Crazy, Wet, Colorful, Wonderful

Thursday, February 27

Whirlwind!! I got in late last night, did laundry in the hostel’s machine, and hung my clothes out to dry on the line. Silly me, leaving clothes outside in the rainforest. This morning, they are even wetter than when they came out of the washer. No clothes for Nina!

I scrambled this morning to prepare for my journey to Misahuallí Station, the rustic site the volunteers are reforesting this week. I was lucky that I came with Matthias, an old friend of the hostel, because now the hostel’s German-Ecuadorian manager, Robbie, is letting my stay with the volunteers for two days. Normally the minimum commitment is four weeks, but hey, two days is all I’ve got.

I had hoped to complete a couple job applications this morning for USDA Forest Service summer positions in Alaska, but those had to be sacrificed. I’m over it.

After my damp clothes, a flashlight, my bird book, and a clean set of sheets were secured to my back, I hopped on the back of Robbie’s scooter for the misty half-hour ride. I wish I’d had a helmet, and some proof of Robbie’s good driving skills, but in the end we arrived safe and sound. Except for my sheets, which had absorbed the muddy spray from the back tire and were now wet and, yes, muddy. Well, now they just match my clothes!

I felt a little discombobulated on the half-hour hike into camp, with my bag of dirty sheets swinging from my backpack and my oversized rubber boots squelching with water. I distracted myself by striking up a conversation with Robbie, and I learned a lot about the reforestation initiative. The program, owned by a German-Ecuadorian couple that recently moved back to Germany, aims to replant primary (old-growth, hardwood) forest in clearings on the land of willing farmers.

“Why don’t you just let the primary forest regrow on its own?” I asked.

Robbie replied that primary forest has been absent in these parts for so long that the seed bank has disappeared. There are no more mahogany seeds left to sprout, so the volunteers must come in and plant the precious seedlings themselves.

“So why are we planting balsa, a plentiful pioneer species?” I asked.

Well, Robbie explained, hardwood trees like mahogany need to grow in the shade under a canopy of fast-growing pioneers like balsa.

“Why don’t you just allow the pioneers to grow in naturally, and then plant the hardwood seedlings underneath?” I asked. (All the hard work I would complete in the next two days would be focused on balsa cultivation, a step which seemed unnecessary.)

Robbie described how some of the balsa trees could be cut and sold for profit once the hardwood seedlings took root – but the sale of that timber provides very little income. I’m still not clear on why the volunteers need to spend so much energy planting secondary forest.

One other question was nagging me. “When the hardwoods are mature in a hundred years,” I asked, “won’t the landowners just cut them down and make a huge profit?”

“Well, the project hasn’t been around that long, so we don’t know. The hope is that they won’t.” I didn’t feel too optimistic.

When we arrived at the rustic station, I hung the sheets and clothes out to dry (as if anything ever really dries here) and headed out to the field to help the volunteers I’d met a few days earlier. The work was difficult! I wore pants and boots to traipse through the clear-cut of vines, logs, saplings, and who-knows-what insects, arachnids, and snakes. I got the easy job: planting balsa saplings in the holes made by another volunteer at designated intervals. The task was still exhausting and filthy. We were all stoked for our spaghetti lunch when the time came!
The open-air, electricity-free kitchen and dining hall.

Even in the rainforest, we had the manners to leave our shoes at the door!

The path to my cabin.

I moved my (miraculously) dry sheets and clothes to my new accommodation: an empty, dusty wood cabin next to our cook Irma’s room. On the floor sat a sad-looking mattress with stuffing seeping from the rodent dens inside. Welcome home? Once I had spread my belongings around, checked the mattress for signs of life (no mice were home), and added sheets and a mosquito net, the place started to look more cheery.

The afternoon was easier: a drizzly few hours spent in the “tree school” – the Germans’ translation of nursery. We organized the balsa saplings by development, planted new fluorescent-purple fungicide-coated seeds, and punched holes in the bottoms of the biodegradable plastic cups.

