Thursday, 1 May 2008

Our 10:20am flight finally took off from Quito at 3:30pm, and twenty five minutes later we touched down in Coca. A man we met in the waiting room had a Sacha Lodge shirt on, we were both headed there, and he kept saying things like, “We never leave this late. This is a really small plane. We never fly in a plane this small.” This did nothing to instill confidence in Clay, wisely he didn’t say anything to me or I would have been a nervous wreck. Benji and I sat right next to the propeller and he loved watching it start to spin, faster and faster, until we couldn’t see it anymore.

Our itinerary said that when we arrived in Coca, we’d be ushered to a private house for lunch before embarking on a two and a half hour canoe ride down the Napo River, to reach the lodge. Since we arrived so late, we were in a hurry to get to the lodge before dark, so we took off quickly with just a short bathroom stop. A woman handed us some sack lunches to eat on the way, the Sacha Lodge shirt man told us it would take an hour and a half. I guess they can turn up the speed if they need to! Our canoe was a long boat, it could seat three people across one bench and fit our backpacks and duffels in the back, wrapped up tight in waterproof bags. It had four bench seats and two motors on the back, and was also carrying a lot of supplies for the lodge. A boy sat up front and gave hand signals to the driver in back when he needed to swerve to avoid logs or submerged rocks.

Our other passengers were some villagers who live across the river from the lodge, they had been waiting since morning for a ride back to their village. Since our flight had been delayed, they had waited a long time. Sacha Lodge offers free rides to local villagers along the way. None of us were hungry and we handed over our sandwiches and fruit, eating just a few oranges and bananas ourselves. The Sacha Lodge shirt man (we still didn’t know his name) chatted with the villagers while we sat in back and kept our eyes peeled for wildlife. We stared and stared and stared into the jungle that slid past us, but saw nary a creature, except a few birds.

This was not what I expected, I thought we’d see tons of wildlife, especially at this time of day, coming down to get a drink as evening approached. The kids got so bored they resorted to playing one of my least favorite killing-time games, called “sausage”. The way you play the game is, you ask a person a question, and they have to say “sausage” in reply. As in, “What’s your name? Sausage. Do you want to play this game? Sausage. How long is your nose? Sausage.”

And so on, and so on, and so on. So there we were, playing sausage as we rode down the Napo River through the Amazon rainforest. We did arrive in just an hour and forty minutes, making great time. We hustled off our motorized canoe and then followed a man in a backpack down a long boardwalk for about twenty minutes. The path was made of boards elevated above the swampy ground beneath us, and the boards were very slippery. Benji insisted on skipping as he tried to keep up with our rapid pace, we were still trying to beat the dark. I kept calling out to him to stay on the black tread attached to the middle of our path to keep people from slipping, I was really worried he was going to slip and fall under the high railings, right into the black water on either side of our path.

The water is black because leaves fall into it and release tannin. It looked like tea was being steeped all around us. As we walked deeper into the jungle we began to notice strange sounds all around us, animal and bird calls I didn’t recognize. I could easily imagine a caiman (a small, alligator-like creature) slinking along beside us. We stopped to watch a couple of squirrel monkeys climbing in the trees above. This was more like it. Clay asked the man in the Sacha shirt why there was no wildlife along the main river, he explained that when the oil companies and lots of people moved in, the wildlife left those particular areas.

We finally reached the end of the path, and clambered into a different canoe. Beside us, men were tossing goods into a canoe, it turns out the Thursday boat is the supply boat, we watched as they tossed boxes of orange juice and wine and toilet paper into the canoe, filling it so full I thought it would sink. This canoe was much thinner, we sat one behind the other while the man in the Sacha shirt sat in front to paddle, and another man paddled in the rear. It was quiet, we could hear the sounds of frogs and locusts, the sounds of night were closing in all around us. We silently slipped down a corridor of tall reeds, coming out into the wider lake, glassy smooth and still.

