Monday, 19 January 2015

Welcome to the Jungle: Misahualli

A while ago I explained how we found ourselves in the remote Ecuadorian town of Misahualli with its hundreds of monkeys and butterflies. It was here that we arranged our jungle trip with EcoSelva. The night before we went into the jungle there was really heavy rain fall and despite his house being flooded and the loss of his butterfly collection, the owner, Pepe drove us to meet our guide.

Running out of Misahualli there is a brand new tarmac road, surrounded by heavy green banana plants. At the time we went the bananas were all covered with blue plastic bags so precious crops weren't lost. We got out of Pepe's truck at a small shelter, and he headed off towards a small collection of basic houses to get our guide. The houses were in a small clearing of the plantation, there was also a tiny church and a playing field, with lots of chickens wandering around to their hearts' content.
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We busied ourselves packing our lunch and water supplies in our bag until Gregorio turned up. Pepe told us it was time for him to leave us in Gregorio's good hands. He wasn't what I was expecting as a jungle guide. He wore wells and trousers that had been ripped off at the knees. He had a huge machete hanging from his belt and a baseball cap. He was really short and looked really young, although later we found out he was about 35. He was the son of the chief of the small settlement, and was preparing himself for his future as chief.Apparently the role of chief in these settlements is to make all the decisions concerning the people, but also acting as the doctor and teacher.
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We set off across the road, through what appeared to be someone's back garden, and entered the edge of the jungle. He explained that everything we were walking though was his father's. There were fields filled with pineapple, banana and cocoa plants.

I loved seeing how pineapples grow, I always thought they grew on trees, not from small prickly bushes from the ground, and there's only one pineapple per plant. We hunted around and around the field for a ripe one and he let us try it. It was really white, instead of the yellow that i'm used to, but was still really delicious.
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Every few steps we went, Gregorio would stop and point out a plant and tell us the medical properties of the plants. There were long, finger shaped mushrooms filled with clear liquid that cured ear ache, ferns that were tied to children's legs to encourage them to walk, contraceptive plants, plants to cure diabetes and even leaves that felt like sandpaper that they used to file nails!
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We came to a clearing in the jungle where there was a small swing made of vines that hung from the very top of the canopy and laughed as I had a go and was incredibly worried I was going to go crashing into a tree. We saw hundreds of insects and butterflies, and Gregorio even managed to spot a tiny little black and yellow frog which he declared was the most poisonous animal in the whole jungle.
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We'd been walking for a few hours when we decided it was time to stop for lunch. Gregorio was very curious about us, as much as we were about him, and would flit between English and Spanish to get his point across. Little did I know that lunch marked the end of the fun part. Gregorio warned us that rain was coming and we needed to make as much headway as possible to get to camp. He wasn't joking. Not long after the rain started to pour down and nothing really could help us, he gave each of us a huge leaf to use as an umbrella, but as we were so wet already, it wasn't worth it. The ground got incredibly muddy and slippery and I really struggled to keep up with the boys who were powering ahead. There were times when I'd lose them and not know which path they'd taken, and it was only when I came face to face with a huge spider who was sitting on their web across the path that I'd realise they had obviously gone the other way. We would be hopping over and ducking under huge fallen trees, climbing up and down muddy hills, all while carrying big bottles of water.
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Late afternoon, the rain stopped and Gregorio finally announced we were only 500 metres away from the camp, the only problem being that it was all down hill, an incredibly steep downhill. We gradually got to the bottom where I spotted a small log cabin on stilts. A woman sat in one of the huts, surrounded by her army of children who all wore dirty, ripped clothes that had been donated by the local community. They watched us walk into the clearing suspiciously. Some of the men came to greet Gregorio and chat with him, while the others hung back and watched us. I don't know what I expected the people there to look like, but I was quite shocked that they looked like other Ecuadorians in terms of the clothes they were wearing and their hair, only a little more weathered. Eventually a couple of the kids got brave and started a game of creeping upto us while we looked the other way.

The next family we came across tried to bribe us by not letting us pass through their little clearing without giving them alcohol. Sadly for them, Gregorio didn't have any and they had to let us pass anyway. Another 5 minutes walk and we had arrived at our camp, which although very basic seemed a world away from the other settlements in the area. The camp had a few huts, a toilet, a volleyball court and a sheltered area to eat. A little path lead to a small secluded beach that looked out onto the huge river, and most importantly for Nick there was a hammock.
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Nick spent the evening fishing, trying to catch our dinner, while some of the women from the community came round and tried to sell me some gifts. It was hard as I knew they really needed the money, so I bought a few things that were very expensive, and bribed them a bit more with some sugar cane sweets which they seemed to be a sucker for!
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After dinner we sat by candlelight around the fire, and Gregorio pointed out some of the animals that were loitering around our camp in the dark, hoping for a scrap of food. We decided to go to bed, exhausted from all the walking, and just as we got back to our hut, Nick froze and ordered me to get Gregorio, we had a snakey friend in our room. Gregorio seemed completely unfazed, scooped the snake up with a stick and flung it into the trees behind us. Drama over,w e managed to get some sleep.

The next day we were up at 8 and went for a walk around the lodge, we saw toucans, big spiders and alligator prints. We had a bit of success catching some fish and learned a lot more about the families around our camp. Pepe uses some of the money he makes at EcoSelva to fund the community, he runs a school for them and hosts football games for them. It really made me feel happy about giving money to the company, and would strongly recommend anyone else to go with him if you are considering going into the jungle.
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That afternoon we spent around our little beach. I watched some of the brothers pan for gold in the river, and we crossed to the other side to go fishing and have a dip in a rubber ring. That was a great end to the day, and what was even more exciting was the Shaman of the village was coming to visit us that evening. Again, what I pictured him to look like was 100 miles from what he actually was. I imagined him to have long hair, a long beard and be wearing beads and be carrying a big stick. Instead, he rocked up in a pair of wellies and addidas shorts. He explained to us ayahuasca, smoked a cigar and did a ritual on us to rid us of bad spirits, which involved him hitting us on the head with a broom made of leaves and sucking on the top of our head.
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We slept well in the knowledge that we were free of bad juju and knowing we'd survived the jungle. We were up at 6:30 the next morning to prepare to go back to civilisation. A motored canoe came to pick us up and drop us off at a different point along the long, tarmac road. We waited on the edge of the road for the bus to come, and soon enough it was time to say goodbye to Gregorio.
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We went back to our original hotel and pleaded with them to let us have a shower and get changed, I realised I looked like I had the bubonic plague with some very nasty mozzy bites, but there was no time to dwell, it was time to get on the bus and go to Ecuador's capital, Quito.

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