When you get the chance, take a turn about the Garden of Earthly Delights on a motorcycle. In spite of all one’s modern inclinations, gear, and armored getup, it’s hard not to feel like Adam and Eve in the Ecuadorian Amazon. Even the remarkably well-maintained roads play into one’s First Man and First Woman fantasies. Signs repeating, El Agua es Vida; Cuidelo and El Bosque es Nuestra Pulmon—Water is Life; Care for It and The Forest is Our Lung—line the shoulders of the highways, and life crowds every crag in the mountains and jostles for the crisp light of the equator. Red and yellow flames of Heliconia flowers butt up against purple passiflora and the fragrant amber wood of the Ishpingo, and yuca and bananas and cacao grow abundantly. People are relaxed and welcoming, and each creature seems more outlandish than the next. The foul-smelling Huatzine birds, the gurgling caiman, the loquacious nutria, the limón-flavored ants, the Anaconda. The ghostly, blush-pink dolphins that seem to materialize from the coffee-colored waters of the Napo.
During our tour of Parque Nacional de Yasuní, a protected region of the Ecuadorian Amazon, Nathan and I visited a Kichwa community dolphin reserve. There, as we kneeled on wooden docks bright with butterflies, the guardians of the river junction instructed us to slap the surface of the water with our hands, to alert the dolphins to our offerings of freshly-caught piranha. The two men assured us that they would remain on the lookout for black caiman and anaconda. (Hardly ever, they replied, when we asked how frequently the reptiles frequented the area.) Eventually, a small, flat, perfunctory-seeming eye, set into the side a smooth, melon-like head, and a long, cylindrical snout appeared. The dolphin’s jaws, bristling sparsely with coarse white hairs, parted gingerly to receive our proffered fish, and then sunk back into the murky depths. Luís, our guide from the town of Nuevo Rocafuerte, urged me to offer the dolphin my hand. Hold it steady, he said, and don’t pull it away.
I stared at him hard, thinking about my limited medical coverage abroad.
He knows the difference between human flesh and a fish. He won’t chomp, really, Luís insisted. No pasa nada.
As I stretched one hand out over the water and splashed the surface with the other, I recalled Luís’s words on Yasuní—Todo es posible, nada es seguro. Everything is possible, nothing is certain. The dolphin swam up to my empty hand, jaws parted. I braced myself as the dolphin delicately brushed the whiskery tip of his “chin” back and forth against the ulnar side of my palm, revealing gums full of perfectly-spaced, pointed teeth. He decided that my flesh was not of fish and quickly sunk back under the docks.
We camped at Balneario Usa Yaku for two nights under a thatched roof beside a crystal clear river. Upon our arrival just before dusk, Doña Nelva— the matron of the family that has lived there for generations and who are legally recognized as its guardians in exchange for developing sustainable tourist infrastructure—greeted us and recited a menu of amenities, regional cuisine, handicrafts, and natural medicines. She told us that the river has carried the name Usa Yaku, river that is like hair, since ancient times, and asked if we would be having merienda, dinner, at the restaurant. As she asked, she pointed with pride to a new-looking vinyl banner strung across the roof of the restaurant, welcoming the Vice President of Ecuador. She urged us to enjoy the river in the last light of the evening while our freshly-caught, whole tilapias steamed within a packet of banana leaves. When dinner was served, she shouted us out of the water and then sat and watched us take each and every bite. And it wasn’t for her own edification that I told her it was the most delicious fish I have ever eaten.
The next morning, Doña Nelva appeared with a pitcher of warm guayusa tea for us, the traditional brewed drink of the region. As she pulled out the chair next to me and plunked herself down, she shooed a meandering chicken out from under the table with a sharp Psshhh! Psshhh! Psshhh!
Siempre estan molestando, she said to me with a commiserating look. They’re always fussing. I nodded in agreement, realizing that over the last year, wandering chickens and roosters had become a fairly constant bother in my own life.
Since we hadn’t arrived with groceries, I asked her if the restaurant served breakfast. Doña Nelva looked startled. Slowly getting up from her chair, she replied, Well, I can cook for you…if you don’t mind. She looked at me expectantly. Do you mind?
I couldn't help but laugh at her concern, and responded that we of course didn’t mind, and that we only wanted some eggs.
But niña! Doña Nelva giggled. Just eggs! Don’t you like onion? I don’t have any tomatoes! What about yuca frita? Don’t you like yuca? I don’t usually do the cooking, but the girl who cooks isn’t here today! She fiddled with the end of her long salt-and-pepper braid. I’m usually at the minga, not here waiting on guests—we all go to the minga! Are you sure you don’t mind?
