Yasuni: A Little Bit Trapped in the Jungle, Part 2.

After being delivered the news that our way out of the jungle was in fact, closed, I sat back and tried to enjoy my ‘extended stay’ in Ecuador’s Amazon Basin at the Tiputini Biodiversity Station.

“The roads are still closed, and the Waorani protestors are not going to grant us access.”

This foreboding news was followed up with an account of indigenous raids that took place last night, at Tiputini’s sister station down river from where we were staying. We were warned that the same thing would very likely happen to us.

I kept my cool and tried to go about my day like I wasn’t trapped in the Jungle, waiting for indigenous protestors to raid our research station.

On the way to my bunk, I heard some canoes approaching our dock. I stopped dead in my tracks.

Well, this is it, it’s actually happening. I frantically tried to eject the memory card from my camera that they would undoubtedly steal. Just a few minutes ago Santiago advised that we hide our valuable electronics somewhere safe, since the last time the Waorani conducted raids on this station (this has happened before?!), they stole any valuable items they could find.

As I debated whether or not to make a run for the Jungle, I saw that the boats approaching the dock were in fact carrying Santiago and other station employees. They had ventured away from the station to hide the food, petrol and other supplies in the Jungle. It was surreal living in anticipation of an attack. I tried to imagine that whatever happened at Tiputini’s sister station the previous night, was calm and harmonious, enshrouded in peaceful negotiations and human understanding. But it wasn’t. The Waorani were masked and aggressive when they raided the Catholic University.

At the dining hall, everyone passed the time with ease and jovial conversation, in total denial of our vulnerable situation. I sparked a conversation with Kaylie, a primatologist studying the Wooly monkeys. I asked her what a typical day was like for her here, and she summed it up nicely:

“I spend most of my time chasing the monkeys through the jungle and collecting pee samples.”

“Oh, that sounds fun.” I responded, half sarcastically.

“Have you ever come across a Bullet Ant?” I asked. The Bullet Ant has one of the most painful stings in the animal kingdom, and they inhabit every nook and cranny of the forest here.

“Oh, yeah,” she said. “And I have been bored open and stung by them more than once.”

Dear god, woman. “Did it hurt?”

“Not as bad as when I was attacked by fire ants and got stung in the eyeball.”

What a life. I will spare you the descriptive accounts of her repeated encounters with ‘tick bombs.’

Kaylie was a gem among human souls. It’s rare to encounter someone who understands on an almost transcendent level what a personal challenge is. I only wish I had one ounce of her brazen fortitude. I’m also really glad that she did not accompany me on my ‘night walk’ through the Jungle, where I completely unraveled in the presence of Indiana Jones sized bugs. I went full meltdown.

Santiago, my guide, met with me after dinner to take me to the ‘Frog Lake.’ It all sounded innocent enough, so I put on my headlamp, boots, and camera bag, and followed him into the dark.

We hiked on the trail for about 30 minutes, and then, much to my dismay, we went off trail, in the dark, in the Amazon…in the dark (oh wait, I already said that). My hackles went up, as we bushwhacked through innumerable plants, definitely full of bullet ants and tick bombs. As we approached the chatter of frogs, I turned my headlamp up, and was immediately accosted by a large flying insect. I came apart, flailing, and screaming all the while the demon bug stung me repeatedly with its evil little bottom. Santiago came to my rescue with his calm assertive command to turn my light off. He probably said it 5 or 6 times before it finally registered. All I could hear was my brain screaming that if I got stung repeatedly by something, or bit by something poisonous, I was obviously going to die in the Amazon miles away from any medical care.

I finally heard the voice in the storm and threw my headlamp off, and my attacker flew away. Being the dumb little bug that it was, I was only of interest when my light was on.

Frazzled and freaked out, I looked at my guide and the French videographer that accompanied us, and they looked back at me like I just had some kind of seizure.

“The Night Wasp will attack you if you have your light on,” Santiago explained, behind the blinding light of his headlamp. Of course, the “night wasp” was only interested in my headlamp. Figures.

