Ecuador is breathtaking. Literally. Not only because of its beauty but in particular because of the high altitudes of the Andes. As an Austrian, Sarah should be used to mountains, but a 2000m peak is considered high where she comes from, and is likely a glacier with no trees or much life, other than tourists on skiers. The Andes are something else. Camping at 3700m was quite an experience for us and there are even much higher ones to come. The altitude made us loose our breath easily, and it was entertainingly hard to get a camp fire going with such little oxygen.
Setting up another camp somewhere near the Ecuadorian Andes. We love roaming around this continent.
We had to step it up a notch, to happily survive camping at such high altitudes and temperatures close to freezing.
Traveling through Ecuador, means crossing the Equator. Here we are at the Middle of the World. Divided into Southern and Northern Hemisphere. We were told, that the conventional maps, with the north pointed up, are completely arbitrary and that “north” originally meant “left/east”. Here at the Equator, they propose a corrected world map with the US pointed to the left. It is strange to rethink the world in these terms. Standing at “the middle of the world”, we were foolishly thinking that we had been driving “down” South for the past months. It is indeed hard to trick yourself into some sort of sense of direction on this floating sphere called planet earth…
However, true to our expectations, this ‘imaginary’ line did have some sort of a ‘physical’ effect on us. In the video below, Nikki, Jacob and the two of us are demonstrating the said effect.
On the other side of the equator, A.T. and his family generously welcomed us in their lovely new house. We were spoiled with the warmth of a family for nearly a week, planning our little Amazonian excursion on the east side of the country.
We would have rather met this animal alive, but it is still impressive to see to what dimensions a “small” Anaconda can reach. A.T. is a helicopter pilot and had a few interesting experiences flying over the Amazon for oil companies.
The fruit discovery adventure continues in Ecuador. Not sure about the correct names of these fruits but they are all very tasty.
From Quito, to Papallacta Hot Springs, to the San Rafael Waterfalls, we were slowly approaching the Amazon area and getting out of the high, freezing mountains.
Above is the infamous oil pipeline running through the Amazon forest, all the way to the Pacific Ocean. Ecuadorian Amazon is unfortunately rich in oil! The extraction of this oil has had terrible ecological and social consequences on the Oriente region. The land and rivers have been contaminated with multiple oil leaks and deliberate dumping. The food and water is considered unsafe to consume. Specifically, Chevron is claimed to have dumped 18 billion gallons of crude oil and waste in the region. What’s worse is that, based on the Rainforest Action Network‘s report, the dumping was done intentionally to cut corners and save $3 per barrel. In February 14, 2011, a court in Lago Agrio, Ecuador issued a historic ruling finding Chevron guilty and ordering the company to pay $18.2 billion to clean up its mess in Ecuador. The judgment is currently being appealed. You can follow up the issue on ChevronToxico.com.
Nature preservation and energy extraction issues have been a big discussion topic in Ecuador. Above is a photograph of the Chinese funded Coca-Codo Sinclair Hydroelectric Project. The project is under heavy criticism not only because of its inadequate planning and inflated design but also because of its effects on Ecuador’s biggest waterfall, San Rafael.
The beauty of this thundering piece of nature is awe inspiring. San Rafael is at the edge of the Ecuadorian Amazon forest. It feeds into the Napo river, one of the eight largest tributaries of the great Amazon. The dam is due to be completed in 2016. Below is a video showing the falls in their full potency before the dam starts holding back the water. It may all be history within one year.
It is not reasonable to have a constant negative reaction to all means of energy extraction, but some of these projects are really not well thought out in terms of their benefits and costs. Especially when the cost is nature itself. Corporations are not designed to take the environmental effects into calculation. Nature is an externality that can easily be taken for granted.
We do realize that these projects are in the end, fueled by our own consumption. Every time we pay for something, we are actually casting a vote. What’s difficult is to follow the trail of that money which requires an extra effort for awareness.
Back in 2007, Ecuador announced a strange global offer. They said they would stop digging for oil in the Amazon forest if the rest of the world helped them by donating half of the profit they’d be making otherwise. To many, it sounded like a threat. But if you consider that the oil is mostly being consumed by developed nations and the benefits of conserving the Amazon forest is global, it starts to make sense. What they were doing was simply admitting to their weakness in resisting the demand. They wanted to share the cost of resisting the global downfall as a nation. The Yasuni initiative as it was called, received pledges surpassing the demanded amount. Meaning that the world promised Ecuador to share the cost of leaving Amazon alone.
However, the money was not delivered on time and the president of Ecuador decided to allow the extraction claiming that “The world has failed” them! Despite the outcome, there are still some groups fighting the decision such as the Yasunidos.
A few miles shy of Lago Agrio, we came across these Amazonian mutts full of fleas and hungry bellies at a gas station. The inevitable happened. Please meet, Tara (Tarantula) Pippilotta Gasolina Jr.!
The mother seemed to be overwhelmed with the puppies and she had stopped breastfeeding them a while ago. They were all wondering around the cars filling up at the station. One of the babies had died recently in an accident. We first decided to cook a filling meal for them. They all devoured the pasta like piranhas attacking a prey. Among the other babies, one seemed to be interested in us the most. We felt a strong warmth towards this particular girl who had been playing with a dead tarantula. The question of sharing our adventure and life with a dog became solidified when the young boy attending the station shop asked us if we wanted to keep her. It was a big question we had been afraid to ask ourselves, but had to answer now. And the answer became obvious the more we looked at her face. We gave her a good bath in the bathroom sink and removed all the lice, fleas and ticks. Driving off with her, we still couldn’t believe what had happened. We now had committed to a big change in how we traveled and lived. Things would need to be rearranged. Happily so!
