East of Hummerland and Down
Quito moved its airport. They have been at it for years, the creation of a new and less daring landing strip. In a city of 2 million it must take some effort to get through all the required political maneuverings to accomplish such a massive land grab or land realignment or whatever it was that had to happen. But finally you no longer have to drop like a rock over the northern peaks and fall down-down-down into the great slash that still is the main part of the city of Quito. It is no longer a carnival ride involving up-and-over and then that fall into sheer walls of porch lights and glowing television screens anymore. It is the usual and unspectacular glide into a minor bounce now. It is “welcome to Quito” instead of the whispered final words of a prayer.
You still arrive after dark. And the new airport is unfortunately over 40 kilometers from the central part of the town. And they have only finished one part of the superhighway that they are constructing from the new airstrip into the city. We did weave through streets in the dark parts of the city that were more hilly and unfamiliar than on past night drives. Some areas looked more affluent. I have never solved the patchwork neighborhood layout of hilly Quito. Who is living where? I’m still not sure. If there are castes and financial divisions I could not divine them. On the back streets, no one is really out on the roadways after dark to give evidence one way or another except in the central parts near old town. You can possibly tell the more affluent roadways by the size of the speed bumps. Which in places are dinosaurian and dangerous. I estimate that anything over about 3 MPH would get you impressive undercarriage damage on the largest of them. There are no speed bumps in the poorer neighborhoods. At the airport our taxi driver had confidently repeated back the name of our hotel as if it were an old friend. And then informed me in Spanish it would take about an hour to get there, looking in the mirror to see if I understood. His estimate must have been based on the general neighborhood of Centro Historico. Because about half way into the run into town he began asking further questions and we exchanged papers and maps. Fortunately, I had printed out some maps. It became clear our driver had never seen our hotel before. Even with the actual address it was a maze in Old Town. Streets were blocked here and there to traffic. We circled and asked directions. Some of the directors seemed annoyed with the driver. We ourselves never lost confidence. Man was too happy, too perky to fail. At least I don’t remember losing confidence. We got there.
The second day was a city day. I like a nice city day. It was the third time I had been to Quito. The second time for Bo. We had stayed in a different hotel which had been away from Old on the prior trips. That first place had been good to us. And we had been loyal to it. But it had been fenced and bunkered like it was in a battle zone. Now, we were trying other spots. And on our city day, we were resting our eyes on people and places instead of birds for a day. I had considered going to the Botanical Gardens in town but I had been there in the past. And the gardens and grounds are lovely. On this, our first time in Old Town however, we just launched out after breakfast and took to the big square to the west of us. People abounded despite it being a work day. Security and police also abounded. Apparently they are directed to haunt the main tourist collection areas. Charlie Vogt, who had lived in the area for 24 years, said the police and traffic squads had much improved. There certainly seemed to be an army of both now. The traffic guys often giving directions with whistles. Their own personal whistles, with the mouth and tongue and lips. They don’t issue official city whistles in Quito otherwise it seemed. They were watchful and impersonal.
Open hillsides of houses rose above us in every direction. To our south a great statue towered. We looked at it carefully through the binoculars. It seemed to attract tour bus after tour bus up its steep switchbacked road. At 9000 feet we never considered walking up to it. It would have no doubt resulted in our roadside deaths from lack of oxygen and exhaustion. She, the statuess, must have been another 500 feet above us. It was an odd angel of some kind. Broadly winged, etched in some kind of metal, this looming angel seemed to have chains and a dragon at her feet. Charlie told us her name at some point later but we promptly forgot it. I just thought of her as the dragon lady. She was great for orienting yourself in the wildly anti-geometric street layout of Quito.
By chance we stumbled on the City museum which was just up the street from our hotel. It was the site of a past hospital and catholic school for children, a very old church. It was welcoming inside: beautiful courtyards, groups of students attended by teachers. Some of the politest children I have seen. At one point a whole line of them went past as I stood aside. Every single child wished me a good day with “buenas dias.” The artwork was impressive. A photo display made me feel amateurish with my own camera. We made our way to a rooftop viewing area and took in the surrounding city from a vantage of planted gardens. Statues stood below us of famous workers, historic figures and there was even one of a great bronze condor. You have to like a place that honors condors. And there were also some street murals that were just magnificent. Surely not just from random street artists? I still don’t know.
The next day was new territory day. It was another travel day, though shorter. It was my third trip to Ecuador and I had saved the eastern lowlands for last. It was a location requiring a bit more effort including a return to the airport and then a flight over the Andes. We had driven up and over the Andes on the last trip taking our time getting over to the foothills on the other side. There we had gazed out east over the steamy lowlands. And I would recommend that everyone make that drive up and over at least once. The flight over the Andes used to be in twin prop planes, but now they use small jets to get there after the airport on the other side, in Coca, was expanded. The flight now takes only about forty minutes in the air. Much shorter airtime than the time it takes to get back out to the airport and through all the rigmarole of air travel. The new facilities were booming and still expanding, crowded but fairly orderly. We were assisted by the La Selva guys from our pick up at the hotel to the drive out to the airport and out into the flight waiting areas. Our boarding passes were handed to us by our caretakers. Stickers were applied to our clothes to identify us as “La Selvians.” As opposed to Sacha Lodglings or Napo Wildlife center attendees. Those being the three main Napo river lodges that compete for travelers in the eastern lowlands. Bo and I were the only La Selvians. Oddly proud of it, milling among the other bestickered tourists like we were on competing sports teams.
The flight itself is pretty much 15 minutes of climbing and 15 minutes of dropping on the other side of the mountains. The stewardesses were lovely. And they barely have time to fling juice boxes down the rows of passenger aisles. The self-contained, inclusive, straw-strapped-to-the-side kind of juicebox. From schooldays, you chugged them down and watched out the window for the clouds to part as you dropped and dropped. At the bottom of the cloud cover, extensive jungle spun into view and we made a wide circle over a confluence of waterways. We could see a fine suspension bridge from the air. And great swirls of spiraling mist rising from the jungles. Everything below us was wet. Steaming, a visual water cycle in action. We were now in the land of water.
Coca is the gateway to the river that runs east across the rest of Ecuador. The town is also known as Puerto Francisco de Orellana. For the European explorer who first visited the confluence of the rivers there. Men with armor and crosses, no doubt. All rivers on the east side of the northern Andes lead to the Amazon. Eventually, anyway. The mountains of Peru and Ecuador all drain towards these major confluences. At Coca two major rivers that join: the Coca and the Napo. Beyond this it is just the great Napo. The other rivers in the zone are the Curaray, the Pastazo, the Cononaco. And Ecuador is but a triangular and jagged head atop the great expanse of Peru. Ecuador being slightly larger than the state of Colorado in the US. Peru, wrapping around to the east, is the size of the whole western US. Coca does not look much like a gateway really to anywhere. The airport is a two slotter. One plane leaving and one arriving every 45 minutes essentially. Booming town of about 30 thousand. Smaller significantly (for now at least) than my home city of Conway Arkansas. It looks ramshackle and wet to its core. Like fungal hyphae could erupt from its stone and its steel. The temperature was moderate but steamy. It was still what they considered their winter, though they have no such thing. They have never seen snow or ice except atop a distant volcano. They just have cycles of more rain and less rain with the rising and falling rivers as seasons. It does indeed get significantly hotter in the late summer months down there. This was their cool time. In March temps every day in the low 80s Fahrenheit. In every direction steam spiraled up in wet white tornadic fume towers. The rain paused politely as we walked toward the main building of the airport itself and then hammered down again once we were safely inside.
