The Amazon Rainforest
Panic slowly invaded every inch of my body as the sun slid lower in the sky. The trail was barely discernable and the mosquitoes were feasting on me like an American smorgasbord. I pondered if Mefloquin would be able to shield me from the horde. Where the hell is this damn place I thought as I struggled across quickly running rivers and fields of cow shit. At one point I had to throw my bags over a river and pole vault it with a massive tree branch that had clearly been used for this purpose before and left for others to find. Denser the foliage became until I was wrapped in a cocoon of gnarly trees as wide as two Mack trucks. The path before me bloomed outward from this impenetrable wall of tarantula infested limbs and trunks. Red sap oozed from peculiar white bark like angry syrup, running down oddly shaped Paper Mache arboreal creations. Just as the wall began to close in on me and the tempo of my heart reached marathon proportions I broke through some brush and entered a clearing in the jungle. An area about three square acres had been cleared, and in the center stood a two story structure that looked like something I’d seen on the discovery channel. A squat, sturdy Ecuadorian helped me with my bags and shook my hand, introducing himself as Juan. He spoke very little English, and he was the only one above the age of thirty within a three hour radius. There were ten other volunteers all playing cards by candle light. They peered at me through the haze of insects that perpetually hung in the air like a living blanket. Most were from Britain, others from Ireland, Sweden, and Germany. They knew I was American before I even uttered a word. That self-confidence I had gained slowly began to ebb away as I felt their barely masked antagonism. This was going to be rough.
We had a multitude of tasks to complete during our stay in the jungle. The main job was to re-route a river in order to supply nearby villages of Quetchwa Indians with running water. Every day we woke at seven and rushed the breakfast table like hyenas knowing we’d be in the scorching sun for hours. Breakfast was usually plates of eggs from what we presumed were free roaming and FDA certified chickens. Once in a while we had meat, sometimes even what appeared to be steak for dinner. You couldn’t really be sure, and there were rumors that dog was a local cuisine. Off to work, bellies questionably full, we hiked three miles over streams and through dense underbrush. Being practically dead-center on the Equator, the average temperature was around a hundred and ten degrees. Going from central air, high speed internet, and fresh tap water to the rainforest was quite a transition. Reaching the base of a steep cliff, we climbed up a rope attached to a tree stump at the summit. This sketchy business at first resulted in me holding onto the rope for dear life swinging over a wide gap. Falling in any direction would result in disaster considering the nearest thing that resembled a hospital was eight hours away by horse and then car. I frantically pushed against the rock face so I could hurtle back to the other side. Regaining my composure and I hope, dignity, I flew up the rope and pulled myself up over the dead log at the top.
At my feet lay a wide pool of water at the base of another high cliff where the dam was. This is where we bathed everyday…under the Ecuadorian sun at the base of a waterfall and surrounded by rainforest. The waterfall only looked like one when we opened the dam that previous volunteers had constructed years ago, but when the water was flowing through it looked like paradise. Each morning we climbed to the second level and took turns shoveling rocks into buckets. A chain crew would then pass the buckets towards the cliff and they’d be dumped down below. We also had huge tubes twenty plus feet in length, with two smaller ones that fit inside to lengthen it. These we used like you would in a fish tank and were clutch for the rock removal process. However, they continuously became clogged and more often than not resulted in us giving up and going back to shoveling. The time spent scorching our flesh holding onto these sun absorbers and trying to fix them was easily spent in other ways; lounging in the pool of water below and getting splashed by jumpers from a cliff twenty feet above. The more rocks we removed the deeper the dam became and after a week we were working in water waste deep. We took advantage of the redirected stream of water and constructed an outdoor shower at our base camp with some cement for a floor complete with drainage and a tank above to hold water. This became a blessing in the weeks ahead.
