An Amazon Adventure: Puerto Misahualli, Ecuador
There was a twisty stick in the middle of my lane. It was after sunset and I couldn’t see well, but as I passed the stick I realised it was alive! Tom was riding behind me, and the stick, not happy with my passing so close, reared up and went for Tom’s leg.
Luckily it missed, and Phil saw the whole thing so could report Tom’s near brush with death.
We never like to be riding after dark, but we’d had so much fun at the botanical garden that we ended up on the road to Puerto Misahualli at dusk. By the time we made it to the Banana Lodge, it was very dark.
We hadn’t booked, but the Banana Lodge had a whole cabin with 4 beds just waiting for us.
That evening we hung out in hammocks around a campfire. Then the storm started! Rain bucketing down and lightning so bright it became like day for a second or two.
The next day the rain had stopped and we prepared for our two day trek into the Amazon jungle.
The lodge provided us with rubber boots (they even had giant ones that fit Phil) and our guides, Enrique and Ermundo were there when we woke up.
After breakfast we jumped into the back of a pick up truck for the ride to the starting place. Then we all jumped out again and got in the cab of the truck. Apparently it’s okay for the locals to ride in the back, but gringos have to ride inside.
Wading through the river was an exciting start to our six hour jungle trek. The first part was through secondary jungle, meaning that the original jungle had been cleared for agriculture at one point, and then allowed to regrow. Enrique told us (while hacking away with his machete) that in the secondary forest a path could completely grow over in less than a month. In the primary forest, paths would stay forever, because the trees had grown big enough to stop the sunlight from coming through.
The jungle is a truly fascinating place. Every tree, plant and animal has surprises in store. Enrique was excellent at showing us the jungle’s secrets.
One of my favourites, which we had learnt the previous day at the botanical garden, was about the cinnamon tree. What we are all used to eating is the bark of the tree, but the leaves also taste amazing.
Enrique was extremely willing to share his experience. Several times he stopped made animal calls to see if he could attract some wildlife. Unfortunately the area we were in was too close to civilisation, and most of the wildlife had been hunted.
This is Enrique imitating a toucan.
Eventually we came upon a house in the jungle. This was our new home for the evening.
The house is home to a family with approximately six children, one of whom was away that afternoon having a baby. She and the baby came home later that evening.
The house has one open air room (where we slept), with a small kitchen area around the corner, and two enclosed bedrooms. No bathroom or running water of any kind.
There were, however, a lot of chickens. One of the daughters decided that it was her job to entertain us with them and proceeded to do so for at least an hour.
First she brought us some chicks to play with.
When we tired of the chicks, she upgraded to the bigger birds.
Her grand finale was when I asked for one of the cockerel’s tail feathers. He was hard to catch because he kept running away, but the clever girl lured him in with corn and then jumped on him. Feathers flew everywhere!! Unfortunately she didn’t get one of my coveted tail feathers, but I didn’t have the heart to ask her to jump on him again.
Her brothers picked fruit from the trees for us with a handy fruit picking stick.
At about this time, the father, who is also a shaman, appeared out of the jungle with a big leaf in his hand, which he gave to his daughter.
Apparently it was now time for a snack. Fire roasted grubs. The girl was really sweet showing us how to bite a hole in the side so it wouldn’t explode while cooking. She roasted one for Kelly, which Kelly gallantly ate, but I simply couldn’t bring myself to eat one.
One of the benefits of being hosted by a shaman was that he offered to perform an ayahuasca ceremony for us that evening. Ayahuasca is a medicine made from trees and leaves from the jungle. It is known to have hallucinogenicÂ effects, and is reputed to help cleanse one of any problems or worries one may be having.
We accepted his kind offer, and so while all of this other fun and grubs was going on, he spent the rest of the day preparing the ayahuasca.
We didn’t eat any dinner that evening because you are not meant to eat before an ayahuasca ceremony. It is almost guaranteed that you will vomit (part of the cleansing process) during the ceremony and it is best to not have too much in your stomach.
As the sun was going down, we were called outside to the fire, which they had built surrounded by benches. We sat and chatted for a while. It was under a clear, star filled sky that the shaman decided it was time to take our medicine.
The wood and leaves that had been boiling all day had been reduced down to an inch or two of concentrated brown liquid in the bottom of the pot.
