enjoyment as the sun goes down.
We stop for a moment as one boy shimmies his way up a leaning tree and proceeds to walk out along the overhanging limbs. He twists off a few of the fruits, giant dark green string beans as long as my arm dangling heavily from the branches. The other boy catches them below and splits one open lengthwise to reveal egg shaped white furry fruits lined up inside the pod. The taste is smooth milky sweet with a slight tang and a variety of textures from the soft fuzz on the outside to the slippery surface of the pit. We gobble the goods and shoot the seeds at each other, while the picker jumps from limb to limb collecting. When we've had our fill the climber, moving like a monkey, crawls out to the end of his branch and allows the tree to set him lightly to the ground.
As we continue the walk back home the boys cut bamboo flutes with the machete, and pick flowers which become kazoos when held in the right position on the lips. A parade of noise commences; our hoots and buzzes often broken up by laughter as we sing to the birds and the buffalos. The animals join our band as well with grunts and moans, a riot of monkeys howls away deep out in the woods; the melodies of the last light of day.
Morning of Day 5
Half a dozen plates full of food sit on a thin creaky bamboo floor that bounces and shakes the whole house when I walk toward my breakfast. The satisfying aroma of a full meal fills the room, despite the thousands of holes in the structure for the draft to escape. The house is almost entirely bamboo, save for the palm frond roof. Built on stilts for when the flood season hits, the simple structure is little more than a roof and walls to hide behind when it rains. The whole thing could likely be rebuilt quickly if it got taken out by the river.
There is no furniture in the house, no tables or chairs, just an elevated concrete sand box where fires can be built to cook meals. Pepe's family of five kids, his wife, and her sister, mother, and father sit of the floor with us and dig in on the bounty of the morning collection session. We had tried and failed to catch swamp fish in the puddle-ponds out on the trail, but luckily our guide Celer was able to show us how it's done and caught six easily in an hour. We also found a nest of eggs that looked to be from some kind of a jungle grouse. The hard boiled eggs emit a buttery taste into our mouths. A salad of onions and peppers brought home by some of the boys completes the meal that we enjoy in cheerful spirits with the family.
Corralling a pet king fisher bird, the kids hop around on lean muscular legs, an indicator of many good healthy meals like this one, and a lifestyle of constant exercise. The babies are on a regular breast-fed diet, and the mothers scurry around purposefully preparing the next meal and holding the family together. For a special day in August we are a part of this family, living like river people in the middle of the Amazon jungle.
Afternoon of Day 5
I'm knee deep in muddy swamp waters, trying not to trip over submerged roots that grab at our feet as we wade through the jungle. "Agua es el camino!" says Celer, his way of letting us know that following the shallow ponds is often the easiest path through the thick maze of vegetation. Celer and his 12-year-old brother Percy lead us toward a break in the canopy, and the hot direct sunlight starts to spill onto our skin.
We emerge into a forest of food, a patch of jungle the family has cultivated for their sustenance. Devoid of the tall hardwoods that we navigated to get here, banana and papaya trees no more than twice our heights dominate the canopy. Head-high shrubs of sugar cane and yucca comprise the secondary layer, spaced just perfectly enough to allow easy wandering through the vibrant greens and buzzing bees.
The brothers are out of sight, but I hear their machetes whacking away at something on the other side of the food forest. I follow the sounds and find them hacking at a decomposing log laying in a pond. They turn, and ask if I've ever tried "suri." I tell them I've never heard of such a food. Celer presents a large wood-beetle grub, about the size of my thumb, and tells me to chow down. Hesitantly, I take the giant squirming maggot, ask again if he's sure about this, and pop it in my mouth.
The taste is rich, like a gooey ball of nutritional brewer's yeast, with a slight touch of fruity sourness. The head crunches in my molars, but the outer skin is tough and chewy, and it takes a little while to get it to a swallowable pulp. All in all it's pretty delicious, so I let out an excited laugh and call the other guys over with a "hakuna matata!" We get down to the dig site and smell the ripe fermenting flesh of the log, which identifies the source of the flavor. Celer invites us to stop talking for a moment and we listen to the colony of grub worms munch away as they burrow. After a few more snacks and a small plastic bag full of suri for the road, we return to complete the rest of our mission.
About 45 minutes later we are each stocked with a basket or bag filled with as much papaya, bananas, and yucca as we can carry. Gnawing on the sweet flesh of raw sugarcane, we haul the goods back to the boat, sweating and panting in the intense heat. The load should be enough for at least a week of good eating for the family, and we get to enjoy a bit of it as well.
Tomorrow will be the end of our journey with Pepe and Celer, as we'll be arriving in Iquitos, the biggest city in the world that can only be accessed by boat or plane. But we won't have to leave the family just yet. After our small contribution to the subsistence of the family, Pepe has set us up to stay in the house of his daughters while we arrange plans for our next boat. People take care of each other out here on the river.
For more information on the trip from Juneau to Argentina, visit http://www.atripsouth.com/