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Tribes and Tribulations

The overnight in Puyo was, well, meh. It's a nice enough town but there's not much there to do. We are at a couple of nice places (Esco Bar was the a great cafe/restaurant, and not just because of the clever name) which was good enough for me.

The next afternoon (after securing a few hammocks to sleep in, and some needlessly needful supplies) we headed off back into the Amazon to stay with the Shua tribe.

Now, as I pictured, an Amazonian tribe would have me living in rustic huts; hunting, catching, farming our own food; cooking over bonfires; washing in the stream. That sort of thing.

However, it turns out that tribes aren't what they used to be. Or, more accurately, they're not what I thought they would still be. We were actually staying with an Amazonian community. Don't get me wrong they still lived quite basic, but not as "tribal" as I had imagined. We had access to electricity (though it was dangerously and poorly wired); we had a kitchen of sorts which we stocked with food from a nearby town (we even had a fridge!); there was a shower, yet it was so weak I still used the river to wash in; the rooms were very basic, in that if we hadn't had hammocks we would have been sleeping on the floor - I think they only had one bed for the whole of us! - and the gents' building was not sealed to the elements, but sill hardly the tribal huts I had imagined.

I wasn't disappointed exactly, but I wasn't far off. I had expectations of one thing but that wasn't the reality of it. But once I (stopped acting like a baby (most of the time) and) accepted that I'd be staying for a week with a farming community in the Amazon, I relaxed a little.

I was given the Shua name of Jempe (hemp-ey), which means Hummingbird. I quite liked it but not sure they'd ever watched me trying to be as swift or speedy as a hummingbird. And then I realised that the names we were being given bore no reflection on the recipient but were just being assigned in the order of the line we stood in. Still: Jempe!

The Shua community painted our faces on arrival (I sweated it off before very long) and in the evening we were treated to a local dance. It was great fun! They quickly asked for our participation and it didn't take long for me to jump up and dance in a poor imitation of their movements. Really enjoyed dancing and got me very much into the mood of the place. The effect was slightly hampered when, after it was all over, they asked if we could buy them a $100-300 speaker so they could have louder music to dance with. Hmmm, we are broke-ass travellers: not the best crowd to ask for a handout.

Our days would start out with farming every morning. The first load of farm work wasn't particularly hard but it was long. We would measure out roughly 4 metres, mark with a branch, and continue for roughly a hectare of land. At every branch we would dig a hole and plant a shrub/herb/tree. Trouble is, the hectare of land was covered in sugar cane plants, which if the leaves didn't cut you, would leave fibre glass insulation-type needles in your skin (like I mentioned from Sacha Yacu), on nearly every leaf was a spider web with nasty poisonous spiders, and, as is the reality of things, it would chuck down with rain. It was decent enough work to get stuck into, and I do prefer labour-intensive work over intricate and/or subtle work.

Another job was cutting down over a hundred sugar canes and carrying them from the field to the road, where they would be driven off for sale in Baños. One sugar cane isn't particularly heavy (though it is cumbersome to navigate the mud paths, especially when they grow twisted) but after one hundred they do start to weigh somewhat. Not to mention, yes, the needles getting everywhere! Thankfully someone (guess which genius. Go on, guess. No? Ah, phooey...) had the idea of doing a human train and instead of one person carrying one sugar cane the whole distance, we'd just pass it to the next person down the line like a relay. It worked a treat but by the end I was drenched in sweat, mud, and cobwebs. Still, nothing a glorious wash in the river could not cure (I have not had a shower here, preferring to wash myself and my clothes in the fast flowing river - it's fucking gloriously refreshing!)

Axing trees into sizeable logs for a fire is another task. I got blisters on my blisters (literally) and the logs rubbed raw the skin on my neck as I carried it back. But it's more fun for me to do heavy work than light work, such as clearing the leaves and weeds from around the sugar cane - arguably the hardest and most monotonously dull job I've ever been tasked with. By the end, I was literally swinging the machete around and hoping I didn't cut down too many sugar canes. It was pleasant however when it started raining as the downpour was instantly cooling against my sweaty flesh.

Apparently, someone thought it would be a good idea for us to teach the children of the community English. Now. I'm supposed to be teaching English to kids in Quito next week, but that's at a school and I will (I bloody hope) be provided with a lesson plan. At the community we had to make it up on the spot and I failed to hold, for any discernible period of time, the attention of the four 5-10 year olds. It wasn't without its amusements though, and a couple of the kids even seemed to hold some of what we taught them - no idea for how long... In the end, Alex was a bloody star in teaching and subsequent lessons went better and better.

We were given the chance to carve our own spears. We cut down the tree (a bloody tall bastard, of which we wastefully used comparatively little) and carried it back to camp, where it was split in readiness for us to carve. A whole lot of blister-inducing fun, but sadly my first spear ended up wonky and half a foot shorter than all the others - but I carved it with my own two hands and a machete! Manly stuff, even if the end result was shite, and at the very least it'll make for a pretty fire. Still, first spear done. Just need to get off my lazy arse and try a second time.

Which I did do. I was quite proud of my second attempt. It took me about a third of the time from my first try to carve out the basic shape, smooth it, and then finish it off with shorter, neater slices. I even engraved my (Shua) name into the tip, and a Rorsach quote into the handle - "I lived my life free of compromise and step into the shadow now without complaint" - which I stole unashamedly as its one of my favourite quotes. Depending on the cost I might even try to ship this home (along with my hammock) so I can finish it off with polish and maybe make the engraving somehow more prominent.

On Wednesday, half of us accompanied the local shaman for an ayahuasca ritual. For those that don't know, ayahuasca is a particularly potent hallucinogen. The hallucinations would show us our future and/or reveal to us that which we knew but didn't know - I was intrigued by this. There is quite a lot I don't know, so I concluded there must also be a lot I didn't know I knew; that and the future might reveal to me winning lottery numbers!

We lined up at the house and said a chant, then walked through the fields into the Amazon under a darkening sky. We cut leaves to lie on and lay on the floor under a corrugated roof. We chanted some more, the sky now nearly black, and each took a turn taking a shot-sized drink of the ayahuasca. We lay down on the leaves, the shaman lit the bonfire, and we watched the stars appear and patiently waited the thirty-odd minutes for the hallucinations to appear. And we waited. And waited. And waited some more. And then...we waited still more. I started to feel sleepy. In fact I fell asleep at one point, notable by my snoring. I still maintain it was someone else and I was awake and stargazing, but it was 5 against 1, so I accepted my sleeping status. But still no hallucinations. Perhaps I might have seen some stars move or rings and lines appear if I focused on one star for too long, but certainly nothing I would call an hallucination. I didn't even so much as see a colour. Nobody else in the group had any real sights, either. We felt "high" in various degrees of potency but I'm not sure, for me, I wasn't just tired and sleepy and hungry from having fasted since breakfast. The shaman told us that being sick would forewarn the hallucinations, but I wasn't sick and a few of the others that were still didn't experience any visions. He also told us if it didn't work we could have a second drink, of which there was none. So all-in-all, no hallucinations, no visions, nothing.

Nearly 4 hours later, we decided to leave the forests and fields and head back to our hammocks for an actual nights sleep. Not exactly what I'd hoped for, nor what I'd been led to believe would happen, but I guess this experience sort of encapsulates my week with the tribe. It's not been *bad* exactly, just not what I had thought. As an experience, I'm glad I came, but I wouldn't recommend it and certainly don't think I'll return.

Next to Quito, for fun, frolics, and being a teacher!

Posted by WrightA 12:38

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