MARK: The deafening sound of the torrential rain made it virtually impossible to talk and be heard. The corrugated metal sheets that made up most of the roof, amplified the sound to such an extent that you’d have thought the Amazon Rain Forest God’s had decided to dump their entire bath water over the top of our small group.
The “warm” rain had been pouring incessantly since the early hours of the morning. The locals estimated that over three inches had fallen, pretty standard for the heart of the Ecuadorian jungle at this time of year. But even the clucking clutch of chickens, that had been strutting about earlier with an air of arrogance had taken refuge underneath the wooden floor boards of our bedroom, occasionally dipping their beaks in to the muddy puddles for a sip of water.
I’d just had a paddy and decided it was easy to write a blog than take part further in trying to create a friendship bracelet…. I literally got tied up in knots and did not have the patience to “plait” together three stupid pieces of gold braid attached to a three inch nail on the makeshift veranda. It was a daft game. I wanted to go out to play instead!
Sarah though was much happier. It probably reminded her of the needlework part of her Domestic Science ‘O’ level. And then result. She announced that HER bracelet, complete with red and black seed was for me, to add to my right wrist collection. I was well chuffed.
Meanwhile the rain continued to fall, the drops now cascading torrents. The occasional flash of lightening and rumble of thunder created an eerie atmosphere. The mountain to my right was shrouded in low cloud, before momentarily clearing as the sun threatened to show before, quickly disappearing again. Tease.
The day before had been a completely different story. Our group travelled from Tena (150 miles south west of Quito) in to the steamy jungle to stay with a local family for 2 days. The old white battered Hyundai van, complete with bags on roof, had started off on metalled roads before soon having to bounce over stones and mud as the green foliage became more dense and civilisation disappeared.
Brakes squealing, gears crunching, the end of the road. Back packs on, we walked along single file tracks, by the side of three merging streams.
A small clearing revealed a straw building with eight black hammocks gently swaying in the breeze. Straight ahead, a kitchen and an eating area, to the left a bedroom block. A quick check confirmed that the “simple” bedrooms did have mozzy nets, much needed as I was soon bitten. Immediately out came the last of our 90% DEET which was plastered everywhere, irrespective of any potential long term side effects. No Zika virus for me thank you.
Our host was “Delfin” (Spanish for Dolphin) and his family of 5 children and 7 grandchildren. They soon made us welcome with a lunch of potato soup and lentils. An hour later and with welly boots allocated, we marched along a 4m wide clearing. Then suddenly and without warning “Rolando” our guide veered off in to the jungle proper, machete in hand making swift scything actions as he went.
Now we were talking. Beautiful orchids, giant ants, tarantula spiders, little brown birds, circling black vultures, stunning red heliconia. Putrid smelling pools of water, dense foliage.
And then in a scene from a Bear Grylls documentary we reached the top of a 300ft high cliff overlooking the Jatunyacu River, a main tributary of the Amazon. I could not help but think of a film – I sadly can’t remember the name of it – where an aircraft crash landed and just four people survived. The survivors managed over many days to walk through the jungle when they euphorically came across a river for the first time. They built a raft and escaped!
We retraced our steps before heading off in another direction where Rolando found a small, crystal clear stream. Grabbing at the bank with his bare hands, he scraped a pile of grey clay from underneath the decaying foliage. “Who wants some?” he said smiling in his broken English. It was a natural face pack guaranteed to knock 10 years off your age in just over an hour. I was first up for it, whilst checking that he had enough left for Sarah as she was going to need “quite a lot” of the polyfilla type gloop – if you know what I mean. EDITOR: He was duly slapped for this last comment.
We all looked like creatures from the black lagoon as we headed back to camp, by which time our faces had dried and it was difficult to move our facial muscles.
How to get it off? Simple. You find a stream with a waterfall, get your kit off and get in. I was joined by a lovely German lady called Curly B who was also up for the natural shower. And it worked! We both looked 42 and 40 respectively as the photos show.
But that was yesterday. The rain today, Sunday, continued to fall. This blog got longer. I put my iPod on. “It’s raining men” was ironically the first tune that randomly shuffled onto the playlist from my list of 1,902 different tracks. There was not time for “Bridge over Troubled Water” or “Raindrops keep falling on my head”, because after 30 minutes there was a break in the clouds. The volume level on the tin roof dropped from 9 out of 10 on the deafenometer to just 3. The rain WAS stopping!
