Wednesday, February 11, 2009

New Years in Sarayaku (Part 1)

The morning we entered the rain forest we stopped first at a vista point to gaze and take pictures. Geographically speaking we were at the far western edge of the Amazon watershed, still in the shadow of the Andes Mountains, some two-thousand miles away from the mouth of the river. I remember being struck by the vast wilderness we could see, and the realization that an even greater vastness stretched on over the horizon. The forest seemed so mighty, and yet we had just seen evidence of its fragility too.

The previous day we had driven from Quito to Puyo (via Banos); today our destination was the village of Sarayaku - a five to seven hour canoe ride from the end of a gravel road. Apart from an airstrip (which was under construction) the Rio Bobonaza is the only road to Sarayaku. We were very privileged to travel on canoes with outboard motors; almost all the people we met traveled via pole-power, which lengthens the trip from five hours to two days.

The canoe ride was long and uncomfortable, but mostly totally amazing. As we went downstream the trees got taller and the forest got denser. There were occasional houses, but mostly just the river, the trees and us. The water-level was fairly low, so the canoe ran aground at most bends in the river and we made slow progress. After about four hours we reached the (largish) village of Pacayaku, and that's where things started to get unusual.

First, we were accosted by new year's eve revelers: two teenage boys dressed in drag and waving naked barbie dolls charged out to greet the boat. They shouted at us to give them some spare change (apparently this is a common Ecuadorian new years tradition) and anyone who didn't got splashed.

Second, we stopped for gasoline at the driver's brother's house and we were invited up to drink some chicha, a (pretty alcoholic) drink made of fermented yuca. A new year's eve party was in full swing - they had a CD player and people made a point to ask the gringas and gringos to dance. At a certain point they turned the CD player off and the whole party walked over to the next house for the next round. The whole thing was fun and pretty raucous (and a little disorienting) and of course, we still hadn't made it to our final destination. So after an hour of dancing and a significant buzz, we piled back into the canoes.

When we finally made it to Sarayacu we heard the news that the other boat (the one with all our bags and our guide) might not make it that night due to a mixup. Despite realizing that we were in the middle of the jungle with only the clothes on our back we weren't stressed, mainly because our hosts were extremely welcoming - they set us up in tents and invited us to join them for the evening's celebrations. (The second boat eventually did arrive shortly after nightfall.)

So we partied and danced and drank chicha and generally had a terrific new year's eve. Once the sun went down it got intensely dark out, and we tromped from house to house (over rusty bridges and down treacherous muddy slopes, etc. etc.) following the music and the crowd. The music was a mix of more mainstream latin dance music with a few CDs worth of Kichwa pop music (which I would love to find a CD of).

At midnight they burned effigies representing bad things from the year past. And then we (exhausted) tumbled into our tent. More to come in another post, but here's the picasa slideshow from this leg of the trip.

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