When: August, 1999
Who: My twin sister Cat and me
What: Ayahuasca Journey with a Shaman
Why: Transformative Healing
First published in the Lafayette Journal & Courier, Lafayette, Indiana, February 20, 1977
By COLLEEN McGUIRE
The Spanish word for equator is Ecuador, whose capital, Quito, lies within 25 kilometers of the zero degree longitude line. Quito holds the distinction of being the second-highest capital in the world. The city’s unusual geographical position makes for very warm days and downright chilly evenings.
I found Quito’s charm in the old southwestern section of the city where steep, winding streets dip into deep ravines that have either been filled or have stone viaducts built over them. Plaza Independencia, the heart of the city, was a perfect example of Quito’s huge plazas that are dominated by ornate churches. Nearby was the monastery of San Francisco, the earliest religious foundation in South America (1535), as well as an astronomical observatory, also the oldest in South America.
From high in my hotel room I could safely marvel at the arched bridges, towering steeples, domes and the Pichincha Volcano. I almost preferred this passive method of observing Quito, as strolling through the town is not always pleasant.
I’ve visited many cities in my travels, but I must confess that I’ve never come across one that smelled so much of urine as Quito. Certain cobblestone streets that look enticing for strolling turn out to be torture for the nose. What amazed me was that the stench is not confined to one area, but rather you caught whiffs of the strong odor throughout the entire old city. Businessmen carrying briefcases are as guilty as the native Indians in perpetuating this nasty habit.
The native Indian population forms a large part of Quito’s interesting personality. Many of the men pull their long jet black hair back into a braided ponytail. They wear fedora-like hats, woolen ponchos and, when they are not barefoot, their shoes seem as skimpy as ballet slippers. The women also wear the same brown felt hats as the men, giving them a rugged masculine appearance. Babies are wrapped in a blanket or shawl tied around the mother’s back, papoose-style.
The, Indians are a short race to begin with, but shrink even further from the immense weights they carry. I saw their bent-over bodies hobbling down the streets with unfathomably heavy objects tied to their backs, such as mattresses, desks, or huge sacks of potatoes, all to be sold in the market. When they unload the pounds, their backs fail to arise erectly. The shortest of gringos towers over the native Indians.
Ecuador is rich in oil. The reserves lie in the eastern area of the country, the Oriente, which is untamed equatorial jungleland. I took an eight-hour bus ride from Quito down to Lago Agrio, the temperature lowering as the hours ticked off. Following the gravel road the entire length of the trip was the mighty pipeline carrying Ecuador’s future wealth to the Esmeralda coast where most of the oil is shipped to California.
I had to spend the evening in Lago Agrio, whose population basically consists of men employed by the oil companies. The men passed their hours drinking beer and gawking wildly at any member of the female sex — particularly if she happened to be a gringa in shorts. Between the weather and the men, it was a toss-up as to which was more oppressive.
The next day I was able to catch a bus to Coca, it was about a two-hour ride entailing the crossing of two rivers, and twice all the passengers had to collect their luggage, take a ferry to the opposite bank and reload it on another bus. This was no chore for a backpacker, but several passengers had all sorts of cumbersome possessions, and one woman was transporting two mattresses and several chairs.
Finally I arrived at Coca, a small river village with plenty of American engineers employed by Gulf or Texaco. I noticed enviously that from their living quarters protruded the ultimate in tropical luxury — air conditioners. My intentions in coming to Coca were to look for some means of water transportation to Rocafuerte, Ecuador’s eastern border town to Peru.
Normally there is sufficient river traffic on the Napo to easily procure a ride from the natives in their dug-out canoes at a small cost. However, it hadn’t rained in several weeks, making the waters unusually low and highly difficult for traveling.
The scarcity of native boats forced me to search for other alternatives. The Ecuador navy had a small base in Coca, so I figured it could help me out. Luck was with me as a crew was going down to Rocafuerte that very day. After I had a short, but persistent, conversation with Lt. Francisco Espinosa he allowed me to accompany him and his men.
The troops were outfitted entirely in U.S. Marine uniforms. The boat was from Britain and I recognized their weapons as the Uzi submachine gun of Israel. Lt. Espinosa’s cotton T-shirt was from Red China. Except for the Ecuadorian flag waving in the breeze, all their equipment, from knives to canned goods, seemed to be foreign.
Cruising down the Napo River is a spectacular event. The land is a jungle of dense green foliage on both banks. As we sped by isolated thatched huts, the children would run to the river’s edge and wave at the military boat as if its passing were the big event of the day. We passed natives in dug-out canoes loaded with bananas, paddling by with long poles as oars.
In this dry season with the waters so low, giant sand bars came out of their rainy hibernation, filling the Amazon tributary with scattered lonely beaches. Llori, the young soldier guiding the boat, did an amazing job of avoiding the sand bars. In a way he reminded me of the Bedouin tribes in the Middle East. Those nomads can travel the desert and know precisely where water hides beneath the sand. Llori, a native of the Oriente, can travel the equatorial rivers and know precisely where sand hides beneath the waters.
Only twice on the trip did Llori get stuck in sand bars. Lt. Espinosa ordered his crew to get out and push. The men were only waist deep in water, but the current was so vicious that they had trouble maintaining their balance, let alone freeing the boat.
The first time we got stuck, I stupidly jumped overboard to help, but the current was far more powerful than I realized, and I found myself helplessly floating downstream. I was only carried a short distance, since I managed to cling forcefully to a huge, stationary branch. Lt. Espinosa immediately came to my aid, terminating my frantic fantasy of floating into the obscurity of the Amazon.
We stopped for lunch at a small village called Panacocha, which turned out to hold a colony of Frenchmen involved in oil explorations.
Juanta was on the luncheon menu. “Is Juanta like a cow?” I asked. “No,” replied the lieutenant. “Nor is it a pig.” I caught a look at the head of the animal in the cooking area and noticed it was rather small, with two good sized tusks. I told the lieutenant that it looks like juanta could be a boar in English, but he smiles and said, “Muchacha, juanta is only found in the equatorial jungle, so I doubt if the word exists in your language.” Well, whatever it was I ate, it was delicious.