After bumping up to a wooden dock, we were ushered up to the second floor of the dining room, where we met our guide for the next five days, the man in the Sacha shirt! He introduced himself as Efrain, or Efi (EFF-ee), perhaps he’d been reluctant to declare himself as our guide until he checked with the office to make sure this was true. We sipped some drinks and ate some snacks, then walked down another raised boardwalk path to find our cabins. They are perfect, two bedrooms with a room in between for playing games and hanging out. We have space! It seems especially luxurious after our last night at the funky hotel, all five of us squashed together, straddling duffels to get across the room. Each bedroom has a porch with a hammock strung up on it, I can’t wait to try it out. They look out into the jungle, even through the dark I could see the trees coming right up to our cabins.

We’ll have lunch at 1, dinner at 7:30, each day. Our wakeup call is set tomorrow for 5:30am (!) because it’s best to get out early when the animals are out and about, before the heat of the day sets in. This place works kind of like the safaris in Africa, we’ll do a morning excursion, come back for lunch and go back out around 4 for an afternoon excursion before dinner. We’ll also do a couple of night excursions to see the nocturnal beasts. There are anacondas here, and our guide said you can swim in the lake with piranhas. I’m sure we’ll have big adventures in the next five days. We ate our buffet dinner, got fitted in rubber boots for slogging through the jungle, and then went to bed, we’ll need plenty of sleep to fuel up.


Friday, 2 May 2008

We woke up in the middle of the night to the sound of rain falling gently all around us. Our cabins have screened half walls all around, so the sounds of the jungle, and the rain, were all around us. It is a soft sound, the drops cushioned by our thatch roofs and layers and layers of leaves on the ground. I fell back asleep, snuggling deeper into my pillow until we got our wake-up knock. We met Efi for breakfast at 6:30, the rain still fell. We agreed to delay our excursion to 8, rain or no rain. We had a peaceful hour, the kids played legos, and at 5 ‘til 8 we pulled on our rubber boots and headed into the forest with Efi and two other men, one who carried a telescope and the other training to be a guide.

Oh my gosh, I love rubber boots. You can walk, anywhere, do anything, in rubber boots. We walked through the squelchiest, squirtiest mud that sucked at our feet. Big, muddy puddles were nothing, I never realized how often I watch the ground when I’m walking, especially on this trip. You always have to be on the lookout for dog poo and bubble gum and any number of other hazards, but with rubber boots, it doesn’t matter. I gloried in this new found freedom along with the kids. Benji especially loved finding the muddiest of muddy bogs to squash into, and while his boots came almost to his knees, just like ours, his knees are a lot closer to the mud, so his pants got really dirty.

We came across all sorts of dangerous and poisonous specimens as we walked. Efi picked up a millipede and explained that you know it’s a millipede if it has two pairs of legs coming from each body section, and this particular one was a male because on its fifth section it only had one pair of legs. If it is squeezed, it will squirt out cyanide (yes, actual cyanide) and when we quizzed the kids on one of the uses of cyanide we’ve seen on the trip, Alayna piped right up and said they used it to extract gold from ore in Australia. Victory, they are retaining things! The millipede is reluctant to release its cyanide because it takes a lot of energy to produce it. So, unless you really squeeze it, there’s no danger. Next Efi picked up a frog that had enough poison in its tiny blue body to kill one hundred people. Same thing, don’t mess with him too much and he won’t release the poison. A company has actually figured out how to make a pain numbing medication a lot more powerful than morphine, but they didn’t disclose that they were using this frog to make it, and so it hasn’t been released. Bred in captivity, the frog won’t produce the poison, it’s so interesting how nature works.

The poisonous frog feeds on army ants, which we also passed. Efi saw millions of them swarming a tree and crossing our path in a busy line, he told us to run through them and then stamp our boots around to make sure they didn’t get on us, they have a nasty sting. The locals call them, “take your clothes off” ants because their bite is so painful. He said they devour anything in their path, I thought it was kind of funny that we were so afraid of such tiny creatures, there is indeed strength in numbers!

We saw several kinds of trees that produce thorns on their bark, like giant rose bushes, to protect themselves from invading vines. We saw giant kapok trees, and huge ficus trees which reminded us of the ones we saw in Buenos Aires. Some of the trees send out roots three foot above the ground to balance the tall, top-heavy trees like a tripod. A snake slithered across our path, a harmless one. It is fascinating how they move so quickly with no visible limbs, they are so slinky and evil looking. We saw a giant tree snail, its long feelers moving out towards us like an alien. Across our path, strange red and orange roots crept, like capillaries.

