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. We left the mountain town of Banos in the late afternoon and immediately began descending. A massive cliff loomed just outside the bus windows. The sight of it only added fuel to the worry-fire that had ignited when we saw the murals in the Banos church depicting angels rescuing vehicles falling off cliffs. Soon after the bus began moving, we all noted how the local passengers kept leaning into the hillside at regular intervals and wondered what that was all about. Then, one of our group looked out of their window and saw little except for hundreds of feet of thin air, separating our bus from the river far below. At that point, we understood that everyone was leaning into the hillside to help the bus stay on the road.
The trip down to the city of Tena, our night’s destination, typically takes about 3 hours, but on this trip, it took us more like 4 or 5. Sometime well after dark, in the middle of the trip, we drove up on something of a vehicle logjam on the road. Big trucks, busses, and cars were trying to go in each direction, and things had come to a stop. We weren’t quite sure what was happening, but there were a lot of headlights and people milling around looking at something. We figured that it was probably just a random short delay of some sort that would soon be a thing of the past. Just as we were beginning to become comfortable with the situation, our driver decided that he could move on forward and squeeze past the bus 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 not the break-away type and screeched and scratched its way down the side of the other bus until at last free and clear.
I was relieved that neither of the vehicles was mine. And concluded that, if nothing else, the situation made for a good story. But then, I felt our slow pace become even slower just 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. The other passengers got up and began filing out as if it was an expected and regular occurrence. We followed suit, although we had no clue as to why. It was utterly dark once we got outside, but at least it was muddy and only raining slightly. Somehow, word got to us to avoid wandering very far from the bus because a section of the road had washed away. Our driver was intent on crossing to the other side of the temporary road patch and didn’t want any passengers aboard as he did it. We were to walk across to the other side, following and staying 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 thought we’d been instructed to do.
After a short distance, the bus engine began to rev, but its rear wheels just spun in the mud, and it was apparent that the bus was going nowhere. So, we did what needed doing, put our shoulders up against the rear bumper, 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 were on the other side, we were back in our seats, and moving down the road again. We were muddy but happy to be beyond the confusion.
Undoubtedly, the bus trip had been “interesting” up to that point. As we approached our night’s destination, I speculated that perhaps the chaos of those few hours of bus time was in our past. And I was hopeful that things would become more “normal” once we reached Tena, and then on the following day, our final destination- the Napo River outpost town of Misahualli.
We finally pulled into Tena about 10:00 pm and walked to the hotel I’d reserved. It was something of a dead and dark looking building, but as the owner showed us to our rooms and began turning lights on, the whole place came to life. As we watched the roaches disappear, it became apparent that no one in the group was interested in spending the night there. And so, we gave a lame excuse to the manager as to why we were not going to be able to stay and then just left.
We went around the corner and quickly came upon another one that looked especially nice and appeared to be brand spanking new. By this time, it was serious bedtime, so we didn’t let the fact that the place was dark and locked-up discourage us in. For some reason, despite the locked door, we concluded it was open, peered in through the glass door, and lo and behold someone immediately approached. 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 up and invited us in. I asked him about room prices and was satisfied with his answer. And so, I told him that 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, like wondering which credit cards he took. Within 15 minutes, we were all paid up and finally ready to get settled into our rooms. He informed us that the elevator was not working, so we just carried our backpacks and duffels up the stairs to our second-floor rooms. Once we got up the steps, I was pleased to see that everything looked to be well built and nicely done. But I was a bit taken aback by the fact that half of the hotel was simply not there. There was an actual void where the remainder would eventually be. By this point, I was intent on not letting details such as that concern me. So, once I got my room door open, I just went on in and shut it 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, had one last bus to catch, and were determined to be there and ready to go with plenty of time to spare.
We were packed up and leaving our rooms a bit before 7:00 am. The abrupt transition into the nothingness looming just outside our hotel doors, was even more imposing (or was it intriguing?) in the light of day. But by then, at least I’d had a night to sleep on the concept and develop a methodology for getting back down the stairs safely.
Our bags slid easily down the walkway and stairs since the construction people hadn’t yet covered the bare cement with whatever they were planning to cover it with. And because the building was unfinished, a spectacular tropical sun shone into the hallway and stairway, which helped with our footing. Thankfully, nothing and no one fell off of anything.
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 the scheduled departure time, we were all loaded and driving off into the jungle and our Upper Amazon/Napo River destination. It was almost liberating to be in a smaller and more mobile vehicle. Amazingly, even the 5-gallon plastic gasoline container sitting next to the driver and equipped with a hose running into the engine compartment didn’t bother us because the driver didn’t appear to smoke all that much.
We arrived at just before noon and wandered down the main street, looking for both lunch and a place to stay. To eat, we settled on the restaurant that had “the food here is reality good” painted on its front outside wall and decided to allow something to materialize regarding the lodging. Later that afternoon, we met and hired a local man who was the perfect combination of naturalist and jungle warfare specialist to familiarize us with the nuances of the area. He took us on a hike, showed us a termite mound, demonstrated various booby-traps, and led us on an overnight outing to a primitive and remote jungle camp. And to top it all off, he got us set up in a place to stay in town while we were there.
Perhaps it was the snake in the jar back in Tena that got it all started. Or maybe it was the 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 for our float down an upper section of the Napo. Our guides assured us that tubing the river was perfectly safe, although there were undoubtedly doubts among our group. We all waded out, plopped ourselves down on top of the tubes, and began going with the flow. A light rain began falling soon after we started. While it did add to the surreal nature of it all, it also gave us something to think about other than Anacondas and Piranhas.
I was in the lead, along with one of the group members, Josh. At various times while floating along, we were sure that we saw snake-heads out in the water, but in each instance, they thankfully just turned out to be sticks. Since we were facing and looking upstream, we could see most of the group. I figured that I was in a good position to render aid, although I admit it was never clear to me what to do if an Anaconda grabbed someone. Additionally, our position also allowed us to watch and see other and less terrifying things as they unfolded.
After a few hundred yards of unsettled relaxation, Chris, who was floating alone about 30 feet behind us, eased off of his tube and dove under the water. David Barrow was with me once again and was another 30 or so feet behind him. As soon as Chris went under, and in the direction of 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 our experience in the Ecuadorian Oriente that was full of intriguing events and unexpected occurrences. There were plenty of others that took place in other parts of the country during our South American experience that helped make the whole two weeks especially memorable. They’re pieces in the big jigsaw puzzle that was the trip, and while maybe they should’ve been included in this, they aren’t.
I did come away from the expedition with something other than bug bites and the runs. It’s the realization that sometimes things make sense at the moment, but not later on. And in this particular case, I concluded that if anyone involved still wondered what adventure was at the end of the trip, then they were probably never going know.