A trip to the Ecuadorian jungle prompts the writer to reevaluate the comforts of her life in the U.S.
An observant onlooker, upon watching her fellow passengers in the airplane, might have noticed a girl who lacked the lethargic nonchalance of the other voyagers. This girl peered, fascinated, through the stained window. She appeared to be caught in a lustrous reverie that refused to release her. She was, unlike most of the other passengers on the airplane, not fully aware of inhaling the sickly airplane oxygen. Even the most attentive spectator could not have known that this girl was imagining the dense, fragrant air peculiar to the jungle, savoring the delicious rapture of a life about to be changed.
I was the girl caught in a dream. I didn’t return to awareness until the airplane landed and we boarded a bus that transported us to the next leg of our Ecuadorian jungle trip. The bus lugged us through the city of Coca, just outside Yasuni National Park. Bodegas displayed toys and foods bursting with color, a stark contrast to the rickety, rotting frames of the buildings. Children milled around a brick courtyard, dressed sharply in school uniforms. I watched elderly men hobble along the uneven concrete tiles, surveying the youth with melancholy glances and hiding behind stooped shoulders.
The bus bumbled to a stop at the bank of the muddy Coca River. I slipped onto a bench on an idling river boat and stared into the murky water. What’s down there? Water snakes? Secretive freshwater fish? The boat revved its engine and flew forward until the sound of the wind and water drowned out any conversation. For the entire two-hour journey, I sat wrapped tightly in my poncho as the rain scraped its gnarly fingers across my face and dragged mud into my mouth and eyes. I was grateful for my unrelenting imagination keeping me company during the uncomfortable ride. When the boat reached the shore at last, my mom passed around a bottle of bug spray, and we feverishly shielded ourselves against malaria, dengue, and yellow fever.
“I hate using bug spray. It smells disgusting, and it feels sticky on my skin! No wonder the bugs don’t like it,” I grumbled.
“You know what’s even worse than bug spray?” my mom asked. “Dengue.”
My knowledge of the jungle consisted of rumors about poisonous frogs, blood-sucking parasites, and prowling jungle cats. I was excited beyond words! The idea of such mystery and danger invigorated me: I anticipated countless species of iridescent insects, carnivorous plants, vibrant amphibians, and weird reptiles. Still, the fact that we had been inoculated against yellow fever and swallowed malaria pills before leaving, along with the lack of protection for dengue, made me more than a little apprehensive.
Our naturalist guide, Dany, and local guide, Dario, greeted us. Dany asked if we were physically fit enough to handle hikes through the jungle.
“It’s strenuous, but you say you’re strong . . .” He sized us up. Evidently, the guides were satisfied, and we trekked deep into the dense foliage. The entire jungle seemed to be one living being, exhaling warm, sticky breaths. There were looming trees, reverberating with the uncanny hum of life. Insects shuttered their pearlescent wings and hastily flitted away. Velvety moss shrouded the wiry, twisted branches, and birds plunked down strange notes from the canopy. The trees solemnly guarded the billowing sky above and the lively forest below, their damp boughs puncturing bulbous clouds and snagging tendrils of breeze.
“In other parts of the jungle,” one of our guides said, “people with a lot of money pay for the trees to be chopped down and shipped out. Deforestation is so common in Ecuador . . .”
If only these dignified soldiers could understand that humans are coming to chop them down, I thought. Do they know that their spectacular armor can be sliced thinner than a sliver of breeze, that their emerald-studded crowns are worthless in the eyes of many twisted humans? I recalled a fact I had read once, that every 1.4 seconds, a football field-sized area of trees is cut down in rainforests.
As we continued to hike, the guides pointed out strangler fig trees.
“Strangler figs wrap themselves around smaller saplings, then suck the life and nutrients out of them, in turn growing more powerful,” Dany said. “They’re appearing all over the forest.”
I thought of the strangler figs taking the lives of others to supplement their own. I believe that this behavior isn’t particular to trees, though . . .
