Kapawi - Two weeks from anywhere...

Trip Start Oct 13, 2004
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Trip End Jun 21, 2005


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Tuesday, November 9, 2004

Kapawi (The last Frontier)
November 5th-9th, 2004

"In the tropical forests, when quietly walking along the shady pathways, and admiring each successive view, I wished to find the language to express my ideas. Epithet after epithet was found too weak to convey to those who have not visited the intertropical regions the sensation of delight which the mind experiences".
- Charles Darwin

He Said:
Highlights:
1. The helicopter ride in from Coca to Kapawi.
2. The amazing staff, management and guides of Kapawi
3. The service and the food
4. Ruben - our Achuar Guide
5. Juan Marcello (aka: Cello) - our Kapawi Guide
6. Our trip to one of the Achuar Villages (words cannot describe)
7. Our hikes in the Rain Forest with Ruben
8. The night boat rides on Capuari River - Carlos the boat driver was amazing
9. The people we shared our time at Kapawi with
10.The birds
11.Getting to spend an extra day at Kapawi due to bad weather
12.Pink River Dalphines (dolphins) - who knew there were river dolphins
13.Experiencing one of the few true frontiers left on earth

Lowlights:
1. One of the Achuar Guide's daughter's being very sick, she was from the village we visited.

2. The realization that all we witnessed - the Achuar, the Rain Forest, the Rivers are at risk due to the ravenous desire for Oil on this planet.

I don't even know where to begin :).
The Darwin quote says it all really. My words will in no way do justice to what I/We experienced at Kapawi. My list of highlights reduce it down to a few bullet points but it was so much more than that. First of all the people that run Kapawi run a first rate operation from the minute you are in their hands until the minute you leave, you are very well taken care of. Whether it was managing the logistics of getting us out in the face of bad weather or tailoring daily activities to meet the needs of a 4 year old all the way up to an 87 year old, they were simply stellar. The accommodations were awesome and to be honest I preferred the cold showers to the hot after hike in the rain forest. Yes it was hot and yes there were bugs but we were prepared for both. The food was absolutely amazing and the Swiss Trained Chef kept our palates very pleased.

When you first arrive you are told that you are 2 week walk (if you were Achuar) from the nearest town through the jungle. There are no roads here and the only way in is by helicopter. The river ride would be 14-16 hours but it is doubtful that you'd make it as there are too many rapids etc. along the way. All I kept thinking when I heard this was what George Clooney said in "Oh Brother Where are Thou" - "Well isn't this place is a Geographical Oddity, 2 weeks from Everywhere". Well, Kapawi really is 2 weeks from Anywhere!! Yet you never felt that isolated as you had the group you came in with and the amazing staff and of course the guides. A mixture of naturalist guides and Native Achuar guides made sure we had a full slate of activities ranging from 6:00 am bird watching trips to 9:00 pm night rides on the Capahuari River in search of Caymans (small alligator-like animals). And in between it might be hikes, river trips looking for Pink River Dolphins, rafting or maybe a little fishing. To say the days were full would be an understatement.
With all the things that we did, the highlight for me was by far the morning we visited one of Achuar villages. It was a spiritual and very personal experience for me. These people live, in many, many ways as they always have and they have been in this area for 1000+ years. They have stories (myths) that have been handed down for centuries including there own story of the fall of man and our separation from heaven. They live in houses with thatched roofs, no walls, all open air and as far as size goes, our children's playroom in the basement of our house is about the same size, space-wise. Now our kids have a big playroom but this is by no means a large dwelling. We got to sample some local brew while visiting one of the homes. The Boss of the house offers this to all visitors, as is there custom. It is called Nijimanch and is made from Manioc, which has been chewed by the women and then left to ferment. Most of our group got down a cup full but as one of our group noted, Heineken won't be rushing to mass bottle this stuff any time soon.
It was amazing to sit there and tell him a little about each of us and why we were there visiting his village. He was completely fascinated by us and our friend from Alaska. He did not understand how we did not fear freezing to death in our sleep during the winter. He was clearly as fascinated by us as we were by him.
His biggest worries were the health and education of his children. This was by no means a stupid man nor were any of the Achuar we encountered. They live, very, very, very differently from us but they are very aware of the threat to their way of life from the outside world and in particular from Oil Companies and the Government seeking to explore for Oil in their territories.
With that my lowlight was meeting these people and realizing they face a daunting task in trying to preserve there way of life from the encroachment of Big Oil. These are a proud people and they will not just back down and my fear is that in the not to distant future their way of life and perhaps their very existence will be threatened. To that end they are partners in Kapawi and will take it over completely in 2011, so they also realize they can't isolate, will they persevere, only time will tell. One thing is for sure, it made me realize what "We" (the global we) have done to indigenous cultures all over the world in the name of progress.
Those of you who know me, know I am not really a bleeding heart but it sure makes you think when you see these people and realize what has been done to so many other cultures may be in store for them. Maybe when you sit in his home, as his guest and watch his children playing like all children play, you realize he's just doing the best he can with what he has. Aren't we all.
Maybe it's time we start looking for ways to work with people like the Achuar and help them preserve their unique culture rather than rolling over them with military force and bull dozers. Maybe a balanced approach, I know, easy for me to say when my country is prosperous and has exploited it's resources and indigenous peoples. Food for thought anyway.
My/Our experience at Kapawi will be with us for the rest of our lives, my prayer is that my grandchildren will be able to experience some of what we did. My bet is they won't and that makes me sad.

