“We’ve seen more of the world in one day than she has in her whole life,” said Sam, disbelievingly, as we trudged back through the humid Amazon jungle. We’d been out on a day’s hike to reach a secluded waterfall, and the young Ecuadorian girl skipping along beside us had acted as our guide for the last half an hour.
“To be fair, she doesn’t even know there are other places to see,” Emily pointed out. The girl grinned up at her. She’d clearly adopted Emily as her newest friend, even with the language barrier.
The girl had sat away from us while we swam in two secluded pools under a rush of raging water falling from the rocks above. And when we feasted on the contents of a cooler box filled to the brim with rice, chicken and peas, she watched us from her chosen rock, slightly wistfully, until we beckoned her over to join in with our lunch.
She sat beside Emily and a chatter of childish Spanish streamed out; her name was Denise and she was twelve; she spent most of her time looking after her thirteen younger siblings; her favourite subject was maths; and she wanted to be a maths teacher when she got older.
It took us a three hour walk inland from the Napo river to reach Denise’s village. And as we left again, we waved goodbye to Denise’s siblings – a motley assortment of grave faced children who stood at the door of the foremost house to watch us wander up the road.
None of them have ever left their village; not even to nearby Tena, the small town we’d started our trip from only that morning.
For Denise, Tena may as well have been another world away.
A family business
When we met Juan on the balcony of our hostel in Tena, he addressed us with a hesitant “bonjour” before realising we were English and did, in fact, speak passable Spanish. Later that day, as we walked through the jungle, he explained that he’s been leading tours from the age of seventeen.
He’s wanted to show visitors around his part of the Amazon jungle ever since he started following his grandad around their farmland: watching in awe as the old man explained the meanings of the plants and insects.
Now, twenty years later, his family are an intrinsic part of his tours.
At their wooden stilted house on an island in the middle of the Rio Napo, Juan’s mother shows us how to plant and harvest yuca and how to make chocolate from roasted cacao beans, while his nephew jumps repeatedly into the trees to pick oranges and his daughter offers us dripping segments of the fresh fruit.
Later in the evening, his wife and children jump into our canoe and cook us dinner back at the cabañas across the river.
The cabañas that Juan’s cousin – the wonderfully named Victor Hugo – built by hand last year; the cabañas that were benefitting from the installation of cable TV when we arrived back on our second night.
Because the way that Juan’s family live isn’t the expected ‘jungle’ lifestyle. It’s more modern and more similar to the rest of the world than I’d ever have thought.
Expectation versus reality in the Amazon jungle
So what about all those ‘real’ tribes of the Amazon – the infamous naked aggressors with blow pipes and poisoned darts? People like the Waoranis, a tribe living deep within the Ecuadorian jungle who sleep seven or eight to a hammock, in palm huts that fit six or seven families; huts with no doors but regular wall openings for quick escape in case of invasion. A tribe that live on the edge of perpetual suspected attack.
Or used to.
Juan told us how he spent 24 days visiting with the Waoranis, only to find that while the communal and private elements of the tribe’s nature were still very much prevalent, their need for disconnection to the outside world was sadly starting to vanish.
It’s because every fifteen days or so, oil companies come up the river with fuel, sugar and various bribable goods. They’ve gifted the tribe with installations of wifi, cable TV, electricity and hot water; all designed to bring the tribe closer to the modern world and less tied to their traditional past – less inclined, therefore, to worry about their land being purchased and dug up.
Juan, however, has taken a different route to both the Waorani and Denise’s lifestyle. The bulk of his family’s farmland is located on the island, but they only live there for a month or so in the summer; when the rains start and the water rises, they move inland to another house – or, sometimes, to the cabañas when they have guests.
Juan’s guided tours around the jungle presumably make up a large part of his income, but the family still supplement themselves with farming yuca, mangoes, bananas, cacao, plantain and oranges; harvesting at different stages all year round, and selling straight to the consumer at local markets.
He also combines the tours with the locals themselves – locals who are also his friends and neighbours.
Like paying a visit to 83 year old Don Jaime’s pineapple farm at the top of the opposite river bank, where Juan’s eager tour groups can harvest the fresh fruit and even take some back to the cabañas for the next day’s breakfast.
But isn’t this a bit of a let down when you’re expecting something rather more dramatic from a visit to the Amazon jungle?
The simple answer is no: but not for the reason you might think.
Traditional ways in the modern day
“This is natural paint,” Juan says, as we crack open hard seed casings to reveal the bright red pods within.
“It’s also used for sunscreen, repelling insects, upset stomach – and warding off evil,” he adds casually, while fingers are smudged across the powdery seed surfaces and applied eagerly to our noses, cheeks and, eventually, the entirety of our hands.
Later, when he hears Jas coughing, Juan makes us stop by the San Juanito tree so he can administer some medicine: a thin paste, made from tree bark and water, that’s poured up the nose and induces a ten minute session of involuntary coughing, spluttering and a great deal of expelled mucus.
“I always take it when I get a cold,” he says, as Jas looks up at us blearily.
And as we walk through the dense jungle vegetation, Juan points out the machete hack marks on the cruz caspi tree.
“The people of the jungle stew the bark down and drink the liquid. It’s like natural fertilisation, but can be used for abortion too.”
A tree with the ability to make you infertile. A tree with large chunks of bark missing. And nearby, the souls of people who’ve perished in the forest bob gently in the breeze; the white aya nina flowers that glow faintly in the dark.
In the Amazon, the old influences the new
While Juan may favour a mobile phone and cable tv on demand, he still carries a machete like it’s an extension of his arm; still uses the natural medicines to be found throughout the jungle; and still believes in the myriad of superstitions that envelop this vast expanse of mysterious landscape.
Simply put? Juan was born in the jungle. He’s always lived in the area near to Tena, just like Denise, and though their lives may seem different at first glance, they have many similarities in common.
Although there are the ‘real’ tribesmen who run naked through the trees and blow poisoned darts at intruders, the more prominent citizens of the Amazon are hard working families of farmers, who catch a canoe across the river in the same way as crossing the road, and pick up locally grown pineapples like they’re buying a box of eggs from the local farm.
And Juan? He’s a self-taught trilingual tour guide, owning three properties within boat-ride distance from each other. A modern day Amazon dweller, carrying a machete in one hand and a phone in the other.