Monday, April 21, 2014

Cultural Immersion

Just a liiiiitttle concern touched me when we arrived to find that there were still no hammocks up in our “hostel.” The little grandmother was confused. She told our tour guide that he’d never told her that we had decided to stay (apparently we’d been allowed to leave our stuff just so we could go on his tour). She, Polo, and her husband began putting the hammocks up immediately. They tied the corners, draped mosquito netting, and looked for a location for the fourth hammock. Maybe we were the largest party they’d ever had stay. We took our showers and charged electronics. Again, I was amazed at the difference from Bogota, where you didn’t even show you HAD electronics until you were in a locked building, but here - anyone could have reached through the window and grabbed anything, but no one did.

Our hammocks
When I came back from my shower, our hostess accosted me, full of questions and stories about her native culture. No, she and Polo were not family, but they were Ticuna, so they would take care of each other. The room we were staying in had been a daycare until she hurt her knees. Now it was a place for meetings (we could tell the type of meetings by her table of “sacred” things - a Jesus on a cross, some indigenous symbols, some Catholic icons). She loved her culture and she wanted to maintain tradition. Come, she said, and look at her pieces of culture. Come and see the instrument of the mother who soothed her hungry children to sleep, the instrument of the frogs. Listen to the song...

The hats, the baskets, the purses - all were from
the string so painstakingly and carefully woven
from grass, the process we'd seen on our arrival.

We thought it was bedtime, but really, looking back, it was “church” time. She told us the stories of the Ticuna, sang us the songs, and took us to see her handiwork. We were awed by the hours of labor in the bags, baskets, and jewelry she’d made, and we asked questions about various other pieces. As she explained, she demonstrated. These beads fell one way if you would leave and travel, another if you would stay and marry. This was used for a Ticuna dance... and she took Dianne’s arm and they began to dance as our hostess sang in her native (not Spanish) tongue. We bought a few things, so she had to fulfill the custom of her culture and give us a gift. As she tied a bracelet around each of our wrists, she began to pray.

The song of the frogs
It might have been Tyrel’s least favorite moment on the trip. And, truth be known, none of us were terrifically comfortable with having hands go up and down while someone chanted in a completely foreign language. I, however, am sure that the Holy Spirit living in my heart is strong enough to protect me from the “spirit of good travel” she said put into us (and trust me, we prayed, too!). Then we returned to the large room, where she called her husband to come and play a drum and she took out a long, ornamental stick. We all grabbed it and did some “Indian line dancing,” for lack of a better description. We asked her if we could pray over her. I prayed in English, because somehow the words wouldn’t come in Spanish, but then I explained that we wanted her to know Jesus in truth, because the Jesus of the Bible lived in our hearts. She said she had sensed that we had brought another Spirit which she needed. I thought of Acts, where Paul preached to the people to explain the “unknown God,” and I thought of our missionary friend who had spoken of the difficulty of separating truth for the animistic indigenous people.

Finally, rest. Dianne, Tyrel, and I were quite comfortable in our hammocks, though Ethan found his too narrow and retreated to the bed in the room where we’d put our stuff. We slept wonderfully once we tuned out the music from a nearby bar, and awakened with smiles to hear rain on the tin roof. The adventures in Puerto Nariño were over as we boarded the rapido for Leticia.

Shower water is from the blue barrel.

Never, never, never run out of drinking water while on the Amazon.
Buy it in a bag.

A Day on the River

Leopoldo or “Polo” was our guide’s name. He couldn’t say any of the Fuchs’ names, so he would simply call “Rebeca” and direct me to tell the niño, the señor, o the señora whatever he wanted to communicate. He hired a friend who had a boat, then went to buy bread which we’d need for the fish, he said. Except we found it funny that he and his friend ate all but one piece of the bread.

We weren’t actually on the Amazon in Puerto Nariño; rather we were on the Loretayaco, a tributary. The Amazon is nearly a mile from bank to bank in places and even on the Loretayaco, it seemed the water would never end. Polo told us that the current rainy season would bring the river to its highest in May and pointed out the watermarks that explained why houses near the river were built on stilts. He also told us, to our surprise, that when the dry season (lasting through August) came, the river would go so far down that it would only consist of a few 10 foot wide streams running in the great bed.

