- Tales from Ecuador 1977-78
One of the unique attractions of South America is the vast Amazonian rainforest. While in Ecuador, we wanted to visit the headwaters of this area that lay within its borders, and temper the visions of our imaginations with the wet, green reality. The area of the Amazon claimed by Ecuador is much larger than that ceded to it on recent maps. There has been a lot of tension between Peru and Ecuador over whose right it is to control the Amazon area, particularly since there are rumors of vast amounts of oil stockpiled underground by a nature rudely oblivious to national boundaries. Ecuador claimed its Amazonian territory to the Rio Marañon through a treaty with Peru in 1830. Peru wasn’t ever very happy with the arrangement, and in 1942, after some hostilities between the two countries, Ecuador’s claim was cut in half. This didn’t solve the problem, but it did give Peru internationally recognized control over a vast area of the Amazon, including most navigable sections of the major rivers. Ecuador still feels that this area is her’s by historical precedent. This precedent refers to the journey of Francisco de Orellana, one of Pizarro’s lieutenants, who left Quito in the Andes of what is now Ecuador in 1541, and ended up, to his surprise, in the Atlantic Ocean.
Our journey to the Oriente occupied many hours of planning and speculation. One of our objectives, besides that of experiencing the country, was the selfish one of obtaining a large bird for a pet. We planned to get it at the source of supply. Now I realize that my fondness for birds is better expressed in observation than in possession.
We decided to make the journey to the Rio Napa by bus, as plane travel was more expensive and loosely scheduled. We had gotten pretty experienced in packing for our cross country travels. The only thing we needed to add to our basic supplies was our anti-malaria pills. We set out early one March morning in order to be in Cuenca by 10 am and to board our bus for the first leg of the trip. There were very few people on the bus. Perhaps others had had a premonition of mechanical disaster. It soon became obvious that the bus was in need of adjustment. After leaving the town of Azogues, the road started climbing over the mountains. The motor was so ill that we were lucky to be doing 10 mph up any incline. The driver or his assistant would occasionally raise the hood on the engine, which was inside the bus, and try to fix the problem. The roar of the engine reverberated through the bus like the inside of a snare drum during the Star Spangled Banner. It might have occurred to us that this bus was an inauspicious beginning for our long awaited journey to the Oriente.
Our bus finally reached its zenith, and now it was all downhill as gravity supplied the power that the engine was incapable of. We flew from the barren and windy reaches of the Andes pass when the road was good and straight, or crawled around a series of hairpin turns and switchbacks when it wasn’t. Sometimes we were forced to gingerly pick our way over stretches of road that had recently succumbed to the pull of deep chasms and valleys, and left us at the mercy of bulldozers and graders. Occasionally our bus would pass through pockets of tropical vegetation, where a wooden house or two stood among the waving fronds of isolated banana ferns; and then it was gone like a mirage, and the former mountain plants returned. One time we halted when the tandem tires of one side of the rear of the bus conspired to go flat at the same time. The few passengers on board disembarked while repairs were made, and moved quickly to keep from being crushed when the single spare tire was rolled off the top of the bus and went bounding down the road, where someone managed to give it a kick and knock it disgruntled to the ground. Here we became somewhat better acquainted with one of our fellow travelers. He was a young man from Libya, very aggressive and rather disdainful of the general run of Ecuadorians. This bus trip obviously brought confirmation to his visions of grand ineptitude. He’d been working for a large company in the United States, a country better suited to his impatience, but was now engaged in seeking some relative in Quito who might help him to cash a reputably sizeable check. Sometimes traveler’s tales are hard to take seriously. The man was voluble and his tongue had a particularly critical edge to it.
With our bus mobile once again, but still short on power, we continued down the road to the beginnings of the tropics, the hot and humid district of La Troncal. It was about 4pm when we passed through the town of the same name. The road was laid between wooden buildings, some on stilts. On a previous bus excursion, we had stopped here for a meal in an open-air restaurant, and I expected the driver to pause this time as it was about the dinner hour. But maybe he was trying to make up for lost time on this level stretch of road, for he didn’t pause for an instant. This strategy didn’t work, however. The engine became fed up at this obvious disregard for its ailments, and it banged itself to a standstill a short way out of La Troncal. There were only five passengers left on board by this time, plus the driver and his assistant. The driver decided to find a phone to report the bus’ predicament, while we passengers got out to sit by the roadside. Our vehicle had stalled amidst fields of sugar cane, and we sat in the shade of the bus and watched the seven foot high stalks waving in the afternoon sun. The Libyan soon became disgusted with the delay, and the last we saw of him was his back as he headed for Quito on foot, pushing his luggage down the road on his two-wheeled porto-valet. There were two other passengers besides ourselves. One was an Ecuadorian woman, the other a young man from Czechoslavakia, and it was with the Czech that we passed the time trading traveling tales. The driver returned in several hours and reported that he’d failed to contact the bus company, which was quite understandable. The Ecuadorian phone system, when one could find a phone, operated rather poorly over any distance. As to our rescue, the next company bus was due to pass by at 8:30pm.