The Yellow-Rumped Cacique we spotted at dinner.

After dinner, we lit candles (there is no electricity) and the Germans taught me their favorite new card game, Wizard. It was just like a reverse version of a card game we play back home called Ten-Nine-Eight. Then the killer wasps arrived. I was surprised to see the seasoned jungle girls shrieking and running from the orange wasps until they told me their stories from the last three nights: the wasps appear out of nowhere and, bam, start stinging! I joined with the shrieking-and-running routine, but those girls were determined to finish their card game. I was relieved when I lost handily and retreated to the safety of my mosquito net in the woods.

Friday, February 28

I was only on day two, and I woke tired and stiff. The limp mattress hadn’t provided much padding from the floorboards, and my clothes stuck to my body with yesterday’s sweat and deet. We headed straight to the field after breakfast with high hopes of finishing the job, since it was Friday, after all. My new job was harder – I was given a post-digger and instructed to dig a hole in the little clearings next to the wooden sticks. Then, I was to plant balsa saplings in my own holes. I had no gloves. After an hour of working, I pushed down on the post-digger and felt a sickening shift of the skin on my hand. I looked down to see an enormous blister – the top layer of skin on my hand was no longer connected to the layers below. I borrowed a pair of muddy gloves from another volunteer and kept working.

After lunch, the volunteers collectively decided it was too hot to work. We took a break to lie in hammocks, lay out our sweaty clothes on the patio, and read books. A peaceful breeze stirred the air, and it was just the perfect temperature for relaxing. Once the heat of the day subsided, the break did not. We never made it back to the field that afternoon.

The hammocks were put to good use.

So was the patio.

Sarah, my closest friend among the German volunteers, asked me to show her the birds we had seen in my book. That led to a review of all the birds in my camera and a lesson in English, Spanish, and Latin names. I loved discussing the birds with someone so curious and eager. I know that if Sarah was staying in Tena longer, she would become fluent in Kichwa and a master birder, plus anything else she set her mind to.

The still afternoon view from our picnic table.

We were having such a delightful time that I hated to pull myself away, but I needed to walk out to the bus station before it got dark. I packed up my backpack of things, pulled on my rubber boots, and bid farewell to my friends. The walk through the jungle lasted only 20 minutes, and most of it took place on a narrow, cracked concrete path, but it felt like a grand adventure. My first time truly alone in the Amazon! Of course, this was semi-montane Amazon surrounded by settlements, so I didn’t have to worry about jaguars, but it was exhilarating none-the-less.

When I got to the road, I was relieved. I had begun to think I would never see civilization again. The bus stop consisted of a wide spot on the road, where I waited for almost an hour. No bus. Finally, a sedan pulled over and woman leaned out the passenger window. “A donde vas?” she asked.

Normally I would not get in a car with strangers, but I talked to the woman for a moment and she seemed trustworthy. The couple drove me almost to Puerto Napo and dropped me off at the door of a city bus which would take me to Tena. Luckily, they weren’t serial killers.

I felt calm and independent after my short time as a volunteer. I found myself a $2.00 merienda of soup, ribs, rice, and lemonade, and ate as much as I wanted and then some. It’s amazing how two days of scrabbling for seconds makes you appreciate plenty.

When I got back to the hostel, dirty, sweaty, and exhausted, I was greeted by Fausto, Nadine, and Sascha – my guide and companions from the trip to Limoncocha. “We’ve been waiting for you!” exclaimed Fausto. “We’re going dancing!”

Well, I couldn’t say no to that. I hurried into clean clothes and met the party downstairs, where we chatted and lounged for an hour. I still have to get used to the Ecuadorian concept of “waiting.” In the end, nobody else wanted to go dancing, so Fausto and I headed to “Relax” on our own, and the hostel’s managers met us there. The bar was anything but relaxing. The music blasted until my ears hurt, the men were extremely insistent that I drink the beer they offered (I was extremely insistent that I not), and the dance floor was beyond awkward. I have never had to work so hard to avoid making out with anyone before.

