Jungle Walks and Bottled Hope: Rainforest Ways
May 21, 2015
2015 Student Field Reporter Project: We’ve enlisted the help of several students to share their 2015 Amazon experiences with us. Over the coming months we will regularly feature their posts, photos, and reflections – letting them tell their amazing stories of the Amazon and it’s impact on their lives!
Reporter: Kailani C. (High School Student, The Gunston School, Maryland)
I swear, there is something distinctly more satisfying about Fanta from a glass bottle than from a can. Maybe it’s the sugarcane in the soda. Maybe it’s the frostiness that comes from being in a freezer three seconds earlier. For me last night it was the feeling of pleasant exhaustion that comes from a long, unbelievable day that added an extra kick to the orange drink.
Our morning at Explorama started early. Alarms sounded at 5:00 so we would have our luggage loaded and be stumbling onto the rapidos by 6:00. We flew through the flooded trees onto the river in the budding dawn and woke up along the ride to ExplorNapo Lodge, a slightly more rustic Explorama accommodation on the Napo River, a tributary of the Amazon. On the hour-and-half run I birded out the open sides of the boat. Most I did not recognize, but Lucio is a man of many talents, and knows the names of every last bird here, in both English and Spanish. I filled my journal with notes on the Gold-Hooded Blackbird, the Ringed and Amazonian Kingfishers, and several others.
When we reached Napo we were greeted with Buenos Dias and a wonderful breakfast, and afterward found our rooms, where our luggage was waiting. The employees here work very hard to make us feel welcome and comfortable, for which we are all very grateful. The rooms are clean and open-air under a single thatched roof. Mosquito netting covers the beds. I like sitting up inside on my bed and feeling secure inside the little tent the net makes, happy in the knowledge the skeeters are suckered for now. Overall, the conditions are not as bad as we thought, weather-wise. It’s not very hot due to the clouds and shade, and the humidity can be countered with light, loose clothes. They also have showers here, the water supplied by the nearby river. After breakfast we went for our first jungle walk. Lucio led us over a muddy path of wet clay winding through the trees. Within seconds we were out of sight of the lodge. The forest here is dense, quiet, and watchful, the only sounds the insect hum and occasional birdcalls. There is almost no wind, so the trees and plants stand silent, and I found myself whispering when I spoke. After a little ways we stopped and spread out along the trail, within sight of each other but far enough apart to focus. Our teachers told us to look down, up, and around for one square meter and listen to the jungle sounds, writing down what we saw. As I came to learn, one square meter can teach you a lot.
There is something old and attentive about this land, and everything is connected. The ground is composed of spongy roots tangled together with dirt shoved between the cracks, and the forest is layers upon layers of plants growing atop one another. In front of where I stood, a tree had fallen. I doubted it had been down long; not much that’s dead stays dead in the rainforest. Tiny mushrooms sprouted from the log’s flanks. Young trees and shrubs fed on the decomposing wood. The bark and outer layer had been already disappeared, so the whole thing looked like a cord of live, exposed nerves. The living and the dead take turns here.
We looped eventually back to the lodge, passing too much life to count. Monkey ladder vines, leaf bugs, a rubber tree that towered to the sky–the majesty and sheer magnitude of the rainforest is a little overwhelming. We went back and ate lunch, took a siesta during which most of us crashed in the hammocks near the dining room and caught up on sleep, and got ready for our next activity of the day. We were going to visit the medicine man.
Lucio and our other guide, Raul, took us up a short trail over a causeway and into the nearby Botanical Gardens, a cleared area next to a man-made fishing pond in which huge palms rise from the water. We came into a round, open-sided thatched-roof room with a floor of hard-packed clay. Two low-backed benches lined part of the sides, and in the back was a wooden table heaped with greenery and bottles filled with thick liquid. There was no light other than the outside sun. Behind the table stood a Peruvian man wearing a geometric-colored headband with feathers sticking up from the rim. Raul introduced him as Guillermo, the shaman.
Guillermo has been practicing shamanism since his early teens. As he and Raul explained to us, the traditional art of medicine and energy amongst the river tribes is becoming steadily more rare, as Western methods and products take root. Guillermo was taught by his father to be a shaman by his father before him. It is a grueling process, with tests such as going into the jungle for months and drinking periodically the hallucinogenic ahuasca, a concoction derived from a certain vine. It is under this mixture’s spell that shamans can discover new sources of healing, animals sacred to them, and see visions specific to their character and history.
Over the next half hour Guillermo showed us his medicine way. I scribbled madly in my notebook, writing down the uses of plants such as uña de gato, which helps with aches and arthritis, a plant called golden button that, when we chewed it, worked as temporary Novocaine, and my personal favorite: sangre de grado, dragon’s blood, which the local women call magic sap. The blood red sap helps with basic irritations such as acne, to more heavy-duty needs like post-natal bleeding. I bought two small bottles of it from Guillermo afterwards, and am now using it, with impressive effect, on my more stubborn pimples.
My favorite part, however, was the cleansing ceremony at the very end. Guillermo bade us close our eyes and relax. He lit a tobacco pipe and took a shaman’s leaf bundle used for ceremonies. Blowing smoke into the bundle, he walked back and forth in front of us, striking the palm frond on his hand and chanting in a tongue I could not name. His song was roughly beautiful, and something worked loose deep inside me, like the acid released from the muscles during a good massage. At the end, he took a phial of yellow-orange liquid he said was an extract of orchids and other sweet-smelling flowers, and rubbed it onto our palms, for cleansing energy. We passed it before our faces, and were finished.
I felt better after going to the medicine man. It is easy I find, in a world with so much despair, to forget about the hope essential to the workings of the world. The dragon’s blood tree is rare now due to a years-ago harvesting. Guillermo’s craft, a vital part of his culture, is rare now too. These realities, and others, can cloud my sight of the good. But I bought a vial of that orchid-blood too, and smelling it sends me back under a thatched roof to warm brown hands holding a tradition I do not think will be forgotten any time soon. And in remembering this, I hope.