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 real 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 in our group than was needed at that point. The murals in the Banos church depicting angels rescuing vehicles that were falling from a cliff should’ve been a clue as to what we were in for, but we’d chosen to focus on the architecture of the ancient building instead. Not long after we’d begun moving, we’d noted how the local passengers kept leaning into the hillside at almost regular intervals. At one of the leaning moments, one of our group happened to look out of their window and see several hundred feet of thin air separating our bus from the river far below. At that point, we put two and two together and realized that everyone was leaning into the hillside out of self-preservation and in an effort to keep things going in the right direction.
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 a logjam of vehicles. Buses and big trucks were trying to go in each direction as some unknown thing (at least as far as we were concerned) 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. We figured that it was more than likely just a random short delay that would probably soon be a thing of the past. About the time we were becoming comfortable with the situation, for some reason our driver decided that 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 until ours was at last free and clear. I was feeling relief at the fact that neither of the vehicles were mine and thinking about how it made for a ridiculous, but funny adventure story, when I felt our slow pace become even slower right before we came to an abrupt stop. At that point, our driver said something that none of us could quite understand and opened the door. Then, everyone just got up and began filing out as if it was just some sort of expected and regular occurrence. We followed suit, even though we had no clue as to why. It was pitch-black once we got outside of the bus, 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. Our driver was going to drive the bus across to the other side along a now narrower portion of the road. Since he didn’t want any of us passengers to be at undue risk, we would all just walk to the other side, safely behind the bus. I still have questions now about that whole scenario, but at the time, we all just fell in line and did what we were told.
The engine began to rev, but the rear wheels just spun in the mud and it was obvious to us that 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, both us and the bus had crossed the chasm, wherever it was, and we were back in our seats and on our way again- a little muddy, but happy to be beyond that confusion.
By this time, I hypothesized, that while the whole bus trip had been chock full of adventure humor, as well as a bit disorganized and troubling up to that point, things would be getting better, at least organizationally, once we reached Tena and ultimately moved on to our destination– the Napo River/outpost town of Misahualli.
We pulled into Tena about 10 pm and walked to our hotel, which I’d 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, the whole place came to life. Even as tired as our group members were, I didn’t sense that anyone was all that eager to crawl into any of the beds, even though they were mostly roach free once the lights had been on for a few minutes. We made some sort of lame excuse as to why we were not going to be able to stay, then went outside and walked off around the corner, with absolutely no idea about where we were going right then or what we were going to do for the night.
Not far from the first hotel, we walked up to a nice looking and brand spanking new one. We were in luck. By then, it was simply time to get settled in somewhere 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 bellman, 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 up, which somehow put us completely at ease. We asked him about room prices, were satisfied with his answer, told him we’d take enough doubles for everyone, and followed him over to the front desk to check in. Pondering the snake in the jar on the counter took my mind off of some of the group leader details such as wondering which credit cards he took, but ultimately, I somehow paid him with something. Within 15 minutes we were all paid up and finally ready to get settled into our rooms for the night. He informed us that the elevator was not working, so we just carried our backpacks and duffels up the stairs to our rooms, which were all thankfully only up on the second floor. We were pleased to see that the outsides of the rooms were tastefully 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. There was literally a void just on the other side of the hall where the other half of the hotel was more than likely about to be constructed. By this point, I was intent on not letting details such as that concern me. So, I got my door open and just went on into the room and literally “shut the door” on the missing part of the hotel situation- at least for the rest of that night. Thus, our engaging adventure continued.
We were all up early the next morning. We had one final bus to catch and it was scheduled to leave at 9:30 and we were determined to be there, loaded up and ready to go with plenty of time to spare.
And so, we were packed up and leaving our rooms for our meet-up back up in the lobby by 7 am. The abrupt transition into the nothingness, which loomed just outside our hotel room doors, was even more imposing (or was it intriguing?) in the light of day. At least we’d had a night to sleep on the whole concept and had come up with a few ideas about how to handle the situation, and so just stayed to what we hoped was the completed side of the hallway as we left our rooms and carried our stuff back downstairs. After a quick breakfast and coffee at a nearby bakery, we located 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, we were moving forward and were right on schedule.
At just before noon, we arrived at our destination. 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 in front and figured something would materialize on the lodging. That afternoon, we met and hired a local man who was the perfect combination of naturalist and jungle warfare specialist to orient us to the area. He got us set up in a fine place to stay for that night, took us on a local jungle hike, showed us a termite mound and lined a trip up for us for the following day which would take us via dugout canoe out to a primitive Oriente jungle camp, with which he was personally involved.
Perhaps it’d been the snake in the jar back in Tena that got it all started or maybe it was the various tales of man-eating Anacondas which we’d repeatedly heard combined with the fact that we were in the Upper Amazon, I’m not sure. But for whatever reason, we were a little snake/jungle creature jumpy when we boarded the inner tubes to float the upper reaches of the Napo as one of our special jungle camp activities on the afternoon of our arrival. Our guides assured us that tubing the river was perfectly safe, although there were certainly some doubts among our group. We all waded out, plopped ourselves down on top of the tubes and began going with the flow, lying on our backs, going head first and looking backwards. A light rain began to fall as we floated which gave us something else to think about, other than speculation about how effective Anacondas were in the water or what level of current was required for keeping Piranhas out of a particular section of stream.
I was in the lead, along with one of the group members, Josh. As we floated along, at various times we were certain that we saw snake heads out in the water, but in each case, they thankfully just turned out to be sticks. Since we were facing backward and looking upstream, we could see most of the group and I more or less prepared for whatever it was I was going to do if something were to grab someone 50 or 100 feet back, although I was never able to come up with a workable plan. Besides allowing us to monitor and anticipate possible rescue scenarios, our position in the lead also let us see and watch as other and less terrifying things unfolded behind.
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 dove down below the surface of the water. One of our guides, David Barrow, was 30 or so feet behind him. As soon as Chris went under the water and pointed himself directly toward Barrow, I knew what was going to happen. A few seconds of silence passed before Chris grabbed him from below with Barrow erupting and 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 part of our experience that was full of interesting tales and a fair share of adventure travel humor. There’s a broader story that encompasses the whole trip and includes other areas of Ecuador and that perhaps should’ve been included here- 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 in a remote village, 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.
You’re lucky. I didn’t recount the whole story here because just telling a few of the tales from the Oriente part of the trip is plenty enough to absorb. I did come away from the trip with something other than bug bites and the runs– and it’s the realization that sometimes things make sense at the time and that, in this particular case, if anyone involved still wondered what adventure was at the end of the trip, then they were probably never going know.