Welcome To The Jungle is Massive!
*Warning - Long post!
Bussed to Puyo and then onto Macas, where we’d pre-arranged to visit a tour company offering tours into the Amazon - we met Leo who ran the tours and Antonio who was the guide (his cousin) - Antonio had grown up in the jungle and knew it well, and luckily spoke good english, so we felt we were in safe hands and agreed to a 4 day tour to live with a Shuar family (Shuars are one of the indigenous tribes of the Amazon, who live in Ecuador and Peru), and learning about their culture as well as some outdoor activities if the weather permitted (it was raining heavily in Macas that day and we were skeptical but hopeful for some better weather). We had a last taste of western civilisation in a Pizza restaurant and packed small rucksacks with essentials, including Chris’ miracle water purifier straws and a first aid kit (we weren’t leaving everything up to nature!).
Day 60 - Into the Jungle
We got to the tour shop at 8.30am to get our wellies, waterproofs and drinking water, and were given a ride to the capital of the Shuar district (a small village), which is as far as the road could take us. We took a very muddy path with jungle on one side and grasslands on the other - Until recently it was only jungle but a ‘Settler’ (meaning someone who has come from the town) had married a Shuar woman and therefore owned the land and had proceeded to cut down all the trees in order to create fish farms and graze cattle. As a result there were fewer tree roots soaking up the rain and the path was treacherously muddy - this same path the children had to walk every day for school. Our guide Antonio showed us some edible (and definitely in-edible) plants along the way. The first was ‘sour cane’, which you could chomp on fresh (once you’d cleaned it with a machete) and was juicy and sour, like a cross between celery and rhubarb. Next was ‘Santa Maria’, a heart shaped leaf used in much of the cooking and can be eaten fresh too - you have to make sure the stalks are reddish in colour, an identical plant with green stalks is incredibly poisonous, Antonio told us he had accidentally poisoned himself and his whole family when at age 7 he had tried to impress his mother by making a salad of these leaves! We also tried ‘Palm heart’ - the tender part inside the stalk of a palm plant, which is a delicacy in the jungle. Antonio then surprised us by selecting a mean-looking spiky plant and thrashing his arm with the leaves and stalks, causing welts to appear. He explained this was called ‘Ortiga’ and helped improve circulation and in his opinion, left you feeling euphoric afterwards. Antonio claimed this technique had restored his arm after a nasty incident 2 years ago in which he was attacked in the jungle by a troop of Coatis who punctured through the tissue and ligaments (he had the scars to prove it) and had left him with little movement and feeling in his fingers, but now thanks to regular thrashings he was back to normal. Chris, not believing it could be that painful, stepped up to sample the power of this plant, which he had very much under-estimated… see video below (if you’re with children, please mute!). Chris was unconvinced about the alleged ‘euphoria’, he just felt very relieved when the pain stopped!
Finally we were greeted by Daniel, the Shuar chief of the family who led us the rest of the way, via the ‘Aha’ (allotment) to collect some potatoes (called ‘Chinese potatoes’, we’re not sure why), where they also grow plantains and yucca. On arrival we were shown to our impressively sturdy looking hut where we would be sleeping, and were given banana and apple in yoghurt at the dining area attached to the kitchen. There was a hole through the bamboo wall of the kitchen through which food could be passed - we were told (as a side note by Antonio) that the kitchen was the domain of the women and we would not be allowed in, and would likely have little contact with them during the stay. Daniel explained that his Shuar name is ‘Etsa’ (sun) but his mother had to quickly choose a western name to register him with the local authority, as no one knew how to write in Shuar (it was only a spoken language). He is one of 7 brothers, and had 11 children of his own. He recommended we have 5, and to start quickly! (Why had we left it so late he wanted to know!) He spoke Spanish, but we still don’t, so nearly everything was translated for us by Antonio. We had lunch which was chicken ‘Ayampacos’ (wrapped and cooked in huge leaves, with palm hearts and cilantro from the jungle).