I was so ready to go home that I ended up calling myself a taxi and bailing. I guess it was a cultural experience?

Saturday, March 1

I was planning to go to a traditional Kichwa carnaval celebration with Fausto today, but after all the beer last night, I didn’t really expect him to show up. I was still hanging out in Tena when the volunteers showed up, so I decided to join Sarah and Linda on their adventure to Las Cavernas, a water park and extensive cave system.

As we walked to the bus stop, the weirdest thing happened. It’s pretty normal here to keep a dog on the roof, maybe as a burglar alarm, and the dog’s seem to do fine up there. But today, I witnessed a huge black dog fly off a roof.

I will have the image burned into my brain until the day I die. First I hear the flailing noise of nails on aluminum. Then I saw the black shape tumbling down from the three stories high, bouncing off the telephone wires, sliding off the hood of a car, and bouncing drunkenly to its feet. For a split second I had imagined a baby falling, or a monster. I pictured the bones and guts when the dog hit the ground. But the black Labrador just trotted off as if nothing had happened. I looked at my friends – nobody knew what to say. It was one of those moments.

The caverns were much less shocking than the Falling Dog Incident, but they were striking in their own way. We walked for a half hour through a cold subterranean river (up to our necks), a maze of stalactites, and a rookery of bats. The squeaky little mammals were my favorite part, though the story about the famous warrior’s penis which magically transformed into an enormous stalactite was entertaining as well.

The entrance to the caverns.

A huddle of bats.

Up to my neck in a one-person-sized pool at the base of a rushing cave waterfall!

Ducking through stalactites.

The view at the end of the tunnel.

Sunday, March 2

I got my carnaval experience today!

The volunteers and I took the packed public bus to Misahuallí – not the remote forest station, but the sleepy town. Sleepy on 364 days a year, that is. One day a year, this village becomes a mecca of lusty teenagers, little kids with water balloons, braless women in wet white T-shirts, bottles of spray foam, eggs for cracking on people’s heads, paint for smearing on strangers’ faces, and oh so much food.

The bus had to drop us a ways from town because the crowds were too thick. I felt like I was walking into the Northwest Folklife Festival, or Burning Man, or maybe a Mariner’s game. Tents lined the street selling roasted guinea pig, fresh coconut juice, bowls of mote (large, starchy white corn kernels) smothered with chicken, corn cakes stuffed with pork, choclo (corn on the cob) dressed with mayonnaise, and too many more dishes to name.

Sarah had bought a $1.00 can of espuma, compressed foam. I soon realized that buying espuma was as much about defense as it was about offense. Without my own can, I fell victim to relentless foaming. The attention might also have had something to do with the fact that I was walking with a posse of blatant gringos. Suddenly, hands grabbed my face from behind. “I’m getting mugged!” was my first thought. Then I heard laughter and saw the bright purple paint on my friends’ faces. We had been decorated.

Down by the river, the scene was twice as chaotic. Every step, I was assaulted with foam, jugs of water, paint, or colorful powder. We found Fausto in the mosh pit, and soon Ecuadorian men were abducting us one by one for dunks in the muddy river. It felt good to get the burning foam out of my eyes, if only for a moment. Bands played live music from the stage while male and female models strutted around in thongs. I ate lunch with a guy my age named Klenyer.

“Quieres ser mi novia?” he asked before I was done eating. “Want to be my girlfriend?”

I laughed at the idea of dating this boy I had barely met and who I would never see again. Then I realized he was serious. Why not? I agreed, and spent the rest of the day meeting the extensive family of my Ecuadorian novio.

We left the festivities before dark to stay safe. I was sorry to say goodbye to my first, crazy, wet, colorful, wonderful carnaval, dripping with foam and covered in paint. My tank top will never be green again.