Napo, Where the Andes Meet the Amazon

Calvin Ross - Ecuador


December 14, 2013

I’m loving life. I couldn’t ask for anything more. My little village of Santa Rita is so beautiful. A small village made to look smaller by the size of the mountain it nestles up against. Everything but the roads and houses is completely overgrown. In ten square feet of space you’ll find an uncountable number of plants and novel bugs of the jungle. It’s incredible. My new family is a Kichwa group of eight. I have six siblings, four brothers, 20, 17, 15, and a toddler and two sisters, 14 and 12. They definitely fit the indigenous stereotypes of being shy and small but they’ve warmed up beautifully. Even though my Spanish has improved immensely and I would now call myself shakily conversational, I’m still hitting a language barrier. Everyone’s first language is Kichwa and that’s what they prefer to speak. Unless a question or comment is directed at me, conversations go right over my head. Spanish was difficult to learn but there are many similar roots to words and the sentence structure isn’t too difficult. Everything in Kichwa seems to be backwards and the words and pronunciations are completely foreign. It’s as if it’s from a whole other planet. I’m starting to learn though, or starting to try to learn. The Kichwas are also very heavy drinkers. It’s really sad. No matter what day you walk around the village, you’re likely to find one or two men sleeping off the party on their doorstep. But once you shift your eyes to the backdrop, and behold the beauty of the jungle, all imperfections are washed from your mind. You can’t see an inch of the mountain above the village because it’s so densely packed with trees and bushes of all kinds, some with the most beautiful flowers and most looking as if they came straight out of a Dr. Seuss book.

At dinner, after dark, in our kitchen without walls, the chorus of the jungle is resounding. You really have to pipe up to be heard over the cacophony of insects and birds. The downpours in Santa Rita are intense – the largest raindrops with the loudest cracks of thunder and the biggest bolts of lightning. Just sitting in a field the rainfall is deafening, but once you step inside, the rain on the tin roofs sounds literally as if it were raining cats and dogs, or donkeys and small horses. I’ve already had a few sleepless nights thanks to the wild storms that strike at any time of the day.

We have running water and electricity in our village and the cancha (soccer field) in the middle of the town has large lights so we can play all night. All of the water for our community comes from a tank above the village that collects water from the river and pumps it straight to the faucet of our sink and the head of our shower. It’s cold. I don’t think anyone has a bathroom in the house. For the most part everyone has a separate, small, tin-roofed cement structure behind the house with a short shower and small toilet crammed in, normally with a cement outcropping and a spigot attached to the side to wash clothes. The main source of income for most everyone in the village is their farm, or chakra, which is far from your typical idea of a farm. Chakra in Kichwa means ‘jungle farm’ and it’s just about impossible to decipher when one ends and the other begins. The first time I visited my family’s chakra, if they hadn’t told me that we had arrived I wouldn’t have known.

During the week Runa keeps me busy with work, but I haven’t done anything tedious. Yet. Everyday is a novelty. I’ve been doing everything from working in the experimental plots at the Runa Tarpuna plant, going to communities with a Runa tecnico on the back of a motorcycle to check up on different chakras of guayusa, working in the lab, leading tourists through a guayusa trail, and since I’m working with such an interesting, diverse group at Fundación Runa I’ve also been helping with side projects of some of my supervisors that have been sending me into the jungle. I finish my day around five, grab a couple ten cent mandarinas and maybe a fifty cent helado if I’m sweating through my shirt, and wait for the 5:30 bus back to Santa Rita.

Dinner’s usually fairly predictable. No matter who’s cooking (dad, mom, one of the siblings) no one likes to stray too far away from either our signature boiled chicken, fried fish or canned sardine recipes served on top of a mountain of rice – at times with a few slices of tomato or cucumber on the side. The only time we ever switch things up is when my dad comes back from the mountain with something special. So far he’s brought back a fifteen pound rodent called a guanta, which I helped de-hair and gut, some chontacurro, large beetle larvae that live in the middle of the chonta tree, and some ukuy, large jungle ants that come out in throngs in thunderstorms in October. The chontacurro were washed, salted, and put into a maito leaf to cook in the fire. They were smoky, cooked to crunchy and tasted something like mozzarella cheese to me. I thought they were great. The guanta lasted us almost a week and it was always cooked in a shredded plantain based soup called mazamorra. Mazamorra is generally a slimy and tasteless soup but coupled with cooking guanta it takes on the flavor of dirty socks. I found myself for the first time adding salt to my food, and a lot of it, in an attempt to drown out any other flavor. But the meat of the guanta was superb. So far it’s been the most tender I’ve eaten here and thankfully it didn’t taste anything like socks. The ukuy were excellent. I sat down with my mom and seperated the wings, legs, and little heads off the bodies and threw them into a pan to fry. They came out crispy and crunchy, almost like popcorn but with a little meat in the middle. What else do you want? We eat modestly but well, and so far I haven’t encountered anything I haven’t been able to put down, and find a way to enjoy in the process.

I’ve connected really well with the older kids in the town through some killer games of soccer. They’re damn good but I’ve been holding my own. On Monday and Tuesday no one plays soccer and I take those days to wash clothes, hang them up to get rained on overnight and hopefully dry the next day. Wednesday is hit or miss if you can get a game together and I usually just hang out with my family and get to bed early. Every Thursday, Friday, and Saturday there are usually enough jugadores to pick up a game but Sunday, there’s soccer all day. Three weeks ago started the Santa Rita inter-barrio league. There are four barrios in Santa Rita, which translates to neighborhoods, but are basically just the four blocks that Santa Rita consists of. Each barrio has two fifteen men teams, males and ladies. It’s a whole village event. If you’re not playing, you’re watching. I play for my barrio, San Lorenzo, and coming off my hat trick last Sunday, I’m feeling the respect of a gringo that can play their game. One language more prominent in my village than either Kichwa or Spanish is soccer; and I’m gaining back my fluency after dropping soccer my freshman year at Pali. Life is good. I have nothing to complain about besides the ants that live in my walls and the fact that I have to get the outsole of my soccer cleats glued back to the shoe after every game. In perspective, I consider myself extremely lucky. My family is wonderful, work is interesting, and I’m loving the people y la vida tranquila of Santa Rita. I couldn’t ask for anything more. I hope all of you back in the north of the Americas are having just as good of a time as I am, although I doubt it possible :).

Calvin Ross