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Journey to the Wachimak Tribe in the Ecuadorian Jungle

4 Oct

Cuyabeno had whet my appetite; a lodge nestled within Ecuador’s Amazon jungle and barely a stone’s thrown from Quito [the capital of Ecuador], it had offered piranha fishing, cayman spotting, encounters with tarantulas bigger than my hand but, most of all, a sense of serenity within the jungle that I had not expected. By the time the sun had fallen off the landscape and my sweaty body had been replaced by a surprisingly cold one the jungle seemed to come alive, there was a buzz in the air and apart from stinky turkey (a bird with a scream so blood-curdling my nightmares even got scared) it was blissfully peaceful. I don’t mean this in the traditional sense as the rattling, buzzing and foraging of insects, birds and animals was all around, but as a counterpoint to city life it was heaven, nothing but us and the endless jungle (for it certainly feels infinite when you’re within it.)

This 3-day trip had enthused me into looking for further excursions, ones that would be less touristy and longer. After an in-depth internet search I found Wachimak, a Kichwa tribe near Tena, a city in the Amazonas region of Ecuador. I sent an email to a volunteer co-ordinator who simply told me to get to Tena and gave me a couple of phone numbers to call once I arrive. One was for the tribe itself and one for Jacobo, a member of the tribe who has since moved to Tena. What follows is my diary from the days that followed, an illustration of speed when travelling, or rather, a lack of it.

27th November

After arriving in Tena I called Jacobo who tells me I need to catch the 5:30am bus to Puerto Rico, where I will then take a canoe and then go for a walk, or at least that’s what I think he said as I have only been learning Spanish for the past month and I still have a long way to go to be conversational!

28th November

Who knew an on-time bus could be so upsetting? I’m stranded in Tena for another day as I wake up late to find that the owner of the guesthouse was fast asleep. He had promised to be awake to let me out of the gates in the morning. By the time he had resurrected himself and I had run down to the bus station the 5:30 was leaving and I couldn’t catch it. The only thing to do is go back to the guesthouse and back to sleep.


Strangely the delay has helped me. I give Jacobo a call and we arrange to meet. Then I find out actually how I am supposed to arrive at the tribe. I have to get the 5:30am to Agua Santa (not Puerto Rico as I first thought), take the bus all the way to its destination and then start coming back as on its return leg it goes past Puerto Rico. There I need to find the medical clinic where there will be a radio to call both the tribe and Sergio, a man who owns the canoe that will take me up the river to Puerto Wachimak where two tribesmen will be there to meet me. He even drew a map:

God knows how I would have made it without this!

29th November

5:40am – I am now on the bus to Wachimak! There was no way I was going to make the same mistake twice!

8:30am – We’ve hit a snag. A bridge on the way to Puerto Rico has begun to fall apart. The bridge is constructed of a number of metal plates, three wide, but one of these has fallen into the river below. I wait with the other passengers by the side of the road as the driver of the bus and a gradually growing flock of people decide what to do.

9:15am – Progress has been made. It was decided to pull up a metal sheet that wasn’t quite as necessary as some of the other metal sheets and fill it in the gap where the bus needs to drive over. I’m loving the improvisatory nature of these Ecuadoreans!

9:22am – The metal sheet is in place but my bus driver refuses to go over it. I have to grab my bags and get onto another bus.

9:25am – I realise I have made a huge mistake. I took my bags onto the new bus, took a seat and waited. Everyone else got off. It’s now just me and the driver as he attempts to cross the bridge. There are men either side of the rusty metal sheet replacement holding huge branches which they are using to make sure the sheet does not fall out of place. Miraculously it doesn’t and we make it to the other side.

11am – We reach a crossroads. My new bus was not going to Puerto Rico so I get off at a junction and wait for another bus.

2pm – It’s now two ‘o’ clock. A bus has just passed but was full to the brim and unwilling to take on any extra people. I can’t believe it! The next one is not til 4pm. I have now been travelling for almost 11 hours simply trying to get to my destination. It is getting a little ridiculous, I was supposed to be at Puerto Rico by 11am, now it seems it will be 5pm.