The area of forest we squelched through is called primary growth, it has never been chopped down or cleared. It was muddy because of the rainfall, there were very few wooden planks for sturdier footing, just a path cut through the forest. We eventually reached an enormous tower and began to climb, by this time the rain had stopped. It took our breath away to think of how long it must have taken to cart all the materials into the jungle and construct this giant canopy, 120 feet above the ground. Last year there’s no way the boys would have climbed to the top of that tower, they were both afraid of heights, but they’ve become very brave on this trip and scrambled right up. It was so nice to be at low altitude. Our bodies eventually acclimatized to the higher altitudes of La Paz, Cusco, and Quito, but it was never easy exerting ourselves on stairs or hills.

At the top of the tower we walked across a thin bridge constructed between two towers, it swung slightly as we stepped and we could see, far below us, the forest floor, between the planks of wood the bridge was made from. Before we got to the next tower, Alayna looked down and noticed the first of many birds we would see from this great height. It was cool to observe with the naked eye the ivory billed toucan, so close we could see all its colors and the way its beak had a zigzag red line that looked like teeth. At the tower Efi and the other two men set up the telescope and got busy with the binoculars, it was amazing the things they could spot. They spotted a white hawk at least ten miles away. We saw a three-toed sloth, looking right at us through our telescope lens, and some sleeping howler monkeys. We saw four different kinds of toucans, a woodpecker, and lots of other kinds of birds. Efi explained that the canopy walk is what makes Sacha Lodge so different from the many other lodges in the jungle, from this height you get above the tree line and can see for great distance, exposing so many other species.

The noises all around us were intriguing. Toucans called to each other, howler monkeys sounded like a wind storm far away, a deep rumble. The bird songs were very distinct up there, and eventually the insects began to hum. Efi explained the insects are smart in the jungle, they come out just as the birds are falling asleep. After an hour or so, we walked across another hanging bridge to the third tower, where we climbed back down to the forest floor.

As we walked back to the lodge, we spotted a couple of owls peering at us from a tree. Their long, white eyebrows made them look very distinguished. We also came across a turtle, perfectly camouflaged in the brown mud. We stopped while one of the men, Ivan, chopped a brown fruit in half with his machete, on the inside it was white like a coconut. When the fruit is ripe, it is soft inside and they carve the meat, and when it sits in the air it gets very hard. I could see Alayna carving that white stuff into little people or animals. We passed orange mushrooms and poisonous purple plants and a bright orange and yellow flower. Everywhere we looked we saw something interesting, heard leaves or branches falling and birds calling. The ground was heavy with rotting leaves and logs, there was green everywhere.

When we got back we squirted off our boots with a hose, changed Benji out of his dirty pants, which are now designated as his “hiking” pants, and hung out until lunch. We considered swimming in the piranha infested lake, which the lodge swears is safe, but the sun wasn’t out and we decided to save it for another day. After lunch the kids went fishing for those piranhas, they used cane poles with a fishing line tied to them, small hooks at the end where they baited raw meat. Their bait was stolen every time, sometimes by smaller fish, and sometimes with a big jerk from a piranha. Ivan caught several piranhas. The best spot to find them was in the water under the dock, Ivan would drop his line between the boards of the dock, there was just enough space to pull the fish through once it was hooked.

He would pull back their lips and show us the sharp little teeth, they really did look vicious. Ivan even saved the biggest of the piranha, he promised to grill it for dinner on Sunday. We had a moment of excitement when we thought Clay had caught one, he yanked it up to reveal a tiny sardine, it’s amazing the fish could even fit the hook in its mouth, it was so little. He contemplated using it for bait for a piranha, but Ivan said it wouldn’t work.

We tried to get the kids to take a nap before our next excursion since we had a late night hike into the jungle after dinner, it worked for everyone but Benji, who just couldn’t settle into a nap. We took a canoe ride late in the afternoon, going across the lake and then in among the reeds through little channels cleared for our canoes. We went down a small stream, finding interesting birds and trees along the way, it was very quiet and peaceful. When we came back to the wider portion of the lake, the sun was setting, the water a mirror to the pink sky. Beautiful.

