Once again I tried to put myself in Isabela’s embroidered slippers, and imagine her mixture of abject discomfort and apprehensiveness at every unfamiliar sound or movement of the alien forest, from the sudden fall of a tree to the cry of the bellbird and the bark of the howler monkey. Pinch yourself Jacki, in the sealed safety of your dry cab; at least you have the assurance of arrival at the end of the ride! I noticed my team mates had gone a bit quiet and guessed that Mary in particular was pondering the recklessness of the expedition leader in transferring us all to the Bobonaza, in a dugout canoe of all things, in weather like this.
My own excitement though, increased, as we reached Canelos. The rain had reduced to a drizzle and a thick white mist hung over the forested hillsides. Women and children stared out at the quartet of pale-skinned women from their unglazed windows of bright pink-painted shacks with silver corrugated roofs; we were an unusual sight, this was not a tourist route by any means and more children, chickens, dogs and old men came out and stood at the side of the track under pole barn roofs and verandahs and watched our yellow taxis drive by.
I was aware of the Bobonaza running close by and glimpses through the trees had shown a wild, brown river getting wider and faster and then we crossed a short stretch of metal bridge, turned and at the bottom of an incline the road simply disappeared into the river’s chocolate eddies, and there, ahead of us, moored parallel to the bank, was our 40’ dug out canoe – I shivered with excitement.
Jean Godin himself takes up their story in an eloquent letter to Monsieur De la Condamine, Member of the Academy of Sciences at Paris, and leader of the expedition that had taken him to South America, describing Don Pedro’s progress and Isabela’s party’s arrival:
‘….. she reached Canelos, the spot at which they were to embark, situated on the little river Bobonaza, which empties itself into the Pastaza, and then into the Amazon. M. de Grandmaison, had gone on ahead by a month, found the small town of Canelos, and immediately set off on his journey, preparing everything necessary for his daughter’s journey up the river at each stage of her way. As he knew that she was going to be accompanied by her brothers, her black servant and three female maids, he proceeded on to the Portuguese missions. In the interval, however, between his journey and the arrival of my wife, the small pox, a European disease, more fatal to the Americans in this part than the plague, had caused the village of Canelos to be utterly abandoned. They had seen those first attacked by this illness die, and so ran away and scattered in the woods, to remote huts.
When she set off, my wife was escorted by thirty-one American natives to carry herself and baggage. You know, Sir, that this road, the same taken by Monsieur de Maldonado, is hard going even for mules; those who are capable, go on foot, but others are carried.’
The Americans who escorted Madame Godin, were paid in advance according to the unfortunate custom in this country, a tradition based on mistrust. They had scarcely reached Canelos before they turned and fled, either from dread of the air being infected, or in case they had to man the canoes, a matter obnoxious in extreme to individuals who had perhaps never seen a canoe in their lives except at a distance.
‘These excuses are not superfluous, for you well know how often we are abandoned by them on our mountains, on no pretense whatever. What under such a terrible turn of events was to be done ? Even if my wife had been able to return she didn’t want to, she really wanted to reach the waiting ship, because she wanted to join me, her husband from whom she had been parted for twenty years. This was the powerful incentive to make her, in the peculiar circumstances in which she was placed, brave even greater obstacles.’
It was almost with guilt that I stood there staring at my beautiful dug-out canoe, complete with the best guarantee of progress – its outboard motor. The knowledge that Mary and Julia and I were the first females since 1769 to follow in Isabella’s pioneering tracks makes me bold to record our own 21st century reactions. Everything was in place; the rain had stopped, the sun had come out and it suddenly seemed that we had it so easy. Within minutes, boxes of fruit and vegetables securely stowed in waterproof bags and large sealed plastic containers of bread, biscuits and juice were being handed along a human chain to two smiling Indians who stood, bare legged, in the swirling shallows of the Bobonaza, neatly fitting the mountain of baggage into the small hold of the canoe. Next went our kit, the sleeping mats, tents, camera bags and bottles and bottles of water and cans of fuel. More heads joined the gaggle of onlookers and an Indian woman with a crying baby sat in the grass observing all this going on intently, disregarding the child’s ever increasing demands and louder screams. These two, it transpired, were to be our extra passengers. We really had – I thought – hired the jungle bus, the crucial means of communication between the remote villages on the river.
While I marvelled at the competence of the preparations, my two companions further up the bank were aware only of the bullet speed of the river: a fallen branch passed in a split second.
“It’s pretty, pretty wild, isn’t it – and this canoe doesn’t look big enough for seven or eight people.” exclaimed Julia.
