Tuesday, June 30, 2009

La Selva Jungle Lodge, Night in Quito

Tuesday, June 30 - Departure - La Selva Jungle Lodge, Night in Quito. Dinner at the Magic Bean.

Monday, June 29, 2009

La Selva Lodge

Monday, June 29 - La Selva Lodge

John very sick. Hike through the forest. Walking stick bug. Poison dart frog. Leaf frog.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

The Observation Tower and Black Water Lagoon.

Sunday, June 28 - The Observation Tower and Black Water Lagoon.

John has had a sore throat for several days and this morning he can barely swallow. I’ve been treating him with a spray Echinacea and Rebecca suggests gargling with salt water. Art hasn't slept well and chooses to stay at the lodge this morning. John and I join our group for the hike to the observation tower leaving a little before 7:00 A,M, We don our rubber boots and follow Aldolpho and Paulo into the jungle. last nights rain has made the trail slippery and the animals are all awake foraging for their breakfast. The observation tower is not far from the lodge; a stairway scaffolding built around an immense kapok tree. Paulo tells us that the tower was rebuilt just 6 months ago and we begin climbing the Robinson Crusoe like structure, 120 feet high. The upper platform is at level with the top of the jungle canopy and is adequate to hold the 7 of us. The view is breathtaking in more ways than one, and I survey the engineering of the tower and the width of the kapok tree, trying not to think about the kapoks shallow root system. We hear and see from a distance, troupes of squirrel and tamarind monkeys. Aldolpho and Paulo spot activity with their binoculars and quickly sets up the spotting scope for us all to take a closer look. The antics of the monkeys are delightful as they scamper along the upper canopy branches moving from one tree to another foraging for food. We see toucans, varieties of parrots and iridescent birds in all shapes and colors. A pair of green parrots flies past and a woodpecker strikes his morning cadence. We learn that there are flock leaders and witness the gathering of a wide variety of birds. Paulo explains that flocking is a survival strategy; that there is safety in numbers. We stay in the tower for an hour and a half and when the activity slows, descend the wooden stairs and hike further into the jungle to a black water lagoon. Two long paddle canoes are moored at a simple wooden dock. Paulo helps the five of us step down into the canoe. He takes the lead seat and Adolpho paddles from the rear. Before pushing out into the lagoon, he instructs us to be silent and just watch and listen. The magic of the lagoon leaves me speechless as we glide past floating islands of water hyacinths into a narrow inlet. We move through a canopy of palms and mangrove trees, the roots of the mangroves dripping with moss and standing spider like in the reflective back water. Although we don't see them, there are electric eel and caiman in this lagoon and the eel can be dangerous, inflicting a stunning shock which would render the swimmer unconscious and lead to drowning. Every shift of our weight tips the canoe, the surface of the water is just two inches down from the rim of our boat, and I wonder how often a canoe has capsized? This lagoon is part of a flooded forest ecosystem, underwater 7 months of the year and the still, black, reflective water extends into the mangroves as far as my eyes can discern. Coming to the end of an inlet, Aldolpho aptly turns the canoe around and soon, Paulo motions Aldolpho to cease paddling and points to an insect nest above us. He breaks the silence to tell us that this is a nest of marching termites and that on the count of three we must all shout loudly in unison. We shout and he holds up his hand indicating silence again. Moments later, we hear a synchronized thrumming coming from the hive. It is the sound of thousands of the termites, thrusting their thoraxes against the inside of the hive. The sound increases in intensity, just as if the termites were marching, thus the common name of these insects. It is a unified response to danger, a warning sound telling the intruder that they should leave before the termites emerge to confront their aggressor. I am in full agreement and we glide back into the open waters of the lagoon, lush with the water hyacinth islands, Rorschach reflections in the mirrored water. Up ahead is a family of river otters cavorting at the edge of a floating island. I struggle to focus my camera, but the encounter is fleeting and 30 seconds later, they submerge, swimming off to an undisturbed part of the lagoon. We disembark at the rustic wooden dock and return to camp, stopping frequently to admire the miracle of a red bellied poison dart frog, or a copy cat species that has similar markings, but lacks the poison. . .

