Monday, November 30, 2009


November 30

Leaving the Wilderness

Welcoming Huoarani Boy

Five days in the jungle feels like forever and like a moment. I did not want to leave. I liked the quiet and the calm of the place, and there was so much more to see, more to look for. Eric was frustrated because there was so much more he wanted to accomplish. There were too many distractions for him to gather the data he wanted.

Posing Under a Huge Ceiba Tree

After getting packed and organized and saying goodbye to Nelsy the cook, we piled our bags and ourselves onto the boat and headed upriver. The river was unrecognizable; it had risen several feet, and nothing looked the same as when we had driven down. Eduardo came with us. After a few hours, I am not sure how long because I have not had a watch for the whole trip, we arrived at the Houarani community. We climbed out of the boat and up a ladder over the eroded shoreline and were invited into a typical home. Several children and their mothers were waiting to greet us. Tied to a tree was a pet woolly monkey and a much smaller monkey was free to run around inside and outside the house. Two macaw pets flew away when they saw us. There were too many dogs to count and a tied up peccary the community was trying to domesticate without success. The Houarani's favourite pet is the harpy eagle, and they like to climb to the top of the ceiba trees to catch them.

Arriving at the Huoarani Community

Inside a Huoarani Home

Huoarani Living Space

The homes are simple constructions, made with palm leaf roofs and wooden walls. There is a fire in the middle to keep the room warm, but it was a warm day anyway. There was a pot with curare beign prepared, a blowgun much longer than a metre, and arrows and ceiba cotton. We all tried to blow arrows out of the blowgun, which was too heavy to hold. The floor of the hut was dirt, there were baskets holding things, a fish net, hammocks to sleep in, pots on one side of the room. A whole family lives in the one room. There is a space of a foot or so between the walls and the roof.

The women sit for us, some open baskets and show us handicrafts, which include purses and bags made from a palm tree. Several are pregnant, some look older than their apparent age, there are several children of all sorts of ages and only two young men. I wonder if the rest of the men are hunting.

We took a walk through the community. There is a meeting hall and a school which is not in session (we are told that the teacher, who is Quichua is away and so school is out). We ran into the Houarani man we had seen on our way down. He was proud to tell us that the hunting party that morning had killed a peccary, which is a prized meal for the community.

A Huoarani Family Joins Us

We walked through the community garden, with coffee and cocoa and yucca and fruits and vegetables and it appears that the group is entirely self sufficient, and of course they have to be, since they are so far from any civilization. When we arrive at our boat, which is a little further along the river, we discover that we are taking about 30 Houarani with us to the bridge and border of Huoarani territory. The boat is weighted down and I wonder if we will make it. Further down the river we take on more passengers. The young men who sit behind me talk nonstop throughout the ride, about one who visited Quito at some point and enjoyed his stay at the big city. They started talking their local language, but then switched to Spanish, which sounded odd, after hearing so much 'Hou' pronounced 'wow'. The Houarani have been 'civilized' for only a decade or two, but are already adapting to western ways and leaving their language and traditions behind.


Giovanni saw an anaconda on the way; it was small but my first sighting of one! Of course we saw birds galore all along the river, and most spectacular were the beautiful blue 'morphos' which are shockingly bright as they flutter along. We arrived at the bridge marking the edge of Houarani territory, where we catch our taxis to Coca. Several of our boat passengers join us in the taxis, despite the objections of our taxi driver who expresses concerns about safety. We meet the owner of the lodge and a former guide from Sacha who Eric knows well. We say goodbye to Giovanni, who is heading downriver again.

Huoarani Boy

Coca is wild and busy and we say our goodbyes and leave Marian and Hans behind. They are planning to take a bus to Quito and then head out to the Galapagos. Thomas is leaving for Lima and Macchu Piccu tomorrow. Javier leaves for his home and his radio career, and we fly back to Quito, all very dirty and smelly after so many days in the bush, tired, exhausted, and eager to see Maya, who has had a wonderful time with Isabel and her family and seems so grown up and composed. Home and a shower, although I need another and another and another to clean myself off after so many days without.

