(Part 2 of a series that began here.)
This is no beach vacation, I recall one reviewer on TripAdvisor saying. You wake up at five-thirty, breakfast at six, spend the morning canoeing or hiking in the rainforest. Back at the lodge, you break for lunch before venturing out for a late afternoon adventure. Following an early dinner there may be some night activity: walking or canoeing.
Another review detailed the journey to the lodge. From Coca, the nearest airport, you ride a motorboat for two hours, hike in the forest for twenty minutes, then ride a canoe for another twenty minutes. Keep your ponchos ready, it may rain anytime.
I carried this outline — a skeleton — with me. The rainforest infused it with life.
Flying over the Andes towards the Oriente, we landed in Coca at noon, forty minutes after taking off from Quito. The arrival lounge at Coca was a verandah facing an asphalted backyard of a house.
Is this the airport daddee? A little girl asked.
Palm trees sprung out of a green patch beside the airstrip. Beyond it a dense row of concrete houses filled the horizon. A tractor with a carriage wheeled the baggages to the verandah, where two stocky men unloaded them on a parapet.
Outside, we met Daniel. He wore a dark blue Sacha T-shirt and looked not older than thirty, but he carried the poise and presence of an older man. Our suitcase was hauled onto the back of a pick-up and we were ushered, along with others visiting Sacha, to a small bus.
Adventure was in the air. Milling about were tourists with backpacks and Panama hats (made in Ecuador, branded Panama). I waved to the frog-loving Japanese couple, who had stayed at the Wyndham and had taken the same flight. They were led away in another direction, to the Napo River Lodge bus. Later I spotted them in a boat on the Napo.
We drove through Coca to our riverside destination. A small city with one and two storey buildings, Coca carried the grubby, laid-back atmosphere of a place I would have liked to explore. But there was no time. After a quick snack (sandwiches, bananas, fruit juice), we wore our lifejackets and stepped into the long motorized canoe. With us were a group of five children between the ages of six and fourteen, traveling with their grandparents; a single woman, middle-aged; an elderly man and his daughter. All white, except one of grandchildren: a black boy, whose presence in that family made me irrationally happy.
The Napo, a tributary of the Amazon, was wide and mud-coloured. We traveled downstream, passing sandbanks, wooded islands, thickly forested riversides broken occasionally by the wooden houses of natives behind a thin screen of trees. At one point we passed what looked like an outpost of an oil refinery. The Oriente has large deposits of oil, and plans are being made for more roads slicing through the rainforest.
Here we were, on a river in the Amazon, and the mind kept searching for images I had seen on a screen at home, in Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo.
Two hours later we stepped off the boat and out of the wind tunnel pummelling our faces, rid ourselves of life jackets, and sprayed insect repellents. The trail through the forest was a boardwalk, not really the forest hike I’d imagined. The river peeped in and out of the foliage. It grew hot and sticky, but the canoe station appeared soon. The tourists and guides stepped into the canoes, gingerly, one followed by another.
The canoes glided through a shallow creek flanked on both sides by thick forest in the beginning, and later by tall plants with elephant leaves. The sun beat down on our backs. Birds had turned speechless in the midday heat. The only sound was of Daniel’s oar lapping against water. The stillness was physical, something I could touch.
The creek emptied itself into Pilchicocha, a lagoon surrounded by luxuriant greenery, at the far end of which we spotted a wide wooden cabin on stilts.
The cabin — the Balsa, it was named — turned out to be a large platform with a thatched roof housing the restaurant and a lounge. We were led there and offered a welcome drink.
From the platform, looking at the Pilchicocha and the green beyond, I could see the past.
The floor I was standing on was an aberration here, in this wild, enchanted place. Among the vegetation I picked out palms and water hyacinths — all else was alien. The lake appeared unusually calm, gently ruffled in places by the wind.
A middle-aged white man appeared and addressed the newcomers. My name is Fausto, he said. It’s easy to remember — Faust, Fausto. I welcome you to Sacha lodge.
Fausto split us into two groups and assigned a guide each. We got Daniel. Julie, Pierre, and Dominique completed our group. The grandparents and their gaggle of boys and girls were assigned to Christina. This distribution seemed trivial at that moment, a random selection to put up with for a few days. I was wrong.
Fausto gave a little speech, beginning with an outline of our days to follow, ending with some house rules.
Do not throw toilet paper into the toilet, he said. Put it in the bin. There’s a “dry box” in your room — keep electronic stuff there. Humidity can be high in the rainforest. There’s also a safe — use it. Your room doors have no locks, only bolts on both sides. Do not lock anyone inside!
The children giggled and looked at each other with expectation.
But if someone does that to you, Fausto continued, smiling, there is a small string on the inside you can pull to unlock yourselves.
It was four in the afternoon. Daniel asked us to return to the Balsa at a half past five.
The cottages on stilts were set behind the Balsa, in the forest. Our room was large and high ceilinged, with two beds, a table, two chairs, a fan, a shelf with hangers, a dry box and above it a safe. The safe was locked. We found our suitcase beside the bed. In the balcony hung a purple, inviting hammock. The bathroom had stone flooring, and the shower area faced the forest, only a wire mesh separating the two.
We were jet-lagged and tired, but our spirits were high. P checked the wifi signal. Internet access was intermittent. I tried the safe again. It was locked.