http://www.kapawi.com if you want more information.

She Said:

Eco-tourism has become big business and there are many ecolodges taking advantage of this in the Amazon. The difference between Kapawi and the rest of them is that they have structured the model so completely around sustainability for the Achuar people, that they are actually co-owners in this project. The intent is to turn it completely over to them in 2011. This is a very unique model and is being watched closely around the world & if successful, the impact on indigenous cultures everywhere is huge.

Now, I expected this leg to be great - after all this IS the Amazon Rain Forest but I was completely unprepared for the impact meeting the Achuar people would have on me - it truly was a spiritual experience for me. Here is a culture that has been around since the Inca times and because of their remoteness has remained largely untouched by modern civilization. Our Achuar guide, Ruben shared so beautifully with us the traditions of his people and on hikes thru the rain forest he showed us how they hunted & fished, built weapons, warred, communicated with other villages, made medicine from the plants. Even where their shamans came to have their visions after drinking their hallucinogenic "tea". Absolutely fascinating stories.

Ruben had two children of his own, aged 2 & 5, and he was absolutely remarkable with Kayla and Tyler. One day he made them Achuar slingshots out of a palm leaf. On another steep hike he would carry Tyler thru the difficult parts and Tyler quickly became his shadow. Ruben had a machete that he used to clear the path and when he would swipe at a tree, Tyler right behind him would match his moves. Ruben obviously noticed this and stopped to make Tyler his own "machete" without the sharp edges. After that Tyler practically slept with this thing and it didn't leave his side.

An absolute highlight was spending the morning in an Achuar village, in the Chief or "boss man's" home - Mark has described that so well. Now obviously this is part of the Kapawi experience, but make no mistake this is no photo-op touristy thing! We weren't actually allowed to take any photos of the village or the people. This is life at its rawest, everything at its most rudimentary and by our standards - even downright dirty. It was so very, very real! A man struggling with preserving their culture and identity but at the same time preparing his people for the future with education and medical advancements. The child mortality rate is incredibly high and he talked about how incredibly painful it is to bury your own babies. When we left, a young family accompanied us in the boat. It was one of the Achuar guides, his pregnant wife and two children aged 1 & 2. The 2 year old was apparently very ill, and they were moving her closer to Kapawi so she could get "better" medical attention. When we left, word was that she wasn't doing well :(. I couldn't help but think of his words about burying their children.

Just so you don't think I've become this ultra-serious activist and have given up my "scampy" side, I must tell you about Juan Marcello ("Cello") , our naturalist guide who translated for Ruben. Cello is a highly educated 26 year old, working on his PhD in Mechanical Engineering who studied in Europe for 18 months and speaks at least 4 different languages. Extremely articulate and (now for the scampy part) absolutely gorgeous :). His father is Ecuadorian and his mother Italian, imagine that combination. He looked like Antonio Banderas and spoke with this amazing latin accent. Kayla had a tremendous crush on him, but then again so did every woman in the place. I hope I'm not embarrassing you Cello. Seriously, he was wonderful teaching the children games from his childhood and taking them fishing in the "down time" (I don't think the staff at Kapawi ever have downtime, they seemed to be there for us 24X7) and shared much with us about Ecuadorian history, politics, socio-economic issues etc.
Just a note on the service and staff at Kapawi, it truly was second to none. We could not have been treated better at any level. Even the GM of the place took a personal interest in our well-being. He dubbed Tyler "cookie-belly", a name that so appropriately fits him that we are still calling him that. It was such an amazing place, that we felt comfortable letting the children go off to the library/games room on there own. Juan was usually there to play with them, or one of the other 16 guests sharing stories. Little did we know, that on Ty's seemingly innocent sojourns to the library, he was also a frequent quest in the dining room. The GM caught him in there one day (or maybe more), happy as could be, down to the last two cookies in the cookie jar. Ty apparently offered him one(probably as "hush money") and obviously they had some level of pact, as we didn't actually understand the origin of his new nickname until the flight home, where the GM shared their little secret.

