The family unit meets me at the airport in Quito, as I fly direct from the Galapagos Islands. We only have a week left of our trip and in my absence, they have been robbed on a bus in the mountains on their way into Quito. The classic bus scam, a man drops something on the floor, another grifter joins him, in this case it’s lost loose change around the feet of the kids and they come away with an iPod, a camera, and hopefully a guilty conscience somewhere down the line. It‘s upsetting, more so as I’m not with them when it happens. My son feels like he has let me down, he has stepped up to the plate in my absence and has been ordering and bartering over rooms in Spanish up in the mountains around Riobamba, then the robbery! This is a Spanish lesson you don’t get taught in school!
The police are genuinely mortified when we tell them we have travelled the world and this is the only criminal mishap that has befallen us. They are only ‘things’, and we are insured, but it is the injustice, the violation, the lost photographs, that rankles at almost the very end of our travels.
Once we are settled in Quito old town in a hostel opposite the brilliant Magic Bean Café, the robbery is not so important.
We are booked on an eco-trip deep into the Amazon at Yasuni, described as arguably the most biodiverse spot on Earth. It’s relatively easy to get to this equatorial paradise, a 40-minute flight, a 3-hour minibus ride, and two hours in a motorised canoe – everything’s relative.
I’m expecting a tiny plane to take us into the Ecuadorian Amazon, something like you might see in an Indiana Jones film being buffeted in a thunderstorm, but there are over hundred people on this jet, there is a buzz, and the majority don’t appear to be dressed for an equatorial jungle environment. The plane lands at Lago Agrio (Bitter Lake) originally it was simply, and unimaginatively named Texaco, a town that has grown around the oil industry.
Everyone and anyone stand expectantly by the runway; the Witch Doctor/Mayor/top army brass/tv reporters they are all there, excited eager faces. We alight the plane like tropical Beatles, but they have not come to see us, they have come to see their most famous footballer, and locally born – Antonio Valencia. Valencia appears to want none of the publicity; I’ve seen him hiding under a large baseball cap on the way off; hoping, unrealistically they might forget about him! He just wants to see his family, quietly. We watch intrigued as he presses the flesh and smarts from camera flashes.
The taxi driver makes me smile, he wants to know if we have come all the way here from England just to see Antonia Valencia! I inform him he plays for Manchester United, around the corner from where we live, if I wanted to see Tony V, I could walk down the road and tap him on the shoulder. He seems very impressed that we live in a city with football team.
Three hours in a Minibus vans, along a road designed to remove your fillings free of charge! We eventually meet the Cuyabeno river, then zip along deeper into Yasuni (Cuyabeno) National Park.
We see a lot of wildlife, the flash of three species of kingfisher raise the spirit, sloths elevate it higher, but it hits a zenith when we reach the entrance to Laguna Grande – when we chance across pink river dolphins, fresh water dolphins in the Amazon! I knew there was some somewhere, maybe at the mouth of the mighty Amazon River, but this is breathtakingly magical, they break the surface near the canoe, they don’t jump out of the water, like some. We will see them every day and never tire of the sceptical, the lake is not far from our camp.
We are in raised wooden huts arranged around a central plaza, with palm leaf roofs. It is the end of the heavy rainy season and most of the camp not elevated is flooded. There is no electricity in the huts, only the dining area. The kids are slightly horrified at the basic living units, they are actually better than I envisaged!:
“There’s a toilet, sink and mosquito nets, what more do you want?” I say to try and allay their fears.
“Electricity, light, windows–“ The Boy intercedes, but I cut in before the list gets any longer.
“It’s character building, what doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger!”
“It‘s the animals that might kill me I’m worried about!” He replies, and so am I, but I hide my fear well. The Girl is oblivious to the poisonous, bitey, constricting, hidden things that surround us.
“We will be ok, won’t we?” The Wife asks when the kids are out of earshot. “I’ll do a body count in a few days.” I joke untactfully, and feel I need to add “Don’t worry, they wouldn’t let tourists come if it was dangerous.”She is not convinced.
Later as it’s getting dark, I spot a mother tarantula with three babies on the roof of a hut near the dining area. I point it out to Nesir our main guide, “It’s only a baby,” he dismisses. It’s not a baby, it is old enough to birth other tarantulas and it is a good 6-7 inches across. “No, not the babies, the mother.”I try and clarify further. “It is only a baby,” he repeats so I’m in no doubt it is ‘only’ a baby. I make a note not to point out the ‘baby’ tarantula and the baby-baby tarantulas to the family. If they do spot them, I will tell them it is fully grown and been on steroids down the gym for months, but not the steroids that make you aggressive, only make your willy shrink!
