In Quito I chose to stay at the Swissotel. Anxious about living in a place in which multiple inoculations are recommended, I chose the hotel for the antiseptic reputation of the managers, the Swiss.
The room was what I had requested, a chilled, tan asylum in which noise, germs, noxious gases, and strangers were effectively blocked. Except for an oblique view of the Andes, I could have been in any good hotel on earth.
I left Quito for Amazonia in a Mercedes diesel van, piloted by Raoul. If willing to drive at 100 km an hour over dirt roads and dodge potholes that could challenge an avid spelunker, one can leave the labyrinth of Quito and reach the Oriente, the Ecuadorian Amazon, in 4 hours.
For the first hour we climbed through the Andes to a dry summit, miles above sea level. The next three hours were spent rolling down mountainsides, testing for the point at which the friction of the tires was trumped by the inertia of the bus to send us rocketing through a line of space instead of hugging a curve in the road.
On the Oriente side of the summit, the scrub changed from tan to olive.
Then we passed through a cloud…
and the forest appeared.
The Tres Marias , three ribbons of spray and foam, fell from unencumbered heights to the warm and untidy valley floor.
Within just a few hours we had dropped thousands of feet and entered the tropics.
I was greeted by the very friendly staff of the Cabanas, who have been taking excellent care of me, the hapless gringo. But the first night was rough and nearly ended this Amazon adventure. Before dinner, sitting on the second story porch of the cabana, I heard rustling in the roof. Nested between corrugated sheet metal and the wooden slats of the ceiling is a colony of bats, who with wing flapping and butt thumping, scoot through the tight space to emerge into the coming night to feast on fruit and insects. Unnerved by the proximity of so many omnivores, I humored myself with the thought that I will not need a clock to know when it is the cocktail hour. After an excellent dinner of chicken, rice, fried plantain and a jug of fresh tamarind juice, I browsed the guest book. Most of the entries extolled the delights of sleeping to jungle sounds, eating fresh local foods, and conversing with the wonderful staff.
I was, however, haunted by one brief entry which read, “I survived”.
I returned for the night to my hot Cabana, and showered under the cool, rain-fed tap half expecting a tarantula to drop on my head. As it turns out, the shower is communal, but so far my only bath mate has been a frisky tree frog, who makes comic splats as he careens from wall to wall. In equal measure distressed and amused by bats, frogs, and the cryptic words of a guest gone by, I climbed into the sheets with a book. The attack of the bugs was immediate, merciless, and focused on my exposed head and neck and arms. Anxiety level rising and tolerance dropping, I switched off the light. The attacks continued through the night, but at a slower pace. At 4 AM, when the bats returned from carousing, something large landed in my ear. I jumped up to swat the wasp off the pillow, and was stung for the effort. “Be calm, Mike. In the morning, you can caulk and disinfect and reestablish a barrier between you and the vivid world”.
Back in bed, I settled to the sound of light rain, which quickly escalated into a deluge. The rain continued to build until it overwhelmed the roof and began to drip on the foot of the bed, which I didn’t sense until a volume of disturbingly rich brown water penetrated the sheets and soaked the mattress, giving notice to my toes. The wetness was trial enough, but when I realized that the exceptionally fertile juice that was leaking from the ceiling was a liquor of seasoned bat guano, I decided to leave the tropics and get back to the sanitary Swiss. But by noon the next day, the windows were sealed and the roof repaired, and patience and hope were restored.
This difficult night was a lesson about boundaries and the materials from which they are made. In the modern Swissotel, the boundaries are made of steel and glass and are impermeable. Air can not penetrate those defenses without mechanical aid. Here in the Oriente, the boundaries are made of wire mesh, whose gauge is small enough to keep out the large predators, but ample enough to let everything else penetrate the senses. I’ve adjusted to the scratching of bat feet, slowed my own pace to accommodate the heat and improved my bug management skills. And for the effort, I am getting a daily reward.
After finishing a lunch desert of sweet, tree tomatoes and sugar cane syrup that was made by Rita with the wicked laugh, I am currently sitting in a thatched, two-story viewing platform overlooking the Rio Napo. Two ants are crawling around the computer screen and three volcanoes, Sumaco, Antisana and Cotopaxi punctuate the river view. Earlier, a cartoon butterfly drifted up from the river on six inch wings of cobalt blue. A bird calls “whoo plop” in the distance and another one screams like a terrified child. Nearby, a Yellow-rumped Cacique is making a ridiculous, “loud, liquid schweeooo, with a downscale skeek, weer, and wrup”*. Black with school-bus-yellow back and rump, the Caciques dive from the cliff on which I sit to the island in the river below, where five women are slowly moving a net through the backwater for fish. It’s hot, but not like yesterday, when my sweat glands opened like fire hydrants on the streets of the lower east side in July. The thunder has started up, and it’s starting to rain.
It’s stupid to romanticize the natural world since it would just as soon eat you as it would enchant you. So it’s good to have protective barriers. But the energy intensive barricades that protect middle class Americans like me have become too isolating. Especially since the Bushies have shamelessly made fear the driving force in America. That awful first night in the Oriente was a tool, a blunt but effective one, that ripped a few holes in my defenses to let in a less filtered and more pungent life.
*(Hilty and Brown, “Birds of Columbia” ).