The room was crowded. Bags were thrown through a large rectangular hole in the wall. The bag men draped in rain gear. Everyone crowded around this portal grabbing bags tagged with the flight and with the Napo lodge destination. We walked our own bags through to the far door which was open. Outside there was a thirty foot covered walkway that ran out to the main road. Fifty people sheltered beneath it in the driving rain. Out the door, I looked to my left, to find someone standing just there under the eve of the building.
A shortish, dark-skinned man wearing a Texas hat looked at me and said “La Selva?”
And I nodded.
“My name is Rodrigo” he said, “I hear you are a birdwatcher?”
I nodded again, claiming this label of simplification from him, as a kind of badge of honor.
“My friend is bringing the car. There are just two of you?”
The confirmation of this fact seemed to please him.
The bags went in the back bed of a half sized utility vehicle. They were covered with a tarp. The rain still pounded. It was fifteen minutes across town to the river dock. A dock that was like a closed carnival site with a wildly exaggerated geometric roof over a concrete patio with a bar. In several places the roof dripped and leaked. People collected and milled out of the rain. A long dock covered with a thatch roof projected out into the river toward a disarray of boats. Boats that looked otherworldly and somewhat abandoned. A swimming pool “for guests only” looked forlorn and unattended. Fence rails around a haphazard garden were crawling with the largest snails I have seen anywhere. Plum sized, peach sized, apparently they were an invasive species in the Coca area and tough on the small gardens people liked to plant in town.
And though Bo and I thought it must just be just a routine rain in this, the haven of rain, the force of this downpour was hard enough for the leaders to put the boat ride off for about thirty minutes. From the look of this river the boats did not seem anywhere sturdy enough to get us down river to where we were going. The suspension bridge towered in a twin spire right next to us. And atop one of its two big concrete heights was a light that looked like a standing man. I kept checking it with my binoculars. It kept being just a light and not a suicidal rain worshipper. The bridge was apparently only a few years old. And was a major innovation in the world of commerce and traffic on this, the only significant road around.
We scanned the river for birds and watched White-winged Swallows for the first time of many. They are like Tree Swallows white washed on the upper wings with bleach. A single pair of White-banded Swallows also shot back and forth over the roiling water in and out of the end of a dock pipe. Everything else deferred to the rain. With a slight slackening, we went to the boat, which was covered. In fact it was curtained on the sides with heavy plastic sheets. The seats were cushy and comfortable. Back toward the back we settled in with Rodrigo and he immediately handed us a beer. It was a sign from the river Gods, a good one.
We would spend quite a bit of time on and near the river in the coming week. This first ride down river at high speed was a revelation: the Napo like a wild and angry Arkansas river at high flood stage. The river would continue to rise above the level we were experiencing for several more months. And this was just one tributary emptying toward the unimaginable Amazon and the far away Atlantic. After a short period of drying off the side curtains were raised and we had the full view of shore and waterway for the rest of the ride. It was a good 2 to 3 hours down river to our temporary home. We were in the minority at the back of the boat with about 14 or 15 Napo Wildlife Center visitors sitting in front of us. We were sharing their boat. Oddly, we noted, not one of them seemed to have binoculars for this ride up the river. They did not have beers. Some of them slept. Some of them read books. Surely they had never been here before? And to come to such a place, even if you were not there for the birds, and to not bring binoculars? Just to look at the flowers on the tall trees better, surely, that is enough? To see the monkey faces in detail?
Bo and I could not wait for the curtains to be up. And we would scan everything we could in the treetops. Rodrigo would shout out a name over the boat engines when our eyes lingered on something. We saw other fast boats going and coming, most of them associated with the oil and gas industry. The river was their highway. And their boats were covered over, shelled and darkened and sealed off and oh so much faster. The glory of the river seemed to be lost to them after so many hours grinding up and down the Napo. One of the most beautiful places in the world and it was just rote travel. We came eventually to a black water creek that we carefully entered. It was where the Napo WC guys would live. Unbinoculared. And there they departed as we stepped over into our own boat. It was slightly smaller but seemingly just as fast. We backed out of that shaded dark water. Into the wild river again, Rodrigo taking control with his hand signals, as he would for days. Stop, turn around, loop de loop. We zigged and zagged toward our destination at La Selva’s dock another twenty minutes up the river.
The Bodega was the name of the thatch hut collection at La Selva’s river dock. We looped around and rode the current up from down river and jumped off. Several people seemed to live there permanently, caring for the boats and handling arrivals and departures. Rodrigo spoke to everyone we saw in high speed Spanish, he seemed to know every single person’s name everywhere we went. Even if it was just someone standing on the river shoreline taking a bath. He called me simply “my friend” the whole time, having some trouble with my name I think. I think he thought it was Marshal. Bo was turned into Bob and we never corrected him. We enjoyed Bo’s new name for the whole week.
“Careful Bob, it is slippery here.”
“Bob, right here, look right through this hole in the leaves.”
Rodrigo’s English was excellent. And he apparently taught himself by talking to tourists at La Selva. What a limited and focused English education to now speak it so well. Bird tourists mostly, though he said he did some naturalist tours just to calm things down now and then. The guides were paid less to talk about flowers and lizards. Birders were far more intense and demanding. I could imagine. Bo and I had no specific lists. Or targets. We just waved our hands ahead. “Show us your world Rodrigo.” But I was certain there were birders from Australia or England that presented him with papers. That looked him in the eye and said “birds, these birds, don’t be talking to me about flowers and berries. You got it?” Rodrigo started out working in the kitchen, cooking for demanding English speaking tourists. He did not like it. This place served breakfast before dawn. He worked on his birds alone in the forests between cooking stints. He had taken to the trails to learn on his own with a rough paper Ecuadorian bird guide. There were at least 600 bird species just on this section of the river Napo, making for a thousand or more vocalizations easily. And Lord knows what kind of binoculars were available to him as he started out. He had a pair of Nikons now. And eagle eyes. And the ears of a teenager.
From the river dock landing we walked a boardwalk trail towards the blackwater lake. The trail there was elevated above the mud since the La Selva upgrade about two years ago. His eyes were sharp even in the water.
“Ohhhh” he said at one point. “Mata.” It supposedly means “I kill” in Spanish. But more closely means fringed or tufted turtle. What a stunner though. And how he spotted it was only more amazing than some of the later spottings he made. It was like a golden leaf down in the tea colored water. A youngster, only ten inches long, the turtle was really hard to believe. We returned him to his flooded home. Canoes awaited us after this at another small dock and we were paddled out into the swamp forest. Lake was still rising and rose each day while we were there by at least 6 to 10 inches total. We watched its progress by the vanishing signs and docks at the lodge itself. Birdsong from a boat, quiet dip of paddles without engine noise, I never got tired of crossing this swamp and the lake itself.
A welcoming cocktail at the main lodge. A small presentation from the local caretaker of the place. No room keys. Nothing had ever been stolen. Flowers blooming on the paths. Birds above us in the trees. The lodge rooms were a short walk from real jungle. A short walk from the dining deck which overlooked the blackwater lake. Where even in the rain, the lowland jungle world was right there. There was a large boot room where everyone was taken for a sizing of some high topped waterproof boots. Boot cleaning stations were located at several points around the lodge. Muddy boots were not allowed in the bar and dining area. Umbrellas were provided at the room and the dining entries.
