El Oriente

First published in Black & White, 2004

In search of adventure, we take a bus from Ecuador’s capital Quito and head east into the Amazon Basin. The road climbs to the highland paramo, wreathed in cloud, then drops through rainforest in every shade of green – trees bearded with silver lichens and vermillion bromeliads, spliced with cascading falls and below, the roar of white water. The road follows the pipeline, or rather the pipeline follows the road. It rears from the earth, daubed all along its sinuous length with political slogans – vota 1 Julio Verez Alcade. Vota toda 7.

As we drop, the temperature rises; the thin air of the paramo drowning in the moist heavy atmosphere of the jungle. We cross river after river – Rio Uyacachi; Rio Salado. Rio Piedra Fina. There is water everywhere. The road, at first wide and newly tarred, becomes muddy and rutted. We pass gangs of roadworkers and tiny pueblos with their towers of bald truck spares and roadside restaurants with wilted roses in empty soda bottles. A woman in a pink-and-white checked apron is grilling fragrant, fatty rags of meat and frying cheese empanadas, which come dusted with sugar. Dogs and chickens scratch about in the mud beneath her feet. By midday we have stopped three times to repair the same tyre.

The national elections are on Sunday and every wooden house we pass is papered with posters advertising one candidate or another. Convoys of 100 or more taxis, trucks, cars and buses inch from village to village, crammed with people waving flags and banners and sporting t-shirts proclaiming their political affiliations. Toda 5. Toda lista 13.

These people, who are mostly uneducated and unemployed, and who live in wood shacks, without plumbing or running water are highly politicised. Texaco first discovered oil in the Oriente in 1968 and today there are several multinationals carrying out large-scale drilling in the remote region. While the dumping of toxic waste and raw crude into the pristine rainforest has caused widespread damage to the environment and the indigenous communities who live in the Oriente, the roads are perhaps the greatest threat, opening up once remote areas to colonists who tear free a patch of earth from the tangle of tree and vine, in order to grow food for their families or graze a cow. Around 70 per cent of Ecuadorian people live below the poverty line and, with much of the tiny country taken up by jungle and mountains, land is life.

We arrive in Coca on the Rio Napo, in the last light and ask around at the water’s edge for boats heading further east to Nuevo Rocafuerte at the border with Peru, from where we are hoping to pick up a monthly cargo boat to Iquitos deep in the Peruvian Amazon. But we have missed the last boat upriver for five days. A taste of things to come.

Coca is the final frontier – wide dusty streets, intermittent electricity. We find a room in the Hotel Oasis on the river, where we are charged a small fortune for air conditioning that doesn’t work and flee downstream at first light, to the former mission village of Limoncocha and the end of the road.

The village is a cluster of wood and tin shacks, with a multi-purpose sports court at its centre – the heart of social life in Limoncocha, complete with basketball rings, soccer goals and a volleyball net, where my 201 cm travelling companion is soon starring, to the delight of his team-mates. At the other end of the court, three generations of the Limoncocha half-court women’s barefoot basketball team trade insults amid frequent bouts of hilarity, while the younger kids play roll the oil barrel, several with siblings tied to their backs. A few spectators line the stands – old men sleep off an afternoon drunk in the shade and pregnant dogs trot by looking for food. The sky is still and bruised from the afternoon storm.

I watch the unfolding scene from the VIP stand on the balcony of the village ‘hotel’ – a two-storey wooden building, with the feel of the Wild West about it and where we are the only guests at present, and perhaps for some time. There are no staff – a man with a key is summoned from somewhere in the bowels of the village, and unlocks the door and shows us the bedrooms before disappearing back to his interrupted siesta.

We are rescued from an impending five days of volleyball and tinned beans by Silvario, who, during a rudimentary conversation in pidgin Spanish, outside the tienda, offers to take us to his hideout on the Laguna del Diablo (Devil’s Lagoon). We leave the following morning, paddling for two and a half hours in Silvario’s dugout. After 15 minutes my muscles are burning and I can barely lift the wooden paddle. The steady hum of machinery heralds a nearby petrochemical plant – it’s chimney rising up above the canopy. Silvario shakes his head. The noise has driven the animals away, he says.

