Crossing Cultures: Exploring Ecuador's Jungle
by GEORGE OXFORD MILLER
Stirring the fermenting pot of nijiamanch beer with her hand, our hostess, Chines, fished out a masticated root mass, squeezed it like a sponge and tossed it on the ground. Chickens squawked and dashed for the tidbit. Then she dipped a gourd bowl into the milky brew and headed my way.
I'd read about nijiamanch and knew that Amazon indigents drank the liquid instead of water. The flavor of the beer comes from manioc root, which women chew, spit into a pot and leave fermenting for three days. Now, as I relaxed in a remote, Ecuadorian thatched hut, I knew it was my turn to try nijiamanch first-hand.
A Community Effort
Our adventurous cocktail party with a local Achuar Indian family was just one of many cultural connections made on our trip to Kapawi Jungle Lodge, located east of Quito on the banks of the Pastaza River, a tributary of the Amazon near the Peruvian border. With the help of Canodros S. A., an Ecuadorian travel company specializing in tours to the Galapagos Islands, the local Achuar community has embarked on an effort of ecotourism at its purest, offering an authentic cultural and jungle experience for guests of the lodge.
Aided by the $1.5 million provided by Canodros, the Achuar constructed 20 cabanas and central buildings using only native materials and indigenous construction techniques, such as vine lashing and wooden pegs. Not a single nail was used in the entire complex. Fifteen years from now, the business will be handed over in full to the tribe; in the meantime, Canodros works with them, training them for the future venture.
The rustic elegance of the lodge belies its remote location. When first arriving, we had trouble remembering we were in one the least traveled sections of the Amazon basin. A 100-yard boardwalk from the river leads to a cluster of thatched-roof cabanas with jet-black, palm-wood floors, and porches with hammocks overlook a picturesque lagoon. Each cabana features flushing toilets, a solar-heated, warm-water shower, screened windows, bed with mosquito net, and electricity. The spacious lodge has comfortable lounging furniture, a bar, and a selection of Achuar crafts.
Jenny, a recent college graduate from Connecticut, summed up our first impression: "Wow, I could get used to this," she said, and headed straight for the hammock.
Granted, the journey in was epic, as we traversed the Andes and hundreds of miles of unbroken rainforest in a Cessna, landed on a dirt strip, and then traveled another one and one half hours by motorized dugout canoe. On our river ride deep into the jungle, we passed only one thatched house. There was no question that we had crossed into another world.
Though the lodge offered unpretentious comfort and delicious meals, we never needed reminding that we were in the jungle. At night, caimans splashed in the water underneath the cabanas, and by day, macaws and toucans screeched in the surrounding trees.
The Early Bird Gets the ... Bird?
The days started with birdwatching along the river for the early risers. A flock of twenty or so chicken-sized hoatzins squawked from overhanging limbs and stared at us as though we were the attraction. Parrots, toucans, and dozens of colorful birds flew across the water and through the trees. We spotted up to 25 species in an hour, but professional birders have been known to spot 100 of the 500 total local species in one day.
After a three-course breakfast with fresh juices and fruit, homemade pastries, cereal and omelets, guests had a choice of easy, moderate, or difficult excursions into the jungle. Some hike-and-canoe outings lasted a few hours and covered easy terrain, while others took all day and traversed rugged jungle trails.
On our first all-day hike, our guide, an Achuar named Ruben, stopped and told us through an interpreter, "Be careful, don't touch the heliconia plants along this part of the trail. They're covered with stinging ants." Wielding his machete like an extension of his arm, he then cleaved a path through the overhanging vegetation. We passed through unharmed, but dozens of angry ants swarmed over his shirt.
Ruben paused frequently along the trail to explain the use of a plant. The large, lemon-scented leaf of maito is used to wrap meat for cooking. He nicked a dragon-blood tree and red sap poured out - a liquid used as an astringent and an ulcer treatment.
The wayus plant had a more esoteric use. Achuar families rise at 4 A.M., sitting together to share their dreams and drink wayusa tea. "We drink about a liter each," Ruben told us. "Then we go into the bushes and make ourselves throw it up. It purifies us for the day."
Guests also learn about local culture by visiting with locals in their homes, such as my fascinating experience with Chines and her husband Sumpa. Their dwelling was a 10- by 12-foot thatched hut with a dirt floor and no walls, located on the banks of the Pastaza River. A two-foot-high platform served as the bed, and the one shelf held three gourd bowls. A tattered basket, black tail feathers, and a monkey's tail hung from the woven thatching. Two skinny dogs lolled by a smoldering log. To share nijiamanch with a visitor was an act of extreme hospitality for the Achuar. To drink the nijiamanch was for us, an act of extreme faith.
Approaching me, Chines extended the bowl with a half-toothless smile, then retracted it. Ever the concerned hostess, she flipped out a bug with her fingers, then held the bowl for me to take a swallow. I smiled graciously, taking a sip. It tasted like bitter yogurt. After one round of the group, her daughter arrived with a algae-covered milk jug of brown river water, which she added to the sooty pot. Chines refilled the bowl and made another round.
"Is this safe to drink?" I asked our tour leader in English.
"No problem," he said. "The fermentation kills the germs. They drink gallons of it every day."
Guests of Sumpa
While Chines offered refreshment, we talked with Sumpa, who sat at a small table covered with toucan feathers. He sorted them into colors to make a traditional headdress while we told him where we lived and what we did. Separating the red, yellow, and black breast feathers, he then stuffed the rest into an empty shotgun shell box.
We sensed the chasm between our culture and theirs when talking with Sumpa, though he wore a T-shirt from a hotel in Quito and Ruben wore a European-style soccer shirt. Until the 1960s, the Achuars had no contact with the outside world. Necessity for the tribe is still a machete, a dugout canoe, and a shotgun. They have no public schools, health clinics, nor grocery stores. The river and their gardens supply all tribal needs.
Other guests confirmed that the Achuar interaction was authentic, and not a show for tourists. Tim, an advertising accountant from New Jersey, came back from his visit to an Achuar family with red streaks marking his face.
"I couldn't believe it when the man came up to me and painted my face. He put an
arrow on my forehead and a cross and two lines on my cheeks. He said it would give me strength and confidence in battle. It was a real bonus moment for me."
For information on three-to-seven-day itineraries at the Kapawi Lodge and in the Galapagos Islands, contact Canodros via World Wide Holidays at 800-327-9854, E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org; Website: www.canodros.com. Rates for 2001 begin at $750 for three nights/four days in Kapawi including air fare from Quito and meals. Taxes, entrance fees, and Quito hotels are extra. Three nights in the Galapagos Islands begin at $1,310 from Quito.
For information on additional tour operators and programs, see our Geographical Index under "Ecuador."