8pm (maybe) – I’m not really sure what time it is but I’ve arrived. 14 hours and 30 minutes – not bad! Three hours on the first bus then roughly one hour watching crazy Ecuadoreans try and mend a broken bridge. Another two hours on a bus. Five hours waiting by the side of the road. Another hour on a bus. When I finally arrived in Puerto Rico it was clear that everything was closed up. It wasn’t hard to find the medical clinic as there was only three houses but nobody was there. I knocked on the other houses and eventually found someone but they couldn’t seem to get the radio working. I asked them where Sergio’s house and they pointed down the path. This walk was not ideal as I was carrying my usual luggage of backpack and guitar as well as a huge sack full of rice, corn, onions and candles for the tribe (as per their wishes) which was starting to break my back!

Once I arrived at his house (which was the only one by the river) he seemed to know what to do and packed me onto a canoe, where his two lads took me down to Puerto Wachimak. I jumped off, dragged my bag, sack and guitar and plonked them on the side of the bank. They asked me for twice the money Jacobo said it should cost and, devoid of energy, I gave it to them. With a final question of “Esta bien?” they drove off down the river. No-one from the tribe had arrived to meet me yet so I sat by the river, surrounded by dense jungle. Within five minutes the sun had almost set and suddenly I was thrown back into this world of buzzing activity and rustling trees. Now I also had the strange noises of things coming in and out of the river, of water gushing up to the shore and sounded like encroaching menace. This wasn’t the serene wilderness I had before touted, this was something altogether more chilling.

It was around an hour before someone had arrived. I had spent most of the time looking through my bag for a torch that I had packed incredibly badly, and the rest terrified. This feeling wouldn’t last long as I was greeted by two tiny Ecuadoreans, one of which took the massive sack of food and placed it on his shoulder, and the other who greeted me. At a ridiculous pace we then careered through the jungle, next to what seemed like huge drops to rivers below, and across log bridges in the dark, quite often being told not to touch the makeshift handrails that seemed like my only hope of not falling into the abyss.

Finally when I arrived something happened quickly. The plate of food placed in front of me was devoured before I even breathed. Later I fell asleep just as quickly after having a couple of victorious glasses of aguardiente with the men of the village. Without the journey before I am sure that all of these things would not have tasted quite so sweet! Speed has never tasted this triumphant!

A selection of recommended and not-so-recommended books about South America

27 Apr

My obsession with South America continues to power on, leaving me with little choose to spend the majority of every day either reading about the Peruvian elections, listening to Brazilian music, trying unconvincingly to make milanesas, watching films about indigenous tribes and reading book after book about any subject that has some vague link to South America. Therefore, I thought I would share a few of those books here, the majority of which I would recommend.

Tropical Truth by Caetano Veloso

Start with the best! This is Veloso’s autobiography from childhood upto the modern day, though most of the content is the story of how tropicalia was borne, and then Veloso’s incarceration by the Brazilian government. There’s something incredibly easy about reading this book, Veloso will vary the subject from personal traumas to discussing the avant-garde or even talking about masturbation, yet always he comes across as informal yet incredibly knowledgeable, and with a serious passion for music. The sections about tropicalia and his role within the movement are truly revelatory. Far too little has been written about that particular period in Brazil’s history, but this does help to fill that gap somewhat.

Viva South America! by Oliver Balch

This is a selection of articles by Oliver Balch as he travels throughout South America. Written in a journalistic style, it follows Balch as he goes from country-to-country and subject-to-subject, all the time relating the experience to Simon Bolivar’s idea of how South America would evolve. This is a very interesting book that underwhelmed me for the first three chapters in Bolivia, Chile and Argentina. For some reason the overly-political tone disengaged me and I found it hard to relate to Balch and his stories. This changed though once he visited Paraguay and it’s disastrous human rights record and then Brazil, where he looked into attitudes towards race. Even better though are the last two chapters on Colombia and Venezuela where he somehow managed to show both in a bad light, yet through the warmth of the natives involved, made me want to visit these countries as soon as possible.

This is highly recommended for anyone visiting South America who wants to get under it’s skin and begin to understand how the continent functions.

