Sunday, March 2, 2014

Day 3 (pt 1) - The River

Our third day started early for all of us. We were up, dressed, and on the bus by 5 am. Joil arrived a few minutes after we were all loaded up, so it was Roberto, the driver, who tried to explain in the simplest Spanish he could that Tungurahua (the volcano over Banos) had erupted shortly after we drove through. Between our lack of Spanish and the early hour, it took us a while to figure out what he was saying. Roberto only laughed at us when we all looked a little spooked once we understood. The landslides and ash flows that occasionally block the roads are just a product of living in the largest concentration of volcanoes on the planet, I suppose. Favorable winds prevented any major damage and the locals just build the expectation of unpredictable disaster in to their every day lives.

Our journey began by bus. The early morning hours were on a major highway, but the Condor Mountains still stood between us and the true Amazon basin. Fortunately this road had been paved a few years ago, but its curves and ever present landslides still belied its rugged past. Most of the drive followed a few rivers. Joil took the opportunity to share about the the decades of war that had ravaged this part of Ecuador. We could literally see Peru and drove through the hills where Ecuadorean commandos finally routed the invading Peruvian troops about 20 years ago. We would pass through two military checkpoints along this part of the journey. When Joil first started journeying into these parts, the war wasn't officially over, but they had reached an armistice. The checkpoints were intimidating, thorough checks of all luggage and passengers. The men would be pulled off the bus and held at gunpoint while the troops searched through their bags. Now these last bastions of governmental control served mainly as recording points in case anyone disappeared in the jungle. Beyond the second checkpoint, the region became much more tribal in governance and the government was minimally effective at best.

Along the way one of our team members, whom has had major recurring prostate issues, started having some related trouble. He asked Jonathan Burkett, our medical expert, if he had anything, advice or medication, that could help. Jonathan responded something like he didn't have medication or profound advice to give, but "What I have, I give to you". The back of the bus proceeded to pray healing over this team member's pain and physical struggle. A few minutes later, his pain was gone and his body was performing normally and continued to do so the remainder of the trip. It may have seemed only a small miracle, but I think back to Joil's word for us on the first morning about how if we make any sort of move towards God, it allows him to make a mighty move in us. 

Fortunately the roads were still paved and, after a ferry ride, we arrived at our port of departure, Puerto Morona, sometime around 9 or 10 am. Puerto Morona was no more than a handful of roughly built buildings and some concrete steps down to the rivers edge. The foundation of the concrete was oddly high off the surrounding bank from regular floods and erosion. Our "canoes" greeted us there.

These boats were maybe 15 feet long and most consisted of six boards, two for the sides, 1 for the bottom, and 1 for the back. A few small boards served as braces and seats throughout. The boats were held together by tar, mud, and a few nails with a modified motorcycle engine atop a gimbal on the back. The drive shaft had been replaced by a 6-8 foot poll with a small propeller on the end. The length allowed for greater maneuverability through the shallow waters for these rudderless craft. One local stood or sat in the front to guide the driver in back through the various branches, trees, and shallows. Leaking wasn't so much a concern as it was a reality. Each boat had some sort of cut open plastic bottle used for bailing. Jonathan Dunn and I shared the duty on our boat as we sat closest to the back. Gear was placed in the front so that it was the furthest thing from the water. Most of our boats had 5-6 people, our gear, and a few jerry cans for our gasoline. We rode so low in the water that a sharp turn or an errant lean easily pushed an edge under the surface.

Even at this edge of the Amazon basin furthest from the coast, we were still only a couple hundred meters above sea level. The rivers took literally a couple thousand miles to drop just a few hundred feet to the coast. The result was a wide, flat, winding river surrounded by flood plains. Even in the dry season, as we were, the deceptively slow river used its heavy volume to push a strong current. The banks were ever changing with each heavy rain and any structure not up on a bluff was usually stilted at least on the river facing side. It was easy to see how a massive snake or a 500 lb catfish could easily thrive in the wide muddy waters.

We started on the Rio Morona, an relatively easily navigable river even in the dry season. We passed many boats of villagers taking their wares (usually some plantains, or other small agriculture) to market. I managed to even catch glimpse of a pink river dolphin before we left this main channel. The sun was out and the temperature was close to 80 degrees fahrenheit, which caused me to regret zipping off the bottoms of my pants before getting in the boat. (It was a decision I would later regret for reasons beyond the inevitable sunburned knees, but that's another day) There was no question that this muddy water was not drinkable except for the most dire of circumstances.

Occasionally a small hut or village would crop up along the banks of the Morona. Each settlement was usually marked with another of those bright political flags. It wasn't quite obvious if the local people actually cared about their parties or if they were simply capitalizing on the free swag to mark their turf along the banks. Small naked children would occasionally be playing among the the rockier banks. Men and women may be sitting up on their ramshackle porch watching the obviously foreign visitors go by. All of the buildings were rough hewn from the local forests. Most had thatched roofs and little more than large sticks for walls. Most every person we passed would offer a reserved smile or a cordial wave, but most seemed to hide a slight wariness. I'm not sure if it was out of contempt, fear, or cautious curiosity, or if it had nothing to do with us at all and everything to do with the hardscrabble life along the river.

After a couple of hours on the Rio Morona, we transitioned onto the Rio Cushimi. This smaller tributary posed a few more challenges for our drivers. The further up river we got, the narrower the channel. This was when we began to notice the effects of the unusually low rainfall this dry season. One or two of the boats had to jump out and push their canoes through the shallows a time or two. We all had to stop at some point and gas up though. The tiny motors couldn't handle any more than a couple of hours use without refueling. The banks were a little steeper here and occasionally small waterfalls would vary the landscape. The wider muddy banks of the Morona were slowly replaced by large stones and rocky shoals. We still weren't anywhere near the foothills of the mountains, but must have certainly been back at the farthest reach of the mountain rivers' influence.

Sometime mid-afternoon, around 2:30 or 3, we arrived at our home for the next few days, Nueva Israel (New Israel). More on that to come this evening.

The map below is my best guesstimate as to how we arrived at the village. Sucua and Puerto Morona are on Google maps, but there are literally no roads shown east of E35. A few topographical maps from some geological survey revealed a road along the Rio Santiago heading east from the highway and that seemd to match our path, both in direction and landscape. The rivers are marked appropriately, but the two villages we worked in are nowhere to be found, so I guessed roughly based on our time on the rivers. 

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