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Never trust a man for the size of his monkey

His monkey was of the smallest kind in South America and that is why we trusted him. It was a reason as good as any that we could count on coming up with in this place. We were in Coca, Ecuador – a small jungle town that we had big expectations for as far as being our portal to an off the beaten track adventure, or so we hoped. This would be our first stab at the jungle and the Rio Napo which further along the way merges with the Amazon. The plan was to make our way on public transportation, a dugout canoe, to the border with Peru and then hop a cargo boat going all the way to Iquitos. A bit optimistic and questionable plan, but I hear such ingredients are key when cooking up an adventure.

We encountered Luis Garcia by mistake. Alex read something about him in the guidebook and then when we found ourselves walking by his bar we just couldn’t help ourselves. The man was jolly, hospitable, and what was most important – patient with my questions. As his mouse-sized pygmy marmoset helped itself to some murky liquor in a shot-glass, gripping it like a waste-high bucket, I inquired about the immense amount of amputees we have been seeing around town and was surprised to learn they weren’t the product of past wars, but reckless and illegal fishing with dynamite. Surely, I asked, if not all, then at least some have also lost hands and legs working for the oil companies that have been ruining the local jungle, but was proved wrong again as apparently all the locals are trusted with is clearing the brush with their machetes which they know how to handle since birth. The townspeople, as it turned out, have no harsh feelings towards the oil companies whatsoever, but then we could have guessed that for ourselves as during one stroll through town we found what looked like the town’s Olympic mascot. All things considered it was rather bizarre and ironic to see a smiling oil drop wearing pants and bearing a torch.

Looking back, trusting a man based on the size of his monkey is, to say the least, unwise; however, with our limited Spanish, neither the Capitania nor the Tourist Center were of any help with information about cargo boats going further down the river from Pantoja on the Peruvian side, so we were running out of options and shared our rickety plan with Luis who immediately confirmed our fears – cargo boat schedule was as unreliable as everything else in town, starting from internet cafes and finishing with cash machines, so unless we considered sitting and waiting for the currents to change on the Amazon to be our grand adventure, we needed a different plan. Stumped, we asked for his advice and in a few phone calls our local connection was full of options – $250 for a two day ride in a speed boat, or an eleven day jungle trip along the Rio Napo all the way down to Iquitos in a canoe with a local guide. Canoe? Jungle? Was this the grand voyage we wanted? What is a green and inexperienced backpacker to do? A quick check in the handbook and at least the guide seemed to be legit. The book sang praises to his wonderful work with the Huarany people in the Ecuadorian jungle for the past ten years and assured that both he and his partner – Ramiro, can’t be beat at exploring the jungle. It seemed like a perfect fit. The group that we would be joining was coming out the next day, and since we were last minute arrivals we only had to pay half what the others did.

It was set. All that was left was to stock up on miscellanea and bug-repellent by the gallon. Just for that purpose we made our way to the pharmacy and were met by a white man in a lab coat standing behind the counter. “Where are you from?” the man inquired. “Ukraine, and my husband is from Bela… ” – “Ukraine?!” the man stepped back in alarm and now was more green then white. “Chernobyl!” he exclaimed in fear. I smiled. I was not going to deny the nuclear catastrophe which made my family take an unscheduled “vacation” from Kiev when I was four. We awkwardly stood there for a few seconds thinking how the conversation can be turned around towards the repellent, but the man beat us to the punch. He noticed the clear plastic tube snaking over my shoulder from the CamelBack in my backpack and pointed a shaking finger – “Esta Problema…” I noticed a hint of curiosity sneak in between the lines of his anxious voice. “No, no, no, no! It’s water. Agua! See?” I took of the pack, set it in the counter, and stepped back to demonstrate how there are no tubes draining radioactive fluids from my now-believed-to-be-mutant body. I twirled slowly on the spot displaying that there were no unplugged holes on my torso, now that the bag was no longer at my side, and even took a sip of the water from the tube, but all that only frightened the pharmacist even further so were left with nothing other than quickly grab what we came for, pay, and scram.

Come to think of it, my CamelBack tube seems to be the object of much curiosity when we stroll the small town streets. Many people sneak a look, some simply stare, but only one little boy had the guts to ask. We were browsing in a bakery, when I felt a tug on my shirt. I turned around and a little boy, with big dark eyes, pointed at the tube and asked: “Que esta?” Utterly thrilled I understood what he said, I demonstratively drank from the tube and said: “Esta agua”. “Oh,” said the little boy mesmerized by the innovation. To this day I can say that this incident was one of my most favorite interactions with a local.

Our jungle trip began the same way we planned to start our independent journey to Iquitos. Early Friday morning we, along with our guide and four other participants – two British girls, a New-Zealander, and an Australian, piled up into a motorized canoe filled with locals and baggage of all sorts, kinds, and species. The trip down to Nova Rocafuerte is about 12 hours long, so this was an excellent opportunity for people watching, but unfortunately not more than that. I was amazed though how little environmental education the locals displayed. I am not as environmentally conscious as I probably should be, for example, I only recycle after a big party, but I couldn’t help but jump up when the locals on the boat took it as a habit of throwing heavy-duty plastic containers, in which they had their lunch, right into the river.

