Every morning, I wake to the sounds of dozens of birds and bugs and breezes, frantic and excited for another day of sun and rain.  I lift the mosquito net over my head, just enough to peer out the window into Armando’s plot of land, bursting with greens and changing every second as the early light grows and shifts.  There’s one tree back there whose trunk is covered in a creeper with round, neon little leaves.  The other day I was up to grab my book and spotted a Motmot in that tree, relatively still and silent with its brilliant blue tail hanging nonchalantly toward me.  I could hardly contain myself, searching for the binoculars without taking my eyes of that tail, sure that it would fly away just as I opened the case… but it stayed, just hopping up a few branches as I gawked from the open-air bathroom.

Why does nature express itself so creatively, so exuberantly, here in this particular place?  Sure, it could simply be a matter of humidity and heat, of eons of evolution and careful conservation efforts in recent years.  Who knows, it could even be that some divine being decided to bless these hills and valleys with its most inspired designs.  These days, though, I can’t shake the idea from my mind that there’s some sort of magic in the mix.  The glitter and flap of iridescent blue butterflies sweeps me into a world where magia becomes possible–even necessary.

This morning we dragged ourselves out into the sunrise, high above Mindo and past where the canopy tours run, to search for some of the thousands of bird species that grace this forest.  I had been out once before, alone, and saw dozens of gorgeous species, few of which I could identify.  Though everything is enthralling with or without a name, I was happy to have Armando pointing out bird calls and differences between males and females and subspecies along the way.  Of course the small lemon tanager males are more brilliant than the females, with blindingly yellow streaks under their jet-black wings; songbird sexes are always relatively easy to tell apart.  The toucans are harder.  There are not only males and females, but also at least three species that we saw– one with a distinct, red-spotted chest and two that look the same to my untrained eyes.  They were chatting and singing to one another across the gravel road, high in the trees but easy to spot, cocking their heads and preening their feathers.  Occasionally one would stretch its black wings out, feather tips silhouetted neatly against the sky, and glide silently to another branch.  Whether they were chasing each other, joking or teasing or crying longingly for a mate, I am left wondering.  How do they choose whom to love?  I find it hard to believe it´s simply a matter of the biggest beak or loveliest cackle.

But what do I know about toucan love?

Then there were the quetzals, stunningly sparkling and marine-colored.  They are normally scarce and certainly difficult to see perched in camouflage against the canopy, but today we saw at least three pairs, chasing one another and hunting for insects in the wide-open ravines that lead down to the Rio Mindo.  I surely would have missed them had I been alone, but Armando patiently pointed out each one and we stood in awe as their red tails flashed in and out of sight.  Instead of singing, sometimes they just laugh like hyenas, like they´ve got some secret I´d be a fool to guess at.

¨Qué más quieres ver?¨ asked Armando after we’d marvelled some time over toucans and quetzals, the two most magnificent, ¨exotic¨ birds to my eyes.  A hawk, a woodpecker, an eagle?

And just past the next curve, he shushed me over to look up at a branch hanging over the road, dripping with epiphytes: a hawk, silent and serious, glaring over the valley below.  He (she?) then starting calling, slowly and softly at first, almost gently, then crescendoing steadily into a wild war cry.  As it let out the last deafening pulse, it opened its wings and dropped away around the curve, out of sight.

As the sun finally crept over the canopy and my stomach started growling, I didn’t need to know much more.  That this place is perpetually happening, that its life force cycles in every direction, up and through every [damned] mosquito and [steadfast] hawk, every day of the year, doesn´t require that I know about it.  The fact that I can, just a bit… magic.

-Monday, May 2

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It was well past nightfall, raining off and on and freezing.  Hanes, my new friend from the FBU farm and weekend travel companion, turned to me: ¨I think it´s better that we can´t see much,¨ pointing down– down— to some tungsten lights in the valley below where our bus swerved and braked, jolted and rumbled from Latacunga to Zumbahua.  By now, the combination of hair-raising curves and inexact drivers doesn´t make me flinch, too hard.  I laid my head back again, dozing despite the cramped seat and line of locals murmuring in the aisle beside me.

When we arrived at Zumbahua, a small but vibrant community along the windy road to Quevedo in the lowlands, a young man immediately offered a cabinet to Quilotoa.  Gee whiz, we thinking we´d call it a day (early rise and harvest at FBU, Easter lunch of fanesca bean soup, and six hours of transit already), but… might as well catch a ride when it´s handed to you, right?  Unsure of how long we´d be shivering on the little board in the back of the camioneta, Hanes retrieved her sleeping bag and we huddled closer with another young woman at our side, swinging back and forth at every hairpin curve.  Zumbahua´s lights slowly disappeared as I noticed the shadows of the antiplano peaks against faint stars.  It had cleared, finally.  At long last, I was arriving at Laguna Quilotoa, a place I´ve dreamed about for months: high, thin air, chilly breezes, views of Mount Cotopaxi and rolling green fields below… and of course, the lake.  My sleepiness slipped away, and even before I laid eyes on Laguna Quilotoa, I felt more alive, bristling and giddy with anticipation.

Just look…

Sunrise over Laguna Quilotoa, with the twin Iliniza mountains in the distance.

Early morning, completely blown away by this place.  It looks similar to Oregon´s Crater Lake, but the trail around the rim is only 7.5 miles (compared to 35 miles).

The colors of the water shifted throughout the morning, from deep blue to bright turquoise and pale yellow near the edges.

