What is adventure?
There’s one main road that snakes its way down into Ecuador’s Oriente, or Amazon Basin from the highlands and that’s the way our bus went, mostly because there were no other options. We left Banos in the late afternoon and began descending almost immediately. It was a good thing when it finally got completely dark outside and we could no longer see the tremendous drop-offs just beyond our outside wheels, because the visual was just causing more apprehension than we needed. The murals in the Banos church depicting angels rescuing falling vehicles should’ve been a clue, but we had chosen to move beyond all of that. Not long after we began moving, we had noted how the passengers kept leaning into the hillside at almost regular intervals. At one of the leaning moments, one of our group happened to look out their window and see several hundred feet of thin air separating the bus from the river far below with no solid ground anywhere in between. At that point,we put two and two together and realized that everyone was leaning into the hillside out of self preservation.
The trip down to Tena normally takes about 3 hours. It took us more like 4 or 5. Sometime well after dark and in the midst of the drive, we drove up on something of a logjam on the road. Big vehicles were trying to go in each direction and something had brought everything to a stop. We weren’t quite sure what was happening, but there were plenty of headlights and people milling around and looking at something, so initially we figured it was just a short delay of some sort that would soon be a thing of the past. About the time we were becoming comfortable with the situation, for some reason our driver decided he could move on forward, squeezing past the bus that was facing us down. There was no mistaking the ill feelings of the crowd, much less the opposing bus driver, as we proceeded. All was well, until it wasn’t. The side mirror on our bus was obviously not the break-away type and screeched and scratched its way down the side of the other bus until we were at last free. At that point, I felt momentary relief that neither of the vehicles were mine, but soon felt our slow pace slowing even more and suddenly, we came to an abrupt stop. At that point, the driver said something that none of us could quite understand, opened the door and then, everyone began filing out. We followed suit, although we had no clue why. It was simply pitch-black outside, but at least it was muddy and only raining slightly. Word got to us, somehow, to not wander very far, because part of the road had washed away. The driver was going to make the crossing to the other side, but didn’t want any passengers to be at risk, so we would all just walk to the other side, safely behind the bus.
The engine began to rev, but the rear wheels were just spinning in the mud and the bus was going nowhere. So, we did what needed to be done, got behind it and started pushing. Slowly, the rear wheels worked their way down through the muck to the solid ground about mid-calf below the surface and the thing began to creep ever so slowly forward. Within 5 minutes, we had all crossed the chasm, wherever it was, and were back in our seats and on our way- a little muddy, but happy to be beyond that confusion.
By that time, I realized that while the whole bus trip had been a bit disorganized and troubling thus far, things would be getting better, organizationally, as we reached Tena (one of the main Oriente cities) and ultimately moved on to Misahualli. We pulled into Tena about 10 pm and walked to our hotel, which I had already booked. It was something of a dead and dark looking building, but as the owner lady showed us to our rooms and began turning lights on, things came to life. Even as tired as our group members were, I did not sense that anyone was all that eager to crawl into any of the beds even though they were mostly roach free, once the lights were on for a while. We made some sort of excuse why we were not going to be able to stay, went outside and walked off around the corner, with absolutely no idea where we were going.
Not far from the first hotel, we walked up to a nice looking, brand spanking new one. We were in luck. By that time, it was simply time to get settled in for the night and we didn’t let the fact that the place was dark and locked-up discourage us. We peered through the glass door and saw someone approaching. We stepped back as the bell man, or whoever he was, unlocked the door and leaned his rifle up against the wall. He greeted us with a smile as he opened it, which put us completely at ease. We asked him about room prices, were satisfied with his answer, told him we would take enough doubles for everyone, and followed him over to the front desk to check in. Pondering the snake in the jar took my mind off of some of the nefarious details like wondering which credit cards he took. Within 15 minutes we were all paid up and finally ready to head to our rooms. The elevator was not yet working, so we just carried our backpacks and duffels up the stairs to our rooms, which he’d mentioned, were all on the second floor. We were pleased to see that on the outside, they were nicely appointed, but before actually moving in and as I fiddled with my room key, I had to wonder where the other half of the hotel was. By that point I was intent on not letting a small detail such as that concern me. So, I got the door open and went inside, closing the door on the missing hotel part situation- at least for the rest of that night.
