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. 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. 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 the bus began 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, but it took us more like 4 or 5. Sometime well after dark, 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 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 more than likely soon be a thing of the past. About the time that we were beginning to become comfortable with the situation, for some reason our driver decided that he could move on forward and just squeeze by 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 at last free and clear.
I was feeling relief at the fact that neither of the vehicles were mine and had come to the conclusion that the situation did at least make for a ridiculous and funny adventure story, when I felt our slow pace become even slower just as 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, the other passengers got up and began filing out as if it was some sort of expected and regular occurrence. We followed suit, although we had no clue as to why. It was completely dark once we got outside of the bus, but at least it was muddy and only raining slightly. Word got to us to not wander very far because part of the road had washed away and our driver was going to drive the bus across to the other side along the recently created 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 thought we were told.
After a short distance, 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, put our shoulders 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 had crossed the chasm and we were back in our seats and on our way again– a little muddy, but happy to be beyond all of that confusion.
I speculated that while the bus trip had been chocked full of ridiculous adventure humor and a bit disorganized, things would be getting better, at least from an organizational standpoint, once we reached Tena and ultimately moved on to our destination– the Napo River outpost town of Misahualli.
We finally pulled into Tena about 10:00 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 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. And so, we made a lame excuse as to why we were not going to be able to stay and just left.
We went around the corner and walked up on another one that looked especially nice and appeared to be brand spanking new. By that point, 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 in that pursuit. I’m not sure why we thought the place might be open, but we peered through the glass door nonetheless and lo and behold someone did immediately approach. 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 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 rooms, which were thankfully all on the second floor. Once we got up to them, I was pleased to see that their outsides 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 rest of the hotel was under construction. By this point, I was intent on not letting details such as that concern me. So, once I got the door open, I just went on into the room 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 final 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 at 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. At least I’d had a night to sleep on the whole concept and had come up with a methodology for walking back down the hallway with our cumbersome bags without falling two stories onto the construction debris down below.
The bags slid straight and easily down the walkway since the construction people apparently hadn’t had time to cover the bare cement with whatever it was that 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.
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. We didn’t even mind the five gallon plastic gasoline can sitting upfront on the floorboard 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 keeping to the schedule.
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 place that had “the food here is reality good” sign out in front and decided to just let something 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 orient us to the nuances of the area. He 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. And to top things off he got us set up in a place to stay in town for the night.
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 River as one of our special jungle camp activities on the afternoon of the day after 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. A light rain began to fall within the first hundred yards 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 behind us, although I was never able to come up with a workable plan. In addition to placing us in position to monitor and anticipate possible rescue scenarios, 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, 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 another 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 our experience in the Ecuadorian Oriente that was full of interesting tales and unexpected occurrences. There were plenty of other intriguing situations 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. That would just be too much information. I’ll leave those stories which include the Pampas Grass debacle, the Ecuadorian guide whom we called by the wrong name for a week, and seeing an Andean Wolf appear out of the fog on Cotopaxi to tell another time.
I did come away from the expedition with something other than bug bites and the runs- and it’s the realization that sometimes things make sense in the moment when they’re happening. And in this particular case, 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.