Thursday, January 21, 2010

Jungle Dreaming

Rainbow Over Pilchicocha

It rains in the rainforest even if it is the dry season, although it is particularly dry this year and there is far less water than usual. When we landed at the Sacha lodge dock on the Napo, we had a beach to walk on, which is not usually the case ( usually water goes right to the dock). The rain pounded down furiously for a half hour before we left his morning, and there were few animals about when we took the canoe across Pilchicocha Lake and entered Anaconda Creek. We saw flowers, a few orchids, a 'guan' and a 'hoatzin', but few other mammals. Instead, Bengy, our native guide explained the use of the rumipanga, a leaf that is used to cook food over the fire, and the use of the cheese grater palm that locals use to grate plantains and other vegetables, and another palm that is low to the ground and is used to make a game with a centre section that works as a boomerang if thrown correctly. He cut heliconia flowers to turn Maya and Doug into forest sprites, and Francisca talked about the kinds of forest, including igapo (black water flooded), tierra firma (never flooded) , vareza (white water flooded). The vegetation is characteristic for each type of forest.

The guides fill in with traditional cultural practices when the animals are not showing themselves. Bengy is from Tena which is upriver. He is Quichua, which a a people that have lived along the shores of the Amazon for 500 years, but were originally from the Andes, and moved away from their homes when the Spaniards came. They have learned to survive in the rainforest and have customs and traditions appropriate to their new environment. They speak Quichua. Most of the native guides at Sacha are Quichua, and live in Coca or Tena. They are a treasure trove of information about survival in the rainforest. They use the plants for medicine and to build their homes, to make their weapons and to cook their food. I am always amazed at how alert and observant they are. They see the animals long before anyone can, and point them out when they are invisible to everyone else. They know their way around the forest. The naturalist guide depends entirely on the native guide to find the animals, to explain the uses of the plants and roots and vines, to describe his culture and traditions. The native guide speaks Spanish and the naturalist guide translates to English (or to whatever language the guests understand).

The forest has surprises and secrets all in plain sight, so when the animals are hiding, there is always more to see and experience, and the area around the lodge is full of excitement. While waiting to use the internet (there is one computer which uses a satellite and is outrageously expensive to use, and has either been unavailable or occupied each time I try to get on) a troupe of squirrel monkeys came by, absolutely unafraid of me, and played and frolicked and explored. Several were very interested in the computer room and came to look inside the room and watch what was going on. One monkey tried to pry open the window and enter the room. These monkeys are playing constantly and are always entertaining.

I left the monkeys when I was told that an anaconda was waiting to catch an agouti nearby, and initially had to imagine that I saw anything, but in time the anaconda moved out and showed itself to be over two metres long. I think it got tired of waiting for a noisy active agouti who seemed entirely oblivious, and moved on to other prey. It was long but did not have a large head. I was surprised that it is considered dangerous, but apparently large anacondas can be 18 metres long and kill humans. They bite their prey, but squeeze their food to death before swallowing. I could not imagine this anaconda being so powerful, but kept my distance!

Not too far away, the black mantled tamarin monkeys were squeaking and jumping from tree to tree, too quick for me to get a photo, but visible ( I had been looking for them several times without success). I went to the back of the property to look for the pygmy marmosets which drink the sap of a very particular tree, but found that the tree was gone. Later I learned that it had fallen down and the little monkeys had moved to another tree nearby.

Black Mantled Tamarin

I joined the plant group for the afternoon walk, which followed another downpour. Eric arrived with a new boat of guests, and almost immediately left with Maya to check for fish, not wasting a moment to start on his research. When the rain abated, we canoed across the lake and followed the same path as I did with the reptile group in the morning. Our guide Tino was most interested in orchids, which were not colourful at all. We saw a few birds and another agouti, but most of the animals were hiding again.

Maya was thrilled to have caught some fish using a net, and demonstrated using a probe to detect the frequency of the particular fish species after Eric lectured about his research. The students performed their skits after dinner, and this year's performances were better than they have ever been. I found myself laughing nonstop for the entire time!

My favourite hike happens at night; the frogs and toads are out, huge insects sit on the leaves, I am scared but intrigued and I like when we turn off all our flashlights and listen. I hear better when I cannot see, so the forest gets louder and louder and everything feels so much more alive, as if all the animals have come out of hiding. Of course I cannot see them, whether I have a flashlight or not, they are always hidden, so much in contrast to our experience in the Galapagos. I joined Eric and a group of students later to go hunting for fish in Orchidea creek. The bartender Eduardo rowed us across the lake. We saw many of the fish that Eric studies (weakly electric fish), caught a few, but mostly delighted in the experience of floating in the dark, watching the bats fly by, trying to avoid tipping our boats over (there are electric eels in the water!) and seeing lots of nasty spiders.


It was an action packed day. It feels as if every moment of our time with the students is intense and that there is little time to think or reflect. I suppose that comes later, when we stop moving, perhaps tomorrow.

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