A former schoolteacher, Silvario left Limoncocha to escape the rampant alcoholism, which he says has destroyed the lives of many local families. He now lives a semi-traditional life with his wife Josophina and five-year-old grandson, Monfri, growing yucca and bananas, fishing and selling eggs to the village. Both his daughters have gone away to the city to study. ‘They won’t come back,’ he says. The tiny trickle of independent tourists to the lagoon supplement the family’s meagre income.

The house is a traditional wooden structure, on stilts, strung with hammocks and open to the breeze, around which there are a few ramshackle cabanas, one of which we make our home. A wooden tower at the edge of the steep hill that drops down to the lagoon, looks out over the canopy.

At night the sound of the oil well which we passed on the lagoon can be heard over the murmuring of the jungle, but during the day it is drowned by the cries of all manner of strange creatures and the whirring of insects – waves of cicadas that flux according to the intensity of the sun, a hoopoe, the clicking call of geckoes mosquito-hunting on the walls of the hut, interspersed with the muscular cries of the stringy rooster and his brood.

However, the one we christen the waterfall-bird, remains hidden, teasing us at intervals with its glorious crystalline call that gives me goosebumps on soporific afternoons as we swing in our hammocks and wait for the cool of evening.

Silvario’s grandson Monfri spies on us from around corners. He has the watchful way of Indian children, wise before their time. I make him a present of coloured pencils and drawing paper, which have languished too long at the bottom of our paunchy packs and later hear him at work, singing to himself, the pencils rattling in their tin.

That afternoon he comes to us with a terapa – a black-shelled tortoise with a yellow-spotted head and small blinking eyes, as big as my hand. With the unselfconscious cruelty of the very young he turns it upside down so we can watch it flip itself back again using its strong stumpy legs. After several bouts of this it lies still for a moment, playing dead, but Monfri is relentless. He pulls one leathery foot then, when I implore him to release the poor creature, digs a thumbnail into the soft part of its leg. It turns to look at me blinking. Monfri flicks its head and tries to force a twig into its beak, then drops it on the ground a couple of times. I go inside, afraid I, as audience, am the cause of this torment. He tucks the turtle under one arm and wanders off somewhere else in search of excitement. There is something to be said for TV and its ability to distract young boys from the small creatures of the world.

But Monfri, who spends much of his time alone, without companions or toys, is a creature of the jungle, with his flat calloused feet, wiry limbs and wide eyes. He can paddle a canoe, climb a tree and bring down bananas. I cringe when I see him swinging his rusty machete at the undergrowth. But these children, left largely to their own devices from the moment they can crawl, have an instinctive understanding of their abilities and limits. He is completely at home in his environment.

We, on the other hand, are tormented by the sandflies and mosquitoes and the relentless humidity. We paddle up into the narrow farther reaches of the laguna and punt through floating islands of reeds and fleshy water plants. A troupe of tiny monkeys with long furry tails and white markings around their eyes, comes down to feed in the branches of a tree at the water’s edge. They watch us closely for a while, then bounce away through the branches, whooping in delight, or maybe warning.

Silvario schools us in the art of piranha fishing, which involves baiting a hook tied with a short length of line to a stick, then thrashing it about in the water in imitation of a feeding frenzy until, at the first sign of a nibble, the stick must be hurled into the air, landing the piranha in the canoe, with any luck. Silvario has caught three within as many minutes but we soon catch on, landing 18 in all – silvery and snapping, with that razor-sharp overbite in the floor of the canoe.

To my horror they make a grunting cry as they gasp for air in the floor of the boat. I take to knocking them on the head with an oar to hasten their demise and almost send us overboard to Silvario’s great amusement. While the still black water of the lagoon is inviting in the heat, it is home to a host of flesh-eating beasties, as we shall soon discover. We eat our piranhas fried with rice and yucca chips (jungle fish and chips, says T) and they are tasty, but more bone than flesh.

Ecuador is home to more than 20000 plant species, of which there are new ones discovered each year, and the indigenous people of the Oriente use plant medicine to heal all manner of ills from physical wounds, to the psychic or spiritual malaise. Silvario takes us walking in the jungle, where he identifies dozens of medicinal plants – the healing sap of the sangre de drago (dragon’s blood) tree, the branches of the surupanga, used by local shamans to drive away evil spirits during their psychedelic ayahuasca ceremonies, guanto, for finding lost things or for divination, espirito santo which cures stomach ulcers, machaquimandi for snake bite and chugriyuyo, the leaves of which can be dripped into a patient’s eyes to cure vision problems.