Pet Woolly Monkey

November 29

Sunshine and Success

Sun and Beautiful Skies

Finally a wonderful sunny day. Although I am sure I got as wet as I do on a rainy day. I was sweating a downpour throughout the hike up a mountain on the other side of the river to an incredible vista of the jungle for miles and miles below in the distance. We encountered woolly monkeys and howler monkeys along the way, and ran into deer tracks and peccary tracks and ocelot and tapir tracks but no actual sightings. We heard doves and parrots and woodpeckers and macaws, but saw none, and heard the very distinctive cry of the pija, which is a bird which is characterized by a 'leck', which is when the males make a circle and the female bird walks around and chooses which mate she will have. Invariably one or two of the male pijas tend to get chosen and the others fail every time. No one knows why it works out that way. We saw the pija high in the tree, but he was gone too quickly.

The River is Swollen After the Rain

It is remarkable how loud the forest is. There is constant noise, at least when the sun is out, and the animals are active. The birds never stop during the day and the frogs and insects create a symphony during the night, which I have become accustomed to, and am generally able to sleep through, except when there was a strange growling sound early this morning which woke me up. I did not dare leave the safety of my bed, shrouded by the mosquito net. Why I feel safe under my canopy I do not know, but it works to feel protected, not just against bugs, but against all else.

Flowers in the Jungle

I was up at 5 this morning, far too early and far too awake to do much else than wait until the rest of the group woke up. Our plan was to get moving at 7, so I stayed under the net 'til there was no choice but to get moving. Breakfast was yummy, with muesli, yoghurt, pineapple and banana pancakes. I was hungry throughout the walk yesterday, so I made sure to eat my fill this morning, so I would not suffer unduly. The hike today was shorter and much easier than the last two days, and we stopped a lot and looked at trees and plants and frogs and bugs. Although our guide Javier seemed disinterested and appeared to just go through the motions, Giovanni, who has worked at Shiripuno for several years now, showed genuine interest and enthusiasm for all the plants and animals and was willing to stop and explain and demonstrate to make it more interesting for us. He is amazing in that he knows exactly where to go through the overgrown paths and gets us where we need to go all the time. His hand was there to steady me when needed and when asked about any sort of jungle question, he was able to answer. He has spent a lot of time with the Houarani, has hunted with them. They hunt with no clothes on because the animals can smell them if they are dressed. They run through the forest all the time, and once they see the track of an animal they are off, with blowguns made with palm arrows, ceiba cotton and curare which they boil from a vine; they use their spears to kill peccaries and their blowguns to kill monkeys.

Poison Frog

Jungle As Far as You Can See

The Houarani used to be a very small tribe, and they kept their numbers low by regularly killing each other, but now that they are 'civilized' they are not killing and dying and are mixing with other tribes and growing in number. They are getting educated and participating more with the institutions, and are losing their language and their culture. We will be visiting the local community tomorrow and will see how they live now. We are in Houarani territory and are here at their leisure.

Monkey Running Away From Us

Woolly Monkey

Everything about today was leisurely. Our walk was calm and tranquil, and we stopped regularly to look at whatever there was to see. We lingered over the incredible view of the jungle from the 'mirador' and we strolled back to the boat. After lunch we just sat around. I tried to sleep but it was too hot, so when I got up I tried to aim for a plant with a blowdart and the arrows Giovanni had whittled at the mirador. Equavolley was next (volleyball with a soccer ball) and Eric, Marian, and Hans played against Giovanni, Javier and Thomas. Pamela and I kept score and Nelsy the cook laughed at us all. It was best out of five with the winners getting the cold beer and the losers the warm beer. It was hot and muggy so we swam in the river next.

