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Journey Through the Jungle and Ocean Depths

By: Camey VanSant

By Gabriel

Shivers. The first snowfall awoke me in my tent outside of Oslo, Norway. The white blanket I looked at was not a warm one. The sun was further and further south on the horizon. Cold to my Floridian bones, I decided to chase the sunset, all the way to the equator, or Ecuador in Spanish. 

In the capital city of Quito, also known as the center of the Earth due to having the highest elevation of anywhere on the equator, I got my first breath of South America. It did not give me all the oxygen I was used to with only 14% in every inhale. My heart and lungs knew the next move. The Amazon!  

A couple days in cars and buses led me to the Amazonian town of Puerto Misahualli. I wanted to make my visit to the jungle authentic with the intention to draw on the ancient wisdom within. While drinking my fresco natural (fresh Amazonian fruit juice), I asked the restaurant owner if he had suggestions for a way to volunteer in the rainforest. He connected me to a local restoration project called Reserve Ecologique El Jaguar, a 500-hectare part of damaged forest. I sat down with the head of the reserve to hear the struggles he was facing while protecting the Amazon. I was really surprised to learn how little the Amazon was really protected.  

As much as I heard about the threat of tourism on the natural world and the personal responsibility of people when visiting the ecosystems, I had heard little context for how tourism is the main funder of conservation where there is a lack of governmental support. The constant battle between people and nature using methods such as dynamite fishing, relentless hunting, deforestation for farming and using chemicals and machinery to try to extract gold while polluting people’s only water supply was not the level of harmony I expected. These harsh realities piqued my interest to go deeper into the Amazon.  

I rode 2 hours on a riverboat to the AmaZOOnico, Cayman lagoon, and a local indigenous tribe. At the zoo I got to see so many different animals, but they were all in small cages despite being surrounded by the rainforest on all sides. The animals were captured and bought by people as exotic pets. I was surprised to travel such lengths and still end up seeing anxious animals in captivity. 

he local indigenous community had also surprised me. I had hoped to learn from people practicing culture and traditions of their ancestors, a respite from the western world. When we arrived, the only thing I could hear were chainsaws cutting down trees and the engines of the cars driving back from town.  We paid for a demonstration of how they used to create bowls from clay and bags from palm fronds. I asked about any indigenous cultural traditions they celebrate. “We are Catholic,” I was told, and when asking if there were any spiritual practices passed down ancestrally, I was quickly dismissed and asked, “Do people in the United States not believe in God?”  

After going to the Cayman lagoon and being taught how to call the caymans using my throat, we feed them raw beef, and headed back to Puerto Misahualli.  

I held on to the faint authentic feelings I had received in the jungle. I could now tell they were ever so fleeting. My curiosity had increased about the infiltration of western culture and religion into indigenous communities. I wanted to learn more before the ancestral knowledge was lost forever.  

I had planned to go volunteer at the Jaguar Reserve for a week starting the next day, but my heart was telling me that this was my chance to go even deeper into the jungle to learn from a more autonomous tribe. I had been told the Waorani community would give me greater insight and understanding of indigenous culture.  

While at the local store buying my lentils and rice for the week, I ran into the river boat operator and shared what I longed for with him. I knew I needed a guide but did not know anyone. Everyone in the store inquired about my interest. After having a mini community forum outside the store explaining what I wanted to do, a name was brought up.  

Sarita. She was from the Waorani community and had grown up in the jungle. She now lived in this town. The trouble was getting a hold of her. After calling her, jumping on an ATV, riding all around the town looking for her house and calling out her name, we had no luck.  

That was until one person got her on the phone and told us she was walking to the store and would be there in 30 minutes. She arrived around 8pm. She said she could take me to see her family!  

We bought a couple dozen pounds of sugar, salt, pasta, and oatmeal as gifts, arranged for a friend to drive us 7 hours to where we would start our hike into the jungle. Then we set a departure time.  9am the next morning.  

In the morning, I bought a pair of rubber boots and set off with Sarita.  

After many hours winding down dirt roads, we made it to the monitoring station of the Waorani communities. It functioned as a gateway to territory for the villages in voluntary isolation. When we arrived, we decided it would be better to stay the night there and head out in the morning for her family.  

We hiked for so many hours deep into the rainforest walking across rivers while balancing on fallen trees, and watching giant blue butterflies fly around us. I had sweat pouring down my body and with every step I could feel every grain of rice, sugar and lentil that I was carrying.  

Until finally, we made it.  