We had Tara vaccinated and protected against parasites at a veterinarian in Coca. Our first night with her was in Kirsten’s backyard. Kirsten is a German expat who settled down in northern Ecuador and married a Kechwa Indian. They’re running jungle tours together and have two lovely kids playing around in the forest all day long. It was admiring to watch her deal with the kids, the ants, the fruits and the monkeys at the far edge of the town bordering the jungle.
The little one brought us different fruits each day!
Even toys look mean and rough out here.
We followed the Napo river down south-west towards Tena on a road that did not appear on any maps. We were relieved about the availability of a graded gravel road through the jungle, while at the same time observing the not so relieving changes in the nature around.
We’ve used our vehicle recovery winch a dozen of times but never to recover our own vehicle. Nevertheless, we’re happy to gain bonus karma points along the way and meeting new people. The driver of this overloaded truck got stuck on a little stream. After pulling him out, we realized in shock that the truck was full of heavy furniture and people. No wonder our Tacoma was almost being dragged down.
This little baby girl likes to sleep. She is Amazonian. Heavy downpour and thunder sound like a sweat lullaby to her.
We camped a few miles before Misahuali on a Canoe Launch near the river. The canoe launches are like bus stops here. The rivers are still more prominent highways connecting the villages and lodges in the area.
The first few nights with Tara were difficult. Being used to sleeping with her siblings, until now, she had to face the difficulty of sleeping alone in the den we arranged at the truck bed while we were on the bed upstairs. She frequently woke up into the fear of having fallen apart from the pack. We tried to make it as easy as possible, climbing down and petting her back to sleep.
We do understand that the panic she’s experiencing is a very real one. We are there for her, but she doesn’t know that yet.
Misahuali is a small town and a gathering place for the locals along the river wanting to trade their goods. The town center is famous for its Capuchin monkeys. They steal fruits, harass tourist pets and do all other sorts of unspeakable things!
These larva live in the decaying trunks of the palm trees and are a local delicacy in Ecuador’s Amazon region. They can be eaten raw or cooked depending on your taste preferences. We did eat three of them, but not on camera. Just casually on a lunch table at a family’s house, cooked inside a leaf. They taste OK… Certainly better than what they look like. A bit like fatty pork chops, but I don’t think we’ll be craving them later.
Most of these rain forest fruits taste sweet. Some have a cotton candy texture. A few are fatty and bitter like a sour chestnut. They were all very new to us.
Spontaneously, we found ourselves in a small village during the time of Ecuador’s Carnival where everyone goes crazy with water, paint and foam sprays. We had our share to say the least.
Some of the Huaorani communities living in the jungle do not prefer to be contacted by outsiders. They are rightfully very sensitive about their territories living under the shade and threat of the big oil companies. We wanted to visit a local village in the forest but didn’t want to interrupt anyone’s privacy. So we contacted a community that runs an ecotourism program with the Kechuan village at Rio Blanco.
The community at Rio Blanco is far away from any orientalist expectations. There is electricity, a road, a school and community buildings built with modern techniques. Farming areas are threatening the primary forest and the population depends on outside support. That’s why ecotourism is seen as a possible alternative to growing cash-crops.
We learned about Yucca farming and the making of the Chicha drink. Yucca takes about 6 months to mature. Although it is hard work, farming seems fairly easy with a large yield. The plant grows from sticks cut from older plants. While working on the field, mosquitoes are held at bay with the smoke from burning termite nests. The harvested, pealed, and washed Yucca roots are boiled for several hours, creating a starchy base for a nutritious drink that can also be fermented.
We had several hikes in the forest with the guidance of Henry, the family’s son.
The Ceibo is not only a spiritually significant tree, but also the biggest one in the forest. We could only fit the roots in the camera.
Even the roots of this giant tree rise vertically like the walls of an ancient temple.
Erdem thought the rain forest needs to be cleaned up a bit so he rolled a long liane into a tidy stock.
The deforestation in Rio Blanco and the Amazon in general is very real and happening. This field has been cleared for cacao farming.
Ceiba, the young daughter of the family caught some shrimps to use as baits for a small fishing attempt.
Considering that the fish Erdem caught is slightly larger than the shrimp, it was a successful hunt! At least Tara won’t be hungry tonight.
We watched Mama Ines and her husband create things using only the plants in the forest. It was fascinating to see their know-how and resourcefulness at work.
Mama Ines collects leaves and turns them into beautiful strings. She uses these strings in daily life, but also to make clothing and jewelry.
Henry demonstrated how the community used to set traps in the forest to catch animals in the past. The traps in the video below are smaller models of the actual ones.
We hiked once again into the forest following the river that gave the village its name.
The jungle had become so dense, that Henry was occasionally carving tunnels with his machete!
Being only a month and a week old, Tara gets tired quickly in these difficult hikes. But she’s doing great and building strong muscles with an unsatisfiable appetite and exercise.
Our last experience in the village was a shaman guided Ayahuasca ceremony. Ayahuasca is an ivy-like plant with a thick stem. The potent tea made by boiling this and a few other specific leaves is used as a Shamanic medicine capable of creating an altered state of mind. It can have some strong side effects on first time users so we were administered very small doses by the shaman as an introduction. The effects were very mild and certainly not life-changing, but it was nevertheless an unforgettable experience.
As emotional as this photograph may appear, the tears in Sarah’s eyes are only caused by Mama Ines’ eye cleaning recipe of tobacco juice. We loved this little woman very much! We already miss her voice and the great food she cooked.
We’ve been in Ecuador for a month now and we’ve only been to the eastern Amazon region. Our lives may not have been changed by shamanic medicines but certainly with a puppy we found in a gas station. We don’t know what’s next… and we like it this way.