Alan the Achuar: Glimpses into Living and Learning in the Jungle (Part 3)

To view Part 1, click here. To view part 2, click here.

These excerpts come from the fairly detailed daily diary I kept. I’ve added little titles here to each entry to give a sense of the theme for that excerpt. If you would like to view all of my photos with captions chronicling the beginning to end of my month, click here.

Making a House Call Achuar Style – Day 19

Earlier in the week Rafael (the shaman) had told me that we could make a visit to a man named Francisco who lives upriver. The past year Francisco has been working on creating a new space for a community (3 families live there now) and wanted me to see it. I arrived at Rafael’s house at 7:30am. Ernesto was also there and told me that when Achuar go to make a visit like this they paint their faces. So he painted mine (see above). Ernesto urged me to bring my camera and I snapped some photos of the upriver journey, as well as photos of the “barrio” when we arrived.

Francisco’s house.


For a year now Francisco (the brother-in-law of Rafael) and his two sons-in-law have been developing this land. He and his sons-in-law have built three houses, made large gardens, and cleared and created an entire airstrip area (350+ meters!). Impressive.


Right now, he is also working on building a canoe and for about an hour we went and worked on it as well. The process is pretty intensive, cutting down a massive tree, slicing a bit off, hollowing it out, etc. He said that at about 7 hours a day for a week and a half he can build a small canoe, and that it takes a month and a half to build a bigger one.

Here’s a brief video of the men at work. Rafael, the shaman, is in the canoe, Francisco is working the front with the ax, and his two sons-in-law are observing.




Afterwards we had a huge lunch at his house. A bowl of saíno soup, a bowl of Achuar potato, maduro and yucca, and more potato (with ají), and a bowl of some kind of bird meat as well. The conversation that had been flowing through the hut quieted to nothing but a slurpy silence as we not so delicately devoured our meals.


Talking, Teaching, and Throwing Fruit – Day 23

I’ll start this entry with a conversation I had with Ernesto at my house just before dinner tonight. It got me thinking about a lot of things. He had come over after class (we had a field trip to the jungle so they could practice their Achuar guide phrases and vocab!). Our conversation stayed within this theme of English learning and soon the questions started pouring in unison with the rain that had just started falling.

Would it be useful to come to the U.S. to learn English? How long should I come to the U.S. for to really learn well? Can I stay with your parents? Can they teach me? Can I work while I’m there? How much would I get paid? Enough to pay for an intensive? (I told him about English learning intensives). How much does a plane ticket cost? A visa?

I hope I wasn’t discouraging Ernesto with the monetary sums that kept piling up for a possible trip to the United States to learn English. Apart from the obvious cultural, social, environmental, etc., complexities of organizing and going through with such a trip, I tried to explain costs like “living” money and then spiraled into describing the monetary space that I occupy in my life back home. One has to pay for drinks, food, gas, materials, etc., etc. I also explained the costs for housing; water, electricity, gas, garbage, internet, phone, cable. He had the greatest “disbelief chuckle” I’ve ever seen when I said we have to pay for firewood too. “Everything really does revolve around money,” he said, remembering what I’d told him before. Yes, it does.

I’m not sure anyone from his community has ever traveled and lived in an extended period of time in the U.S. I’d love to be able to help him if he decided he wanted to do it. He is extremely smart and very motivated to learn English, but just as I need constant supervision in the jungle (I’d be lost in two seconds if I went into the forest by myself), I believe he would at least initially need a great deal of support. In an ideal world he could stay with a host family, have something like a personal assistant, and have his stay funded through fundraising and donors to a scholarship type program, and maybe he could even act as an “ambassador” and give presentations about his Achuar heritage. He has already created the space for this ideal reality through his vision and determination, so if he is not ultimately able to do so, perhaps future generations of Achuar will.

Earlier in the day I spent time reading and writing for a bit and then around midday, Angelo and another boy from his class (4th and 5th graders), along with some toddlers, dropped by to see me. “Quieres bañar?” They wanted to go swimming in the river. Yes, please! I grabbed my camera and followed them down the embankment outside my house.


I got some great pictures of the kids and had a very memorable time playing and swimming in the water. Some of the other children stayed on shore gathering fruit, munching away, laughing with us, tossing us morsels.


I taught the two boys three fly’s up (we played with a small piece of fruit), which turned into 5 fly’s, then 10, then 15!

My Project2

I showed them the pictures of themselves, including a mid-air shot of one of the boys jumping off the embankment. They stared in delight and awe at that one for a long time.


Later that afternoon I had class with the afternoon group, Ernesto, Alex and Gonzalo. Today we had planned on a guide/tourist outing where they would practice being guides to me the tourist.


We went along a path into the jungle and they practiced phrases like “What is that?” “That is a snake” “Is it dangerous?” “Be careful” “Do not touch it” etc. Basic, but they are progressing!