Our excursion has been long and eventful and it is nearly noon when we reach the lodge. Art regrets that he did not accompany us; all of the guests left on a morning excursion and the morning alone was a long one.

The afternoon excursion is to the lodges butterfly farm and my preconceived vision lacks luster. We meet Paulo at 4:00 P.M. and walk one of the bamboo boardwalks to a large enclosed green house just down from the string of bungalows. Inside the larger green house is a smaller glassed in structure and around the entire enclosed perimeter are dozens of 6' high x 8' wide plastic covered caterpillar enclosures. Paulo strips away the Velcro front plastic from all of these and we circulate slowly, admiring each of the remarkable caterpillar species and learning what sort of butterfly or moth they will eventually morph into. The caterpillars are extra-terrestrial jewels; some as long as 6" some with markings and protrusions that mimic two heads so that a predator might mistake the back end as a treat and ultimately leave the caterpillar intact to continue into it's cocoon stage. I imagine that the costume designers of Star Wars took inspiration from the Amazonian caterpillars and I lag behind our group, attempting to take close up photos of the most unusual ones. Prior to this excursion, we were advised not to put insect repellent on so that we could touch the caterpillars and butterflies. The caterpillars are meaty and velvety soft in spite of their many protrusions. A final enclosure holds hundreds of cocoons, pinned gently to wooden rack. The cocoons are tiny jewels, many iridescent, and I marvel at what remarkable earrings these would make. Whoever tends the farm, groups the cocoons by species and most are exported to zoos and research centers around the world. The time sensitive cargo is shipped express and theoretically arrives at the ultimate destination still in the cocoon stage. The butterfly will emerge from the cocoon at the end destination to the delight of many.

The three girls and their grandparents leave in the morning and one of the girls wants to take home one of my rainforest charms. We agree to meet after dinner in the lounge, but the grandparents usher the girls away to pack and we have a nighttime canoe excursion on the lake. It's magical to glide silently upon the lake at night. Bats are the highlight of this excursion and we see large bats swooping down upon the lake to snatch an insect or small fish. Paulo catches their movement in the beam of his strong flashlight and scans the trees and foliage at the edge of the lake for movement. A branch protrudes from the water near the shore and a covey of long nosed bats take flight, startled by the light. One tiny lone bat is left clinging to the branch and Paulo tells us that it is a baby, too young for flight. It is obviously frightened and I hope that the mother will return shortly and comfort it.

Back at the lodge, I quickly connect with the young girl who chooses the tree frog charm. John, the 3 girls and the Danish boy have a last game of rummy tile. It's good to see John comfortable in most any situation and the animated group enjoy each other's company until the grandparents whisk their charges off to bed. John's sore throat is getting worse and I wish for antibiotics. Paulo mentioned that the lodge might have some. If John isn't better by morning, I will actively pursue this.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

