Meliton is named after a second century Archbishop who is considered to be a saint by the Catholic Church. He does not know this, nor does he seem to care. . . As we walk through the mud in the flooded forest, it seems as though he is always smiling, even when he is not. It is the middle of the night, and we both sweat intensely as we search for frogs in the swamp. He moves much faster than I do, and cuts through the rainforest with a certain agility and confidence that only natives and wildlife possess. I feel as though I am a stranger in this forest. An alien.
Meliton is the son of Silverio, a founding member of the Kichwa Añangu community. Along with five other families, his came from Tena in the seventies and established themselves in these lands along the Napo River, in the heart of what is today the Yasuni National Park.
Eight Kichwa communities now live within the park: Sani, Providencia, San Roque, Waoranis, Pompeya, Tagaires, Indiliana and the Añangus. Seven of these groups lease out land to oil companies that ravage the rainforest, but the Añangus will not . Operating two lodges and a fleet of motor canoes that move over three hundred tourists a month, they have created social system that works like a cooperative. They also built a medical center, a school, residences for teachers hired from Quito, a logistics and transportation center, and four observation towers. Not only have they created all of the jobs necessary for their own community, but they also employ many members of other communities. In Kichwa, “Añangu” means “leaf cutter ant”, and there are at least two stories behind this:In one story, the leaf -cutter ants cut off their clothes while they were sleeping when they first arrived forty years ago. In Another version draws attention to the fact that, these ants are extremely hard working and united, just like the Añangu. I am not sure which version is the original, but I can vouch for the latter.
I stayed at Yasuni Eco Lodge for the first six nights, which is located within their community and on the banks of the Napo River. It is much more quaintr than Napo Wildlife Center, located deeper in the jungle and only accessible by a two-hour ride in a motor-less (do any canoe’s have motors) canoe.
I guess I expected the Kichwas to be more “savages” some how. Prejudice got the best of me. I did not expected to find Direct TV dishes nor washing machines nor Adidas sneakers in their village. But I did. I did not expected to find such a polished and well-oiled logistics system nor top-notch service, but this is what they’ve achieved, and Meliton is obviously proud when I mention it.
Every community member is a stockholder of this company when 18 years old – Meliton explains. Again, pride oozes from his words. – I started working in the kitchen, then as a rower and 6 years ago I volunteered as a naturalist guide – he continues. – I’ve learned some english and now know the names of most birds species and mammals in that language –
As we walk in the jungle, he is able to spot the tiniest frog among the dead leaves or a lonely ant moving across a dead log. I keep asking questions and he is very honest when answering – I have no idea – he says when I ask him the name of a small, white flower.
I came here looking for wildlife to photograph, but the idea of meeting the Kichwa and the Waoranis also intrigued me. I wanted to explore the possibility of a serious of portraits on these tribes but my main objective as pretty clear; to photograph the jaguar. But wildlife is extremely hard to photograph here. The jungle is dense the light is slow and our steps sound like thunder over the dead leaves. I can hear a lot of animals around me, but to get a clean shot is a miracle… is almost impossible. By the third day I am frustrated and I start to go down the usual path – why do I do this? Why in the hell did I came here? – But next morning I feel refreshed. I know this is a problem I can solve, so I decide to change my approach and document the rainforest itself and not necessarily the animals that live here. The forest as a whole is now my subject. I start paying attention to fungi, to insects, to plants and leaves. It takes me a while to disarm my hunter approach and start to look at the forest in a more analytical way… as a scientist maybe? as a journalist? I am not sure. I am neither both nor I pretend to be, but briefly I feel like that and I take advantage of it. Meliton also seems relieved by my new approach and now feels more relaxed. But he knows people come here to see animals. The Añangus know this pretty well and they have built observation towers as high as 47m where monkeys and birds can be spotted pretty easily and the canopy and the dimension of the rainforest can be treasured. I decided to stay way after sunset on one of the towers. The wind rattles it and it sways from side to side. As it gets darker the horizon starts to glow. – Oil wells – tells me Meliton. – All those little suns are oil wells burning in the middle of the forest – . It makes me want to weep. And I do.
Getting to know the Kichwa Añangu way of life made me feel closer… similar. Watching the kids form a line to go to school seemed exactly like it did when I was a child in Santo Domingo. The way mothers caress their children, they way teens tease each other, or engage in a passionate, ofter brutal game of soccer… I guess the fact that I expected something else is just evidence of my ignorance and prejudice.
If you want to visit the Waoranis we can – assured me Meliton. – But we have to call first. They charge around 40 dollars and they will perform a traditional dance or whatever you want – .
I had a feeling the Waoranis, that legendary tribe, was no longer that of wild men, but instead of oil workers with a reputation for being rude and childish, as I was later able to confirm when we weren’t allowed to ride their private bus near the Tiputini river. There are no more wild men. The oil companies got to them first and bribed them sneakers and headphones. Not only are we loosing the rainforest, we are loosing its memory and its essence. The Kichwa wear Adidas. The Waoranis watch the Simpsons on their satellite Dish. Oil killed the jungle stars.
