Capital of water’s syllables
father patriarch, you are the secret of eternity
rivers fall on you like birds,
you are covered
with pistils the colour of conflagration
the great dead trunks populate you with perfume
the moon cannot watch over nor measure you
charged with green sperm
like a nuptial tree, you are silver plated
by the wild springtime
turned red by timber
blue in between the moon of the stones
dressed in rust-coloured vapour
sluggish as the high road of a planet
– Entrance of the Rivers, Pablo Neruda.
I lay in a seat at the back of the bus, my head pressed to the window, the world outside dark save for the flashes of lightning that lit up the winding road we traversed with difficulty. The night seemed never-ending as we navigated from the cold heights of the Andes Mountains into the shallow frays of the humid jungle, the bus shaking violently with every bump it ascended. Somewhere around 5am, as hints of dawn dusted a black sky in navy blue, I clambered off the bus.
Three buses and one wooden canoe later, I reached my destination. Yasuni national park, the crossroads between the Amazon, the Andes and the Equator is, to say the least, a special kind of paradise. Named by scientists as the most bio-diverse place on Earth, the jungles here have more species of trees per hectare than the whole of the US and Canada combined. I would be staying here for the next six weeks, living with an indigenous Kichwan community, working as a volunteer.
The Kichwa or Quichua are the largest group of indigenous peoples living in the Americas, today. They migrated into the Andes mountains range and the rainforests of the Amazon basin. Those in the jungle 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 occasionally solar panels 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 to the community, I was greeted with a large cup of Chicha, a traditional fermented beverage viewed as sacred within Kichwa culture, for not only providing nutrition and sustenance to families when food is scarce but also to help cultivate the ethos of sharing, an ethos in which Amazonian communities live by. My tired body embraced the sharp tanginess of the fermented yuca, the thick milk swirling around my stomach with jittery fervor, an implication of all that was to come.
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 jungle, creeping vines, gushing, turbid rivers, puma tracks imprinted in mud, trees so tall one’s neck strains from looking up, a nature that refuses to rest.
I had come here, initially, to this small community on the edges of the Rio Napo, one of the primary tributaries leading into the Amazon River, to work as a volunteer, teaching English. Truthfully, however, I had come here searching for an adventure, carrying with me only my backpack and an innate desire to experience the unknown, to be pushed and tested, forced to grow away from the comforts of home. I craved the open spaces, a world liberated from the constraints of city life, to eat fruit from the trees, to sit by an open fire at night, to learn how to connect with the earth in ways my own upbringing had 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 many tributaries of the Amazon river were coursing through his own blood. Every evening we would clamber into a wooden canoe and venture upstream, his brother Saul quietly guiding us through the still, black night. With a bamboo spear in one hand and a torch in the other, he’d crouch over the water, silently waiting until a flicker of movement caught his eye, his spear quickly penetrating the surface of the water and up he would thrust the spear, presenting a wriggling fish to the heavens like 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 survive off the earth, his father taught him the name of every plant, animal, 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. It was Maxi who taught me how to embrace the spirit of adventure everyday, whether it was climbing tall 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. Or simply bathing in the river at sunset, soaking in the cool water as the last traces of daylight evaporated into its steaming currents. It was he who showed me how to live in a constant state of awe. How to embrace the small things, how to see the world through the eyes of an explorer, to turn every moment, even the seemingly mundane ones into an adventure.
My days consisted of teaching English to a class of twenty local children every morning. I’d walk to the school at around ten am, meandering through dense mud and thick undergrowth to reach the community. Lessons were an hour and a half a day and consisted of teaching a class of around 25 students aged from 5 to 12, the basics of the English language. Because these children live in the jungle, their schooling is somewhat informal. One teacher manages the entire group of varied ages, with very limited resources. The children had zero level of English upon my arrival, thus I had to teach them in my second language, Spanish, a challenge in and of itself. There were no teachers manuals or syllabus guides, instead, I sketched a rough lesson plan each morning and improvised, teaching basics such as colours, numbers, greetings, verbs and basic sentence structure. The biggest difficulty was disciplining this group of unruly kids as well as trying to keep them engaged, particularly the younger ones who were restless and constantly eager to go outside and play. Through incorporating a range of games, colouring-in activities, group work and physical exercises I managed to keep the group entertained for at least an hour until a combination of heat, sweat and exhaustion took over and I freed them from the constraints of the classroom. It was an interesting and profound learning experience for me, to say the very least.
Part of my volunteer work was also to help the community complete a weekly “Minga”. A Minga is a word used in South American cultures to refer to a collective activity in which all members of the community participates, 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’d cut down large palm leaves, which we then folded and bundled into piles on our backs. The leaves would then be left to dry in the sun and eventually tied together and woven 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, tired bodies bent over heaving plates of rice, fried banana, and fresh fish, savouring 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, working 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 from. 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 day as an opportunity for adventure.