Alan the Achuar: Glimpses into Living and Learning in the Jungle (Part 4)

To view Part 1, click here. To view Part 2, click here. To view Part 3, 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.

Wading Through The Fish – Day 27

At around 7am Gonzalo came by and asked if I wanted to come fishing with he and his brothers Alex and Ernesto, and some of their family as well. On my second to last day, that is exactly what I wanted to do, I told him. I put on my boots and made sure to grab my camera. I was going to document the adventure this time!

We made the crossing to the other side of the river where they lived and while the boys got ready I went to visit Ernesto. He was working on a canasta, which he said was a gift for my dad. As I’ve mentioned before, the Achuar are sometimes hard to read, but their generosity and thoughtfulness is made clear in their actions more than words or expressions sometimes, and give you a very clear and deep sense of the genuine open-hearted goodness they embody.

Ernesto showed me how to start making one, setting up the reed like vines and demonstrating how to weave them. It is as hard as it looks, at least to me, although once you have the base of the canasta, the side weaving is a bit simpler.



This day they had already harvested the barbasco roots and instead of seeking out a lagoon again we were going to go fishing in a small river/stream in the jungle. With Ernesto and his machete leading the way we left his house and headed into the canopy covered surroundings.

Our group: Gonzalo, Alex, and Ernesto, their mother, Ernesto’s wife (carrying their newborn on her back), a small boy named Lenin (around 9 or 10 years old) and Alex and Gonzalo’s family dog, Meinke. After walking through the thick forest for about 20 minutes we arrived at the stream. This part of it was around 15 feet across and just shin deep, but flowing pretty well. Here was where we were going to set up the net to stop dead fish (to read about this barbasco fishing style, click here) from flowing past.

Ernesto and the boys swiftly cut down some small trees to use as poles and gathered some vines to use to tie them up. Two poles tied together stretched across the stream at surface level. Then eight or nine poles were spaced apart and placed vertically into the water resting against the horizontal poles. These were also tied down. They then slipped the net (after cutting holes along the top for the poles to go through) over the vertical poles and weighed it down with rocks below the surface of the water. The whole process probably took about 15 minutes.

I naively thought we’d just put the barbasco in right there and wait. Not the most exciting fishing venture. However, we left behind the net, took to the jungle again, and walked for another 30 or 40 minutes upriver, sometimes along the little river, sometimes without even the sound of the river to be heard.

We were going way upriver to dump barbasco, which made a lot more sense. The last time Ernesto and the boys harvested fish from this river was many months ago, and I don’t know if there was a trail then, but there certainly wasn’t a trace of one now.

A minute-long peek into this remote jungle trekking.

Even though Ernesto and the rest of the family grew up in and around this forest, it never ceases to amaze me how they can find their way. I suppose it would be like them coming to a big city like San Francisco, and a native of the city showing them around. That would probably also seem as much like an incomprehensible maze to them as this does to me.

When were close to the area where we’d dunk the barbasco in the water, we sat on a large fallen tree and mashed away at the roots, then piled them back into the large canastas the women were carrying and made our way to the nearby river.

DSCN9232 2


Gonzalo and Ernesto waded in about thigh deep and started dunking the baskets full of barbasco. The whole mini river oozed with the poisonous venom as it swiftly traveled downstream with the now deadly current.

Ernesto mashed the barbasco again and again dunked the basket, then more mashing and more dunking until the roots had nothing left to give.



Once more, I naively thought we’d just go back through the jungle to the nets and gather the fish that had accumulated there. Nope. Into and down the river we went, all of us. Any hope of not getting water into my boots quickly vanished, replaced with the hope that nothing would end up squirming around in my boots. We each carried a vine that had been fashioned into a fish rack. One end had been tied into a loop to act as a stopper. The other end sharpened a bit to more easily run it through the gill and out the mouth of a fish, so that one could slide it down to the stopper.

We spent the next three hours (or perhaps longer, after a while I lost track of time) sloshing and wading and scooping and snatching and adding to our growing rack of fish. Most of the fish in our catch was a lot bigger than the lagoon haul, some of the bigger ones a good foot and a half long and four or five inches wide.



I felt like I’d entered the indigenous life previously during our barbasco lagoon harvest, but wading through this small river in the Amazon was a whole other level. At times I was chest deep in water, ducking under fallen trees, tripping over branch after sunken branch underwater, trying not to think of water snakes, eels, caimans, parasites, or the spiders in the brush we sometimes had to hack through, and all the while also focusing on spotting fish that might be surfacing. I was literally chest deep in the jungle, a full immersion into the life of my indigenous friends, and also the lives of all the water creatures that I could not see below me in the murky water.