Me and Hanes above the town, jolly and energized by the views and sun.  She spoke of how badly she wished her relatives could be there with us.  I can´t think of one person I know that wouldn´t love it.

Looking west where the clouds cleared for short glimpses of jagged hills.

The entire rim was llena with wildflowers: purple lupines, yellow columbines, bright pink bells, and even Indian paintbrush.  The alpine plains are livelier and more colorful than you might think.

Giddy after the biggest climb, looking south-east toward Latacunga.  Mind you, the town of Quilotoa is at 3850 meters, so we were huffing it at over 12,000 feet for parts of the hike.  My legs still ached a bit from the Quito-Mindo hike, but my lungs felt great.

About 2/3 around the lake, it started to fog over, rain, and even hail on us.  I hardly minded the frozen fingers and wet feet as we crossed paths with alpacas, lambs, and locals yelling in Kichwa about an impending mudslide we had to cross.  By far, one of the highlights of my time in Ecuador.

I walked more than a marathon yesterday, loaded with a pack, through mud and across streams, to return to Mindo from Quito.  Now every time I move my legs I’m reminded of the journey.  But it feels good.

I went to visit Armando again on Saturday, and after a couple days of hanging out with the beach bunch, we got it together to do the walk he´d mentioned many a time.  It actually runs from a small suburb south of Quito, called Lloa, and follows the Rio Blanco, which then joins with others to become Rio Cinto, past Volcán Pichincha and the thickening cloud forest reserve called Mindo-Nambillo.  Juanita, a friend who lives in Quito and expressed interest last time we talked about it, joined us in the afternoon, and we were walking by 4 pm.  With only two hours of daylight on Monday, we made it perhaps 8 kilometers in before night fell and it started to rain.

My feet were already aching from the rubber boots I´d bought for the trek.  We quickly set up our tents and huddled together to feast on some pork fritada, mote (hominy), papas, and sweet plantains we´d bought in Lloa.  The mosquitos were swarming our flashlight, just a thin netting between us and agony.  Although the rain continued off and on throughout the night and I woke up dozens of times to get more comfortable, we awoke dry and well-rested.  Miraculous.

For breakfast, I had the first bite of peanut butter since I left the states three and a half months ago.  Bread, banana, brown sugar.  Juanita was in love instantly (she lived in Houston for most of her life, though– how could she have missed banana-PB combo?) and was dreaming of those sandwiches for the rest of the day.

So, here´s the math: we started walking at 7:30 am.  Stopped at 9:45 for about a half hour to eat tuna and avocado (and a lot more).  Got slowed down at one point to scale a small, root-entwined cliff where the path had been swept away by the shifting Rio Cinto.  A couple pauses to take photos, gather water from little streams, or pop some toasted fava beans.  Stopped again at about 3:30 to eat, by then brain-dead, wobbly, and slap-happy.  Got picked up, joyous!, by a truck at 5:00 pm, just 4 km from Mindo.  All in all, we walked about 45 km (28ish miles) in 8-9 hours.  Not bad, eh?

Armando helping Juanita across one of the many streams.  She brought hiking shoes instead of rubber boots, but she quickly gave up on trying to stay dry and clean and ended up covered up to her shins.  Tough gal.

What with the distance still to travel, the sharp pains in my toes and feet, and the impossibly mucky, rocky terrain to concentrate on, I surely missed the majority of the scenery– not to mention the record diversity of plants and animals.  That said, I´m walking with some gems: the morning sun gilding epiphyte-covered guava trees, a section in pura selva that felt akin to the Old Growth Trail in Corvallis, gigantic heart-shaped leaves and hordes of yellow-beaked toucans and green parrots squawking over the way north.

Armando and I were cracking up all evening as we tried to hobble our way back to the house.  I went down for a 10-minute nap at 7 pm and ended up eating dinner when I woke, groggy, three hours later.  Even though we´re fit and strong, I guess walking a marathon with an extra 20 pounds requires a wee bit more training.

Martes, 12.4.11 @ FBU

6:20– First wakening, from the kitten that is now staying in the volunteer house.  I want to name it Pluma since it´s so light and feathery, and it´s face reminds me of a bird sometimes.  The German boys have given it a boy´s name, even though we already know it´s female.  Its whiskers tickle my cheeks as it rouses for the day.

6:30– My alarm finally goes off and I force myself not to fall back into my wild dreams.  I´m signed up to collect milk this morning (and show the new volunteer, Felix, where to do it), so I can´t drift back.  I throw off the four thick wool blankets and follow Pluma to the bathroom.

6:50– After leaving the two liters of fresh, still-warm milk to boil with Felix in the kitchen, I set back out in my rubber boots to feed the chickens and collect any eggs they´ve left over the weekend.  They are the same kind as our old chickens on Bell Avenue, and as I open the door to their run I´m bombarded by memories of leading Camus, Gloria, Rosey and Pollo around the back yard with a stalk of flowering broccoli.  They stare and cluck as I measure out their daily corn ration, chasing me to the feeder past verdant tufts of grass.  Something must be done to make them eat that grass.  The yolks just aren´t orange enough… but they´ll do.  Twenty eggs.

