Each day during this 24 day trip to Ecuador, I wrote extensively in my journal. Below are some of the more entertaining entries.
Weather was foggy for the 30 minute flight to Lago Agrio so not much was to be seen from the window of the plane. As we neared the airstrip and the plane began its descent, I could see scattered shanties and garden plots among the low trees of uneven height. The runway was short which required vigorous reverse jet thrusts and a noisy exciting landing. Walking down the steps to the runway we were greeted by muggy 30C air as we hiked to the terminal building, the doors of which were guarded by soldiers in military dress with serious guns. Not handguns, but big rifles and shotguns. Inside, we waited for a sled pulled by a Ford tractor to drag the luggage to the terminal. In just a minute, we all glistened with sweat and those, including myself, who had opted to wear long pants realized their mistake. After our checked baggage was confirmed by an attendant, we emerged outside to the shocking sight of a colorful bus, extremely top-heavy with gear packed on the roof. There were jugs and cases and carboys and straps and ropes and tarp and dust. No windows on this bus. Open sides. Tightly spaced wooden benches for seats with a thin naugahyde cushion. Bald tires. All our luggage was stowed behind the cab, piled to the roof. It soon became clear that there was insufficient seating to accommodate our group "inside" the bus so seven or eight students rode on the roof.
12:55 pm We're at the Ant Lodge having just completed a four hour sail down the Cuyabeno River to Cuyabeno Lakes. Last night, we arrived at the river too late to get on the canoes, so we stayed at a lodge constructed of wood just across the river bridge. After the ride on the top of the bus, Brandon and Brooks were filthy. They were near the rear of the bus and the exhaust fumes covered them and formed an adhesive film to which layer after layer of dust attached. We got pictures of these creatures while everyone laughed. In all, the bus trip lasted about 4 hours and covered about 40 miles. As we spilled from the bus, we asked "Where are the restrooms?" Our guide Gustavo waved his arms in a wide circle and said "Everywhere!"
There was a time of confusion when we were unclear as to what to do next. The crew began unloading the bus. Mattresses, food, water, all our luggage. Everything was stacked in a huge pile on the ground and the empty red and yellow bus chugged away leaving only the green of the jungle and the brown of the river. Down the steep bank was the Cuyabeno River with several long wooden canoes with six or seven rows of wooden benches wide enough to hold two people shoulder to shoulder. Each had a gasoline powered motor. They looked unreliable and I wondered where were the canoes we were to ride downriver. Guess what! These are the ones.
The trip downriver took four and a half hours. Gustavo had estimated the trip would take about two and a half hours. We stopped frequently and saw about 30 species of birds and five of the 11 species of monkeys in the area. The flow was gentle and trees grew tall on both sides, towering over the river so that most of the time we were in the shade. I was sitting in the last seat while Gustavo rode on the bow, bird book in hand, listening to the rustling in the branches and identifying the birds as they flitted from tree to tree. Sometimes the trees shook as troops of monkeys leapt from branch to branch. Any time Gustavo noticed something, he'd point while Venancio positioned the canoe for optimal viewing. Often Venancio would switch off the motor and we'd drift in silence with only the wildlife overhead, the gentle swirling of the water about the wood of the boat, and the excited whispers of students helping each other spot the creatures in the canopy. We strained to hear the trailing canoe which was upriver behind us but we never heard any man-made sound other than those made by our own little vessel. I recorded a mini-cassette narrative of the trip (Tape 1 Side A). That tape has sections of bird calls, especially of hoatzin and tinamous. The common name for hoatzin (pronounced "what-sin") is "stinky turkey." These are large awkward ugly birds who always appeared unstable as they flapped clumsily in the trees along the shore. These birds are unusual in having claws on their wings that they use when moving about among the limbs. In contrast to the conspicuous hoatzin, the tinamous have a call that sounds like a very loud drop of water in a resonant barrel. These are very secretive brown birds that we never glimpsed. Other birds, especially the several species of kingfishers, were easily seen with or without binoculars.
The second canoe had engine trouble. We heard later that they began their river trip with a screwdriver serving as a propeller pin, but the first time the prop bumped a log, the screwdriver was lost. This had been anticipated because Alehandro had brought along a bag of nails so that each time the prop hit a log and sheared a pin (read nail), the engine would be lifted and a new pin (read nail) would be driven into place with a machete. Plus, the engine knocked off frequently, and usually in the sunny spots of the river, so everyone was anxious until Alehandro got it restarted by pulling the rope starter. Furthermore, Alehandro was also the guide, so between navigation, engine repair, and nature-watching, he had more duties than he could do well. His spoken English was poorly pronounced and very difficult to understand, but very enthusiastic.
On downriver, the trees were full of monkeys at this time of day. We had excellent and prolonged views of the Monsaki monkey, the species with the very hairy, non-prehensile tail. Several squirrel monkeys were carrying young on their backs and making noisy leaps onto distant branches which sagged dramatically under their weight. We had been guaranteed good monkey watching today by the guides because they knew that the fruits monkeys eat were available and ripe in the trees along the shore. One monkey, unseen, was heard to fall from the trees with a loud dull thud as it hit the ground, which was followed by much laughter from the boaters, and perhaps the equivalent of snickers from the monkeys. I wonder if monkeys are emotional about such misfortune befalling one of their own? Did they find the accident humorous?