I couldn’t do anything but keep on trudging and try not to get snagged on a sunken root or branch and face plant into the water. Luckily, when I did have a decent fall or two we were in shallow water and I didn’t get a nostril full of the flowing river.

We stopped several times when Ernesto said we had to wait for the barbasco to catch up. During one of these waits the boys found a tree nearby and started cutting into the bark with their machetes, slicing pieces off of the tree. White sap started seeping out, and the boys said this is used as a natural oil, a natural hair gel. I always wondered how Ernesto “did” his hair kind of spiked up in the front. I thought it was just water and never asked. But here it was, a natural jungle salon product.


Alex and Gonzalo scooped off the oozing liquid and ran it through their hair. I did the same. It definitely felt much more pleasant than hair gel one might buy in the store that leaves your hair crusty and hard. Ernesto said without washing it out with soap it stays for several days, keeping your hair nicely moisturized. Indeed, my hair never felt so soft and smooth. We took some photos of each other showing off our new do’s.


A little later on during a waiting break, Alex saw another tree, one that you can harvest palmitas from to eat. He cut down the small tree and cut off parts of it, shearing the outer layers to get to the white, crunchy, edible center layer. He gathered as much as we could carry with our fish and we headed back to the others to share in a midday snack.

The tree he had cut down had fallen partly over the riverbank and river. And as I followed Alex out to the outer end of it, I slipped and crashed to the side onto my back, sinking into the thorny, scratchy, and as my mind would remind me, probably spider infested brush. I was literally hanging in this stuff, over the river, and if Alex hadn’t come back to help me out with a hand, I would have eventually sunk or broke through and plopped into the water below. Needless to say he had a good, howling laugh after he’d got me up. To this point I hadn’t had any falls like this, so after a month I think I was definitely due.

We grabbed our vines of fish and plunked our boots back into the water, back to work. When we were just about back to the net we came across a heavily thicketed area crossing the width of the now chest deep stream. Ernesto tried to hack away with the machete, usually a successful endeavor, but even the powerful blade couldn’t make much headway. He tried squeezing into and through the brush but thorns and thickness didn’t make it possible. Hmm, was swimming under an option? We decided against it, no knowing how thick it was underwater nor how long. We clambered up the bank hacking a path through the forest and made our way to the net, and waited there for a little while gathering fish as they floated towards us. In all, between the whole group we must have had at least 50 fish, probably more. A healthy haul.

On our way back Alex showed me a massive tree called a saybo. Inklings of a giant sequoia, the trunk was a good 15 or 20 feet in diameter and it stretched so far up into the canopy it looked like it must be a ladder all the way to the blue sky hidden somewhere miles above. Alex’s father, the shaman, believes the tree to “have much power,” and indeed standing next to this centuries-old jungle being, it emanated a sage and powerful presence of endurance and strength.



Just before arriving back at their houses I noticed a lot of movement on the now more open and flattened trail. Closer inspection revealed hundreds of ants in a freeway like hustle and bustle scurrying along the path. What made them more visible was their cargo, almost all of them were carrying little slices of green leaves, hauling their load back home which we found a little farther along the path (a little hole in the ground).

Such a fascinating image of life at work, life on a smaller but no less hard-working level. Every little ant a truck driver for the day, heading out to pick up the goods, and joining the crowded commute back home to drop it off. We soon noticed even more scurrying lines around us and as we continued walking the forest seemed alive with movement, alive with purpose, and ourselves an equal part of it today.

Fish. Fish. And more fish. We ate and savored the fresh catch, a massive late afternoon meal around 2:30/3pm.





Alex recounted my headlong foray into the bush and over the river to his mother and the others, and we all had a good laugh at my expense. Hey, no massive bug bites and just a few scratches, I was okay with that. I returned home, itchy, scratchy, smelly, sticky, sweaty, muddy, wet, exhausted and unreservedly and completely happy.

They had invited me back over for dinner so after a bath in the stream by my house and afternoon class with the boys, I returned across the river. Ernesto joined us with his family, and gave me the canasta he had finished that afternoon, the gift for my father. We ate more fish, and I tried hard to implant that fresh, amazing taste in my memory. I can honestly say, I don’t think any plate of restaurant fish will ever match the quality nor experience of those fish-laden meals. After eating and chicha and showing them the photos I’d taken of the day, nighttime had come and it was time for bed.