7:05– I retreat to my room for 20 minutes of yoga.  My mind switches back and forth between concentration ont eh stretches and everything there is to do on the farm.  The volunteer coordinator and de facto huerta manager, Fred, is in Guatemala this week doing a training in microbusiness, and he basically put me in charge of the garden while he´s away.  Yesterday I spent all morning flinging myself from bed to bed, feeling almost frantic about what needs doing.  Much of it is already planted, but the thought of manually preparing all the spent beds– hoe, deeply, in clay-mud, wheelbarrow compost and pumice, pitchfork it in, rake it out, shape the bed…– makes my back ache even more.  Ahhh, back to that stretch.  Temporary relief.

7:30– I emerge again for breakfast.  Today, since we´re one egg short of a full cubeta to sell in the afternoon, I go for oatmeal.  Mix water and milk, boil with oats, add salt, sugar, and cinnamon, and top with a couple of those famous ripe oritos.  No coffee for now, though I might buy some when we go to Intag later this week to pick up warm-weather produce from an allied farmer.  They have an association of organic farmers there, and they happen to produce the best quality café in the country.

7:50– Philip, another young German who´s here at FBU for a whole year (the gap year is paid for by the government if they choose social service like this), finally enters the kitchen.  I was about to go wake him up, since today is harvest day and, though I helped last week, he´s needed to direct the show.

8:00– I go out to ¨piddle around¨ until the others are ready.  I find one of the giant pigs with an hours-old litter of nine piglets, all dazzling and fluffy, stirring around her overfull teats.  One is laying, bare and soggy, ont he other side of the concrete pen.   It was stillborn, I learn later.  The rest look healthy and already plump.

8:20– We begin harvest.  Felix, Kirsten (another new German, a bit older and here for just a few weeks), and I set out to collect chard.  A sad crop, but we gather four bunches of ten leaves each, plus a pile of holey or old leaves for the cows.  Kirsten gets pulled out by Esteban, who runs the tree nursery, to help move 5000 saplings.  She wants to practice her Spanish anyway, right?

9:30– As we harvest, I can´t help jumping back to GTF last year.  The smell of lettuce butt as the ugly leaves fall to the ground.  How many times did it take me to make a presentable bunch of chard?  Delicate cauliflower leaves hugging the glistening head– almost coy.  And carrots: how I miss those power hoses on a muddy day.

10:00– Felix, Philip, and I finish the harvest: 4 chard, 2 celery, 10 head lettuce and 6 romaine, 14 beautiful broccoli, 8 cauliflower ranging from golf ball to plate-sized, a few tomate de arbol, 4 nice fennel, several zucchini, and a pile of stout carrots.  Last week we made about $15 selling to various restaurants and conscious individuals in Tabacundo and Cayambe.  Compared to Corvallis prices, our customers are some lucky SOBS.

10:20– I´m zig-zagging plastic string between two not-so-taut wires we´re just rigged for the sweet peas.  Poor things were flopping all over the place.  Despite the mud (and therefore kinda wiggly posts) and hand-tightened wire, I can already see the plants happier.  Two weeks from now the supports will be smothered, I reckon.

10:30– I sign out to make lunch.  Collect 6 or 7 loose heads of broccoli, a couple romaine, some neglected beets, arugula, and the carrots left over from Saturday´s sales on the Panamericana.  So much to do in the garden, but it feels good to walk away for now.

11:50– I´m ladling quinoa-broccoli-onion soup into the blender as people trickle in from work.  I want the soup to be cream of broccoli, so I do one more blender-full before carrying out the salad and boiled beets.  The soup is a successful experiment, chunky and creamy with a nice grainy texture thanks to the quinoa.  Lots of veggies for one meal, but I´m happy as a clam and relieved that everyone eats it without a fuss (… well, I´m the only one eating the beet greens…).

1:00– After cleaning the kitchen, taking the compost to the pigs, and collecting three more eggs to fill the cubeta, I need to lie down for a minute.  Nobody´s about to give me a hard time.  And besides, Valentine (the fourth German, here for a year) ends up reading and sleeping all afternoon instead of going to sell with the others.  It´s raining for the moment, though, so…

1:30– I´m back in the garden, somehow getting myself to hoe up a little bed where I want to transplant chard and onion.  After hauling compost and cascajo (the pumice), I´m only half disappointed to be forced under cover by the rain.  I retreat to start a project that´s been calling me since I first got here and spilled a handful of cabbage seeds while trying to find the rosemary packet.

2:00– The seed shed.  It´s a mess.   Filthy, like with rotting potatoes against one wall and a pile of semi-fresh cow shit right in the middle.  (Why, cow, here?!)  I get to work, piling and sorting what I can on the floor (boots, old milk jugs, animal medicines, bunched sheets…) before honing in on the seeds.  Most are in a plastic storage bin, but some are lying out in packets or cans, and even in the bin there´s exactly zero sense of organization.  After a half hour or so of sorting and deciphering hand-written labels, I´m standing in front of a shelf full of plastic cups: the Brassica, the lettuces, the onions, etc.  At the bottom of the bin, I find a big bag of soy beans and couple disintegrating baggies of purple corn.  And sunflower seeds!  I´m excited.