We started construction on an outdoor bathroom to replace the hole in the ground with a shack around it that had served the purpose for years. It had become a health hazard for anyone brave enough to use it at night, as spiders the size of my hand were prone to crawl out of the “toilet” at inopportune times. Four of us took turns with pickaxes chopping away blocks of earth, leveling the ground. Having run out of sand for the cement floor, we were forced to go on a quest. Armed with walking sticks and shades, we trekked to Tito Santos’ “ranch.” He led us to his horses and with the help of two of his handlers we managed to get saddled. The horses looked malnourished but somehow handled the heat better than their riders. I was given the biggest horse which somehow didn’t seem big enough. In the stirrups my feet seemed on the verge of scraping the ground and I’m sure the image was ridiculous, like a real life Don Quixote. When we entered the tiny village on the coast everyone stopped as if controlled by remote. Little children paused in mid-shout and gawked while their mothers stared on with mirth in their eyes. The elders, crowded inside a pavilion of sorts watching a cock fight turned in unison to whistle at the girls. I earned my nickname, that would follow me throughout South America, that day in the middle of town. A kid that looked maybe fifteen shouted at me from the corner, “El Grande! El Grande!” From that day on, the villagers and my friends called me El Grande, which Juan said was a sort of honorary title meaning great one (For all I know it could’ve meant big mother trucker…I forgot to mention that I’m 6’7″ and the average Ecuadorian is about 5’5″). After this incident we rode through the village and onto the beach.
It was storming over the water and the clouds in Ecuador aren’t those pussy clouds I was used to in New York. In Ecuador you can see the clouds giving you the middle finger…”We’re going to emit lightning and torrential rain, bitch, and if you don’t like it you can get back on that horse you rode in on,” they said. It was a race against time to gather sand in sacks and toss them into the back of a pickup truck. The truck would unload the sacks at Tito Santos, meaning it wasn’t the last time we’d see them. A last minute idea to jump in the ocean quickly before leaving was ditched when Juan mentioned how shark infested the coast of Ecuador was.
On our way out we noticed fishermen pulling their boats onto the beach. Massive fish were flopping around in large nets and our eyes were glued with an animal intensity. We walked up to one and quickly agreed on a price for one monstrous fish. Juan put it in a sack and strapped it on his horse behind him. This would have been a fatal mistake if any of us gringos had done it. Halfway back to Tito Santos, the fish came alive and its tail smacked the rear of the horse like a jackhammer. Juan’s horse made a sound like nails on a blackboard and reared up in the air. Our horses scattered giving it wide berth but freaking us out in the process. Being a first timer, I literally flew off of my horse into the foliage at the side of the road. My horse looked at me, handed me the reigns, and called me a puto. Meanwhile, Juan’s horse was spinning in circles like a dreidel and Juan was clinging to its neck spinning with it. Looking like an Ecuadorian superhero, Juan grabbed the horses’ neck tightly and dug his heels into the ground. The horse stopped flipping out and in one fluid motion Juan grabbed the fish and smashed it onto the ground. Smiling, he re-tied the sack and off we went. Dinner was spent feasting on delicate fish in coconut milk over valleys of white rice and retelling the amazing feats of our fearless leader.
In the morning we strode back to the ranch and started pulling sacks of sand over our shoulders. The guys all took two and decided it was better to have a race back to camp then spend all day in the sun. It was a lot of fun at first, bounding over rocks and streams like Gazelle. We laughed and ran and cursed each other knowing we had four more miles to go. Three point nine miles later we were a haggard and scattered line of dehydrated fools. The camp came into view, eventually, and I summoned every last vestige of strength I had as I flung my sacks over my back and sprinted to the finish. Proclaiming victory I collapsed in a hammock and awaited my defeated foes. Stepping out of his room, looking like he’d been asleep for an hour, Juan looked at me and chuckled as he glanced at his sacks of sand resting against his wall. After an hour of lounging about, we took the sand to the construction area and mixed it with cement powder and water. Our new bathroom floor was set but we wouldn’t stay at this site long enough to ever see the finished product, and bless it accordingly.
Submitted by HGL, Copyright KMG Inc. 2012. Part of a work in progress. A new chapter will be submitted every week by the author so stay tuned!