An Indigenous Encounter

Saturday, June 27 - An Indigenous Encounter

Mornings start early at La Selva with a soft "good morning," wake up call at 5:30 A.M. Breakfast is at 6:00 A.M. and we are in the canoes and on the lake before 7:00 A.M. Our intention is to go to the national park to see the parrots flocking at the clay licks, but the clouds overhead are dark and ominous and when our canoe docks at the entrance to the national park, we are told that the parrots have not come today. Our plans were to visit a indigenous Kichua house after our excursion to see the parrots, but we change the schedule and head directly to the indigenous house. It's raining quite heavily when we dock in front of two Kichua homes and we huddle in the shelter of some palms waiting for the rain to lessen. We are much earlier than expected and we imagine that the young couple with a 6-month-old baby would have preferred a quiet morning to themselves, but we are welcomed into their parents traditional thatched home and our group sits together on a long wooden bench against one wall. The parents are away in Coca so the responsibility of the visit falls on this young couple. Except for two benches across opposite walls and one shelf, there is no furniture. A fire burns in a traditional open kitchen. The separate sleeping room is closed from our view, but we are told that the parents sleep on a mattress on the floor. The young couple wears western dress and the baby is impeccably clean in a white one-piece sleeper. I can see the bottom bulge of a diaper and wonder if it is cloth or disposable. I regret that I did not ask. The young man is 23 and extremely handsome with chiseled features. His young wife is lovely and wears a short jean skirt and a skimpy tank top. They sit together on the opposite bench and she unabashedly nurses her baby. We ask many questions, all of which are translated by Paulo. One of the questions asked of the young man is "are you happy?" He looks at his wife and child, smiles and answers "of course." We are served Chicha from a community bowl, perhaps half of a coconut shell. Five years ago, we drank Chicha at an Aschawar village, the traditional kind, chewed and spit into a community pot, fermented and shared by all. Paulo tells us that the Kichua do not chew the root to prepare the Chicha, but use a piece of sweet potato to begin the fermentation process. Nevertheless, the thick white, slightly sour mixture is not very palatable but we pass the bowl and take polite sips. This tasting experience is followed by a distilled sugar cane and herb liquor. A smaller bowl is passes around and we all take sips, hoping that the liqueur will counteract any bacteria we might have previously ingested in the Chicha. A traditional blowgun leans against the wall and Paulo explains the painstaking method that these are made. Five years ago, at the Aschawar village, John purchased one and over the years, he has practiced shooting the quills into our backyard bamboo. A papaya is hung low outside of the Kichua house and we are all given a chance to try the blowgun and hit the papaya target. John hits the target on the first try; Art and I each score on the second try. .As the visit ends we are given the opportunity to purchase a beaded bracelet or necklace, a dozen of which are arranged on the dimly lit shelf. John and I choose two and we pay the young couple the $10.

We return to the lodge in time for lunch and a afternoon siesta. John changes into his swim trunks and heads down to the dock to swim with the three girls, Art rests and I continue to type this blog.

At 3:30 P.M., we meet Paulo and Aldolpho for an afternoon hike in the rainforest. Aldolpho lead the way, scouting with his trained eye and with binoculars. Paulo is next, his eyes darting high and low for any movement in the forest. Art, John and I lumber behind, doing our best not to trip on the roots crisscrossing the trail, slip in the mud or get snagged by a hanging vine. When we arrived, we were all given knee high rubber boots and there are places in the trail that are inches deep in sticky clay mud. I grow to enjoy the slurpey suction of my boots sinking into the muck. At one point, the mud is so deep and I find it difficult to free my boots and flash on the jungle movies I watched as a kid, where the great white hunter, usually the bad guy, sinks slowly into a mire of quicksand and disappears from sight. The sounds surrounding us are amazing, but my untrained ear can't tell the difference between the myriad of bird calls, the monkey chatter or the territorial calls of the various frogs. Every few minutes, Paulo and Aldolpho stop dead still, listen and point to a movement in the canopy above. Passing the binoculars back, they direct us to focus on a troop of howler monkeys in the distance or a woodpecker high in the canopy pounding out a rhythm. The mushrooms and fungi fascinate me and are easy to spot. There are turkey tail, tabletop fungi of all sorts, bright poisons orange mushroom cups, and fuzzy grey and white fingerling fungi growing on decaying logs. These particular mushrooms contain a liquid that the Kichua squeeze into the ear to cure infections. Our walk takes us in a large circle and we return to the lodge several hours later, in time to shower, rest and join the other pampered adventure travelers in the lounge for a before dinner drink. Everyone exchanges stories of who they are, where they have traveled and their future travel plans. I explain to other the other guests that I have traded jewelry for our 4 nights at La Selva and offer up several of my accordion folded business cards picturing the tree frog, rhinoceros beetle as well as other pieces. The women from Florida ask if I have any jewelry with me, and I show them many of my rainforest and jungle charms. The Florida women buy a tree frog charm and a rhinoceros beetle charm and a toucan charm finds a home with the Danish mother of a precocious 14-year-old bird watcher. I am delighted since this helps to confirm my belief that my jewelry would sell well in many of the eco tourist lodges around the world. La Selva lodge needs a small wall display of Marty Magic rainforest charms hung right beside their four T shirt designs advertising La Selva Lodge.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Journey into Jungle Paradise