Entering our adventure "under the jungle"
Walking trees

Hanging out in the walking trees
The first step of our tour was sailing “under” the jungle, basically a swamp tour. We were warned we might see caiman, but we didn’t. We did see more plants than we could ever categorize, and we learned about the “walking trees.” These trees grow branches outward that have strings hanging off. The strings reach down and touch, becoming roots in the ground from which a new trunk forms. The original trunk then dies even as the new one is repeating the branching and rooting process. In this way, one can see where the tree has “walked” over a period of a few years. One of these walking trees was known as the “biggest tree in the jungle.” While I love climbing trees, and the walking trees were perfect to play on, my fun was inhibited by the fact that when I looked down I did not see ground, but water. I never thought I’d be so glad to get back in a boat.

We traveled to a lake (which I could not distinguish from the river) to look for the dolphins, grey and pink. It was overcast and showering when we arrived, perhaps the reason that our spottings were sparse, but they were real and we did see them. They aren't just pale pink either... more the color of a fair skinned little girl with a bad sunburn. Anyway, while dolphin-watching, it began to rain. Hard. At first Polo and his boat driving friend were going to drive us to the banks to get out of the rain, but when we explained our fascination with rain, they agreed to just put the sides down on the “lancha” (motor boat) and sit tight. This was a stretching experience for me.  Every time someone rocked the boat (gives a whole new meaning to the phrase!), I’d flinch a tiny bit, especially when it dawned on me why there was a bucket... to bail the rain water out. Tyrel found my paranoia hilarious and did his best to get a reaction. My only comfort? “You can’t drown me, because you won’t survive without a translator!”
Waiting out a rain storm. Unfortunately, the pink dolphins don't show up in the overcast weather.
Long story short, we did what  few have done - sat through a rain storm on the Amazon. And then proceeded to the next of our tour events: piranha fishing. Polo tore up the bread, tied a piece and a hook on the sticks with string, threw the string in the water and caught a sardine (live ones look like... fish!). He cut the sardine into pieces, tied a piece to a line, threw the line in the water, shook it, pulled it out and dropped a black piranha, about 4 inches long, into the boat. He then handed the rod to Tyrel. We all got our chances, and I can now say I’ve been fishing AND CATCHING and it was much more fun than just fishing. My first few fish I pulled out with a bit too much enthusiasm, giving new meaning to “catch and release fishing” as I dropped them on the other side of the boat, but I finally pulled a couple in. Tyrel endeared himself to the boat driver as a “champion” by catching 10 or more, including all 4 varieties: black, white, red, and fox. Our guide cheerfully complied with our request to cut the “shark teeth” out of one, although he wanted to take it to the village and have it cooked for us, an idea we were NOT thrilled over. 
My first time to catch while fishing...

Shark teeth. Piranhas will not attack UNLESS they smell blood.
Judging from how fast they bit our bait, I don't think I'd risk a swim.
Finally, fishing over, we began the journey back to port. Our guide had told us he would sing and tell stories as part of our entertainment and this he proceeded to do, pulling a harmonica out of his pocket as an introduction and bridge for his songs. We were pleasantly surprised to find that both his singing ability and the songs he’d written about his beloved home were actually quite good. His last feat was to try to talk us into a “night tour.” I was, again, suspicious. Too much time in Bogota, where nights are not particularly safe and people not particularly honest. We asked if we could meet him after supper...By this time we were all hungry and salt-starved. Though the day hadn’t been as hot (we were wet from rain, not sweat), we still found that we’d drunk and not peeed, a sure sign that something was inbalanced. We asked at the touristy hostel and they looked at us oddly. Of course a night tour was safe! Who was doing it? Oh yes, it would be fine.

Polo entertaining us on our trip back.
See this video with sound on facebook
At this point, we didn’t care about anything except food, so we started trying to find the place Polo had told us about, where a meal was only $4000 pesos. Polo had taken Tyrel to buy machetes, and the man at that store informed us that nothing healthy was to be found at that price. We decided to up our budget, especially when we realized how difficult it was to come by a meal with no fish in a river town. After eating, we realized all we had energy for was sleep, or so we thought, so Polo took us back to our “hostel.”