The trails at La Selva are narrow and winding, through flood forest and over small creeks. One could easily get lost. Though the woods in these lowlands are much more forgiving than other woods in the tropics I had seen. If you dive right off the trail, I mean, the periodic flooding apparently keeping some of the plant life at bay. And Rodrigo did not hesitate to barrel off the trail. From the start, if something was attracting his attention we would all just suddenly walk that way. Bo and I checking for Bullet ants and the blistering plant and spikes and thorns. Rodrigo looking intently out ahead of him. As with most guides that I have been around in the tropics, he had the ears of a fox and an Apple device with his collection of song recordings. And this was hooked up to a portable speaker inside his belly pack. He knew every chip and chink of the birds. The sounds they made when they weren’t actually singing. And when he heard something he wanted to talk to, then he could finger whip up and down that long bird list on his touch screen at high speed. The screen scrolled at a blur. He liked to not name the bird until it was coming or responding or had, in fact, already arrived.
Whereas the Andean mountains are for hummers, the lowlands to the east are the land of antbirds and monkeys. Antbirds being the insectivorous group in the lowlands that often collect near Army ant swarms to capture the insects frightened up by the ravaging ants. They don’t all follow ants. Both sexes sing and they are skulky things. Not likely to be seen unless you talk back to them. Rodrigo pretty much thought like an antbird. And unlike many guides I have had he had superb whistling skills. Often he would whistle something up first before getting out the Apple and whipping through the screen. Some of his imitations were hard to believe. I thought I was a pretty good whistler.
Some of the antbird males are striking. Birds that when you go through the bird books make you stop and go “yow.” Rodrigo called up so many antbirds it made you dizzy sometimes. On one trail a bird seemed to come out of my boot top and zing down the trail. We had been just walking along. No one had heard anything. I think the only thing Rodrigo heard as it passed was its wing noise and one small chip of alert as it zipped by. He immediately had his Apple in his hand and said something excitedly to us. When he got excited we paid attention. He sent out a call and pretty quickly a bird popped back in and it sounded angry. Landed in the trees right next to us and made us gape. Of the many antbirds in the books this one was a staggering thing. It was an adult White-plumed Antbird. This is a bird like something drawn by a hopeful madman of bird artists, like Sibley scribbling after a poisoning with hallucinogens. Sibley out of his head making White-plumes and Hairy-crested Antbirds and then destroying the drawings on awakening, hungover the next morning. Birds made by the same drunken God that made toucans and hoatzins. Birds made from stardust and 5 billion years of struggle. You decide. Rodrigo had not seen a White-plumed on this side of the river for years. It perched and scolded us and then like a ghost it was gone. I can still absolutely see that thing in my head.
Sleeping at La Selva was a pure pleasure. This is not always true of strange beds in strange countries. We left the main window curtains open all the time we were there. Large screens filtered the air but let in the night sounds. I left the patio doors open once at dinner and came back to find quite an array of large insects up high on the walls. And in the bathroom, the largest treefrog I had ever seen. A big eyed camouflaged thing, he was on the sink top. My thought initially was that he must have gotten inside and was trapped. And in my first motion toward him, to try and take him in hand to carry out to the deck, he launched across the bathroom in a leap that is now the record leap for any frog I have ever seen. This was an Olympian frog leaper, taking eight feet or more of air at a time. He briefly stuck to the mirror and slid and then shot completely across to another wall. I surrendered any thoughts of rescue. And I decided it had actually chosen to be in the room and was likely surviving on fools like me letting bugs in with the doors open.
The four poster beds were draped completely with white mosquito netting on all sides and above. Though the mosquitoes were, once again, less numerous in Ecuador than on my own porch in Arkansas. It was still nice to have them though, these sheer encircling drapes of fine mesh. They could at least keep the treefrogs off of you. A ceiling fan spun all night creating a breeze and the nocturnal temperatures were already just in the seventies. At least two Tropical Screech Owls spoke each evening, usually after about 3 AM if my orientation is to be trusted. Distantly, some nights you could hear a Ferruginous Pygmy Owl. But the sonic undercurrent was mostly insects and smaller frogs, cicadas and katydid relatives, perhaps some insect singing groups I don’t even know. No barking dogs, no trains, no airlines passing in the night. The only thing sounding anything like noise from the busy human world were the Red Howler Monkeys, and they did not start calling until dawn. And then they did sound like jets. Once when we were up in the observatory above the dining area, Bo (aka Bob) commented at all the hanging Cacique and Oropendola nests on the trees around us, and everywhere in the lodge zone, saying, “he wished he was here during the nesting time” for these birds. Rodrigo immediately shook his head, “noooo, it’s crazy Bob, they start calling at 5 am, wake everyone up and they go all day!” Ah, the world and its possibilities.
At dawn in the dark at the dining platform, usually Bo and I were the first ones there. The “bird guys” got up first. The ever present cooking staff made breakfast early for us. You eat all your meals with your guide, but Rodrigo came only when breakfast was ready. Coffee was always available at the coffee table. Each morning the first bird sound of the day was usually the Tropical Kingbird that would perch on a small snag out in the lake and start his day. He would go and go until the sun started peaking up from the east. Near the equator it was nearly dead east. Occasionally the Striated Heron would make a noise and then the west and east side Red Howler bands would make their stunning morning choruses. It was not something that, staying at such a place, should be missed. This was followed by the truly odd churring engine noises of the Hoatzins which slept in the trees below the deck. Crazy primitive things that only made crazy primitive noises and acted like flight was something they were still working on. They did not quite have their license yet but were close. They had not so much bad hair days as bad hair genetics, one of the great oddities of the flatlands of Amazonia.
The lake would then start reflecting the sky and after a bit more light, the flock of Sand-colored Nighthawks would return, making showman designs and loopy indecisive cuts and dives in the still air above the water. They fed all night on the river and over the forests, coming here each morning to dazzle and then to sort themselves on the thin branches of one particular tree near the main building to sleep for the day. Probably benefitting from some predator protection in such a day roost.
On two evenings Rodrigo announced we were going out in the dark in the boat. He was always in charge. We would just nod and get ready. No questions. And he meant, of course, on the lake and in the swamp forest, the shoreline areas. Not out on the river, where only a madman would go in the dark, the raging water out there often carrying entire trees at full speed. The river drivers were expert in the daylight. Here we were motorless though. No waves, no debris, just glassine surface to glide upon. Rodrigo took his place in the front of the long canoe and Arsenio, the young assistant he favored, sat in the back paddling. Bo and I were generally the lazy tourists in the middle. It was one of the only trips I have taken to the tropics where I forgot my headlamp. Fortunately, Rodrigo had a powerful flashlight however. And once more he got to look at me like I was a dunce. This blackwater lake was always calm even in the daytime at this high water time of year. At night it was reflected sky you rode upon, though the stars were most often obscured. We had only one night where the stars shown at La Selva. No rain fell. The paddles dipped quietly. Rodrigo’s light making odd shadow shiftings here and there. The first sound we heard, made me pause for all of a second before saying “what the hell was that?” Rodrigo seemed to enjoy assessing my face after we heard something odd. He would turn back around in his front boat seat and raise his eyebrows. He did it repeatedly during the week.