During dinner, Benji laid his head down on my lap and fell asleep. A late night excursion just wasn’t going to happen for him. Clay took the bigger kids and I stayed behind, I wasn’t too keen on finding creepy crawlies after dark anyway. There haven’t been many times when Benji couldn’t keep up with everyone else, he’s been a tough six-year-old. I dozed off until Clay and the kids returned, with stories of ants that have bites that feel like a bullet, frogs and big spiders. On that creepy note, we all went to sleep, the sounds of the jungle night all around us.


Saturday, 3 May 2008

This morning I heard someone knocking and thought it must be our wake up knock, on the kids’ door. I went to their room, flung the door open, and yelled “good morning!” so the person knocking would know we were awake. The knocking stopped, but something didn’t feel right. Nobody stirred, they were sacked out. I went back to our room to check my watch, which read 5am. We weren’t supposed to have our knock until 5:45, I was hearing someone else’s wake up knock. I lay back down but never really slept, troubled by a conversation we had the night before with Efi about how unsafe camping has become around Quito because of criminal activity. This led my thinking to guerrillas from Columbia, wondering how far we were from the Columbian border, and whether I could zip all three kids up in our duffel to hide them if someone were to come and try to kidnap us. I was wide awake at 5:45 when our knock came.

After breakfast we all pulled on our rubber boots and boarded a canoe for a trip down a different stream. We forgot the boys’ raincoats, the binoculars, and our new bird book so we can check off what we’ve seen, being in a hurry to get going. Once again the canoe ride was quiet and peaceful. Efi pointed out different varieties of ginger growing along the banks, orchids on the trees, a mushroom you can eat, and a whole colony of spiders which had spun a 3D web with all different levels. Like a spider apartment complex.

We arrived at a small wooden dock and disembarked, then hiked through the jungle, it was a little less squelchy than our hike yesterday. We arrived at an enormous kapok tree, being taken over by a strangler fig. Surrounding this huge tree was a series of wooden steps that led up into the leafy treetop, we began to climb. At the top, we were rewarded with another stunning view of the jungle. Because of an approaching storm, we didn’t see nearly as many interesting birds as the day before. We did see some howler monkeys, camped out in the treetops, and a few new species of birds.

The other group left, but we remained, hoping to see some more, but then the rain started. The boys didn’t have raincoats, I became Benji’s moveable tent as he picked up my poncho and used it to shelter his head. The boys don’t fit into the ponchos the lodge provides. Nate wore a poncho for awhile, it draped to the floor and he soon tired of it. The kids found a baby tarantula and began to play with it as we waited for the rain to stop, high above the jungle. They let it crawl on their hands, making bridges from person to person, and then put it in a small hollow of the tree and used a leaf for the roof. All this time the rain continued, and birds don’t come out in the rain. The howler monkeys remained in their perch at the tops of the trees, but they weren’t doing anything interesting, just hunched over, waiting for the rain to stop. Just like us.

Eventually we decided to head on down, I thought we’d head back to the canoes but Efi had other plans in mind. A little hike through the jungle was in order, so we sloshed and splashed our way through what was once again a very squelchy forest floor. Benji continued to use my poncho for a “hood”, I had a hard time seeing where to put my feet and kept stumbling. Benji had a hard time keeping his balance while holding onto the poncho, he kept slipping and sliding as well. I finally told Benji to just let himself get wet, it wasn’t so bad on the rainforest floor, anyway, with all those branches above us blocking the drips.

We crossed a bridge and stopped to listen to Efi talk about the electric eels that live in the creek, he said several scientists have come to study them because there are so many. They each have about a 500 volt charge, and they electrify the water around them, stunning fish so they can eat them. We continued onwards, to a point where our trail became submerged. I wondered where those electric eels were. I was also a little worried the water would come above Benji’s low rubber boots so I hoisted him up on one hip and carried him across, holding on to a hand rail for balance. This hike was not so fun. I was wet, there were possibly electric eels swimming around my feet, and we were all in peril of ruining our only pair of clean clothes. As a side note, I don’t recommend bringing only two changes of clothes to the rainforest.