We went on a walk through the jungle owned by Daniel, past the natural spring which provides them clean drinking water (but we’d be sticking to our bottled), we were shown the a tree called ‘Sangre de Drago’ (Dragon’s blood) - slashing the bark with a machete revealed sap the colour and consistency of blood, which was antibacterial and could be used on bite and cuts, for mouth ulcers and sore throats too. Then another tree which produced a resin that was highly flammable and could be used to make torches, then the giant vines which provided the children’s (and Chris’) entertainment as rope swings, and later showed us a game where you rolled a stalk up in a leaf to launch it into the air in a way that makes a humming sound - yes it was about as exciting as it sounds. This was also ‘entertainment’ for children when they were out hunting, to keep them quiet. Dinner was grilled chicken, rice and plantain - the family use a combination of traditional and bought foods, especially when entertaining guests. Daniel told us a Shuar story of why the Potoo (a nocturnal bird) can be heard singing a sad song at the full moon - a long time ago the sky and earth were connected by a vine, and the god of the moon Nantu came down to earth to be with a beautiful woman called Auju. One day Nantu gave Auju two ripe pumpkins and asked her to cook them ready for his return from hunting. Auju could not resist eating both herself, and replaced Nantu’s with an unripe one instead, then sewed her mouth to show she could not have eaten it. On return Nantu realised Auju’s lies and angrily ripped open her mouth, forming a wide mouth (like the potoo’s). Nantu returned to the sky and Auju tried to follow - Etsa the god of the Sun decided they should not be together and sent a squirrel to gnaw at the vine, Auju fell to the ground and became a potoo, Nantu remained in the sky as the moon, and on a full moon you can hear Auju cry ‘Aishrua Aishrua Aishrua’ (my husband my husband my husband) with her beak towards the sky.
We woke early - it was cold and misty outside. Antonio talked to us at length about the Tayos caves which are deep in the Ecuadorian amazon and rumoured to be filled with treasure and Crystal Skulls, like in Indiana Jones! (details about the caves), and many people have attempted to explore them. But that wasn’t on the plan for today.
The weather was in our favour and hadn’t rained all night, so the river was lower and the current less strong, meaning we could take the raft out on the river. Breakfast was eggs, chinese potatoes and ripe plantain, served with ‘guayusa’ (a hot sweet drink made with the leaves of a tree in the jungle). Daniel told us a long story in Spanish about the danger of the wild pigs - it was very expressive and exciting-looking, and Antonio listened with rapture and then gave us the abridged version - ‘Hundreds of wild pigs chased a jaguar and ate it, the Shuar watching had to climb a tree to avoid getting eaten’.
After breakfast we went up stream on the raft , pushing it along with poles (like punting) against the current which was very hard work (not for us, we were sat happily in the middle), and moored up to search for our lunch. We were warned that Boas swim in the river but we didn’t spot any. One of the most prized finds is the palm heart of the huge palm trees - we had to sneak into the Settler’s land under barbed wire, in order to reach a palm tree on another Shaur’s part of the jungle to chop down. From the whole tree you get a relatively small amount to eat, but hey ho this was someone else’s land. Apparently it is completely acceptable to go and forage in your neighbours backyard if you want to, and the presence of barbed wire is very alien to them, as their boundaries are usually not defined. There were no paths and we felt like we were in the proper jungle, and we even saw a stick insect in the wild! Chris rafted home (down stream), and was rewarded with a dead fish staring up at him from his lunch plate. The fish had not been caught in the river but bought from the Settler’s farm next door, which felt like a shame for us because it was less authentic, but a lot easier for them! In the afternoon we learned how to carve a parrot from wood - well we watched Daniel do it and then Chris made an attempt (I wasn’t offered this - maybe wood carving is not for ladies?), and then Daniel neatened it up (fixed all of Chris’ hacking) to look like the first parrot, and now we have two wooden parrots to carry around the world! In order to keep the mozzies off while we worked, the girls brought a burning termite nest on a stick (with termites still inside) as the smell is a natural repellent. You can also rub termites straight onto your skin if you so desire!
In the evening we ate a dinner of chicken, noodles and plantain, and went on a night walk which was pretty scary, searching for snakes (who come down from the canopy at night) - but only saw a tarantula and a tree frog.
It had rained heavily all night and through the morning - the river was high and strong again so we wouldn’t be able to raft. Also Daniel’s wife was very unwell and needed to go to hospital, so Daniel apologised and left us in the care of his daughters instead, which is actually a rare treat as they are usually told not to talk to guests.
