Wednesday, 14 February 2007

Adventures in the Amazon

Day 1 - Pitstop in Panama

Picking up from where I left off last time, I left Mexico City on January 15 and boarded a flight to Quito in Ecuador.

I enjoyed my time in Mexico City and look forward to returning. Never have I visited such a city of contrasts, where abject poverty goes hand in hand with great wealth, where old men on bended knee shine the shoes of young men dressed in designer suits.

My flight to Quito included an unscheduled change in Panama City, giving me the chance to become one of around 7,000 Britons who visit Panama each year and also giving me less than seven minutes to run through the airport to catch my second flight to Ecuador.

I was met at Quito airport by a man named Jose who drove me to my hotel. He did his job, making sure he ripped me off by charging me three times the normal rate for an airport pick-up.

I had arrived in South America.

Day 4 - The Sting

After three days in Quito, I was ready to head to the Amazon. I had taken a few Spanish lessons, learned a couple of words and got to know the capital a little.

I also got my head around the fact that the US dollar is now the national currency of Ecuador. I arrived in Quito just as the country was swearing in it's new president, the left-leaning Rafael Correa. Evo Morales and the great Hugo Chavez were in Ecuador to show their support for their new friend.

I met another volunteer in Quito, a young man named Ash Perrin, who was also heading to the Amazon. We had been in touch by email and arranged to meet in the capital. For reasons I will explain later, I shall refer to this young man as The Clown from now on.

Just before we were due to catch our bus, we popped into KFC where I mentioned to The Clown that in all my years of travelling I had never been the victim of theft or any sort of crime.

I explained how, although I have been ripped off and attacked in the UK, I have never had any serious problems on my travels. Even as I was uttering those words, I felt I was tempting fate.

An hour later and we were sat on a bus headed for Puyo, gateway city to the Amazon.

As we left Quito, three young men boarded the bus. One sat next to me, three sat behind. The one sitting next to me engaged me in conversation while occasionally looking back at his friends.

I knew something was going on, but my wallet and passport were in my jeans pocket, and my backpack was on the rack above me, so I thought that I was safe.

After the young men left the bus, a woman sitting across from me told me they had searched my backpack. They had stolen my personal CD Player and a mobile phone my Mother had borrowed me.

I was a little disappointed, especially about the CD Player as I needed it to listen to my language CDs, but the area where these young men left the bus was nothing more than a slum, and when people live in poverty it is inevitable that some will turn to crime.

The theft was soon forgotten as we continued our journey and the road grew ever steeper as we climbed higher and the bus zoomed along at break neck speed.

Occasionally I would look out of the window and see nothing but a small kerb separating the bus from a 200 foot drop into a roaring river below. I soon learned to stop looking out of the window.

We arrived in Puyo late evening and boarded another bus which would take us to the Arutam Rainforest Reserve. As the bus made its way along a dusty road, The Clown and I wondered what on earth we were doing. We had no idea what to expect. We didn't even know if anyone knew we were coming. We just knew that we were going to have to get off the bus, in the Amazon rainforest, in total darkness, without a torch or a box of matches between us.

Two hours later we arrived at Arutam and were met by friendly looking Shuar Indian named Ernesto who emerged from the darkness and took us into his hut. Ernesto owns the land around Arutam, all 2710 hectares of it. He is in his mid fifties and has two wives and 22 children, eleven boys and eleven girls.

After a brief introduction, I was shown to my living quarters, which turned out to be a hut a short distance from Ernesto's house.

The hut was quite possibly built by Homer Simpson. There were huge gaps everywhere and the walls didn't quite make it to the roof. My bed was five planks of wood resting on four upturned logs.

Before I went to bed, Ernesto recommended that I shake out my boots before putting them on in the morning in case a tarantula had made his home there during the night.

I turned out the light and was engulfed in a darkness I have never experienced before. Total blackness. The kind of blackness where your eyes never get used to the dark and you see nothing at all.

I lay there for hours, listening to the sounds of the jungle, expecting to feel something crawling up my leg at any moment, and eventually I feel asleep and had some very strange dreams.

Day 5 - Into the Amazon

It's Friday now, my fifth day in Ecuador, and I am writing this on a sheet of paper in my hut, to be added to my blog later.

From now on I will try to keep a regular record of my experiences so I don't have to write about them later.

Today I accomplished an ambition and ventured into the Amazon rainforest. It was incredible.

The Amazon is the world's largest rainforest. Larger than Europe, it stretches across eight countries, from Ecuador to Brazil, and is home to a third of the world's species.

