The first steps I took in the Andes of Ecuador were like walking through thick molasses. Immediately I had no choice but to slow down. Literally. Adjusting to altitude pressure is a peculiar experience. Though I wanted to move fast, I had no choice but to move in slow motion. The altitude in Quito is approximately 2800 meters (9350 feet) above sea level. The air thin and dry; my lungs anxious at first, yearning for the moist air they’ve become accustomed to living on the Pacific coast. Air-hunger is a terrible feeling; however if each step was taken with care and thoughtfulness, the symptoms would abate. First, we spent a few days – which felt like a few weeks – in the beautiful Andean village named San Clemente. The pace of life was inspiring. Despite children to raise, no modern convienances like dish washers or hot water, and the hard work of home-steading animals and tending gardens, the people moved as if there was all the time in the world. Joy and peace filled their faces, presence and care poured into their daily tasks with grace.
Breakfast potato cakes were cooked in the kitchen fireplace. A typical Ecuadorian meal is potato-quinoa soup with avocado garnished atop. The food simple with few to no spices, however exquisite as it’s made with incredible love and care.
The quiet, gentle, and slow nature of the people here is inspiring. Life is simple yet so rich with fertile soil, healthy families, and meaningful celebrations like those of the Equinoxes and Solstices. These are are days of celebration that light up community life nourishing heart and spirit.
After a 6 hour bus-ride, 1 hour bush plane ride and then a very long canoe ride, we finally made it to the Amazon rainforest. Hundreds of kilometers from the modern world, the vast contrast of reality was so vivid, so palpable, I simply cried. These tears were not of grief or joy, but of astonishment.
Waiting for the rest of my group (the bush planes were small and came in batches) the Achuar people simply surrounded us from a distance, taking us in with their eyes from afar. Curious, and void of the social pretenses that we are so used to (of Hello’s or shaking of hands) they were raw, unapologetic in their curiosity, which I appreciated.
The air of the rainforest is soft, silky, moist, so comfortable. The rains when they came were warm and fell in fat drops. Children, perhaps 3-4 years old ran around with machete’s and knives used to harvest plants or animals, their keen sense of skill far better then mine would ever be.
The sun sets early on the equator at approximately 6.30PM, the same time we happen to hit shore and had to hike in to the place we were sleeping that night. Yes, my first introduction to the Amazon Rainforest was hiking in at night! In thick, deep mud. Thankfully, there were about 11 of us doing this together, plus several Achuar among us leaving me with a sense of safety.
The rainforest comes alive at night, the sounds nearly deafening mostly with insects.
As was so typical of each day, time expanded. Each day felt like a week. Hikes to the sacred Tree of Life, the Capoc or Saboo tree, whose roots are mostly above ground, was something out of a fairytale or ancient other-world.
I learned the rainforest is not a hostile place, but one that is gentle, nurturing, soft. The sounds of exotic birds, monkeys and large insects filled the air with music.
Food was served on a banana leaf, simple fish, heart of palm, and plantain cooked over the open fire.
We woke at 3AM, hiked to the Shaman’s house to drink an astringent purgative tea served in gourds intended to cleanse you so you may “start a new life” each day. After the purging, we shared dreams until sunrise, a means of preparing our intent for the day. The Achuar are a dreaming tribe, they rely on their dreams to forecast that days work, the health of family, and to understand the larger cosmo vision that governs their spiritual life.
They do not drink water. Instead, the women of the community chew manioc root while going about their daily work, and spit the masticated pulp into a large ceremic vessel that ferments for 2-3 days. After the fermentation, it’s ready to drink. Women serve the chicha to everyone as their primary form of hydration. This fermented beverage makes the nutrients (starch, minerals, vitamins) bioavailable, and generates good bacteria to outweigh the potentially harmful ones, fostering good digestive health and nourishing hydration.
Everything they use, they make themselves. The backpacks to carry food or other supplies they’ve harvested from the forest; the bowls made from the clay; and their houses – simply a thatched roof and four posts. Each house lasts approximately 15 years, and takes one year to make. These houses contain no walls or floors. They are simply a roof to protect from the heavy rains.
Being in the rainforest felt like I was going back in time, thousands of years. It was an emotional experience, saddening, as I reflected on how far, far away my culture is from living in such peace and contentment. Yet I left hopeful, and inspired these people and their wisdom still exist. We have a lot to learn from them. I was reminded that tribal hunter-gatherers are truly the richest people on the earth: they have the luxury of time and the luxury of abundant resources. They do not spend their days working fields, or building resource-demanding homes. They have time to be with each other. There is little manipulation of the natural world. They experience little fear or anxiety.
The Achuar are among the last remaining tribes on the planet to make contact with the Westernized world. The story of how they did is a fascinating one that I encourage you to read here.
I feel very blessed to have gone on this journey, it feels like a once in a life time pilgrimage. Certainly not an eco-tourism vacation. The impact of this journey is still reverberating through me, and probably always will. It’s inspired me to use our natural resources even more carefully. Deepen my spiritual practice. Walk gently on the land. To remember there are more realities existing at the same time as our consensus reality. Be aware of the sway our government has on us. Resist the pipeline.
I went on this journey with a social justice organization called the Pachamama Alliance. They do amazing work in the world and I recommend checking them out. What I love, is they are not there “helping” indigenous people, they truly are an alliance. In fact, at the beginning of their relationship with the Achuar people, an Achuar elder was remembered as saying to the American founder of the Alliance:
“If you’re here because you want to help us, well then don’t bother. But if you’re here because you know your destiny and survival is inter-woven with ours, well then let’s work together.”
They say that if you go on one of these journeys, your destiny has called you to do so. I’m happy to say I heard the call and I answered.