If you haven’t read the first two parts to this adventure, be sure to do so before reading Part 3! Part 1 can be found at https://en.globalcitizenyear.org/2011/12/39-hours-pt-1/ and Part 2 can be found at https://en.globalcitizenyear.org/2011/12/39-hours-pt-2/.
Friday, 4:00 p.m., one kilometer from the edge of Bosque Colonso
I’m running on empty. Every step takes all the effort I can muster. My feet feel like they weigh a hundred pounds and my boots and clothes are completely soaked. Sweat clings to me like a wet towel, and I can’t tell if it’s sweat from my hair or water dripping from the trees above running down my forehead and into my eyes and mouth.
Wilson is talking to me, but I can barely hear him. It sounds like he’s a mile away, yelling to me from a mountaintop. He’s saying something about how we’re almost there.
“There” is relative, I think to myself.
A monkey screeches in the tree over us, and the buzz of ten thousand insects responds in kind.
Then the world seems to just fall away.
Friday, 4:01 p.m., one kilometer from the edge of Bosque Colonso
I’ve never fainted before in my entire life, but when I woke up with Wilson standing over me, I knew just what had happened.
At the time, I didn’t know the Spanish verb for “faint,” so I asked Wilson how long I had been sleeping. (I’ve since learned that “to faint” is “desmayarse.”)
“Not long,” he says. “I heard a thump behind me and saw you lying on the ground.”
“I need to sit here for a while,” I say. “I need to rest.”
“Okay,” Wilson responds. The first signs of worry flash across his face.
Friday, 4:15 p.m., one kilometer from the edge of Bosque Colonso
I tell Wilson that he should go ahead without me to the edge of the forest to get the GPS points. I can’t go any farther, and I know it. The last reserves of my energy have come and gone.
He agrees. He says he will be back within 45 minutes and sets off at a brisk pace.
I lean against a tree and watch him go. The forest is unusually quiet.
Friday, 4:30 p.m., the same spot
Thirst sets in. My mouth is unbelievably dry. I can’t even seem to produce spittle anymore. I hear a creek and follow the sound, stumbling through the trees and underbrush and crawling when I lose my footing.
I slip down a hillside of mud and arrive at the side of a tiny creek. Having landed on my possibly-broken thumb, the pain is almost unbearable and I actually collapse face-first into the water.
I pull myself out of the creek and kneel next to the water.
I splash it on my face and neck. I hear a bird squawk behind me, breaking the silence.
The water trickles by. It knows what I want.
I can’t. I know I shouldn’t. This is against every rule ever set for world travelers.
But I give in.
I bend to the water, cry out in defeat, and drink my fill.
Friday, 4:45 p.m., at the creek
I feel better. At least, enough to stand. I walk back to where Wilson left me, and arrive just as he does. Surprised to see me standing and looking more spry than when he left, he asks if I can walk.
I say yes, shoulder my bag, and set off, slower with every passing step.
Friday, 5:45 p.m., in the underbrush
Wilson tells me we’re four hours from Santa Rita, but that it’s going to be dark within the next half hour. We have a flashlight, but I know I can’t go any farther. I fall to my knees once again and curl up on my side.
I feel hopeless. I feel weak. I feel like a burden.
“Go ahead without me, Wilson. I can sleep here tonight. If you can come tomorrow with food…”
“No,” he says forcefully. “I will not let anything happen to you. I know of a lean-to about a half hour from here where we can spend the night.”
I’m not convinced. “We don’t have food. I can’t walk. You should get back to your family. I will wait.”
All of a sudden, he hears his phone buzz.
“Yes!” he exclaims. “We have service!”
This is the first time we’ve had service since we left Santa Rita. He immediately calls his family, but the call is lost. He tries again. It fails again.
“Let’s go!” I say. “I can make it to the lean-to, but no farther. The service will be better there, right?”
“Yes,” he says.
We set off. Step by step, inch by inch.
Friday, 6:20 p.m., the lean-to in sight
I would jump for joy at the sight of the lean-to, but I can’t. My vision is blurry and my muscles have one purpose: put one foot in front of the other. My arms hang limply at my sides and my breath comes short and fast.
The lean-to (if it could even earn that title) consists of a series of palm branches tied together and held up by two large sticks. I don’t care. It’s beautiful.
I put down my bag, fall to the ground, and am asleep before my head hits the earth.
Friday, 6:45 p.m., the lean-to
Wilson shakes me awake. “Good news, Chacho! Javier is coming! With food! He and Fabio are coming with food!”
Javier is my 20 year old host brother and Fabio, 23, is one of his closest friends.
I smile weakly and look around. Wilson had started a fire, I notice. The crackling embers are a welcome addition, more for their ability to keep away the mosquitoes than anything else. It was dark, and the thick blackness of the forest has already crept up to the edges of the fire’s reach.
Wilson sits down and lights a cigarette. He begins to write in his notebook.
I collapse back into sleep.
Friday, 10:15 p.m., the lean-to
I’m awoken by the sound of Javier’s voice as he and Fabio see the fire and make their way towards us. “Chacho! Chacho! Chacho!”
I slap two dozen mosquitoes away from me (by now, even the fire wasn’t enough to keep them off us) and lean up from where I’m propped against my backpack.
He sits down by the fire, opens his backpack, and pulls out huge bags of cooked yuca and rice.
I’ve never been so happy to see food, even bland rice and yuca, in my entire life. It’s the best-tasting meal I’ve ever had.
Wilson and I ravenously devour the food and down a liter of juice apiece. I’m still hungry, and Javier notices me eyeing his backpack.
