With a dengue epidemic sweeping the continent, already claiming several lives on the coast, I thought it would be the safest option to head to the remotest place possible, the Amazon jungle. Actually I lie, I booked this romantic trip to leech and piranha infested waters after having a week’s vacation from teaching.
I decided on a trip to one of the most remote places of Ecuador, Reserve Faunistica Cuyabeno, in the north east of the country bordering both Columbia and Peru. If I had listened to any of the advice from the British government (www.fco.gov.uk) I wouldn't have ventured anywhere near this area as Colombian guerrilla activity is rife and kidnappings not uncommon. From what I was told though, even if I was kidnapped there was a very high chance I would be used to teach English to their rebel fighters. Seeing this is my current profession, I'm sure things wouldn't have changed much!
A night bus was needed to get into the jungle, something else the British government advises against. This advice seemed to be spot on as halfway through the journey one bus was past, its passengers roaming the road, two of which were covered in blood. With no evident damage to the bus I'm at a loss to what the problem might have been. Making it through the night was a relief, arriving into town ahead of schedule in the early hours of the morning. Luckily a nice young security guard sort pity and allowed my girlfriend and I to sleep on a hotel (D'Mario Hotel) kitchen floor he was guarding (with a two-barrelled shot gun) to keep us off the dangerous dark streets.
From here it was still another six hours until we reached our final destination, three by bus and another three by motorized canoe, passing numerous depressing oil developments where jungle once stood. During this period I had the pleasure of being searched and man-handled by some of the many army combat teams who comb the area, hoping to cut down on the smuggling of weapons and cocaine. I think for my girlfriend this was the highlight of her vacation! Luckily the time past quickly, thanks in part to the bus drivers, a pair of paedophile Beavis and Butthead look-alikes that beeped their horn wildly at any passing females before beckoning them towards the bus. Quite appalling behaviour.
The time spent in the jungle was full of highlights. Some of the lesser ones included having my nasty negative spirits cleansed by a Shaman, catching a tiny, minute baby piranha when enjoying a little afternoon fishing, and swimming amongst these same piranhas and Cayman crocodiles in a tributary of the Amazon River. A good number of wildlife was also viewed including 50 species of birds, 6 species of monkeys, and enough biting insects to last me a lifetime. Sadly no anacondas or pink dolphins were spotted, something for which this part of the Amazon is famous for.
I was also highly disappointed to find out that jungle tribe nakedness is almost a thing of the past, squashing my dream of cavorting naked with them, running through the jungle, blowpipe firmly in hand. Instead they all own fashionable western clothes, TVs and enough Jean Claude Van Damme DVDs to drive anyone over the edge. On the bright side, being such a stingy tight bugger that I am, I was shocked to tip more at the end of the tour than German millionaires who sounded like a cross between Yoda and Maneds (where is he now?).
The highlight for me though and also one of the scariest moments of my life, leading to only the second time I've urinated in my pants through fear (the other time was being bitten on my ass by a German Shepherd), was having our canoe attacked by a five metre, 200 pound Cayman crocodile.
To be honest though, I can't really fault the crocodile for his behaviour. Our guide had the audacity to reverse the canoe into its head. Now if I was a crocodile, or a human for that matter, I would be quite angry and annoyed at having a12ft carved tree trunk rammed into my cranium. It has to hurt. Maybe I would even think of retaliating. This of course was exactly what the Cayman decided to do, snapping his sharp teeth exactly where my hand had been resting a few seconds earlier. This was followed by a tail lashing that sent a wave of water over the canoe drenching me from head to toe. If this wasn't bad enough, the Steve Irwin wannabee guide then jumped out of canoe to try and catch a baby Cayman. If my nerves weren't already being pushed to their limits a flying fish smacking me square in the face later on in the same journey certainly did. I'm surprised I didn't wet myself again.
The guide confessed that in his 12 years guiding this was one of his most frightening moments. His worst occurred several years ago when accompanying a group of British teachers through the jungle on a walking tour, when one of them mysteriously disappeared. A full on army search found the women three days later going crazy and covered in over 400 insects bites and bloody scratches. She apparently saw some magic mushrooms and decided not only to investigate but to eat a few of them, sending her into such a hallucinogenic state she never regained her normal state of mind. I don't know if such a condition would freak you out of the jungle more or less?
Apart from jungle shenanigans I also had the pleasure of a weeks worth of teaching, but seeing that the school was officially on vacation and children had the option of attending or not, it meant that there were seven teachers supervising only ten children. Sitting around bored, I had the genius idea of offering my hard-working hands to the staff of the day nursery. This certainly made for more eventful times, feeling the soft spots on babies heads, watching the children shout "take me to America" every time an aeroplane flew overhead and seeing the imaginative minds of the young at work, making clay figurines of my girlfriend and I doing the wild thing. If this lack of innocence was bad enough then the words of a three year old girl left me dumbfounded. While helping her finish off a jigsaw puzzle, she looked at me and out of the blue said "your father showers you with his penis". I don't even want to think of where or how she would come to know about such an act.
The past week has also seen the celebration of International Women's Day, which in Ecuador is virtually as big as Valentines Day. Such a high profile is definitely a good thing when you consider seven out of every ten Ecuadorian women are either mentally, psychologically or sexually abused. This could explain the words spouted from the three year old girls’ mouth.
I'm also becoming more and more sceptical and suspicious about my 'free' Galapagos holiday from the University where I teach after having the departure date put back yet again and my undercover sources suggest that if indeed I do manage to still take full advantage of this holiday, I will have to wait until the week before I leave Ecuador. It's all starting to sound a little dodgy to me and will probably prove the importance of having everything in writing before committing to anything. At least it's a nice little lesson of life I have learnt! Anyway, I have a meeting with the University later today to see what the deal is, so we will have to see. It certainly won’t stop me from visiting though!