By Peter Stromberg
It all started when I was daydreaming on Google Earth, looking for a jungle river to float down on a multi-day adventure. I've alway wanted to explore Yasuni Park; arguably the most biodiverse place on Earth. I stumbled upon the Curaray River that marks the southern border of Yasuni Park. The park boundary is marked by the north side of the river. These waters that begin as snow at the peaks of sky-kissing Andean volcanoes make their way down and east; eventually draining into the mighty Amazon on its flat and windy journey to meet up with the Atlantic Ocean in Brazil.
As I was “computer scouting” the river, zooming in and out when a little “blip” on the map appeared, it read “Comunidad Sisa.” A quick cut-and-paste and a little bit of internet sleuthing, I was able to start a Facebook conversation with a community member from the Sisa Community deep in the Amazon. “In the actual middle of nowhere.”
The young lady that corresponded with was extremely polite but she was quickly running out of patience for my dull adventure questions. She luckily passed me the number of a lady named Nancy. She referred to Nancy as one of the leaders of the communities so I was excited to be getting closer to an authority in the area.
I called Nancy and started rapid-firing questions about the potential float trip. She said repeatedly, “It’s really far,” and explained that Sisa can only be reached by plane or by boat descending the chocolate colored river. The local craft of river navigation is a 15-foot long dugout canoe with an outboard motor. Nancy said that it’s a two to three day trip motoring downstream depending on the water level of the river. Perfect, I thought.
We calculated that the descent would be at least a 10 day float or more likely two full weeks. A daunting timeline but not impossible.
Nancy was really helpful and mentioned that if I wanted to go down the river with her help that I had to hurry because she was leaving Puyo (a gateway city to the jungle) to go back into her community.
After hearing that she was heading in, I immediately asked if we could join her. There was a 30 second silence on the phone…..after what seemed like an eternity; she said "Sí Peter.” We briefly spoke about the logistics of driving to Puyo and then flying into her riverside village. She passed her bank account information and said that she would buy the tickets for us and that we could stay with her family. We set up some tentative dates and we hung up....we were in. Committed.
As I put my phone down, it dawned on me that I didn't know who Nancy was, really where we were going, or any other detail that you might think important on a journey like that. I'm sure Maija, my wife and travel companion, wouldn't want to know any of that stuff anyway…”What are we going to do for food?” she would ask, I thought. The honest answer was “I have no idea,” so it’s probably better just to not speculate as we would find out very soon.
Upon flying into the community, we were greeted by the president of the Sisa Community, Milton. He took us to the “hut” structure in the middle of the community and asked us where our tents were. We didn't have any tents. He looked perplexed. He then asked what we wanted to do for the next seven days. I said, "Whatever you guys do." He looked perplexed. After digesting our predicament he literally ran over to his hut, found a (Spiderman) mattress, and ran it to our hut. After some impressive rope work we set up a bug net over the mattress, on the floor. Home sweet home for the next seven nights; “house” sorted.
After we had our living arrangement settled, Milton started to explain that they hunt and fish everyday to sustain themselves. There's no roads in or out, no stores, running water, or refrigeration. A supply plane comes once a week and only if the weather cooperates.The feeling of isolation in an extremely foreign environment began to set in, panic attack-ish maybe. Naked and afraid episodes flashing through my mind. Just as I was about to get carried away in my thoughts, my amazing wife smiled at me with a wink. We jumped in with both feet. We went to work, fishing, hunting, sweating, and laughing. We became a part of their rhythm.
The first couple of days were a little rough to be honest. The question of what we are going to eat was quickly answered at our first breakfast. On the plate in front of us was a chunk of animal. I say animal and not meat because it still had the skin and hair on it. The wild boar was accompanied by a couple patacones and a bit of rice. To drink we had lemongrass tea that was prepared on the open fire so it had that smoky flavor to it, always.
Through the efforts of a government project the community was provided with small scale solar panels that can power lights and small electronics.The solar system does not produce enough energy to run a refrigerator however.To preserve their kill they build smoke racks over the fires in their homes.This smoke helps to preserve the meat and keep the maggots and bugs off of the precious cuisine. Imagine a BBQ bore slow cooking over the living room fire complete with little hooves. It’s a scene that’s hard to forget, it touched all the senses.
People might have figured out how to live amongst mosquitos but I don't think one can ever get used to biting sand flies, they are relentless little devils. In the Amazon basin the air is so hot, jungle hot, you have to stay completely covered up from head to toe or they bite you. Mud boots and long sleeve shirts tucked in is the preferred jungle uniform. The sand fly bites itch badly, and they bleed. It’s much worse than a mosquito and worse than you're imagining right now. Scratchy…
Despite these new realities, we were feeling lucky to be in the Amazon, the raw beauty is hard to describe. Everything is alive and connected; there are not many places on the planet where you can really feel and see that oneness with your whole soul.The forest has a spirit complete with an array of emotions that you can see reflected in her weather. If she’s not happy, it rains.