We and our Czech friend decided to walk back to La Troncal for food and drink, but were lucky enough to get a ride “gratis” from a man in a pick-up truck. We were pleasantly surprised, because the Ecuadorians we’d encountered usually weren’t shy about setting a price for a lift. We had dinner and beer in a restaurant, and it was quite dark as we walked back down the road to the bus for our 8:30 date. Fireflies flitted in the sugar cane by the road, and the humid air was filled with the whir of delicate wings.
When we reached our traffic hazard-of-a-bus, it was still half-on and half-off the dark road, and with no lights showing. At about 8:30, the next bus rolled by without slowing a whit. I, the now impatient gringo, rather wanted to move on, and was a little disgusted that the driver and his assistant did nothing but catch up on their sleep. I got out and tried to flag down another bus. It started raining lightly, and the mosquitoes were treated to some American cooking. My efforts were mostly in vain. The first bus to heed my signal was another vehicle of the same company that knew we were there. We and our luggage were gratefully loaded aboard. It was about 10pm now, and we didn’t like the idea of stopping in a strange town late at night and searching for lodging. We abandoned our original day’s goal of Riobamba, and decided to get off in Ambato, which we did at about four in the morning. It was cool out, and we were somewhat disoriented by the hour and the bus trip. We discovered that there was a car to our next destination, Tena, leaving at 4:30. What luck! Not only that, but we encountered someone with a thermos selling tinto, the Ecuadorian equivalent of hot coffee. Things were looking up. Until Peggy asked me where my camera bag was. Oh yeah. I knew exactly where it was. It was under the seat on the bus and headed for Quito. Rather frantically we searched for a taxi, and found one who would hire out as a bus-chaser. We told the driver that it had only been fifteen minutes since we stepped off the bus. However, by the time we’d stopped two identical buses, and finally recovered the cameras from under the seat of the second, we were closer to Quito than Ambato, and wishing that we were home in bed. The rising sun was turning the darkness to dawn as we returned to Ambato and steered to the bus terminal.
At 7:15 that morning we left for Tena in a small bus. It was a long and hot trip, and we abandoned the bus about seven kilometers outside of Tena. There we had expected to begin a journey downriver by boat. We were standing at a small crossroads near a ridge by a river. Nearby there was a small wooden building that advertised itself as a café. Often when we walked into one of these cafes, we felt as if we were entering someone’s house, and it was a little odd to ask the occupants “What’s to eat?”. We obtained an excellent meal there, and talked to another customer, an engineer working on a hydroelectric project nearby. He advised us that the river had changed course a few years previously, and that boat traffic was no longer possible there due to a new set of rapids. He told us to continue by car downriver to Misahualli. Outside again, we found a car to take us the rest of the way to Tena where we planned to spend the night.
At about 1pm we arrived in Tena. We probably checked every residential in town, about five of them, before we decided on the Hotel Danubio. None of them was particularly alluring. The Danubio was an old wooden building with screens on the windows, and a sink down the hall. We were on the second floor and there was a cock fighting ring downstairs, but fortunately the cocks only got feisty on Sundays, and we wanted to sleep. The buildings in Tena were all made of wood, and the streets were quite dusty. It reminded us of our home in Gualaceo in that there was no water coming out of the taps during the day. We failed to locate any fresh produce in town. We were too tired to appreciate Tena’s mysteries, so we went back to our residencial to sleep. It rained during the early morning hours, our first acquaintance with a weather pattern that repeated itself regularly during our stay in the Oriente.
In the morning we looked on Tena with fresh eyes, and it still seemed somewhat pitiful. The town’s park was short on shade trees, but had many colorful flowering plants: vivid cosmos, crotons, caladiums, iris, gladiolas, hibiscus, and some palms. There was an old mission building in town whose relatively flamboyant colors and architecture made it stand out from the typical Tena building. The mission structure was complemented by an attempt at a garden in its front yard. Nearby was the local “colegio tecnico” with many young men milling about in their “colegio tecnico” T-shirts. We were inspired to make our move downriver, and searched out the bus to take us on the 1.25 hour journey to Misahualli. There river traffic commenced, and, with time for traveling, one may begin the watery odyssey that could continue through Peru and Brazil to the Atlantic. Many people left the bus along the way to proceed on foot to their homes in the thickly vegetated country. We got off in a grassy field in the center of Misahualli. It was an overcast day, and the air was thick and warm. The few wooden buildings that formed the nucleous of the hamlet were gathered on three sides of this field with its attendant volleyball court. These buildings housed the only two residencials in town, several stores and bars, and Fluvialtours, Inc.
We took our packs and sat down in the office of Fluvialtours to get some information. This organization sent canoes downriver and sponsored packaged boat/hiking tours into the forest, where you might visit a “primitive” Auca Indian village. There was a binder in the office where some customers had written their impressions of their trips, and we decided that hiking with a pack through the rain forest would have to wait until some other time.
We checked into one of the residencials, and were given a room on the second floor with windows looking out over the field. There was a balcony with chairs where we could sit and gaze on the town while soaking up the humid heat and perspiring it back out again. We immediately set out to explore the community, which only took a few minutes. As we walked down towards the river we passed several stores, and another residencial and bar. This was an older building than ours, and was further distinguished by a monkey tied to the verandah with a rope. He amused himself by hiding under the porch, and jumping out at the people who walked by. It was a short walk to the river. The main body of the Rio Napo flowed by on our right, while the smaller Rio Misahualli came down to join it from the left. There was a sandy beach at their confluence, with several large trees providing plenty of shade.