It was right about this point in the hike that we got to the zip line. Nobody told me about a zip line. It was a wooden seat attached to a line that zipped high above a shallow creek. Benji was way too small to ride on that by himself, I immediately decided he would ride in my lap. It turns out he would need to do that very thing anyway, he wasn’t heavy enough to get the zip line all the way to the other side on his own. I sat down, got Benji balanced on my lap, and holding onto him tightly we zipped across. It was actually pretty fun, I loved watching Alayna and Nate’s face as they came across.

After everyone got across, we continued slogging through the jungle, not seeing anything very interesting because most sensible creatures were hiding out until the rain stopped. We got back to our canoe, where I sat behind Benji and draped my poncho over his head. We were all pretty quiet, except Nate who started singing the Gidget theme song until we made him stop. Suddenly, we saw some rustling up in the branches, then more. Monkeys! We stopped the canoe, first we saw some capuchin monkeys, who stay only in small family groups, no more than seven. We even got a look at a Mama capuchin with a baby on her back. There’s something very rewarding about seeing things in the jungle, instead of in a zoo. You have to work harder to see them, you have to be patient and slog through mud and get wet, and crane your neck way up to get a glimpse. But when you do, it’s pretty exciting.

After the capuchins crossed over our heads, we saw some squirrel monkeys in their wake. At first just one or two, but soon the jungle around us was just teeming with little monkeys, we saw them everywhere! There were at least 100 of them. Some just silhouetted high above us, climbing up the trunks of the palm trees, but some much closer. Some were just a few feet away, we could see their faces. They made amazing jumps from tree to tree, sometimes landing with a rustle in a palm frond that swayed wildly with their tiny weight. They would bob back and forth, then leap again to another branch. It was such a thrill, after a fairly slow morning, to see these little guys.

After most of them had passed we glided back to the lodge. There were snacks in the dining room, really buttery popcorn, like the movie theater, and little square of cheese cakes and fruit and sticks with chocolate on them. Alayna and I grabbed some snacks and headed back to the room to change out of our gross clothes, the boys lingered behind. They arrived about ten minutes later with big news, they had spotted a large, unusual creature lurking just below the boardwalk of the lodge. A cross between a caiman and a lizard, it’s actually called a caiman lizard. We don’t have to go far to find something interesting. I could look out our window and see hundreds of different things growing, things with bright red leaves or flowers. Of course I had to look past the pants that hung from the curtain rods, trying to dry before our next trip out in the afternoon.

Clay caught two piranhas after lunch, one was very tiny, and one was saved for dinner tomorrow night. Nate caught one as well, so fat Ivan had to go under the dock to get it off the hook because it wouldn’t fit through the boards Nate dropped the line through. During our afternoon hike we started by going behind our cabins, where we saw some tiny little Pygmy marmoset monkeys. Alayna resolved to return and study these specimens later, she’s hoping if she’s very still they’ll come a little closer. We went further into the forest, Efi pointed out a very special tree called the Dragon Blood tree. Ivan, who Nate dubbed our “machete man”, cut into the trunk of the tree with his machete and gathered some sap on a leaf. It turns out Ivan is our native guide and will be on all of our excursions. He lives not far from here and knows how the local people have lived in the rainforest for centuries. He speaks very little English but is really knowledgeable and talented. Efi explained that the sap is used by locals to put on small cuts or skin abrasions. The sap is brown and runny, but when rubbed on the skin, it turns white and creamy.

We saw all sorts of interesting trees and plants, used to cure what ails you. Ivan pointed out a special bee hive whose honey is used to patch canoes or make a waxy substance that can start up fires. He also showed us a special plant with long green leaves that reminded me of monkey grass. He split the leaves open, and with great patience he carefully removed the inner white filmy layer from several pieces, then rolled these white bits together to make a rope so strong none of us could break it. Locals used this rope to weave hammocks or bags, it takes so long to obtain the ropes, they now buy nylon instead.

We came across a huge colony of leaf cutter ants, thousands of them, diligently transporting their bits of leaves down holes and into their nest. We looked closer and saw smaller ants on top of each piece of leaf, it is their job to clean the leaves of any parasite or fungus before they entered the nest. Nearby was a small beehive, Efi said whenever you see these leaf cutter ants you see this type of bee, they must have some sort of symbiotic relationship, and yet nobody knows what it is. Scientists haven’t discovered it yet, there is a lot scientists have yet to discover about the rainforest. Like why the conga ant is always found on the trunks of dragon blood trees. The trees rarely have any vines growing on them, and the leaves don’t get eaten, but what does the conga ant get in return for protecting the dragon blood tree? And there are gobs of different kinds of fungus growing in the rainforest, red and orange mushrooms, delicate white ones that have never even been identified.