Nesir also tells me it will be ok to swim in the river.
“What about Piranhas?” I ask trying to hide my horror.
“The bank is too steep for piranhas, it‘s safe to swim.” I’m reluctant to be the human guinea pig, but the children are desperate to get in the river as a rope swing hanging from a tree on the opposite bank is calling them. I ask Nesir again if it‘s ‘really’ ok, as I’m being volunteered further by The Wife and some of the others have come to see if I get eaten, and it’s all been a cruel Ecuadorian ‘survival of the fittest’– ‘who’s ‘actually’ gullible enough’, joke!
“Why am I getting in first? Why not you?” I ask The Wife.
“You’re a stronger swimmer than me. Don’t be a baby, just get in!”I have come to learn that I am better at everything compared to her if it involves possible injury, humiliation, or death.
“Not sure if being a good swimmer helps against piranha attacks?”I see Nesir nod his head in agreement – but I’m not sure with whom he is agreeing! As we will learn later when we go piranha fishing – the more you splash the more the carnivorous fish salivate, delight, and scoff.
“Shouldn’t we throw one of the children in first? I’m the second highest age-earner in this family.
“Get in you big baby.” There’s the baby taunt again “And anyway, you’re insured.” That would be an interesting insurance claim form and death certificate! I could make the Darwin Awards with a forward from The Wife! (and, the insurance company.) I’m nervous, and I get the feeling there is some disappointment from the watching Danish couple when I’m not thrashing around in a quickly spreading pool of my own blood. The Boy and The Girl are soon in and we are on the rope swing. This is one of the lies they tell you at school, if you fall the water in The Amazon you will be consumed by ravenous fish within seconds. It is not until I get out that I think to ask if they have those Canduri pencil fish that happily swim up your urethra, become lodged and have to be removed by surgery!! (definitely two exclamation marks!!) If you want a memory to keep you warm when you are old and grey, swimming in The Amazon Rain Forest with your kids will just about do it for everyone. A lodged pencil fish in your penis will get you remembered via the gift of social media for many, many, generations to come.
We chat to the other tourists over and after lunch, and are careful to make sure our beds have no dangerous animals in before we get in. We are not been poisoned, bitten, or constricted in the night. We are up early every day and after a healthy and hearty breakfast we are into the motorised canoes and onto the water-roads of the Amazon to spot wildlife. When we eventually step out of the canoes for a dryish land stroll, I step on a twelve-inch centipede that makes a horrendous onomatopoeia sound to match. Nedir dismisses the squashed arthropod and says he has seen a pigmy marmoset camouflaged against the bark of a tree and none of us can see as he points it out. So he sets up a telescope and we are amazed that a primate only thirty feet in front of us is almost invisible, but to be fair, it is the world’s smallest primate, even fully grown it is only 15 inches tall. It is an honour to see such an exquisite creature, and without Nesir, we would have no chance.
On the second night we make the short journey back to Laguna Grande to watch the sun sink, the dolphins are there quietly breaking the surface, a multitude of birds flutter hither and tither to their roosts and the air is stilled in front of a burnt orange horizon.
“It’s amazing, isn’t it?” The Wife says allowed to our family and the boat in general.
“It’s not as good as Halo 3,” The Boy replies. We ignore him, but the Danish couple in the boat want to know what ‘Halo 3’ is. I explain it’s a game that involves you, the player, as part of a team of psychopathic mercenaries, killing as many of the opposing team of mercenaries as you can. Until there has been enough deaths and splatted viscera that you are deemed to have won. So this is what we end up talking about as we watch the sunset over The Amazon!
It is easy to spot caimans as we motor back. On one occasion when we stop at a very small village on the river bank, a couple of local children have a big lump of chicken on a fishing line and are mercilessly teasing a wild three-foot caiman below the jetty.
We go further downstream to the community of Siona, it has a two-classroom brick-constructed school, but it’s the holidays, to suggest it is basic, is an understatement, it has a chalkboard, tables, chairs and very little else. The local children are taught in Spanish, which few of the parents can speak, just their local language. Rifles have replaced bows, outboard motors have replaced oars. Change has arrived, but this is the easily accessible part of the jungle. We go collecting poison arrow frogs, there are plenty. Here another myth gets dispelled: If you touch them you will die! As long as your skin is not broken, they are safe to pick up and collect, we collect many of various bright shades and colours. To get the poison out for arrow tips, the locals gently heat them in a metal pot with a lid on, they sweat poison, and then they release them before they die (I think!).