Perched along the beach were a number of dugout canoes in repose. The smaller ones retained their natural brown color, and sat low in the water. These averaged about twelve feet long, and were used by the inhabitants along the waterways for transportation and cargo. The usual method of locomotion was by carved wooden paddles, or poling along the river bottom. Another class of dugouts, averaging about thirty-five feet long, comprised the mainstay for transport in this section of the river. These canoes had more freeboard, more space for cargo and passengers, and were powered by large outboard motors. These were often painted colorfully in flowing, snakelike designs.
The water along the beach was clear and cool, and the current was swift, but the swimming and bathing was pleasant, although the fishing wasn’t very good. The late afternoon ambience was enlivened by the appearance of small biting flies which invited one to spend more time either in the river or away from the beach.
We put on our rubber boots and ventured forth into the country away from the town. It was very thickly overgrown, but for the path, which was often blocked by fallen, rotting trees. The humid air was weighty with the odor of decaying vegetation, and we were amazed by the vast variety and colors of the fungus. We met an Indian family coming along the path: the trousered, bare-shouldered man, his two young sons - one of whom stopped to politely greet us and shake hands - and the woman in a white cotton dress and straight black hair carrying a small child in a sling on her hip. We got the impression that these Aucas spoke very little Spanish, the men speaking the majority of it. As we walked, the coolness of the jungle was a pleasant refuge from the sun and heat of the open areas. We could hear birds all around us, but they were very difficult to see through the growth. We believed this to be the rainy season, but the river was low from the lack of it, and our walk was free of the mud that we’d slogged through on a previous journey to Sucúa.
We had dinner that evening in the residencial, which provided a particularly uninspired meal. The menu consisted of fried eggs tinged with a fishy accent, and complimented by canned spaghetti over rice. The chef was a master of understatement. After dark we went and sat by the river. Fireflies flashed their lights along the beach, and bats flew acrobatics as they chased the multitude of flying insects. We could hear the calls of the insects, frogs, and nightbirds even over the roar of a generator that provided the town’s electricity from 6-9 in the evening.
After the early morning rain and some breakfast, we decided to take a walk along the other side of the Napo. We went down to the beach and were discovered by a couple of young boys in command of a dugout who offered to paddle us across. We spent several hours walking amid the towering plants and over the stones of a dry watercourse. We passed several houses built in the typical mode of this part of the country. They were perched on stilts and a stairway or notched log provided access to the bamboo floor. The main timbers were a sturdy wood, while the walls and partitions were bamboo. A thick thatch kept the rain and sun in abeyance. Walking by a small school, we could hear the voices of children reciting their lessons in a ragged unison.
Most of the time the jungle vegetation was either a thick jumbled greenery, or a lighter shade of green consisting of stands of bamboo about twenty feet high. The bamboo had often been burnt around the base in some attempt at control. From behind this green screen we could sometimes hear the chickens and cattle that foraged in unseen yards. Once again we heard many more birds than we could see. One rabbit made our hasty acquaintance on the trail while being pursued by a small dog that, being preoccupied, neglected to bark at us. We kept our eyes open for the legendary jungle snake, but only saw a couple that rapidly vanished into the foliage. Insects were legion with those similar to crickets and grasshoppers predominating, and in all combinations of colors. Numbers of moths and butterflies floated through the air. We often saw lines of red or black ants, many of them of the leaf-cutting variety carrying their ragged green sails wobbling high above them. The sky was heavy with gray clouds by the time we’d returned to the riverbank. The same young men who’d ferried us across returned to take us back, and minutes after we’d entered the residencial, a heavy rain broke loose on the town.
We spent much of the afternoon sitting in chairs on the balcony. We talked to a German man who’d just returned from a tour to an Auca village. His tough hike had been rewarded with the opportunity to barter for a necklace of boar’s teeth and partake of a monkey stew. Lucky man! Our residencial was a popular one for the Germans. Before the day was out there were five of them staying there. The new arrivals were gearing up for a similar hike to see the Aucas. The Aucas, by the way, were rumored to be former headhunters, and still did not live on easy terms with the encroaching population of new residents and occasional tourists. They had recently killed several petroleum workers who had ignored the warning of crossed spears to stay out of the area. They went somewhat easier on the tourists, occasionally ransacking a pack for edible items.