We spotted a tree with a thorn shaped like a cat’s nail, which scientists have recently discovered can be made into a medicine for treating prostate cancer. Another tree was good for snake bites, locals use it when they can’t get to a hospital. We learned that vanilla comes from an orchid, we dipped our fingers into the sap of the rubber tree and tested how sticky they became, we smelled a tree used to treat bronchitis. It smelled like garlic and avocado, the guacamole tree!

The rainforest is so amazing. It’s huge, so overwhelming, and then you hunker down and look closely at just a small patch, and see a whole tiny ecosystem going on, with spiders and little ants and tiny, hidden flowers. Towards the end of our hike, we came across a bunch of squirrel monkeys, high up in the trees. We craned our necks and watched them jumping from branch to branch. Their bodies were silhouetted against the white sky, they looked like superman, flying through the air with their bodies totally stretched out, crossing impossible distances, but never missing their mark.

After dinner we did a short canoe ride around the lake in the dark. Efi warned us we probably wouldn’t see much, and we didn’t. But it was fun, gliding across the still waters with the frogs croaking and every once in awhile a bat swooping in front of the canoe. The kids played with their flashlights, seeing how far they could shine into the sky, comparing their strength with Efi’s huge, high powered flashlight. It is a big world, and we are way out in it. No roads lead to Sacha lodge, the only way to get here is by boat. I think this is the farthest I’ve felt from civilization, and yet in just twelve days we’ll be home.


Sunday, 4 May 2008

This morning we got to sleep in, we didn’t get our wake up knock until 6am! We were so late to breakfast, everyone else got there before us and ate all the pancakes, Benji was really depressed. We took a long hike and canoe ride in the morning, finding ever new species of plants and insects. Ivan showed us how locals make an animal trap, he sent a log flinging into the air and we could just imagine a poor agouti (a fairly large black, rodent-like animal found in the forest) hanging by its back leg. We can now pick out certain sounds we hear as we walk along, the howler monkeys or a toucan, but we guess wrong most of the time.

We had no real agenda for the hike, we’d already seen so much on previous excursions, so we were happy to just tromp behind Ivan and Efi, who always have something new to point out. That feeling, of heading out into a shadowy forest, thick with vines and giant trees, is such a thrill in itself. Ivan found a fruit that can be used to stain clothes, and we decided this late into the trip the kids can stain their clothes all they want. The fruit makes a pretty star-in-a-circle pattern when cut, and then can be pressed to cloth like a stamp, leaving behind a sticky substance similar to latex. The kids were all stamped.

After returning, Nate, Alayna, and Clay decided it was time to swim with the piranhas. The skies were cloudy, it was the coldest we’ve felt since we’ve been here, and a fine drizzle began to fall, but they just couldn’t pass up this chance of a lifetime. They each took the plunge from a raised platform, splashing into the inky black water, while just a few feet away Ivan fished for piranha with raw meat. They swam to the side and climbed out pretty darn quick, it was cold, but now they can say they’ve done it, and lived to tell the tale. After drying off, they all tried fishing again. Nate caught another piranha, the others had no luck.

In the afternoon we took another hike/canoe ride. Before boarding the canoe, Ivan crushed up berries in half a small gourd, then used a small stem to paint the kids faces with red berry juice before we ventured out into the anaconda swamp. Efi said anacondas have often been seen in this particular spot, but they are still rare, he said they see one maybe every three months or so. It is the one big thing we’d still like to see before we leave, but we had no luck this afternoon. We did see long black trails where the grass had been crushed down, places where a giant anaconda had slid its way into the swamp.