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Finding Our Way Upriver

Our mission was to leave on the 8 o’clock boat up river to Monkey Island. We caught a colectivo to town and marveled at the freshness of the morning air blowing through the windows on this cloudy morning. The jungle smells were strong, moist, sweet, tangy. Like salad dressing. Unsure of the layout of Leticia’s street, we caught a taxi to the docks. Its doors could only be opened from the outside, the windows were manual, and the inside might have needed the seats replaced and everything else cleaned. But it was only $2 and we arrived.

We could see our Cali friends boarding a large, albeit old, “fast” passenger boat and figured we’d travel with them to Monkey Island, but entering the ticket office we were greeted by an unsmiling secretary who informed us we were too late for the 8 o’clock boat and the other boats would not stop at Monkey Island. Further conversation revealed that someone, somehow, had figured out how to make a fortune off that single stop and we probably didn’t want to pay the extra $30 a person to go there anyway. We bought tickets for the 10 o’clock boat to Puerto Nariño, stowed our stuff in the corner of the “rapido” (running or “fast” boat) office, and set out to find breakfast. We first found a tremendous fruit market, not so large as Palo Quemado in Bogota, but still impressive with stand after stand of familiar fruits, fruits we’d never seen, meat, chicken, and an overwhelming amount of fish, which we watched them bring in from the docks. Interesting to me is that while even the little corner stores in Bogota had fruits imported from other parts of the country - popular ones like mangos and mandarins - and Palo Quemado had anything you could possibly want, this, probably the largest market in Leticia, had primarily “local” produce. Perhaps this is because Bogota had to import almost all fruit, while Leticia had the enough options to avoid doing so...?

Unloading platano on the docks, probably to ship out.
You can find anything at the fruit market... even cow eyeballs.
After an Amazonian tamal, empanadas, fresh-squeezed orange juice and many pictures later, we were finally back in the “rapido” office. We followed an employee across a board laid from shore to a floating floor, where we waited until boarding time. They packed as many bags as they could into the boats luggage racks, then threw the rest to balance on top of the boat. Not knowing we needed to be pushy, we scattered - Ethan wound up near English-speaking Germans and beside a Colombian child who loved playing with his ipad, Dianne by an American “missionary,” Tyrel by a Colombian Christian who spoke English, and I by a little indigenous girl who really wanted to close the window and was scared of me because I told her if she did, I might get sick (truth). One of our favorite sights going down the river? A school, and all parents paddling their canoes in to deliver their uniformed children. 2 hours and several rainshowers later, we were getting off on the dock at Puerto Nariño.
I didn't figure out how to rotate this before importing, but notice the approved safety walkway onto the loading dock.

Of course your luggage will make it downriver!
The first building we passed read “Hostel. Tours Available.” Looking up at the... village? ahead, we could see that we had gone just a little further back in time. Bogota is very Americanized, very modern except in the slums. Leticia was not so much so; it was a little poorer, but still not what one might consider “3rd world.” Puerto Nariño had “river homes,” built on stilts with no glass on the windows, though some building had screens. Electricity yes, and maybe even some direct TV, but anyone would immediately realize he was not in America anymore. We later learned that this indigenous pueblo had no motorized vehicles, not even motorcycles (very common in Leticia), except a trash truck and a fire engine. And really, why would they? Except for the narrow lanes up and down the hills of the village, there were no roads. Everyone traveled on the river, or on walking paths cut through the jungle. 

One of the prettier homes in the village.
We’d been told to find a man with a boat on the river. We didn’t have to look far. I turned down a man with a tour company card and a hotel offer the second I stepped off the rapido. We were standing across from the hostel when the next man approached us. This Ticuna Indian was about shoulder-height to me, with a scar or birthmark across his face, very stout, talking very fast, and so “convincing” he might have scared me had I been alone. Instead, I translated. He wanted $100,000 pesos ($50) to take us on a 6 stop tour. I couldn’t quite get straight what the 6 were, but I was sure I did NOT want to go swimming in a lake. No, he wouldn’t reduce the price if we didn’t swim, he was already giving us a good deal, think how many things we would see and do. Yes, we’d do it, but we needed to put our stuff down. Oh, where did we want to stay? Did we want something economical? That hostel was $25,000 for 2, but he knew where we could sleep in hammocks for $6,000 ($3) each. Still just a tad suspicious, we asked if we could look at these lodgings.

