"I'm a company secretary, get me out of here!"

Trip Start May 23, 2010
Trip End Aug 31, 2010

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Flag of Ecuador  ,
Tuesday, June 29, 2010

No rest for the wicked!  As soon as one wildlife extravaganza has finished, we're off on another.  In the wee small hours of 25th June, Em and I arrived on the banks of the Cuyabeno River in Ecuador's Amazon rainforest feeling sleep starved (thanks to the very late, very loud arrival of a bus load of American teenagers at our hostel) and not quite with our land legs back yet.  We had taken a little prop plane from Quito to Lago Agrio, an oil town a few hours drive to the river.  Oil is the biggest industry for the region, and as a result the native tribes are having to either adopt eco-tourism or decide to sell their land to oil firms...Ecuador's share of the Amazon forest is shrinking faster than any other country's, so it's an uphill struggle.

Joining us on our trip were a very nice young couple from Denmark and a family from Idaho, though the mum was an Australian-American with an odd accent and what our family friend Roy would describe as "a tongue on wheels".  Very friendly bunch, though, even if the daughter did ask the Danes, "So, what language do you speak, then - German?". 

Our motorised canoe took us down river to our base at Jamu Lodge, accompanied by dragonflies zipping alongside us and huge, sapphire blue morpho butterflies jaunting through the air around us.  During this time we saw tonnes of wildlife: green kingfishers, stinky turkeys (great name!), oropendola birds, an orange faced falcon and a whole cartload of monkeys (capuchin, squirrel and saki monkeys - and that's actually an accepted collective noun, you know).  Our guide Jose's remarkable eyesight also picked out an Amazon boa constrictor coiled around a plant on the banks. Later during our stay, we'd also see freshwater pink dolphins, blue and yellow macaws, sloths, red cap admiral birds, swallows, toucans, anacondas, bat-eating hawks and plenty of bats, and even some woolly monkeys...though given the obscene act that we saw one of the latter engaged in, perhaps the two 'o's in its name should have been replaced with an 'i'.  

The water, which had been a sort of cafe creme colour when we boarded the boat, darkened to the glossy colour of espresso as we neared the lodge.  Jose explained that this was due to the high level of tannins and alkyds in the surrounding vegetation washing into the river, making it acidic´'black water', rather than 'white water'.  As a result, mosquitoes find it hard to hatch eggs nearby, so they were hardly any around.

This was a lie.

Just to prove him wrong, we promptly picked up multiple bites each.  I had been pretty confident about our chances vs. the mozzies in the Amazon, having saved our 50% skin-peeling DEET spray until now.  However, as we flew in a small plane with an unpressurized cabin, this was confiscated in Quito airport.  What's more, the fabric repellent spray offered little defence. Nature just laughed at us.

After arriving at the lodge and settling into our cabin, we headed to Laguna Grande to catch the sunset.  The laguna was beautiful, a freshwater lake about 5 or 6 metres deep that is dotted with outcrops of vegetation and rich with wildlife.  It was hard to believe the whole thing is the result of rainwater and is only about a foot deep in the dry season, so the trees emerging from the surface are actually the branches of much bigger trees. 

So far, so good.  After dinner, however, came the warnings: all lighting is provided by candles, but don't be tempted to cast your torch around in your cabin to find any creepy crawlies, since the chances are that you'll find them.  Also, tuck your mozzie net under the mattress - it'll stop lizards, spiders and other things sharing your bed.  Suddenly, Emma was feeling a little less comfortable.  In the end, neither beast visited our cabin, but we did have a persistent tarantula the size of my hand visit us after dinner in the common area one night.  Another night, a large gecko kept the lodge enthralled as he very slowly stalked a moth on a beam for an hour and half, eventually snaring it...only for the moth to escape to everyone's amusement.