On the way back to the lodge, Ivan cut some big leaves to be used in grilling the piranha. The leaves are unusual in that they don’t burn for a long time. Efi pointed out a black termite nest in a tree, telling us villagers once used them to transport fire from place to place. They were the only things that would burn in their damp environment, the inside of them is full of millions of dry cells that keep it burning for a long time. We noticed long, black trails on the sides of some of the trees. Termites are blind, and their bodies easily dry out in the sun, so they need these dark places to crawl around in. I feel full of facts, we learn something new all the time. We unwrapped the leaves at our barbecue dinner and each took a bite of the piranha that night, the flesh was soft but it was chock full of tiny little bones, so a little hard to eat.

As we were finishing up dinner, Nate asked Efi what we would be doing in the morning, and Efi said we were leaving. I told him I didn’t think so, he ran to the office to check, and like we thought, we’re staying until Tuesday. This frazzled Efi, who had to come up with something for us tomorrow, but we’re sure he’ll pull through. He’s got enough information in his head to guide us around for weeks, and I’m fairly certain we haven’t entirely exhausted what this rainforest has to offer.


Monday, 5 May 2008

Efi checked to see if we could do the canopy walk again. Most groups just get to do it once because it’s so popular, but it was free this morning because the new arrivals aren’t here and the current groups have already been. Efi said that every time you go up there you see new things and we did, tamarind monkeys made an appearance, the one kind of monkey in the vicinity we hadn’t seen yet. Efi heard them several minutes before we saw them. Their sound got closer and closer until they decided to climb a tree just 50 feet from the canopy. As we watched them, Nate insisted that he’d seen a Pygmy marmoset in the binoculars, but we dismissed his observation, certain we wouldn’t see a marmoset and a tamarind on the same tree. It was probably just another tamarind. But sure enough, Efi looked through his binoculars, and it was a marmoset! Nate got high fives for an awesome spot. We saw tons of incredibly colorful birds, Benji dubbed one them the McDonald’s bird because its colors were red and yellow. One really bright electric blue bird, a plum-throated cotinga went flitting across the treetops, looking like a bit of flying sky. Vultures stretched their wings, looking particularly nasty, and the sloth made another appearance, hanging upside down and looking right at the telescope with his furry little face. Efi told us that sloths only go to the forest floor every ten days, to use the bathroom. They dig a hole, do their business, and head back up where it’s safer. We even saw howler monkeys again, this time climbing along a branch instead of hunched in the top of a tree.

When we returned, we briefly visited the butterfly farm, they cultivate butterflies at Sacha Lodge as a sort of side business. Sometimes they even sell them for weddings, where they are released after the ceremony. We looked at the chrysalises, one of the butterflies makes a case that is shiny gold, it looked like a charm for a necklace. Alayna sat on a bench and several butterflies alighted on her, one landed right on her nose. A great picture.

After lunch the kids decided to go swimming for real, the sun was out and Benji still couldn’t say he’d swum with piranhas. He can now. They jumped off a high diving platform and swam to the dock, over and over again. Nate must have done it fifty times. The whole time, Clay was fishing for piranha about 30 feet away. He caught four this time, and while they certainly went for the raw meat he was fishing with, they never seemed interested in the kids’ fingers or toes.

We went on our last Amazon rainforest hike that afternoon, exploring a trail we hadn’t been on yet. I loved the toucan noses Ivan made for the boys out of a bright red and orange flower, and the straw crown he made for Alayna, out of the same material used to make the original panama hats. But what I’ll remember most is when Alayna and Benji both slipped off a slippery log and plunged into black water, sinking one leg above their knee. When they got to the other side of the precarious bridge, we took off their boots and emptied them, pouring at least a liter of black water out. I was so disappointed, I had counted on the kids wearing these clothes two more times, following a carefully choreographed laundry schedule to get us through the next ten days.

On this last hike, the sun came out, bits of it filtering to the forest floor. We could hear howler monkeys in the distance, and birds called from the trees. We felt a little more like explorers as we hiked this untidy trail, with vines creeping across the path and branches in the way. It was a great way to end our time in the Amazon. At dinner we looked around and realized we were the old-timers, the other tables inhabited by people who came after we did. I felt a strong urge to sit down and tell them how to bait a hook to catch piranha, to watch out for the slippery logs on the path behind the canopy walk, and to sample the fried plantains at the barbecue. It was wonderful to stay in one place for awhile, but it’s time to head out again. We’ll stay in Quito one night, then we’re off to the Galapagos for a fabulous finale to our nine and a half month trip.