The most memorable event of the early morning occurrred on the return to camp when the outboard engine smacked very hard on a submerged log. We were zipping along at a fast pace back to the huts, having completed the monkey watching. Bam! The canoe swerved and dipped to the right as the propeller smacked hard against an underwater log. Water flowed over the gunwhales and the motor raced wildly in the air. I reached for the opposite side of the boat across Liz M. as everyone in the rear leaned to the left for balance. After a long couple of seconds, the boat stabilized and everyone froze to survey the outcome before bursting into laughter once it was clear that no lasting damage or injury was sustained. In that frozen state, I saw that my left hand had indeed grabbed the left railing of the boat, but in her efforts to keep balanced, Liz had flung her left leg over the side of the boat while her right foot remained on the floor, so my hand was technically between her legs. In the predicament, I told her "My wife doesn't need to know that I've had my hand between your legs." Everyone howled at this remark. Water had sloshed into the boat, on my seat, and wet the bottom edge of my traveler's vest. Fortunately I had put the packs of sucres ($300 worth) in a ziplock bag. My fannypack with the camera got wet on the outside, but no permanent damage. The impact of the impact was greater toward the rear of the canoe. Liz and I were in the last passenger bench so we got the wettest although Anthony just in front of me got his hiney wet. Apparently, stump-smacking was a common occurrence on the other canoe during the first day of the river trip, but for those of us in Gustavo's canoe, this was the first such experience. The other canoe had much higher sides so nobody ever got wet. This canoe has only about 3-5 inches above the waterline so the effects of stump-smacking are much more dramatic.
In three small canoes, we paddled upstream to a spot where we used slender tree trunks and monstrous hooks baited with huge chunks of beef to catch piranha. Several smaller ones were caught, along with some other species. The first very large piranha was "caught" by me. I waited patiently, watching the line in the water jiggle and surge before snatching the hook up. Out came an adult piranha which, because of the force of my snatch, flew across the canoe over our heads, came off the hook, and landed at the water's edge before disappearing back into the deep muddy water. It was a moment of great excitement that was repeated when we actually landed two other large piranha that we examined and took pictures of their teeth. The smaller fish churned the water when the bait was dangled at the surface. When the beef bait ran out, some of the fish we had caught were chopped up and used for bait with fair success. For Liz W., this was the first time she had ever caught a fish. What a story to be able to say that the first and only fish you've ever caught was a piranha! These fish are supposed to be edible, but Gustavo is very afraid of them. He said that the head, when severed from the body, can survive for an hour or more and that the severed head has inflicted painful bites on unsuspecting fishermen. We've seen deep scars from piranha bites on Alehandro's ring finger. Having caught two large piranha and exhausting all bait, we drifted and paddled downstream back to camp while the sun was setting. Pink and blue colored the sky.
We got back in time to bathe in the river at dusk. There's something a little strange about bathing in a river where you've just caught piranha but the crew bathes there all the time so we do likewise. The water is so muddy that it would be impossible to see piranha in the water anyway. I strongly suspect that the fish were right there but don't bother such a large group of people. The water felt good and since it was too deep to stand in, I held on to the side of one of the canoes and just drifted in the current. After swimming we had a dinner of beef stew with rice and a syrupy tomato dish for dessert.
It has been a very long time since we've seen or heard Alehandro's canoe. Since the river is flowing slowly and their was a major fork some time back, I am concerned about the other boat. We have just passed a point where a major tributary joins the river, but this turns out to be the branch of the river that formed at the earlier fork. I suggest waiting for the other boat to catch up but Venancio indicates to Gustavo that the other boat may have taken the other fork which has many more oxbows and is much shallower that the fork we are on. I'm worried that the other boat, being so much heavier, will have even more difficulty crossing the logs than ours. There have been many occasions when Venacio has to race the motor and build up speed so that the momentum of the canoe slides the front over a log at the surface. The boat skids across the wet log and we all lunge forward to help pivot the canoe past the midpoint and skid across the log.
8:55 am. We have given up our canoe so that Venancio can go back upstream in search of Alehandro's boat which took the longer, shallower route. We are genuinely concerned. Theirs is the bigger boat, heavier, with a deeper draft and a driver (Alehandro) that is less familiar with the river. It seemed that mosk folks in our boat were willing to let them deal with their own problems, but I feel responsible. I reason that if the other boat is having difficulty, then Venancio can take some of their passengers into his empty canoe to lighten their load and speed them back to where we wait in a shady little cove where perhaps no man has ever stood. We have the clothes that we're wearing and the food but that's all. We entertain ourselves by sitting on a fallen log and laughing at this predicament while intermittently calling for silence to listen for an approaching boat motor. Gustavo asked "Does anybody have any water in case we need to survive?" I found that hilarious. When would we not need to survive?
9:03 am The other boat is here. Great Joy! I was expecting a much longer wait, but this was a memorable experience just sitting in the perfect silence and isolation of the Amazon unable to ascertain just how grave the situation is.
3:57 pm Arrival at our next overnight hut. This place is called Playas de Cuyabeno, which translates to Cuyabeno Beach. There is no beach here, but there are several partially submerged canoes tied to a dock which towers 10-12 feet above the river. Here the riverbank is vertical so a dock is essential. Once on land, we followed a narrow boardwalk past several frail benches to the lodge which seemed lavish compared to the Ant Lodge. There was separate room with a long counter that would serve as a kitchen and adjacent to that was a long rustic table that could seat about 12 people. Beyond the table was another tiny hut that we used as a changing room. But the best things about this lodge were the 6-8 hammocks hanging from the rafters of the thatch roof. And the floor was large enough so that all 23 of us could sleep in the same quarters. Off to the left, a boardwalk led to a pair of toilets in a stilted outhouse. There was no grass here and the yard was kept cleared of any debris including leaves. Apparently, a clean swept dirt yard is an indication of good housekeeping in the jungle.
A pair of scarlet macaws played while hanging upside down from a tree branch. Their wings flapped and spread. Scarlet barely describes the intensity of their feather color. During one of their upsidedown sparring matches, they both fell off and flew away. It was exciting to watch all this through my old binoculars. Some of the students hadn't brought along their binoculars so I shared mine. There is something almost mystical about crouching quietly amidst the forest, whispering directions, pointing out a bird far away throught the leaves and limbs, and sharing binoculars and the excitement of seeing an exotic wild bird in its natural setting.
