Where is my reflection in Cuyabeno?

Trip Start Jul 19, 2006
Trip End Sep 19, 2006

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Flag of Ecuador  ,
Wednesday, August 2, 2006

The Cuyabeno Lodge
The 10 hour bus ride from Quito to Cuyabeno, Ecuador was rather uneventful. I tried desperately to sleep on this bus but it was very difficult given the seating circumstances. I don't think these buses are designed for people taller than 4 feet. Brett, Azalea and I were sitting in the very front row so I had a wall in front of me that required my legs to be bent sideways in order to fit. I probably would've noticed that the trip brought us through several biomes, if I was thinking enough to notice the changing biomes around me. I was focusing on trying to sleep. I was in an aisle seat and the temperature was gradually rising as we exchanged the mountain altitudes of Quito for sticky lowland tropical altitudes. The air became thick and humid as we pushed our way into the jungle.

We made it to the Puente de Cuyabeno (Bridge of Cuyabeno) at around 8:40am on Sunday morning. There was a small shop with various foods as well as a ranger station. We waited by the river for our guide. After about 15 minutes, Romulo appeared in a canoe.

Romulo is 24 years old and for some reason people call him Lollipop. We never asked why, although we thought to ask. It wasn't until the third day of our trip that we found out Romulo was actually adopted by the older couple that runs the Cuyabeno River Lodge where we would be staying. He certainly seemed like a true part of the jungle rather than a visitor in it.

After about a 20 minute ride in the motorized canoe we arrived at the Cuyabeno River Lodge, which consists of about 8 thatched-roof huts on stilts connected by an elevated boardwalk that is about 4 feet off the ground. The river fluctuates quite a bit there, even reaching the elevated boardwalk at times. When we arrived, the water was about 15 feet below the boardwalk. Now, if Johnny is 3 feet shorter than the thatched roof hut, how many anacondas did we see?

Our cabin had two rooms, each with 3 beds covered in mosquito netting. This was not the jungle trip we had envisioned. We were expecting an adventure through the amazon on canoes, not a relaxing stay at a jungle lodge. Luckily there were more activities planned for us.

I was tired from my (mostly) sleepless bus ride the previous night so we rested that afternoon before going on a hike through the jungle with Romulo. Two other Americans showed up who also came on the tour.

Dan and Paula were an older couple traveling through Ecuador with an Ecuadorian tour guide named Hernan. Hernan didn't speak much english and generally seemed happy repeating the phrase "hasta la vista, baby." Mildly amusing at first, it does in fact get old after the 100th time. He seemed nice in other respects, though. Dan is a southern gentleman who I gather has kids from a previous marriage and Paula seems to be a free-spirited traveler. Paula is the Dharma to Dan's slow, southern Greg. For example, within minutes of arriving Paula had already jumped into the river for a swim. Dan never touched the water once during the entire trip.

Hiking, Tarantulas, and Piranhas
We did a 2 hour hike through the jungle where we: ate ants (a little sour), saw monkeys (like 4 or 5 species), learned about several different medicinal plants, picked up some seeds that are used to make jewelry, and saw some really large tree that native peoples would bang on to send messages to each other over long distances (I think it even had "Verizon" carved into the bark...)

When we returned to the camp, I held a tarantula. I did not expect I would ever do this. It seemed nice enough, though, and it didn't bite me. Romulo handed it to each one of us and we took turns thinking calm, bad-tasting thoughts. As if it was necessary to one-up the tourists, Romulo put the tarantula on his face. You win, Romulo.

Brett, Azalea and I went for a swim in the river that afternoon. The water was a bit cool, but refreshing. The current was too strong for me to swim against, though, so we would swing off a rope into the river upstream and float down to the dock and repeat.

That night we climbed up to the loft of the main hut. It was actually fairly high up, maybe 3 or 4 stories, and had a nice view of the surrounding jungle. As with most places around here, there were a couple of hammocks to relax in. The jungle seemed to be on fire with all of the blinking lightning bugs. It really was an awe-inspiring scene to watch the burning insects beneath an equally luminescent sky. I was seeing the southern constellations for the first time since climbing Cotopaxi.