We sat along the river under a thatched hut created by Sarita’s family. We were both hungry after a difficult hike. Luckily, fresh fruit was not far. There was a fruit that resembled a giant green bean hanging 30 feet up a tree. Sarita harnessed her ancestral knowledge and grabbed a very long stick and carefully wacked a few of the giant green beans until they fell to the ground. She handed me a few to eat. I opened them up and found brown seeds surrounded by white fruitiness that looked like cotton candy and tasted like vanilla ice-cream. I felt refreshed.  

After a little bit, we walked through groves of plantain trees up to where her family lived. I met the family of 10 including the abuela (grandmother) who is 97 years old, and 4 young kids. Every subset of the family had their own little house ranging from only wood, a thatched roof and a firepit to being made from concrete and having a metal roof and a solar panel for electricity.  

The abuela, living the most traditionally, only spoke Waorani, but her warmness and friendliness did not need a translator. She had lived completely uncontacted until she was 13 and lives the way her ancestors did without sugar or salt, and eating mostly chicha, a drink made from boiled and mashed up yuca (a staple of the Amazon).

The younger family members were able to translate from Waorani to Spanish so that I could learn more about her experiences and traditions. 

One profound piece of culture of the Waorani is to embody the power of the Jaguar. Passed down through generations, specific people are connected to jaguars and the jaguars protect them from danger. They also taught me about their traditional medicine and told me stories about how things have changed for their community over the last 100 years.  

Ever encroaching on the community are logging, mining, agriculture, and oil companies. With the increase of outside pressure to leave their traditions behind and become a part of western culture and religion, there is a new need for money (once moot in the community).  

This has brought this family and many of the communities great trouble and controversy. The Nenkepare Waorani community is made up of many different families that come together every couple of weeks and discuss the state of their community. Thus far, there has been collective agreement not to allow the entrance of these companies.  

In many communities, however, this has not been the case.  

How have they met the baseline costs thus far? This family grows many crops such as yuca and plantains. They weave traditional bags out of palm fronds. Once a week they take these an hour and a half by riverboat to a road where they have a market. The locals frequently sell to middlemen that will take their produce into town.  

Since the family I was with needed more money for the month, they went hunting with their traditional poison arrows and killed a deer to sell at the market. Other families will cut down many trees in the forest to sell.  

The hope is an alternative to having to cut down trees and hunt: ecotourism. The communities hope to be able to celebrate and share their rich history and cultural practices while affording the costs of living more in contact with the world.  

Despite not bringing very much money into the jungle with me, I wanted to do everything I could to contribute. I asked what the most helpful volunteer work would be. Without any hesitation, they brought up their children’s education. They really want them to be able to speak English.  

The next day I walked to their school which was built by the government. This school had a teacher sent to live and teach the kids of the community. Between the various families, 5 children came out from different directions in the jungle each day to attend class.  

One thing that first struck me in Ecuador was that no matter where one is in the country, very little English was spoken. I learned that this stems from a higher education system out of reach of almost all of the citizens with little English ever taught in grade school.  

When one of the parents dropped off his daughter, he let the teacher know I would be helping teach English for the day. The teacher was super happy and easy going, so easy going that he introduced me to the class, took a picture and left the classroom.  

I drew upon my memory of a week volunteering teaching kindergarteners back home. After first stumbling to try to teach numbers only for the pronunciation not to make sense because they had not learned the alphabet before, I realized we were getting ahead of ourselves. We started with the ABCs, melodied by the song I had learned when I was their age, then numbers, then days of the week, then introductions and greetings.  

It had been a couple hours with no sight of the teacher, and the children asked me if they could color. It was so heartwarming seeing them draw their favorite rainforest animals and the fruit they enjoyed snacking on the most. After 3 hours of English class- including a lesson I snuck into drawing time on the colors in English- we were all ready to go play outside.  

We all played soccer on a little field with the goals made by bamboo posts in the ground. Everyone is carefree, running barefoot and having fun without technology

One of the family members taught me how to use the poison blow darts shot through long hollowed out wooden rods. 

After lunch, the family performed a traditional welcoming ceremony and dance. It was very special to observe the festivities and join in on the dances and chants with everyone. One of the family members commented that getting to see a foreigner’s excitement and interest gets their kids excited about their unique identity. 

A lot of the external narrative introduced by missionaries, whether conscious or unconscious, has resulted in shaming of native spiritual practices as well as body shaming from wearing traditional clothing and being told that their traditions were uncivilized.  Another observation for me was, coming from a societal orientation that cultural appropriation is taboo, I realized this here was a situation where the importance of outsiders expressing their curiosity, enthusiasm and celebrating the uniqueness of indigenous culture was extremely important, especially for the next generation to see the value and beauty of these traditions. 

We hiked to a magical cave where the puma and anaconda sometimes sleep. Upon entering we saw hundreds of bats resting upside down at the top.  

