I arrived at the Shuar village safely monday night, although the bus ride took forever and I arrived after dark. Just like in my nightmare.
Alone, after dark, in the Amazon. The darkness here is not like southern ontario, where in Toronto it is always light and even outside of Peterborough the ambient light somehow ensures a lack of complete darkness. In the Amazon, very few people have electricity- maybe enough to run one or two light bulbs. As a result, dark is dark. You can´t see a thing, it´s as if a curtain has been dropped in front of you.
Before the bus even pulled away, there was a native man at my side. I have no idea where he came from or how he got there, but suddenly he was there, hoisting my giant knapsack with ease. Another girl, maybe 10, materialized and picked up my day sack, leaving me to carry only my plastic bag with my rubber boots. It was bewildering but reassuring.
They took me across the road, where I inquired about a bathroom. It had been a long, bumpy ride. Wordlessly, but with a smile, the young girl whisked me across the road and through the forest. I could hear english near one of the houses and knew the volunteers were near.
Afterwards they picked up my stuff, and took me to where I was staying, my habitaçion. It was all a blur. Up some wooden stairs into a room without a door or window, then the disappeared as suddenly as they´d arrived. I was left alone, in a wooden room with two single beds made out of plywood and without mattresses. The door looked out of the family garden, the window, out over the soccer field. A quick scan with the flashlight revealed two giagantic spiders hanging out near the roof. Time for the mosquito net. I unfurled my sleeping bag, and hung my net from a beam I placed across the top of the two walls. I placed my knapsack in the corner and sat. It was completely quiet. It had all happened so fast. I had arrived, and now was sitting in a room in an unknown person´s house. Now what? It was only 6:30 pm.
I sat crosslegged on the bed and reached for my comfort food, sucretes, or frosted flakes. I could see stars and a giant red hibiscus tree out of the door; the clouds had cleared enough to allow the light of the stars. Nothing else to do, I decided I might as well sleep. I crawled into my sleeping bag, under my net, and immediately fell into a deep sleep.
A knock on my "door" and an voice in English woke me, slowly. I attempted to drag my self from unconsciousness. I focused on the words. A girl was standing at my door. "Are you going to come down for dinner? It´s 7:30."
I mumbled something unintelligible as I attempted to clear the cobwebs from my mind enough to formulate an intelligent response. Anyone who knows me and has tried to wake me knows it´s quite the feat. "Umm, sure, that´d be great. Just let me change."
I found myself walking back downstairs, through the hole in the wooden floor with the ladder. The first floor had the main bedroom, where the family lived, and a door to the outside, with stairs. The kitchen, where I was headed, was a half level lower than the main floor, right on ground level. As I grew accustomed to the light emitted by a single bulb hanging in the center of the house, I saw that it was a dirt floor. A table sat in the corner, with benches on both sides. Another corner sported a stove top of some sorts, on a high wooden platform, with two burners. It was attached via a black hose to a canister of gas a few feet away. It looked like the same kind of coleman type stove we would take camping. A few banged-up, well used aluminum pots rested on top. A third corner seemed to be for clean dishes, dirty dishes, fresh fruit, and garbage, all stacked around each other. A group of bananas and plantains lay on the floor.
I sat at the table, where the other girl was seated with a bowl of dinner. A woman, obviously the mother of the house, smiled at me and asked me my name in spanish. She had a baby, a toddler really, and sat with him on her lap. She got up to fill me a bowl as well.
I looked at it. I don´t know what I expected amazonian food to be, but this wasn´t it. It was chunks of potato in a sort of chicken broth, thick gravy. Three minature bananas, cooked, sat on the edges of the bowl. Dinner was potato and banana stew. I started to eat. It tasted as bad as it looked. I gamely tried to eat, not wanting to insult my host. But after getting sick, I really did lack any appetite for this weird food. It was like eating a bowl of mush in mush, pure starchy carbohydrates. It lacked any real taste, and I was thankful for the (dirty) bags of salt and pepper on the table that one could take pinches of. The bananas were not very sweet, more starchy. I´ve read there are about 130 varieties of bananas down here, and they pretty much eat them all. They had a bucket of tea on the table, but it was made with some sort of plant I suppose, which gave it a light green colour. It was bitter and odd tasting.
The lady took the baby up the stairs, leaving us gringos (whites) alone. I said I really didn´t like it, and the other girl said "Oh, it´s pretty good today. At least there´s some kind of sauce!" Uh-oh.
Neither of us finished and we threw the rest to the dogs, which is what they do with leftover food down here.
Afterwards we headed over to the volunteer house, where everyone was hanging out. The house is elevated, and underneath was just beams and a table. Hammocks hung from the beams and gringos filled the benches, playing cards and drinking cervesa, or beer.
Some socializing later, I ended up back in bed, even more tired. Back to sleep.