I know as we departed Kapawi, I left a piece of my heart with these people, I cannot believe how deeply I am moved by my connection with them and their plight. I was feeling so emotional as we prepared to depart in the helicopter watching all our Achuar friends in their long house. They were all waving as we started to take off and I looked over and Ruben had come out to the fire hut. As we waved to each other, I was flooded with thoughts, what would happen to these amazing, proud people? Would they survive the political oil machine threatening their very existence? Would the sick little girl that we met get well or succumb to sickness like so many of their children? Would the Kapawi model help to save their culture? I really understand what it is like to connect with humanity, to have genuine empathy & respect for someone that has no direct impact on my life. Not out of pity or guilt, or even a sense of responsibility that is "comforted" by simply writing a cheque. As we waved good-bye to Ruben, Tyler held up his machete to show him he still had it and Ruben burst into this beautiful smile and gave him a big, non-Achuar thumbs up -the connection was obviously remarkable for all of us. There wasn't a dry eye as we lifted off. I pray I don't allow the mark they have made on my soul to be extinguished.

As a footnote, I sadly report that the rumor is that Burlington Resources is coming in early in the new year, with Ecuadorian government officials, to initiate drilling talks in this area. Apparently the Achuar are arming themselves to protect their land, their culture and to protect the Amazon Rainforest. Frightening!!!

Highlights:
1. Connecting with the Achuar culture and actually sharing a morning in their home.
2. The helicopter ride in over the Rainforest - unbelievable! You can see why they call this the "frontier", mostly untouched, pristine rain forest interrupted only by the occasional grass hut or village by a river. What an amazing way to start this adventure.
3. Ruben sharing an Achuar legend with us around the campfire.
4. Meeting such great people, both the staff and fellow travelers from both USA & Europe. We really had so much fun and the kids "adopted" many of them like family.
5. The "symphony" of the rain forest as darkness falls.
6. No point in too much duplication - See Mark's

Lowlights:
1. Fear for the Achuar's future
2. The sick little girl from the village.

Kid's Said:
Highlights:
Tyler:
1. Ruben
2. His Machete made by Ruben
3. His buddy Kent
4. Playing Marbles with Cello
Kayla:
1. The Rainbow Boa

2. Pink River Dolphins - they don't jump and when their babies are born they are pink even though the grown up dolphins are grey.

3. Seeing lots of turtles sitting on a log and when we got close they go down under the water.

4. Seeing Cayman's which are like Alligators. We got to see one on land and they are not very big.

5. One night when we were riding in the boat looking for Caymans a fish got attracted to the light and jumped into the boat and everyone started screaming. It was so funny.

6. Watching my daddy and my brother get there faces painted with natural paints, just like the Achuar people.

7. We got to meet some Achuar people in their village. They have houses without walls. They could not believe I lived in a place where the water freezes. They wanted to know how we did not freeze to death when we went to sleep at night. Their houses are very small, maybe about the size of my playroom in our basement. Just a roof with no walls, some logs for chairs, a table and a platform to sleep on. You could also see into their bedroom because they have no walls. They served us a drink called Manioc. I'm glad Tyler & I didn't have to drink any because mom said it smelled like stinky feet. The Achuar women chew up Manioc root and then let it sit in water - gross!

8. We had a very good guide and his name was Juan Marcello. He was very fun and would play marbles with my brother and I. We used seeds for Marbles. He also took us fishing. We could see the fish eating the bait but we could not catch any. One of the kinds of fish that I saw was a piranha. My brother even got a necklace made from Piranha teeth at the Achuar Village. I got a beautiful necklace there too made from shells and seeds.

9. We also had an Achuar Person guide. His name was Ruben. He lived at one of the villages along the river. He took us on hikes in the rainforest and told us about the Achuar people and their way of life. He had a machete and he made things for my brother and me when we were hiking. He made us a slingshot and a machete. He told us it would take 2 weeks to walk from Kapawi to the closest town.

Lowlights:
Tyler:
1. Hiking in the hot jungle
2. Having to take my malaria medicine
Kayla:
1. We got stuck at Kapawi for an extra night because it was raining and the Helicopters cauld not fly in the rain.
2. Missing Juan Marcello after we left Kapawi.
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Comments

David on

I am so happy that you had a lot of fun in this striking place!!

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