The restroom facilities: the barrel of rain water is an important component.
Our lodgings turned out to be a wonderful experience, but even at the first glance we knew it wasn’t a place we’d recommend to just anyone. We were introduced to a tiny indigenous grandmother who had a big empty room and a handy outhouse with a toilet flushed with a bucket and a pipe that spewed cold water for a shower  - in a concrete compartment where we found at least three kinds of mold growing. She gave us a key to a room with padlock and a bed where we could leave our belongings. We wondered if it was her room. 

Preparing grass to make string to make baskets, bags, purses, and clothing.
Our guide suggested that before we left we come see some of the artisanship of the indigenous. The tiny little woman and 2 or her friends were weaving string from grass. They parted the grass, soaked it, dried it, then braided it, each step of the process taking hours. We were later to see some of the final products and shake our heads in awe.

Finally, we were ready to set out on our adventures.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

El Mundo Amazonico (The World of the Amazon)

We’d seen a sign as we were landing in Leticia, something about an Amazon botanical park, just over the fence from the airport. Walking there seemed a good place to start. We turned down countless taxi drivers and tour guides to walk up the dirt path that served as the road to the airport, counting the numerous motorcycles and flinching when we were splashed by a car with - HOT mud puddles. Nearing what we thought should be the entrance to the park, we were confused. I stopped to ask a “policeman” for help.

(Keep in mind that military service in Colombia is mandatory for all boys at age 18. Many of these are recruited as “police,” who stand on street corners with various types of guns in order to increase the feeling of security in the nation. I realize it sounds scary, but I actually find it rather comforting).

He didn’t know about the park. Perhaps that gate was the entrance? His brow wrinkled when I pointed out that the gate was closed, and he began to call across the street to his fellow soldier. Unfortunately, just about this time several motos and cars came roaring (literally) through. He crossed halfway across the street to continue the conversation. More traffic, both gunmen yelling and me trailing along behind. The conclusion of the matter was that said ecological park was closed and we’d have to ask in town to arrive anywhere else.

We kept walking. It was hot.

And walking. We were wet.

We spotted a park services building. As we should have expected from government workers, the ladies inside informed us that since el “Mundo Amazonico” was not a national park, it was not their business to help us find it and we should go pay someone to take us.

We walked some more, finally stopping in a grocery store to buy water. I asked the clerk about el Mundo Amazonico. Of course he knew where it was and all we needed to was catch THAT collectivo and ride to Kilometer 7, then hike up the path. It sounded simple enough, but finding a working ATM, lunch, and the hiking up the path was not so simple. At 2 pm., we gladly sat in the smoky little hut (it was built like a post fence on a round corral with a thatch roof) to wait for our guide’s instructions. 

Suddenly Ethan flinched, “Is there a cat on my head?”

We all had the monkey visit, but it took a while to get the camera out. 
It was no cat, but a tiny monkey! Three or four of them jumped down from the wall, drawn apparently by the sound of the water bottles. They drank happily as water was poured into their mouths, sat on our shoulders, jumping from person to person and perching on heads and shoulders. We knew - we were in the jungle now. And while we stowed our stuff, we shared laughter over the monkeys with an older couple and their daughter who we came to know as “our friends from Cali.”

El Mundo Amazonico is a private park, a farm that was bought by a gentleman who wanted to restore the natural environment for the purpose of sharing it with the public in an educational manner. According to the young indigenous guide, the regrowth had begun only seven years prior, but to us it looked like the untouched jungle of a story book. 

We were taken first to an “aquarium,” where various species of jungle amphibians and reptiles were caught, labeled, and classified, some living, some preserved. Here, I must admit my retelling abilities may lack thoroughness. By the time I translated an entire vocabulary unfamiliar in either English or Spanish, I remembered very little of what I’d said. I know we saw fish from the depths, the middle waters, and the surface. We saw an electric eel (and an electric fish that didn’t shock quite as much), we saw piranhas of all types, including the fox piranha with his canine teeth. We saw the most poisonous snake in the jungle (preserved) and pictures of the effects of that poison, learning that if not treated within 47 minutes a bite was sure death. We learned that many snakes resemble dead branches, so you should be careful where you tramp.