4:00– After a proper inventory with Felix and another six eggs collected from the henhouse, I sit down with a cup of German black tea and try to make sense– for the second time in a week– of what needs to get done in the huerta.  Seeds we have, seeds we need, starts ready to transplant… and to top it all off, what phase of moon we´re in.  Today´s the first quarter, so five days from now ill be perfect for seeding fruits, leaves, and bus crops.  Roots and some leaves are best left for once the moon is waning; the gravity shift pulls all sap and water (and blood, apparently!) downward, so roots develop faster.  Vice versa for fruits (sap and water pulled up by the waxing moon means greater production above ground)– but leaves like lettuce and arugula are a draw since we´d like big leaves but no flowers.  How much of a difference does this practice actually make?  Lots, according to the old volunteer coordinator and most farmers here.  I believe it, but for now I´ll worry more about getting anything to grow at all.

5:10– I´m running down toward Picalqui, the nearest village, and somehow I´ve dodged the rain.  It´s easy flying downhill, long as I don´t slip or trip over bumpy grass or cobblestone.  Once I hit the valley floor and begin to climb, I remember that I´m at almost 10,000 feet.  Huff.  But hey, it´s easier by the day.  To distract myself, I remember my mantra from running with Marco: ¨Fuerza fuerza no se para!¨ I wonder if I have a future in garden planning, and what adventures I´ll get up to with Maria in May.

7:00– As we eat mashed potatoes and frittata prepared by Felix, he and Valentine try to teach me some German.  They´re insisting that you can never write how someone speaks (like, ¨Gimme that¨ or ¨Nothin´to it!¨) in German.  Blasphemy, they say.  One day, perhaps I will understand.  For now, my English has gotten more clear and proper so they understand me, and I can never quite figure out whether I think and dream in Spanish or not.  Almenos un poco.

9:30– After writing all this, I go out to brush my teeth and am pleasantly surprised and amused that the whole house is dark.  We be tired.

I went to the coast, again.  Got swept away by a gorgeous sincere friend, his ¨Chilumbiano¨ friend and employee, a Yankee turned Ecuadorian, an English couple now living in Mindo and their visiting friend, a German-Ecuadorian woman who runs a hostel in Mindo, and two goofy guys from the same town.  All in all there were ten of us, plus the driver of our little van and his wife.  From Mindo, we took off Sunday afternoon and made it to the ocean at sunset.  Feet in the Pacific again, I was thinking ¨Why did I ever leave the coast?!¨  We slept in Canoa, that little town I stayed in earlier this year, for two nights, lazing in the sun all day and exploring the critter-covered rocks down the beach.  I assumed, with some trepidation, that we would be partying all week since this group tends to meet up at Armando´s bar on the weekends.  We stayed tranquilo, though, until we got to Montañita on Tuesday.  That town is renowned for its alternative, festive, party scene (not to mention its killer surfing waves), and the minute we arrived I could tell why.  There were jugglers and artisans lining the main street, bars and restaurants and hostals at every corner, and loads of clothing and surf gear shops.  

 

Outside ¨Pais Libre¨ Hostal in Canoa with Armando.

 For the first time since I arrived in Ecuador, I stayed out well past my bed time dancing and gallivanting around with Armando, Sergio (the Chilumbiano), Marco (the American-Ecuadorian who tended to play the role of padron), and whoever we happened to run into on the street.  I practiced my poi with some guys that seemed to have been there for years, ended up with a panama hat on my head all night (some of you know how I get with hats), and couldn`t stop dancing despite the suffocating heat.  I wanted it to happen again the next night… but times like that can`t be anticipated, can they?

After Montañita we crowded back into the van and continued down the Ruta del Sol to Salinas, where Marco has an beachfront apartment.  We took turns cooking dinners and lunches as teams and I managed to completely lose sight of any routine or discipline I usually keep.  Beach, cool ocean (since it`s out on a peninsula it`s not the normal bath-water in other towns), strolls, gazing out from the eighth floor balcony, and lots of lazing. 

The view from Marco`s apartment in Salinas.  Ahhhhh…

Too much lazing, as it turned out.

When we returned to Mindo last Sunday, I knew it was time to leave Armando and Mindo for a while and find something more productive and satisfying.  I needed a return to routine, to space and time for myself, and to something more structured.  I know, I just wrote about how I needed to let go of everything for a while… and I did.  I threw myself head first into a no-plan, a road trip led by almost-strangers, and a potential love.  I guess it took all that to remind me at my core that Apollo– the god of order, discipline, and work– is just as important in my life as Dionysus, the goddess of chaos, revelry, and play.  Sometimes I forget… okay?

La playa en Salinas

The gang.   🙂

… And now, after over a month in the Ecuadorian Amazon– a month of tranquil but intense learning, reflection, and healing– I am suddenly back in the urban jungle of Quito.  It feels a bit strange to say goodbye to the eastern lowlands, as I doubt I´ll return on this visit, but also exciting and invigorating to be moving on.  I feel, finally, ready to approach my travels here with a new attitude: one of flow, optimism, and release.  A beautiful word I learned a while back, suelta, encompasses this attitude (which I am still nurturing and which I will, I imagine, always have to cultivate since I tend to grasp hold of plans and goals).  It means to let go.

So I am letting go of a few things that have been holding me back in various ways, superficially and subconsciously.  First, the desire to ¨learn Spanish¨ has admittedly taken me to wonderful places and people and presented a firm base for my travels, always trying to seek out Spanish speakers and converse with whoever is around.  Fortunately, it´s brought me miles and miles beyond what linguistic skills I arrived with, but it´s also stood as an artificial block between me and other travelers who don´t speak much castillano.  I know I´ve been cold and rather closed to those people in comparison to Spanish speakers, even though they might have enriched my experiences beyond compare.  This goal, then, is settled as it stands.  I will obviously continue to speak mostly Spanish, but I´m letting go of language in favor of people.  Any people who brighten the way.