We were eager to begin our journey downriver, but we had no idea where we wanted to go. On the door of a government building was a canoe schedule and a list of possible stops. The canoes ranged from Misahualli to Coca, also know as Puerto Francisco de Orellana. We thought Santa Rosa, about the fifth name on the list and 1.25 hours downstream sounded good, so we made that our destination. Fluvialtours was preparing to leave with a tour, and they said we could ride to Santa Rosa with them. After some quick packing, hurry-up-and-waiting, and general confusion, they left without us. We resigned ourselves to the regularly scheduled 11:30am canoe out of town. It was always a challenge to be in the right place at the right time when attempting to board any means of transport, plane, train, bus or canoe. Our linguistic duels with the natives often yielded ambiguous results. In this case, we hung around the beach, and zeroed-in on the canoe that attracted the most activity. Our dug-out was one of the large, luxury models. There were wooden slats across the bottom toward the front, and any cargo was placed there and covered with plastic sheets and canvas tarps. Small wooden benches were set crossways down the middle, and there was enough room for two people to sit side-by-side. In such a position, the top edge of the canoe reached just below the shoulders. This particular morning there were about twelve passengers aboard. When we were all settled, the driver and his assistant maneuvered the canoe away from the beach and started the motor; but before we began, several people came running to the beach, yelling and gesturing. The craft was returned to the shore for a late-comer who scrambled over us to be seated aft. Then we were on our way.
The clouds were low as we ran downstream. The jungle-covered hills to our right and left were obscured by mist and rain. The river narrowed in some places, and the current hastened as it passed by the jungle that crept to the water’s edge. One was tempted to have pity on Francisco de Orellana as he poled this river on rafts 400 years earlier, a novel target for native spears, darts, and arrows. The driver’s assistant perched on the canoe’s prow, directing our course away from navigation hazards, such as large floating trees, and poling the shallows where the swiftly-moving waters resembled a small choppy sea. The gray clouds gave in and released their heavy burden of water. Long sheets of plastic were passed along to hold over our heads, but we managed to get pretty wet anyway. Peeking under the plastic at the shore, we could sometimes glimpse ridge after jungled ridge marching into the mysterious distance. When the rain abated, we laid aside our tarp and let the wind blow through our hair. Suddenly, the assistant turned to us and questioned “Santa Rose?”. We said “Si”, so the canoe was pulled to the bank and we were unloaded. One of our fellow passengers, an Indian, took the opportunity to inquire if we were interested in buying “cuerpo de tigre”. “No, gracias”, we said. Traffic in illegal birds, rather than illegal pelts, was more our line.
We were standing at the bottom of an embankment about 100 feet high, and all around was brush and jungle and river. There was a series of steps leading up the embankment to a rather modern looking hotel. Descending the stairway was a woman to greet us. It wasn’t quite what we’d had in mind, but the woman was already shouldering Peggy’s pack, and motioning us upstairs. We had unknowingly arrived at the Jaguar Hotel, which we’d seen signs for before we’d even reached the river. It was comfortably built with lots of wood appointments and a beautiful view downriver from large picture windows in the dining and lounge area. Behind this main building were perhaps a dozen guest rooms. Being on a limited budget and having brought our own food, we managed to negotiate staying the night at ½ price. We were the only customers. The other occupants were the woman who owned the hotel, the housekeeper and cook who had met us at the river, and the housekeeper’s two children, a young boy about ten years old and a baby. We were shown to our room, which was one of the nicest we’d stayed in at any motel or hotel in the United States, and inconceivable to an habitué of the common Ecuadorian residencial. There was even a shower with hot water.
In a courtyard outside the front door were two cages. One held two brightly colored and aggressive macaws who would have appreciated the opportunity to allay their boredom by snatching a finger poked through the wire. The other cage held a small, beautifully marked jungle cat, who watched every move as we approached his cage, and hissed at us with fear and anger in his eyes. On the other side of the buildings, behind the kitchen and tied to the end of a long chain, was a very strange looking monkey. It had a long bushy tail and thick gray fur with a small face hiding inside. It was about ½ the size of a volleyball when it assumed its sleeping position, head hunched over to its feet, and tail wrapped the whole. The housekeeper said it would get to be about two feet tall. It didn’t bite, but any sign of attention seemed extremely bothersome to it, and it would utter a strange sound that seemed to mean, “Just leave me alone”. So we did.
The hotel was of fairly recent vintage, and it catered to groups of people flying in from Quito and boating to the hotel. However, business had not been particularly good lately. The owner’s husband had died, and the hotel was suffering a bit. But it was expected that a group would arrive later in the week. After talking with the housekeeper, Rosa, we discovered that the rest of Santa Rosa was a small community of people on the other side of the river. We decided to go visit there, and she sent her son with us to help find a canoe to make the crossing.
We wandered over the rocks of the riverbank and into the vegetation searching for the owner of a nearby canoe. The jungle was very wet here, and so jumbled that it was like walking through a dripping, translucently green tunnel. One area had been cleared, which must have been strenuous work. Trees were lying all about along with a lot of brush. The ground that was revealed was contoured by a series of small hummocks. One plant had already reestablished itself throughout the area to a general height of about two feet. It somewhat resembled a shefflera with its large leaves bobbing in the occasional breeze. It was a little eerie standing there, expecting someone to come and watching the jungle gently rushing to recover this bit of earth stolen from it. We didn’t find the owner of the canoe, but by standing on the rocks by the river, we caught the attention of a couple of young boys in a brown dug-out who eventually poled their way across the river to fetch us. Traversing the river again, they let us off at some steps carved into the riverbank and we climbed up and entered the clearing that signified Santa Rosa.