“They are cutting us some balsa wood from that tree up there for us to hold for buoyancy…” I replied, concealing my anxiety that they might be wanting to back out.
Mary cut in: “I am apprehensive about going on that river, it looks really fast flowing, I’m a bit worried to be honest, the water level is right up.”
The fingers of both my hands were tightly crossed inside my trouser pockets. I said nothing; but the adventurer in me was screaming “Let’s just go!” I was so desperate to get on that river. Somehow, the message got through: like good sports they clambered into the canoe, perched themselves on the primitive thwarts and followed me in hoinking off their wellies, just in case we capsized.
As we pushed off, I made a head-count: there were at least a dozen adults aboard. Even so, the canoe rode the fast flowing river water well, and with the outboard’s help we were assured that we would be at our first stop, Sarayaku, within hours. Even the baby seemed pacified by the motion of the boat and lay fast asleep on her mother’s shoulder.
Our smooth departure was in sharp contrast to that of Isabela’s party. Jean Godin, in his letter to La Condamine explained how the smallpox reached Canelos first. The moment that her mountain Indian bearers realised that contagion had struck, they melted away the way they had come. The party searched the burnt ruins of the abandoned village, finding just two forest Indians who had escaped infection: as for the boats, they were gone, whether used for escape or set on fire with the rest of the village to drive out the evil spirits. Questioned, the men they found said they had the skills to make and man a largish canoe; it would take two weeks, and the journey down river to Andoas roughly twelve days. The men were paid in advance, rousing the three French strangers to furious objection. They urged Isabela to turn back, but she overruled them; however the reduction of three boats to one, and a sizable crew to just two, meant that any excessive weight, and all her family treasures, had to be abandoned at Canelos – the price of allowing these feckless Frenchmen to travel with them. Not only had the trio proved thoroughly disruptive, but it became increasingly apparent that they shared not a scrap of medical knowledge between them.
Counting adults and children, thirteen embarked that first day. The Indians made good progress at the paddles, and that night they found a dry sand bank to pull up on, and made a good fire for their passengers. This was probably the one survival skill in which the Indians surpassed Isabela’s party, and it proved to be the only one: not one of the thirteen knew how to swim. The best they could do when danger threatened was to pray to God, or gods, to save them, and they were going to need all their praying-muscles from day three onwards.
Our own first day on the fast-flowing and swollen Bobonaza went smoothly, too; we arrived at Sarayaku late in the afternoon and we were made immediately welcome. The inhabitants of Sarayaku’s ancient ancestral territory lying in Ecuador’s remote Amazon tropical rainforest are Kichwan and number around 1,200. But this is no ordinary indigenous region: Sarayaku is where the people rose up accusing the Argentine oil company CGC of ethnocide after the industry ruined their means of subsistence, caused widespread ecological and spiritual damage and undermined the social balance of the community.
In the early 2000s the oil company occupied part of the Sarayaku lands with the encouragement of the Ecuadorian state government in order to prospect for oil using seismic surveying methods; there had been no prior consultation with the Sarayaku people. Realising its mistake, the government sent federal soldiers to Sarayaku, in order to stop indigenous resistance and closed the Bobonaza River as a traffic artery.
The Sarayaku people responded with well-orchestrated protests at a national and international level and forced CGC to withdraw from the project; but in the face of the state authorities’ failure to apologise, provide compensation or pastoral redress, or make commitments about preventing similar abuses, the people of Sarayaku proclaimed their region a self-governed territory called ‘Tayjasaruta’ or ‘Autonomous Territory of the Original Kichwa Nation of Sarayaku’.
The state economy of Ecuador is dependent on constant income from crude oil export to pay off the national debt, and so, after exhausting all domestic legal avenues for redress and a guarantee of non-repetition, Sarayaku decided to take their case to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. In July 2012 the judges ruled in favour of the Sarayaku people. In 2012, the film titled ‘Children of the Jaguar’, co-produced by Amnesty International and the Kichwa de Sarayaku Indigenous community,and documenting the legal struggle, was released at film festivals. ‘Children of the Jaguar’ was awarded “Best Documentary” by the All Roads Film Project of the National Geographic Society. The story was of absorbing interest to me: years before, when my son was still a baby and I could only dream of visiting the Amazon and accepting the hospitality of an indigenous community, alarms were raised about the exploitation of the Kayapo territory of Amazonian Brazil for logging. Incensed, I faxed off my design for a tee shirt to the Rainforest Foundation, and the fact that that shirt seemed to be everywhere for one whole hot summer in the nineties helped in a small way to throw a protective cordon round some 27,000 square kilometres of Kayapo rainforest and set up an alarm system to warn indigenous groups of the approach of illegal loggers. My curiosity continued to grow; and now here I was, helping to unload a canoe in the advancing darkness, against a backdrop of alien sounds and indigenous Kichwa faces.