Despite more than thirty years of deforestation, the Amazon is still about 70% - 80% intact. There are up to 70 Indian tribes living in the Amazon that have never had contact with the outside world. Many of these Indians still hunt with bows and arrows.

The Arutam Rainforest Reserve is a protected area on the edge of the Amazon in Ecuador. In one direction is the Andes, in the other, undisturbed rainforest stretches all the way to Peru and Brazil. It was into this rainforest that I ventured alone today.

I wandered along a trail that cuts into the Amazon for 6km. At one point I thought to myself: My God, I'm in the Amazon. Then I thought to myself: My God, I'm in the Amazon! There are jaguars, pumas and anacondas living in this forest! So I returned to the reserve, borrowed a machete and returned to the trail.

I spent four hours in the Amazon and didn't want to leave. Eventually it grew late and I returned to Ernesto's community where I played chase with some Shuar kids and ate a meal of mashed banana before returning to my planks of wood, where it's now time to turn off the light in the hope of finding sleep.

Day 6 - Problems with the Volunteers

A curious thing happened today. Other than myself and The Clown, there are three other volunteers here, one German boy of twenty and two 19-year-old German girls.

This morning I went to Ernesto's hut with The Clown and the German boy to tuck into a breakfast of boiled banana (the German girls eat in another hut) and both The Clown and the German ignored me.

They were both speaking to each other in English but made no attempt to include me in the conversation and when I tried to speak to them they were unresponsive. This has not happened to me for a long time. I have been nothing but nice to the volunteers, but it is clear they don't like me very much. They are spending a lot of time together and ignoring me.

The Germans girls spend most of their times talking about 'hot guys' and using words like 'awesome' and 'cool'.

Other than that, not much happened today. Tomorrow I do what I came here to do, starting work helping the Shuar in the reserve.

Day 7 - Chased by a Rabid Dog

Okay, so the dog was not rabid, but it was still pretty wild, and it did chase me.

After spending the morning planting trees, I headed into the Amazon again, passing Ernesto's hut to reach the trail, when a crazy dog saw me and went wild.

I think it was the fact I was carrying a machete; the dog saw me as a threat. It followed me along the trail for half an hour, barking wildly and running at me, only backing off as I raised the machete.

Drenched in sweat, I shouting obscenities at the mutt as I made my way backwards up the trail. It was only as I made my way deeper into the Amazon that the animal gave up the chase. I sat on a tree stump and took some time to recover before continuing on my way.

I left the trail today and explored the Amazon on my own terms. I returned to my hut early evening where I write to you from now. It's 9pm and time for sleep.

More tomorrow.

Buonas noches.

Day 8 - Secrets of the Shuar

I must say, I am disappointed with this project. I came here expecting to be living in the rainforest with Indians who walk around with their faces covered in paint and their penises hanging out.

Instead, I am living next to a road which cuts through the Amazon, with indifferent gap year students and Indians who wear jeans and t-shirts and who listen to Britney Spears on crappy hi-fi systems.

Until quite recently, the Shuar were amongst the most feared of all Indian tribes, famous for shrinking the heads of their enemies.

In the 1960s Christian missionaries arrived and introduced the Shuar to God. Today you can see many churches as you travel the 48km from Puyo to Arutam. Next week the volunteers and I begin laying the foundations for a church in Arutam itself.

Today, the Shuar living in and around Arutam are budding little capitalists. They want their microwave ovens and MTV. They still live much as they did centuries ago, in old wooden huts, surviving on a diet of manioc beer and fruit from the forest, but now they have fridge freezers, TVs and bicycles.

There are, however, still many Indians living in the forest who shun the outside world, who walk around with their faces covered in paint and their penises hanging out, and we should be thankful for that.

Day 9 - Lost in the Amazon

I have come to understand that the Shuar people are completely obsessed with bananas.

Every meal we eat together involves bananas, whether it's fried banana, mashed banana or boiled banana. I should be grateful however; today a banana quite possibly saved my life.

I was walking in the jungle earlier this afternoon when I urgently had to answer the call of nature.

I always carry toilet paper with me for these little emergencies. After finding a tree to hide behind, I did my business, only to find that I had left behind a perfectly formed, yellowish banana. It looked so real that I was almost tempted to try to peel it.

After leaving my banana in the jungle, I continued my exploration of the Amazon and followed the same route I took yesterday leading to a narrow stream. Unfortunately, at one crucial point I took a wrong turn and after about half an hour of walking, I realised, with total horror, that I was lost.