Today we were to learn about cooking Ayampacos, but first we practised making a trap for fish out of palm stalks and using the leaves to tie it together (but no need to use it with a fish farm close by!), and also collected the root of a plant which is poisonous to fish (and humans if eaten directly) - the technique is called ‘Barbasco’ and involves mashing the root and letting the residue run into the river which immediately kills the fish and float up to the surface to be collected. Antonio demonstrated and explained that although one taste could kill a human too, it is not dangerous for humans to eat the poisoned fish. The technique only works in shallow and slow flowing rivers so was only for demonstration purposes today.
We did a bit more foraging for leaves and then we were taught how to fill and wrap ayampacos by the girls, and allowed in the kitchen which is usually out of bounds for guests - very exciting for me! But when I offered to do the washing up I was met with awkward stares - this was a step too far for a guest it seemed, and without specific authorisation from Daniel they couldn’t let me do this, which was totally fine I was only being polite! After lunch Antonio spotted a deadly tarantula in our hut and killed it - the rain means they’re more likely to be coming inside to find shelter, so extra boot-checking from now on. At dinner Antonio sang folk songs (not requested) which amused the girls, and we had another dinner of chicken and noodles but with a jungle sweet potato, lovely! We watched the moon for ages, it was almost full, but no cries from the owl tonight.
Chris dutifully inspected all our items before packing and discovered a massive spider on the bottom of his rucksack! After screaming and taking photos, Chris whacked it with a shoe, therefore potentially saving both our lives. We showed Antonio who said it was a ‘San Martin’ spider, not fatally dangerous but their bite can cause seizures - hero status confirmed. Over breakfast Daniel filled us in on the many signs the jungle can give you that you’re about to die… if you see a wild dog walking the same path as you - death is coming. If you hear the laughing hawk outside your hut - death is coming. If you hear a particular owl who sounds like it’s crying - you get the idea.
It was decided that today we would wash in the traditional way using a soap made from the root of a plant. Daniel dug out the root with his machete and chopped a few chunks. He told us the story of how this soap saved the life of a Shuar woman many years ago. Before there were even animals on earth there were giant aliens called Ewars who liked to eat Shuar people. One in particular was terrorising the community and had stolen a Shuar woman to make his wife. Desperate to escape, she advised the Ewar to wash with the special soap, but did not warn him to take care to avoid his eyes. Whilst washing he got soap in his eyes and it stung so badly he was temporarily blind, and she used this opportunity to escape. This was also a warning to us, to avoid putting it in our eyes! We sat on stools next to the spring with a bowl of warm water which the root was added to and bubbled up, then used the root to scrub our skin and then rinsed with cold water.
Then we went on a walk to poke sticks in holes to see if Tarantulas would come out - we didn’t find any but we did find these giant grubs that the Shuar people like to eat, sometimes raw! We weren’t brave enough to try them. Lunch was more yucca, mashed plantain and beef stew, then we sat in the communal hut for the farewell ceremony. Daniel came out in traditional dress with dried tobacco leaves in a small pot. These leaves are very different from the processed tobacco in cigarettes - more potent and still holding most of their resin. Then the tobacco ceremony commenced - a ritual supposed to bring you strength and clear your head. A small amount of water was added to the pot and left to soak up the tobacco, then Daniel demonstrated by pouring the thick dark brown liquid into his cupped hand, chanting in Shuar then inhaling the liquid through his nose slowly. We nervously followed suit - it was painful at first and very intense and your whole head was throbbing, then you felt light-headed and fuzzy and needed to sit down! We all shouted ‘Aishman Kakaram!’ ‘Nua Kakaram!’ (Strong man! Strong woman!) and even if the tobacco wasn’t giving us strength the raucous shouting seemed to be! On Chris’s second go too much of the liquid went down his throat and he had to endure the (very lovely) music and dancing by Daniel and his daughters whilst worrying that he was going to throw up at any second! At the end there was much thanking and hugs all round, it was quite emotional. We trudged down the muddy path back and caught our lift to Macas, and fully embraced the ‘Settlers’ world again by going for a Chinese and having a beer.