We were up early the next morning. We had one more bus to catch to get us to Misuhualli. It departed at 9:30 and we were set on getting there on time. The abrupt transition into nothingness, right across the hall/walkway was even more imposing, although less surprising, in the light of day. So, we gingerly stayed to the assumed completed side of the hallway as we carried our stuff back downstairs. After a quick breakfast and coffee at a nearby bakery, we found our small bus and were loading our things up onto the roof rack with 20 minutes to spare. Miraculously, at close to our scheduled departure time, we were all loaded and driving off into the jungle and our Napo River destination. It was almost liberating to be in a smaller, more mobile vehicle. We didn’t even mind the 5 gallon plastic gasoline can sitting on the floorboard next to the driver with hose running out into the engine compartment, because the driver didn’t seem to smoke all that much and we were moving forward and right on schedule.
Before noon, we were there. We got off the bus and wandered down the main street, looking for lunch and a place to stay, just in that order. To eat, we settled on the place that had “the food here is reality good” sign out front and figured something would materialize on the lodging. That afternoon, we met a local who was the perfect combination of naturalist and jungle warfare specialist. He got us set up in a fine place to stay for that night, took us on a local jungle hike and lined up a trip for us for the following day via dugout canoe out to a primitive Oriente jungle camp which he was involved with.
Perhaps it was the snake in the jar in Tena that got it all started or maybe the tales of man-eating Anacondas combined with the fact that we were in the Upper Amazon, but whatever the case, we were a little snake/jungle creature jumpy when we boarded the inner tubes to float the upper reaches of the Napo down to the jungle camp. We were assured it was perfectly safe, although certainly there were some doubts, but we all waded out, plopped ourselves down on the tubes on our backs and began going with the flow, lying on our backs and looking backwards. A light rain began to fall as we floated and gave us something else to think about, besides speculating about how effective Anacondas were in the water or what level of current was required for keeping Piranhas out of a stream.
I was in the lead, along with Josh. We were sure we saw several snake heads along the way, but in each case, they just turned out to be sticks. Since we were facing backward and looking back and upstream, we could see most of the group, as if that really mattered. Nonetheless, I kind of prepared for whatever it was I was going to do if something grabbed someone 50 or 100 feet behind me, although I was never able to come up with a solid plan. Besides allowing us to monitor possible rescue scenarios, our position in the lead allowed us to see the whole scene unfolding behind us. After a few hundred yards of unsettled relaxation, we watched as one of the expedition members, Chris, who was floating alone about 30 feet behind us, eased off of his tube and into the water. One of our guides, David Barrow, was 30 or so feet behind him. I knew immediately what was about to happen, as soon as Chris dove under the water pointing directly at Barrow. A few seconds of silence passed before Barrow erupted, becoming virtually airborne as his fight or flight instinct took control.
In retrospect, I’m not sure exactly what any of this meant. It wasn’t just the Oriente that was full of stories. There were so many other parts to this broader story that perhaps should have been included- the puppy situation, the monkey in the cage, the drive up to the hut on Cotopaxi and subsequent summit attempt, the Pampas Grass debacle, the tear gas tank in Quito, the Ecuadorian guide we called by the wrong name for a week, celebrity camping on a soccer field, watching the Otavalo market wake up, seeing an Andean Wolf appear out of the fog, sharing a pasture for a few moments with rejuvenating fighting bulls, and the list goes on.
And so, given all of the various things that happened on this particular Ecuador adventure, I came to the conclusion that if anyone involved still wondered what adventure was at the end of the trip, then they were probably never going know.