We also swam across the main river used for transport (luckily without any bites from hungry piranhas) to make it to a 60-foot waterfall and swimming hole. I wiped off the layers of dirt and sweat that I had accumulated from my time in the jungle. It was the most refreshing waterfall I have ever been to.  

Sadly, after a week with the family, it was time to say goodbye. I used the rest of the cash I had with me to buy traditional bags to support the family.  

We set off on their river boat early in the morning winding around the river bends. It was the dry season, leaving many fallen trees completely blocking our way. We had to get out and push the boat more times than I could count. From this debris, there were small cracks in the boat where water came through, leaving a few people with the job of constantly bailing.  

We made it to the bridge, unloaded and got on the bus back returning to urban life. This drastic change was quite difficult for me to process.  

The bus passed by everything the tribe has been fighting to protect the rainforest from- mines, oil refineries, factories, logging, and cattle grazing. Knowing this is how where I stayed could end up was very unsettling. 

The realities of the real world are more fun to put into the back of my head, but from this experience I have seen how people ignoring their conscience has led to the current situation. It could become far more grave if ignored. Thank you Waorani community of Kewediono for teaching me. 

I bussed all 9.5 hours slowly winding my way back to Quito. From there my next adventure would begin.  

I flew to the famous Galapagos islands. Walking around the center of town, I encountered marine iguanas, sea lions, crabs, and many pelicans. On the bus ride, the speakers play a recording about how much of a priority conservation is to the government. It announces all the rules set in place for people to protect the local ecosystem and wildlife.  

This juxtaposition coming from the Amazon, where I heard firsthand how little the government was concerned with protecting wildlife and nature, was very interesting.  

The Galapagos has done an amazing job growing an economy that disincentivizes any commercial form of destruction because they have learned that the long-term economic value lies in the preservation of the ecosystem.  

It was super interesting to learn how a place can be protected by tourism. Although swarms of people are not my favorite thing to circumvent during my gap year, knowing that in this case it prevents destruction and extraction of natural resources was a positive consolation.  

I sat down with scientists at the Darwin Foundation and the National Park doing research and conservation on the island to learn about how the shift towards tourism has vastly improved the conditions of every species on the island.  

I toured the giant tortoise breeding center where they are actively restoring the population and releasing tortoises into the wild. There once were over 250,000 roaming the islands, now there are only around 15,000. Thanks to a lot of money flowing in due to people wanting to visit the giant tortoises, tortoises are protected, and their numbers are increasing.  

To learn about the different models of ecotourism, I went to one of the ranches where the giant tortoises choose to hang out. One of the most fascinating facts is that no one knows how long they live because they have not been studied for long enough, and they have outlived everyone who has researched them.  

To best understand life from their perspective I had a chance to slide into their shells. I understand now why they move so slowly.

Most of the biodiversity lives under the water in the Galapagos. This led me to try to work with shark researchers to learn more about what work they do and be able to give a more detailed overview of what works and what does not. Unfortunately, due to a lot of bureaucracy, they were not able to give me any field insight.  

So, I put on my mask and snorkel to investigate the situation on a tour. We boated to mangroves where we encountered many baby sharks swimming around. They, and most marine species, need mangroves for laying eggs and breeding. I was enamored by the quantity of sea turtles, sharks and rays. On the boat ride, the guide said there was a spot next to the driver up top. I took that spot and was glad I did. We saw manta ray after manta ray from our perch– some with up to 20-feet in wingspan.  

With only one day left on the Islands, I knew I needed to go deeper. I went diving. Seeing so many different animals including hammerhead sharks, manta rays, and even a giant bait ball left me wanting more time on the islands.  

The Galapagos has made such a profound statement to the rest of the world with their ability to have a much healthier economy stemming from a healthy ecosystem. Despite it having species that can only be seen there, that is not the main thing that keeps the islands special. There are endemic species all around the globe that almost no one is aware of that have rapidly decreasing populations.  

What is truly special about the Galapagos is the lack of pollution and the number of species that thrive there that people can have an up-close experience with. I am excited to be able to explore the possibilities for conservation around the world as I continue my gap year and gain tools to tackle these global challenges when I start my studies at Duke.   

While reflecting on heritage of other families during my experience in Ecuador, it has given me a chance to really appreciate my own. My Abuelita moved out of Costa Rica when she was in high school and did not have a chance to explore anywhere outside of the city. I hope that by helping to document and protect these areas more people will learn about the amazing world we live in. She has been my biggest inspiration to go experience this natural world. My mom speaking to me in Spanish from birth has gifted me the ability to experience the authenticity of Latin America in the way I have always wanted to. This incredible experience I have had is all thanks to them.  

Muchísimas gracias.  

Categories: Gabriel