The next day, it was all too believable that the laguna could be rainwater, as we were completely drenched during a rainforest walk by rainfall that made Costa Rica's look like light drizzle.  Our ponchos provided token resistance and in a section of swamp we quite literally filled our boots with the experience, but it was great to learn more about the environment.  We also saw some real 'jungle' - forest regenerating in the sunlight after damage to the canopy.  Our guide showed us some medicinal plants, like the quinine tree, and fed us some lemon ants...quite citrussy!  This was beginning to feel quite like a certain reality TV show for desperate showbiz has-beens...  What next, working for our supper?

Almost!  We did take a visit to a Siona village on one of the days where we learnt how to make bread from yucca root, though I think we'll be sticking with Hovis.  It was at this point that we heard about England's heavy defeat to Germany in the World Cup.  Enough to put any Englishman off his food!  Perhaps the most fun part of the trip was fishing for piranhas in the laguna.  Pretty tough to hook the buggers before they eat all the bait, but yours truly managed the first catch of the evening, an ugly little silver critter who would chomp anything you put in his mouth like a ticket punch.  Emma thought she'd caught one, but actually it was just a sardine!  Maybe good on toast later, but not what we were after.  A few minutes later, she struck lucky with a tiger piranha.  The Brits were clearly the best anglers in the group

The next day, I would swim in the same laguna at sunset, amongst electric eels, manatees, pikes and of course, piranhas.  I escaped unscathed, but please - no comments about me 'not dangling enough bait'!

On one evening, we headed for a night walk to find the creepy crawlies at home.  The rainforest at night has a unique sound scape, thanks to the increased volume of cicadas and crickets that create a strangely harmonious cacophony of familiar noises: the staccato chatter of a ticker tape machine, the shrill whine of a dentist drill, the deliberate clack-clack-clack of a slow typist, the low grinding of masonry drill, the whistle of a draughty window.  Bizarrely, they can be quite soothing when trying to drift off.  But not when you're inches away from scorpion, wolf, funnel web and tarantula spiders, or a nest of huge bullet ants!  Ems found this all bit a traumatic, but I loved it.  At least she found the tree frogs cute, though I'm pretty sure she would have swapped the whole experience for a bubble bath and day spa in a heartbeat.

Still, had anything untoward happened, we could have gone to see the Siona witch doctor whom we had visited earlier.  Senor Alberto was a wizened old chap, decked out in his traditional shamanic dress, face paint and of course, nasal feather!  A quick tour of his garden revealed an eclectic taste in horticulture: from cacao trees (source of everyone's favourite treat, chocolate) to coca trees (source of many rock stars' favourite 'treat', cocaine).  As suggested by the guide, I actually gave the leaves of the coca plant a munch, which led to me having a very numb mouth like some sore throat lozenges give you.  In case one Class A narcotic wasn't enough, there was another flower used in shamanic 'visions' that was so potent that a few drops of its essence could send you hallucinating skywards for hours.  I passed on that one, but Emma had her face painted by the guide using the lipstick-like seedpods of another plant.

The shaman himself was pretty interesting, talking about how he'd learnt his craft and had some amazing nights flying amid the stars after getting whacked off his head on the happy flower juice with his mates.  OK, he didn't say that exactly but I could read between the lines and tell he was a stoner.  He performed a cleansing ritual on one volunteer and explained how he'd cured one person of total paralysis...presumably, this was just someone he'd previously given the happy juice to.  The illusion of ancient witchcraft was also somewhat shattered after our talk when he high-fived and bumped fists with our guide.

One our last full day, we took charge of a five person wooden canoe and paddled into Laguna Canaguena, which is off limits to motor boats due to the thick tangle weeds in the water.  In total we paddled about 16km, which was hard work even without the (now traditional) monsoon that caught us on the way back to the lodge.  Em's ribs meant that she could only do a little paddling but she excelled at bailing the boat out!  However, five hours sat on a wooden bench led to us both walking quite gingerly for the next few days.

After 5 days in the Amazon, we headed back to Quito, keen for some civilisation and creature comforts (without the creatures).
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