Also, my apparent need to feel productive, professionally, whatever that means, is purposefully slipping through the cracks.  I came here with motives to gain valuable career experiences, but what I´ve realized after my three volunteer stints is that even an official volunteer program doesn´t guarantee specific skills.  Rather, any volunteering simply provides opportunities to learn, informally for the most part, about myself, my interactions with others, and whatever task is at hand.  Instead of coming home with a particular resumé line, no matter what I do I`ll come refreshed and brimming with new experience.  So, rather than worrying another minute about finding the perfect organization or farm to work for, I´m hoping to just soak it all in, whatever it happens to be, attentively and energetically.

That´s what´s been going on in my head the past week or so.

And what have I been doing?  I found Saraswati through a couple friends near Marco´s farm, and headed up to Tena last Thursday to check it out and volunteer.  The family that owns the farm is an English-Colombian couple with a young son, and since they own an English language institute in Tena they were often absent from the finca itself.  However, the husband Benjamin sleeps there and every morning he and his two helpers, Parsad and Pablo, practice bhakti yoga, which entails chanting Hare Krishna, mantras, reading holy books, playing soft instruments at 5:30.  After an hour of wafting back and forth from sleep, I would awake every morning to practice yoga postures with Pablo.  Early, but if you know me you know I loved it.  As for work, I went to help at the school on Friday and Sunday, playing and saying random English words to the 2 and 3 year-olds that come every morning, and on Tuesday we all planted some trees and made cane juice.  Unfortunately I have to cut this short, but if you´re interested in hearing more about the Hare Krishna culture and traditions, which are all fascinating and rare, I would love to share more.  All my love.

Sideways making cane juice in the hand-crank mill.

I said goodbye to the new family I´ve found in the jungle yesterday.  Marco left in the morning to conduct a malicagua ceremony for a visitor, and Maria and I cried into each other´s arms for a few minutes in the living room.  I will carry the best of memories from Quindi Pakcha, the Waterfall of the Hummingbirds: ever-riveting conversation and stories from Marco, heaps of organic home-grown food, sprinkling corn and collecting pasture grass for the birds and guinea pigs, and even hearing the many stories of suffering and challenge from the extended family.  I left feeling enriched.

My last week there, we managed to finish one project that I helped fund with a generous donation from a friend.  We painted the main gate a bright turquoise, sanded several wavy boards of acha caspi wood, and painted them into beautiful, welcoming signs for the entryway.  A taste…

Yes I painted all the black lettering!

Marco and Danny, the other volunteer from Canada that came two weeks ago.

Finished!  (Minus some vines painted on the posts)

Con María.

 

And now, I´ve arrived anew.  Just a couple hours north of Puyo lies the town of Tena, another busy industrial town that´s turned heavily toward tourism in recent years.  Well, in Tena proper the main attraction is rafting, but I´m already overwhelmed by the number of indigenous, community-based tourism projects lie deeper in the jungle nearby.  It´s impressive, and encouraging, to see so many communities taking the future into their own hands.

The place where I´ll stay this week is a bit different, though.  It´s called Saraswati, and it´s a finca run by an English-Colombian couple and two young men that all practice Hari Krishna.  They are vegetarian, make food offerings before each meal, and practice bhakti (devotional) yoga every morning at 5:30, followed by ¨regular¨ yoga that I´m excited to join.  Their property is spectacular, with very well-tended papaya, cacao, sugar cane, banana, and many other typical plants.  I am looking forward to a calm, purposeful week of learning and seeking.

I hope you´re all well!

I was sitting, eyes closed, in the lap of a wide, white tree in the pasture far behind Marco´s house.  The moon, waxing crescent, had just set behind the wall of forest to our backs, and the stars were sparkling bright as fireflies.  In one sense, I was alone with just a backpack and machete.  In every other, I was with multitudinous company: one by one, I tried to hone in on each sound in the darkness.  Though I recognized none, I knew the raucous calls spoke of grasshoppers, frogs, cicadas, and a haunt of nocturnal insects.  There, an owl.  Here, a growing swarm of mosquitos trying to poke its way through the shirt I´d tied around my head.  My breath, finally calm.  Layers upon layers of foreign sound; I could barely hear a thing.  Then,

POWWWoooaaaaooo!!!

One single shot.  In the half hour I sat there listening, I had almost forgotten why I was there.  Marco had been sitting silently, as well, just a hundred meters away in the forest, high up on two logs we´d tied around two trees.  From his lookout in the darkness, he was waiting over the feeding grounds of the wanta, a large rodent that only comes out in the darkest hour of night.  Oh yes: it all came back to me before the echo of munitions faded into the animal chants of the night.  Oh yes: we had arrived around sunset to fix the lookout, re-tying and testing the logs, tracking the wantas´ previous feast of forest fruits, calling back and forth to a wakening owl in the distance.  The moon was still high in the sky when darkness set, so we went to fish until the silvery light disappeared.  We dug wriggly worms by the stream nearby, hooking them tightly and letting them sink to the mud under dangling grasses.  We´d caught about six little barbudas, similar to catfish, before Marco went to chase an armadillo that was digging around the hill we faced.  No luck this time…

(…Unlike the time he went wanta hunting last week, when he brought home a fully grown male armadillo in the backpack instead.  I was convinced to de-scale, peel, and clean it that night, concentrating on each square inch of skin or shell in order to ignore the stench.)