We crossed a deep ravine over a felled tree that served as a bridge. A crude handrail was in place, made of wood lashed together with vines. We also saw the tree from which a thick alcoholic syrup is made by the Indians. In the old times, this drink was made by first chewing the branches and the spitting into a communal pot. This mixture of stems and saliva was allowed to ferment for several days to become alcoholic. Then this concoction, called chichi, was drunk voluntarily. This must be what you do when you have a lot of spare time in the jungle.
Like the rest of the houses in the village, the hut was built on stilts and the floor was planks of wood. Half of the structure is what we would call a covered porch with walls that extend halfway to the roof. The other half is open air, no windows. On one of these half walls, there was a row of rusted seats. In one corner of the porch was a propane tank with burners and many kitchen utensils. This was either a restaurant or this family's kitchen. The other half of the structure had complete walls with lockable doors. In that area, I could see a small room stocked with all sorts of dry groceries, some fruits, a few medicines, and loaded with Cokes and rums. The other room appeared to be living quarters with clothes and mattresses scattered haphazardly on the floor. A youngish woman retrieved the items from the shelves behind the counter as Alehandro made his selections. Two little girls played in the porch area, but one began to cry as her sister tried to fasten the sandal on her tiny foot. I stooped down to see what was the problem with the little sandal. It was missing part of the buckle and the older girl was insistent on trying to strap it on and in so doing was pinching the little foot. The older girl wiped away her sister's tears with her forearm, as if it were embarassing to cry in front of strangers. In Spanish, George asked their names. One was Paula, the other Cindy. I certainly was not expecting children who live in a remote Indian village to have such Anglicized names. It makes me sad in a way to see that not only is their native culture fading away under the influence of tourists but so are their traditional names, which lost for but one generation, may never reappear.
Once the other passenger boat arrived, we went a little further upstream to a shady sandy berm at the river=s edge for lunch of fried chicken and some sort of salad. I didn=t try the salad because there were rumors that it contained mayonaise and had been sitting in the sun on the front of the boat all morning. We also had Coke, watermelon slices, and everyone got an apple. We're interacting much more with the crew now even though the language is a great barrier. Ours in an energetic, cheerful group and Gustavo confides that the crew enjoys working for us. They enjoy our laughter, and on many occasions have laughed with us. Laughter is a commony currency of communication. Just last night as we were all in our mosquito nets and the pre-sleep chatter had diminished, we could hear the cook Patty fussing at someone, probably Alehandro her husband, and the whole dark hut erupted in laughter. We had laughed the previous late afternoon when the cargo boat arrived with Alehandro, Patty and the young woman who helps in the kitchen. Although Patty speaks no English, it was very obvious she was highly agitated that Alehandro had not kept one of the men on their boat to help cross the logs in the low water. After supper Alehandro recounted how on several occassions the two women were up to their necks in water trying to dislodge the canoe while Alehandro stayed dry on the boat to operate the motor. When one of the crew offered to assist her onto the dock at Playa de Cuyabeno, she slapped his hand, only semiseriously, as if to say "Why help now? Where were you when I really needed some help?" The message is universal.
During our swim in the cold river after lunch, I heard Brooks inquire about whether we should eat the apples they had just given us. He had already taken several bites before he remembered that you can get sick from eating fruits that had been washed in local water. Assuming the worst, he said "At least they'll know why we died!"
Rainforest indeed! Now I'm finally convinced that the name is appropriate. Sometime shortly after I went to bed, the rain started and it has rained constantly since. Not a drizzle, not occasional showers, but a loud continuous downpour accompanied for several hours by lightning and thunder strong enough to shake the floor and vibrate the bed. It's hard to accurately judge just how hard it is raining because a single raindrop can make many sounds as it splatters first on the leaves of the upper canopy and then drips layer by layer, leaf to leaf, downward through the forest before finally splashing onto the mud.
I slept poorly last night. I gave my pillow to Charlie who had none. I assumed it wouldn't really be a sacrifice because I had been resting my head very comfortably on a small sack filled with rolled clothes. However, the sack has become too small as I've removed clothes from it to wear, and worse, it has picked up a bad odor from having been crammed alongside muddy boots and smelly clothes in my big duffel bag. During the night, each time I pulled the sheet up to my chin to ward off the chill, there was a terrible odor that I assumed was coming from the sheets. I would push the sheet back down, preferring to be chilly than to constantly sniff the stench. I awakened several times, each time pulling up the sheet only to be repulsed by the odor. One time, I shifted to my side and drew my arm up over my head. The smell returned. The smell was coming from my T-shirt! and not the sheets. So I pulled up the sheets to get warm and made sure not to sleep with my arms above my head! An uncomfortable pillow plus the occasional whiff of stench from a sweaty T-shirt made for an unpleasant night.
Speaking of sheets: each morning that we were in the jungle, the crew would take down the mosquito nets, gather and fold all the sheets, and stack up the mattresses for the next canoe trip. Upon arrival at the next destination, mattresses were unloaded, sheets were installed on each mattress with no regard for whose sheets were whose. This was an aromatic experience even for me with a poor sense of smell. We had been swapping sheets from night to night. Given the situation, this didn't really bother us.
I took a break from my journal to shave with a dull razor using soap as shaving cream. The water for the bathrooms at Paradise Huts is drawn from a stream next to Cabin # 1 which is supposedly better water than the River. This creek water is pumped into a small water tower which provides gravity pressure. Coming out of the faucet, the water was the color of weak tea, and it had grains of sand. With the sink filled with water, the drain was not visible due to the cloudiness of the water. Nevertheless, it felt good to shave for the first time in 4-5 days.
There is no heat at this hotel, so when I drifted off to sleep at 12:30 while attempting to write about the visit with the Indian man, I nearly froze. I got up once to look for pajama bottoms but didn't find any. Back to bed....freeze....up again to put on socks, shorts, and a long sleeve shirt. From then on I slept OK until about 5:00 when I woke up with itchy butt cheeks. Surely there is hot water now, I dreamed, so I got up and tested the water. Great joy! Hot water! It's easy to get confused here because the knobs say F and C. C is for caliente which means hot, sometimes. Once I forgot this when I was in the shower and the water was amazingly too hot. I felt extravagant twirling round in the hot spray and was startled to think that most of the people we've seen so far on this trip may never have experienced a hot shower. Makes you stop and think, which for me, is the whole purpose of this trip.
