Two weeks ago we spent a week in the Ecuadorian Amazon as our final group excursion. Before the trip I wasn’t particularly enthusiastic about spending time in the jungle, mostly because I had no idea what was truly in store for me. Our time in “el oriente”, as Ecuadorians call it, was incredible and was more than I could have expected. We flew to Coca, a petroleum boomtown on the amazon basin that was essentially built by the oil industry and is sustained by them as well. In order to travel to our next destinations we were transported by Héctor, our guide, in a massive motorized canoe. We traveled down the Napo River over its white waters, and its beauty only then hit me. The river is about 200 meters wide at some points, and lush green primary forests line its banks.
Our first stop was on “Isla de los monos”, an island that Héctor bought years ago to develop a program to help repopulate monkey species and take in black-market stolen monkeys that were intended to be pets. The organization that he runs is called “Sumak Allpa” and it also works with local communities to improve education and also to help give them a form of representation with the oil companies. The most interesting experience from this island was when Héctor showed us his garden filled with herbs and plants that indigenous people use for natural remedies. I was standing in the garden when I heard Héctor say something and then, “…who wants to volunteer?” Having learned over the years that offering to be a volunteer, regardless the task, is always a good decision – I said yes even though I hadn’t heard the preceding description of what I was getting myself into. I walked over to our professor Javier, who was holding an ominous nettle plant. “Ok put your hands on the tree and pull up the back of your shirt.” ….At this point I was seriously questioning my decision. “This might sting a little!” He then started hitting the stinging nettle leaves across my back and he was right, it did sting quite a bit. The part I had missed was that indigenous people use this plant when they have sore muscles because chemicals from the nettles are released in your back and it creates a sort of numbing/tingling feeling. The stinging went away very quickly and it did feel relaxing but what it left behind was quite unpleasant- my entire back was bright red and bumpy.
We then took the canoe to Limoncocha, a reserve located off of the Napa where we stayed for 4 days in their local community built lodge. This community has recently put efforts towards ecotourism as a source of income. This reserve is truly special with an incredibly high biodiversity and a welcoming community. During our time here we went on many bird watching transects where we saw macaws, “stinky turkeys”, purple gallinules, parrots, and even some troops of pygmy marmosets. The Limoncocha Lagoon was a highlight for due to our time night watching for Black Caimans (we saw a 15 footer!), and especially the magic that was the larvae of lighting bugs. We were floating through the lagoon in pitch dark when Héctor told us to turn off our headlamps: what we were left with was thousands of glowing white dots of larvae in the marsh- you couldn’t tell where they ended and where the stars began.
Another highlight of Limoncocha was spending time with the children from the community. Dev, Lauren and I decided to spend our free time before lunch playing with the kids on the playground and I had no idea what was in store! We seesawed with little girls, played ‘house’ (I was mama and was frequently told “¡mama dame plata! Or mom give me money!” At one point I was sure if I was going to suffocate due to 5 children hanging off of my neck competing for piggyback rides. Such an overwhelming and fun experience! The children in this community acted as a family of their own and I couldn’t tell who was related because of how they helped and treated each other equally and with love.
While on this island we also took the “toxic tour” which was a tour of the local petroleum operation within an indigenous community. In many cases homes are located directly across from wastewater tanks, smokestacks burning off excess gas, or processing plants. Ecuador as a unique policy that you can have property rights above ground, but whatever is below ground belongs to the government thereby allowing them to extract whatever they want wherever they want. We visited one house that is located directly across from an old oil well- during rain storms years ago the oil flowed across the road, into their front yard and down into their back yard/stream. Among the cocoa crops and pecking chickens in their front yard were piles of crude oil feeding into the soil. In the backyard stream you could still see the tint of chemicals in the water that they use for fish farming, all from a spill close to 20 years ago. The only compensation that this family was awarded by the oil company Texac/Chevron was an addition to their house with a washing machine- equal tradeoff? I don’t think so.
We also visited a community called Lomo del Tigre where we had the opportunity to talk with locals about the effects they experience from the petroleum industry’s infiltration on their lives. One man shared with me that a 17-year-old girl was just diagnosed with cancer, children frequently have skin fungus due to swimming in contaminated waters, and people are sick at least every two weeks. Through all of this they have received no compensation from the oil companies and the government gives them little to no representation.
Another highlight from the trip was hiking and camping in Yasuni national park – the most bio diverse place on earth. There are more species of trees in this small park, which is around the size of the state of Delaware, than there are in all of North America. On one hike our guide Héctor tracked a herd of Peccaries and we got to see 400 wild pig-like animals run only meters away from us, which was incredible.
We then went to Pañacocha, a small-untouched region off of the Napa. We stayed in a beautiful lodge that we had all to ourselves, and did mist-netting for bats (we caught two!), a night hike where we saw dozens of wandering spiders, tarantulas, a baby dwarf Caiman (alligator), and some incredible insects. We also went fishing for barracudas, swam in the black waters lake, and did a 2 hour “solo” in the jungle where you are left on a trail alone to reflect on everything around you and have a rare moment of peace and solidarity. Apparently it is tradition to do the amazon solo naked except with your rubber boots on- so everything participated! I was heavily doused in bug spray because the mosquitos were out for blood but this was one of the more unique experiences of our trip to el oriente.
It is impossible to express how unique this experience was and how much I appreciate being able to spend a week full of cultural and ecological ‘interactive learning’.