So lunch was brought slightly forward and after our soup and chicken, jungle activities were resumed. The afternoon was a hike to discover native plants and to be told by Rolando their use in holistic, natural and homeopathic treatments for various illnesses, ailments and food sources. A few surprises were also promised along the way.
First up we encountered a wild garlic tree, ideal for stomach problems, quickly followed by a tree whose leaves could be stripped, dried and woven into fine braid. Ah, so that’s where the bracelet started life. And then boyish sniggers amongst the men and “secret smiles” from the ladies of the group broke out – we had come across a Red Walking Tree.
The tree we were told does actually walk up to 30cms a year as the roots die on one side of its trunk and then grow on the other, pushing the 75ft high tree across the forest floor at a snails pace. Enough said!
We walked further, through streams which were now much higher because of the recent rain and stopping periodically to admire weird forms of fungus and other plants.
An occasional bright turquoise Morph butterfly wafted past, too quick to photograph, but worth $500 on the black market if captured for a sick western collector. Brightly coloured plants adhorned the side of the river. Rubber trees exposed their white sap, a revisited source of revenue once more for Ecuador in light of the oil price collapse, which has been a key component of their current economy.
Another saviour might be the re-establishment of old gold mines! Rolando demonstrated perfectly the art of panning. Very hard work for a small return. But he did get a few specs of gold. Just a few hundred more and he would have a gram worth US$40 in the local market
Back on dry land we headed back passing more amazing insects, plants and trees that housed “witchetty type” grubs.
The grubs were about an inch long. Giant maggots with a dark head that wriggled and squirmed when squeezed. Duly captured it was dare time. Nobody would eat them whilst alive and kicking, but after being fried in garlic butter they were truly delicious after you got over the shock of their rubbery skin. In fact I would go so far as to say they were really quite tasty, a unique flavour a cross between bacon and stilton cheese.
Not everybody’s favourite food I grant you, but everyone was quite happy to try another fruit of the forest, this time dark chocolate. We picked out the small almond sized seeds from within the cocoa plant and left them to dry and ferment. Then, grabbing a tray of “here’s some we prepared earlier” beans, their fermenting wine smell confirmed they were ready to be placed in a large wok like pan and heated over a wood burning fire. Just ten minutes and the beans were ready to be peeled and crushed to form the cocoa powder. Three pints of sugary milk was added and then back on the fire until the sickly smelling brown bubbling liquid began to thicken. Our treat was ready, a chocolate fondue with fresh local bananas. Happy days.
The rain now a distant memory as we were all up for a cultural evening lead by Head of the Family Delfin. Sitting in candlelight as the mozzys began to bite we learnt about the importance of music, Ecuadorian marriage ceremonies and the key role played by local Shamans (doctors) in rural communities.
As the evening progressed various members of the group took part, I had not been chosen, feeling a little like the last kid to be chosen for a kick about game of football in the school playground. So when a further opportunity came to volunteer I put my hand up.
Delfin who had studied to be a Shaman, told me to sit in front of him, legs stretched out facing my fellow travellers who were sitting round in a “U” shape. Chanting started, drums banged, incense/perfume filled the air and suddenly what can be best described as a bouquet of tree leaves started hitting my head, neck, arms and face. I was being cleansed, part of the process of diagnosing major illness. With gradually louder chanting, Delfin started sweeping my body from head to foot as all nasties were banished out of my body through my feet.
It was a really strange experience but one that at the end of the ten minutes felt strangely relaxing. I was at peace as if I had been put under a trance or had drunk half a bottle of gin. I thanked my host, got back on my wooden bench and let my mind float. In terms of what had happened I am not sure, but I was glad to have done it. Glad that I wasn’t a celebrity and left with the wish that I wouldn’t be evicted from the jungle in the public vote. After all I had done the Bush Tucker Trial.
Alas our two days in the Amazon Jungle came to a far too quick end as the Toyota Land Cruiser pipped its horn signalling our departure – it was Monday morning, 6,000 miles from home.