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Meeting Ecuador’s ‘Lost People of the Clouds’

Here is where El Rio Chota pours out of high altitudes and races down through rugged white peaks that reach 62 hundred meters, nearly twice the height of Mount Fuji. One end, it’s headwaters I should say, connects with a maze of wetlands and small rivers that eventually wind their way to the Amazons River. Its other end empties into the Pacific in southwestern Colombia. It thus takes its place as the only river I have encountered that flows into two oceans. Ecuador has been a land of mixed cultures, languages, and ethnic brews since its first an immigrant took up residence some 20,000 years ago. Over time, various ethnic groups adapted to their respective climates and their languages speciated further.

In the 16th century, gold-hungry and blood-thirsty Spanish mercenaries, Los Conquistadores, murdered Inca Atahualpa and enslaved the empire. Ships took the vast stores of gold to Spain and Spanish Christianity and Spanish language were suddenly mandated.

Directly from this we find today that Spanish is the official language. In the major cities the more educated generally speak Spanish as a first language and English—the world’s current lingua franca—as their second language. These are people, known as mestizos, of mixed Spanish-Inca ancestry with a touch of Chinese and Japanese added. Out from cosmopolitan centers people normally speak Spanish only. In the more inaccessible areas the indigenous—children of the Inca Empire you could say—continue to speak only Quechua. Far to the east, the Amazons jungle, known in country as El Oriente, is still home to never-conquered tribes and bands that know only their local languages. They are commonly called ‘head-hunters’ and not entirely without a factual and historical basis. Victims heads are specially treated and shrunk. Any number of 20th and 21st century explorers, missionaries, anthropologists, or eco-tree huggers, have gone in and simply disappeared as if into a black hole.

As conqueror Francisco Pizarro and his brutal ‘for God and gold’ mercenaries took over, his men and his horses brought diseases against which the South Americans had no defense. With naïve immune systems, they were decimated in short order. Reportedly 90 percent of the newly-enslaved Indians died. (Strictly speaking, decimation—just as Spartacus experienced it—is the destruction of each one out of ten. Common reports have them at nine out of ten destroyed.) The Spanish then turned to the slave markets in Cuba. These sold Africans, mainly West Africans, who had been sold by other Africans up the Gambia River, typically to Dutch and Portuguese traders and brought to the island for resale. This replenished the dead indigenous slaves and introduced blacks to the Inca lands.

Today there is a “black” city, Esmeraldas, in the coastal northwest, which, as always, is a place where everyone is tied to the produce of the sea. Other cities each have a small sprinkling of the descendants of black slaves as well. A rumor of hidden enclaves of former black slaves deep in the mountains found my ears long before I got to Ecuador. If they existed, I was ready to find them. With help from friends in country and El Banco Central Museum staff, we were on the trail.

Tall above windswept valleys, the smell of burning rice shucks travels far and a high desert sits all but lifeless. Tucked well into the rugged Andes, strong wind gusts scatter both the smells and the dust. Here above an equatorial green blanket, weeds fight to hold earth against avalanche and torrential rains that turn crevasses into rivers, cliffs into waterfalls, and proud men into cowering creatures. The timid find no solace here and those whose destinies place them here owe it only to the fate of forebears shanghaied.

Enclave official, Don Benito, tall, thin, and clearly of West African descent, confidently explains that his ancestors walked from a Pacific shipwreck. It was, he offered, a slave ship. Oral history says it was in 1478 that they came to be here and remained isolated for over five centuries. I informed him that African slaves did not reach Ecuador prior to the 1530s. Indeed, in 1478 western South America was under strict and total control of the Incas whose northern capital was only four or five day’s hard walk from where we stood. He acknowledged the discrepancy and admitted he had no explanation.

Chota Village is far from any metropolis. It is high enough that clouds collect below at the high edge of the tree line. Locals call this a cloud forest. Below that lies a scattering of Indios who speak a dialect of Quechua only. The 400 or so Chotans are isolated not only by geography, but also by language. Theirs is a Creole Spanish that includes words of African origin—useless below their village. The Chotan people’s history, however, for its lack of written form, remains an oral one. Their arrival date is necessarily wrong, but if 100 years more recent, makes sense.

In 1578, across the river in Colombia, Jesuit priests held African slaves. Had some escaped with a head start, it would have been a formidable task for anyone to track them through the road-less mountains. A trek from coastal Esmeraldas, the location of their legendary shipwreck, would have been formidable if not impossible. Across the 450 kilometers from steep mountains to the coast lie dangerous swamps and dense, unfriendly jungle. Having seen these barriers myself from the air, I had to reject the shipwreck idea. In those days all blacks in the region were slaves and these ancestors would be escaped slaves (and thus hunted). If the Spanish could find hidden Vilcabamba, they certainly could have found shipwreck victims wandering toward a destination unknown. They could not have simply walked hundreds of miles through the swamps and up the mountains to become the Lost People of the Clouds.

Further, any notion that they may have somehow boated up the Chota River from the coast, is unacceptable on its face. The river flows much too fast to navigate all the way to their present location of approx 0 degrees, 29 minutes by 78. Moreover, the river’s flow direction would have been opposite their direction of travel.

Within Chota itself, women sweep clean the clay streets of the village constantly, even though the winds tend to redeposit the dust in short order. Likewise, the interior of their adobe-cement homes are, if somewhat crowded, dutifully clean. Roofs vary in composition from corrugated tin alloy to grass thatch to clay tiles, the most common. At lower altitudes the Indios use the cement blocks or poured cement so common in the country. Within the cities, poured cement, supported by dizzying matrixes of bamboo poles at every imaginable angle, is the construction method of choice. From any distance these look like giant porcupines against the landscape.

Covered are their lands, not with the rich green of lower altitudes, but of barren, sandy, all but useless rocky desert. Cacti and flowering weeds, seldom enough to hold back deadly rock and mudslides that accompany the rainy season, scatter across the landscape. Shallow and rapid, El Rio Chota floods dangerously in winter, and, reportedly, in 1970 grew to engulf 29 village homes, occupants included. The lesson of the tragedy was not lost on the people, for subsequently they placed only animal pens upon the river’s flood plain and constructed homes well away. They weren’t about to make that mistake again.

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