In the morning, with my feet still in the sleeping bag, I pulled back the flap of the tent, and peeped out into a living enactment of all the documentaries I’d ever watched on the Amazon basin since childhood.
Our covered camp stood among between a collection of skilfully thatched buildings comprising a primary school and the compound of Jose Gualinga, the village chief. His sons Heraldo and Alberto and the striking Ingaro were among our boatmen and guides, Ingaro; an incredibly handsome man, was already sitting at a picnic bench waiting for us as we emerged on that first morning to help us prepare our western breakfast, as he would on subsequent days.
As the early mist was burnt off to reveal the blue sky of another scorching day, we talked with him and his brothers, and Luis, and the other men and women who wandered over. The scene repeated itself in the evening when he played his guitar and sang soulful, Kichwa songs by candlelight. Ennchanting children with jet black hair cut into little bobs played around us and sat on our knees, chickens scratched around under our table and instant translations flew about in our three languages (Eva had two of them) while we absorbed the spirited banter about Sarayaku’s new ecotourist economy and the community’s ongoing troubles with the Quito government.
The village spreads out over opposing banks of the river; joined by a high rope and wood suspension bridge which we were coaxed over by Ingaro on the first afternoon to attend a La Minga, the community farming event. It swayed precariously under us, as we picked our way over the missing planks. There were dogs flopped everywhere; when I asked Ingaro why there should be so many dogs lolling exhausted in the heat, he replied that they were to ward off evil spirits and create good energy. Beyond open-walled classrooms where adults were being taught Spanish, we crossed plank bridges to a slope where the land was being cleared for manioc planting; the young women taking part had suspended their babies from branches in large squares of calico, their faces carefully protected from the insects, just as if newly delivered to the village by storks.
Such cooperative work among family and friends is rewarded by a feast; we were invited, and I watched as the landholder’s wife dished out a steady stream of chicha beer, which, I was intrigued to learn, is made from manioc, masticated by the women and spat out to aid fermentation; the night’s fare was boiled manioc and river fish which she had stayed up all night to smoke over a wood fire.
I took my seat on a low bench next to a tiny girl with a baby monkey clutched to her tee shirt, and surveyed the living arrangements of this rainforest house: the two floors were open to the breezes; there was no evidence of mosquito nets, or privacy. I looked across at Julia, and she thought and replied – for all three of us – “If you live here you live at the pace of nature, at home I run around all day, in and out of my car and clutching my phone, but here life is so calm.”
Ingaro would take over from his father as village shaman one day; his knowledge of the fruits of the forest and their properties and nutritional values was immense. With Isabela’s starvation in the forest in mind, I made notes of all he said and did. He cut us some bitter fruits for us to taste, then chopped out the heart of a palm which he said she would have been able to find easily. It was sweet and satisfying even in a Western mouth and indeed I remember having eaten some in a salad in Quito.
The next morning we shook insects of alien dimensions from our wet clothes drying on the line while Ingaro coaxed a tarantula from the bowl of the little white-washed privy that stood proud in the midst of some homely huts – a matter of moments before Julia felt the call to use it. In the late afternoon it was time for Julia, Mary, Eva and I to cool down in the washing pond; we headed off armed with shampoo, soap and towels – hoping that Ingaro wouldn’t follow us and that there wouldn’t be a repeat of yesterday’s discovery of a baby cayman in its clear water. This had been eaten by the locals.
We splashed about under the trees, laughing as our precious soap slipped to freedom out of our hands and alarming one another with the tales of vampire bats from the forest, stalking on their hind legs up a person’s thighs to choose a tasty bite. It got more girly as we turned to the secret of Ingaro’s thick, glossy-black pony tail, and the particular grass he had shown us that morning in the forest, from which he made a special infusion to anoint it with, he had called it Gillette grass because it was razor sharp. We all admitted – his hair was in great condition.
It was too hot to get out of the cool, refreshing water; only when long shadows began falling across it did we finally grab our towels and step out onto the grass. As we did so, two figures walked towards us, Ingaro and his brother Alberto. We dried off while the two Indians slipped into the pond. I’d like to say it was their amiable and unselfconscious physiques with strong arms and legs that reflected the genes of hunter gatherer that my eyes were drawn to, but something else had caught my gaze, the bottle of Head and Shoulders shampoo Ingaro was trying to hide behind his back!
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