My cross-country drive was relaxing and interesting. I most enjoyed the Southwestern "mesas" of New Mexico and the Indian ambiance surrounding them and the dessert. I spent 2 days "tourist-ing" between Albuquerque and Santa Fe, but pretty much drove straight through other than that (and the blizzard in MO/IL). Had a few days of rushed preparation here before flying off to Ecuador.
So, how go things wherever you be? (Yeah, I know, my English is already going downhill...but believe me, my Spanish is still MUCH worse!) Speaking proper "book" Spanish with an educated instructor in a controlled environment is quite different from interacting with a local who can potentially say the same thing in 5-10 different ways (most slang) in a fast-moving and noisy S.American city...and then if you get confused or flustered or lost while you're trying to remember how to conjugate the verb in the proper tense, forget it!
Somehow, I have survived the Third World of Ecuador. Getting in and out of the country was Hell. Each way took 2 days (one more than expected). On the way in, we couldn't land in Quito until the next morning because of weather. Similarly, I returned a day late since my ticket was written wrong (Ecuador decided to change their time, but didn't tell the rest of the world--typical, I'm told--and the travel agent who confirmed my flight didn't tell me either, so I missed it & had to fly to another city, chg my tix, stay overnight, etc...they love to fuck with foreigners who don't speak the language(!)...I wonder if they have an Ecuadorian "Dice Man" who's cracking jokes at my expense right now...anyway, that was a major headache, and of course my feeble ability to argue in Spanish didn't win me back the $100 in fees which I had to pay to cover their mistakes!)
Except for the flights, the trip was cool...spent 8 days on a boat, touring the Galapagos Islands...snorkeled many times with sea lions, iguana, penguins, sting rays, SHARKS, and tons of tropical fish...and NO wetsuit! The GI's would be an ideal place to sail/windsurf during the windy season: very clean/warm water, gorgeous/sandy/empty beaches...except that everything is restricted for preservation.... It was a very alien-seeming world...created solely by volcanic or tectonic action, far from the evolutionary mixing forces of the mainland...certainly a Darwinian orgasm....
The highlight of my trip was the 4 days I spent *deep* in the virgin jungle (though we flew over a lot of ugly/depressing/settled/deforested areas in the 4-man plane which we chartered). I hired 2 guides: one from Chile who knew English/Spanish and the jungle...and the other from the tribe who spoke Spanish/Achuar and got us a personal invitation from the chief of the village. [Click Here to see some pictures.]
If you ever read about a tribe which uses blow-guns (shooting poison darts) and shrinks the heads of the enemies it kills, that was probably the more well-known Shuar who live in the highlands of the Amazon Basin. The Achuar are a lesser-known tribe, closely related to the Shuar, who live in the lowlands. They remove all the bones of the head, sew the eyes/mouth shut (so the enemy spirit can't get out), put sticks in the nose, and then use a secret mixture of plants/roots from the jungle which causes the heads to shrink down to the size of a fist when boiled for a day or two. The warrior then wears this head on his waist or displays it in his home and forever controls the power and spirit of his vanquished enemy. The specific stories I heard from generations past from the living Indians were fascinating.
A man's power/respect in these patriarchal societies is measured by how many men he's killed and how many wives he has. Men gain wives by marriage, by gifts of respect, or after winning a conflict. The victor has the right to the wives/children of the vanquished if he wishes. Actually, it's his *responsibility* to ensure they're taken care of, whether he decides to make them part of his family or not. The conflicts are formally declared one-on- one type battles, which occur during day-to-day life rather than tribe against tribe or solo duels in a ring with spectators. Once someone declares that he has a problem with you, you either kill him quick or wait for him to kill you...no arguing in court, no mediation by authorities, such are the laws of the jungle. So, being a man in these patriarchal societies isn't always such a great thing....
We lived with the Shaman of this little-known Achuar Indian tribe 7-8km from the (disputed) Peruvian border. The village is know as "Vichimi" (which means something like the place in the river where fallen branches disturb the water...not sure if this was a physical place or an allegorical reference to their tribe's existence in the jungle). Vichimi isn't on any maps. The Shaman's name was Mucuim (Moo-cooeeem). Mucuim told me that he was 75, though he looked much younger to me...but then, they eat much healthier than we do, and he is, after all, a Medicine Man--with all the medicinal resources of the *currently* undisrupted rain-forest and all the wisdom passed from his elders/preceeding shamen at his disposal (not to mention the power of his vanquished enemies)....