Tired and hungry after a muddy hike, and having not eaten lunch, our guides ushered us into a canoe. We glided down a thin vein of black water, the blood of the jungle. This is exactly how I imagined it! I craned my neck for a sight of golden monkeys or extravagant toucans. Soon, I was lulled by the constant, contented purr of birds and insects in the trees. The stagnant water smelled of decomposition and rain. Silky air wrapped around me. The syncopated splashes of the canoe paddles melted into the trilling symphony of animals hiding in the slippery shade. Eventually, the canoe slid onto the shore of an indigenous village, home to the native people of the Ecuadorian jungle.
We eagerly stepped off the boat and waited at the base of a slight hill that led up to several huts surrounded by trees. A young woman treaded lopsidedly down the slope to greet us, her dark hair tied in a long braid down her back. She’s pregnant! She doesn’t look like she’s any older than twenty . . . The woman smiled shyly, exposing a dark gap where her front teeth should have been.
“I am Dacy,” she said, using the only English phrase she knew. Dacy led us into one of the shady huts, pointing out the roof constructed of woven yucca leaves. Our guides acted as interpreters. The hut was cool inside, and fragrant wisps of smoke wafted from the small fire in the center. We sat on a wooden bench against the plaited yucca wall. Dacy gestured toward several large stones piled next to the fire.
“In our tradition, if one of the stones breaks, it foretells misfortune coming to the residents of the hut,” she said, speaking in her native language.
Dacy presented a small lunch she had prepared on the flames and explained each food. There was a bit of pale pink fish from the Coca River, cooked in yucca leaves to give it flavor; mashed, milk-colored yucca; sweet plantain; and, the most unique of all, a large roasted grub that developed inside the bark of a palm tree. The grub had glassy black eyes and ivory, rippled skin slightly browned by the fire on one side. The food was completely flavored by only the smoke from the fire and the yucca leaf.
I’ll sample everything except the grub . . . Although grubs are a sustainable food packed with protein, the idea of eating a larva made my stomach churn.
I can’t believe they have to cook on a fire every day, for every meal. Their lives would be so much easier if they had stoves and electricity, I thought.
Our guides indulged in masato, a traditional drink made of fermented yucca. In some communities, members ferment the yucca by chewing it and spitting it out, so that the enzymes in their saliva break down the root vegetable.
Dario explained, “Masato is extremely filling, and during periods when there is not enough food to support all of the residents, the adults can go for days at a time surviving on only this drink.”
Days at a time without enough food? That’s terrible! My heart sank. I watched children play outside, through a small opening in the hut. They have absolutely no idea if they’re going to go to sleep hungry tonight, or not. I wish there was something we could do to help them!
Dacy led us to a sweltering-hot grassy clearing in a circle of crumbling shacks. The shacks were in stunning disrepair, as if time had enveloped the shelters in scarred hands and caressed them with the stony lips of death. The houses looked like dusty bones jutting out of a weathered graveyard. The sun lashed my back and sweat stung my forehead. How can the indigenous people work in this field every day?! They have such difficult lives!
Dacy explained how the villagers used to live together in this ring of now-decrepit houses; however, as time went on, they had spread out down the river. This had given the community members more space.
“The community has no running water or Western medicine. They mostly travel by canoe and on foot. They fish in the river for seafood. The river water is contaminated by oil tankers, and pollution is sickening the community members.”
Dany added, “Since the oil drilling began, there has been an increase in cancer throughout the village.”
It’s strange that they suffer from the actions of the greedy oil miners poisoning the Earth, even though the community members themselves have almost no carbon footprint. Yet another thing to make their lives harder. It seems so unfair.
Dany continued, “The citizens of the community do not have sufficient access to hospitals, and the indigenous people are skeptical of medical residents who are assigned to rotate here during their training. The villagers are used to collecting all of their remedies from the jungle, so they do not readily accept the medical students.”
