Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Jungle Music

Off to the Jungle

Maya is practicing her violin amid the sounds of the rainforest, which gets noisier and noisier after the sun sets. We are hours away from civilization in a serene and wonderful escape from civilization. We flew over the Andes and down to the jungle town of Francisco de Orellana, or Coca as it is familiarly called. Coca is a 'wild west' town of 17,000, which is the stop off point for all the oil company employees, some of whom live in our building in Quito. It is also the gateway to several eco-lodges dotting the Napo river, of which Sacha is one.

We were picked up at Coca airport and driven to the Sacha Lodge office near the river. We piled into a 'chiva' style bus to make the trip. I was expecting two buses, but we squeezed the 30 plus passengers into one. After a snack and water and a bathroom break, we divided into two groups; six of us traveled in the luggage boat, the rest with another couple and a few crew. Jarol, the owner of Shiripuno Lodge, was our guide and gave us a short introduction to the rainforest and we were on our way. It is shocking to see so much of the forest disappearing each time I come here. Acres and acres are cut down and palm trees planted for palm oil and hearts of palm. I am certain that each time I come here miles of forest have disappeared.

The city of Coca has grown exponentially in only a few years. It still has a frontier town feel, a little on the edge, But it is a familiar place, and I feel reasonably safe there. Floating down the river in our motorized canoe brings us further and further away from humanity, except for the evidence of oil exploration, which appears to penetrate the forest in every direction. A new bridge is being built across the Napo to accommodate the increased traffic. This forest is ripe for exploitation, and the promise of profit preempts any efforts to preserve this incredibly biodiverse and culturally unique place. It feels sad to watch the destruction and know that in my lifetime this rainforest may disappear.

Ready for the Jungle

It is a privilege to be here. I do not get tired of the journey down the Napo, the wind whining by, suddenly cold when the rain starts, the jungle spinning along the shoreline, it feels like I am on a luna park ride. I especially like the walk from the dock on the Napo to the lake Pilchicocha, where Sacha Lodge sits. I want to walk slowly to absorb the sights and the sounds. The students are loud and oblivious, and so I let them march ahead and take my time. There are birders behind me who are excitedly identifying birds left right and centre. It takes time to feel present, and when I do, I start to notice what is hiding all around me. I hear the water drop-like sound of the oropendula bird and then I see them flying back and forth above me. I hear branches falling and I wait: I know that monkeys are near and soon they are scurrying above me, jumping from branch to branch, eating fruit, looking down at me, wondering what I am doing on their turf. They are so agile and endearing. I am sure than a hundred of them are all around me.


The Sacha staff get impatient and urge us on. We get to the canoes where an older British couple have been waiting and not at all enjoying the insects. I try to shut out the irritable comments and focus on drifting through a narrow passageway to the opening to the lake. The balsa at Sacha is in the distance as our boatman paddles gently. There is thunder in the distance and then I hear the rain then it falls gently, then more persistently and we are all wet. I did not have a rainjacket so I got quite wet but it feels warm and refreshing.

On the CanoePilchicocha Lake

As we turned into the dock at the lodge, all the students were waiting, and we have a drink and introductions and set up the groups. This is my least favourite part of the course, when I have to divide the students into five groups and hope they get their first or second choice. I did not realize until too late that two of the groups are all women and two others have only one or two boys. How did I fail to see that? Too late, it will have to do. Of course there are always one or two who are unhappy in their group and want to change and I am at a loss as to what to do with them. I want everyone to have a wonderful time in the forest.

Swimming with Caiman and Piranhas

Maya was so excited to go swimming in the lake, she rushed to our room to change and was in the water in seconds. I took my time and found myself slowing down and relaxing for the first time in weeks. I watched the students frolicking with Maya in the water. She has made friends of every one of them and they appear to enjoy her company too. I worry that she is too intrusive, but it is difficult to limit her time with them. A little violin practice calmed her too, and dinner was good as it always is at Sacha. We got our rubber boots for the three days (so we don't get too muddy and avoid unpleasant ant and snake bites), and were given an introduction to our time at the lodge. I was disappointed that no night walks were planned for us. In fact, nothing was planned this evening, which is not a good thing, since the students drink and carouse whenever they have a chance and will be exhausted tomorrow morning when they are woken up at 5:30 AM for our time on the canopy walk. Ade is fearful of heights, so I am not sure how he feels about the plans, since the kapok tree is the afternoon activity. I guess we get the heights taken care of all in one day. Each professor takes care of one group, but with five groups I will go back and forth between two groups until Eric arrives on Thursday. He is teaching tomorrow morning at Catolica and will arrive here late Wednesday or early Thursday morning. My groups are plants and reptiles, but all the groups see the same things, and so all of us will see monkeys, plants and reptiles and insects and birds.

The sky was clear and again I could identify Orion's belt and the big and little dippers and perhaps the Milky Way. The frogs are singing and the cicadas harmonizing and the jungle is loud again. This will be my bedtime concert.

Christmas Tree Frog

I was too eager to start exploring, so I found myself walking around the grounds with a flashlight, creating my own nightime walk. I ran into Nadav and Eric, who had taken the initiative to wander as well. It was amazing to see what we encountered; a beautiful green and red frog, a striped lizard, snail, a few cicadas and many spiders spinning their webs. Our wake up call is early, so it is time to rest.

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