Incredible Jungle View

After dinner, some of us took a night hike to a stream to look for Eric's fish, without much success. Eric and Giovanni continued the search while Pamela returned to check on her mist nets. She has been collecting bats and recording their echolocation signals with Eric. She collected several bats last night and tonight, and plans to bring some home to the museum at Catolica for further study. They are very strange looking creatures and emit high pitched screams when caught and handled. Eric and Giovanni found one excellent fish specimen, hardly what Eric had hoped for, but my impression with science is that there are many great plans and many near and total misses and Eric keeps on trying and working and hoping to find what he is looking for. He would rather have worked all the time while the rest of us were out hiking, but he was worried about the guiding and wanted to help make the hikes more interesting, which he always does. Unfortunately he was sick again and spent alot of time on the toilet the last two days. I am not sure why he is so often ill and I am always healthy (except I got swine flu and he did not) but I believe that is why he has lost so much weight during his time here and I have not. My flu is better each day. I am not sure if that is because of the Zithromax or the humidity or just time, but I am relieved!

Piping Guan

Swallow Tanager

We leave the jungle tomorrow. Time to return to civilization and put some order to our lives. We leave a dreamlike place, an alternative existence, a magical experience. Back to reality.

Jungle Sunset

November 28

Finding and Seeking

Rain, Rain and More Rain

I am afraid our tourists are not thrilled with their experience here. We woke up at 5 AM, had a quick breakfast, and then took the boat about a half hour downstream to the trailhead. Our destination today was a claylick on the other side of the river. The clay has minerals that are essential for survival for many animals in the jungle, so all animals find their way to the claylick. I have seen parrots and macaws at the claylick at Yasuni Park, but we were expecting to see peccaries and perhaps but not likely a jaguar. Of course it began to rain immediately upon starting our walk. It was not as bad as yesterday, but we hiked for almost three hours before arriving at the claylick. I try always to remind myself that the journey is the destination. We saw beautiful big trees, the ceiba tree being the monster of the forest and the favoured tree by the locals, but there are palm trees used to make roofs of the local houses, trees that provide the fibres for panama hats, palm leaves that are used to cook food in, trees that provide medicine, trees that provide the curare for blow guns, trees with flowers, trees that provide homes for other animals. The forest is green and dark, especially when it rains. Very little sun descends down from the canopy.

Beautiful Colours

Delicate Ferns

We saw deer tracks and peccary tracks and a few birds low down in the forest. Most birds are up in the canopy, and near the clay lick we hear macaws and find a red feather from a red macaw. We saw a squirrel with a bird egg in her mouth, running down a tree trunk. She looks like any other squirrel except her colour is a russet brown. We see squirrel monkeys again making a racket at the top of the canopy, and are lucky to see woolly monkeys too. They are curious about us and appear to be teasing us with the shaking of branches above us. They are entertaining to us and we are equally entertaining to them. They are larger than squirrel monkeys and are brownish with a red tinge to their coat, at least that is what I saw from far below.

Squirrel Monkey Peeking at Us

More Monkeys

Monkeys Laughing at Us

Woolly Monkey Wondering About Us

Ants are the most successful inhabitants of the jungle. We saw leaf cutter ants in their anthill, spread over a large area. They were busy bringing leaves to the hive, where they feed them to a fungus, which they then eat. There are different castes of ants in the colony: there are carrier ants and guard ants and attack ants and other ants with different jobs, quite an operation! We run into tiny ants that bite and burn and Pamela is bitten by the latter called 'candeluja'. There are army ants that have no hive and just keep moving, and it is difficult not to steep on ants , they are all over the jungle floor. We see armadillo holes at the anthills, where they are trying to dig for ants. We taste lemon ants in a particular tree that taste just like lemon.

Babies Left in Nest

Mother Bird is Back

The trail is hardly a trail, and it is difficult to see how Giovanni finds his way. We climb up and down hills, cross streams, slosh through mud, balance on logs traversing creeks, he uses his machete to cut a path through the forest and it is often treacherous. As wet as I was yesterday, today I am covered with mud from top to toe, in fact I am not sure I have ever been more dirty in my life. Arriving at the claylick only to wait fruitlessly for animals was a disappointment for all of us. We waited for the sun to come out, apparently the animals wait for the sun to go to the claylick, but the sun never came, so we turned around and walked back to the river.

