Thursday, April 1, 2010

Feeling Fragile

Floating Down the River

Cuyabeno Wildlife Refuge covers four million hectares of the northernmost province of the Oriente, and is pristine primary forest, more difficult to access and therefore more unspoiled, at least so far. Of course I had heard similar things about Yasuni, where I was horrified to hear oil platforms wherever I went. The western part of Sucumbios province had been the site of much oil exploration in the 1980's, and in the area around Lago Agrio (where we flew from Quito) the forest has disappeared for miles and miles. There had been a huge courtcase against Chevron in Lago Agrio in the fall, which had dragged on for years and years, and was moved from the US to Ecuador at the insistence of Chevron. The plaintiffs had actually won the case, but Chevron had appealed and I am not sure what happened since. It was a class action lawsuit claiming that Chevron had dumped oil waste in the forest and had poisoned the plants and animals and the human inhabitants of the area. There is a compelling documentary called 'Crude' that I had watched when in Yasuni, describing the course of the lawsuit. It is predicted that Chevron will never pay the billions of dollars they owe.

I was excited to visit Cuyabeno, because everyone I talked to raved about this part of the forest, and I chose to take a canoe trip rather than a motorized boat, because I believed that we would see and experience more that way. Maya was equally enthusiastic. Our flight to Lago Agrio was uneventful. I had heard all sorts of negative comments about Lago Agrio, but the airport was neat and clean and organized, and the parts of the city I saw looked similar, in comparison to Coca, which is wild and disordered. We arrived at the staging area for 'Magic River Tours', where we met our companion travelers for the next five days. They were all German. Fabian was volunteering for a year in Quito before starting university in Germany. His girlfriend Vanessa was visiting him after volunteering in Nepal and traveling in the east. Haiko was a university student from Tuebingen working on a project on fungi in Loja. Anne had been volunteering with children in Riobamba, and her boyfriend Mario, from Berlin, was visiting her. Gerd was married to an Ecuadorian woman in Germany, and brought his son Joerg to show him the rainforest. This was Gerd's third time on the tour and clearly he had enjoyed himself so much on his prior visits that he came back for more. I thought that was a good sign.

Katja is a German woman who owns and runs the operation. She Mhas Ecuadorian children and lives in Lago Agrio. Our guide was to be Diego, who is from Lago Agrio and lives in Quito with his American girlfriend. He was to meet us at the bridge two hours away. Everyone was waiting for Maya and I, so we packed our duffel bags in waterproof containers and piled onto a bus, which would take us to our canoes on the Cuyabeno River.

Maya and I sat on the first row behind the driver. Maya pointed out the sign right in front of us behind the driver, claiming that with Jesus on our side, everything would always work out well. Within minutes however, the bus turned a corner, and a four foot long log, five inches in diameter, fell from the shelf above me right onto the top of my head. I heard a crunch and held my head in pain. I was told it was a device to make salad, but perhaps I was imagining that I heard that. I found myself slipping in and out of consciousness for the next few hours, holding my head in agony. In retrospect, I should have insisted we go to the hospital, but instead, I found myself on a canoe on the Cuyabeno River, with Maya ahead of me and Diego at the back.

We had stopped to pay our entrance fee to the Reserve, and I forgot to pick up my change, I think I was in a fog and was not really registering anything. There were four canoes, three of them driven by girls from the Siona community. We learned that there are communities of Siona, Secoya, Kichwa, Cofan, and Schuar on the reserve.

Maya in Canoe

Entering the Cuyabeno Reserve

I do not remember much of that day on the river. We canoed downstream, watching for birds and monkeys, seeing squirrel monkeys and monk saki monkeys and yellow handed titi monkeys and black mantled tamarind monkeys. There were greater ani birds, an aracari, a tiger heron, kingfishers and a long throated water bird related to the cormorant. I am sure there were many other birds we did not see, but we were focused on paddling, and I was feeling panicky about my head injury. Was I bleeding intracranially? How would I know? Could I get back to civilization if that was necessary? We were traveling further and further away from help, was I doing the right thing to go on? What if there was nothing I could do? Was this my last trip? My last few days of existence? I was feeling a little crazy, but also knowing that more than likely I would be fine.

Titi Monkey

After more than three hours on the river, we reached camp. We were to sleep in tents on the side of the river. The motorized canoe had arrived long before we did, and the tents were set up and dinner was ready. The conditions were simple, with the 'bathroom' on a path a few metres away. Dinner was soup and rice and fish, again simple and adequate.


A night walk was on the agenda after dinner. The jungle is alive and hopping with insects and frogs at night. The cicadas are screaming, the fireflies are lighting the darkness, and we walked close to one another with our flashlights, spotting spiders and grasshoppers and treefrogs and fluorescent mushrooms.

Wolf Spider

Tree Frog

Maya was frightened during the night, so I joined her on her airmattress, which had more air than mine, but not enough room to sleep. I moved back to my airmattress without air, where I tossed and turned and suffered. My head was pounding so I was worried again that I may not wake up if I did in fact fall asleep. I checked my cranial nerves. Earlier I had Maya check for pupil size and reactivity. I found Ibuprofen in my bag and took 800 MG. The night was endless and I was thankful for the morning and for discovering that I had survived the night.

Many Banded Aracari

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