My most recent project at my internship site, Runa Amazon Guayusa, is creating a GPS map of Bosque Colonso, a 22,000 acre rainforest preserve stretching from my village of Santa Rita, past the towns of Archidona and Tena, and through a number of other Kichwa villages. All conversations within the story took place in Spanish and/or Kichwa and has been translated for your reading pleasure.
The 39 hours between 11 a.m. on Thursday, December 1st and 2 a.m. on Saturday, December 3rd were, without exaggeration, the scariest and yet most transformative day and a half of my life. Let’s start at the beginning.
Thursday, 10:30 a.m., Santa Rita
I’m with Alexandra, an Ecuadorian woman working in the Runa office. We arrive in Santa Rita in order to mosey up to the edge of Bosque Colonso, two kilometers to the west of Santa Rita through the forest. However, neither of us know the way to the edge of Santa Rita, so we enlist the help of Wilson, a neighbor of mine and the Santa Rita representative on Runa’s farmers association.
When he lets us know we can’t go directly to the edge of Colonso, it will be a six-hour hike to get there, and that we will have to spend the night on the mountain, Alexandra says she absolutely cannot go because she needs to be in the office early tomorrow. I volunteer to go.
“Great. You’ll need plastic to sleep on, a blanket, and enough food to last until 10 a.m. tomorrow. Can you be ready in a half hour? We need to leave soon to make it there by dark.” says Wilson.
Not even knowing what “there” is and far from worrying about it, I say, “yes” and practically run to my room in excitement. I throw my things together: the GPS to take the Colonso points, a change of clothes, plastic and a blanket, a clipboard for notes, a bar of soap, and some snacks: two bottles of water, a Nestea, crackers, three pieces of bread, and some fruit.
We meet outside his house at 11 and depart.
Thursday, 1:00 p.m., far up the mountain next to Santa Rita
I’m tired, but excited. This is going to be an adventure to remember forever. I’m going to be living like a true Kichwa. Just me, Wilson, and the forest. Little did I know how many times my life would be in the hands of this man over the next 37 hours.
I put one foot in front of the other and keep walking.
Thursday, 1:30 p.m., a steep ridge over a straight shot into a river 300 feet below
My first near-death experience. Normally, Wilson walks in front of me and I follow, but for some reason (thank the heavens above), he decides to let me break trail for an hour or so. I lose my footing and tip over the 75-degree ledge toward the trees, thinking to myself “Chacho, this is a really sad way to die…” But Wilson catches me. Hanging over the edge of a ridge, arms flailing, being held up by my backpack straps by a Kichwa man who could probably beat Brock Lesner in a wrestling match, I start to laugh. I can’t explain why, it just falls out. Gringos and the rainforest just don’t mix.
He hauls me back up.
“What would have happened if I fell?” I ask him.
“You would have died or broken a leg, or both.” he responds.
I should probably let the reader know, in case you can’t already tell, that Wilson is a man of few words.
Thursday, 2:30 p.m., somewhere in Bosque Colonso
Cell phone service is officially gone. This was also my first encounter with unhappy insects. Walking by a large tree with a hole full of Amazonian wasps, Wilson says “Bees. Move quickly.” He runs past the tree and looks back at me. I do the same.
I start to run by the tree, but a wasp lodges itself under my right backpack strap. Another flies down through my undone top button. The first sting comes from the one in my shirt, and I screamed and tried to frantically beat it out of my flannel. The next two come from the one under my backpack strap, twice in a row in the same place. We run for about 30 meters and I collapse on the side of the trail, two massive bumps already forming on my blanched Irish skin. I can’t lift my right arm, and Wilson says “Wait. I will return.” I sit on the side of the trail, crawling with ants and unable to think, and he returns ten minutes later with several large green leaves.
“Chew,” he orders.
“Good. Let’s go. You will be better in a half hour, but we must walk.”
A half hour later, most of the pain from the stings is gone. I ask him what the leaves did.
“Nothing. But you thought they were medicine, didn’t you?”
We keep walking.
Thursday, 3:15 p.m., somewhere in Bosque Colonso
My first of many foot injuries. A small stick about as big around as a pencil slams through the bottom of my boot and into the arch of my left foot. It makes it about a quarter of an inch into my foot before I can adjust my weight to my other foot, and I fall on the ground with a yelp. Wilson sees the stick, pulls it out, and says “Are you okay?”
I say that I’ll be fine.
“Good. We have many more kilometers to go.”
Blood seeping through my sock and into my boot, I stand back up and keep walking.
Thursday, 3:16 p.m., somewhere in Bosque Colonso
“Wilson, where are we going tonight?” I ask the man.
“A small lean-to on an abandoned ranch. There is a river next to it.”
“How long ago did you last visit this place?” I ask, suddenly worried.
“Two years ago,” he responds.
“And if it’s not there?” I press.
“We will sleep in the forest.”
Thursday, 3:25 p.m., a small river in Bosque Colonso
“Over that cliff is the lean-to,” Wilson informs me.
We try to cross the river, but the current is too strong. Neither of us can afford to get our things wet, because we each have several-hundred-dollar GPS devices in our backpacks.
“We must strip down and carry our things over our head,” he says. He strips down to nothing but his rubber boots and puts everything in his bag. I do the same.
He walks into the current, backpack over his head. He nearly falls several times, but makes it safely across with only one major loss of footing near the other bank.
I come next. I slip on the very first touch of current, but steady myself. I take a step, then another.
The current is too strong. “I can’t do it!” I yell to Wilson.
“Try harder!” he responds.
I take another step, lose the footing of my right foot, but catch a lucky rock and remain upright.
“It’s too strong!” I holler over the roar of the water.
“You must! FUERTE, CHACHO! FUERTE!” he yells back over the roar of the water.
I hoist my bag higher, dig my boots into the river bottom, and walk. Fuerte.
Thursday, 3:30 p.m., an abandoned ranch on the northern border of Bosque Colonso
When I see the lean-to, I practically squeal with delight. Half-dragging my left foot and my right arm throbbing, I forget my pain and run the rest of the way there. Wilson arrives a moment later and we both take short naps.
A half hour later, we wake up to make dinner. I unpack the yuca and my bread, go to the river to fetch water for chicha, and lay out our beds while Wilson gathers wood and makes the fire.
Two minutes later, Wilson has a fire roaring outside the lean-to and the bugs have evacuated the premises. We roast the yuca, eat, laugh about my misfortune thus far, and end up eating all of the food that I brought. In retrospect, it was not the smartest move I’ve ever done.
Thursday, 6:00 p.m., the abandoned ranchito
We go to bed at 6:00 as the sun goes down. A drop of water hits my face as I lay down my head, and the clouds start to rumble.
Stay tuned for the second part of this adventure, coming in my next blog post. It should be up within the next week. If you haven’t already, please subscribe to this blog by clicking the green button next to my name in the right column!