The next day we took a motorized canoe through a few lakes where we hoped to see dolphins. We didn't. Azalea and I hopped in the water and went swimming anyway. I took a short video in which I was floating in the water talking about the crocodiles, piranhas, and anacondas that were prevalent in the area. I then pretended like I was being pulled under water, disappearing in a struggle below the surface for a while. Acting is my passion. I would post this video online but it was lost along with all of my other jungle photos, but I'll get into that later.

After our dip in the lakes, we actually did go piranha fishing. We were using long bamboo poles with pieces of meat for bait. This is the first time it's ever been good to splash your pole around in the water before fishing. I guess the idea of a splashing animal draws the piranhas. Romulo and I both caught piranhas. It made me wonder a little bit about the swim I had just had.

The Siona Village and a psychedelic trip to the Shaman
After releasing the piranhas (Azalea is a vegetarian and she took great joy in being the one to dump the bucket back in the water), we visited a community of indigenous people called the Siona. They wore tshirts with english words on them, so I wasn't too impressed. Romulo broke off the bulb of a plant which he used to paint red symbols on each of our faces. Azalea got some symbol for fish, Brett got the symbol for the hallucinagenic drink we would be having later that night at the Shaman's house, and I got the symbol for Sol y Luna (Sun and Moon). We then toured the farm that the Sionas used to produce all their chocolate, bananas, yuca, hot peppers, and other bare necessities. Romulo ripped a plant out of the ground and cut off what appeared to be a potato from the roots. It was actually a Yuca plant, the potato of the south. Yum.

We finished our visit to the village with a drink of some alcoholic beverage made from sugar cane. I wasn't too excited about drinking it, especially with everyone in the village watching us intently. I expected them to start laughing after we took our first sip. They didn't laugh, but there were some knowing smiles. I only had a few sips.

We then shoved off to visit the Shaman, where we would experience a traditional native ceremony followed by the drinking of a hallucinagenic beverage. Azalea and I decided we would take the drink and Brett opted out for fear that it would cause problems with his drug tests when he starts work. Everyone assured us it was a safe drink made from natural plants in the jungle. I figured this tour has been done by plenty of people before me and would be taken by plenty of people after me. The Shaman's name was Alberto, for crying out loud. As far as I was concerned this would just be another drink at another McShaman's. Over 1 million served. By Alberto.

I will preface the experience by saying that I have never consumed any type of mind-altering drug before in my life (except for sugar, caffeine, and alcohol). I had no idea what to expect. The Shaman told us a story about how he learned about medicines of the jungle from his father, and another teacher after his father died. He talked about what it took to get to his level of wisdom. He then performed a healing on Azalea that basically involved waving some leaves around her body while chanting. I kind of wanted to be the demonstration healee to see if he could fix my knee that was still killing me, but only when I bent it. Oh, well.

After the ceremony, it was our turn to go up and drink. The Shaman explained how boys had to take this drink to go on a spiritual journey in search of visions so that they could become men. A bonus effect also cleanses your entire intestinal tract by inducing vomiting. The Shaman said he drinks it once every two weeks. Azalea and I knelt before him as he handed us two glasses of what appeared to be brown water from the river. I drank first, I think because Azalea wanted to make sure instant morbidity wasn't another inconvenient side effect. It had a bit of a kick, but went down much better than many other drinks I've had before. It had a very bitter aftertaste, though.

As I sat on the bench waiting for something to happen (which is an intense feeling...especially since they told us we would feel it within 5 or 10 minutes), I overheard the Shaman explaining some more details to Dan and Paula. Apparently the drink was composed of two main plants: yage and Ocu. The Ocu makes you hallucinate while the yage makes you puke. At this point I'm thinking I probably could've done without the yage. Along with this, some more interesting information began to trickle in only after we had already consumed the drink. The effect would last about 3 hours. Also, we would pee blue the next day and would likely have diarhea. What?? Thanks for telling me now.

Azalea felt it first. She got up and went to what I would like to call The Dietary Release Window. She said she was embarrassed and couldn't empty her stomach in front of people. She heaved a couple of times and then started laughing hysterically. Meanwhile I was sitting in a state of extreme focus, staring at the image of the Shaman before me. Gradually, the room began to move. The wooden walls became the interior of a boat. I didn't see anything, but it felt like we were moving around at rough seas, and I suddenly had to visit The Dietary Release Window. I stood next to Azalea and after we alternated heaving for several minutes (she calls it "booting") we looked at each other and smiled. I asked: "Are we friends now?" "Best friends."