The sound was somewhat owlish, only jovial and bouncy. It was a Rufescent Tiger Heron and who even knew they made such a night noise? With ten guesses I would not have won the chicken dinner. We listened for it to speak some more. We found one hiding in the night trees. Then we glided south towards the flooded forest. We called for the Zigzag Heron which has an even odder noise, like a soundtrack laugh from an old video game. We heard one distantly. For real owls we bailed out on the pitch black shore and walked to drier ground. Bo had not seen the Crested Owl, so Rodrigo called for a bit and then scanned with his light to find one exactly above us, giving us the head cock with those impressive old man eyebrows. He then tried for the other local Screech Owl, the Tawny-bellied. We stood in darkness while he sent the sound out above us. No echo in the tree density. There was no light whatsoever. I could hear insects buzzing though nothing sounded like it was speaking mosquito language. The ambient level of night insect noise was truly amazing otherwise. A local lightning bug came into view. It was a high speed and steady light, unblinking, a light that traced lines across our dark adapted retinas. It made our own signal, stop-and-start lightning bugs seem quaint and incomplete. We did not see another one. The Screech Owl loomed with its shadow cast by Rodrigo’s light. We saw its giant shadow on the tree trunk first and laughed at how close and attentive the bird was. Its pupils contracting in our light. The eyes appearing orange to me. Owls always retain their mystique. No matter where they are. Rowing back on the flat water again, we followed the lights of the lodge shining from its several levels. The observatory was impressive up top like some swamp forest light house. Somewhere out there, I thought, the nighthawks are feeding.
And then there was River Island hopping. Bo and I had hoped to go to perhaps one river island at some point in the trip. But we had no power, no agenda. Fortunately and apparently it was great sport for Rodrigo: the hopping, that is, of the islands. And likely he could not do it with big groups, but certainly could with only 2 or 3 people like our little trio. River islands being their own specialized habitat, i.e., they held special things. The big rivers here randomly (probably not) getting a sandbar that morphed into a clot of trees that further collected soil and brush until it formed an actual slice of landscape. If land pokes its head up in this place, it doesn’t take long to get all jungly. The islands went through their own successional biology of plants. And they attracted specific birds, including birds that really preferred nowhere else and often preferred just the islands of a certain age and plant mix. Each year that went by, the individual island’s biology changed. We had seen several smaller islands on the way from Coca. But we headed eastward for island day, into virgin river territory for us. Rodrigo knowing where all the islands were at any given time, though it was a shifting and changing map. I overheard him say, “vamonos a isla grande” once. Out on the boat, searching east for the islands, I asked Rodrigo, if we just kept going, how many hours before we reached Peru? He thought about this for a full half minute before he told me about nine hours at full speed. From there another thirty plus hours to the final squirming turns of the Napo rammed into the very beginning on the true Amazon. At the next great river fusion in northern Peru. How many river islands in just that stretch? I counted hundreds on Google maps before you even reached Ecuador’s border. And some of the islands in Brazil were the size of small US states it appeared.
As the old joke goes: the good thing about the islands, were that they had no trails; the bad thing about the islands was that they had no trails. They did often have sandy landing points. We passed huge sand flats on our way east. Rodrigo would wave his arms in either direction on the wide open river and we would zoom this way or that as the driver followed the conductor’s sudden armswings. We would slow down drastically for shallow waters. Deceptively looking just like deep water to me. Rodrigo would slice his hand at the point he wanted to bang into on the island. And we would jump off the front and dive in like children at play. Which according to our wives, we were. The driver was left in the boat to nap or to watch for dangerous floating detritus coming his way.
Great stands of wild cane often dominated the edges of these islands. Sharp edged enough it seemed to paper cut your carotid, sometimes this cane was laced with catclaw vine, one of the many plants that you truly avoided. Cecropia trees seemed very successful on some of the smaller islands. Sometimes forming open monocultures on the upstream ends: the bow of the island if you will. And we did see birds there on these islands that we saw nowhere else: Barred Antshrikes, Umbrellabirds, several hummers. On one very young island, that Rodrigo said he had never set foot upon, we jumped up onto dense low vines. Spongy and green they spread across the open areas and seemed to be killing off the smaller bushes and trees. Whoever gets to the sunlight first wins, even if you crawl over the ones beneath you. It is chlorophyll fueled war. The vine was like Kudzu in Mississippi. Only this was a native plant I guessed. Rodrigo was zipping through his ipod list looking for island voices. “There might be crakes here,” he said, still zipping. Crakes being the South American bird name for rails, those sneaky, almost mouse-like sedge and swamp grass runners in North America. They can be vocal things at times but are hellish to see. Rodrigo stopped his ipod spinning wheel and cocked his head. He heard some Gray-breasted Crakes on the other side of the island. I frankly don’t remember what we crashed through to get there, or if we just walked on the vines like miracle plant walkers. I still had all my organs on arrival and no severe hemorrhaging. But soon enough we had five or six crakes calling around us.
Birds of Ecuador says of this bird, “can be numerous on River Islands…furtive and generally nearly invisible, scurries about mouse-like inside dense cover.” Well damn. And these things are only five inches long. The sound that they make is a choppy ray gun warm up followed by an extended churring rattle. They were making this sound all around us. Rodrigo was calling back at them. We saw some mice run. Which were not mice. And we could see stems moving above the matted vine carpet. They were just four or five feet away from us. And then inside a loose vine tent around a shrub that was in the act of being swallowed, one strutted out and literally stood there and made its raspberry chur while its whole body vibrated. It had stripey underpants and some red on its back. We all laughed afterward. And we ran around the island edge to go jump another island.
Monkeys were also made for the lowlands in this rich extended jungle with all its really old and tall trees. As I have said before, there are three things which, in a world of birds, will distract me from birds: monkeys, cats and snakes. Cats being the top rung. And in seven trips to the tropics I have yet to see my first wild cat species. There are only 36 species of cat in the world in the wild and several are near extinction. (Compared to 10,000 birds.) North America has three cats with three other of the South American cats sneaking into extreme south Texas. South America has nine species. Ecuador has seven of these. Even guides in South America can recall specific moments of cat sightings. I await this event myself. I saw four snakes on this trip. Including the first Rainbow Boa I have seen. And it was a stunner. Cats are top predators. Monkeys are not on top. They are eaten by a few very large and rare birds. And by us. Monkeys are impressively stealthy as well, but their exit zones are higher up and they can often be seen retreating from the ugly invading apes who walk upright below them. We, of course, are Old World Monkeys and these are all the New World Monkeys. We eat New World Monkeys (NWMs). (Not personally, I mean…oh never mind.) If you want to start a fight among primate guys, then mention how the NWM’s ancient ancestor might have gotten to South America. It was most likely by island hopping across the much smaller Atlantic that existed 40 million years ago. It just took one successful raft across the wide (but less so) sea to start the magic. Like one small animal likely started all the Madagascan Lemur magic. Anyway, the five families of NWMs all have a common ancestor from about that long ago.
The details are not that critical I guess. But the NWMs have flat noses. And quite a range of them have prehensile tails. None of the African and Asian species have gripping tails. The NWMs have more molars than we do. And the color vision genetics is odd. Possibly just from the random event of the original rafting ancestors. Many of the NWMs have dichromatic retinas. As opposed to our trichrome color reception. This may have affected the colors that appear in these South American beasts which have been divided into five families and about 16 genera. They still have excellent color vision. The actual species number changes about every few months I think. In Central America you have about four genera: a Capuchin, a Spider, a Squirrel and a Howler. Things get a little crazier in the eastern forests of Ecuador.
