The first day in the jungle was an early start with breakfast that I could not eat. The lake reflected back a beautiful sunrise in a cloudless sky. I think one of the most unexpected parts about these entire weeks was that it never rained until our last day, as if to remind us that a return would bring us what we had expected.
We took to our canoe for a short ride to a carved out path of an old Huaorani family that settled there. The first thing that I saw was paja toquilla, the palm plant used from the coast land to make Panama Hats that I read so much about the day before. It didn't occur to me that the plant might have other uses than just providing the fiber to make hats, but it seemed like its uses were infinite. Our guide Fausto knew his stuff. Just like two days before, we could stop at any point and he'd have something to say. One of which was an enormous ant. I had heard of ants like these, only in Africa, ants, that go in hoards and encompass their prey, no matter how big and leaves just it's bones hours later. This was not quite the same. In fact the exact opposite was true. The ant had a punch to its bite, so overwhelming its prey in numbers is not necessary. In fact four or five bites from one of these ants could kill a baby human. I kept my distance. The diversity of ants never let up for a moment. Around one corner would be leaf cutter ants; another corner stood a hollowed tree that housed hundreds upon thousands on nasty little biters. Some of them gave you a good sting, others you couldn't even feel the bite. But perhaps the most peculiar of them all were the lemon ants, not called lemon ants for their association with a lemon tree, but because they in fact TASTE of lemon!
As soon as I started getting comfortable with the slow pace of our exploration, Fausto took off running. We took off after him, in fear of being lost like the two German and French couples we heard about the day before. I had to keep my head down and keep ducking this way and that to keep from running into spider webs or low hanging trees. Anything I brushed up against gave me a sneaking suspicion that I took something along with me for the ride. We ran for what seemed like fifteen minutes until we had a clearer view of the canopy and there was a colony of spider monkeys leaping from tree top to tree top. No one was in any mood to keep the chase going, though. I did a little ants-in-the-pants dance to shake off the sensation of being covered in bugs from the run.
We went back to our stroll through the jungle at which point we came upon a tree of such monstrous size that I can only compare it to a redwood, only it's base was wider than the redwoods I have seen. Hanging down to the ground were vines, reaching up to the heavens above it seemed. The first branches of this tree spread out above the canopy of all the other trees. I was in no mood to test my endurance at climbing the vines to find out that I would give out too high to simply drop back down, but others took on the challenge, not getting more than twenty feet off the ground. The indigenous, according to Fausto, used this climb to the first branches as a little test of going on past adolescence. I felt dizzy just looking up that high.
The next day was spent in similar fashion. We took a little twist in the afternoon to get in some fishing. I was a little giddy about that having already seen what some of the guide members had dredged up from this river. It was like watching Okie noodlin’, the way the boosted of their fishing technique. But the fish were far more exotic than an enormous 80 pound catfish. There were fish with spikes and armor of similar size and weight. The most frightening fact was that one in particular was apparently only a juvenile. Its adult size reaches about five or six meters long! That’s a shark if I have ever heard of any!
I found out precisely why anyone would be proud of their fishing. I was handed a clean hook on a string and given a raw slab of meat. Huh? Piranha fishing. It was possibly the hardest bit of fishing I have ever done. They would strike the meat just for you to help in their tearing off the bait while avoiding being hooked. But I got a lucky piece of bait. One with a sturdy piece of scale attached to the meat. The scale seemed somewhat familiar, probably because it was a piece of the armored catfish I saw earlier in the morning. The piranha couldn't keep from getting their mouth in the hook if they wanted the meat and so I pulled in the one and only piranha. The smallest, puny fish you'd ever seen. If it were just the foreigners fishing, we would easily have used more fish meat in bait than caught in fish. I pulled him out of the water and my knees started shaking. I had to put THIS in the boat with me? My toes had to have looked better than that stiff piece of scale and bone that the piranha had on a death hold. But it never let go of the bait, like a raccoon holding on to a piece of shiny metal.
That night, when everyone when into to wash away their accumulating jungle rot off their body in the acidic waters, the only thought on my mind was not wanting to be like that piece of bait. I did no more than splash the water on me from the deck. That was enough for me. But the adrenaline from the catch encouraged me to go another night hike, this time guided by Fausto. In the first two minutes we came across the biggest bug I have ever seen. And Fausto had never seen it before. It was a huge leaf bug, brown in color, and about the size of two hands spread out next to each other. I was convinced we found a new species, and we did nothing more than look at it for a couple of minutes and then carry on. I didn't think I would find any more than big bugs but Fausto was in to seeing much more than that. He was more interested in finding fish. Fish? In the dark? But sure enough we found one. It was swimming back in forth between the roots of trees that crept into the water. Its eyes were devilishly red. I got the chills looking at it, and standing in its water. Another reason not to swim in it. On the way back, having seen large grasshoppers everywhere and spiders of all sorts, we stumbled upon another unique sight. Well, not really stumbled on, but with Fausto's owl eyes, he spotted a snake coiled up sleeping on a leaf. It was the smallest and most lethal snake in all of the Amazon rainforest. There I was, already slightly nervous about the closet darkness of the forest, now standing in front of the most poisonous snake in the world's largest tropical rainforest supplying an enormous percentage of the Earth's fresh water, the crucial element for nearly every living and breathing animal on the planet, one of the most sobering thoughts that ever came upon me.
The next morning we saw what humanity is beginning to do to the jungle. We walked along the Rio Napo among the inhabitants of Ketchwa living there. I had a preconceived notion that they lived in harmony, only I was wrong. The western developed world had already reached these people. You could see the evidence with the hard hat hung on the wall of one of the raised houses we passed. Plots of land had been crudely chopped down for "sustainable agriculture." We finally came upon a school for the students of the area. Their classes are unlike anything you can imagine. More than forty students in the one concrete constructed building for miles and miles, without a plan of teaching, and pets of every kind, from monkeys to lizards. I am fascinated by the thought that anyone would have the idea that western ways could fit into this kind of world. But I saw how they did. We saw an oil drilling project under way, previously owned by the United States company Occidental, until the Ecuadorian government found out that the company had broke nearly every law on the contract in which it signed. And who’s the new prospective company to drill for oil here? A Chinese company.
It was a hard day to swallow, especially at the last, and I felt like a part of me would never leave or rather the jungle would never leave me. I definitely felt that way on the return trip back to civilization. Nausea and dizziness overtook me from hunger and dehydration. I pulled into the non-existent terminal of Cuenca shaky and ready to recover from a grueling test that I hope to someday encounter again.