On the walk from frog collecting, something mammalian is being barbequed on the first floor of a dwelling. When I enquire what they are cooking, Nesir says nonchalantly, “monkey.” It is largely responsible for persuading The Girl to become a vegetarian. They eat monkeys like we eat chickens and pigs, both Nesir and I explain to her, she’s not having it, “It’s just wrong.” She extolls, even though she thinks we are joking!
In the afternoon we go and visit the Shaman, he is asleep his wife tells us, when we arrive. He’s not asleep, he’s putting his fancy-dress on for the tourists. So we look around his garden of medicinal herbs and edible produce. I’m told that most of the older locals trust ‘Charlatan the Shaman’ more than a medical doctor, they have access to both ‘medical’ systems in this area! Eventually he arrives and chants something that equates to: ‘I’ll soon be trying to sell you some trinkets, so get your money out.’ But not his supply of hallucinogenic herbs he seems quite keen on! He claims to have cured several people of cancer, unsurprisingly he cannot produce any empirical evidence, when challenged by a member of the group, he says we have to trust him! People try not to laugh openly as they move their heads from side to side. Then through the interpretation of Nesir, Shameful explains the treatment.
Shaking bamboo leaves over the patient, while he sings some folk song karaoke numbers. Usually this requires three hours work on very strong psychedelic drugs – for him, not the afflicted. This is the diagnosis stage! ‘This is’ private medicine in a rain forest! As we are leaving, a ‘patient’ is arriving by boat. “Tell her he’s not a real doctor, Nesir.” “He is to her!” He smiles as he says it, but I know he’s as baffled as I am. Don’t write to me, I know there has to be some meaning to the medicinal properties of plants, I’m just saying he would be my second choice, even in a rain forest! He has the last laugh, it’s been worth dressing up, chanting and dancing badly, The Wife and The Boy buy bracelets, and The Girl a wooden beetle. I buy snake oil, smoke and mirrors! – but it does not cure me of my healthy cynicism!
Have you ever been Piranha fishing? This is what I say when ever asked a tedious fishing question in the UK. If fishing were this exciting I would go fishing. Fishing for piranhas is the opposite of ‘normal’ fishing, were you sit quiet and motionless, ‘Waiting for Godot.’ Put a lump of meat on the end of a thick nylon line, attached to a bamboo stick, and waggle the stick furiously in the water to simulate the thrashing struggling antics of an unfortunate drowning animal. Adrenaline levels are high: The Boy is the first to get a ‘bite’ and as he pulls the piranha from the water with a wide smile – both Boy and Fish, he is just about to drop it into the canoe and it drops off, both smiles disappear! Nesir hooks one and plonks it in the canoe next to my open sandaled foot, I jump up, and the vessel rocks wildly from side to side in the carnivorous infested waters, and we are all nearly in our own disaster movie! We take the biggest, and only catch back to camp to cook, we all want to know what piranha tastes like, like fresh water trout is the answer. Whilst on the disaster movie theme, we see many anacondas in the trees along the waterways, but these are not 4.6m long and capable of swallowing a small car, but about a metre, the ‘big fellas’ have gone further into the ‘drier’ jungle away from the water to forage for food Nesir tells us. I don’t fully believe him, but we are all prepared to believe him, so we can sleep better at night!
The day we leave the rain is torrential, and we re-zip along the waterways like we are in a Vietnam War movie. The rain stops before we reach the track to catch the minibus back to the airport. I buy some ground expresso coffee from a rangers hut to support local jungle projects. I don’t know what was in it, but I suspect, and I’m not joking, cocaine, as maybe a little ‘thank you’ for the charitable donation. We never finished it in the end, worried we might end up extras in a Danny Boyle film. It would have been great if you were on snipper duty of three consecutive days and nights, or a Russian Olympic athlete.
If I had to tell you my favourite place on the planet, it would probably come down to the toss of a coin between The Galapagos and The Amazon Rain Forest, the forest would probably win. I was with my family in the epicentre of magnificent pristine biodiversity. I would recommend it before it becomes a palm plantation or a cattle farm, but not if you are concerned about creepy-crawlies or things that slither. These are the memories that keep us warm when we are old, that binds families together, that make you smile inwardly on cold winter’s days. It’s an old cliché, ‘but , what doesn’t kill you, certainly, makes you stronger.’
Caption competition: X-ray of a pencil fish in a male urethra! ?!?!?!?!?!?! I will send a signed copy of any of my books to the winner.
Next time: Journey’s end: life continues (back to life, back to reality.)
My latest book: Hull, Hell & Homecomings, is out later this year to coincide with Kingston upon Hull being the 2017 UK City of Culture.
I write books. You can buy any of them at very reasonable prices here: http://www.amazon.co.uk/s/ref=nb_sb_noss_1?url=search-alias%3Daps&field-keywords=ian+m+pindar