I awoke the next morning, Tuesday, starving. I was sure looking forward to breakfast! A quick trip to the baños (ban-yos, or bathroom) which was located across the soccer field near the volunteer house, and I was back in the kitchen. I smiled at the lady (a young woman who couldn´t have been much older than me), and tried to make small talk in spanish. Not entirely successful.
A bowl and a mug appeared in front of me. I stared, incredulously. Breakfast was five tiny, hot bananas in a bowl. They appeared to have been boiled in their skins and then peeled and served. They tasted exactly how they looked; like hot bananas, only very starchy and more tough then the ones at home. I sampled the mug. It was a cold banana drink; and tasted like she had mashed up bananas and put them in the cold tea from the night before. Which is likely exactly what she did. She sat at the end of the table, feeding the baby the banana drink. Holding a giant brown bowl twice the size of the little boy´s head, she poured the mash down his throat. He squirmed, cried, but ate. Chunks of yellow banana fell unnoticed onto his shirt.
After she left, we once again threw our bananas to the dogs and ducks, who hung out in the mud behind the house. Guiltily but happily, I thought of my jar of nutella, soda crackers, and half a bag of doritos stashed in my knapsack upstairs.
After breakfast we headed to the volunteer lodge, where we lounged for an hour before the Shuar got there, to organize the day´s activities. Splitting into groups, I decided to go help with the
mirador, or lookout; a house they were tearing down and rebuilding up on the hill that overlooked the the Rio Pastaza and some volcanoes in the distance.
The house, a wooden structure with a palm frond roof, as partially dismantled when we got there. We set to work finishing the job. Once the wet, rotting roof came down, we had real problems. There was a giant ant´s nest inside. Large, quite round, black ants came pouring out of the disintigrating palms, by the thousands. And we still had to drag the pieces of the roof away to various piles; a lot of the wood had to be reused.
I have never been more uncomfortable or close to freaking out ever. The ants were everywhere. They climbed up our boots dozens at a time, and every time we moved a chuck of roof they swarmed us. I had ants on every part of my body; some even crawled into my pants and I found one between my breasts. We often had 20 or 30 on us at any given time. If you squished them in any way, they bit. Hard. I actually undid my pants to flick them out. It was torture; I was losing my mind. As soon as you think you´d gotten them off of you, more had climbed up your boots. They swarmed the ground, making parts of it look like the earth itself was moving. Some of them tried to rescue the tiny white capsules I can only assume were eggs or larvae. We were continually stamping our feet and brushing our clothes in a futile effort to dislodge them. I can feel them crawl on my again as I write this.
An excruciating hour later, most of the ants had run away, leaving only hundreds, not thousands to bother us. But the plague was not over yet. Out came the tiny blackflies. Clouds of them. They went for our eyes; and often flew right in; blinding out until you stumbled around and flicked them out. Some went up my nose. Now we were swatting our clothes, stamping our feet, and waving our hands in the air, while still trying to get work done. We must have looked insane but at that point I almost was. Oh did I mention we found a tarantula in the stuff we were moving too? Peachy...
Eventually we quit for lunch and headed back down to our respective lairs. Lunch at my house was a chunk of cooked yucca (a root which is a staple of their diet; think of a yellow, very starchy, hard, a bit stringy potato.. sort of) and two chunks of some sort of very grey, almost blue, grainy potato. Completely tastless, somewhat dry, carbohydrates in a bowl, this time, no sauce . This is it; I am going to starve in the Amazon, I thought.
Things improved after lunch, I decided not to return to the mirador but stay in the lowlands helping Maria clear a garden. I used a machete to clear grass and leaves and we tried to burn the refuse, not easy to do as everything was pretty damp. I was kind of fun, easy work, just swinging the machete and raking the rest.
Dinner was yucca again, this time in a chicken broth. A bone with a little bit of skin attached was all the chicken we got, apparently they break it and suck out the marrow. Not for me...
Anyways, I have decided to take a proactive approach to the food situation. I am staying at one of the poorest houses in the village; everyone else eats much better. Some get cereal and coffee in the morning! So today in Puyo here I am going to pick up some vegetables and some dried pasta, and I am going to offer to cook a few meals for them. Give them a little taste of Canada, which they may appreciate, and keep me from starving. I worry about my blood iron levels (which tend to always be low, like my Mom´s, which makes me tired) if I don´t get any dark veggies or meat. I know food is supposed to be included- and it is, I guess- but a few dollars on food is not going to hurt and I want to do something nice for the family anyways. Everything we´ve eaten so far has come right out of their own garden; she spent all morning digging up that yucca that I fed to the dogs.
I don´t know if I want to stay a whole month or not. Apparently there is not much work to do volunteer-wise (there´s 16 volunteers right now). We´´ll see if I can study medicinal plants. Tomorrow I want to work in the garden with my host, see what they grow and how the harvest it.
Time to go. Love you all!