On the second day a short chubby man in narrow gold-rimmed glasses led us in to the jungle. His name was Don Pepe and he spoke only Spanish, but not a word of English. We all wondered why Ramiro, our guide, didn’t take us on this excursion, but we suspected by the look of him that he might have done too much partying last night and was not up for it. Don Pepe took us to his fruit and vegetable garden, and demonstrated treasures like the Cacao fruit, the beans of which are inside a pineapple-like “shell” and coated with a bit gooey, sour-sweet substance that is actually quite good to the taste. To make cacao powder they roast and grind the beans, he explained.

The days on the river dragged on in the deafening racket of our Peke-Peke canoe and its 10 HP motor which made all attempts to spot wildlife futile. Occasionally we would disembark and walk through the jungle stopping to acknowledge things like spiders and termite nests. We have also eaten some really tiny lemon-ants, and Alex even gobbled down some grubs than none of the girls would even touch. To be honest, I suspect he did it out of boredom.

In the afternoons, we fished. I had no luck, but Alex caught a Piranha, a small Catfish, and a silver fish named Lisa. Piranhas, by the way, are extremely over-hyped by Hollywood. It was my understanding that you would not want to stick one finger into Piranha infested water, unless you want a shiny little bone for a digit, but none of it is true. Not only we fished with raw, bloody meat, and the Piranhas seemed to bite only once in a while, but in case your hook got snagged on a branch at the bottom, our sixteen year old boat driver CheChe (his real name – Stalin) would jump in, follow the line, and pop up a minute later with the hook in his teeth. Tough little lad. I wish I could say the same thing about Ramiro. Cleaning fish he cut himself pretty badly and came running for Natalie, the Australian, for help. Natalie was a nurse and could help but it was then that we all found out another little fun fact – Ramiro hadn’t even a Band-Aid in his First-Aid kit. What am I saying – he had no First-Aid kit to begin with. Finally, the situation was resolved by paranoid-yours-truly who if fear of the unknown was armed to the teeth with everything from gauze to disposable syringes.

Thus passed the days to our arrival at the Ecuador-Peru border where our passports were stamped by a very official-looking man in his underwear and a towel over his shoulder. Who could blame him? He lived here long enough not to blister from the pesky sand-flies whose bites left hundreds of blood-pockets on our skin, and the only way to battle the sticky heat around here is walk around in as little clothes as possible. It’s a “catch twenty-two” – if you take your clothes off, you get eaten by bugs, if you keep them on, in moments every inch of you is stinky and wet. Finally, worn-out by shower-less days we threw caution to the wind, caimans, and sting-rays of the Amazon and carefully immersed ourselves in the brown river. I pulled out my modest supplies of shampoo, and we all had a little washing party (worthy of a “Survivor” episode). I don’t remember another time when I was so happy to be clean.

The jungle trips came and went with little to tell them apart. Still, a few surprises managed to sneak their way in, like the soldiers from Puerto Loja who had a little pet monkey named Muños and who accompanied us for no apparent reason, or the time Ramiro led us to the rain forest and seemingly forgot the way back. “Er… It’s a game” he said. “Let’s see if you can find the way back now.” I am not sure what we would have done if Che-Che didn’t happen to be on the walk with us. The young man stared at Ramiro for a second and then sprang into action making his way to the front of the group and leading us out.
For the lack of excitement on land some of us turned to the water. I and one of the Brits, Henny, went for a swim; however, we didn’t do much swimming as we both remembered the Caiman that was spotted nearby last night. When we came back, Don Pepe looked very excited. Apparently, Alfonso – the Peruvian guy who took Che-Che’s place as our Peke-Peke boat driver – was sleeping in a tree when he heard some thirty wild boars ran through the camp site. It looks like Alfonso jumped off the tree, wielding a machete, and slew a boar in one swing. When we got to the scene it was all long over with. The poor pig’s head and skin were separated from its body, and were soaking in the river alongside its guts and skinless carcass. Charming.

I read somewhere that on the seventh day we rest. Nevertheless, such weren’t the rules of the jungle and this day was run by the local spiritual leader – the Shaman. We have finally parted ways with Ramiro, and it was just as well, but not before he asked us a life-changing question: “Do you respect the jungle?” Of course we did. We were not exactly sure if we did it right, of if the feeling was mutual, but we knew we at least appreciated it more then Ramiro appeared to. “In that case,” said Ramiro, “you might value the spiritual experience the Shaman has to offer.”

Day nine. Two days have passed and I still don’t have all my memory back. I remember arriving at the village where the Shaman’s house was and being a bit nervous. We tried to do some research and asked people we’ve met and our own guides how they felt about such an experience, and all we got was that it’s something we should do. We remembered Ramiro, our English speaking guide, who left us with a Spanish guide in Pantoja, say that this experience is highly spiritual and that in the three hours that it lasts we will be enlightened and soon after will be back to normal with no side effects.

