I laid in the back seat of the bus, my head pressed against the window; the world outside dark, save for the flashes of lightning that lit up the winding road we traversed. The night seemed never-ending as we navigated from the cold heights of the Andes Mountains into the shallow fringes of the humid jungle. The bus shook violently with every bump in the road. Around five in the morning, as hints of dawn dusted a dark sky with streaks of navy blue, I clambered off the bus.
It took another three buses and one wooden canoe, but finally, I reached my destination, Yasuni National Park. Situated at a crossroads between the Ecuadorian Amazon, the Andes, and the equator, Yasuni, to say the very least, is a special kind of paradise. Named by scientists as the most biodiverse place on Earth, the jungles here house more species of trees per hectare than the whole of the United States and Canada combined. I would be staying here for the next two months, living with an indigenous Kichwa community.
The Kichwa, or Quichua, are the largest group of indigenous peoples living in the Americas today. They are the direct descendants of the Incas who migrated from Peru into the Andes mountains range and the rainforests of the Amazon basin. The Kichwa who reside in the jungles of both Ecuador and Peru have remained more isolated from the modern world than their mountain-dwelling brothers. Using rivers as their principal means of transport, they navigate around using canoes, and rely predominantly on the forest for their survival. They do not have electricity or plumbing, instead they use fire or solar panels for light and cooking, and rely on rain or river water for washing and drinking. Western style clothing has, however, replaced traditional dress, and modern games such as soccer and volleyball dominate their free time.
Upon arrival in the community, I was greeted with a large cup of chicha, a traditional beverage viewed as sacred in Kichwa culture, for not only does it provide nutrition and sustenance to families when food is scarce, but it also to helps cultivate the ethos of sharing, an ideology the Amazonian communities live by.
To prepare the beverage the women dig up thick yuca root (also known as cassava or manioc) with their bare hands and a sharp machete. They then carry their starchy treasures home in big woven baskets that they strap to their heads—these women are otherworldly kinds of strong. They peel and boil the yuca before mashing it all into a thick pulpy liquid, then finally leaving it to ferment for several days. Depending on the length of fermentation, chicha can either be fairly weak or highly alcoholic, the latter used for special parties and events. However, it was originally fermented using the spit-chew method, whereby the women would chew the boiled yuca and then spit it out into big buckets, allowing the enzymes in their saliva to aid the fermentation process. Although this method is still used today by a large number of rural Amazonian tribes, those who are now in contact with the Western world have started to use alternative methods of fermentation in order to prevent the spreading of diseases. Secretly, I was grateful for this fact. As I gulped down a big bowl of the thick milky liquid, my stomach churned with jittery fervor, an implication of all that was to come.
Whilst living in the Amazon, I woke up each day to a world soaked in rain, fresh like the first day of spring, and fell asleep beneath stars which glowed indefatigably through a hazy mist. Swelteringly hot days were followed by hurried bouts of torrential rain, and lightning cracked through huge clouds which seemed to billow in the wind like the sails of an old ship. Thick steaming jungles; creeping vines; gushing, turbid rivers; puma tracks imprinted in mud; and trees so tall one’s neck strains from looking up; characterize a nature that refuses to rest.
Initially, I had come here, to this small community on the edges of Rio Napo, one of the primary tributaries leading into the Amazon River, to work as a volunteer teaching English. Truthfully, however, I was searching for something more; carrying with me only a backpack and an innate desire, a fleeting hope that I might perhaps encounter a world I thought only existed in the restless classroom day-dreams of my childhood. I’d always desired to experience life in the Amazon; to eat from the trees, to sit by an open fire at night, and to learn from indigenous people how to connect with the earth in ways my upbringing never permitted.
My guide in the jungle was a boy named Maxi. He had warm brown eyes and thick veins that ran up and down his arms, as if the tributaries of the Amazon River were coursing through his very blood. Every evening we would clamber into a wooden canoe and venture upstream, his brother Saul quietly guiding the motor through the still black night. With a bamboo spear in one hand and a torch in the other, Maxi would crouch over the water, silently waiting until a flicker of movement caught his eye and quick as a flash his spear would slice the water, penetrating the slippery body of a poor, unsuspecting fish. Then he would thrust his spear high into the air, presenting his hard-earned catch to the heavens as if it were a silver scaled trophy.