On one side of the field stood three thatch-roofed buildings on stilts. There was another small structure used as a school, but very little else, and no people in sight. There were some paths into the Santa Rosean suburbs, so we went exploring. Each path led, eventually, to the organized clutter of human inhabitants and the inevitable house on stilts. The residents of Santa Rosa wore the features of the Auca Indians whose ancestors had called these wet forests their home long before the conquistadors, to their dismay, “discovered” the upper Amazon.
As we approached the first house, the man and children on the raised floor didn’t look happy to see us, so we decided to retreat. However, we were wishing for more interaction than this, so we brought out our secret weapon, the Polaroid. I took a picture of the man on the porch, and when he saw his image magically developing in soft colors out of the blue-green mist of the snapshot, he became very friendly. We took some more pictures of him and his children, and talked with him a bit before returning to “town”. There we met the owners of the houses on the clearing, who offered us sodas while we took their portraits. One of them was an entrepreneur who successfully negotiated to sell us a necklace of seeds and feathers with a single boar’s tooth to set them off. The two boys who had brought us across the river, and then accompanied us on our walk, were again engaged for the journey back to the Jaguar hotel.
The sounds after darkness fell were incredible. The intensely black night was filled to bursting with the throbbing hum of a myriad unseen insects, syncopated and punctuated with the distinctive sound made by some, the grunting of frogs and chirping of night birds, and the high-pitched shrieks of bats as they performed their aerial maneuvers on the tails of elusive flying beasts. It was awesome, and a little frightening, to stand in the blackness of towering trees with the raucous sound of the jungle’s night life rising about us. As we slept that night, the usual rains dropped in the darkness, and then were gone with the morning’s light.
We took our packs down to the river in the morning and tried to lure a canoe to stop and take us on. After a couple of hours, and very few canoes, we thought it more worthwhile to await the regularly scheduled craft from Misahualli. It was due about 1pm., but precise time was beyond us who had no clocks or watches. We climbed the steps back to the hotel. Peggy sat in the hotel’s dining room with its view over the river and crocheted. I took the opportunity to explore the area behind the hotel.
A series of concrete steps led down through the ever rising trees to a small creek. Nearby were the remains of what had been a swimming pool. A heavy rain had conspired with a potential, but unused and unnoticed, streambed to cave in the walls and fill the pit with dirt and leaves. The concrete and tiles were no match for swiftly moving water and earth. The steps turned into a trail that led off through the undergrowth. Water dripped from the overhanging trees and thudded into the mass of decaying leaves and wood underfoot. The trail was very uneven, as if constantly passing over the trunks of trees that had long ago fallen, their bones still not entirely yielding to the forest floor. There was always a stream nearby to add its gurgling to the fabric of sound of the forest. It seemed almost too damp for a lot of fungus growth. Moss grew thickly on nearly every tree and stump. The vining, creeping plants were the champs of the plant kingdom, thickly wrapping their coils around each tree and sending shoots and leaves far up the trunks toward the source of the misty green light that enveloped every being in the forest. There were very few flowers visible from the ground. Ants built their homes in the earth and in large boles on trees. There were many hopping or small flying insects that fortunately hadn’t developed a taste for my particular brand of human stew. However, there were a variety of small spiders that had developed a taste for these particular insects, and they threw their snares up in every byway. The birds were again conspicuous by their cries, but not by their appearance. The hum of the forest was often interrupted by the muffled crash of things falling. Many of the standing trees were quite rotten, and decaying wood often blocked the trail.
The owner of the hotel had left that morning, and Rosa offered to fix us a lunch. It consisted of soup, cabbage salad, French fries, hot dogs and rice. It looked pretty good to us with our limited variety of foodstuffs, but just as the soup was being served, along came the canoe to Coca. We were hungry and grateful, but this was our only chance to leave that day, so we said goodbye to Rosa and her children, and to lunch, and went to board the canoe.
Someone in Santa Rosa had suggested that Suno might be a good destination for bird seekers, so we passed this on to the canoe’s captain. A couple of hours downriver we were asked if we still wanted to go to Suno, and, upon our affirmation, the boat was pulled over and docked near a house perched atop the steep riverbank. Our possessions were transferred to a second canoe that was to shuttle us to Sumo. The price of the shuttle seemed high, but we were in the middle of a great river without a canoe, and, like the proverbial chicken, we were inspired to go to the other side. We reached Suno by going back across the river and up a tributary where we were deposited at the bottom of some steps carved into the riverbank. Our drivers, there were several, informed us that there was a store in one direction through some banana trees, and the mission was straight ahead. We paid our fare, and one of the men headed for the store. We asked the others where we might buy a bird. They mentioned a place called Alto Huino, about a 1.5 hour walk from Suno. The man who had gone to the store returned with a couple of bottles, one of which was immediately opened and passed around, and contained a particularly scathing indictment of the fermentation process.