Friday- June 26 - Journey into Jungle Paradise

We are going to La Selva Jungle Lodge today. La Selva is on the Napo River, a major tributary of the Amazon. We have a long day of traveling ahead. Our wake up call is at 7:00 A.M. and we quickly rearrange our luggage to leave one suitcase at the hotel. Breakfast is the usual uninspired hotel buffet and our driver arrives precisely at 8:30 to take us to the airport. I am slightly anxious since we still have no official vouchers for the trip, nor plane tickets for this morning’s flight, but the La Selva representative is waiting and gathers her flock together. A couple from Canada and half dozen Danish travelers are also going to La Selva. We introduce ourselves and try to remember the unusual Danish names of our fellow travelers. They all speak impeccable English and we wait together in an upscale executive business center until our plane is ready to board. Art tries to send e-mail to my father and Alisha, but is unsuccessful. The plane is only half-full and most of us settle into window seats for the 30-minute flight to Lago Agrio. At first, it seems that we may taxi all the way, but after a 45-minute delay, we are eventually cleared for take off and are soon above the cloud level with spectacular views of snow-capped mountains piercing through the cumulus cloud cover. Much of Ecuador has been formed by volcanic activity and this area is known as the rim of fire. I flash back to an earlier trip to Ecuador five years ago. Alisha, John and I flew to Kapawi Jungle Lodge, also on the Napo River, and we had a memorable stay. Unfortunately, due to the weather and some mysterious circumstances, one of our two return flights to Quito was canceled and instead, we were bussed for 8 hours in torrential rain along treacherous highland roads. The bus wound upwards along narrow roads with unobstructed views down into the gorges below. There were few guardrails, minimal road shoulders and sheer drops to the valley floor. John tells me that he saw the rusted and rumpled remains of a bus below his window view at one of the hairpin turns.

At Lago Agrio we are loaded onto a bus for a two hour drive to Coca where we will take an open, motorized boat another 2 1/2 hours up the Napo river. Happily, this bus ride is non-eventful except for temporarily misplacing our Canon camera. I feel responsible for the missing camera, most crucial for our entire trip. I am relieved when Art discovers it tucked inside a pocket of his backpack; but the angst in the interim takes its toll on our spirits. The bus is far from luxurious and the scratched and tinted windows make it difficult to look out. Worn curtains hang down by the few open windows obstructing our view. I crane my neck to the side to look out a crack of open window and watch the countryside wiz past. I am grateful to be on sitting on the right hand side of the bus, less able to see the oncoming oil tankers thundering towards us on this two-lane highway. I hear the regular whoosh of the trucks as they pass and note the boldly written FLAMABLE signs on the sides of the tankers. A 24" diameter pipeline runs for miles along the side of the road. Ecuador has plenty of oil and they are actively drilling and piping it. I see a Halliburton sign posted on the gate of a large oil facility and observe several flaming gas vents in the distance. I wonder about the environmental impact all this is having. Eventually we pass through Coca and reach the Napo River. We have a 30-minute break at the dock before boarding our motorized boat for La Selva Lodge. The dock is adjacent to a hotel and restaurant and the hotel has a shaded garden strip where tamed toucans, green parrots and spider monkeys entertain the waiting tourists. Most likely, this is not environmentally correct, but the toucans are curious and animated clowns and they delight John and me. I kneel down to the level of the birds and a toucan hops up to me and begins picking at the buckle of my purse. A small green parrot comes up behind and I feel him nibbling on the strap to my sandal. I stand quickly lest he mistake my toe for the sandal strap and see two cavorting squirrel monkeys hanging in the open doorway behind me. The uncomfortable bus ride is immediately forgotten.