It's difficult to put into words how horrible it felt to be lost in the Amazon. I tried to retrace my steps but I couldn't find the way I had came and I ended up becoming more and more lost.

My vision became blurred as panic set in and though I was trying to think logically, I was so afraid, it was impossible for me to do so.

At that point, for the first time since I got stuck on a cliff in the Ukraine six months ago, I knew that my life was in danger.

I was lost in a rainforest larger than Europe, and even if I walked the equivalent of the distance from the United Kingdom to Germany, I would still find myself in that rainforest.

After an hour of walking, I spotted something which made me cry out in joy, the sweetest sight I have ever seen: There, next to a big old tree, was the banana that I had deposited earlier.

I was saved by own poo.

I knew then how to get back to the trail and I knew that I was not going to die in the Amazon. I was so happy to get back to the reserve and so happy to be safe that for a moment I almost hugged The Clown.

But it was only for a moment. And only almost.

Day 11 - Meeting Saddam Hussein

You will have to excuse me, for I appear to be going mad.

I am having some very strange dreams.

A few nights ago I dreamt that I was living in a big house and Saddam Hussein was employed as my butler. He went away to get executed, only to turn up for work the next morning. I tried to tell the world that Saddam Hussein was not dead, he was my butler, but before I could spread the word I woke up.

The following night I dreamed that Samuel L Jackson and I met Michael Jackson, who was dressed as a woman. Someone told Michael that my name was Peter Pan and he greeted me as Peter. Before I could explain that I was not Peter Pan, I woke up again.

Last night I had the strangest dream of all: I dreamed that I had become a God, omnipotent, and I could travel the world in the blink of an eye. Unfortunately, I was being stalked by Howling Mad Murdoch from The A-Team who had also become a God. Before he could catch me the dream came to an end.

I think that the anti-malaria tablets I am taking are doing strange things to my brain. Or perhaps I am really am going mad in the Amazon rainforest.

Bizarre dreams aside, nothing much of note has happened in the past days. The German boy left the project which I was quite happy about. That just leaves myself, The Clown and the two German girls.

Tomorrow a new French volunteer arrives. I am putting all of my hopes in him, that he will be someone who will want to talk to me, someone I will be able to have an interesting conversation with who will not ignore me or find me uninteresting.

Until tomorrow, this is me, going mad, lying on planks of wood in a hut on the edge of the Amazon rainforest, wishing you well and saying goodnight.

Day 12 - The Discovery

The French volunteer has arrived.

He is a gap year student.

Day 15 - Pitstop in Puyo

For the past three days I have been asking myself one question: How much rejection can one man take?

The German girls left the project on Friday to go travelling and The Clown went with them for a week.

I was getting on well with the French boy (who from this point on I shall refer to as The Frog), when on Friday night two French ecotourists arrived. I awoke Saturday to find that The Frog had left for the weekend to visit another city with the ecotourists.

I was left alone with Shuar Indians with whom I cannot communicate as I do not speak Spanish (or Shuar), so I headed to Puyo for two days which is where I am now, writing to you from an Internet cafe.

Earlier I bumped into one of Ernesto´s eleven daughters, a girl called Cecilia who is studying in Puyo. I met her in Arutam. We spoke as best we could given the language barrier, until she asked me if I had a girlfriend. When I replied that I did, she became uninterested, she played with her mobile phone, she looked away.

I ask myself that same question once again: How much rejection can one man take?

Cecilia, you're breaking my heart, you're shaking my confidence daily...

Day 17 - Taunted by Tarantulas

Two days have passed since my last entry and all I can say is I was bowled over by the welcome I received when I returned to Arutam.

Not from the Indians, or The Frog, but from the insects and creepy crawlies that had taken up residence in my hut while I was away.

I found a bizarre, wood-coloured spider on my door which I only spotted when I tried to hang my coat on it. I tried to kill it but it moved with lightening speed and hid under my planks of wood.

Then I went to move my toilet paper and a huge black tarantula jumped from behind the roll, landed on the floor with a light thud and darted under my bed, where it probably ate the other spider. (You wait ages to see a tarantula and then two turn up at once).

Last night I was lying in my bed when a huge moth almost the size of my hand found it's way inside my mosquito net and started flying into my face. I tried to turn my torch on, but it wouldn't work, and all the time this black monstrosity was hitting me in the face. I ended up using half of my bottle of mosquito repellent killing one moth.