I still remember that first large group of Capuchin that Bo and I saw in Costa Rica, in another place called La Selva. And the beautiful Mantled Howlers in Panama. The Spider Monkeys that essentially lived among the humans at Chan Chich in Belize. I found that I will watch monkeys until they are out of sight. They are hunted in the lowlands of eastern Ecuador, though they are protected in the big Yasuni National Park just across the river from La Selva. Two bands of Red Howlers, at least, live on the west and east shores of the lake. This red species being even more visually spectacular than their black counterparts in Central America. We watched one female and her youngster venture over to a dangling sloth above the swamp forest as we cruised underneath in the canoes. The mother seemingly showing the small red howler that “these things, now, these things we do NOT touch.” We saw a great male lording over his multiple females and all his young in one giant shoreline tree. Any time I looked at them with binoculars, they always seemed to be looking back. I think I could hear some distinctive difference in the morning choruses of these red beasts compared to their northern counterparts. They both are amazing monkeys.
[Pithecia pithecia, captive male, LR]
Ecuador has 16 species of monkey. Nine occur in the La Selva area and we found eight of them. And after seeing several different kinds now I am most impressed with the vocalizations. Our guide knew them like he knew the bird sounds. He would almost always hear the monkeys first with the exception of the Pygmy Marmoset. Those tiny guys are apparently really quiet. And good Lord how much noise could a four ounce monkey make? Sometimes after rains we would hear the crashing of water and treelimbs before we saw monkeys or before they saw us. If you heard vocalizations, it often meant they had already spotted you. One of the two most excited times I saw our guide was with a monkey group that he once again heard first. He said “Saki’s, we must be very quiet and move very fast” and then he took off up the trail out of sight. I took off after him and I think Bo thought we had both lost our minds but he came up quickly anyway. A twittering bird noise was bouncing all around us with the crashing in the trees. These were Equatorial Saki’s. They are iIn the stunning genus Pithecia. They were fleeing across to our left. I saw males running. But several stopped to peer back at us through the trees, swaying their heads left and right to see us. Dark and large with their thick long hairiness. I looked directly into the eyes of a female. She had strong eye markings and a partially whitened face with a sharp gaze. In what must have been less than a minute or so total, they were gone. I am not sure I don’t want to chase Saki monkeys for a living. Well, for a life. Not really for a living.
The Common Squirrel Monkeys in the genus Saimiri were the most numerous monkeys around the lodge area and its trails. There were sweeping gangs of them really. They seemed to trust the visitors more than the other species. Or there were so many of them, it was just impossible for them to hide. Those and the related White-fronted Capuchin in Cebus were often present on any trail walk, though you had to make efforts to see them closely. This Capuchin was blonder and paler than the Central American species. Both these species also needed to roam quite a bit to fill their food needs. The Capuchin are considered more primitive than the rest of the groups. Though they do not look it. They are more akin anyway to the original raftees that started the new world line. It is complicated but beautiful genetic story.
There were two local Tamarins, the closely related Black-mantled and the Saddle-backed. They are in Sanguinus, the same genus as our friend the Geoffrey’s Tamarin, S. geoffroyi, that traveled near the hillside in Panama City where we stayed years ago. Rodrigo called these guys Milkdrinkers for the white facial mark they had on their darker faces. Whenever I would get a look at one of those faces I would laugh. They make sharp bird chirping noises and are fast and agile tree runners. We had seen Sanguinus in the foothills in Sumaco in the past. They were colored with rich dark fur with some red tones. I would love to sit and watch any of these animals just going about their normal activities. But once they had spotted you, they tended to focus on you and not the business of the day. And then soon they were gone.
The monkey that I had forgotten existed, however, was the Pygmy Marmoset. An anomaly monkey that is in Cebuella. The only monkey in that genus with two subspecies and arguably it is the smallest true monkey in the world, though not the smallest primate. It is in the family with the Marmosets and Tamarins but it is dwarfed by those guys. The thing weighs 3 to 4 ounces. I have had dark moods that weighed more than that. And I remembered watching a large section of a BBC Nature special with Attenborough on this animal after Rodrigo announced he had a place he wanted to look for them. We went there several times as it was close to the lodge on the other side of the lake, a short canoe ride away. The good thing about them was that these were one of the world’s only sap drinking monkeys. This is not their only food but it may be the one that defines their ranges and frequent locations. The groups often defending their favorite sap trees from other Pygmy social groups. One reference said they favored Parkia species for their trees. Though I would not recognize a Parkia on a bet. Several other trees were listed. All trees no doubt that scarred and gave good gum sap with consistency were fair game. Surely if you are a sap connoisseur, then you know what syrup you want. On any given large trunk they bite or score the tree and then feed periodically after the sap collects in the wounds of the tree.
Stepping off the canoe and up the slight hill where we looked there were no obvious trees with sap holes running actively. Rodrigo walked slowly and just looked up, moving more cautiously than his regular pace. It seemed impossible in these woods to hope to see a monkey the size of a hairy peach but there we were. And we kept going back. It was pleasant enough to be in this quiet area of woodland on a slight hill that likely never flooded. Terra Firme as they call it. Butterflies flitted. And then I saw a rapid alternating movement. It was actually the feet of something scaling a thin limb, but I was only seeing the feet.
“Psst,” I said.
And Rodrigo came over. “Did you see it?”
“I saw something.” And we all looked up in that area.
I heard Bo say “Wow.” Usually a good sign. And then I saw it too. Sitting next to a trunk just above us. Looking around like we were not really a danger. Of all the monkeys to ignore us, we could swat it like a gnat. Indeed it did look like a hairy peach with a face. And what a tail. It gazed around as though bug watching. It had squirrel-like feet and the New World monkeys don’t have opposable thumbs, so they were quite like squirrel feet I imagine, up close. I could even see long toe nails. This thing might be able to hold one of my fingertips in two of its hands was the measure I had of it. It eventually turned and pulled up the trunk and went out of sight. It was easily one of the most impressive animals of the whole week.
Several years ago La Selva had someone build them a canopy tower. It is like a competitive item for lodges now. It is always included in the brochures and websites of virtually any lodge in the tropics. Likely because it appeals to naturalist tourists and bird tourists alike: the getting up inside the trees, the view from above. The Canopy Tower in Panama is essentially a lodge inside a tower. But La Selva’s tower was built of wood and was respectful of the tree it surrounded. Rodrigo said they hired a builder from Coca who used mostly fallen local wood. It touched the towering trunk in some places but no nails or supports were hammered or bound into the living wood that I could see. I kept meaning to count the steps to the top but I never did remember. We climbed it several times during our stay. Rodrigo would survey the sky and the time and the conditions and say, “let’s go check out the tower.” It was a short walk from the lodge, across some small bridges and creeks. The tower surrounded a mature mahogany tree. And I don’t know how high we were on top but it was high. One hundred feet maybe. And it had a commanding view, though we were still beneath the final overarching leaves of this impressive tree which provided some partial shade and rain shelter on top. When the tree went down this tower would go. But I remembered a study from some old growth forests in Brazil that showed some of the great old forest trees in the deep Amazon were a thousand years old. I remember thinking, that can’t be right, that’s bristlecone age. But you put your hand on the trunk of this mahogany and you wonder. Let’s say it is just three hundred or so. What will the lodge look like in five hundred years? Certainly the wood of the manmade tower stairs will have fallen away or been replaced twenty or thirty times. One hopes there are some trees left anywhere in five hundred years. One hopes we will have found our way off the planet, so we have some room to breathe by then. One hopes other planets with water and oxygen and warmth learn to make trees. Surely it is a basic fact of terrestrial life: giant plants I mean. Hell the plants of our planet made the oxygen layer we breathe. Certainly trees played a large part in the development of the apes we are. And it was after we dropped out of them that we really started making trouble. Just remembering being up that high makes your mind go strange places I guess.
