Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Wild in the Amazon - photos— and some amateur anthropology

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A recent trip to Ecuador included a five-day adventure at the Kapawi Ecolodge in the Amazon basin. I'm still digesting the experience. I feel somehow shifted.

PK and I have traveled to many developing countries and have seen poverty. The indigenous people in the Kapawi area of Ecuador have little, if any, money. But they're not poor.  Photos below demonstrate some of the richness of the flora and fauna of the unique environment into which they're totally integrated.

Maybe that's what touched me: Being in a diverse and eco-rich environment—the Amazon rainforest—where people are part of the scene, not taming or conquering it, but living as one with it.

To a large degree, I think that's what many of us - people who live in urban or rural neighborhoods in developed countries try to do when we escape to the mountains and rivers to hike, camp or sit by the water watching insects skim and birds fly.

We long to be part of the natural world. Some people already are. 

It was a good thing to see.

The hoatzin, AKA stinky turkey, has a disagreeable manure-like odor because of aromatic compounds in the leaves it consumes and the resulting bacterial fermentation in a ruminant-type pouch. It is hunted by humans only in times of dire need, according to Wikipedia. It's common, large, noisy with a show-off Mohawk top notch and is featured on the Kapawi logo.

Aww, the toucan! Much sought by camera carriers. Bonus that this one was about to eat a nut. The Kapawi area was thick with birds. All photos were shot within a few miles of the lodge.
Seems like wherever we are on the planet, we see birds that look like great blue herons. This is actually a cocoi heron, common throughout much of South America and closely related to the grey and great blue herons of North America, Central America, the Caribbean and the Galapagos Islands. (Wikipedia.)
   Horned screamers, large heavy birds, occupied space around the lodge and screamed often. Rude at night. 
Laurie Gerloff and moi. Also large and
 heavy, hanging around the lodge
screaming and were rude at night.
 Not to be mistaken for birds.

Masked crimson tanager. These tanagers feed in groups near water, and we saw plenty of crimson crowds from our cabins-on-stilts on the small Kapawi lagoon.  
Old blue eyes with white bill, AKA yellow rumped cacique, a regular at the lodge lagoon.

C R A W L Y  T H I N G S 
.My favorite caterpillar. What's with the white strip down its back? The fronds at each end? And the blue wiring? 

This one apparently got into some Styrofoam.
Ordinary spider but unusual circumstances on a night walk through the rainforest.
Tiny termites used by the Achuar as insect repellent. We joined our guide in smearing the termites onto our upper extremities. They had a pleasant cedar-like aroma. Regardless, mosquitoes were mostly no-shows.

A stick, walking.

                             F U N G I

Our guide was encyclopedic, but unless a fungi was medicinal, he didn't necessarily know its name. Case in point, this hooded monk with a curly black beard and a crocheted shawl, dancing in rotting leaves on the rainforest floor. Hmmm. Could have phallic implications. 

The black fungi fingers sticking out of sticks are medicinal. 
Guide Diego explaining that black fungi to us during our medicinal plants hike.
With a stiff wind I believe these ultra light shrooms would flutter.
Grains of rice stuck atop black wires?

Miniature marshmallows. But don't taste!

    R A N D O M  S T U F F

Red monkey spotted during our canoe ride into the Kapawi Ecolodge our first day in the Amazon. Monkeys are often present but are difficult to see, unless, of course, you're an Achuar man with a blowgun and poison dart, precision eyesight and dead-eye aim. Stores don't exist in this remote part of the Amazon, and monkeys are on the menu. (Not at the Kapawi lodge.)
A walking palm with colorful legs.
Twenty-foot tall tree ferns almost get lost in
 the rainforest's awesomeness.

But here's the most splendid tree of all. The giant kapok rivals the California redwoods, and is sacred to the indigenous people. Our Achuar guide Diego, pictured, has one foot rooted in the rainforest near this tree where he came of age in a three-day ceremony, and the modern world, which is encroaching.

Our trip to the Amazon basin opened to me a different reality. Simple yet complex. Raw. Exquisite.

I saw with my own eyes, and learned on a heart level, that people who look as if they've stepped from a National Geographic page are intelligent, resourceful, intuitive, skilled, creative, spiritual, and intrinsically wired into their natural world. Tourism, technology, missionaries and a hungry oil industry threaten their way of life, and together those threats create pathways to inevitable change.

Oil is Ecuador's number one economic driver. Tourism is second, and as tourists arrive with fancy phones and demands for hot water and wifi, and exotic cocktails with ice, we create little bumps of cultural distress that may one day become upheavals.

The oil industry has already engineered upheavals in numerous Amazon locations, and many more are in transition. But the Kapawi preserve area is, so far, mostly protected. Encroachment, I believe, is mostly in the form of big white people wearing khaki and carrying expensive cameras.

We're accommodated by Achuar guides who know and love the forest and river creatures and can imitate hundreds of bird and animal sounds. They make poison darts and blowguns from forest materials, and after felling a monkey or wild boar, can whip up a sharp "knife" from a slice of wood to dress out the prey and carry it home. 

Diego has made for us fishing line in about five minutes from fibers in a palm leaf. None of us could snap it.
Many others also possess these skills, he says. And I believe him. We didn't see even one store in five days because there aren't any. We did see a small market canoe that motors over from nearby Peru on the Pastaza River and stops at villages along the way. I regret we didn't go aboard.

Hunting. Communal gardens. If you want something, make it. Self sufficiency to the max.

But Diego also has a cell phone and a Facebook account and uses the lodge's feeble wifi to dawdle online. He's fluent in Spanish, and after a year of study, speaks competent English. He's studied in naturalist programs to be a guide, and he's excellent.

Kapawi Ecolodge reviewers on Trip Advisor rave about the guides. 

Most of all, he knows the language of the forest and draws wisdom from a tribal life we can only imagine. I wonder what he thought of us. I'm not sure I want to know.

 Note: PK read this post and calls me a romantic. True. My opinions and feelings are based on just five blissful days. I'm an amateur dabbling in anthropology, and an optimist who seeks and sees the positive. Nothing scientific here. I don't know enough about the status of women and children, for example, or education or healthcare beyond what the shamans provide with rainforest medicines. All I know for sure is that I was touched by a place and its people.


Amazon Adventure - Kapawi Ecolodge  - All about tramping around in the rainforest, gaining insights into Achuar culture, and seeing how various rainforest plants are used for just about everything from housing construction to medicine to spiritual enlightenment.

Off to a shaky start at Kapawi Ecolodge   But it was all good, even the fishtailing bush plane and the drink made from manioc and spit.


  1. what a wonderful trip! thanks for sharing.

  2. Wow! You think you know this world and then, bam! Something fantastical and spell-binding.

    1. Yes indeed. Bam! Visiting a place where life is complex on many levels but almost uniformly clear on humans' place in the natural world. Refreshing and instructive.