I am being taunted by tarantulas and attacked by giant moths. I have become a walking buffet for bugs. I smell. My clothes are ruined. The people here don't like me. What the hell am I doing here?

Day 18 - La Cascada / El Volcan

Today was a strange day. The day started with a three hour hike to a beautiful waterfall in the Amazon, a spiritual place for the Shuar, where the souls of the departed are supposed to find their peace.

Later The Frog and I had a water fight with a few Shuar kids and shortly afterwards The Clown returned (without the German girls, who have now left the project) and very quickly he started ignoring me again. As you can imagine, I was not happy.

I call the clown The Clown because that's exactly what he is - a clown.

He paints his face, puts on a red nose and entertains kids at parties. People like him because he's funny and good at making jokes about bodily functions (I am not funny and spend most of my time trying to control my bodily functions).

Shortly after he returned to Arutam he began ignoring me and today he did it again. A few hours later The Frog thought it was okay to be rude to me too. Well, after weeks of dealing with gap year students who have been treating me like crap, enough was finally enough.

I erupted.

I shook The Frog. I screamed at him. I told him and The Clown exactly what I thought of them. I went a little overboard, completely freaking out, and by the end of it they both looked terrified.

They both apologised, and although I still don't like them, I think it will be a while until I am treated like crap again, at least by them, until I meet somebody else who thinks they can treat me like crap.

Days 19, 20 and 21 - Two Feathers

These past days have been wonderful, some of the best of my life.

It is Sunday now and The Clown, The Frog and I have just returned from spending the weekend with an Indian family who live deep in the rainforest. The head of the family, a man named Jorge, met us at Arutam and took us on a gruelling five hour hike to his home, which included wading through a river where we hoped no hungry piranhas were waiting for us.

We spent the weekend bathing in waterfalls, swinging from vines, fishing and then eating our catch. We even got to eat some strange worm-like larvae living inside a tree.

Jorge's children, six girls and one boy, were amazing. The sweetest children I have met. All big brown eyes and wide smiles. I spent the weekend giving them aeroplane spins and playing chase.

When I was a child and I dreamed of visiting the Amazon, it was this weekend I dreamed about. Even the farting competitions and silly conversations between The Frog and The Clown couldn't spoil it.

We left the family this morning and returned to Arutam. As we were leaving, one of the little girls, whose name I cannot pronounce, gave me two little feathers as a parting gift.

I am not ashamed to admit that a few minutes ago I took out those feathers and cried a little to think that I may never see those beautiful children again.

I will keep those two little feathers for the rest of my life. They will always remind me of a beautiful weekend and the nicest children I have ever met.

Days 22, 23 and 24 - Isaac Newton with Stitches

As my adventures in the Amazon draw to a close, here is a brief summary of some recent events...

Two days ago I was walking along the dusty road that cuts through the Amazon and runs alongside Arutam when a large coconut type object fell from a tree and landed a few feet in front of me. Had it landed on my head, it would have left me with a serious injury.

I learned that Jorge will be visiting Arutam again next week and so I headed to Puyo where I bought some gifts for him and his family, including soap, sweets, toothpaste and lots of presents for the kids. I did not want to be like one of these moronic gap year students; seeing the poverty all around me and doing nothing, and so I am glad I have done something, even if it is something very small.

A few more volunteers have arrived and as much as I hate to say it, they are spending most of their time with The Frog and The Clown and I can find very little to talk about with them.

I have learned that Ricky Martin is the Prince of South America and Shakira the undisputed Queen. But that is not such a bad thing.

I have now seen five tarantulas, two parrots, one bat, two cockroaches, two giant moths, one grasshopper the size of a small bird and one very poisonous but very flat and very dead snake.

Day 25 - I'm Not a Celebrity, Get Me Out Of Here

So that's it. My adventures in the Amazon are over. Today I said adiĆ³s to the Arutam Rainforest Reserve. Its 9pm on Thursday and I am writing to you from a hostel in Banos, tourist haven and adventure sports capital of Ecuador.

None of the volunteers said goodbye to me. The Frog travelled to Puyo this morning for the day but rather than share a bus with me, he disappeared early, which meant he did not have to say goodbye.

I said farewell to the Amazon earlier and took a long walk alongside a stream. At one point I had to climb over a fallen tree trunk which was resting vertically against another tree. As I jumped off, the tree rolled and fell into the water with a thunderous roar.

On my way back to Arutam I came across a beautiful huge butterfly, easily as big as my hand, resting on a piece of wood.

