University of Wisconsin–Madison

The Grande Amazon Finale

I just got back from my final South American adventure, and it was the most unique experience of them all— a trek into the Amazon rainforest. I came out with a higher tolerance for cockroaches, at least 30 small bug bites in various places, and a need to return home at last!

Me and the two other CFHI students had the awesome opportunity to live with a Shuar community located about a 5-hour hike into the jungle. First, there was the hike. Due to constant rain, the trail is basically a soupy, muddy mess. Sometimes the mud looks dry and actually is half-boot deep, sometimes it looks like mud but is a rock, and sometimes a dangerous-looking leaf puddle is only a centimeter deep. With an increasingly heavy and uneven backpack on my back I stumbled up and down the trail, led by our guide and host, Gustavo, who hacked away at the encroaching rainforest with practiced ease. He walks the trail once a week to go visit his older children who live near the highway, attending high school. He is also the person who helped build the trail.

After a final river crossing in daisy-chain style, we arrived into a clearing, the sun and a blue sky greeting us. “Ya llegamos!” were the best words I had heard in a while. Uwinjit, the name of the place, is not so much a community but a large family. Shuar traditionally have more than one wife (although Gustavo only chose to have one) and many, many children. The children, cousins, and other relatives usually just build their own house nearby. There were about five buildings, and a little ways off two school buildings. The older daughter, who is 16, teaches classes to her siblings a couple hours everyday, and when they are old enough for high school they can choose to move to Pitirishka, which is a Shuar community located on the highway to Puyo.

Gustavo has 10 children. They all sleep in one large wooden building, made with slats that keep it off the usually damp ground and a woven palm frond roof, which works remarkably well to keep the building dry. The building complex is surrounded by cultivated plants, and nearby is the river where laundry and bathing is done.

We slept in our own building in sleeping bags on the floor, covered in mosquito nets. Unfortunately I somehow still got bit by various unidentifiable insects, and it took some getting used to when the cockroaches would come out each night once the lights were out! The first night I barely slept at all. We encountered a few poisonous spiders and were told to wear boots in case of snakes. Aside from the pesky insects, we saw beautiful spiders and butterflies, and the mosquitos weren’t much worse than summer in Wisconsin.

Our first day we visited a sacred waterfall, a place that is very important to spiritual life in Shuar culture. When there is a big decision in an individual’s life, they decide to ask guidance of the waterfall. They fast for one day and take a medicinal plant called malicua that will bring visions, and then they camp near the waterfall until the vision arrives. For example, Gustavo learned that he was going to have one wife and ten children during one of his visions. Then, once the message is received, they return to their family.

We ate the typical food, consisting of almost all starch—potato, yucca, and plantain, with the occasional can of tuna or flavorful plants mixed in. We tried a few Amazon fruits, such as the guava (not the one we know), a long tube-shaped fruit that has furry white fruit with a big seed in the middle, or the Ungurahua nut, which tastes kind of like macadamia but is just a thin layer of paste in between a hard shell and a seed. We also tried chicha, the traditional drink. It is yucca that is typically chewed by the woman of the family, giving each person’s yucca a different flavor…we tried chicha that was smashed by hand.

We also learned how to make a fish trap, played with the children, made plantain tamales, and learned about medicinal plants. Gustavo was very interested in what we think about traditional medicine. For him and his family, they will first use traditional methods of healing and then if that does not work travel to the clinic in Pitirishka.

Though it was difficult at times because of the different environment, I learned so much during my time in Uwinjit. The jungle is a beautiful place that is so full of life, and it is amazing how life is so simple for them. Day to day life is just concerned with upkeeping the house and feeding mouths. Gustavo and his family sell crafts and plantains in Puyo in order to buy things like clothing, candles, and sugar. Other than this they are completely self-sufficient.

One more day in Quito and I fly home! I am full of so many good memories and new perspectives! But I just can’t eat more rice or potatoes…

PS: the photos attached are not actually of my time in the jungle as my camera has stopped connecting to my computer. They are some photos from Quito last month.

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