Shiripuno Lodge, The Huaorani, and the Trip Draws to a Close
Casa Aliso, Quito
As we arrived at the Shiripuno Lodge by kayak after paddling 31 kilometers in a single day, the rustic accommodations even seemed luxurious. The lodge consisted of several wood plank buildings with thatched roofs. There were several rooms in a row next to one another. The interior walls didn’t go all the way up to the vaulted ceiling, so there was a communal feel to the place. Clotheslines and hammocks hung from a common front porch. Because the front exterior wall was partially open to the outside, mosquito nets hung over all of the beds. We had a private bathroom in our room which used water pumped from the river to run the shower, sink, and toilet. Felipe, Arturo, and Ñame were in the room next door, and a staff member came to deliver fresh towels. Unfortunately, there were only 2 towels available for the 5 of us. Craig and I laughed at the irony - our first “real” shower in 6 days and there weren't enough towels. He gave one towel to each room and we made due.
After river-temperature showers, we headed across the lawn to the open-air common area. Here there are long tables where meals are served, hammocks for relaxing, and books about the flora and fauna of the area. Craig had some tea and I had some hot chocolate as we rested our weary bodies. Felipe joined us and we sat in the hammocks looking at bird books and discussing the day's sightings. As twilight fell, the staff lit candles in the common area and the guest rooms, since there is no electricity.
At around 7:30, the staff blew a shell horn indicating that it was time for dinner. We were served potato, cheese, and spinach soup, breaded chicken, rice, and fried plantains. Arturo didn’t seem quite ready to give up his duties as food provider, so he augmented our meal with a bottle of Gato Negro merlot which he fetched from our cooler. We all had a glass, and Arturo and Felipe were giving Ñame a hard time because he dislikes wine, thinking it tastes like curare (a jungle vine used as both poison and traditional medicine). We had starfruit in vanilla liqueur with cloves for dessert.
There lodge offers evening activities, but having been up since 4:30 am, we were all too tired tonight and decided instead to get to bed early (around 9 pm). The boys insisted that Craig and I take the bottle of wine back to our room. We were too tired to finish it off tonight, but we were sure that we would enjoy it tomorrow. We blew out our candle, got settled under our bug nets, and went to sleep.
We woke up at 6:30 the next morning. After a satisfying breakfast of cantaloupe, cheese, bread, fried egg, yucca, and salami , the staff gave us a ride in the lodge motor boat to the start of the Mirador hike. Felipe and Arturo had brought rubber boots for each of us to wear while hiking. Craig and I were a bit skeptical as to how well we could hike in a pair of large rubber boots, but they ended up being quite comfortable. They came in handy because the trail was ankle-deep mud near the river. We were immediately enveloped by the shade of the jungle. Although it was humid and we were sweating instantly, at least we wouldn't have to deal with the strong Equatorial sun.
Soon we heard a snort and a crash and saw a white collared peccary (a variety of wild boar) scurrying through the vegetation. It startled Ñame. Felipe told us the best thing to do if it came after us would be to climb a tree. This made me a bit nervous after my unsuccessful Tarzan vine incident (as it came to be known) with the Waira Churis. As we walked along the nice trail we could smell the stench of the peccary, and it was quite unpleasant. Ñame spotted a second small group of peccaries. “So that they can surround us, no doubt,” I muttered. Craig was rather amused by my over-reaction and fear, but I must admit I was feeling pretty vulnerable and I kept looking around nervously.
Ñame led us on our walk through the jungle, and stopped often to point out various plants and explain their uses. He showed us the curare vine, and explained that it is used as the poison on blow darts because it paralyzes muscles, but for the same reason it is also used by doctors during heart surgeries to quiet the heart (they must be very careful about the dosage, though). He plucked a leaf from a jungle garlic plant and we got a whiff of its strong smell. We saw the tree which provides the Sangre de Drago which had healed my fingers so well that even three days of kayaking hadn't bothered them. Felipe pointed out a palm tree whose young leaves are red. This is to protect them from being eaten, because they look like they are already dead. Some other plants had much more obvious defenses such as sharp spikes protruding from their bark. Mushrooms proliferated in the damp darkness. Ñame showed us raw tagua, or “vegetable ivory”, a palm nut which, when its shell is removed, looks like ivory and is often carved into various shapes and sold to tourists. After having seen tagua carvings for sale in the Otavalo market and in Quito, it was interesting to get to see the raw materials in the wild.