These snake vertebrate hung across the ceiling of the "aquarium." They were all connected, from a snake probably 20+ feet long.
After the aquarium, we rejoined our friends from Cali for the plant tour. We spent a lot of time discussing the infamous coca plant, learning that the roots could be chewed for the same effect as an “energy drink,” the leaves brewed as tea or as an intoxicating liquor of sorts, and, of course, it may be processed as cocaine. The Cali gentleman informed us that less processing is being done in Colombia; the coca leaves are being exported to the U.S. as it is processed in a stronger form. After being introduced to two or three other plants used as intoxicants or hallucinogens (one of which it was recommended foreigners never try because even a small amount could cause damage if one was not accustomed to it), we sat in a small hut where we were offered cups of tea made from jungle plants.

I ask you, would you drink it?

During our tea session, our guide showed us the recycling education efforts of the park. They’d joined with local schools to gather plastic soda bottles, fill them with compacted trash, and build walls and fences. We continued through the jungle garden. Many of the flowers looked like plastic... but they smelled. We came to a clearing with beehives - miniature beehives of bees that did not sting and only made tiny amounts of honey. I guess in the jungle, where things bloom all year, they don’t have to store it up.

Once we’d taken in more information about jungle plants than we’d ever retain (and I’m sure the guide did not introduce even a quantifiable fraction of them), we moved on to have more fun... We began to shoot the blow gun. This was no toy blow gun, or an imitation made for tourist. This was an authentic hollowed out stick, more than five feet long, with arrows and a target. FYI, I have a big mouth, but it did not help my blowing abilities at all. Tyrel and the old fellow from Cali, on the other hand, killed the target. We also had the opportunity to shoot a bow and arrow of the indigenous type. Again, the Boy Scout wowed us all and I showed the ineptness of my hand-eye coordination. We think this tour was supposed to be an “experience of the indigenous life,” as we also saw some of their artisanship. They make clothing from some type of tree bark, which they dry, dye, and sew. The only problem? It can’t be washed or it disintegrates. We also got to sample our favorite jungle fruit - the coconut-like “copa azul,” which had pulp tasting of sour skittles and seeds that could be ground up into cocoa.

My big mouth needs retrained if I'm going to use a blowgun.
Our final tour required rubber boots or so we were told. The guide was now working overtime - in fact, we’re fairly certain that he normally had someone else give this particular tour - but he did not charge us to rent the boots. Ethan, unfortunately, could not have rented boots because there were none big enough to fit him. Colombians are small and the indigenous people are smaller. We tramped through the jungle, seeing a few frogs and bugs and trees and very carefully NOT stepping on tree roots (probably the reason for the boots). This jungle tramp was shady, so we had more than one reason to be sad as we left our Cali friends (after taking a picture with them) with their rented tour guide and car.

Many of the jungle plants looked like plastic.
We survived the - still-hot - walk back to the main road and relaxed on the banks while we waited for the collectivo to arrive. The first bus we’d taken had had a pretty nice “caller” on the steps who’d helped us remember where to get off, but this driver took the cake for niceness. First he let a lady pay half-price because “she was on her way home from work,” then he let a little girl off without paying at all because “she was doing her homework on the bus.” When we got on, we asked to see if they could help us find the campground at which we planned to stay, but they again went the extra mile. Not only did they help us find it, he kept us on the bus until he could “make the turn,” stop, and let his caller call the owner of the campground to come and escort us in. And he gave us a discount.

The campground owner was as remarkable as his website claimed. His face was full of rings, his body of tattoos, and he was super-friendly, even offering to speak in English as he explained prices and procedures, an offer I embraced eagerly. We’d planned to camp, packing sleeping bags and mosquito netting, but at that point in the day, we all had to smile when Ethan chose a “cabaña” with its own bathroom and shower, beds, a tiny kitchenette, and a hammock on the porch. But first -dinner... you can go read the food post for a description of our candlelit meal with a shirtless, shoeless waiter, a beer can candleholder, and mystery juice that tasted like salad dressing.

Night fell, and I fell into my bed (feeling very much like an animal entering a cage because of the mosquito netting built up around it), asleep before it was my turn to shower. I’m fairly sure that was the best night’s sleep I’ve had all this year and I didn’t even cry in the cold shower the next morning.

The most comfortable beds of the trip.