3:18pm Just finished lunch at MP after a wild and slippery bus ride. No bus the size of ours has ever made it all the way to the Reserve because the road is so narrow, curvy, full of ruts, and crossed by several creeks. From Nanegalito, we turned right on a narrow road that ran high above a river, the Rio Sanguangal. For a while we rumbled along parallel to that river and eventually crossed it on a one lane bridge just wide enough for our bus. Along the way, we passed some trout ponds. Once across the river, the road narrowed and the terrain was rougher. Eventually we reached a small town about 1:30 pm, the time when children are released from school. They dispersed in all directions and at all speeds in their matching blue and white uniforms. Gustavo went inside a little market to inquire about the condition of the road from this point on up to the Reserve. At the market, he was told that the road was in bad condition. He finally described an option: to hire a pickup truck to carry our luggage to the lodge while we followed behind on foot. We were told that Elvis, the bus driver, had been instructed by his boss at the bus company to drive the bus no farther than this point, but Elvis wanted to tackle the road. It wasn't clear to me whether Elvis had ever driven this stretch of road before. It's hard to know if these two are telling the truth or simply generating mischief.
Since I had no intention of carrying Tia's new floral print pullman up this muddy road in the rain for who knows how far, I suggested that we hire the pickup to take the luggage and have Elvis ride along to evaluate whether the bus could make the trip. When Elvis returned in the truck, we would have our answer. Several students endorsed this plan, which was squelched when Gustavo announced that the pickup truck was not here and we would have to wait until it arrived. At this news, we were deflated but Elvis, in Spanish, convinced Gustavo that he wanted to go for it, and in turn, Gustavo polled the passengers, who by this time were thinking "It's not our bus, so Go Ahead!" which is what we did. Bad move!
It is still raining as we slide upward through the mud toward the waterfall. On the way, we meet six or seven of the guys who have just completed their visit to the cascade and excitedly tell of the beauty. Some of them went swimming in the natural pool at the base. J. Monte appears with his wide-brimmed adventurer's hat on, his shirt tied by the sleeves around his waste and his privates concealed in front by a huge green fig leaf. What a sight! I'm relieved that these guys have elected to venture out with such enthusiasm in this constant rain. The fellows continue past us toward the main lodge in anticipation of entertaining the girls with their attire and tales of their antics. Good!
How isolated we are here. No telephone, only a radio phone that is broken. There is a phone two miles down the road in Marianitas. No electricity except from a generator 6 pm to 10 pm. Talk about solitude and atmosphere. This place rivals the Asa Wright Nature Center in Trinidad for charm and birdwatching. Of the 10,000 species of birds worldwide, Ecuador has 3000. There are 52 species of tanagers alone here on the MP Reserve.
For the last hour, George, William (an avid birdwatcher guide) and I have been using binoculars and the spotting scope to see birds near the lodge. It started raining during lunch and now a steady rain is falling. All is very quiet now. Students aren't even talking. They're reading while lying in hammocks or sitting in the comfortable leather chairs. No one even acknowledges me as I move through the lodge with camera and tripod making pictures, trying but failing to capture an image that conveys the beauty of this place. All enjoy the peace and quiet- this is a sacred time. The rain continues, but unlike yesterday, our energy level is low and all of us savor the relaxation. No wonder Joe Colley so strongly recommended this place. It is nice to know that our tourism dollars are going to a worthy cause.
10:27 am. Just entering the northern outskirts of Quito. Matters are tense. The road is blocked with rocks and debris. Something has been burned in the street. Police in helmets are running about. Most cars are stopped, but one or two jump the curb and dart past the obstacles in the road. A tear gas bomb was tossed by a policeman and a cloud of smoke obscured the road. Flames appeared. Gustavo orders us to close the windows of the bus. The tear gas cloud blows past and Elvis advances the bus slowly beneath a bridge. Kids have bottles with wicks - Molotov cocktails - near the road. Police are wearing gas masks. Everyone in the bus is fully alert and many of the kids are standing in the aisle. We get past with no damage and stop for bathrooms at a gas station only a little ways past the riot. Twenty two tourists and two functional toilets, and now one non-functional tour bus. When I see Elvis' torso vanished inside a front fender and notice a trail of fluid along the pavement that stops beneath our bus, I am concerned. When I return to the bus, Elvis and our passenger are tightening the fuel filter with a makeshift wrench consisting of someone's leather belt. They appear unfazed as the engine cover is replaced and announce "Vaminos!" meaning "Let's go." So we do. We haven't had time to determine what the riot was about yet.
Back on the bus, we drove a very short distance to a little shop where a man made a flute of bamboo as we watched. He sat on the edge of a porch with a pile of bamboo on one side, a flute in his lap, and a utility knife in one hand. He would pick up a stick of bamboo, determine the proper length to cut off by comparing it to one of the flute tubes in his lap, and then cut a circle around the perimeter which would be snapped off. He then would blow into the tube and compare the pitch to that of the calibration flute. If necessary, he would remove a small portion from the most recently cut tube to achieve the desired sound. Each flute of this type consisted of 7 or 8 tubes held together by flat strips of bamboo and some colorful twine. He used sandpaper to smooth the parts that touch the lips, and after a quick trial to confirm the sound and smoothness, he played a pretty little tune on the freshly made instrument. We were sufficiently impressed and thought the show was over, but Gustavo asked us to move over to some benches under a little shelter where many different types of flutes from all over South America were displayed with labels on a wall. The man would pick up a flute, name its country of origin, and tell a bit about it in Spanish which Gustavo translated for us. Then, for each instrument, he would play a song that showcased the features of that particular flute.