“More?” asks Javier.
“Yes!” Wilson and I say simultaneously.
We eat and eat, the happiest and most relieved I’ve ever felt.
Friday, 10:45 p.m., stuffed with food and, more importantly, alive
We pack up the campsite. I’m rejuvenated. Although my energy levels are only about a quarter of what they normally are, a quarter is considerably better than what I had been operating at the last day.
We split up all the weight of the backpacks. When Wilson offers to take my stuff, I decline and say that I’m feeling much better. I need to preserve at least a little of my dignity.
Recovered, refreshed, regenerated, and revitalized (that’s a lot of “re’s,” but it helps get my point across), we set out at a nimble pace for home.
Friday, 11:30 p.m., the city of Tena visible kilometers away beneath us
The sight of Tena is a turning point. We are walking in complete silence to concentrate on not losing footing on the trail. And this time, we actually were walking on a trail.
As I would discover later, Wilson called several different people to see if anybody knew where we were, based on his observation of the forest around us. Javier and Fabio happened to overhear the conversation with Patricio, my host father, and volunteered to come find us. Having spent time at the very lean-to where he believed we were, Javier threw together a pack of food from my host mother Eva and set out with a flashlight into the jungle.
We have two flashlights among the group of four, so two of us are walking in almost complete darkness. I volunteer to follow behind Javier and try and mimic his footing, because I obviously can’t see a thing. It’s amazing how the thickness of the jungle can swallow even the light of a flashlight after only a few feet. The “black hole of Energizer,” I joke to myself, then realize how horrible a joke it is. Oh well.
We stop for a short break and look at Tena beneath us, and Archidona just ahead. So close, and yet so far: Santa Rita is located on the mountain above Archidona.
“How much more time?” I ask Javier.
“About three more hours,” he responds.
I don’t care. All I know is that a bed, a hot mug of guayusa, and a family worried witless about me awaits me in Santa Rita.
I stand up and jokingly say “Why are you all resting? What are you, tired?”
Fabio, Javier, and Wilson roar with laughter at my self-deprecation and we begin the long descent toward Santa Rita.
Saturday, 12:45 a.m., the lights of Archidona directly beneath us
The sky opens up. Within a minute, we are soaked to the bone. Thunder and lightning hammer the sky, and I start to laugh. Javier looks back, starts to laugh with me, and suddenly his flashlight goes out.
“CHUTA!” he swears. (Comment has been edited for select language.)
Wilson turns off the other flashlight. At this point, we’re out from under the canopy and can see better by the light of the moon than four people trying to share a six-foot radius of light.
He shouts over the thunder that we’re getting close. I feel excellent. I’m still exhausted beyond description, but the realization that Santa Rita is so close is enough to keep me going.
We walk through the forest by the light of the moon, pounded by the rain, slipping down mudslides, and not caring about anything but getting home.
Saturday, 2:00 a.m., close to Santa Rita
All of a sudden I look up from where I’m carefully placing my feet and notice that we’re next to a farm plot. Cacao, coffee, yuca, and corn populate the field next to us (which I can see every few seconds thanks to the lightning), and I remember coming up here on an expedition a few weeks ago. The trail seems familiar.
The happy realization of realizing we’ve reached the edges of Santa Rita is quickly dampened when I slip and slide 10 feet down the trail, stopping just before I take Javier out with me.
“What happened?!” he asks.
“Nothing,” I say. “Let’s go home!”
He grins, high fives me, and we head home.
Saturday, 2:30 a.m., Santa Rita, Napo, Ecuador
We arrive in Santa Rita. Javier had called the family to let them know we were close, and they were waiting outside for us.
Wilson goes home to sleep after shaking my hand and saying “I thought we’d lost you there! I’ll see you tomorrow to give you the GPS points.”
Gilmar and Fidel, my younger brothers, run up to me and wrap themselves around my legs (which is as high as they can reach to hug).
Patricio and Eva tell me there’s a hot meal waiting for me inside. I ask if there’s guayusa.
“Of course there’s guayusa!” Eva says. “It’s your favorite!”
My toothy smile says all.
Alicia and her boyfriend/soon-to-be-husband Efren hug me, and lastly my younger sister Adelaide runs up to do the same. I wrap my arms around all of them for a moment before pulling away to thank Fabio and Javier for saving my life.
Fabio, soft-spoken, responds with nothing more than “De nada, Chacho,” before shaking my hand, smiling, and heading home to sleep.
Javier tells me not to worry about it. “I know you’d do the same, Chacho. I’m just glad you’re okay.”
I go inside the house, eat another massive meal of rice, yuca, and mountain ferns, down a liter of guayusa, and thank my family again. Without them, my expedition into the rainforest could have turned out very differently.
I spent 39 hours in the jungle, 28 hours of which without food. I drank creek water, almost died several times, and actually gave up on hope of getting out at several instances. Since recovering, I’ve come to look at the fragility of life and our interdependence with one another much differently. And before you ask, my thumb was not broken. The doctors said it’s a very bad sprain, and as of the writing of this blog, is still healing and swollen. It will be fine in a few weeks.
Wilson stuck with me even when I was a hopeless burden, a lump of flesh unable to do anything but complain and slow him down. Fabio joined Javier to hunt for me in the middle of the night in the forest, when he could have easily gone to bed at a reasonable hour. Javier volunteered to find me in the forest, undeterred by bugs, the dark, or not knowing exactly where we actually were.
So when people from home ask me if I have a support system here in Ecuador (and believe me, it happens a lot), I know the answer. And it’s an answer that’s been tested in the harshest of conditions.
Yes. Yes I do.