When the waters had calmed a little, I started to move around the room. By this point Azalea was lying down on a bench imagining things. She claimed she could make anything she thought of appear. I never gained that power. For me it just felt like all of my senses were punching me in the face at once and I just wanted to turn them all off. Images started to blur into their composite reds, blues, yellows, etc. Voices in the other room were suddenly being whispered into my ear. Every noise had a metallic echo on the end of it. It felt like being inside of an 80's music video. I am now convinced that the designers of 80's music videos had visited this Shaman or had otherwise similar experiences.

Brett sat patiently as we rolled around for hours. I tried to be scientific, describing everything I was feeling and seeing in as objective a manner as possible. Brett took diligent notes of the things we said. Here are some excerpts:

Azalea: "It feels like we are in the Teletubbies."

Me: "When I was throwing up, I was waiting for whoever was controlling my mouth to start throwing up."

Azalea: "Sometimes I can't tell if I'm talking or just thinking something."

Azalea: "There are legos everywhere outside. It's like legoland."

Azalea: "This is like cubism at its best."

Brett: "Can you imagine your husband?"
Azalaea: "No, but I can imagine a Bear!"

Me: "The room is rocking...the room is rocking with Rick...I just said that because I knew it would be a funny quote in your book Brett."

Azalea: "Once you get something in your head, you can't get it out...it's like you're in love."

Azalea: "The Teletubbies creators were definitely on this."

The most interesting experience I had was when I saw a mirror on the wall. I clumsily approached the mirror and got excited because I thought it would look really cool. I was about to call Azalea over to look in the mirror when I started to freak out because I didn't have a reflection. Now this was messed up. Where did my reflection go??? I walked up to the face of the mirror and saw tents inside it. I then realized I was looking out the other window. Wow.

The three hours flew by and no matter how long it had been it always felt like it was only 5 minutes ago that I took the drink. At one point I remembered that I had packed some glow sticks as emergency lights, so we ran to grab those and get them going. They had strings attached to them and Brett spun them around in rainbows of light. It was quite intense to watch. By that point Azalea and I were just lying on the floor watching the lights. Then the Shaman's son and grandson came into the room to see how we were doing. They were intrigued by the glow sticks. The Shaman's son asked me how to turn them off. I explained that it was a chemical thing and couldn't be turned off, similar to what is in lightning bugs. They had never seen glow sticks before. The kid started playing with them and I told him he could keep them. Azalea made sure to warn them not to drink the stuff inside. We were quite coherent for people who were hearing and seeing things.

We slept that night in tents in the Shaman's house. I remember thinking the ceiling of the tent was very very high, even though I was reluctant to enter it at first because I preferred just lying down in the big open room we had been in. Sleep came easily for me. Azalea was freaking out. She was afraid that if she lost focus she would forget to breathe. She said she saw me sleep and thought I was dead so she started hitting me. I had no recollection of it but she said I just mumbled something eventually after she hit me hard enough.

The next morning Romulo picked us up. We also learned that John (the young boy who was just over a year old and was traveling with us everywhere during this journey) was actually adopted by the lodge as well. Apparently his mother was raped by her father and she left him for trash. Brett commented that it was interesting how people could be so religious they would not have an abortion but they would still be willing to rape their daughters. Christians in latin america seem to be obsessed with ritual, celebration, and saints...not so much focus on moral values from what I've seen. Hearing this story only further corroborated my image of John as a young Mogli being raised Jungle Book style.

We ended up leaving the Cuyabeno lodge that afternoon to hop a bus back towards Quito. We had to make it back in time to pick Jina up at the airport and we still wanted to stop at the hot baths in Papallacta on the way. Leaving Wednesday afternoon, we would arrive in Papallacta that evening and be at the baths Thursday morning. That would leave us plenty of time to make it to the airport Thursday night for Jina.

We said goodbye to Romulo and took the bus leaving the Puente de Cuyabeno for Lago Agrio at about 12:30pm. We had no idea what was waiting for us.

Quantifiable Summary
Ecomontes Jungle Tour: $160 each, 4 days/3 nights
Shaman's Drink: $10, 3 messed up hours
Still alive.
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