The mission was located a short distance away. It consisted of a series of wood and bamboo buildings arranged about a central rectangle that was bare but for some trees and see-saws. The Padre, a bearded Italian, came to greet us with two small books and a pair of glasses in his hand. He responded to our request for shelter by showing us to a wooden-floored classroom where we could spend the night. The mission at Suno, also know as Puerto Murialdo, had been in operation for about 2.5 years. The day we arrived had been dedicated to “the adopted father of Jesus” – San Jose. Many of the children present were on their way into the selva with machete in hand to cut branches in preparation for Palm Sunday. The people at the missions worked hard at encouraging the wild earth to forsake its jungle ways, and yield instead bananas, café, black and white cacao, maiz, achoyote, naranjillas, naranjas, avocadoes, mandarinas, and other wholesome crops. There were about fifty people living there who worked and studied, along with three nuns and the Padre.
Shortly after arriving we set out for Alto Huino. It was very warm and humid, and soon began to rain. The late afternoon sun made the jungle dim, and more mysterious than usual. We’d been walking about 45 minutes when we encountered a group of natives coming toward us. A man with a rifle in his hand was in the lead, followed by two women, a young girl, and a boy. All of them were carrying large loads in net baskets slung over their backs and supported by a strap across their foreheads. One woman was carrying a basket in her hand with a young toucan sitting in it, which she said had been a gift. The young girl had a tortoise shell in her basket. We got the impression that they had been doing some hunting, visiting, and trading in the forest. The man said that Alto Huino was still a good distance away, so we decided to return to Suno and postpone our trip until the next day.
At the mission, the children had returned with their palm branches, and were weaving them into shapes for the next day’s ceremony. In the evening, the Padre came by our classroom with a gift: some freshly baked bread and fried white cacao that was very good. After dinner a generator, unfortunately located right next to our sleeping quarters, was started and the lights were turned on. There was a ceremony in the church, which was quite simple compared to even Gualaceo’s. The walls were made of bamboo, screens over the unglassed windows, and a tin roof. A red drape was hung behind the small altar, and there was a statue of the continually-crucified Jesus on the wall. We retired after the service to the whine of the generator and some noisy next-door neighbors.
The night’s rain continued into the morning of Palm Sunday. There was a short procession, with the children holding their woven palm leaves aloft, to an outdoor eating area, furnished with picnic-type tables and benches, and, for some reason, surrounded by a wire fence. A few words were spoken before the procession continued, singing, to the church. We set out for Alto Huino.
Retracing our steps of the previous day, the trail was easy to follow and fairly level. We marveled at some of the trees. One of them had roots that ran off across the ground in a ridge before disappearing into the ground tens of feet from the trunk. Another had a trunk that developed into a mass of roots well before meeting the ground. A fallen tree was the usual method of crossing the numerous waterways that cut through the forest. One of these bridges was half-submerged by swiftly moving water which I was able to negotiate with the help of some wooden poles, but Peggy elected not to cross. A short walk later I arrived at the first house constituting Alto Huino. A man in a baseball-style hat was sitting on the porch and there were several children about. The man’s name was Alejandro. We talked for a short time, and he showed me some of his crops growing about the house. He was cultivating café, bananas, and yucca, among others. He was able to purchase seed from the mission.
Alejandro’s house was located a short way off the main trail. As usual, it was built on stilts, and the area beneath the house was partly used as a storage space. The main floor was reached by climbing a notched log. The floor plan was rectangular in shape, with one corner walled off with split bamboo as a bedroom. The floors were made of the same material, and it was possible to glimpse the ground as one walked over it. The stilts and house beams were some type of hardwood. There was a leveled tree trunk to the right of the entry that served as a bench. Towards one end of the main platform was the cooking area. It was bordered by logs with earth or stones as a base, and the fire set on top. There was a piece of wood erected across the top of the pit from which to hang the cooking pots, which were set along one side. The house was protected from the rain by a thatched roof. These buildings were more or less large depending on family size. Some had small walls of split bamboo all around, while others, such as Alejandro’s, were completely open. All of them had at least one small private room.
There were several birds around the open-air verandah of the house. One was a baby, a perico; another was a medium-sized parrot; and the last, a larger toucan which looked somewhat scruffy. Alejandro offered me the baby and the toucan for sale. He said there were no loras, or large parrots, for sale now, as they were all still nestlings.
I was offered a large bowl of chicha. Chicha is the Indian’s home brew. It could be made from any of a variety of available items, although any one batch was usually derived from a single ingredient, be it maiz, or platano, etc. A quantity of this source of starch is mashed and mixed with water in a large pot. The fermentation process is rumored to begin by someone chewing some of the “makings” and spitting it back into the mash. We always approached chicha with some trepidation, but little hesitation. Alejandro’s chicha was made with yucca. It was very thick and tasted fine. I sat on the porch drinking chicha and watching the chickens scratch in the yard.
Alejandro said that there were seven houses in the area, some of which belonged to relatives of his. I returned to where Peggy sat by the river, and told her the news. She suggested that I look further. I took the Polaroid this time, and returned to Alejandro’s house, where I took his picture. He was quite pleased with it. I told him I was going to go on to some other houses, and he invited himself along. I was glad he did, as it was a long way along dubious trails between houses. Before leaving, he wrapped a plantain and an egg in a plantain leaf and put it amongst the coals in the cooking pit. He gave this to me a short time later, egg “tibia”. The egg was a little more raw than I was accustomed to, but I ate it and was pleased by his generosity. Eggs were usually a valuable commodity wherever we went in Ecuador.