Walking back home along the airstrip, I noticed one more twinkling touch to the quite fulfilling day, a nightscape above filled with stars. I’d almost forgotten how powerfully stunning the jungle sky can be when it is clear. Most nights this past month have been cloudy, without the chance to see the full night sky. I stopped outside my house, turned off my flashlight and stared into the heavens for a while, relishing the completeness of my jungle reverie.

Dancing the Time Away – Day 28

On one of my last night’s in Quito a gal in the hostel I was staying at left me with some wise words. We were going to go out on the town with the rest of the hostel folks and I mentioned this would be a last hurrah before jungle entry. “You never know,” she said, “maybe your indigenous friends throw huge parties in the jungle.” Turns out she was right.

From 8am Sunday morning to 2am Monday morning, the community threw a fiesta to celebrate my time with them and to bid me a raucous farewell. When I arrived in the morning, at around 8:30am, only a few people were there. And an hour or so later the communal area was mostly full. Rain pounded the roof over our heads and inundated the dirt soccer field and volleyball court outside.


For the first couple hours I and the others simply chatted, moving around and talking to different people, or just sitting in place and shouting across the way. We also embarked on the chicha marathon that was on tap for today. The women were circling the enclosure in full force and they made sure “teacher” was taking good, long sips.


The schedule for the day: Sports were supposed to start in the morning but because the heavy rain didn’t let up we stayed dry and drank chicha instead. Then before lunch, around 11am, “intervenciones” would start. Various people (mostly officials) would stand up and say some words about me and my time there to the community. Then it would be my turn to address the community. After that, around noon, a feast would be had.

The day before most of the men had gone a la cacería, hunting, to provide some food for the large communal meal. More chicha would follow and then sports until about four or five when we’d have time to wash up and change before coming back to the communal area to turn up the radio and dance into the night.

First to speak during the intervenciones was el síndico who, usually succinct in his addresses, said a few words and sat back down. Francisco followed and after speaking in Achuar, addressed me in Spanish giving thanks for all my hard work and for being a part of the community. Rafael, the shaman and “comíte de educación” (he organizes community support for the teachers among other things), had some heartfelt words for me and the community to hear. Ernesto translated as his dad spoke in Achuar and the humbling message was basically that I was one of the best English volunteers they’d had in the community, that I never complained or got sick, he also noted the enthusiasm that I brought to teaching and the extra effort to provide extra classes, and expressed hope that I would again return someday.

Wow. I’ve had few conversations with Rafael, although I have spent a good deal of time with him, because of the Spanish language barrier. But if the Achuar people can be described in any one word it is “observant,” and the special moments when they relay these personal observations and feelings they hit home in a deeply perceptive and truly heartfelt kind of way.

I later went over to Rafael (with Gonzalo to translate) and told him how much I appreciated his beautiful and kind words. Sankap also addressed the community and had equally humbling praise, finishing by saying that there will always be open arms and a place for me in the community should I wish to return.

Then it was my turn. I’d been thinking about what I was going to say the day before and earlier this day, so I had an idea of what I wanted to talk about but hadn’t formally prepared anything. I feel so at home with these people, so welcomed and supported, that no nerves surged, only a determined desire to really make my gratitude felt during my speech.

I first thanked the entire community as a whole for their generosity and for being open to giving me the opportunity to come and live with them. I then thanked them for showing me time and again the deep sense of community that they live every day, for the respect and care that they have for nature and for each other, for the cultural pride they embody in all their actions, and for sharing and letting me live in that sacred way as well.

I thanked all the fathers and mothers for their support, and then thanked the students for their hard work. I gave a special thanks to my adult/afternoon group, mentioning Ernesto, Alex, Gonzalo and David, and as a joke that has been the source of much laugher recently, thanked my best student, Enrique, who came to the first class, must have learned everything, and then didn’t come ever again. We all had a good, hearty, communal belly laugh at this with shouted comical comments flying across the enclosure.

I continued by saying that even though I am leaving, the English learning shouldn’t stop. I urged the students to take just 30 minutes or so a day to study their notebooks and/or practice with a friend, and also urged the parents to encourage this as well. I noted that I understood how hard it is to learn English when volunteers only come every four months or longer (as I’d learned) and for this, I too had work to do after returning. I told them how I had been keeping a detailed diary and would use this to create a narrative of sorts and post blogs about the program to give publicity to it so that more people would come to know of the opportunity.