Just a few feet ahead we spotted our first treasure of the night walk. A Rufous Kingfisher perched atop a small twig protruding from the frog pond. His round little body was perfectly balanced on the top of a stick, as he slept the night away. Obviously nothing could bother him, not my bug meltdown, or our lights as we tried to get a good photo of this magical little creature.

We saw incredible frogs.

But mostly I just wanted to get back to the safety of my bunk. I knew the Night Wasp was out there, and waiting to launch another attack. I was like a spooked horse, jumping a mile at everything that moved. They tried to hide it, but my fearless companions were very annoyed with me.

My encounters with with animals in Yasuni were mostly from afar, made close only by the telephoto lens on my camera. My encounters with bugs, however, were of a closer nature.

The next morning over breakfast, I conversed with some researchers about the state of things at the park. I don’t know if it was just me, or the general vibe that tends to linger around breathtaking primordial landscapes nowadays, but all conversations eventually led towards the deterioration of natural landscapes. The scientist next to me had been in Yasuni for months, studying the effects of Spider Monkeys on the local vegetation. So much time, blood, sweat and tears went into accumulating this singular assortment of data that is invaluable in his field. And yet, it all felt somewhat disengaging. Regardless of our individual purpose in Yasuni, there was an ominous cloud hovering over us all: the forest is declining, the species are dying, and soon there won’t be anything in Yasuni left but roads and oil stations. All those numbers, and all that data and time spent collecting monkey pee (yes there is a lot of that in the primatological research field) doesn’t seem to have any direct engagement with the reality of the place. And everyone was well aware of that fact.

It all just felt a bit, disconnected and wretchedly depressing.

There is an old indigenous belief that I read in a Wayde Davis book, The Wayfinders.

The indigenous people believe that the essence of the land on which they live, is entwined with their own perception of the land’s existence. A mountain for example, according to this belief, exists in part because they, the people, see it existing. They believe in the mountain, they acknowledge it, and pay homage to the mountain. The mountain’s very existence is therefore dependent on the act of its seer seeing it and believing in it. Indigenous people interacted with the landscape on a completely different level than we do. And yet, it has proven to be the only sustainable human interaction with the earth. In a way, I think our landscape today has fallen prey to the opposite of this. We no longer interact with the land by acknowledging its being and presence. Modern and educated humans conform the land to their own comforts, desires, and of course, industrial conquests, which is pretty much the opposite of interacting with the land as a living being. I for one, can’t remember a time when I acknowledged the landscape as a living entity. Or a time when I lived with the land, and not simply on it. It’s a foreign concept, one that falls far from the daily grind and hustle and bustle of western society.

As we discussed the inevitable decline of everything that is beautiful in this world, the topic of the Pygmy Marmosets came up. They used to live all around the station. But a few years ago, they took off. I thought the conversation might end there, but I decided to ask the obvious question:

“Does anyone know where they are now?”

“Oh yeah, there is one tree a few minutes up river where they go to eat, every night at 430.”

you’ve got to be kidding me.

First of all: Why didn’t anyone tell me that the worlds tiniest monkey is only a short canoe ride away from here?

Second: can we go there tonight?

Third: how in the world did they find the one tree that these monkeys like to chow down at?

That’t the thing about a research station, you have to know what you want to see, aka, you have to have done some research before you come, if you want to see something amazing. No one is going to freely offer up the best parts of the park.

That evening, before the sun set, I loaded up in the canoe with a videographer and our guide to go find the worlds tiniest monkey.

We parked the boat and scrambled up a muddy embankment. From there it was a short walk to the gum tree. On that short walk however, I had another close encounter of the entomological variety. My guide forgot to tell me that on this side of the river, in this part of Yasuni, all the low hanging leaves are packed full of tiny fire ants that lie in wait to drop onto whatever unlucky mammal passes by.

My camera bag was all over those branches. And I was completely mauled in seconds by innumerable stinging fire ants.

It was awful.

I tried to rid myself of the beasts but it was useless. The ants continued to bite and sting with a fury, but as we approached the monkey tree, I had to endure the pain silently, or our tiny primates would scurry away.
Then the mosquitos came.