Time looses strength in the jungle. It looses meaning and it becomes extremely hard to tell one minute form one hour. Time, such a strict measure becomes fluid and organic. The canoe moves swiftly through Caño Aguas Negras; a creek that connects the Napo river with Napo Wildlife Center. My tripod is set up at the front. I look up to photograph Squirrel monkeys. A Kingfisher flies by me and perches on a near branch. Sounds invade the jungle. The Red-howler monkey can be heard clearly near by, macaws fly above and water moves back as we get close to the lodge.
Another canoe comes from the opposite direction and tells us about the otters being close by – They are just a bit up stream – . We keep going and we soon can hear them. When we finally spot them I am taken by their human-like aspect; the way the use their hands to eat fish, their baby-is screams, the way they stare at me… Of all the species I’ve seen and photograph, no other is as much fun to watch as this family of Giant otters. I spend a few hours photographing them before they retreated beneath the dense false mangroves.
We arrived at Napo Wildlife Center and Byron greeted us with some fresh papaya juice. I was surprised by the names used by the Kichwas: Jairo, Byron, Tyson… I find no explanation for it. The lodge is definitely more refined and equipped for receiving tourist. The lagoon is wide and flat as a piece of stretched plastic. Snail Kites fly over in their relentless search for food. I set my gear down at the dock besides the canoe and grabbed a quick bite to eat before heading to the Cari Añango creek in search of Anacondas. I quickly realised how hard it is to shoot from a canoe: there is no full stop, the thing is always rocking side to side and there is not a lot of room to manoeuvre such big lenses and tripods. But this place is filled with life.. most of it extremely small, but a surprise awaits in very turn.
It hadn’t rained during the first 11 days in the Amazonia, so naturally, on the morning of the 12th, when we were getting ready to walk for 6 hours trough the dense forest towards Tiputini, it seemed like the sky had broken. Towers of rain fell down on us. The mud was about a feet deep and the creeks we had to face were waist-high. All my equipment got fogged, all my clothes wet but my spirit remained untouched. This was the adventure I was looking forward to. The jungle was dark even at 10am. I could not tell sweat from rain.
We finally reached the Tiputini ranger station around 1pm and got ready for another canoe ride, this time in a wilder, lonelier river. Macaws flew above in pairs, mealy amazon parrots gathered at the clay licks beside the river banks. – This must be paradise – I thought. We kept going down the river for hours in a complete dark night and the dangers of fallen branches sticking out from the water. Finally, around 9pm we set camp besides the river. It was just to dangerous to go on. The sound of the night was intense and diverse. Owls, frogs, insects… and full orchestra of wildlife as we dined pineapples and coconut cookies.
The morning arrived with more rain and as we hurried back to the canoe I started to feel overwhelmed and helpless. I hesitated to get all my equipment out of the bag. But around 7am the sun began to peek through the persistent clouds and a weak, gentle smile appeared on my face. Two tapirs bathe in the shores. A horned screamer (Anhima cornuta) looked surprised to see us. We keep pushing back up the TIputini river and when we finally spotted a bluish hump: the pink dolphins! I stood up on the canoe and almost lost my balance. I took my raincoat off as if was a superhero cape. Now my smile was big and wide. Unlike ocean dolphins, these two beautiful creatures did not go jumping and diving, but rather gently coming up the surface to breathe and we tried to guess where next. As I shot away, I knew these were not award-winning shots, but rather evidence of one of the most exciting wildlife encounter I’ve had.
We kept going until we reached the Tiputini bridge and from there took a bus until the shores of the Napo river and across to the Pompeya market. This is probably the main commercial scene of the region and people from all communities come to buy and sell fruits, vegetables, fish, meat, toys, ice cream, clothing and an staggering amount of beer. We were surprised to find giant beetles for sale in a dark corner and after some convincing we were able to take the creatures to and set them free in the wild.
This market is a chaotic and gorgeous place and after a watered down cup of coffee and a cold beer, all at the same time, we went back to our journey; one more in motor canoe and two more paddling across the Caño, until we made it back to the lodge. In retrospective it seems to me the Pompeya market is to modern Homo sapiens what the call lick is to parrots; a crazy periodic gathering to get much needed supplies.
This assignment in the Ecuadorian Amazonia changed something. I arrived as a wildlife photographer but I left something else. I came here interested in wildlife but left interested in life. I started to see humans as just another species and not something foreign to the violent dynamics of nature. I arrived looking for animals to photographs, but sharing with the Añangus and being able to admire what they have achieved, is like another piece of the puzzle fell into place. The theory has always been with me and know, in a very practical way I feel I start to understand more profoundly life in our planet.
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