I could sense and see the gratitude from them, heads silently and subtly nodding, and extra attention being given to these words, a good feeling when you are public speaking, and an even better feeling because I finally had a chance to concretely relay how I would try and repay the generosity they had imparted to me. I finished with a corny but sincere statement that today was not “goodbye forever” but more like an “until next time,” and with a final maketai, thank you, I sat down to claps and cheers and booming “Ayu’s!” I felt good. I felt as one does in a family that understands, no matter what words you may have said or not said, how deeply you care. It was a special kind of closure for me amongst a people and in a place where sometimes communication is not easy.

After a bit more chicha chat, the table in the center of the enclosure where I sat with Ernesto and Enrique began filling with food. Women brought over more than a dozen bowls of meat in broth, dozens and dozens of maduro and potatoes, all laid out on two or three massive table-sized leaves that acted as a table cloth. I was also brought a special “maito,” which, and I know I’ve said this before, was the best fish meal I’ve eaten in my life. Stuffed with some kind of small pieces of leaf and pepper, the fish was wrapped in these leaves and had been smoked over a fire. Served with some “aji” and maduro and potato, I was a happy man.



The rest of the table had meat in the bowls (everything from monkey to bird meat), which I tried too (pava). Sitting with me were Ernesto and all the teachers, Tómas, el síndico, Francisco, one of his sons-in-law, Saul, Sankap and Enrique. Hands flew rapidly about snatching maduro or potato, scooping up aji, peeling the tender fish meat away from bones. Mouths slurped, teeth ripped fresh flesh, laughter and happy chatter circled the regal lunch before us.


Enrique bore the brunt of more good-hearted teasing. “He became fluent in English in one class!” “You must be good, real good, teacher!” “He came just for the notebook and pen!” In between laughter and chatter, the food vanished quickly, and even with the rapid fire conversation and food devouring, I savored every last chew, every last taste of this unforgettable meal.

After lunch, the rain stopped and with a little more chicha for “energy” we had games of soccer and volleyball in the mud and puddles. During the soccer game it was sons against fathers, and I played for the fathers. We were winning 4-2 but ended up being defeated 6-5 but the youngin’s. Slipping and sliding and spectacularly falling, we all got soaked and muddied pretty well during that game and the subsequent volleyball games that followed.





More chicha followed and some more time to chat and hang out. I had my camera and got some pictures with various people. Francisco, who seems to really like me (and I him, he’s always got the biggest smile for me no matter what), put his arm around me for our photo, a show of public tenderness and affection that I have not seen or experienced amongst adults in any way during my time living with the Achuar (except with parents and their little kids). Again, actions speaking louder than words, and in the end, the “cariño” on their part towards me, ultimately expressed deeply and sincerely.


More photos with Domingo, David, Ernesto and the boys, and others, and I was thoroughly happy that I had those moments captured as I didn’t have many photos with other people in the community until this day. I was also taking photos of the communal area, sitting on the far end, when I noticed a group of ten or so kids had gathered behind me to watch. I flipped the camera around, held it up in front, and snapped a photo of those curious and joyful faces, the most joyful being mine. This turned out to be one of my favorite photos of my entire time with the community.


More chicha, more talking, enjoying of each other’s company continued. The boys, Gonzalo and Alex, practiced showing off their English to me and looking around and pointing and asking how to say this or that in English. One thing I noted, and have noted before, many of the young adults, men my age, and one’s I’ve never spoken to, came up to me asking how to say “I love you,” in English. Earnest and hopeful, they always practiced the pronunciation until they got it right or close enough, and were always delighted to have learned the phrase. And I was always delighted to be asked. If there is anything more universal than love, I have yet to experience it.

A man from a different indigenous community but who worked at the hospital, had come that day to perform a census so that doctors who visit the communities sometimes could have a better sense of the amount of medicines to bring. He brought a laptop with him and after finishing his work went to play a game of volleyball. He left the computer open and playing music videos for the kids to watch. This was quite a sight. From toddlers to twenty-year-olds, they crowded and pushed and jostled around the computer for a better view, the table and benches straining precariously under all their weight. They watched video after video, for a good hour or more until the computer battery died.


I made my way home to change into shorts for a bath, and then after into pants and a different shirt for the chicha and dancing party. I spent some time packing as well as I wouldn’t have too much time in the morning to do so. Back at the enclosure it took a while for the music to encourage some dancing, but in the end it definitely did, and a whole lot more chicha as well. In the dim light of velas (candles) and other lights, I danced the night away with my Achuar friends.

One of the most memorable partners was the wife of Tómas, who, as I’ve written about before, I feel like I connected with during my conversation with her and Tómas in their home. Anyways, she wanted to dance with me, a bold move not offered by any other women (the men ask). And boy did she dance! She must be in her fifties or so, but she could move. Most of the other women when they dance (at least with me) move slowly and shyly, but Rosa had her arms flying everywhere and feet moving quickly, her body swirling energetically. Surprised at first, I could barely keep up. But the happy energy she exuded was contagious and I had a lot of fun dancing around with her.