With Alejandro leading the way, we walked through the forest to the next house, which belonged to Alejandro’s sister and her family. On the floor of their house was a large wooden trough full of an orange vegetable or fruit they called “chonta”. It was grown on a tree, but not locally. They were in the process of mashing this with a large stone in order to make chicha, but it was good to eat as it was, cooked. It had a texture and taste similar to that of a sweet potato. The family owned a small parrot, a pretty green one with dark blue on the head. They offered to sell it to me for about 60 sucs. After a succession of portraits with the Polaroid, I heard that Alejandro had a canoe, and he offered to bring Peggy across the river. We returned to his house, and then to the river by a different route. The canoe was tied up a short distance downstream from the submerged bridge. Alejandro poled us upstream through the greenish-brown water to the bridge, and we took Peggy on board and returned to the other side. Then we all hiked back to the sister’s house where we were served more chicha, cooked plantain (very dry), and beans cooked with peppers (very hot). We were urged to go on to the next house which was a 20 minute hike distant. As we walked we received an impromptu lesson in Alejandro’s native tongue, Quechua. Everyone was amused by our attempts to pronounce he Quechuan words for corn, pants, “what’s your name?” and “Let’s go drink chicha”.
The family living at the next house included a man and woman with seven kids, the woman’s father and his wife, and perhaps more, so the house was correspondingly larger, and had more rooms. Everyone was eager to have a family portrait, and they changed their clothes and combed their hair in preparation. The man of the house offered us an egg, but knowing its value and our need, we returned it. They also gave us bowls of chicha made from plantain. It was the best yet to my taste, sweet, and with a flavor like pears.
We were almost out of Polaroid film by this time, and decided to return to Alejandro’s house for a final picture of his family. We stopped at his sister’s house on the way and put our bird and its favorite food, plantain, into a carrying basket. The price had seemed pretty low to us jaded Americans, and we didn’t have any change, so we gave them 100 sucs. This must have impressed Alejandro, for when we had returned to his house, he offered us the bird he’d exempted before. He claimed it was a male of the same species as the one we already had, which was a female. Unfortunately for the bird, we decided to accept, and loaded it into the basket with the first. Alejandro’s bird had some red on its head, and had already begun to talk. It could say something that sounded like “duish”, so that became its name. We called the other Huino after its home town. After the picture was completed, Alejandro ferried us across the river. We said goodbye, and tiredly walked back to the mission. On the way we met a man, woman and child who were on their way to drink chicha with friends, an understandably popular pastime. At the mission the Padre allowed us to spend another night on the school room floor, and we ate our dinner of noodles and onions for the third consecutive night. It still tasted good. It was at this time that Duish began to exhibit a propensity towards self-destruction. He was climbing around a plant stand and knocked a pot over, pinning himself to the floor. He managed to escape this incident unscathed.
The heavy night rain had slowed to a sprinkle when we left Suno. The canoe shuttle wasn’t dependable, so we set out walking in the direction of the Rio Napa. We knew that it wasn’t far to the river, but it was a difficult walk just the same. The trail was very hard to decipher from the general vegetation, and our packs kept catching on branches and vines. It also started to rain again, so by the time we broke out of the trees onto the river’s beach, we were thoroughly soaked. At least we weren’t cold, for it was a warm rain.
We had been waiting on the rocky beach, and noticing the river slowly rising, for six hours before we saw our first canoe. It passed by without stopping. Shortly thereafter, we heard the buzzing motor of another dug-out approaching, and waved frantically, lest we be invisible. The craft turned toward us and pulled into the beach, perhaps in response to our signal, but fortunately several passengers were disembarking. They appeared to pay part of their passage with a chicken. We assumed their empty seats, and the canoe turned back into the current.
The ride to Coca consumed about 1.25 hours. The river got very wide as we approached the town, and we could see the fish jumping. There was a vehicular bridge across the river here. We were landed at a steep muddy bank that served as port, but lacking even the usual steps carved in it. We passengers left the canoe and clawed our way in unison to the top. In town we found a residencial and checked in. It gave us pause to reflect on the great variety of accommodations to be had while traveling in Ecuador. This particular one was a favorite with the cockroaches. We took the precaution of keeping our packs closed, but we still managed to transport a few stowaways back to Gualaceo, although they didn’t travel well. They died enroute. The room, with its two lumpy beds, was excruciatingly small, and the walls exceedingly thin. That, combined with raucous occupants, made for a noisy stay. The secret, of course, is to spend as much time away from the residencial as possible.
The town of Coca, unfortunately, didn’t provide much of a lure. The dismal, rainy weather had a definite impact on our opinion at our first encounter with the town. The low wooden buildings with tin roofs, situated among the weeds bordering the rock and sand roads, looked but slightly better the next day in the sun. There were several well-stocked stores, but none had what we were looking for: bird food, that is, bananas. The fruit and vegetables that were available looked used, and were expensive. We took our dinner in a sleazy-looking restaurant that served a surprisingly decent meal.