My Indian guide told us that Mucuim was very powerful and respected and that he had killed 20-30 people (some by sorcery, others by normal means). He had two wives and many children living with him. One wife was given to him long ago out of respect to his abilities when he healed someone. The other he acquired when he killed the evil white witch doctor which had previously killed his brother via a hex in a dispute over a canoe.
The wives were both wonderful cooks and hostesses, though I could never quite determine if they were scared or disgusted by me. Probably a little of both, coupled with my strange smell. We ate 3 different kinds of bananas, yuca, palm hearts, papaya, fish, armadillo, and wild boar in a number of different preparations. Since there is no electricity, refrigeration, etc. you eat whatever/whenever the hunt provides it. They do, however, salt and smoke fish which allows it to last a few weeks.
Aside from a potion ["Natema" in Achuar; "Ayahuasca" in Quechuan; "Vine of the Soul" in English] from a hallucinogenic root/vine which had only a minor affect on me or my guide, the most striking thing I consumed was the "Chicha." In addition to being a staple drink in the jungle, Chicha is served during the welcome ritual at each house you visit. Chicha is made by the wives of the house by chewing the leaves of the Manioc plant, scraping/sucking out the pulp, and spitting it all into the hollowed out shell of this certain fruit which I can't remember the name of. Water is added to increase the volume and the saliva supposedly kills all the germs. Since it's considered a great disrespect to refuse Chicha during the welcome/acceptance ceremony, I drank it often and in respectful quantity. (This was not a tribe I wanted to piss off by my snotty Americanisms!) It's actually not bad once you get past any negative idea you have about drinking someone's spit (each wife serves her own and each tastes slightly different) and gives a surprising energy boost during the exhausting heat/humidity of the rain-forest.
Chicha can also be fermented for
special ceremonies which is supposed to make you really drunk, tho none
of the Chichas I tried had been fermented. ("No Jungle-Bud?" I joked with
my guides, tho in a sense I was glad...since everything was intense enough
even with my wits about me.) The kids become attached to their mother's
"brand" of Chicha as you might become partial to your mother's spaghetti
sauce...and always bring their own from home to the village for school
They study Spanish, basic arithmetic, and geography as long as there village can afford to get a teacher to live there (usually for 2weeks at a time). If a child/adolescent wishes to study further, he must leave the tribe and go to one of the towns. This is difficult for the tribe to accept, since it's very expensive and since a good number of their people become so fascinated by the "civilized" world that they don't return.
One amusing story: Some of you know that I always carry Neosporin and NuSkin whenever I go camping. Well, we ended up treating a foot infection which was nagging Mucuim (the Shaman!). Since they go barefoot and they're always in the mud of the jungle, it never got a chance to dry out and heal. The NuSkin seemed to help a lot in the few days we were there, so I left it for him along with the antibacterial cream...chalk one up for US Medicine! Even my guides had never seen the NuSkin before. I also gave Mucuim a plastic comb with both our names carved into it. I sent pot holders to the wives and a soccer ball and school supplies for the children. Very small gifts in our eyes, but very rare and valuable items in theirs.
Always very careful not to violate a custom or tradition, we observed (and participated in) some bizarre rituals and ceremonies, slept _out_in_the_open_jungle_, bathed at their waterfall, and took several day treks through the jungle to see the amazing (and largely dangerous) assortment of lush and colorful plants, animals, birds, butterflies (gorgeous), bugs, etc. and neighboring tribes.... Unforgettable...had to have 2 levels of translation for me to communicate with them, but they were very gracious hosts once they had accepted us into their village. Of course, I was so scared by all the sounds and wondering if the Shaman was going to see some danger to his people from me and kill me during the night, that I didn't sleep at all the first night...plus, there's a lot of startling stuff that goes on (ritual-wise) during the night, which I didn't have explained to me until the next day...but I got the feeling that it was supposed to happen that way....
I can't tell you how much I loved the jungle, or the magical feeling it instills you with, so maybe I shouldn't even try....
"In tropical forests, when quietly
walking along the shady pathways, and admiring each successive view, I
wished to find language to express my ideas. Epithet after epithet
was found too weak to convey to those who have not visited the intertropical
regions the sensation of delight which the mind experiences."
When I wasn't on the Cruise or in the Jungle, I tooled around the cities of Quito and Guayaquil or hung out with my friend Joan (who is teaching Art in Quito). The best part of the country (save from the rain-forest) is that everything (apart from Galapagos) is amazingly cheap there. The worst is that there is no law/order/safety. But, hey, at least it's WARM down there by the Equator...and I must now be the only person in this sub-zero Chicago winter with a tan....
hope all is well in your world,