We don life vests and our group boards the open motorized canoe. I sit between Art and John intent on giving them the outside view, but quickly discover that the inside seat is the better choice as the spray from the river showers Art and John. Our guide passes out La Selva water bottles and cloth packed box lunches and our group eats tuna and egg salad sandwiches and passion fruit as we motor downriver towards La Selva. The river is extremely wide and opaque with sediment. I begin to notice flotsam and jetsam floating in the river; oily bubbles and solid "icebergs" of white foam. I am disappointed and disgusted to see this pollution and keep my mouth clenched tightly shut to avoid ingesting the spray from the river. Sometime later on, the couple in front of us asks our guide about the bubbles and the foam. She tells us that the pounding of the rain releases oils from the plants that form these oily, cellulose bubbles on the waters surface. She tells us that it is not pollution, and that the river is healthy. The sky turns dark and rubber ponchos are passed out to all of the passengers. Putting the ponchos on involves removing our life vests and layering properly and we no sooner have the ponchos on when the rain begins. I pull my head under like a turtle in a shell and remain undercover for 15 or 20 minutes until the rain lessens. The sky clears and the afternoon light is lovely, illuminating the lush jungle on either side. Eventually we arrive at the transitioning dock for La Selva and disembark up onto a grassy clearing on the bank of the river. There is a simple toilet for the women and the men are directed into the forest. Our luggage is loaded into a smaller motorized canoe and we are led, single file, into the forest along a raised boardwalk path. The boardwalk is made of bamboo and is slippery with moss and the afternoon rain. Below the boardwalk is the jungle floor; carpeted with leaves and thick with gooey mud and collected water in places. We walk cautiously for 15 minutes, carrying our hand luggage being careful not to slip. The boardwalk cuts through the forest and emerges on an inlet of a black water lagoon. A black water lagoon is an isolated body of water fed mostly by rainwater. The water in these lagoons gets its color from the decomposed leaves of the forest, making the water a dark tea color. Next, we board two much smaller paddle canoes for the final leg of our journey and we glide through the dark water, the lush jungle close on either side of us. The inlet opens up onto a larger lake and we can see the thatched roof of the lodge at the far side. It is late afternoon and the light on the surrounding forest is a magical rosy color. Three preteen girls are jumping from the dock into the lake and I imagine that they will be pleased to have a handsome 16-year-old boy to flirt with. We dock below the lodge and ascend a rustic wooden staircase to the lodge above.

Other guests are gathered in the public room of the lodge, playing games and enjoying a before dinner cocktail. It is a large circular room with a bamboo floor and a high conical thatched roof. We collapse into three of the low rattan chairs and are welcomed with a pretty fruit and rum drink served in a classic martini glass. After a brief orientation, we are assigned our rooms, but linger for some time in this lounge area, meeting the other guests and watching the sun fade on the jungle beyond. A bamboo boardwalk, lined with flowering tropical plants, leads to the many thatched bungalows. The grounds are lush and beautiful, truly a jungle paradise. Our bungalow is a a triple with a double bed and two single beds, all with gossamer mosquito netting tied above an overhead bed frame and ready to pull down, cocoon style for the night.. It is a simple structure built on stilts and constructed of bamboo. The bamboo floor is uneven and there are cracks through many of the connecting corners where daylight, or moonlight shines through. Our private bathroom has an on demand hot or cold shower and a colorful hammock swings from our veranda. This will be our home for the next four nights.

Dinner is served family style and the spirits of the guests are lively. We sit beside the Canadian Couple, Sid and Marilyn and a group of four women from Florida. The meal begins with a hearty bowl of soup, followed by a plate of beef, smothered in a thick and salty sauce, fried sweet potatoes and a cucumber salad. A decorative radish is carved into a flower and set on top of an uncooked slab of eggplant. We shortly surmise, that the garnishes are not intended for consumption and that the cook has a heavy hand with the salt. The food is adequate, but not memorable. After dinner, we are assigned our guide, divided into groups and the following days schedule is disclosed. Paulo is our naturalist guide and Adolpho is our indigenous guide. Our excursions will be shared with Sid, Marilyn and Rebecca, a young veterinarian from Palo Alto. Paulo is charming, his English impeccable and we will discover that his knowledge of the jungle, and experience as a guide is superb. John has made friends with the three girls and is playing cards with them, already the center of their attention. We are pleased that John is gregarious and will jump right into most any situation.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Ecuador Adventure

Three days ago, I was in a frenzy; frantically packing last minute orders and haphazardly throwing things into a suitcase to leave on a three week adventure to Ecuador. This afternoon, during siesta time, I am relaxed and typing the first of my blog on the veranda of our thatched bungalow at La Selva Jungle Lodge.