The man summoned some people from the other part of the shop while Gustavo announced that the hosts were preparing to play three songs for us to wish us good fortune in Peguchi. The older man began on the guitar while two teenage boys played the charango and flutes. The one who played the flute also played a bass drum made from deer skins stretched over a hollow log. Two small children, too young to have learned to play an instrument, shook rattles to the beat. For the first song, one young man played the violin. They all sang several verses and the end of the peppy folk tune was followed by vigorous applause from our group. I was seated in the center of the floor and took advantage of this opportunity to photograph. Before the next song, muscians switched instruments and some flutes were replaced by other types of flutes. Another wonderful tune, and more cheers and applause, and another change of instruments. Three songs turned into about six, apparently because our emotional applause encouraged the group to entertain us. Because of their talent and the liveliness of the songs they played and sang, even the more reserved members of our group were swept into keeping the beat with tapping toes. And because our group was quick to reward each song with cheers and whistles, a snowball effect was created..... audience rewarding the performers, and performers rewarding the audience, each appreciative of the other, each contributing to the performance.
6:22 am. I awoke well rested from a troubling dream at 5:30 am. All is dark and still in the room and I did not want to disturb Anthony and George so I laid there, unable to go back to sleep. Finally, at about 5:50 am I got out of bed, collected my flashlight from my pants pocket and dressed as quietly as possible while they slept. Throughout the trip I have cupped one hand over the end of the flashlight so that as I=m moving about in the darkness, neither sound nor light will disturb my roommate. With my hand, I withhold all the light except just what I need to see to find my things. By 6:00 am I was outside the room in a dense fog that inundates the hotel and beyond. The light from many fixtures is snuffed out by the fog. Everything is gray, white, or black except the two tiny yellow taxis that chug into the parking lot. I have my journal under my arm but there is no dry place to sit and write so I stroll the cobblestone road out to the highway. Thousands of stones are embedded in dirt, each spaced about an inch from its neighbors, each isolated, but the whole forming a road, like men and women, separate, sometimes touching, irregular in size and shape, but loosely unified into a society.
Bird songs clash in the fog from all directions, certainly louder here than in the jungle or cloudforest preserve. Based on the variety and density of calls, the birds here must out-number those in the natural areas we've visited . Yet birdwatching would be impossible in the fog and only twice do I see the shadowy silhouettes of the songsters. A quiet morning walk this is not!
I stride on the cobblestone road bordered by tall trees and mortar walls on both sides. Beyond the wall, the tops of houses appear along with tassels of corn stalks in the thick gardens. A pig squeals nearby. In the States, a squealing pig near an upper class hotel would be an obvious incongruity, but in Ecuador I am no longer surprised by these proximities.
We reach the town square where the bus waits. We have a few minutes before departure time. Some of the students have finished shopping but others haven't arrived when I notice a Catholic Church with doors open to the square. I motion to Anthony, a Catholic student, to come with me to see the church. It is the largest building on the square and when we reach the doors, we see a Mass in progress. Since I am Catholic and Masses around the world are very similar, I feel comfortable stepping inside. I don't feel like an intruder at all.
What a zoo! The priest is reading from the book on the altar while men and women are chatting, shaking hands, and not paying attention at all. Most of the congregation is kneeling but a number of adults and children roam the aisles. I recognize that the Mass has reached the point of consecration of the host, that is the time when the Holy Spirit enters the bread and wine which will soon be shared with the congregation during communion. I've never seen such an unruly scene in a worship service. About this time, Gustavo points out that this is a wedding for an Otovalena Indian couple who are at the front of the sanctuary near the altar. It is now time for the bus to leave so I try to take mental pictures of the scene. There are many huge ornate and tacky shrines that line both sides of the church. Behind the altar are several gargantuan porcelain figures painted a variety of gaudy colors. Everthing looks dirty and worn. I'd love to spend an hour in here alone with a camera but that's impossible now.
As agreed to the night before, I got up quietly the next morning to take my shower before Anthony, but as I was backing away from the sink after brushing my teeth, my right heel landed on something crunchy. I caught myself before my full weight was on that bare foot, and glanced down to see something that looked like a huge spider. But wait - spiders don't have a long tail and a pair of claws. This is a scorpion! And I just stepped on him barefoot and somehow miraculously didn't get stung. He must have crawled up from the drain in the center of the tile bathroom floor. Thinking quickly how to capture him, I remember the drinking glass on the tank of the toilet. I trapped the scorpion under the glass and waited until after my shower to show-and-tell George and Anthony. What an exciting start to my Sunday.
The other wood carvings I examined carefully were the crucifixes. Some were simple rough branches. Others were smooth and polished. Some had carved figures of Jesus in raw wood. Others had painted Jesus. Even these came in two versions: gory or clean. The gory ones had bleeding wounds about the hands, ankles, brow, sides, and even the knees. Somehow I was drawn to the bleeding knees which was proof that the cross was heavy, the body was weak, and the event had been humiliating. The clean Jesuses elicited none of the sense of intensity of the pain and agony that was so much a part of the crucifixion. That is the part our society tends to gloss over or de-emphasize. There is no doubt that if I were to buy a crucifix, I'd get the gory one because they engender the greatest response from the viewer.
Ben asked what sort of large mammals live here and Gustavo answered "None" which all of us found hard to accept. There was plenty of low vegetation to eat and surely some organisms have evolved to exploit this resource. Besides, Ben and several others had seen large piles of scat during their hikes above the lakes. We reasoned that perhaps sheep or goats could live here and Ben scanned the opposite side of the crater with binoculars in search of large animals. He thinks he spotted two mountain goats, but the two white specks he saw on the distant ledge never moved over the 5-10 minutes we watched. Since patchs of white at other places on the crater rim were obviously rock, I don't accept that the two things Ben saw were goats. I looked very carefully through the binoculars but I couldn't resolve the forms to be goats. There is an important point here: Two people seeing the same thing make different interpretations, each one valid for that person. I suppose that's true for much of life.