After a couple of hours of informative hiking we reached the Mirador (lookout) which gave a fantastic view above the jungle canopy. We could see the tops of trees extending into the distance until they merged with muggy haze on the horizon. We had snacks while enjoying the impressive view. Arturo quickly got out of the way of a large ant, and then that same ant carried off an entire peanut which had fallen on the ground from our snack mix.
After resting and enjoying the view, we continued on the loop trail back towards the river. We saw a tree which looked like a single stalk of palm until Ñame shook it and it unfurled into many palm strands. These strands would then be separated into multiple more fibers. The Huaorani use this for weaving fish traps, hammocks, bags, etc. It’s amazing how much the jungle provides if you just know where to look. Even though the Huaorani have been influenced by western culture (especially by oil companies who try to bribe them to get at the oil underneath their lands) and some no longer live in the traditional way, it is evident that their age-old knowledge of the forest is being passed down to the younger generation, with 16 year old Ñame as proof. Ñame spontaneously wove me a bag out of palm fronds, and I carried my water bottle in it. He gave Craig a palm headband. We knew we were close to the river when our boots began to sink in the mud. We emerged from the jungle at the river at around 12:30, and the lodge motor boat was waiting to take us back to the lodge for lunch. Arturo and Ñame played volleyball in front of our rooms, and Craig was just about to get into the shower when the lunch horn sounded. We went to the table and were served a tomato stuffed with tuna, some beef stew, radishes, and lentils.
After lunch, Arturo and Ñame disassembled the supply boat and squeezed the air out of the pontoons while Felipe took us on a short hike to see leaf cutter ants. We had seen them before in Guatemala and Belize, but never to this extent. We watched them as they carried pieces of leaf home to their nest via wide, clear-cut paths that their tiny feet had worn through the forest floor. Each ant carried leaf pieces much bigger than itself, sometimes with one or more small "inspector" ants riding on the leaf. The ants cultivate fungus in their nest, and bring back the leaves to help to fertilize it. The inspectors make sure that the pieces of leaf being brought back are of the right type and won’t contaminate the fungus. We followed the trail of ants back to the nest and were amazed at the size of it. As we walked along the ant mound we had visions of falling through into their massive underground network of chambers (and finding ourselves before their 8 foot tall queen – ok, so maybe the peccary scare had set my imagination running wild…) It was amazing, though, that this huge structure existed just steps away from the lodge grounds. Felipe and I took pictures and videos of the ants as they worked away.
After that, we went back to the room and took showers. The river water was refreshingly cool after our morning of hiking. We popped the cork out of last night’s wine bottle and each had a glass, accompanied by an “oatmeal chewie” bar which was left over from one of our flights. Feeling sufficiently relaxed, Craig and I sat in the hammocks in the common area. Ñame came over and asked if we wanted to fish for piranha (!!) with him off of the dock. I have never been fishing in my life (a fact that Craig can never seem to get over, somehow), and it sounded like a fun opportunity. Ñame was carrying a butcher knife, some scraps of meat from the kitchen, and two fishing poles made of branches with fishing line and a hook attached. We walked down to the dock and sat in a boat that was parked there. Ñame baited our hooks and we put them into the water. Almost immediately piranha started to take the bait. They were very strong and pulled hard against the line. However, they were very good at stealing the bait without getting hooked, which led us to joke that we were "feeding the piranhas" rather than fishing for them. We could never really see them through the silty water, though. After a little while I actually caught a fish! It wasn't a piranha (Ñame called it a “sardina” - but at around 6 to 8 inches it was much bigger than what we typically consider sardines to be). I was very proud of myself for my first catch ever. We joked that unlike Anthony Bourdain in any fishing scenes on his show, I didn't need a "stunt fish" - I had actually caught one. Ñame unhooked it for me and tossed it back into the river. We continued fishing until our bait was gone, and Ñame even took a turn to see if he could show us a piranha, but it was not to be.