Arsenio always hauled the scope up the long stairs for us. And I always thanked him. I tried to thank him every time he paddled us somewhere or carried a bag or waited by the boat while we stomped over river islands. I thanked him when he spotted a Scarlet Tanager so far back in the woods without binoculars that I wondered what the hell he would be seeing with any kind of boosted eye power. He was a youngster who respeted Rodrigo and had two daunting tasks ahead of him: learning all the birds and learning English, the language of many mad tourists. These were required if he wanted to move up. Respecting Rodrigo and matching his efforts were two different things. They all respected Rodrigo for what he had done, what he still did. In the trees, Rodrigo would call birds over to our specific tree. From this height I think he could hear birds at about fifteen miles or so. Most of the tanagers we saw were up in these trees. The canopy was often tanager land. Virtually all of the Aracaris hung out up in the canopy. These were the smaller and very colorful Toucan relations. Several Ivory-billed Aracaris came and actually perched on the rungs of the tower just below us and cocked their knowing eyes at us, shocked us once again with that ungodly beak.
A Spangled Cotinga considered several of the nearby trees as his personal display perches. It is a bird colored like it was designed by kindergarteners who had only a few very wild crayons to work with. It did not look real, sky blues and purples. We watched a Bat Falcon perched up and making forays out to catch cicadas. Yellow-headed and King Vultures flew by and perched in their roost trees. Laughing Falcons, Slate-colored Hawks, it seemed every time we climbed up there something new was out in the tree view, the steamy sky. The same treefrog that had entertained me in the bathroom of the lodge liked to hang out on the tower structure. Everyone should have tower. And who among us deserves to cut down a thousand year old tree for any reason? Ever.
On the south side of the river from La Selva is Yasuni National Park. A park run by the locals, employing the locals. Supposedly protected from hunting, though it is a vast chunk of woods. It is 3800 square miles. The entire Ozark National Forest at home is 1800 square miles. So more than twice as much jungle in this one park. And though Ecuador is just a tiny wedge of the Amazon flatlands you still hope for the place. Go preservationists. Brazil seems set on stripping itself bare. We may be counting on Peru and Ecuador and Bolivia to save what we can. And we want big chunks. Brazil has learned economics and oil, the lucrative business of land sales. When you walk into the national park you try to forget these kinds of things. But still. And Yasuni, despite being what we would term in-the-middle-of-nowhere has an entrance fee. To support the local tribes people who work there, to pay for the trail maintenance. Many boats of tourists from the multiple lodges go there just to sit at the parrot lick to watch for parrots. We pulled up to a guy on the shore and handed him money. Some rough stairs led up behind him. His money box did not look waterproof. It seemed to be nowhere near the actual entrance we wanted. Perhaps it was near his home. What a homestead if so. And we did see several small homes seemingly randomly along the river.
It was too wet for the parrots to be coming down. These licks are essentially exposed clay soils that the parrots drink at and bite at and take chunks away of the clay for the inherent mineral content I suppose. The licks are scattered all over Amazonia but this one is now easily accessed and has a nice viewing hut where lunch can be eaten under the shelter of a roof. It also has a concrete and stepped trail that leads to it. There were parrots calling and flying through the trees and around the area. It was a heavy parrot traffic zone. Rodrigo warned us of hills after this as we headed off into the park trails. And he knew what he was talking about. Apparently there are elevations up to 500 meters scattered through the lowlands. La Selva was at about 270 meters along the river. Standing atop some of these rises was like being in the Ozarks only with strange trees and the occasional monkey.
It was a place of new bird sounds compared to north of the river. Several kinds of Manakin had territories there. These are diminutive birds with odd froggy calls and sneezes. I watched an amazing dragonfly flit over a pool about ten feet in diameter at the top of one hill. I saw very few dragonflies elsewhere that week despite the worlds of water. Rodrigo pulled new antbirds out of the woods and we heard the amazing call of the Screaming Piha down below us on one hill. Bo and I had heard that bird call on many of the recordings we had studied from the area because it is so loud and carries far even in the dense wooded jungles here.
“You have seen the Piha?” Rodrigo asked, seeing us excited about the sound. And I knew what was coming. I almost lied.
“No, my friend, no, we have just heard it on many, many recordings.”
That is all Rodrigo needed to know and he headed off the trail, straight downhill over the muddy leaf litter. Most people may not realize that the most dangerous things in the flatlands of the east are not snakes or poisonous insects or frogs. The bullet ants are always around and they would ruin a day or two for sure. But the things that can injure you in Amazonia are mostly plants. And when you head off the trail, you have to watch for them. I think Rodrigo just had a natural sense of what to avoid. It was ingrained in him. The Piha was so loud, it sounded like it was right next to us. And the volume made it impossible to judge its precise location above the ground. You could get its left and right location with your hands cupping your ears like radar as you got closer but finding the right altitude was difficult. Four of us spread out all the way to nearly the bottom of the hill. This bird makes a warm-up series of noises that sound like “ahh….ahhh……ahhhh……uhhhh...” It is a man trying to get to a sneeze. Sometimes the bird stops, taunting you with just the warm-up. But the finale, the full volume shocker is the “SQUEEEE SQEEEE AHHHH,” that he hits at the end. It is unworldly loud from a bird the size of a Mockingbird. Rodrigo, of course, finally spotted it right on top of us. And we watched it wind up and then throw open its beak fully like a loaded spring to blow out the “SQUEE”s.
On the way back toward the river, Rodigo started making some rough and harsh noises. He did sometimes just talk bird-talk to himself or to the trees. But he seemed to always know what language to talk in any area. Something soon roared back from overhead. We all walked around until we could see the animal looking back. It was the striking Scarlet Macaw. It looks at you as knowingly as a monkey does, watching your movements down below. It was answering Rodrigo with the harsh squawks. Sounding out the wingless fools, they are amazing parrots. Several feet long with those tails. In the genus Ara, the giant pirate birds. Birds that live as long as you or I. Too beautiful for their own good. Still suffering from the nest raiders for the parrot trade. Their voice can carry for miles. This one was perhaps fifty feet up. And he was loud. Their range is now broken across the great swath of northern Amazonia. We all hope they flourish. It is the only Scarlet we saw.
On the trail on the downhill slope again, one without concrete. One that required root stepping and careful grasping of non-spiky tree trunks, Rodrigo stopped and looked at me expectantly. He did that when something made a new noise, sometimes to see my expression. This time it was quiet around us. I listened and looked at him and he kept his eyes wide. Until I looked on the trail ahead of him to see a large turtle sprawled on the roots.