The next morning brought with it the beginning of our most trying and miserable 24 hours in Ecuador. We arose early, beating off the lively roaches, and had a small breakfast. We were even able to procure a couple of bananas for the birds. We’d discovered that we’d missed the quick way out of town. There was a plane every Monday and Friday, but today was Tuesday, so we went in search of the bus terminal. This turned out to be a vain endeavor, for there was no terminal, only a ticket office. We were told that it was a thirteen hour journey by bus to Quito. One may be immune to the claustrophobic fears of a dark closet deep beneath the earth, or thrill to being shut in a broom closet for a seemingly infinite time in order to win a game of hide-and-seek, but still quake at the thought of a prolonged journey in a rattling bus over bad roads. We bought our tickets. The catch was, we had to take a taxi to the point of departure,”El Cañon de Los Monos”, which was on the other side of a river that the bus always balked at.
Earlier in the morning, while walking through the town, we had spotted a sign, which we should have ignored, advising that all tourists check in with the immigration officials before departing. As we were under the curse of being, in a perverse fashion, law-abiding citizens, we set out to find the Office of Immigration. This was no easy task when one attempts to heed the directions of the locals spoken in an unfamiliar language. After all, how often do they have occasion to visit the immigration officials? We had already walked back and forth through town a couple of times when I entered a combination drug and hardware store to ask, once more, for guidance. The clerk, on hearing my question, frowned, looked puzzled, glanced around for help, and then asked me if it was a pill. I think he misunderstood. At this point, Peggy had the right idea. She became disgusted with the whole affair, and returned to the residencial. I eventually discovered the officials in their stuccoed building. The men checked our passports, and became concerned over the fact that we had been nearly sixty days in the country illegally. I explained it all, of course, and how previously this same stamp had been valid for ninety days, but no matter. This was a serious infraction, they said, and we would have to be escorted to Quito. The Chief of Immigration just happened to be going to Quito that very day. How convenient! I was made to accompany a lieutenant back to the residencial, where we collected our goods, including our “illegal” birds, and were escorted back to the office. Once back, we hassled some more and elicited these alternatives: either (1) we could be arrested and go to Quito where we would probably be fined 1000 sucs for each month overstayed, or (2) we could iron it out in Coca at the paltry fee of 500 sucs each. We opted for number 2, of course, preferring the small bite to the big one. Previous experience had cured us of expecting any mercy in Quito. We paid up, and drastically reduced our remaining supply of sucs. For this, our passports were stamped anew and we were issued a new green card for another thirty days. The officials also offered to get us the necessary permit to take our birds out of the area. The chief was already getting one for a macaw he’d confiscated from someone else, and was now taking to Quito. However, when the permit arrived, it was in the chief’s name. We volunteered to go and get another ourselves, and it was easily obtained.
Hoping to leave officialdom behind, we found a camionetta to take us to the bus’ point of departure. We were left at the river where a ferry was just arriving with a number of passengers, a small truck, and a gasoline tanker. All managed to leave safely but the tanker. It became stuck half-way down the exit ramp, incapacitating the ferry. Eventually a local motorized dug-out was pressed into emergency service, and we reached the far shore. The bus arrived and after a long pause, it departed again, crowded and uncomfortable. We hadn’t gone far when we came to another river where we were all asked to leave the first bus and board a ferry for the crossing. On the other side was a second, and roomier, bus. Shortly thereafter we arrived in the town of Lago Agrio where we paused for about 1.5 hours for dinner. Lago Agrio consisted of mainly one very muddy street lined with grocery and hardware stores, restaurants, and residencials. The mud was black and greasy in homage to the oil to which the town owed its existence, for it was a supply center for oilfield workers and companies. After getting underway again, the bird Duish frightened us by getting his head caught in the string which held his basket shut. We felt sorry for the birds. If the trip was bad for us, how did it seem to them, away from their homes in the forest and stuck in a basket with very little food.
We only stopped twice more before reaching Quito. Once for a flat tire, and a second time to have the flat repaired at a combination service station/restaurant in a cold rain. After bouncing interminably through a sleepy daze, we arrived at the bus terminal in Quito, in reality a large field adopted as a bus parking lot. It was about 5am. At this point, another 12 hour bus ride to Cuenca didn’t generate enthusiasm, so we decided to live it up, and had a taxi take us to the airport. However, it wasn’t open yet. When it did open , we purchased tickets for the morning’s first plane to Cuenca, and covered the distance in 45 minutes. It was a short ride to the bus stop to meet our cooperative for Gualaceo.
We were eager to feed the birds and began to do so while we were waiting inside the nearly new van. I got the impression that the driver was touchy about his upholstery, and our birds made flicking banana bits around a part of their dining tradition. I felt I would move them outside, so I perched them on the back of the van. If we felt disengaged by all the traveling and bumping, I should have known that the birds would be even more so, especially on being introduced to a city for the first time. Duish was staring at a taxi that slowly pulled up alongside the van, and just as it passed he started from his perch and flopped to the ground directly beneath the rear wheel. It happened too quick to same him. It was a cruel way to end our trip, and grieved us to think of the bird’s natural home and our responsibility for how and where he died. We finally and thankfully ended our journey a short ride later in Gualaceo. I took Duish to a spot in the mountains west of town, and buried him near a quietly splashing brook.