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 in time. The murals in the Banos church which depicted 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 leaning 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 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, and we figured it was just a random 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 that he could move on forward, squeezing past the bus that was facing us down and onto the open road. 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, 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, although in our case, 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. Apparently, 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 were supposed to walk to the other side, safely behind the bus. I still have questions 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 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’d all crossed the chasm, wherever it was, were back in our seats and on our way again- a little muddy, but happy to be beyond the confusion.
By this time, I realized, or more like hypothesized, that while the whole bus trip had been 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 were on for a while. 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 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 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, putting 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 like wondering which credit cards he took. Within 15 minutes we were all paid up and finally ready to get settled into our rooms for the night. He told us that the elevator was not 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 the outsides of the rooms 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 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.
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, in our seats and ready to go with plenty of time to spare.
And so, we were packed up and leaving our rooms for our group meet-up down 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 to that end, stayed to what we assumed to be 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 we were right on schedule.
At just before noon, we arrived. 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 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, 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 was the snake in the jar back in Tena that got it all started or maybe the tales of man-eating Anacondas which we’d repeatedly heard 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 as one of our special jungle camp activities the following afternoon. We were assured that tubing the river was perfectly safe, although there were certainly some doubts among our group. We all waded out, plopped ourselves down on 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 and 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 allowed us watch as 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 aimed 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 our Oriente experience that was full of interesting tales. There’s a broader story that encompasses the whole trip and includes other parts of Ecuador and events maybe should’ve 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 remote village 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………
You’re lucky. I’m not going to try to tell it all because describing just a few of the things we experienced down in the Oriente is plenty for most people to absorb. I did come away from it all with something other than bug bites and the runs– which is the realization that sometimes things make sense at the time, but not necessarily later on and that if anyone involved in this “epoch” still wondered what adventure was at the end of the trip, then they were probably never going know.