According to Migel there are 18 islands and 40 "rocks" that comprise the Galapagos for a total of 8000 square kilometers. On San Cristobal where we are there is only one species of snake, a non-poisonous constrictor. There are also marine iguanas that we see on the rocks. These have long claws to hold fast to the rocks while they battle the surf and dive to eat algae. The males swim farther from shore and dive deeper to feed, leaving the nearer food for the less powerful females and young. Even though they are said to be "cold blooded" their body temperature can be higher than humans or birds, reaching 90-100F after basking in the sun for several hours. Once they dive, the body cools off quickly in the water which is now 21C.
January to June is the warm season in Galapagos and is the best time for reptiles to breed and lay their leathery eggs in the sand. However, because it remains warm here year round, the reptiles are capable of reproducing at any time of year.
El Nino had dramatic effects on the plants and animals of the Galapagos. Normally the rainy season is 4 months long but during El Nino it was rainy for 6-7 months. Plants on the islands that are normally limited by lack of water flourished, bloomed, and reproduced. There was bountiful food for terrestrial herbivores like lizards, snakes, and finches. Their populations expanded. Meanwhile, the ocean waters warmed to 29C, so warm that fish either left the area or swam deeper into cooler waters. As a result, the boobies and other birds that rely on diving for fish had to expend greater energy for capturing their food. They were forced to fly farther from their nests and dive deeper for the scarce fish. These additional stresses lead to more deaths as many individuals starved. Likewise, the population of sea lions crashed. In 1997 before El Nino, it was estimated that 80,000 to 100,000 sea lions lived in the Galapagos but after El Nino, Migel believes that only about half that number survive.
Now that El Nino has ended, there will be corrections in the populations. Land birds will suffer as vegetation dies off and the food supply diminishes. There will not be enough food to support all the individuals, many of which were born during the time of plenty. But it will be good news for the fish-eating birds and sea lions whose food supply will increase with the return of the fish.
The Hood mockingbirds are as bold as they are ugly. They skitter from person to person, stopping at each, hoping for a sip of water or a morsel to eat, much like the sparrows that thrived around the Hardees of my childhood searching for french fries.
There is a playground for sea lion pups on this island - a little lagoon formed by rocks. This lagoon is no more than a couple of feet deep. No waves invade this pool and no predators can easily enter from the bay side without notice of the big babysitting female that snoozes on the shore. Each of the 8-10 pups in the pool has a different mother. All were born about the same time, and all are playfully biting and chasing and wrestling each other. One of the more rambunctious ones even charges the shore and scares Michael into jumping back. Liz M. tosses her red cap on the white sand and one of the little fellows grabs it in his mouth and disappears into lagoon. Within a few minutes he comes near enough to the beach for Migel to snatch it from his jaws. This is a perfect place for little sea lions to grow and play in safety.
After seeing the fish, we haul back into the panga thinking we're on our way back to the Dorado but Migel wants us to see a shark and most of the students are anxious to see one. By the time we get to a large rock that juts above the water near the Dorado, the sun has almost dried us. But Migel slips out of the panga with the command for us to wait while he sees if there are any sharks in a cave he knows about just below. Within a minute he swims back toward the panga and motions us in with his hand, announcing that this will be the "first and last possibility on this trip" to see the white tipped shark. (Migel often bungles English phrases. Here he means to say simply "the only chance" to see this type of shark.) I have my fins and mask on in a flash even though I dread going back in the chilly water, but I'm sure I'll soon forget the cold while I shall long remember the shark, so in I go. I'm the first one in the water. More and more of the students gradually abandon the warm dryness of the panga as we excite them with the prospect of seeing a shark up close. In the end, all but two or three are treading water under the command of Migel who corrals us together. He tells us of the the plan. He will lead the way slowly up to the underwater cave. We are to drift along slowly behind. Then, he alone will dive down to drive the shark out from its dark home under the rock. All goes as planned but I'm still startled by the size of this shark. I'm at the far end of the rock, opposite Migel, so when the shark emerges, he's right under me maybe 5-6 feet away. In my excitement, it would be easy to exaggerate the dimensions of this shark, but until a more objective observer can be found, I'll say it was 5-6 feet long.
At 2:30 pm, we rode a bus to the highlands of Santa Cruz, stopping for a short excursion into a huge underground lava tube. Near the highest point in the center of the island, we view the twin craters formed by the collapse of the gas-filled rock. These craters are several hundred feet deep. From one, we can see northward to Baltra, Rabida, and Santiago Islands. Migel takes a series of group photos with this as the background. On the gravel road back to Puerto Ayorra something punctures one of the rear tires on the ratty little bus. As the tire rolls and the hole is blocked with every turn of the tire, it sounds like fssst, fssst, fssst, fssst until all the air leaks out. At this point, the girls engage in a singing concert, each trying to recall the words to obscure songs. Silliness reigns until we meet a funeral procession. A silver casket is carried from the road on the shoulders of pallbearers as a big crowd processes into a graveyard. This solemn scene silences the bus for a time.
I was leading the way when I saw four good sized sharks right in front of us. They were close! Real close! I slammed on the flipper brakes and yelled to George and the people on the panga. "Sharks!" Well that got their attention and shortly thereafter about six students joined us in the water in pursuit of the sharks. Galapagos white tipped, and the biggest about 5 feet long! Maybe there were six sharks. I don't know for sure. But there were enough! The stayed just ahead of us. We formed a line, silently trying to assure ourselves that sharks woudn't attack so many humans. We had something of the mentality that zebras in a herd must feel when confronted by a pack of lions. Safety in numbers, I hope. We followed the sharks for a good five minutes before they scattered.
thought the snorkeling had been cancelled but not so. Migel had seen people jumping off the boat and didn't disturb our
fun. I asked about snorkeling and
he said he'd be glad to take us so I made the announcement and a dingy load
quickly appeared. Who was game for
snorkeling? Karla, Ben, Emily W.,
Michael, Ann, George, and me. Migel
took us over to where sea lions had been frolicking beneath the big cliff
on Rabida and told us to get in the water.