Claylick was Empty

Javier Swinging on a Vine
Giovanni Climbing a Tree

We saw a few blue and yellow macaws as we motored back to the lodge, and arrived eight hours after we left, dirty, wet, generally disappointed. I must stop expecting to see things with each excursion, this not being a zoo, but the jungle, where everything is hidden and may or may not reveal itself to me. I am afraid that we may see very little this trip, and must be happy with the seeking and not the exhilaration of finding what we are looking for.

Blue and Yellow Macaws

Macaws Make Loud Noises

Colours are Amazing

Five Toucans Sitting in a Tree

Our afternoon excursion was fishing for piranhas down the river. We caught nothing for the hours we were out there. The fish seemed adept at taking the bait but not grabbing the hook. On our way back we looked for caiman, and were successful, finding one about a meter long, which Giovanni grabbed and brought into the boat. To find the caiman,you shine your light at the banks of the river and look for red eyes, the reflection of the retina of the creatures. Many dove into the water when we came near. They are truly prehistoric animals; they look like dinosaurs, with frightening teeth and scaly skin.

Prehistoric Creatures

Caiman Hiding

Eric and Pamela had their mist nets up when we arrived and showed us their bat recordings and the bat they had captured. Very strange looking mammals! The bats have a strange nose that has an attachment at the end that flips up. They have sharp little teeth, and bite at the cloth that they are captured in. They look very frightened. Pamela looks frightened too as she returns from the mist net with each bat. Catching them, handling them, killing them is not so easy.

Catching Bats

November 27

Rain and Waiting

Eric Working

Our accommodations are simple but adequate. We have a thatched roof and open walls, so there is no barrier between us and 'out there'. The jungle is in our room and we are in the jungle. Frogs sing all night, and insects join them, and I am sure there are other sounds I cannot identify, but all night is a concert that never ends. We sleep under a mosquito net, which is a little short, so I try to sleep in a tight fetus position and keep my feet from reaching past the end of the bed. My dreams during the night were strange and endless and it was a relief to get up. Eric had set his alarm for 6 AM so he could work on his equipment. He wants to catch electric fish and bats. When I arrived at his work area ( which is in the main lodge off the dining area) he showed me that he had destroyed some nine volt batteries in the journey and this is a serious problem for his work. He needs energy to charge his car batteries and his computers and has set up a generator connected to two car batteries and solar panels attached to the two computers. His work will occur in the night, but all the equipment must be prepared during the day.

Our Canopy Bed

Eric's Working Space

Breakfast was served across the courtyard in the main building with a tin roof. The sides are open and we have a view of the Shiripuno River and green all around. Our cook is a rotund woman with an attractive small round face and red hair. She is from Columbia and we are told that the Columbians are the best cooks. The driver of the boat and the all round 'go to' guy is Giovanni and he too is from Columbia and very 'guapo'. Javier is our guide, or at least is guiding us this weekend. He ordinarily works for a radio station in Coca but without electricity is unable to stay employed and since he has guided before and there were no other guides to be found, he will take care of us these next three days. His Houarani helper is Eduardo, or that is what he is called; his native name is too difficult to pronounce. Apparently Houaranis change their names regularly, so he may have a different name next month. He is an all around helper and will join us on our hikes.

Javier is not a good guide. He walked us for four hours through the forest in the pouring rain and stopped a couple of times, first to explain which vine is used by the Houarani for their poison darts. The vines are boiled and the black remains are cyanide and potent for killing. He stopped by a plant that is used by the locals to treat fever. I know from past visits to the forest that almost every illness or ailment has a treatment found in the plants in the forest. The locals are able to use the forest for all that they need to eat and to treat illness. I wish Javier and Eduardo would have taken the time to explain the wonders of the forest, which confirms the place as magical and unique. The rain poured down and did not stop until we arrived back at the lodge. We ran into a troupe of squirrel monkeys with four hawks hunting them. The monkeys made lots of noise as they jumped from branch to branch. Eric wanted to see the hawks make a kill, but instead they kept following the 50 or more little monkeys making their way across the top of the canopy.