We spend our last night on the laguna caiman spotting – drifting through the slick black water in silence, while Silvario plays the torch expertly across the surface. All along the shore, constellations of night insects light the reeds like distant cities, from the windows of a plane. It’s not until we get out into the wider reaches of the laguna that the torch beam catches a pair of red lights – the eye of a caiman reflected in the mirror-like surface of the water.

We come within a few metres, enough to see the shape of its long head just breaking the surface of the water, when the lights blink out. This pattern repeats itself several more times, until we spot a big one. ‘Muy grande’ breathes Silvario and I feel a thrill of terror as he eases the canoe closer. I play my torch across the beast as we slide in above it and still it doesn’t move.

We can see its huge head and jaw beneath the water now – its body dropping away into the blackness beneath the canoe. The eye watches us unblinking and none of us breathe until it disappears at last, sinking swiftly into the inky water without a ripple, and we break into nervous giggles. ‘Muy, muy grande!’ laughs Silvario. ‘Dio!’ The five-metre beast is somewhere under us now – almost half as big as the canoe and twice as heavy, it could capsize us with one flick of that tail. We paddle home in silence, our hearts racing.

On election morning we leave at dawn and spend our final day at the fiesta in Limoncocha with Silvario, Josophina and Monfri. Most of the men are drunk. Everyone else is playing basketball or volleyball or sitting around the edges of the court talking politics and eating barbecued maize. We sleep appreciatively beneath a fan, which keeps the mosquitos at bay and hitch a ride, in the morning, in the back of an oil worker’s ute, arriving at the river in time for coffee and eggs.

From the shopkeeper’s theatrical gesturing we gather the boat we are awaiting is a fast boat, which means, unless it has cargo to unload at Pompeya (human or otherwise), it will be travelling at speed in the channel of deep water on the far side of the river. The river at this point is about one kilometre wide – a great brown expanse, stretching almost to the horizon. All agree we could try waving it down with our hats. So we squat disconsolately on the jetty, among denim-clad oilmen with clipboards and hardhats who wait in the shade for their private boats, which arrive with gunning engines and spirit them away.

A couple come down with two oil barrels filled with rubbish, which they dump into the current from their dugout and we sit and watch the slick of waste and bobbing plastic stretch out across the surface of the muddy water. But there is no boat.

Two women and a fat 10-year-old girl appear on the road as if from nowhere. The women are smartly dressed in suits and high-heeled shoes, stockings, floppy-brimmed hats and white lace gloves and they carry parasols. The girl is eating an ice cream. I begin to wonder if I have heatstroke. But the three come down to the river, all smiles and polite conversation. I smell a rat. ‘Perhaps they are waiting for the boat’, says T. ‘Do you believe in God,’ says one of the women.

She pulls out a few copies of the Watchtower and I lose all ability to comprehend anything but English. The two women look at each other and shrug. The fat girl stares at me and licks her ice cream. The oil men look away nervously. Then they press our hands and wish us bon viaje, and disappear up the road, where they are swallowed by the jungle, which rises up in a trembling wave of green on either side. We wait.

At 10am a boat appears in the distance, on the far side of the river. ‘Is that it do you reckon,’ I ask T. ‘I dunno. How the hell do I know,’ he replies, not happy with the way things are turning out. ‘Does it look big to you? They said it was grande’.

‘No I wouldn’t exactly call it grande,’ he agrees. I take my hat off and wave it half-heartedly but the boat just continues past in the direction of Nuevo Rocafuerte, which is beginning to seem as distant as the moon.

We wait until 11, when T, on a reccy to the tienda, returns in a cloud of dust, yelling at me to grab my pack, the bus was leaving. Bus? But the Amazon – the lazy swing of the hammock on the slow boat to Peru? But plans change. And like that, we left the jungle behind us and headed up, up, up, the great, steamy Amazon Basin, stretching out below us in the last light – as big as any ocean and as unnavigable.