Thursday, June 25 - Arriving at this state has involved nearly two days of traveling, but the journey is much of the reward. We begin our trip on a red eye flight from S.F.O. to Miami. Art and I sleep much of the five-hour flight with the help of Ambian, but John stays awake watching movies and is red eyed at 7:30 A.M. when we land in Miami. With an eight hour lay over, we decide to go to South Beach for breakfast. An cheerful, airport information woman, directs us to the J bus and one hour, and one transfer later we are walking along the famous South Beach promenade. We breakfast at the Front Porch Restaurant; a white awning shading us and ceiling fans circulating the still morning air. The temperature is rising and the reflected light washes out the colors of our surroundings. The breakfast before me is almost an illusion and I consider that lack of sleep is contributing to my perception of things. Fueled and somewhat energized with coffee we walk the length of the beachfront, lined with art deco hotels and restaurants. Bistro tables spill onto the sidewalk and wait persons and bar tenders busy themselves in preparation of the party that will undoubtedly unfold before the days end. Across the street are undulating palms and the white sand beach. A street vendor arranges his beaded jewelry upon a cart and I am transported momentarily to memories of setting up early morning craft shows. The other beachcombers wear minimal clothing but we are out of place, still in our traveling clothes. We dip our feet in the ocean; almost body temperature and turn to leave as a bank of dark clouds moves quickly towards us. It's time to catch the returning J bus back to the airport.

The flight between Miami and Quito, Ecuador is exactly 4 hours. Dinner is provided, and Art and I watch the movie, Last Chance, starring Dustin Hoffman. John sleeps soundly, his long lean body uncomfortably contorted in the confined space and his head resting heavily against my shoulder. Eventually, I doze, but wake to the pilots landing announcement and to the bright lights of sprawling Quito below. We are through customs quickly and happy to see all three of our bags drop onto the luggage carousel. As we exit the baggage area, I scan the gathered crowd looking for someone holding a sign that says Bobroskie or La Selva Lodge. There is no one, and my mind flips quickly through our alternatives but moments later, a small wiry man arrives holding a paper sign with Bobroskie printed boldly across it. We follow Antonio past the line of hopeful taxi drivers and stand aside as he loads our luggage into large and shiny silver Van. An Indian woman with her small child begs for money as the door of our protected metal pod closes and we drive off into the night.

Art chats amiably with our driver as we drive the 30 minutes into the heart of Quito. The Mercure Hotel is in the new part of the city and after arranging for a morning pick up, back to the airport for our flight into the jungle tomorrow, we are taken up to our room on the 9th floor. The room is much nicer than I expected; a spacious corner mini suite with a view of the city beyond.. We settle in quickly, anxious to explore the city and get a late bite of dinner. We walk several long, dark blocks to the nearby club and restaurant area, which is a happening scene on a Thursday night. The TVs in all of the restaurants and bars are tuned to a significant soccer game and there is an air of excitement in the crowds spilling out onto the sidewalks and crammed into tiny hole in the wall cafes. Deciding on a restaurant for dinner is always difficult and we spend an hour wandering the district, perusing our many options and poking into both upscale and simple cafes. I stay mindful of my purse in the crowds and feel somewhat uncomfortable and vulnerable as we pass one particular club before rounding the corner to the center square. We people watch for some time, eventually retracing our steps to an earlier shwarma cafe, which has now sold out of food. John takes control of the situation and ushers us into a tiny shwarma cafe up the block. The succulent spit of chicken rotates in the open window and "to go" patrons lean on the outside counter waiting for service. Inside, 6 small wooden tables are crammed closely together, all of them occupied except for one. The crowd is young, loud and smoking and dark eyes watch us as we sit down at the only vacant table. Art orders two shwarmas, a large beer and a soda. The waiter returns without the soda but with three glasses for the beer and we concede that John may join us in a celebratory beer tonight. Many of the patrons of the cafe look no older than John and all are drinking beer and cheering on the soccer game. The shwarmas are brought to our table shortly and are so delicious that we immediately order two more. We sink into the simple ambiance of this local cafe, watching the soccer game and the people. As we walk back to our hotel, we calculate that we spent just $9.00 on dinner for the three of us. Art and I are both feeling light headed and it is not from the beer. Quito is above 9,000 feet and we have chosen not to take our altitude pills until we return to Quito in 5 days. We will be leaving the highlands in the morning and want to experience and experiment with the effects of the high altitude for one night. Art suffers more than I, with a headache and dizziness. I only feel the need to take extra deep breaths every so often and John is unaffected.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009