It refused to move, and did not seem to mind my presence, and so I sat and watched it for a while. As I did so, it slowly stopped moving and passed away before my eyes. I realised that the butterfly had gone there to die, and that almost made me cry.

I left Arutam shortly after midday and some of the Shuar, including Ernesto, said goodbye to me and wished me well.

And that was my goodbye to the Amazon.

Day 30 - The Ultimate Adventure

This entry comes to you from Banos where I have been for the past five days. I think I have accomplished more in these five days than I have in any other five days in my thirty-three years on this planet.

On Friday I went white water rafting (only a Level 3 river, so quite wimpy and not scary enough) and then on Saturday I went horse back riding and ended up with a horse with a farting problem.

On Sunday I climbed the Tungurahua volcano, which erupted in August killing at least five people. I paid for a guide for the day who, funnily enough, turned out to be a young Shuar man.

It was incredibly gruelling, climbing into the clouds, but well worth it. We cycled part of the way back and on one very steep road my brakes failed, which could have been very nasty.

Later I hired a quad bike for two hours and went roaring around town, which was fantastic. I topped the day off with a Swedish massage at a nearby massage parlour before heading to a local restaurant and tucking into fried sea bass for less than $5.

Yesterday I went canyoning, abseiling down three waterfalls, one more than 45 metres high, and today I hired a bicycle for the day and planned what I thought would be a leisurely day but one that turned out to be another day when I risked life and limb.

I cycled towards Puyo until I got to a huge waterfall, the name of which escapes me. I took a cable car ride across a ravine to reach the waterfall but on the way back I thought it would be a good idea to try to climb the ravine myself. That was a mistake.

As I was climbing, I got to the point where I could go no further, and I knew I had to turn back. My backpack was weighing me down and so I let it go. It rolled and rolled. And rolled. And then rolled some more, until it almost rolled into a river.

I managed to get back down without too much trouble, but I lost quite a bit of sweat on the way and it brought back a few memories of a certain cliff and a certain brush with death.

I am back in the hostel now and this will be my last entry from Banos before leaving for Quito in the morning. By coincidence, an hour ago I bumped into a young Japanese man who arrived in Arutam the night before I left. What he told me filled me with horror.

It seems that the volunteers have given up on the project and many of them, including The Clown and The Frog, and their entourage, are coming to Banos tomorrow morning. Worse yet, they will be staying in this very hostel! My God! The horror!

To think that they will be here, using this computer, socialising and ignoring me. I will be sure to leave early tomorrow. I really need to wash the memory of those awful people from my mind.

Day 31 - Pitstop in Panama

So this is my final entry.

It's Wednesday 14 February - Valentines Day - and I am writing to you from Quito. Tomorrow I leave Ecuador, exactly one month to the day since I arrived in this beautiful part of the world.

At 07:40am I board a plane that will take me back to Mexico, with another brief stop in Panama on the way. After spending two days in Mexico City, I will head to Canada for a day, where I hope to meet up with the infamous and elusive David Shakespeare.

I arrive in London late Sunday and then early the next day I head to Belgium for five days with my mother, my brother and his girlfriend. I return on Friday and head to Latvia and Belarus on Sunday.

I have managed to spend this month in South America without making a single friend and I have been rejected by almost everybody I have met.

If I let it, this could really affect my self confidence. But I think I am stronger than that. And I am lucky to know people, people better than the morons I have met in the past month, who do like me and do find me interesting and do enjoy my company.

I really should not let these bastards get me down, although at times I have. It is unfortunate that I continue to have such problems with Westerners I meet.

This has been a difficult month and my time in the Arutam Rainforest Reserve was not a project I enjoyed. With a Laura or a Wyatt or a Cesar or a Craig, it could have been different.

Despite the difficulties of the past month, I did get a magical weekend out of it and I have two feathers with me as a reminder of those wonderful two days.

It goes without saying that I will return to the Amazon. When I was a kid and I dreamed of an Amazon adventure, it was always Brazil that I dreamed about. The next time the Amazon and I meet it will be in Brazil and there will be no Frogs or Clowns.

Thanks for reading this entry, which turned out to be a larger than a rainforest.

Take care.

From the memory box of a Professional Englishman.

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About Me

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London, ENGLAND, United Kingdom
This is me. Read a few entries and they will tell you more about me than I can fit into these few paragraphs. Many of these entries started their lives as mass emails. That was before I discovered blogs. Thanks for stopping by and thanks for visiting my blog and reading about my life. Both a work in progress.