I digress.  By the stream, Marco returned as I held the ad hoc fishing pole in the moonlight, waiting for one more nibble.  The night was still young, we already had a bag of fish, and we were still full of energy from the chonta that afternoon (a type of palm fruit that´s orange and savory, boiled and peeled with salt and cup of coffee), so we set off through the jungle to bag more fish in a bigger river.

The sensation of walking at night is dizzying.  I mean, walking even on a sidewalk in pure darkness can be harrowing, ¿no es cierto? And, of course, walking through the forest at Opal Creek at night, hurrying with head lamps to find a campsite, is even more disquieting.  So this night in the selva amazónica— surrounded by utterly foreign smells and sounds and sensations as I passed through brush and stepped over nurse logs– was quite possibly the most alien experience of my life.  On the hunt as we were, I tried to stay alert and aware of all the noises around us, but it was nearly impossible for me to differentiate what Marco knew instantly as a grasshopper or bat.  It was all I could do to keep up with him, tread quietly over the sea of leaves and sticks at our feet, and try to not panic as we crossed slippery rivers and searched for wanta along the way.  We stopped to fish at a larger, slow bend in the river, keeping our lights off to not frighten the barbudas.  Marco called to the monkeys in the distance and huffed deeply to communicate to the little jaguar across the way that we were peaceful.  I sat, utterly stupefied, mechanically stashing each fish he caught in a pocket of the backpack.  For all my time and attention here, I realized I knew practically nothing of this forest.

At the next stream we were along the edge of the trees again, and I waited in the pasture for a moment as Marco fished.  Looking uphill at the sparse tree trunks in the last rays of white light, I imagined I was in the oak savannah of the Willamette Valley.  Bald Hill, or Avery Park, or even down around Mount Tamalpais in California.  For a few breaths, I ignored the jungle air and incessant chant, and I felt safer, steadier, sturdier–  like I could teach Marco something, this time around.  Then the aroma of orchids wafted by, I caught a whiff of my jungle sweat, and the vision morphed back.

Marco always tells me, si tienes confianza en la selva, te puede dar tanta energía, tantas cosas.  If you trust the forest, it will give you lots of energy, many gifts.

Just trust it.

The moon was falling fast along the horizon, so we started back the way we came.  The wanta would be coming out soon to search for food underneath Marco´s lookout post.  Along the way we stopped just once as the wavering whistle of nocturnal monkeys approached.  In the trees above, they bounded and leapt loudly, stopping at a safe distance to watch us watching them.  The size of large cats, they shifted curiously as their beady yellow eyes reflected Marco´s torch. Tan bodies into the trees.  The night was full.  We trekked on.

That is how I came to be sitting, eyes closed, in the lap of a wide, white tree in the night.  After the shot rang the songs of night continued undisturbed, but I was waiting anxiously for Marco to emerge from the forest´s edge.  When he finally did, flashlight bouncing along the tips of pasture grass, I peeked around the smooth leg of tree, squinting into the light, and spotted one delicate paw dangling at his side.  It was a young one, just three months old according to the fat on her belly, soft and warm and heavy.  We were happy, and I congratulated Marco for his long-awaited wanta.  On the long walk home, as we stopped suddenly here and there to listen for armadillos in the brush, I reached behind me to feel the its silky fur sticking through a hole in the bottom of the backpack.  I wished I could have seen it alive, pawing through the forest floor with its little toes, gnawing on pasos or uvas amid the grasshoppers´ crescendo.

But you know, I was also happy to see it scorched and brushed clean the next day.  I was happy to learn how to take its guts out and chop its spine into meaty hunks.  Most of all, I was happy to savor each bite of its fried meat, tender and fatty like prime rib, over a pile of boiled plátano and wash it down with fresh warm milk.

As Marco would say with a thick accent, This is jungle life.

Marco and the wanta.

I learned how to bleed a chicken before breakfast on Friday.  I was hungry and sleepy when Marco stalked off to the hen-house, his wife Maria shaking her head and smiling, and I quickly slipped my sandals on to follow him when he returned with a half-dead, shaking black chicken.  He´d already broken it´s thin, straggly neck, and we knelt behind the bathroom to let out its blood.  A quick nick under the beak, hold the spastic body tight under a bag until the spurting stops, shake firmly, and we´re ready for breakfast.

No, we didn´t eat the chicken for breakfast.  We had bolón instead, a dish that´s fast becoming a staple in my life: boiled and mashed plátano, papa china, or, this morning, green oritos (those deliciously sweet mini bananas), mixed with onion and tomato and topped with cheese or a fried egg.  Along with a cup of steamy, panela– (raw sugar) and café- infused milk that a woman drops off every couple days on her way back from her cows, any combination of jungle food gets me going in the morning.

Boiled papa china

Fresh oritos, which we´ll cook like plantains until they ripen into mini bananas

Take this morning.  I went for a run as the sun rose over the eastern lowlands, doused myself thoroughly in the chorro (a small stream a few minutes from the house that´s been crafted into a flowing ¨shower¨), and plucked a few tender yuca leaves on my way back from the stream.  Since Marco went to town with his wife for groceries, it was the first breakfast I´ve made alone since I arrived, and oh boy was I pleased with myself.  Steam-fried papa chinas with a few oritos and onion, topped with yuca leaves and cheese, a fried egg, and a steamy cup of sweet coffee.  For lunch I made practically the same, though less gourmet: boiled oritos in their peels (they slip out easily once they´re cooked) with an egg and a healthy dose of ají sauce to spice it up.