That night wasn’t all drinking and dancing. I had some memorable conversations as well. A man named Telmo asked about my family and my family’s names. Ernesto’s mother came by and wanted to hear as well. Ernesto told me his mom had said she was going to miss me and didn’t want me to leave. After a month I was finally getting some connection with the wives and women, who don’t speak to me much to me (almost at all actually), but are always observing, always listening, always caring. She was listening intently to my recounting of my family and what they did and where they lived and how old they were and their names, etc., all with warmth in her eyes and a mother’s smile on her face.

I told them and her that I missed my family as I’d been away for a long time. She nodded, understanding, smiling. It was a moment to remember that night. She held the bowl of chicha out for a long time, making sure I drank enough to last me all the way back to California.

I also spoke with Alex and Gonzalo, Alex imploring that I write to them and send photos. “You will write, won’t you? Send photos of you in California.” He seemed outwardly the most affected by my imminent departure. I’m going to miss him and his brothers very much. I also spoke with Ernesto who, by midnight was getting very tired. He was holding his toddler son Gerardo in his lap, both their heads nodding down in a semi sleep state. He told me lovingly how Gerardo keeps them up at night, peeing the bed without a care in the world while he’s doing it, and how Gerardo likes to draw and play with toy planes. “He’ll be a pilot some day,” Ernesto said proudly.

Rafael also came by and reiterated what he had said earlier, that he’d never seen a volunteer with as much enthusiasm for being there and teaching as I had, and that I’d never gotten sick, and that he looked forward to the day I would return. Again, these people have a way of suddenly saying such things and making you realize just how much they love and they care.

At around 1:30am I had to call it a night. I couldn’t drink more chicha and was very tired, albeit very happy to have had such a great celebration all day. I felt even more connected to these people and their life because of it.

A wink of sleep later and I was up at 5am packing.


At 6:15am I arrived at Sankap’s for a final breakfast and visit.


Then I met Ernesto and his family, Gonzalo and their dad at their dad’s house. They would be taking me downriver. After gathering my belongings and returning to his house, we delicately made our way down the riverbank to the canoe.

I sat next to Ernesto during the forty minute ride to the Achuar community downriver where I’d be flying out. We didn’t speak much.

We arrived at the riverbank at Kusutka and unloaded my things. We bid a quick farewell and I watched them and waved as they pulled away, heading home to continue to live the jungle life I was leaving behind.

I waited for two hours with some employees from the lodge who were also leaving and transporting with them materials from the lodge. The planes eventually arrived, unloaded their tourists and we piled in.


I sat next to the copilot and had a front seat view to the wobbly but efficient power of these small flying miracles. An hour later we touched down in Shell and I stepped out onto the concrete floor of civilization once more.

Thinking of my soon-to-be flight back to San Francisco, I also thought of the song “I left my heart in San Francisco,” and the message it spoke to me in this moment. Indeed, I have left much of my heart and love in the Bay Area, in California, but in this moment, I realized I was leaving my heart in the remote jungle, in my cozy hut, across the airstrip and soccer field, in the classrooms, and with the family I now had in all of those places.

It’s a good thing we all have a lot of love to give, because life certainly calls for it again and again. I feel like I go from place to place, person to person, experience to experience, leaving pieces of me, of my heart and my being, in each place, with each person, and in the memory of each moment. Like a muscle being exercised, I am stronger for it in every way. This is how we keep our hearts whole and new and thriving and singing, these flashes of life and connection creating a necessary and nourishing holistic cadence for the rhythm of our brief but beautiful dance with the human experience.

I do feel different after all my South American experiences, and especially after living the jungle life. I feel more like me. Like I know who that is. I feel like I can do anything. And whatever I do, I’ll carry those people and places and experiences with me precisely because I’ve given my heart fully to all of it and all of them, and no amount of distance or time will ever diminish the strength and beauty of that truth.


By Alan

2 comments on “Alan the Achuar: Glimpses into Living and Learning in the Jungle (Part 4)

  1. Dear Alan,

    I am back in Cuenca and I am already thinking about what I might be doing when I go back to the jungle. I think your blogs would be ideal for teaching advanced students (and I do have a few) because the language is beautiful and it is all about THEM.

    Could you possibly send me the whole folder (I think I have seen many but perhaps not all your entries) so that I could print a master copy with the photos and start exploiting them?

    Thanks a lot,



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