4 Hours Downriver

Mitchell Mankin - Ecuador


March 8, 2012

Arrival

In December, I was invited by my family to a wedding in Cruz Chicta, the ancestral home of my host father’s family. I jumped at the chance to see a marriage in a village still lacking paved roads and electricity. The trip there was an experience in itself. In the four hours that water was rushing by our motor canoe, I saw more of the jungle than I had in all my time in Ecuador up to that point. The jungle is a vast green sea of trees that has a tendency to blur into one monolithic entity, but its sameness makes the deviations jump out all the more clearly. I recognized the bright red, purple, and orange heliconia flowers that Sinchi Warmi cultivates around the lodge, but grown large and droopy until the arced out over the water. In other places, a scar was torn into the jungle where a riverbank had collapsed, leaving roots hanging out in the open air like loose threads around a rip. The Rio Napo is a wide, deep river, constantly eating away at one bank while it builds up the other. Islands form, split and subside around shifting rocks and thousands of tributaries, creating hazardous shallows that the canoe had to pole over carefully.

The scars left by a tempestuous river

While I was marveling at all the natural beauty around me, I noticed that what caught my eye and what caught the eyes of my local family and friends were two very different things. What they saw was not the rainforest, but the marks of human habitation. They pointed out the passing riverside villages,the barely visible gap in the trees that marked where a road was being constructed, and the luxurious jungle lodges built to accommodate the Ecuadorian Amazon’s tourism boom.

 

La Casa del Suizo

However, we were both equally interested when, passing the estuary of a little creek, we saw a few Waorani bathing in the river. The Waorani are an Amazon tribe that until very recently lived in the jungle without clothes or permanent houses and didn’t accept ouside visitors. Now, the Waorani are rapidly adopting modern ways, but these few that we saw were still vested in the traditional clothing. The men wear just a string around their waist and two lines of beads crossed across the chest. The women wear small grass skirts with the same lines of beads crossed between their breasts. When they saw us passing, they quickly disappeared back into the jungle from which they came.

The one playing the guitar in front is my brother Miguel

My extended family

How to Get Married in Cruz Chicta

In a traditional Kichwa wedding, it’s not just the parents’ blessing and an “I do” that makes the marriage. The ceremony began in the early afternoon with an interminable dance in which the bride and groom, flanked by two relatives each, alternately advance towards each other and retreat, symbolizing the many steps together and apart leading to the wedding. The groom must then “hacer la pedida,” go to a seemingly endless list of relatives and ask for their blessing for the union. This process took about two hours for this particular groom. And the marriage gift giving far exceeds the normal for an American wedding. Essentially the husband’s family gives the young couple what amounts to a fully furnished house (by local standards), minus the walls.

After all these gifts were brought up to the front and moved away, the evening meal could begin. Many guests left to eat the offered chicken, potatoes, and yuca in their houses and change into dancing clothes for the night. It was then that my host brother’s band, Napu Taki, came up on stage.

Video: Napu Taki

 

As they played, the people danced and drank. And danced and drank. And continued dancing and drinking until the dawn. I joined them in the dancing until about 2am, at which point, I went back to a distant host relative’s house to sleep. So many people had come into Cruz Chicta from all over the province that there were no spare beds, so I pulled my blanket out of my backpack and slept on the wooden floor

A Quick Note on Perspective

Nonprofit personnel often complain that the poor often value things that we tend to see as expendable, like TV’s and covered sports arenas, over what we usually think of as basic necessities, like clean water and good housing. In Napo province, many mention the ‘Canchas cubiertas’ as a prime example. A Cancha Cubierta is a big, covered, muti-use cement sports field like the one that held this wedding. Generally, cement bleachers rise on either side and a stage sits at the front.

Villages without running water, electricity, or schools have been known to ask the government for a cancha cubierta before any of those things. To Western ears, this sounds ludicrous. But the marriage ceremony at Cruz Chicta exemplifies the reason. A cancha cubierta is not just a sports field. Its open space flanked by bleachers and fronted by a stage makes it a perfect location for big community parties. Without a large covered open space, the frequent Amazon rain would put a stop to the dancing more often than not. When a village asks for a cancha cubierta, it is asking to be given the materials to make itself into a social hub, a place to which people will come to drink and laugh and dance to the rhythms of the Kichwa music until the sun comes up.

…and Then the Sun Came Up.

An all-night fiesta is not without its side effects. As my host family and I readied ourselves for the five hour trip back up the river, this time against the current, hangovers and drunks who had not yet gone to sleep were in clear evidence. One man had to be carried into the canoe and laid out to sleep on the pile of green plantains in the front of the boat.

No, we didn't all have to pile into this little canoe, this was temporary plantain storage.

However, everyone recovered as we made our slower progress back up the river. A good number, myself included, slept more comfortably on the canoe’s cushioned seats than we had on the wooden floor the previous night. About a half hour away from home, we were caught in a driving rain from which the canoe’s canopy could not protect us. We all huddled together as the rain wet us from various sides with the changes of the wind and curves of the river. We finally arrived at the rocky beach of San Pedro de Aucaparti and, after carrying the heavy plantain heads in, gratefully collapsed in our soft beds for a rare afternoon siesta, tired, wet, and, in my case, deeply satisfied.

Mitchell Mankin