We sat in the hammocks and enjoyed a cup of tea. Soon we were called to dinner, which consisted of soup, steak, salad, avocado, rice, and mashed potatoes mixed with cheese. We were served a candied tree tomato for dessert. We had enjoyed tree tomato juice earlier in the trip, but as a dessert we found the fruit to be much too sour. After dinner, we got into the lodge motor boat and went for a cayman watch. We were in darkness except for a spotlight which shone on the banks of the river looking for cayman eyes shining in the darkness. We saw one and Ñame had said that he wanted to capture it so we could photograph him with it, but as we got close it disappeared under the water's surface. Felipe managed to get a good photograph of it with his fancy camera before it disappeared, but our photo just came out black. This was ok, as we had gotten to see a cayman up close and personal in the early dawn light the day before.
Then the boat took us a little farther upstream and let us out at a trailhead so that we could walk back to the lodge in the dark while observing insects. As the motor boat disappeared into the darkness and its sound was obscured by the sounds of the jungle, we experienced a feeling of isolation. We were on our own to walk back to the lodge; it wasn't a far distance, but there wasn't even cell phone coverage if we had wanted to call them to pick us up. We were ready for an adventure.
Arturo, Felipe, and Ñame are eagle-eyed and found many insects, including praying mantis, grasshoppers, crickets, and even large spiders and a black scorpion. Craig spotted several specimens as well. When you see these sitting on tree trunks or branches, you realize that you should never blindly hold on to a tree in the jungle; you don’t know what else you might end up grabbing! Felipe had brought his camera and tripod, and we took pictures of the various specimens. It was a cool experience to walk through the jungle at night, and you really get a sense for how many creepy crawlies are around. We passed a tree which had a hole about 6 feet up its trunk. When the guys shone their light on it, we saw a large frog in the hole. We came to a "bridge" made from a thin log. There was a nearby branch that you could use as a handrail while balancing on the lower log, but I was still very nervous about crossing it and worried about whether it would hold Craig and my weight. If it hadn’t, we wouldn’t have fallen to our deaths or anything, we would have just fallen a few feet into a ditch. Craig offered to go first, and luckily, the log held. A little while later we came to another such bridge, but this one had a much wider log as its base. After two hours of hiking we emerged from the jungle directly behind our lodge building. Shiripuno certainly does have a nice network of trails.
As we walked around the lodge, Felipe shone the flashlight into a hole in the ground and exposed a large spider just feet from the lodge. As we entered our room and lit the candle, we saw several HUGE cockroaches lying belly-up in our un-rinsed wine glasses. Craig kindly tossed them outside and then rinsed the glasses. I am not one who is normally skeeved out by bugs, but these were nasty, and were right next to my toiletries on the shelf. Yuck! I gratefully climbed under my bug net and we went to sleep at around 10:30.
The next morning, we got up at 5:45 and got packed up by the light of our headlamps. By the time breakfast was ready at 6:30, the boys had already loaded the kayaks and all of the other gear onto the motor boat. We had a quick breakfast, and at 7:10 we loaded our bags and ourselves into the motorized boat and hit the water. We found familiar sights around every bend, happy memories of things we had seen while paddling. It was like replaying the entire paddle in high speed reverse. It was also rather bittersweet, as it was the last day we would spend with Felipe, Arturo, and Ñame. The trip was drawing to a close, and today was the first of three days which would be spent traveling home.
It was a full 2 hours in the motorized boat upstream before we passed our wooded camping spot. It made us realize just how far we had paddled on that last day. Luckily, the sun wasn't out today and it was pleasantly cool, because it was going to be a long ride. We enjoyed the scenery and saw blue morpho butterflies, some of “Craig’s favorite butterflies” (we didn’t know the name of the species but they were quite pretty), chattering squirrel monkeys, a small hawk, macaws, and a striated heron.
Eventually we arrived at Ñame's Huaorani village, not far from where we had camped the first night on the beach. We got out of the boat and walked up a steep embankment up to some Huaorani dwellings. We walked down a trail to Ñame's family's house. We once again saw his father Karuway, and we also met the woman who had raised Ñame as a mother. She had a lame foot from a snake bite (which in all rights should have killed her) as a young girl. Her mother had treated her with a jungle plant, and though her foot was badly injured, she didn’t die. Years later when she was grown and married, her husband Karuway was bit by the same species of snake. She remembered theplant that had cured her as a child, and she administered this to Karuway, saving him from certain death.
We met Ñame's sister Yolanda and her baby Nampa (whose name means dart or arrow in the Huaorani language). Some of the women and girls were dressed traditionally in woven knee-length skirts, necklaces of palm fibers, seeds, and animal teeth, and feather headbands, with orange makeup around their eyes. They
sang a song for us.
Karuway had Craig try their blowgun, which was much heavier than that of the Waira Churis. Craig hit the target plantain on the first try. The women cheered and Karuway wondered if it was luck or skill. He asked Craig to repeat it. They then gave him a second arrow and he hit the plantain again, earning their respect.
Craig handed out handfuls of animal crackers to all of the kids. Felipe and Arturo like to bring animal crackers because they are a treat for the kids but do not rot their teeth like candy does. Kids held out their hands to receive their rations, and some enterprising kids realized that if they cupped the crackers into the front of their shirts, they could hold more. Felipe handed out cooking oil to the adults. Craig and I had brought a few notebooks and pens which I handed out to various children, which worked out well because school would be starting up again soon. We also gave them a frisbee, which the older kids started to play with immediately.
Various women set some items out for sale, woven from palm fibers. We looked them over and selected several items, trying to spread our purchases out among different sellers. We bought a necklace, a bracelet, a woven plate, a small woven purse, and an arrow decorated with macaw feathers (we would definitely need to pack that one in the checked luggage!) Our boat driver had moved the boat downstream a bit, closer to where we were, so it would be easier for us to climb aboard. Several Huaoranis came aboard as well, and they loaded in a broken boat motor which they wished to transport upstream.
It rained for about 5 minutes after we left the village, and then the sun came out. It was brutal and we were glad it had stayed hidden for the majority of our 6 hour trip. We arrived at our put-in spot at around1 pm. Arturo, Felipe, and Ñame unloaded all of the gear and meanwhile served us a nice picnic lunch. We felt guilty, as if we should help, but Felipe shrugged it off. “We’re working. You’re on vacation. Enjoy!”
Then we drove an hour and a half to Coca. It rained, so we had to roll up the car windows. It was rather stuffy and damp inside, and Craig started to feel a bit carsick as we drove. Along the way, we saw a large snake in the road. While we stopped to get a picture, a car sped by in the other direction, and the snake was directly in its path. We were shocked to see the snake “jump” at least 6 feet onto the safer shoulder of the road. It was probably good that we hadn't seen this until we were safely out of the jungle.
We arrived in Coca at around 3:30. It's funny because the city sneaks up on you. You are in the middle of nowhere, you cross a bridge over the wide Napo River, and then the next thing you know you are in the city. We went straight to the Hotel El Auca. As Arturo drove into the gated property, we saw several macaws sitting on the edge of a dumpster. It was very amusing because the hotel had a well-manicured courtyard with a picturesque perch and bunches of plantains for the birds, but they preferred to scavenge from the dumpster. Felipe got us checked into our room, and we all said our goodbyes. We set my camera on timer and got a photo of the five of us together next to some statues of Huaoranis. There was a spider monkey in the nearby tree (another resident of the hotel grounds, along with the macaws) and Felipe joked that he might try to steal the camera. Felipe and Arturo would be driving back to Quito tonight (another 5 hours on the road). Ñame would be staying in Coca and would escort us to the airport in the morning.
Our simple room had air conditioning and we took some of our wet clothes out of our bags and hung them around the room on every available surface (the TV wall mount, etc.) to dry. It looked like our luggage had exploded. The room even had cheaply priced mini-bar offerings, and we enjoyed a frosty drink (Craig has a Pilsener beer and I had a strawberry soda). We took nice warm showers and then headed down to the hotel restaurant for dinner.
The hotel was definitely geared more toward local travelers than international guests, and not many of the staff spoke English. We took a seat at the Dayuma Restaurant, which was decorated to resemble the rainforest. We could get actual cold drinks here, something that had been non-existent in the jungle. Craig ordered a Pilsener beer and I ordered a peach smoothie. We noticed that other bottles of beer served to other tables had a napkin garnish (or "little hat") on the top of the bottle. We jokingly wondered why he hadn't gotten one. I ordered the Hawaiian chicken, which was a chicken tenderloin served with pineapple, peach, cream, and plantains. Craig got chicken tenderloin in gravy with mushrooms and bacon. We tried to order plantains (a choice on the menu) but we were told we could only have fries. The menu said that Craig's would be served with a salad. Craig was debating the pros and cons of eating the salad, but it turned out he needn't have worried; he wasn't served on anyway. We just laughed, and joked that we weren't at Casa Aliso any more!
After dinner we went back to the room. I wrote in the journal and we turned on the TV for a few minutes while we wound down. We watched part of a program on the Mexican Travel Channel, and then went to bed at 10:30.
The next morning we packed up our now-dry clothes and went to the lobby at 9 am. We found out as we checked out that a continental breakfast was included in our stay, so we had a quick bite to eat in the dining room. Ñame came to pick us up a few minutes before the appointed time of 9:30. Some friends came with him and a cab driver friend of theirs brought us to the airport (literally 5 minutes away). Ñame gave me a necklace he had made of some orange seeds he had collected on our Mirador walk. He is such a sweetie! He hung around at the airport until he was sure that we were getting on the plane, and then waved adios to us through the window as we went through security.
We had a 25 minute flight to Quito. After such a long boat and car ride yesterday, we were certainly happier to take a quick flight than to spend 5 more hour in the car. Daniel met us at the airport, and we were driven to Casa Aliso, where our dear Patrick met us outside to welcome us. We told him that we had to be picked up at 4 in the morning, and he asked if we would like to have box lunches to take to the airport since nothing would be open that early. Wow, how thoughtful! We readily agreed. He showed us to our upstairs room (the one we had stayed in on our first night in Quito). When we entered, we saw that the bag we had left behind was already in our room waiting for us. Patrick asked if we were going to get some lunch. We told him that we would shower first and then go next door to Clancy's for some food. He asked if we would like a glass of juice. That sounded perfect! We told him any kind of juice would be fine, but in the back of our minds we had visions of ice cold blackberry (mora) juice like Casa Aliso had served us at breakfast on our first stay.
We started to organize our things in our room and soon Patrick was at our door with a tray bearing (you guessed it!) 2 frosty glasses of blackberry juice and an English language newspaper. “Mora!” Craig exclaimed. “Your Spanish is getting better!” joked Patrick. He asked if we needed any laundry done, even though it was long since past the time when they usually accepted same-day laundry requests. This was very kind of him, but at this point everything was dry and packed and we may as well just wait to wash it until we get home. Craig and I marveled at just how good Patrick is at his job. He made our return to Casa Aliso feel like a homecoming.
We took nice showers and then went next door to Clancy's for a lovely meal. Patrick had gone home for the day but had left us coupons for complimentary drinks at Clancy’s at the front desk, so that was very nice. We had a very nice, relaxing lunch. The food at Clancy’s is really spectacular. Craig had shrimp ceviche followed by steak with mushroom gracy and fries. I had fried calamari followed by ricotta ravioli. After that we came back to Casa Aliso and used the computer in the lobby to write a couple of blog posts. We returned to the room and turned on the TV for a few minutes while we wound down. It would be an early morning, so we went to sleep very early..
We woke up at 3 am, took quick showers (showering with soap and shampoo twice within 24 hours - what luxury!), and headed downstairs at 3:50. We picked up our bag lunches in the dining room, and noticed that Daniel had just arrived. He drove us to the airport and we waited in the American Airlines check-in line for an hour. We realized (too late) at security that we had our goldenberry marmalade from Otavalo in our carry-on. It was over 3 ounces so it got confiscated. We wished we had remembered to check it, since we had checked 2 bags anyway! We should have known better. The real slap in the face was that the only reason we were hand searched so thoroughly upon entering the gate was because we were early. As more passengers arrived at boarding time, they let them straight through and didn't even check them. But they think our jelly is a security risk!? This put us in a rather cranky mood, and we weren’t even at the Miami airport yet.
Our flight departed on time at 6:35 and arrived in Miami at 11:50. The immigration and customs process went a bit smoother this time than usual, even though we needed to pick up and re-check our checked bags. Our 4 pm flight home was delayed because the pilot was arriving on another international flight. When they finally let us board the plane, there was an additional "baggage delay". Then, just as we were ready to take off, a thunderstorm rolled through. The pilot shut down the plane and we were stranded on the tarmac waiting for the storm to blow through, when there was nothing but black sky in every direction. Would we ever get home? Miami airport always does this. Just once, we’d like to fly through there without incident.
Eventually we took off, and ended up being about an hour and a half late (arriving at around 8:45 pm). Steve graciously brought us Dunkin Donuts decaf coffees when he picked us up at Logan. We wound down at home by telling him about our wonderful trip, and then got to bed so that we could go to work the next morning.