It was served to us in half a carved coconut shell, with beads tied around the edge. We drank the strong, unpleasant tasting liquid, some of it dripping through the holes onto our shirts, and then quickly rinsed our mouths out with perfumed water that we were instructed not to swallow.
An amount of time later (Phil thinks it was only half an hour, I feel like it was at least an hour) the shaman asked if we’d like some more. There had been almost no talking in this time and Kelly was shocked that Tom, Phil and I said yes. Apparently she had been seeing pictures in the sky since almost immediately after she drank the medicine. Kelly was also the only one of us who vomited after the first dose.
Almost immediately after I had put the coconut shell down after the second, foul-tasting dose I started to feel high. It was so soon afterwards that I immediately thought perhaps I shouldn’t have taken the second dose. It wasn’t much longer before I had to visit some nearby trees and was glad that we hadn’t eaten much all day.
Walking was difficult, a lot like being drunk. At one point I went into the house to put on a sweater and it felt like an enormous challenge to get up the few steps and figure out how to open the door.
Enrique asked if I would like to take a shower to clean myself. I though this was a strange request, but Phil jumped at the chance. He told Phil to sit on a piece of wood on the ground. It turned out to be trouble with translation, he was asking if we wanted to be spiritually cleansed by the shaman, not to physically take a shower.
The shaman had a bundle of leaves that he shook relentlessly over Phil’s head for a while, and then he started whistling.
The sound that is like a train, that’s the leaves shaking. After the whistling he started singing a song to the same tune. This continued for a very long time, that song is welded into my soul. I found out much later in Peru that every shaman has his own song, which he creates as part of his shamanic training.
Next the shaman started smoking some sort of tobacco and variously blowing it onto Phil’s head and sucking the bad spirits out. (This is my interpretation, the shaman did not explain to us what he was doing.) This cleansing ceremony took a very long time, and when the shaman was finished with Phil, he repeated the whole process with each of the four of us, and also his daughter who had just had a baby earlier that day.
It was an incredible experience, one that I am struggling to put into words. I found myself extremely drawn in by the fire, I couldn’t stop staring into it, and I saw many figures, shapes and images in it. At one point there was a mask with a burning eye that seemed to speak to me.
His messages? To love everyone, to live in the moment , to stop worrying about what’s going to happen next and to be less selfish, to take pleasure in helping and supporting others. These are reoccurring themes in my life over the many months that we’ve been on the road, and I was very open to hearing them again.
It was late at night when we each individually decided to go to bed. Phil stayed up much later than the rest of us, he didn’t really start to feel the effects of the medicine until after everyone else had gone to bed.
An ayahuasca ceremony is a very individual experience, each of us had a very different journey that night, and there was very little communication between us during the ceremony.
The next morning we awoke to the crowing of the roosters.
After breakfast it rained, I don’t mean a tiny sprinkling either.
Once the rain had stopped, Enrique took us on another jungle adventure.
We returned to the house for lunch and to treat our bug bites.
After lunch we headed to the river.
Enrique swam across to get a canoe. Phil made his own:
Enrique’s canoe was very unstable, so he took us across two at a time.
On the other side of the river our guide showed us how to pan for gold. We only found a couple of tiny flecks!
On the way back to the house to gather our belongings, Enrique used the jungle to transform Kelly and I into jungle queens. Palm leaves for crowns, flowers for noses, and natural facepaint from the pod of a tree (the same that Chris painted us with in the botanical garden in Tena).
Our last hike through the jungle took us to another river, further away from the one we’d been living beside.
We enjoyed the ride down the river. There were several fancy looking lodges along the shore, obviously catering to the tourist market who wanted a luxury jungle experience. We were all too soon out of the jungle and back in civilisation. This time we got to ride in the back of the truck, we’d obviously proven ourselves to be tough enough!
The rest of our family are keen geocachers. We got an email from our dad saying that there was one nearby us that had never been found before. He sent us the coordinates and asked us to go find it.
On our way out of the jungle, finding the cache was our final challenge.
In the end it was Tom who found it hidden in a tree stump in a field of corn.
Having had an unforgettable Amazonian adventure, it was time to climb out of the jungle and up to the top of a volcano.