“Wow,” I said to him, “what is it doing way up here?” Thinking it was an aquatic turtle. But I looked closer and could see this was a land turtle, a tortoise, beautifully painted with yellows. It wasn’t up here; this is where it lived, in these hillocks of Yasuni. Like everything else, they were edible, if one was hungry. And they were not too swift, you know, compared to a monkey. Frankly, I was amazed any large edible land turtle could survive in this world. I guess the park really was sparing the things at risk. Rodrigo verified there were none left around Coca, a city full of Old World monkeys like ourselves. We looked the turtle over closely to find it was a male. I wanted to cart it back with me. It was larger than my cats. Ten or twelve times the size of my Three–toed Box Turtles at home, a turtle wonder. I saw few things that Rodrigo was more affectionate for. Clearly, it was a part of the landscape that he honored. And what a place it called home.
On the last day in La Selva, we were aware all day it was our last day in La Selva. The afternoon was clear and dry. Rodrigo seemed to remember all the birds we each had seen or not seen for the trip. We were going on a back trail that we had not been on before. He seemed to know exactly where we had been or not been in the past five days also. He asked us a few questions about some birds. We still trusted him. When he mentioned one bird I told him that I had heard it in several countries but had still never seen it. He nodded and gave me a side glance, “we shall have to see about that one.”
We passed the tower that had been our friendly hide out several times. Walked back over the creeks that looked familiar now. Rodrigo stopped at one bridge to mention he had once seen a pair of Ocelots there. And he stopped soon after with some crashing in the trees to whisper it was the Titi, the last monkey we had been trying to see. We had heard them along the lake. The call of this animal is truly as superb as many birds. Three former species have become about thirty species. The monkey boys may have gone a little crazy on these. They do have small territories though and so it takes only minor barriers to separate them in the broad Amazon. Less than half of the species make it out of Brazil. Several beauties live in Colombia. Some live around single lakes in Brazil. But this Ecuadorian animal, variously called the Red-bellied or White-tailed or Dusky Titi. Is only one of two that make it into the wedge that is Ecuador. One popped out just up in front of us. And they are superb in appearance as well. For about the fiftieth time we both said “wow” at the same time. Soft colored long tail below those rufous body colors. Expressive faces, like almost all the monkeys that had watched us back. I would like to watch them longer and more carefully. I must have the Goodall gene.
On this last walk, we flushed up several Ruddy Quail Doves, which we had been close to several times, flashes of wing or tail in the gaps between trees. It is the way of some rain forest birds. But this was one of my favorite bird groups. They are all stealthy. They perched up, looking over their shoulders. We enjoyed them like farewell birds. And then up ahead on this trail that was worth walking truly just for its shadows and its light, Rodrigo stopped suddenly at one spot and held out his hand. He jutted his chin. “Watch there on the leaves,” he said. Bo and I had heard nothing. But Rodrigo was making the mad whistler noise. It was a call even I could do. But Rodrigo had heard just a small chip. Or maybe he smelled the dammed thing. But as we had many times before we focused our binoculars in and out across the leaf bed, scanning into the brush and between the trees. And soon I caught sight of a singular bird head and a long beak, a walking bird working quickly over the ground. It walked all the way around us and darted across the trail at high speed, jumped up on a log and checked out the three looming humans who for the moment, were totally focused on it: three Old World monkeys out of place. The Nightingale Wren walked away. Rodrigo looked at me and nodded. Guide pride, he was experiencing, whistling up a bird without any technological assistance, the one I had heard in many countries.
We were back on the dining deck before dawn on the morning we were to leave the Napo jungles and lakes. We had watched people from South Africa and Denmark and even some jovial Minnesotans come and go that week. The northern Americans wearing bright jogging clothes and mostly sitting in the dining area and staring at their phones and ipads. I assume they saw something of interest while they were out there on the boat or up in the canopy tree. “Beautiful Janetta” as Rodrigo called her, was their guide. On that last morning while we sipped volcanic coffee, some new visitors were out and about after the sun started coming up. Americans as well, one of them had binoculars and was being hypnotized by the returning nighthawks doing their spiraling balletic reappearance over the reflective lake waters. The visitor finally came over to ask me about them. And he was impressed with them as everyone had been. I told him to watch for the single rarer Lesser Nighthawk that always bombed in with them and seemed to sleep elsewhere up inside the trees. He asked about my visit. And I told him we were headed out that morning. He rumpled his brow, he looked taken aback, actually shook his head and said, “wow, what’s it like to leave?”
Oddly, it felt like the right time. Bags packed. I think Rodrigo felt his job was finished with us. Last breakfast together, another run back up the river ahead. We gave Rodrigo one of our copies of the Birds of Peru, with its excellent illustrations. But I knew I was trying to take it all in, pondering that question about leaving. I told the new guy to keep his eyes open, time flies in this place. Ignore your phone, look up in the trees. Check for the stars after dark. Look toward the south where the stars are new and confusing. Get up and have coffee before dawn. Listen for owls when you wake in the night. Watch for treefrogs on your bathroom mirror.
The run back up the river seemed to flash by. I did note several people along the shore waving handkerchiefs, or shirts. We picked one man up and then dropped him off somewhere behind a river island on a trail that just seemed to lead off into jungle. I don’t know the rules for who you pick up and who you just wave at. Many of the locals I assume had no car, no boat. I don’t think Rodrigo had a car. But he did have a boat. And he would sometimes go home after dropping visitors at the airport. He had a fifteen minute taxi ride and then he had to row across another swift river to walk to his house and his 90 acres or so of jungle that he was trying to preserve. He put food out for the monkeys and the wondrous Titi’s came to eat just outside his kitchen window. He fed monkeys like I fed small birds. It was hard to picture. But I can still hear the way he said “exactly, my friend,” in the Rodrigo voice and tone. Along with that nod and smile. I am sure he wanted to go home that morning. But he was picking up more people and heading back to La Selva. Not enough time to run home.
Back in Quito, I had scheduled a buffer day before we took on the long travel day north. We were back in civilization by noon from the river ride. The plane ride so short: a shock, a new hotel. We walked out onto the street and square nearby and I am not sure I have ever seen so many people. Apparently there was some changing of the presidential guard that day. A cause for celebration? But this square looked like it was a constant bustling place. Some young boys ran up to point at my boots. Which had been spared most of the La Selva mud but still looked, well, used. They were astonished I would be seen in public with boots like that.
We sat and watched people. The busy traffic of people coming and going from lives we did not know. We watched the surely universal urban image of children chasing pigeons. We thought we could spot the tourists. We looked at ourselves and understood we were blatant nonresidents. And there again in Quito we also saw the abundance of street smart dogs. No collars. Loosed in the city, car smart, people smart, they seemed to have their set routes of travel. Perhaps hitting the places where kind handouts were given, working the clock and the busy alleys.
For the buffer day I had arranged to go up. Into hummerland. I had set up a guide to pick us up and take us back up to Yanacocha where I had been years ago, on my first trip to Ecuador. Bo had not been there. Charlie Vogt picked us up before dawn. Charlie was from Boston and had lived in Ecuador for 24 years. He was a dedicated birder. He ran a guide service. Spent his year taking people to look for birds anywhere they wanted to go. Luckily for us he had a free day to take us in his SUV up the mountain roads to Yanacocha.