Now, here is what I recall actually happened. Like I said, I was a bit nervous, but everybody else who decided to try the “remedy” told me to stop fidgeting and be cool about it. We had dinner and headed to the Shaman’s house which, like many other indigenous structures, was propped off the ground on five feet stilts. The only way in or out was by climbing a fairly steep ladder. Carefully, as I am quite scared of tall vertical ladders, I climbed in and sat on a wooden bench between Alex and Avril – the girl from New-Zealand. The Brits, Laura and Henny, were there as well, and the only one who decided to skip this experience was Natalie. We watched the preparation process. The shaman took a stalk of the plant and cut it into 6-inch long chunks, carefully making sure that all pieces were the same length by using one as a yardstick. He then arranged them into five piles of six pieces. After, each piece was cut down the middle and the inside was scraped out into a bowl. It sort of looked like a green apple puree. We waited until all pieces of the stalk in the pile were scraped out and the shaman signed for the first person to come up. Alex decided to go first. The Shaman gathered all the green puree into his hand and squeezed its juice into the glass. He then used the fibers to sponge up the remaining juice from the bowl and squeezed it into the glass as well. When the glass was half full, he asked “Que quiere ver?” “What do you want to see?” translated one of the girls. Alex looked confused, he didn’t have enough time to think of an answer. “Everything,” he said finally. The Shaman whispered something into the glass, blew on it, and signed him to drink the whole thing in one go. Alex drank. I was next. I waited for my pieces of stalk to be scraped and came up when the Shaman asked for the next person in line. “What do you want to see?” My answer was obvious. “My father please” I said, and before the he had the chance to cast the spell on my drink, I stopped his hand. “Please, nothing terrible, please. Thank you.” The Shaman smiled, whispered into my glass, and I drank. It tasted like grass juice, or fresh peas right out of the pod. Next went Avril, then Henny, and last was Laura. Everybody looked curiously at each other, especially at Alex. It looked like since he was first, the “remedy” began to work. Our benches were right on the edge of the Shaman’s hut, so I asked him to lay or sit on the floor, afraid that he might fall back out of the tall cabin. He was lying on the floor next to the bench, his arms crossed on his chest. He would try to say something sometimes, but his speech was so slurry I couldn’t understand any of it. At one point I guess he tried to get more comfortable and put his hands on the floor. A second later he jerked them right back, his face either worried or frightened. “What’s wrong?” I asked. “The crocodiles,” he answered in a very clear voice. The later it got, the less I remember. I knew at one point that something was happening because everything slowed down and I got very worried about how everybody else was doing. I cuddled up to Alex on the hard, dirty, wooden floor and closed my eyes. I felt drunk and worried. Every couple of minutes I remember jerking myself awake, sitting up and checking if everybody else was well. It was hard to breathe, and I didn’t like it. To say the least, I felt anything but enlightened. At one point, I believe, I asked if it’s possible to stop the experience. Maybe I asked, but noone answered, or maybe I just forgot to ask. The last thing I remember from that night is trying to stand up, and after a few unsuccessful attempts managing to do it. From that moment on, I draw a blank.

I woke up in our tent wearing nothing but my underwear. Later I was told by a bystander that wearing just that I got out of the tent at night and ran around the jungle in a stupor until the villagers caught up with me as I was standing on an edge of a cliff gazing at the muddy water. Alex was the one who woke me up. He had terrifying news: apparently he died that night and now was a ghost. He demonstrated to me how his hands went right through objects but his theory was bust when he grabbed a backpack and was able to hold on to it. I, overall, thought I felt fine, just a bit dizzy, but in a few minutes we noticed it wasn’t all that was wrong. Something happened to our vision. In the distance, everything looked fine, clear and sharp, but close up everything was so blurry I could not even read my digital watch. Were we the only ones? We got dressed and came out of the tent. Sitting outside were Henny and Laura. Henny looked terrible. Her eyes were half open and when she looked up, she had the expression of a little child with mental problems. Sitting on a log, her legs were apart but knees together. Her hands were clutching each other, as if she was praying, and her head was deep into her shoulders. It was far from being cold, but she looked like she was freezing. Laura was nearby. She didn’t look cold – just out. She stood a bit awkwardly, somewhat resembling a scarecrow with a plain smile on her face. She didn’t look happy, just dumb. “Wonder how we look to them,” I thought to myself. “Not much better I suppose.” “How is your vision,” I asked. “I and Alex can’t see objects that are close by clearly.” “Same thing here,” one of the girls answered. I don’t even remember which one. “Did you not hear the talk the guide gave us all after we drank?” I remembered no such thing. “After we drank”, the girls explained, “the guide told us that the effects should last no longer then forty-eight hours, and that it will temporarily affect your vision.” Clearly, something most definitely got lost in the translation…

The rest of the day went by like a big, dark, sluggish cloud. We all tried to talk about it, but nobody remembered what happened. The only person, who could fill in the blanks in English, was Natalie, and she was extremely mad with us for going though with the whole thing in the first place. Eventually we were able to get out of her that it was her who helped us into our tents. She said that going down the stairs I refused any help and walked down without holding on to anything. Henny, however was in such a deep trance, she was half awake but could not move. The guide and Natalie had to move her legs for her.

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