If you really are what you eat, I am quickly becoming this finca.  Even the selva is making its way into my bones.

Plato de oja, eating lunch in the forest during our leaf-harvest

On Thursday, we set out with María (Marco´s wife) and a group of gringos staying at a farm near her house to collect more paja (leaves) for the thatch roofs.  We had already brought home 6 bundles (negotiated at $3 each since it´s ¨u-pick¨) on Wednesday, each containing over 100 of these giant tojilla leaves, and we only needed two more.  While Marco and María chopped the leaves down from their lofty stalks, I and the others took them up and with both hands split each leaf down the middle, sorting the sides and keeping a loose, generous count for the new bundles.  It´s fun, sticky work, and I managed to see dozens of new flies, beetles, caterpillars, grasshoppers, and other bichos of dazzling colors and shapes.  With 12 hands, we finished quickly, left the bundles on the side of the road, and started walking further adentro the forest.

The rest of the day was a moving feast in the forest, nibbling here and there on various fruits and seeds.  María has a plot of land on her sister´s property with plantains and bananas, but when we went to collect them we found that they had all, tragically, been eaten by monkeys and wantas.  With empty hands (well, except a couple stalks of sugar cane to gnaw), we moved back to the road, to the strip of land owned by the farm where the other gringos volunteer.  The owner had constructed a hut up further into the forest, so we made our way to it, slowly at first gathering guayaba (what we call guava, I think) and delicious guava (a huge green pod dangling from the trees full of fuzzy white fruit), then quickly as a strong rain shower easily soaked us.  We waited out the last half of the shower in the hut, but restlessly ventured out again once it abated.  Marco wanted to check on the paso trees nearby, which were mostly unripe– the only ripe one we found has a bright orange inner peel and tasted nutty, slightly sweet.  The fog that had rolled in blocked any view we may have found, so we climbed and slipped our way back down toward the road.  And suddenly a crazed squawking and flapping caught us for another stop in that brimming jungle: we´d surprised a pava, a type of small, turkey-like bird that roams the treetops and some days acts as a flawless alarm clock, that was chomping on seeds high up in a tree by our path.  The seeds, called cundshaya (pronounced cunjaya in my mind), look like dark olives and happen to be a favorite treat for people who know them.  Call him fearless or foolhardy, Marco didn´t hesitate to climb the tree trunk (without branches for the first 6 meters) and begin harvesting the seed bunches as María and I scampered about, collecting seeds, fending off angry ants, and dodging the heavy bunches that Marco tossed down.  In the end we almost filled his small backpack, and we´ve been snacking on them, after a quick soak in tepid water, ever since.  The bitter, dark skins are supposed to heal kidney infections.  At the very least, I can tell by their taste and color that they´re full of nutrients and healthful chemicals.

I´m getting hungry with all this talk of comida.  It´s a half-hour bus ride back to the farm, so I might buy an ice cream (what a treat here!) or roll to hold me over until I can cook some real hearty jungle food.  When I leave in two weeks, I can tell that my tissues will sorely miss their daily dose of Amazonian finca.

It´s amazing how quickly my life can change, and how easy it is for me to sink into a new form of living.  I am now living about 30 minutes south Puyo, just on the edge of the Ecuadorian Amazonía, with a man named Marco.  He happens to be one of the few practicing shamans outside of the interior forest (where some tribes still live relatively traditional lives), and for the next three weeks I will be learning from him, working for him, and doing a good deal of time-passing on the beautiful property he care-takes.  On Wednesday, after almost a full, lazy day of rain, we woke before sunrise to walk in the forest…

After about a half-hour of walking through cattle ground (mostly tall maiz-like grass spotted with palms), as the sun´s light gradually flooded the valley, we reached the first river.  ¿Tienes miedo de las alturas? Marco asked as we approached.  Well, No, normalmente no… This crossing didn´t change that: just a log, rather slippery, a foot wide and only 5 or 6 meters across to the other side.  I chose not to look away from the log as I stepped along, but in retrospect I´d guess the fall would have been about 12 feet.  Not bad.

From this first river, we continued through tall grasses– now more scarce among the forested pockets– and Marco pulled a bunch of tiny coconuts, still a bit bitter, down from a tree for us to suck on.  Further on we found a delicate menthol plant, roots pungent and refreshing, then a ¨crab´s claw¨, a type of thin red stalk with a rhubarb-like texture that subdues thirst.  Soon we found a couple of plants used in the wedding ceremonies of his ancestral tribe, the Andoas of Peru: a long thread-like vine that they would wrap over the shoulders and around the torso and waist of the bride and groom, then tied around their joined wrists to signify their union.  The ceremony then continued, rather bizarrely by Western standards, as such: the bride and groom were rubbed head to toe with an aphrodisiac plant whose leaves smell strongly of cloves and cinnamon, then lead to a bed of heart-shaped leaves on the ground.  To complete the marriage, they would then make love, all riled up from the aphrodisiac, in the middle of a circle of elder witnesses of the tribe.  After this, they would sit on a pile of ortigas (akin to stinging nettle) to awaken their energies and ensure a productive, fruitful life together.

I wish I could videotape every single conversation I´ve had with Marco.  It is all that fascinating.

