Abroad in Ecuador: The one about the jungle

I’m sitting in my Boom Latinoaméricano class, half listening to a presentation about yet another story featuring an execution via crucifixion/forbidden incestuous love/violent photographs come to life/insert equally morbid scenario (Latino literature is amazingly cheery).  What’s really captivated my attention, however, is a rose bud right outside the window that separates me from the outside world.  It appears to be dancing, quietly swaying left and right in the breeze that accompanies a light rainfall (the rain season has prematurely begun on the Equator), taunting me by reminding me that I’m incarcerated inside this classroom for the next hour and a half when just two weekends ago, I rode a Chiva through the rainforest.

Photo courtesy Meaghan Beatley

As it softly rumbled over the pebbles of a seldom-used road in the Amazon, my fellow travelers and I hung our heads out of the vehicle, silently capturing the green expanse of our surroundings.  Trees and vines the height of typical buildings around Government Center surrounded us and a roaring melody of insect songs filled our ears.

In what appeared to be the middle of jungle-nowhere, our Chiva slowed to a stop and six uniform-clad boys ranging from approximately seven to 14 years of age clambered on and sat themselves on the empty benches that remained.  And on we went.  At intermittent periods of time, one by one they whistled to the driver to stop the vehicle, hopped off and slunk into the rain-forest.  Within seconds, their blue uniformed sweaters became lost in the thicket as nature engulfed their figures.  Where were they going?  How far off the marked path were their homes?  Weren’t their parents afraid they’d be carried away by a giant, Amazonian, man-eating fly?

The product of a society in which civilization is almost entirely distinct from nature, I’m amazed by this apparent symbiosis of man and the elements.

Though we mildly integrated ourselves into the jungle’s ecosystem during the three days we spent at the Tiputini Biodiversity Station (a research center developed by the University San Francisco de Quito in collaboration with Boston University, located in an area with the greatest species concentration on Earth), I’m afraid our clown-like pants prevented us from fully assimilating (see picture below).

Photo courtesy Meaghan Beatley

Led by Mayer, our infinitely-wise and inexhaustible guide, we marched through the rainforest like a legion of acidly-colored aliens (I’m still amazed we didn’t chase away all of the jungle’s non-color blind residents) or a slightly more pacific and futuristic version of the Iberian conquistadors of old.  Unlike Pizarro’s men however, we had Mayer at our side.  Having lived all of his life in the Amazonian region, he knows the medicinal properties of virtually every plant in the forest and the risk factor associated with touching any one of them.  He never went to school beyond the sixth grade, but his knowledge of the jungle could fill volumes upon volumes.  When I suggested he put some of it to writing, he meekly responded that he’d rather teach college students such as ourselves in person.

Thanks to his amazingly keen eye, we were able to watch spider and howler monkeys leap through the trees and do whatever it is monkeys do.  “Aqui!” he’d whisper before swiftly launching through the forest in pursuit of a quadruped up ahead, as the rest of us hobbled behind him.  And as a special jungle treat, he had us taste hormigas de limón, lemon-tasting ants which even the vegetarians of the group enjoyed. 

My experiences are colored by the people I meet, and thus my Amazonian odyssey was primarily shaded by Mayer’s kind and thoughtful presence.  Up in the canopy, he confided that ever since his wife of over 50 years passed away last September, the jungle had become a necessary distraction to cope with his loss.  When I answered that I could only imagine how he felt, he smiled and responded that thankfully, I could not.

So two weeks later, I sit in class watching that pesky flower swing to and fro, thinking back to Tiputini and Mayer as I overhear exclamations such as “death!” and “madness!” from the classroom’s front.  Like many others, I may never be “one with nature” as some people amazingly are – those school boys who shared our Chiva and Mayer come to mind – but I believe I’m grounded to this earth by the small attachments I forge with individuals I meet.   We reap so much from our relationships with people – as temporary and transient as they may be – and through them we are linked to something infinitely larger than ourselves.

- Meaghan Beatley, DFP Staff

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