Her words tumbled out laughingly, and as the old woman stood before us in her knee-high galoshes, I couldn’t help but be completely taken by her girlish charm. Her earnest desire to please and uncertainty in her ability to appeal to our foreign tastes showed in her soft, deeply-creased face. I looked at Nathan, unsure of what was reasonable to ask of the only eatery in the tiny, poor hamlet of Usa Yaku, or of how to reassure her that she needn’t stand behind the ceremony she expected us to expect.
Scrambled eggs with onion and fried yuca sounds great, I said, and with that, she seemed satisfied. She turned and sprinted up the hill towards the outdoor gas cooker with surprising sprightliness, and enlisted the help of her husband, Don Francisco, from across the fields with a wave of her arm.
When we arrived at Cavernas y Templos de Ceremonia in Tena, Archidona, about a half hour from Usa Yaku, we were greeted warmly by Claudio who sat aimlessly in the parking lot. We were the only visitors that rainy afternoon, and to our delight, he offered us the second floor of a half-finished, fully-roofed building in which to set up camp. As we pitched our tent and lay out our belongings, we spotted the familiar apparatus of Amazonian ayahuasca ceremonies—a Jaguar skin tacked to the wall, bundles of raspy, dried palm, a melodica and a drum, a tupperware container full of the dark ayahuasca extract—jumbled among stacks of beer bottles and other recyclables, painting supplies, and an assortment of rubber boots for guided treks into the nearby subterranean caverns. For a moment, I had the sinking feeling of having peeked behind the red curtain in the Theater of Healing, of having seen the great and powerful Oz in all his disappointing smallness. Claudio then picked up the Tupperware, removed the lid, and offered it to us to sniff. He touched a pinkie to its hard, tarry surface. Sucking the extract off his fingertip, he pointed out the house he shared with wife and daughter, his father’s house, his brother’s house, and some tourist accommodations still under construction, all tucked into the velvety hues of the jungle in early evening.
The forest is full of medicine, he said softly. He then pointed out a spider monkey in one of a hundred far-away trees, and asked if we’d like to use the kitchen during our stay. My sinking feeling lifted. I knew that the sacredness of a thing can’t really be measured by how delicately it’s handled; by how fine the veil shrouding it from view. That the legitimacy of this particular spiritual practice didn’t require that this medicine remain untouched and unseen in a gilded jar. And that the remedy isn’t found in removing one’s cap and genuflecting in its presence.
We saw other elements of ayahuasca production scattered around Claudio’s clapboard home, outside which he kindly set up his own kitchen’s gas cook-top for our use. He handed us a little aluminum bucket of corn kernels to throw at the chickens. Para cuando estan molestando, he explains. We cooked rice and tuna for dinner that evening, between clothes lines hung with the little pink leggings and sweaters of Claudio’s infant daughter, and next to a large aluminum kettle and a pile of chopped Banisteriopsis caapi vine ready to be brewed. All the while, shooing away the ever-fussing, ever-underfoot chickens.
The next day, as Nathan and I explored the caves, cascades, and petroglyphs around the grounds, Claudio and his brother Wilson buried their mother in the forest. The warm reception we had received left us no clue that their mother had passed away the night before our arrival, and that their family was in mourning. Around noon, as I emerged from the dense dark of the woods to retrieve something from our tent, I saw several men trudging up and down another path, carrying bags filled with dirt and chatting to each other in Kichwa. One stopped me and paused to wipe his sweaty face with the back of his cut and bleeding hand. He set his bag down and rested his other hand on my shoulder, saying that he had come to help bury his neighbor, and pointed to Wilson. Su mamá, he explained.
He then asked if I had any soda or refreshments that I could share. I apologized, explaining that I only had the drinking water which I had boiled the night before. The man waved the matter away, and continued up the hill toward the parking lot, where Wilson and a few other men stood swaying their bodies back and forth, sifting stones out of a pile of sand with a large wood-framed sieve. As I stood speechless, Claudio passed me, dust on his polo and skinny jeans, and carrying a full bag. He waved cheerily and quickly wishing me good afternoon. I waved back, not knowing what to say. I would offer him my condolences later, but for the moment, I simply watched as he bounded down the hill into the deep woods of his ancestral home, into the green tangle of cancha piedra for the prevention of kidney stones, of the heart-shaped leaves and wound-shrinking, blood-red sap of the sangre de drago tree, of fragrant hierba luisa, of cilantro de montaña for flavor, and ayahuasca vine.