The forest is different on this side than the north of the Napo. It is hilly, so we climbed up and down gullies and crossed streams (which excited Eric because he believed he would find his fish there later tonight). We saw many of the same tree species as we see on the other side of the river, although my impression is that the trees were not as big as I have seen before. This is not a flooded forest. Shiripuno is white water, the streams are black water. What characterizes this side of the Napo are the large mammals,one of which is the capibaras we saw yesterday. There are tapirs and peccaries and jaguars and pumas and ocelots on this side, but of course they are difficult to see because they avoid humans. A colleague of Eric's who was here last year saw a jaguar during her stay. That would be incredible for us. During the rain all the animals stay away and start to move once the rain stops, which is when we saw the monkeys.

Spider Monkeys

Lunch was followed by a siesta, but when we were to leave for the lagoon nearby to fish for piranhas, the rain began again. We found another troupe of squirrel monkeys behind the lodge, and some beautiful green and blue 'swallow tanagers', and a huge 'piping guan' high up in the trees. Hummingbirds were flying about, along with kiscadees, and other birds I could not identify, all who suddenly took advantage of a moment of calm, before the rain began falling in earnest again. Our fishing expedition never materialized, so we watched the rain fall until dark. Eric tried to set probes in the river to look for his fish, but was unsuccessful. Equipment failures are the norm for him, so much time and effort are devoted to fixing and rigging up equipment. Tonight he and his student Pamela will set up a mist net to catch bats (mursielagos), several of which will be killed and brought to the museum at Catolica University. He also plans to kill fish to find the species he is interested in.

Swallow Tanager in the Garden

The rain has made the day grey and overcast, but suddenly it is truly dark and night has fallen. The insects have begun their chorus, and the frogs will start soon. Candles are alight, almost everyone has a flashlight on their forehead, there are plans for much activity tonight.

Interesting Insects

Rare Colour Amongst all the Green

I am missing Maya. She has just finished her ballet class and is going home for dinner and violin practice. I wish I could call her and check on her. I think this is the first time I have been entirely out of contact with her. I am sure she is well, but it would be wonderful to hear her voice. It was the right decision not to bring her here. It was hot and miserable yesterday and wet and miserable today. She would struggle with the hours of waiting and inaction. Javier we telling us how when he worked in the United States, everything was according to the clock and he became accustomed to the race, but here in Ecuador he has settled in to the slow way of doing everything, and is liking it very much. It is still an adjustment for me.

Colourful Caterpillars

Thursday, November 26, 2009

The Journey is the Destination

Imbabura and Lago San Pablo From the Air

The journey is the destination. That was very clear today when our adventure began early this morning. After waking up Maya and sending her off to school (not to see her for five days which makes me anxious and worried), we met Pamela (or Wabita as she is called, not sure why) and piled into a taxi with all our bags (Eric was up all night preparing equipment, so we have five bags full of research related tools and two computers). I was amazed that we could all fit into one tiny little taxi. We stopped at Isabel's house to drop off Maya's music stand and instructions regarding her stay, as well as the unfinished cherry pie, which Maya requested. We met Thomas, a student at my Spanish school (Swiss, from Zurich), at the airport, and helped him get on a flight a little earlier than ours ( he was supposed to have a flight booked, but did not show up on the manifest).