Travels in a Thin Country by Sara Wheeler

A travel diary devoted to Chile, this is a really well-written, well-researched book, though left me cold in places. Yes, Wheeler travelled to many of the most interesting spots Chile has to offer, including Easter Island. But somehow I always feel like I want someone to truly engage with a country and the author never does here. She is great at studying it, and its people, and telling some nice stories along the way, but for some reason it never gets beyond that. All said though, this is very readable and is worth reading if you’re heading to the Chile for the detail alone.

Amazon Watershed by George Monbiot

This is almost the opposite of Wheeler’s book on Chile. Here, Monbiot goes completely over-the-top in his examination of Brazil’s Amazon. At times he is chased by landowners, caught by hired gunmen, beaten up at one stage, etc., etc. Monbiot knows how to be a true investigative journalist, and thankfully his writing is as thrilling as his research is thorough. Through the book Monbiot looks at some of the factors that have led to the destruction of the rainforest, and goes to both the people who the destruction is affecting and those that are doing the destruction.

In short, I can’t recommend this book enough. I can’t imagine a more evocative and informative book on this great rainforest.

Futebol: The Brazilian Way of Life by Alex Bellos

All I need to say about this book is that if you have any interest in football or Brazil you will love it. Months after reading it I am still boring my friends with all the ridiculous anecdotes I have taken from this one.

We all know Brazil is crazy about football, but it’s not until you read this book that you really just how crazy!

The Condor and the Cows by Christopher Isherwood

Isherwood is an old-school author – this was written in the 40s – and it shows. This is a South American travel diary from a time that I struggle to evoke. Isherwood travels across South America (minus Brazil and Uruguay) staying with dignitaries and fellow authors and artists. The sections which talk about the social circles he finds himself can be a little suffocating but there is something very warm and erudite about his descriptions of the landscapes and cities, especially as his often barbed, sarcastic tones are the perfect antidote for anyone sick of the normal hyperbolous guff that finds its way into many travel journals these days.

Brazilian Popular Music & Globalization (edited by Charles A. Perrone & Christopher Dunn)

A selection of essays about Brazilian music. Some of these are very interesting, i.e. those on tropicalia and mangue bit, but some can be a little analytical. I don’t really want to talk about this book too much as it’s really only something that people with an academic nature and interest in Brazilian music will enjoy. If you’re not interested in the academic style but want to know more about Brazilian music then you should buy Veloso’s Tropical Truth instead, it’s far more enjoyable!

Let My People Go Surfing by Yvon Chouinard

Yvon Chouinard is the founder and owner of Patagonia, the most respected of all outdoor clothes manufacturers. This autobiography tells how he started out rock-climbing in South California, got involved in surfing as he started selling his own climbing equipment, until eventually starting Patagonia and making millions with an ethical business model. The first half of this book is very interesting with Chouinard’s tales of the early days of surfing and climbing, includes his first experiences in Patagonia where he climbed Mount Fitz Roy. It was these experiences in Chile which led to his company being named after the region. However, the book tales off as Chouinard dissects one too many detail about how his ethnic business model is able to work and succeed.

New series of Ecuadorian films focus on migration

30 Dec

Three Ecuadorian films to be released in 2011 will focus on the increasing trend for its people to migrate away from their homeland. Among these films are Fernando Mieles’ Promoteo Deportado, Rabia by Sebastian Cordero and Carl West’s Zuquillo Express, which is the odd one out of the three, being something of a comedy. There’s a really interesting article about these three films, as well as this increasing trend for migration, at BBC News. Here is an extract:

Following a huge financial crisis at the end of the 1990s, thousands of Ecuadoreans were forced to leave their country and seek fortune abroad, mostly in the US, Spain and Italy. According to the government, three million Ecuadoreans currently live abroad – 22% of the country’s entire population. “[Migration] has been the most important experience – sociologically, culturally, emotionally, economically – for Ecuador in the last 15 years” said Oderay Game, film producer on Prometeo Deportado. Migration is an important phenomenon in the country, yet until recently it was not widely discussed. The success these three films are having seems to show a change in attitude.

You can read more here: