Amazonian Adventure, Pt. 2

Our third day in the Amazon was probably my favorite: besides looking for animals during our boat rides, we met people from the Siona tribe.

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Our guide is Siona and took us to the village she grew up in to meet her neighbors and grandmother, the first tour guide of the Siona 30 years ago.

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Above is a “stinky turkey” bird and a guinea pig, which everyone eats here.

Veronica’s abuela spoke Spanish to us instead of her native language, Bicoca. Our group was there to see the local village (which was fairly primitive, but considering they just met the outside world 40 years ago was pretty good) and learn how to bake yucca bread. Abuela asked two of the men in our group (including Jordan) to help pull the yucca plant out of the ground.

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Once Jordan had ripped it out, everyone took turns cleaning the worst of the dirt off the roots and peeling the skin off, leaving the roots white and hard, like huge potatoes. Then we brought them back to the village’s communal kitchen. Because only five or six families lived there, they had communal bathrooms as well.

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Abuela showed us how to wash the roots (I went first) then grate them against tin sheets with nails hammered in, like a huge, improvised cheese grater. It was a lot harder than it looked! We all took turns, but by the end everyone had an arm workout and was starving. Abuela took the shavings and packed them in a reed netting to wring all the liquid out. When it was finally dry, we sifted it through reed-woven mats and gave the yucca flour back to her. All Abuela had to do was spoon some into a hot skillet and bake over an open fire. Ten minutes later, we had a large yucca tortilla. For a midday snack we spooned bellpeppers and tuna on our pieces of yucca bread, and for desert we spooned blackberry jam on it. Yucca raw is pretty unappetizing, but cooked it tasted fine.

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Veronica then took us downriver to the Siona sacred tree. I wasn’t able to get a really clear idea of Siona religion, but assume it is pantheistic. About 50% of her village now is actually Christian, such as her grandmother. The shamans still have strong influence in the tribe (Which total is less than 1,000 people), and see this great tree as their main god and source of spiritual inspiration. The oil companies, however, want to “develop” the Amazon area for oil, which could displace the Siona people from their homes. This is why tourism is so good for them, Veronica explained, because it gives them a good political reason to resist the oil companies.

Once a year, usually in August, the spiritual advisors of the tribe gather around the tree and dance (probably partaking in hallucinogens) and receive direction and wisdom from the tree. I couldn’t tell if Veronica believed it or not, but that’s what she told us. One of the women on our tour had studied sacred trees in Africa, so she particularly enjoyed the experience of walking around the tree, which was beautiful.

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After a quick swim in the river, our last stop of the day was to visit one of the tribe’s shaman. This was fascinating. The Shaman met us in a receiving hut in his formal wear and headdress, which is made with feathers from tucans and macaws. He showed us how, when under the influence of ayahuasca, to see what illness is in someone’s body. Although their spiritual influence is fading, everyone still goes to them when sick and pays in kind, such as chickens or milk. The Siona only see a doctor when diagnosed with cancer or need surgery. Sarah Ann jumped on the stool and the shaman performed a song and concentrated on her. Of course, there was no diagnosis because of the lack of ayahuasca, but it was very interesting all the same.

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There are three shamans in this village, for around 50 families, and they also participated in the hunting and daily life of the village. Usually only men can be shaman because the ayahuasca, no matter how used to it you are, is very rough on the stomach and women would miscarry any babies they had. Veronica’s grandmother, who we just met, used to be a shaman until she wanted to marry and have a family Now she is Christian and views the ayahuasca (which sometimes tourists can try if they haven’t eaten all day previously) as evil.

When boys are 12, if they choose, the current shaman will train them for up to 15 years. Young men that drop out after two or three years are considered witchdoctors and not as qualified. From a group of 20 usually two or three will graduate when the time comes. Their graduation ceremony is the first time they partake in ayahuasca, when they have strong visions and hallucinations. They must lie completely still and silent while mentally they battle evil spirits and are devoured by the dangerous animals of the Amazon, like jaguars, anacondas, and caiman.

After the really interesting religious introduction, he let us shoot his blowgun. It is long and a lot heavier than I originally thought! Sarah Ann did really well in aiming for the gourd.

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We returned to our lodge, ate dinner, killed a lot of cockroaches, and went to bed. The next morning we went bird-watching in the drizzle and finally found pink dolphins! The animals we saw are very shy and actually gray. They only turn pink during the last five years of their lives, from about 25 to 30. They can’t leap out of the water because their dorsal fin is too small, but it was fun to see their gasps of air as they surfaced. On our way back to the lodge we found our third anaconda, hidden behind some bushes along the shoreline. It was about five meters long and trying to sun itself. Although it was really cool to see these creatures, it was unnerving being so close to them.

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We finished our tour that day, and returned to the entrance to the reserve by noon, then took the two hour bus back to Lago Agrio. It was a lot of fun and we really enjoyed ourselves. However, I was a little disappointed because when I requested this tour through Happy Gringo, I specifically mentioned that we wanted to see piranha. While there were piranha in the river, we never saw them. Apparently Ecuador had recently passed a law against fishing piranha because the blood from the hook caused them to attack each other and deplete the population. I was pretty disappointed because I wanted to see them and because I think I should have been told at the beginning, before the tour, that it wouldn’t be a possibility. Also, although the tour was great (and our guide was fantastic!) everything felt kind of tame. People had recommended seeing the Amazon in Ecuador because it’s a lot of “bang for your buck,” but I heard other fantastic stories about other places in the Amazon and I guess expected a little more. This trip seemed pretty tame. I wouldn’t have minded roughing it a little more to see more animals or exotic plants. So I did have fun–we all did–but I probably wouldn’t recommend seeing the Amazon in Ecuador. I would recommend seeing it in Leticia, Colombia (where it is actually on the Amazon River, pretty deep in the jungle) or perhaps in Brazil. Ecuador is just too far on the edge of the Amazon to be considered really deep jungle, I think.

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We wrapped up our time in Ecuador with this Amazon tour, which was great, and then headed onward to Colombia (with a rather terrifying overnight ride on a cliffside with falling rocks and knee-deep mud on the gravel road). Colombia, here we come!

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Morgan S Hazelwood

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