View of the Jungle Through the Clouds

We saw Antisana volcano above the clouds as we flew north and east. Imbabura and Lago San Pablo were also visible. The jungle suddenly appeared through the clouds, the river red and silty against a carpet of green. Coca, or San Fransisco de Orellana as it is more properly called, is bigger and busier each time I visit. We met Marion and Hans, German tourists, and the representatives from Shiripuno at the airport, where we piled into a truck and rendezvoused with other associates at a hotel not too far from Sacha Lodge House. I was not sure what the pause was about, but later it became clear that the owner of Shiripuno Lodge had failed to arrange a guide for us. It turned out that there was a huge conference or community event with the guides and the Houarani occurring over the next several days and that neither the owner of the lodge or the usual other guides were available. Eric went off to find Luis, a guide we have used in the past at Sacha and who had a place in Pañacocha which we had visited years ago. He had always wanted to be a guide for us one day, but he too was unavailable and tried to call several colleagues, none of whom could help us. Finally, Patricio, one of the 'men in charge' found a young man who knew the trails around Shiripuno. I asked our driver if he was any good, but he demurred and only responded that Javier 'knew the trails'. Later I learned that we would try and pick up a Hauorani guide along the way.

We finally set off for the three hour drive through the jungle. It was hot and stifling and then raining heavily and I think I drifted off, when suddenly we were stopped at a clinic where we were informed that we needed a 'swine flu check'. We waited and waited on broken chairs watching women and their children waiting too. Finally each of us had our temperature and blood pressure taken. I was worried that my cough would give me away, but I managed to get through the check up without incident. It took about an hour and three of us left before realizing that we had only seen the nurse and that the other truck's occupants were required to see the doctor and get questioned and interrogated and examined while we were waiting and wondering what had happened to our companions at the river's edge where we were to embark on the next part of our journey. Needless to say, we were delayed for a significant period of time.

Entering Huoarani Territory

Our Boat for the Journey

Trees Along the River

When we finally left all together on our motorized canoe with our cook and our driver and our guide, it was far later than planned and we were told to expect a three hour ride. The forest began to reveal herself immediately, with oropendula nests and their occupants making their unique water droplet sounds. Eric pulled his bird books out and I could understand why birders get so excited. The birds were everywhere, and their coloring was stunning. We saw yellow caciques, white throated toucans, many banded aracaris, kingfishers and flycatchers and whilte banded swallows and terns and ducks and yellow and blue macaws and a red hatted woodpecker and black caracara with a red head and yellow headed vultures, curassows (big black birds), the list goes on and on. The birds were flying all about and we were looking left and right and up and behind to catch them all. At one point three capibaras jumped into the river on one side and swam to the other bank and climbed out and ran into the forest. They are big rodents, with square heads and bodies and are surprisingly good swimmers.

Huoarani Settlement

Huoarani Boy


Our purpose along the way was to find a Huoarani guide, and we stopped at a small community and asked the chief for help. The two or three usual guides refused to join us, so we kept stopping and asking and getting refused. Some were more traditional than others, most men wore only underwear, but the women and children were dressed in western attire. Two men had the huge earlobes hanging down ( they put a large seed or piece of wood in a hole in their earlobe when young). Finally a young man agreed to help us. It seemed that the lure of money did not attract these people. One man was going fishing and the other simply did not want to work. I later learned that the lodge was required to employ one Houarani with each group of visitors. We encountered a woman in the river trying to pull a string of boats along, her small son in one huge metal canoe, and her husband further along in a dugout canoe. She was sinking in the water and not making progress, so we had her throw us the line and hauled her boats along the river with her in the boat with us. He turned out to be the chief of the community and she the chief's wife.

Huoarani Hunter

The delays added up. Before long the sun was descending and we were traveling in the dark, further down the river and further from civilization. I was reminded of the Joseph Conrad novel, 'Heart of Darkness' and the movie 'Acopalypse Now'. We were charging down this river farther and farther away from the world we know, alone in the jungle, in the dark, The fireflies came out and then there was a massive downpour and we were wet and shivering and not at our destination yet.The boat slowed down in the dark and we huddled and shivered and prayed for an end to our misery. Finally we arrived at Shiripuno Lodge. There was no light and no electricity, we are truly in the middle of nowhere far from everything.

Night Falls on the River

We found our rooms in the dark and used candles and flashlights and changed out of our wet clothes. Dinner was surprisingly good and we discussed our plans for tomorrow. We have had an adventuresome day and have traveled far and seen an incredible amount of wildlife and an entirely other way of life along the river. Our journey has been our adventure.