Maxi to me was the embodiment of the Amazon. Growing up in the community, he’d learned from a young age how to fend for himself and to survive off the earth, his father taught him the name of every plant, animal, and insect in the jungle around him. I watched the way he cut through the shrub with a sharp machete, the way he knew the earth better than his own body, as if it was an extension of himself. I watched the way he climbed the precarious branches of towering avocado trees, whose bounties could only be retrieved by the nimble hands of a monkey, or by a local such as he, who, using upper body strength and inherited flexibility would clamber up the trunks, shimmying between branches, his hands reaching places no human hands had reached before. It was Maxi who taught me how to embrace the spirit of adventure everyday, whether it was foraging for our dinner or simply bathing in the river at sunset, soaking in the cold water as the last traces of daylight evaporated into steaming currents. It was he who helped me see that the essence of life is in the small things, in the eerie midnight howl of a monkey, or the psychedelic patterns on a frog’s back, or the first sip of a milky coconut retrieved from the branches of a fertile palm tree. He taught me to see the miracle in everything around me, from the smallest ant to the world’s biggest tarantula. My eyes had been opened, and they would never close again.
My days consisted of teaching English to a class of twenty local children every morning. I walked to the school at around 10:00AM, meandering through dense mud and thick undergrowth to reach the community. The best part was that I never rushed; I never had to be anywhere quickly. I walked and sang and maneuvered over rivers, laughing to myself as I gorged on sweet fruits picked from the trees, marveling over strange bugs and butterflies. Our ancestors used to navigate over rivers and through forests every day, eating from the trees, taking the time to connect with the soil beneath their feet, learning from the ways of the earth. Now, modern society prohibits us from engaging with our earth on a daily basis. We lose out on a connection to nature that grounds us in all that is real.
As part of my volunteer work I helped the community complete a weekly Minga. A Minga, a word used in South American culture, refers to a collective activity in which all members of the community participate, in order to achieve a common goal. In the Amazon an example of a Minga was the building of a traditional wooden cabin. A large group of us would walk deep into the jungle, our rubber boots squelching through thick puddles of muddy water. We cut down large palm leaves, which we then folded and bundled into piles on our backs. The leaves were then left to dry in the sun and eventually tied and woven together to make a roof. The process of carrying these heavy leaves through muddy terrain, cutting and folding them, and eventually assembling them on top of these wooden structures was exhausting, so much work for something I assumed would be so simple. At the end of each Minga we all sat together, our tired bodies bent over heaving plates of rice, fried banana, and fresh fish, we savoured every mouthful. Before arriving in the Amazon I thought I understood the concept of a community, but it quickly became clear to me that this was, in fact, the real meaning. To literally have a common-unity. To do things out of love for one’s neighbor and one’s village, not for money, not for yourself, but for each other.
In the city we pay taxes to live, we work hard to make money to buy things we don’t need. Here the people use only what they need and all it all comes free from the earth. Amazonian tribes have always seen the earth as an extension of themselves, as a living, breathing entity. Because they are so deeply dependent on the forest, they treat it with gratitude and respect. Their relationship with the earth is one of reciprocity. They give to the Earth and she gives back to them. This inherently ancient connection to the earth is one that we, in our modern world, have become disconnected. We have forgotten how to communicate with nature, how to listen to our animal instincts, to trust the energy around us. We think that the earth is deaf to our prayers, but she is always listening. We are constantly creating the world around us.
Here, thousands of miles from everything I have ever known, I rediscovered a harmony with nature that I lost somewhere along the way. An inner peace found by tuning into the frequency of the earth and tapping out of the frenzied vibration of the city rush. When you fill yourself up with nature, with the source, with the fruits of the universe, literally and figuratively, you feel full. In a world where one trips over vines spotting exotic birds in the trees and the sound of children’s laughter is never far away, where the smell of damp earth soaked by rain fills your lungs each morning, you come to realize that this is it. This is why we are alive. To realize the beauty in the wild, the natural, the inherently simple. To see every moment as the sacred moment, the miracle, to seize every day, and turn it into an adventure.
Photography by Author
Michelle is, a writer, teacher, and adventurer from Cape Town, South Africa. Apart from loving all things wild and free, she is also passionate about the ocean, literature, education, eco-conservation, documenting the world around her, preserving indigenous cultures, dancing, surfing, and making a difference in the world.