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Finding Friends in the Amazon

At 5 AM I was on a bus weaving its way through narrow roads, descending the Andes and heading towards Ecuador’s Amazonian region.

Part of Temple’s Latin American Studies Semester, I was visiting Latin America for the first time. Our three-week program was based in Quito, Ecuador; however we were all given one free weekend to go anywhere in the country. I had always wanted to visit the Amazon, and when I found it was only a five hour bus ride away, I was sold.

The bus to Tena, a small city on the edge of Ecuador’s Amazon region, should have been only five hours. However, my classmate and I made the small mistake of opting for the non-express bus which actually stops everywhere!

If we were in the middle of nowhere and the driver saw someone on the side of the road, they stopped the bus to ask if they wanted to get on. And a lot of people did get on. And off. In five minutes. The bus didn’t just serve as a trip to Tena, but also as a ride for anyone who was traveling in that direction, even just for five minutes.

To me, this method of travel was quite annoying at first since we were stopping frequently and delaying the bus. However, I experienced an interesting part of Ecuadorian and Latin American culture just through this trip. It seemed like everyone involved in the transportation process wanted to give a helping hand to others. It wasn’t just about passengers getting on and off.The bus driver would also make stops for vendors to board the bus and sell their local fruit and snacks. Everyone was working together.

Some delicious fruit sold to me on the bus.

Eventually I arrived in Tena, two hours later than I expected. I stayed in a hostel there with a couple of my Temple classmates. Following the recommendation of the hostel owner, we all split a taxi together to go to Laguna Azul, a lagoon nearby with public swimming areas and crystal clear waters that flow into the Napo River.

A view of Tena from our hostel.

Most of the taxis in Tena are actually pickup trucks, because they try to stick as many people in the back as possible. Within Tena city limits this isn’t legal, but our driver informed us that as soon as we left the city we could sit in the back. I felt like a little girl again, getting excited to ride in the back of a pickup truck. My classmate, Vicente, and I stayed in the back and took in glorious natural views and small communities on the way to the lagoon.

Vicente sitting in the back of the pickup truck.

At the lagoon itself, we found a nice little pool to swim in and drink beer. My favorite part about this moment was speaking Spanish nearly 99% of the time. Here we were, a bunch of native English speaking gringos in the Amazon, drinking local beer, and speaking Spanish to each other while swimming in freezing water.

One of my main critiques of study abroad programs is that most of the participants stick together and don’t immerse themselves in the language and culture of the country they’re visiting. The reason I loved this trip so much was that my classmates and I were focused on speaking Spanish the whole time, and this helped us with connecting with Ecuadorian and Amazonian culture.

Later on, we met some Ecuadorians at the lagoon, and they introduced us to their entire friend group. They invited us to go out that night in Tena, and to come see the soccer games in their community on Sunday.

Group picture at Laguna Azul.

One thing I learned from previous experiences abroad was to never turn down an opportunity to try something new and connect with the local community. So the next day Vicente and I headed out to Yutzupino, the small community where are Laguna friends hailed from.

When we first arrived at 10 AM, the soccer game field was empty and the town seemed desolate too. For a moment, we were worried we had been misinformed or that we went to the wrong town. But soon we saw the familiar face of Fidel, a friend we had met the night before, and he showed us around the community to meet everyone before the game started. We met up with Alvaro, who we had met at the lagoon, and he introduced us to his family.

The Napo River. Vicente learning Kichwa.

Alvaro offered Vicente and I some chicha, which is a drink made out of fermented yuca. I had heard about chicha from my host mom in Quito, and she explained to me that it was made by chewing the yuca in your mouth and spitting it out, leaving a lovely mixture to ferment for a few days. The drink is supposed to be strong and alcoholic, and typically shared by a group of people with just one bowl. To my surprise, Alvaro gave us one bowl each. And we were expected to drink it all. To be honest, chicha was not the most delicious beverage I had ever drank. I thought it tasted kind of bad. But Vicente gulped up the entire bowl, and he said it made him feel a lot more energized.

Vicente and I drinking chicha, with Alvaro’s mother.

After the chicha incident, the soccer games were starting. My friends and I were able to cool down with raspado de hielo, Yutzupino’s take on water ice. It came in rainbow colors and was topped with condensed milk, and was very sweet and delicious! Alvaro brought some orange-type fruits for us too, which he opened at the top to make them cup-shaped so we could suck all the juice out of it. Our friends from Yutzupino made this look very easy. I, however, had to make quite an effort to get any juice out, much to the entertainment of Alvaro and his friends.

Vicente (Vinny) and the ´wooter ice´ guy

Me, Alvaro, Lenin, and the orange fruitAs the second soccer game was coming to an end, I was nearly dying of heat. To my relief, someone came up with the great idea to go swimming in the river. The only problem was that I hadn’t brought a bathing suit. One of Alvaro’s friends said she had clothes I could borrow, so I went over to her house. I was greeted there by a dozen people who seemed to celebrating the birthday of a little boy. They offered me cake and soda even though I had met them about five seconds beforehand. Afterwards a swarm of young women, all around my age, led me to a bedroom where I tried on various arrangements of shorts and tank tops. I felt a bit like a Barbie doll having these girls dress me up, though it was a memorable experience.

After playing dress up, we finally found something that fit decently. I thought we’d head out to the river then, but instead I was invited to dance with various members of the family to Kichwa music. Alvaro was calling me his girlfriend, so I went along with it and called him my ‘boyfriend for the weekend.’ I then took pictures with everyone in my new Yutzupino outfit, feeling a bit like the local celebrity.

To get to the point we wanted to swim at, Puerto Napo, we needed a taxi. But in Yutzupino, which isn’t exactly a bustling metropolis, we tried to hail down any pick up truck that passed by. Soon enough, about 10 people had stuffed themselves into the back, while another girl and I sat in the front. Our makeshift taxi driver wasn’t actually from the Amazon, apparent by his mestizo appearance. He was telling us a bit of his life story, that he had married a woman from here. My favorite moment from the ride was when he said he thought indigenous women were a lot prettier than mestizos. After this statement, he looked at me and said “you’re alright though, you have pretty eyes.”

When we were dropped off at Puerto Napo we paid our driver a few dollars, the same price we’d give to a taxi. The riverfront was right next to a bridge, about fifty meters above us. The guys loved to jump off the bridge into the middle of the river, and three of them climbed up to demonstrate for us. After a very cold swim in the river, the girls buried me in the sand, which made for a fun photo op.

Swimming in the Napo River with my new friends was probably one of my most memorable experiences in Ecuador, since it was a time where I just let go of my embarrassment and enjoyed the natural world with a group of people whose lives were completely different to mine. In fact, the whole weekend was special. As a city girl with a smartphone addiction, I would have never expected my favorite day in Ecuador to be the day I left my phone at home to go hang out in a small village with some people I just met. I really value the friendships I made in Yutzupino too, because I was able to connect with and have a great time with these young people who grew up in a very different way.

To this day we still keep in touch, and I hope to return one day.