The cinnamon-scented uagra simaiyucca, a traditional aphrodesiac.

On with the selva.  At the next river, Marco crossed with a rope swing but then accidentally let go of the rope… so, I proceeded to hack away at a nearby tree with his machete in order to fashion a pole to rescue the rope.  Machete hacking is harder than it looks, and I don´t fully understand how he can clear so many branches and ferns as he walks along– ching!  ching!– so nonchalantly.  We ended up walking along opposite banks after I caught, threw, and re-lost the rope over the river.  Boots off to avoid flooding my feet, steady does it through the current, and we arrived on the other bank.  Finally, selva primaria.  One of the only parcels this far west.

Almost immediately, Marco pointed out the sound of a jaguar off in the trees, alert to our smell, and he reminded me to stay close– don´t stray too far back– because jaguars always prey on the last person in line.  This species was relatively small of rosey-tan in color like a puma (though we didn´t see it)– the same kind that he once encountered at night, alone, stalking along the forest floor.  It´d scampered off when Marco finally directed his flashlight in its eyes.  He´s also run across a black panther, bigger and more aggressive, but it, too, snuck away rather than confront him.  Soon after the jaguar´s soft call faded, we stopped to smell the spicy bark of a tree and were soon running downhill after what sounded like a monkey, about 50 meters away.  After just a couple glimpses, Marco could tell it was only an ardilla, a type of squirrel.  Still looked like a monkey to me!

Eventually, after many more stops to look at plants and tree bark and listen to bird calls, we arrived at the Quindi Pakcha: Waterfall Where the Hummingbirds Nest.  All around were these bright red flowers, Labios de Mama Negra, which start as luscious lips and eventually turn into leaves, like a poinsettia.    The waterfall itself is small but magnificent, and the area around it is steadfast and calm, with huge fern fronds hanging over its banks, giant trees loaded with epiphytes at every bend, mosses and river shrimp and giant iridescent blue butterflies flapping downstream.  Like a dream, hidden yet more real than anything in ¨our¨ world: lemon tea, porches, reggaeton bumping from the cafe next door.

At the waterfall with Labios de Mama Negra.

Without much delay, we stripped to our swimsuits, gingerly stepped out along a log overhanging the cascada, and whump! jumped into the bubbly mess below.    Ah yes, before that, though, Marco asked if I´d been in any selva or river here before, and proceeded to rub a plant that grows all along its banks over my arms, head, and legs so that the river would accept me and keep me from harm.  It worked.  Swimming in that freezing water revived me like nothing had since the coast– the water smelled different from any I´ve ever jumped in, almost musty but still clean and fresh.

After we swam a bit, we sat on a rock in the river while Marco recounted more of his history.  It was at this waterfall, about 20 years ago, that his brother began to teach him and impart his shamanistic powers.  Each morning they would rise from their nearby camp just before 5 am in order to beat the hummingbirds to the waterfall.  The tiny colibrí bathed and drank at 5 am sharp every day, and the brothers came before them so that they could receive the full strength and power of the cascada.  He grew up very near to this spot, before there were roads or power or people.  His father died when he was just 4 years by falling from a roof he was fixing; he is suspected to have been negatively affected by a rival shaman, and Marco´s father actually foresaw his death under the influence of a powerful forest plant, maricahua, that shamans use to foretell the future, converse with plants, and solve mysteries.  Marco grew up here with his mother and brothers, tending small plots of yucca, papachina, and maíz heavily supplemented with the forest´s abundance: foot-long fish in every river, snakes, monkeys and meat from all kinds of other mammals.  Before the highway was built when he was 12, before people flooded the region to hunt and log and mine resources, before his family had the opportunities to watch TV, buy new conveniences, and listen to modern music, Marco and his family hunted with blow guns, tips laced with a precious mix of three rare jungle plants.  Their shirts and dresses lasted years out of necessity– they took the best care of them because they only had one.  When the highway first came, they were elated to have better contact with the outside world; it was a welcome treat and change from such a rustic life.  By the time Marco began school at 16 years old, he had begun to notice that the animals were scarcer–his only clue of a disappearing forest and way of life.  Still, after stopping high school in his early twenties, he didn´t fully realize the gravity of change in his homeland, and he proceeded to marry, have kids, and work in town.  When his brother, who´d learned the shamanic ways from their father before his death, began to pass on that wisdom– entering the selva and cultivating a vast knowledge of all the plants and animals there– Marco finally fully realized the irreversible changes that the highway has brought.  Now, organizations and citizens´groups are sometimes plagued by corruption and misguided decision-making in the face of intense pressure from extractive industries.  From where I stand, people like Marco– truly dedicated and determined to retain their dwindling oral knowledge and conserve what forest remains–are the brightest hope for this forest in a world gone mad for money and ¨progress.¨

River-crossing on Saturday with two Italian guests.

There is so much more to share, and I hope to upload photos and descriptions of more of the curative plants that I´m getting to know.  For now, here´s a short list of some of the things Marco and this forest could help you with:

Blood-coagulant to slow snake venom (bark), labor-inducer and pain relief (large pink flowers), abortions (leaves with blood-red spots), varicose veins (leaves with purple undersides), cancer prevention (small striped leaves), wart removal and circulation enhancer (tree with blood-red sap), stress reduction (long leaves), and removal of mal aire in a bath of several leaves.

I would love to hear more comments and questions, as I have way too much to share and could use some starting points!