It drizzled early and was cool as we ascended out of town and into twisting rutted roads. I vaguely remembered the roads from years ago. High dizzy skies again. No one was at the Yanacocha huts at the entry area. We headed across the mile and half walk out to the hummer feeders. We quizzed Charlie about life in Ecuador. He knew the plant life here as well as the bird sounds. When he left Boston he had already known Spanish as a child from summer trips with his father. His wife had not known the language when they arrived. Ecuador had not had a stable political world in the past fifteen years or more. Many of the presidents had been forced from office. Sometimes violently. The current president took over for another ousted leader. And immediately dissolved the elected governing congress and renamed it and packed it with his own followers. He made it so he could stay longer. He passed taxes on luxury items of his choosing. But he also stabilized the police force, improved traffic conditions. Even while as part of his luxury taxation he made dog food one hundred dollars a bag. Liquors of certain varieties were double and triple priced.
The man on the scooter, who normally fills the hummer feeders running back and forth on his route, came scootering up to us out on the trail. He reports in Spanish that the trail has had a landslide overnight. He thinks he can make it passable. It was from heavy rains and not an earthquake. Charlie thanks him. He zooms on ahead. The views are spectacular again. And at one spot I think I see some snow. Charlie has a look with his binoculars at informs me it is an old plane wreck. Wreck your plane on a remote mountainside and it becomes your long memorial I suppose. You disassemble very slowly in sky high hummerland. I thought I could make out a tilted wing. And as we could also see volcanos sitting quietly around us, I asked Charlie about the last major eruption. The 2002 event at El Ventador was the one that covered the city with black hail and ash. He definitely remembered that. The fine black stuff covered everything, shut down the airport for at least several weeks. The grit would etch your windshield if you turned on the wipers. It crept in the doorways and scraped fine lines on the floor tiles. One of the volcanos south of Quito was erupting intermittently this year. Minor ash falls only so far. No airport events. It was farther away.
The landslide was impressive. A whole wall of soil and plantlife had come unglued down to the bedrock and slumped across our path. Taking it in, I knew I could find my way over it. It was a matter of the acuteness of their level of public safety. In the United States there would be barriers fifty yards back, flapping yellow police tape, men with whistles and grim faces. Here a single slight man with a shovel, sheared and slapped at the great mound of mud. It still looked shifty and fresh. He waved us on up, showed us where to put our feet. We wobbled up and over, looking down into where we would go with a slip and slide, like ants over the crevasse. We thanked him from the other side. He went back to carving on his beloved but refractory earth. Needing a scooter path to continue the hummer nectar shuttle, needing perhaps to just beat back to normal.
At the hummer station, life went on oblivious. To hell with volcanos, the rain, the shiftings of the earth. It was still the small hut at altitude that I remembered. Surrounded by feeders and zinging with knitting needles attached to birds. Hard not to just sit down and get lost in the action-- which I did. The names: coronets, swordbills, metaltails, pufflegs, sapphirewings, alien life in hummerland. And though it may have been powered by selfishness and tiny bird desperation, it did not look like it. It looked like a crazy dance. The flittings and hoverings like some necessary apparatus, the workings of the watchmaker, the machinery that keeps everything else aloft and turning. When all the hummingbirds stopped, the monkeys would fall from the trees, the moon would drop off the edge of the sky for good.
I thought I heard something up the hill just beyond the hummer house. So I boldly launched up the steep trail and nearly toppled from vertigo with all the sparkling stars at the edges of my vision. What bird is this that scintillates so? I laughed at my altitude weariness. It always cracked me up. “I’ll show you invincible, birdwatcher.”
We walked back slowly, over the mound of whittled earth again. Several men from the water plant showing up to help pound and slice at the mud. The sky opened up some more. Mountain Tanagers astounded me again. In the far off valleys, antpittas called. And in a small puddle in the path we stopped and all watched as a trio of small Hemispingus took a joyous and violent bath. Making me laugh. Charlie said he had never seen Hemispingus bath before. We had a picnic at the entry tables, overlooking the pastures and hillsides and the far blue sky. Caracaras flew by; Rufus Wrens worked in the trees. We ate and watched like we actually deserved it all. I wanted to run up the road for a short distance. For the giddiness, for the bubbles the altitude formed in your head, the breathlessness that reminded you where you were, reminded you that air and its oxygen were not as guaranteed as you thought, living in the flatlands. You were a fragility, always just a minute or so from the black.
At dawn on travel day, on go home day, we were up again before anyone but the doorman. He made sure we had tea. He went up the long stairs for our bags. The full high skylight above us showed a sliver of moon and Saturn shining through. It was another rare cloudless morning. I went through both double doors out onto the empty streets. Just a stripe of stars over me. The doorman accompanied me. One of Quito’s dogs came right up and acted as if he should be allowed into the warm hotel. I smiled at him and he lay down on the steps at my feet. One of those unshorn creamy sheepdog looking breeds with dark kind eyes. He showed me his belly.
The doorman stood by and paced, watching the streets. They were made of heavy cobbles in many places, looking older than I was. He knew I was headed to the airport.
“So,” he asked me, “did you see anything wonderful or beautiful in Ecuador?”
I looked at him, in his uniform, not pondering well enough I suppose, his question. “Yes, we went over the mountains and down the river on the far side to the jungle.”
His eyes widened. “Oh. That must have been very frightening, all those animals.”
I looked down at the dog. I thought that this doorman’s world was obviously all on this side of the mountains. He may never have been out of the city. Over the mountains on a forty minute flight might as well have been in Europe. “Well no,” I said, “it is beautiful, just a different beautiful from Quito.”
He nodded. “And did you go to the Galapagos?”
I told him we had not. I was saving that for another trip.
“Yes,” he said, “the Galapagos is very necessary.” I think this phrasing may have been just a flaw in his Spanish. But still, Darwin would agree, as would the world tourist industry. I wanted to tell him the mountains around him and the jungles on the other side were also ‘necessary.’
The taxi came. And Bo and I helped load the bags in the back. The doorman paused at the trunk and looked over at the dog, who was quietly surveying us from the stoop. “Did you want me to put your new friend in too?”
He did not know how my exact thoughts were running along those lines. Dog carriers and licensing. Customs and rapid fire dog grooming. But I had to shake my head. “For now, let’s let him live here. Keep your eye on him though.” The trunk was shut, full already and suddenly very dogless.
Did I need more dogs? Well, that is not really the question, as we rumbled off into the dark. ‘Mitad del Mundo’ the shirts said at the equatorial monument. They sold them everywhere. I am not sure we didn’t buy one. Middle? Not really, I thought, but I did feel like I had been closer to the heart of the machine. ‘Corazón de la máquina’ is what they should say. Where the earth belches stones and fire now and then into the sky, where the hummers are maybe part of the watchwork. Where the beasts in the trees look back at you like you are painted with the scarlet guilt of everyone, like you represent all the good and bad out there at once. And you feel it between your flashes of wonderment, this guilt. And where the dogs look smarter than I am. Even smarter than usual, I mean. Every single one of them.
Exactly, my friend. Exactly.
Thanks to the La Selva gang. Especially Rodrigo Jipa, Arsenio, Louis. Transport guys, airport guys, boat drivers. Thanks to Christian Jacome for all his hard internet scheduling work. Please visit the guys at La Selva. For the food, the trails, the lake, the excellent beds, the butterflies, the monkeys. Apparently American bird people have abandoned them.