A Spontaneous Encounter, A Natural Connection – Day 24

Most of the day today (another “minga”) was blazing hot, especially during communal work time after the meeting. Machete weeding on hands and knees for two hours (from 12pm to 2pm, the others had already worked from 8:30am to 10am) makes for one sweaty and tired English teacher! I went home to change and eat to give me some energy before returning to play volleyball (they nourished themselves solely with chicha, aka Achuar Gatorade). Afterwards, since we were all beat, the afternoon class and I decided to cancel for the day.

Earlier I had spoken with Eduardo, Sankap’s brother, and he invited me to dinner at 7pm after class (he said 5 originally). Since class was cancelled I decided to show up earlier, around 5:30pm.

When I arrived no one was there. Then I saw a little boy (probably around 5 or 6 years old) scampering up the path from the river. Naked, sopping wet, carrying dripping shorts, he stopped when he saw me. “Papá…” and then he continued in Achuar and pointed down the path. I understood. Dad was still bathing in the river.

Wide-eyed with glee and with a round face overcome by a beaming smile, this boy was one little ball of radiating excitement. He squeaked his wet shorts on and came bounding toward me. I tried some Spanish without much luck and then picked up a stick to converse in a language we both could understand. Pictures.

I drew a fish in the dirt, and handed him the stick. He drew one too and giggled. Then I drew a snake. And he had a go. Bird. Turtle. Jaguar. Monkey. Caiman! Genuine, simple, joyful human connection carved creatively and playfully into the soil beneath us. The earth; our playground. Imagery; our play set. Humanity; our bond.

“Alan,” I said, hand to my chest. “Nixon,” he chirped with an even bigger grin. Communication. Not all toddlers here are so open, so willing to approach and engage me (in fact, some are downright terrified of this bearded foreigner), but there are always those sprightly youngsters who are born with a little extra trust to go with their universal childlike curiosity.

We can all learn from such trusting freedom, such open-hearted wonder, and I think this is one reason I like working with kids, playing, and being around them. They exude an unconditional humanity that at some point along the way many adults smother completely with layers of cultural and social “learning.”

For Nixon, this was another moment in the flash of playtime that is childhood. For me, it was a moment I’ll cherish fondly, in gratitude for Nixon’s show of human purity and the utter joy we created in the playful simplicity we shared.

Conversations With an Eager Listener- Day 25

I had my final morning class today with the eldest group. Another somewhat inconceivable reminder that I’ve already completed four weeks of volunteer teaching here.

The day before at the “minga” a man named Tómas had asked if I could come take photos of the wooden bridge he’d just finished building. He said the contractors needed final photos of the project. So after class I followed his daughter to the end of the airstrip, past Sankap’s house and down the muddy trail to this bridge.

Tómas lives even farther down the river so sometimes his kids stay at Rafael’s (one of the teachers) house just after the bridge. The bridge was contracted because this area of the path is prone to flooding and the students (and Rafael) end up coming to class drenched in water some days after having to wade through.


The bridge is about 50 feet long and covered. It took him 22 days to build it. Paid a set amount for the job, he had to use the money to pay workers, buy some materials, etc. He said in the end he was not left with much, if anything, for his work. I took some photos and agreed I’d print them and send them from Quito.

He invited me to his house for chicha afterwards and I must have stayed there for three hours or so talking. He also gave me food, four corn on the cobs, three hard boiled eggs, two roasted plantains, and a potato. I’m used to the immense offerings of food by now, but still as the foreign guest feel a bit guilty leaving food on the plate.

In the time I was there we talked about many things, and the conversation flowed well because Tómas is one of those people that is just easy to talk to. I think another reason I enjoyed sitting there and talking with him so much was that his wife also sat down next to him after a while and, although she didn’t speak to me directly, I felt like she was a part of the conversation. For the most part, in my visits to homes women in the house hadn’t engaged me very much besides bringing a bowl of chicha and refills. Perhaps a cultural custom, perhaps this would change should I stay longer, perhaps I don’t shower enough here. In any case, the presence of Tómas’ wife was a nice change.


I talked about the ocean, waves, salt, tides, airplanes, big, big, airplanes with TV’s and waiters and bathrooms, and our agriculture and climate and environment. Through all of this I could tell his wife understood me. Mouth open, a look of transfixed, imaginative wonder in her eyes, at times I felt like I was narrating more for her than Tómas. She asked Tómas questions which he then asked me in Spanish. It was a truly family conversation, more than I’ve had with even Sankap and his wife.

She also asked to see the photos of the completed bridge, playfully saying that she was going to give her own grade for the project. It was the first conversation I could joke and laugh and share eye contact with her, the wife, and her toothy grin.

Perhaps people are indeed getting more comfortable with my presence, or perhaps it’s just in her nature to be more involved. Either way, it made the conversation, and the experience, very memorable for me.

I left Tómas’ with two more corn on the cobs in hand and a heavy, heavy chicha buzz in the afternoon heat. A siesta and afternoon class later and I settled in at home for a dinner of one massive pineapple and some reading, while trying not to destroy my legs and arms which remain covered in unthinkable amounts of unthinkably itchy bug bites. Not going to miss that part of the jungle life, that’s for sure.

Seems a tad unseemly (not to mention unsightly) to leave you with this parting image, but hey, be thankful it wasn’t your foot!


By Alan

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