“No bug spray. The monkeys don’t like it,” my guide informed us.

Of course. Well, I’m already bitten to pieces by fire ants, bed bugs, and spiders, so I may as well just let these monster mosquitos finish the job. After about 20 minutes, our first monkey made an appearance.

I can’t impress upon you how unspeakably cute this primate was.

It was about the size of my fist, and as it sat perched on a tree, surveying our camera gear, it stuck its little tongue out at us and literally blew my mind to pieces.

Then it jumped onto the gum tree, and proceeded to lick the sap out of tiny little holes along the bark.

The sun was setting, and I got about 4 good shots before my camera decided to ruin my life, and completely seized up on me.

I cried a little, but then I got over it. At least I got a few good clicks in before it the end.

I will never forget those tiny little monkey hands, and that tiny little monkey tongue.

At the dining hall that night, Santiago, approached us with the bubbly aura of a man with a plan. The roads were still closed, he informed us, and the Waorani were steadfast in their opposition to let us through. The resistance was escalating in violence and desperation. A journey by canoe was our only option, and it felt like the clock was ticking. We had supplies enough to last another few days, but after that, an exit would be imperative to refill supplies. Santiago was given the logistical nightmare of planning this journey and ensuring everyone’s safety. We would leave at 4am the following morning and take the Tiputini River to the boarder of Peru. From there, we would take another canoe to on the Napo River, all the way to Coca, Ecuador.

The river was low, so I tried not to think about what would happen if the boat ran aground on these seldom traveled waters. Would they just drag us along the sand bars amidst the cayman and pink dolphins? (Pink dolphins are a real thing, in the Amazon waterways.)

I really didn’t have a choice or a say in the matter. I could go the following morning, or I could stay for another 3 weeks, when the next departure date was scheduled. The local upheaval had Tiputini on a modified time table at the research station, where entry and exit were for necessity only.

I packed my things and tried unsuccessfully to sleep. As I lay there, all I cold do was ponder how in the world I would be able to take potty breaks on the Tiputini River. The river banks are way too muddy to walk through… There are Cayman everywhere, and other things…

So I basically stopped drinking any fluids leading up to the event. Not recommended for health, but necessary for one cursed with a tiny bladder.

Sleep deprived and dehydrated, I boarded the canoe in the dark with about 4 other researchers and station employees. We all quietly took our seats in the dark and trusted the intuition of our captain, as he navigated the narrow and winding Tiputini River with only a flash light to guide him from the front of the boat. We could see the eyes of Cayman as we floated alongside them. The pre-dawn was beautiful and mysterious, and as the sun rose past the jungle canopy, the blanket of fog began to burn off above the water.

By mid morning, it started to rain. The canoe was covered, but we all got soaked. The grand adventure quickly wore off, replaced with endless monotony. As we approached the boarder of Peru, the oil stations multiplied in numbers and size. The Napo River opened up in front of us, widening exponentially. There were barges everywhere, carrying petrol trucks, oil pipes and massive machinery. Roca Fuerte, where we were headed, used to be a biodiversity hot spot similar to Tiputini. It has since been replaced with oil stations and roads.

The fact is, we can’t travel to virgin forests and primitive landscapes and deny the obvious. Maybe 50 years ago you could go, and pretend that change isn’t inevitable, but not anymore. The change is real and irrefutable, and it’s happening now. It’s not a question of preventing it. Witnessing the transformative change is simply a part of the experience. You have to take the good with the bad. And I guess we should all consider ourselves lucky for having the opportunity to witness it at all. Soon, these pristine pockets of wilderness won’t be around at all. So, go get your boots on and get muddy! Seriously, don’t wait.

2 thoughts on “Yasuni: A Little Bit Trapped in the Jungle, Part 2.

  1. Fascinating!!!! Always dreamed of a “true adventure” in the Amazon. Pail Rosolie is a favorite of mine.
    Your stories are priceless!!


    1. Aww thank you Alice!
      I’ve been reading “Wanderlust,” a book about Ida Pfeiffer. Check it out, get adventures were beyond epic. I will check out Paul Rosolie 🙏🤓


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