I was a bit surprised that he was putting us in here, but he's the
pro so in I go. First one in again,
and boom! right under me there are four big sea lions wrestling not 10 feet
away. They pay me no attention and
zip all about. The rest of the kids
got into the water and all were amazed at how bold and friendly these sea
lions were. They'd swim right through
our group, twisting and turning and spinning.
Scared us, but we loved it. Somebody
saw another sea turtle and we chased it for 20 yards or so before it disappeared.
It was a real thrill to be around and between all these sea lions. Everybody was laughing and squealing, having so much fun. I snuck up behind Michael and gave him a fright
by pinching his ankle. Several times
I pulled on people's fins when they weren't looking.
Excitement! Excitement! A whale has been spotted off to the right of the boat. I dart out of my seat to the rail and after only a few seconds I see the blow. Amazing! Its too far away to tell more than that but it's definitely a whale. My first ever. Everybody is at the railing, searching the sea. Another blow, followed by screams of "Oh My God!" and "Woohoooo!" The whale is a bit closer now but swimming north toward Santiago. The captain orders the boat to turn in pursuit. The engines slowed, the turn was made directly into the glare of the sun on the waves. Another blow! More cheers. And then a long time between sightings. Finally the whale appears in a different location but much nearer. The boat turns again and we all get a few good looks at the dorsal fin. It's a big whale, probably a sperm whale. Even all the boat crew is watching and laughing at our excitement.
4:19 pm. I've just spent a very pleasant hour sitting at the bow point of the boat with my feet hanging off, the first to pierce the air as we push on toward San Cristobal dead ahead. The wind is so strong that I have to plug my right ear with my finger so I can hear myself hum. At first, I just toy with a melody, a string of notes that's pleasing. After a few minutes of experimentation, I've created a tune that I can hum over and over, now adding words as the thoughts come to mind. I'm happy to be here, but like the excited sailors in the pilot's room, I'll be happy to get back home. I think about all the boats that have criss-crossed these waters and all the waves that have formed. Yet minutes or hours later there is no trace, no trail, no evidence of their existence. Like people, like our ancestors. Those who came before us, struggled, lived, worked, begat, and disappeared into history, leaving no trace of themselves except perhaps a tombstone somewhere. But they left us, their great grandchildren, we who don't know them. They who don't know us. Yet linked to each other by life. And then I think of those who have lived and left their mark, recognized by history and remembered. Compared to the numbers who have ever lived, the memorable humans are miniscule. And of those unremembered, long forgotten, traceless now, what of them? Maybe it is good to have lived and left no trace, done no harm or damage, a worker ant in the colony. Maybe we all, sooner or later, consider our legacy and if, or how, we will be remembered. There seems to be something about human nature that makes us want to leave a mark. Maybe no more than initials carved into the bark of a tree. A name painted on a rock. A bronze plaque on a church pew. A scholarship, a stadium, a building in our name. Such is what some aspire to and fewer achieve. Is it noble to have such ambitions, such aspirations? Is it vanity? Or is it a longing to leave something of permanence in our wake. What will I leave? This, this journal with my thoughts and observations. Through this you can know me, as long as language exists.
Close to the island, I was alone on the veranda when I spotted some dolphin ahead of the boat. I hurried downstairs to notify the group. I led the charge to the bow, the others following. I pointed to where I'd last seen the dorsal fins and several of them reappeared! They were swimming to intercept the Dorado. We were running along at 6-7 knots to conserve fuel. Six dolphin converged in front of the bow and we screamed with delight. The water was almost a neon blue and the silver-gray skin of the dolphins shimmered beneath the surface. Their heads and fins were motionless. They used their tails to propel themselves but their tails were obscured by the white splash of water against the bow. Occasionally, they slipped to the surface for just an instant to exhale and inhale through the spiracle atop their head. Water streamed across the hole and it was an amazing miracle of coordination that the hole opened only when above water and the breath was taken so rapidly. Sometimes they would swim for a few seconds tilted so that one eye could spy up on those of us crowded over the bow railing. One by one, they peeled off the formation until only one was left. After a time, this one too disappeared into the blue. But we had our moment, a true joyride, not to be forgotten.
Why do they do this, I pondered. Each had swirl marks, carvings on their bodies, places where they had been sliced by propellers. Still, in spite of the scars, something attracted them to bowriding. What, I don't know but they are much like us in this respect - taking risks for some inexplicable thrill.
10:00 pm What a glorious day! The pinnacle of the trip! I made it to the Refuge House at 4800 meters on Cotopaxi Volcano, walking from the parking area at 4500 meters. Of the 22 people on the trip, 12 made it to the Refuge at the base of the snowcap. Compared to my last trip, the breathing was not as difficult but there was a strong cold wind blowing and sleet pelting us in the face. We began the walk at 1:01 pm and when I checked my watch at the Refuge, it was 1:35 pm. There was much cheering, high fiving, and hugging in the Refuge House. Gustavo had lead the group up the switchback trail with Emily W. and Farrow Counts right behind. We stopped only once, about a quarter of the way up the switchback, where we checked pulse rates. Everbody's was in the 140 beats per minute range, including mine at 144. I never stopped again, slowly plodding upward, one breath for every footfall of my right foot. Once, I passed Gustavo and the girls who paused to rest. They fell in behind me. It was exciting to be in the lead but after a few switchbacks, they short cut and got ahead of me. Emily and Farrow had no hats so their hair was wet from the sleet and their faces were the red of cold. I had on long cargo pants that were cold and wet from the sleet, a T-shirt, a longsleeve shirt I wear to work, and the Helly Hansen Raincoat with hood pulled over my Baja hat. I was wearing my sunglasses simply to keep the sleet out of my eyes, but there was no sun. My glasses got so covered with drops of water that I could barely see. The raincoat was soaked but it had kept my fanny pack with camera and lenses dry. I got plenty of pictures outside the Refuge at the sign indicating 4800 meters.