“The people here believe that malaria is caused by what they call ‘Bad Air.’ They try to cure it with natural medicines, but it doesn’t always work. Lots of them end up dying from preventable diseases,” Dany told us.
Planting and caring for their crops, cooking, fishing—all has to be done by hand because the community doesn’t have access to electricity or gas. The indigenous villagers have a mortality rate of age sixty or less, due to toiling for hours in the hot equatorial sun. The men have to leave the village to find work in nearby towns and are often gone for months. Starting at age sixteen, and sometimes younger, women plant and harvest yucca, prepare meals, and watch children. They also divide the chores among themselves, take care of each other’s children, and socialize while laboring. I looked up at Dacy with a mixture of awe and pity. They, unlike us, obtain food and make a living without contaminating the river or their land at all. But they pay a high price for their eco-friendly lives.
The villagers have adjusted to the contemporary economy by supporting the tourism industry. The women make money by selling intricate bracelets and exquisitely painted pots to visitors, and leading tours within the community. Finding jobs outside the community is a tricky task, since education in the community only reaches the eighth grade.
“It is difficult to find qualified and willing teachers. Most of the teachers only have a high school education, which of course means mediocre schooling for the kids,” Dany explained.
“A couple of teenagers in the village attempted to go to college in the city, but they couldn’t adjust to the city environment and difficult lessons.” The children are sucked into the cycle of an insufficient education, which inhibits their ability to break out and gain higher knowledge.
“Still, children in the village are brought up together, and each parent helps the others,” Dacy said, smiling.
I began to weigh the benefits and downsides of this community in my head. The selflessness of the residents formed a sense of community that most Americans never get to experience. The indigenous people are secluded almost to a dangerous extent because they cannot access reasonable medical care or an education. They are invisible to the people who pollute and destroy the Earth. Many of us are too self-centered and focused on our own wishes to realize our actions reach far beyond our own lives. And yet this lifestyle isn’t altogether bad. Food in the jungle is never taken for granted because the prospect of a meal is not always secure. Unlike us, the indigenous people cannot drive to a nearby grocery store to buy food for the next week. When there is food, however, it is fresh and seasoned with hard work, culture, and compassion. The lack of electricity adds an extra degree of struggle, but it allows for the pleasurable and intimate experience of dining in company by firelight, and encourages resourcefulness. Still, this way of life is far from perfect.
However, rather than pity the indigenous jungle people, I realized, we can understand that their life eliminates many of the issues that plague our sterile and somewhat sugarcoated lives. Today, I see the indigenous life not as uncivilized or lacking but beautiful in its simplicity and in the togetherness and celebration of the Earth it possesses.
I left the village, and for a while it seemed as if I were peering at life through a cloudy window. I was surrounded by prickly, monotonous skyscrapers, vehicles expelling pungent pollution into the atmosphere, the deep rumble of airplanes, and the nasal bellow of passing trains. Instead of treading lightly over velvety moss to scoop yucca out of the ground for meals, we have to plod through a sluggish sea of glinting, groaning cars to get to the grocery store, filled with processed food. Admittedly, it is extremely difficult for indigenous people to break out of their lifestyle, to receive higher education, to adapt to urban life. But perhaps they are educated in a different way than we are. They understand the Earth, flora, and fauna more realistically and intimately than any professor could. They are not plagued by tech and weapons and pesticides. We are.
Although many Americans are educated and can depend on health care, education, and food, we are also trapped, but in a different way. We are trapped in our own selfish lives, divided by politics and hatred. We are trapped in the cage of our own close-mindedness, even though we have more freedom than most people could possibly imagine. We sometimes take our manufactured, unhealthy lives either for granted or as near perfection. However, when compared with the peaceful, healthful life of the indigenous people, perhaps we need to reconsider our way of living. Jungle flora has been used to create countless medical cures for diseases. Maybe the jungle lifestyle is a remedy for our lives too.