One day we were miles deep on a hike to a “saladero” hunting for animals to shoot with the camera. Saladeros are spots in the jungle, usually in a dry river bed, that have an abundance of minerals coming out of the ground in the water. Animals gather there to drink the water and absorb the vital nutrients.They make for fertile hunting locations, secret spots. We had been hiking for hours, several miles of dense Amazon. We would later find out that Maija was the first woman invited there and we were certainly the first foreigners allowed to go with the hunters to this zone.
Upon reaching the saladero and completing a quick inspection of the little caves and mini canyons that are about head high we concluded that the pack of bore had moved on. All around in the mud we could see the tracks of animals, you could tell by the sheer numbers of tracks that the animals must number in the hundreds.
Just as our guide was explaining that bore drink the water from the saladero, we heard an incredibly awful noise coming from a little cave. In a flash the two guides were swinging machetes and cutting down “wrist-sized” trees. One guide said, “Grab Maija and get out of here,” so we jumped up on an embankment that was basically on top of the “cave” that the noise was coming from. Heart racing, tunnel vision, heavy breathing, and adrenaline pumping through the body, fight or flight? What kind of monster could be making such a noise?
Within 90 seconds the guide had cut down and shaped 20 trees of a specific type of wood. They shaved them down into pointed tipped poles with their expert machete work. As quickly as a pole was finished it was slammed into the mud at the entrance of the cave making a fence covering the exit and trapping the drunken bore inside. The speed of their work was incredible, so fast that I couldn’t figure out what they were doing at first. With the fence complete and the danger passed, huge smiles came over their faces…and ours.
We now had a 150 pound wild boar trapped in a cave and the atmosphere could not have been more electric. The sound of something snapping a four inch bamboo stick echoed through the forest. SNAP. It was so loud that my mind couldn’t imagine that the sound could be coming from the bore. It was too loud. It sounded like a tree that gave way under its own weight. As Maija and I sat there confused as to what could be making that sound, I realized that the noise was coming from the animal in the cave. How could something make a noise like that?
As if he was reading my mind, or he could see the confusion on our faces, our guide said, “It’s his teeth.” That made me more confused as I wasn’t that familiar with the anatomy of a bore. With some hand signals I was finally able to understand that the incredible noise echoing through the jungle was the sound of the bore slamming its giant tusks together. I’ll never forget that sound and it makes the hair on my neck stand up typing this now. SNAP SNAP SNAP.
One technique for harvesting the bore is to trap the animal in the cave with the “pole fence,” leaving just enough space so that the animal can pop its head out of the cave but gets stopped by the fence. The hunter positions himself on top of the cave with a freshly carved spear that is about 10 feet in length, a sharpened tip. When the animal eventually comes out of the cave to inspect the obstruction the kill shot is made by plunging the spear into the back of the neck of the animal. I’m not sure if it was because Maija was there or that it started raining but our guides decided not to bring the bacon home that day. They removed the fence and the drunken bore stumbled off into the jungle. Just then I realized that I had been holding my breath for about 15 minutes; what a special experience.
As we made our way back to the village driving the boat home through the rain I couldn’t help but feel how lucky we were to have experienced that whole process. The boat pulled up to shore and I could see Nancy hastily pulling her laundry off of the dry line to get it out of the rain. She asked where we had been and I told her the saladero. She sharply replied, “Why didn’t you tell me you were going there, I wouldn’t have put my clothes out to dry. The forest always rains on foreigners when they go to sacred spots.” She said it with so much conviction and matter-of- factness. It was after hearing that statement that I truly realized the connectivity that the people feel with the spirit of the forest.
Despite the unmatched beauty of the Amazon the real treasure in the jungle is the people. They are code breakers of that mystical world. They speak to the animals, read the trees, and know the plants. It's like going back in time to a place when people were connected to our food and the circle of life. The people are united by hard work, pain, sweat, and tears all while laughing about it with a smile, together.
The men are stone cold killers, snipers, that's how they feed their families and they are good at it. They still hunt with three meter long, wooden blow dart guns complete with poison tip darts. In addition to spears and blow dart guns they use firearms as well. They are tactical fishermen and deploy all manners of technique ranging from tossing a baited hook to strategically placing nets in the muddy waters. They are becoming more aware of the importance of conservation and realize that tourism can be a source of income, but they are in the business of putting food on the table, meat is on the menu.
The women are warriors. They do most of the work besides hunting, however they do fish. They take charge in the farms and grow the “yuca” and “platano.” They take care of the home chores and rear the kids. Their craft is making amazing pottery with local clays, natural paints, and dyes harvested from different parts of the river. They sell their pottery in Puyo and it is usually the main source of income for a family. The women are constantly preparing “chicha,” a labor of love, and an integral part of the Amazonian culture.
It is truly amazing to see the different ways people have adapted to their perspective little pockets on earth. The culture of the Amazonian people is shaped by the harsh realities of the forest and the pulse of the river. Homesteading in the Amazon takes a special kind of love and commitment to living in tune with the earth. A toughness that is hard to find these days and a commitment to sacrifice of convenience for the absolute freedom you can only find by living off the land.