During a break, I walked to the rear of the bus where a policeman, Elvis, Gustavo, and another man were huddled around the right rear tires having an animated discussion in Spanish as to what to do. I recognized the little man as the painter who had tried so hard to sell us paintings at the park entrance many hours ago. He had joined the rescue party, perhaps hoping to earn a tip or by his efforts indebt us to buying his paintings. He slipped beneath the bus, shovel in hand, and began to dig a trench beneath and in front of the right rear tires which were barely touching the ground. Their plan became clear to me. They intended to dig a rut for the right side tires to drop into, thus restoring stability, and creating an escape path. It was a very good idea, but very dangerous. The trench got bigger and bigger as the Indian worked frantically, placing himself in greater danger with each shovel of dirt that he removed from beneath the tires. I grew more and more anxious that the bus would collapse prematurely into this trench and crush him to death. I tried to indicate that he be careful, but he seemed too intent on the task. Finally, from my vantage, the danger became too great for him to remain under the bus but he would not come out. So I grabbed him by his coat and pulled him out against his will. Even so, he kept stabbing the shovel at the dirt beneath the tires until it appeared as if the bus would collapse into the rut if only one grain were to slip.
Meanwhile, an arc of earth had been removed from the front of the bus so the front bumper would clear the bank. Elvis and Gustavo eyed the path and when they were fairly certain enough had been cleared, Elvis climbed aboard the tilted Tourismo, brought the diesel to life, and gently eased the beast into low gear. Sure enough, the slighted movement dropped the right rear tires into the rut, the bus shifted more toward a vertical position, and groaned around the sharp left turn to freedom. There was great relief as we scampered aboard to warm dry, vertical seats, and jostled down the mountain, having perhaps defied death yet again on this trip.
We headed east out of Banos on the main road to the jungle. For the first few miles, the road was paved, but then it became dirt and finally we were in the Pastaza River gorge and it was a one lane, cliff hanger with potholes and washouts. It reminded me of the Cullasaja Gorge in North Carolina except this road is much narrower, dirt, single laned, and goes for a long, long ways many hundreds of feet straight down to the river below. I like a good twisty cliff road, but this was about too much for me. When you hear reports of buses crashing and killing 30 people, well this could be it. Nobody survives if this road collapses. Yet this is the main road to the jungle and we meet many buses coming to Banos from the jungle. One bus has to pull to the side as far as possible while the other one slowly squeezes past. The road to the Machipicuna Lodge was bad but this was much worse for me.
We pass through a tunnel in the mountain but even the road in the tunnel is dirt. When we come out the other side, there is a sharp right turn onto a long, one lane, metal bridge.
The huge Turismo bus rocks side to side as we cross the uneven cement ruts. Fortunately, we had recently met a transfer truck coming from the jungle which means that if a transfer truck larger and heavier than our bus can make it through all the obstacles on this road, then surely the Tourismo bus can. At least I want to believe this. But I again have some doubts as we round a sharp curve and see a rockslide that nearly covers the road. When we get closer, I see two tracks weaving through the rubble. Elvis gets us through.
At the edge of the cliff, we see across the gorge a huge waterfall pouring off a ledge of land and splashing near the riverbed several hundred feet below. This waterfall is La Cascade Mante de la Novie which means "Bridal Veil." We're going to hike to the base of it but to get there we have to cross a swinging bridge over the river. The students are all charged up to get to the swinging bridge and Gustavo leads the way. George and I are the last to hit the trail. I stuffed two cameras into the fanny pack and grabbed my tripod.
Off we go, over the side of the cliff on a muddy, rocky foot path that zigzags down the cliff. Along the way, I stop to get a look at the waterfall and swinging bridge from various angles. I fall behind because I have to set up the tripod. It's bright enough so that I don't have to use it, but it helps me more carefully compose the shots. Our group got all the way to the swinging bridge before I made it half way down the switchback.
On my way down, I got passed by two Indian boys and their donkeys packing cargo. I am amazed that animals can walk this path but there is definate proof - piles of donkey poop. Its a narrow trail made more challenging by these used fuel bombs. By the time I get to swinging bridge, some of the kids have already seen the waterfall and are heading back up the cliff. Too bad. They'll just have to wait.
The waterfall is thunderous. It is obscured by trees and vines until a little clearing where the spray and mist boil into the air. Everything gets wet in less than a minute, including camera, lens, and tripod. Its so loud and wet I can't think clearly but I set up the tripod and camera for a shot. I have to wipe the wide angle lens a couple of times with a paper table napkin. Then, click, click, and I'm back on the mud trail, back to the swinging bridge, where I stop for another shot of the bridge and the kids who are colorful little specks marching up the switchback. Now its my time to negotiate the ascent, and because I know I'm the last one, I try to hurry, but this climb is the most strenuous of the entire trip, surpassing Cotopaxi and the Banos Virgin Shrine. My legs are burning and I can't get enough air. I have to stop several times to catch my breath. By the time I get to the top, I'm whipped. I can tell my face is red and I'm breathing hard. But nobody is concerned about my tardiness so its back on the bus for another 15-20 mile ride yet farther eastward to another waterfall called the "Devil's Pot." Gustavo says this waterfall we will like even more than Bridal Veil and that the walk is easier and shorter. We discover that it is not much easier and no shorter.
So here I am with about an hour left on this hour and 41 minute flight from Miami to Charlotte. Time to reflect on the trip.
This has been an excellent trip. Amazing, actually! And at times, almost death-defying. I feel as if I've written a small book. Maybe I have. I'm sure glad I've kept this journal to log daily activities and thoughts. I feel like I'm getting to be somewhat of an expert on Ecuador. I've been to more places in Ecuador than most Ecuadorians have ever visited. I know the names, locations, and specialties of a good number of cities and villages. And a trip to a poorer country always makes you more fully appreciate all of the many blessings we Americans take for granted. Everytime I travel to a place like this, it re-ignites my desire to travel to such places with Tia and the kids. I haven't changed Ecuador, but Ecuador has changed me.