Life on the Napo River [by Karla Gachet & Ivan Kashinsky]
The black rapid waters of the Napo rushed past our stationed canoe under a clear starred night. My five companions threw the nets and prepared themselves for the wait. In complete darkness, we sat looking towards the shadow of the person who would tell the next story. Powerful shamans stealing powers and tree-trunk-wide-boas living under the Napo crept into my imagination. The five Quichua youngsters, who led this fishing expedition, giggled between drags of their cigs. The river and the jungle were their home, playground and the language they understood and used to explain their magical world to me.
When we got back, right before dawn, Blanca had already started boiling the yucas, or cassava, for breakfast. We had only brought back five carachamas and one piranha. Back in the day, they told me, the Napo used to be filled with fish. All you had to do is go to the shore and you catch hundreds of them. Boiled in water, the carachamas floated among the yucas and made up the simplest, tastiest soup. After breakfast, everyone drank “chicha,” a beverage made out of yuca and offered at all times of the day. To not accept it, when offered, is an insult to Quichuas. When you first enter their house, chicha is like a strong handshake. It is a covenant, allowing strangers to build a trusting friendship.
This is how we came to know the Quichuas of the Napo. Very shy and reserved, these indigenous groups live fairly isolated from big cities. A lot of their houses can only be reached by canoe making it hard for most to reach the roads. They survive in tight communities where helping the other is not an option but a philosophy of life. Gregorio, or “Tocota”, the name of a type of tree in their Quichua language, was a master with the chain saw. One day, he took us to his brother in law’s house to help him build a canoe. They found the appropriate balsa tree, and after a few hours, a long carved-out canoe was ready to ride the Napo. They don’t like anyone in their community to be left behind. The Quichuas prosper together.
Yet, life can be harsh in the jungle and many suffer from child or spouse abuse. Blanca remembered how she was expected from the age of five to cook, wash, help with the crops and start laboring before dawn. The punishment for not completing her chores was brutal. She would get on her knees and one of her parents, or both, would whip her with a belt or a cable. Then, she would have to go find ortiga (nettles), a poisonous plant that leaves a rash when in contact with the skin. They would rub it all over her body and, to top it all, they would rub aji, a type of chili pepper, in her eyes.
Blanca barely survived the punishments. One time, she recalls, her dad punched her so hard she flew across the room, crashed against the wall and went unconscious. Her fever ran so high her parents feared the worse. They had to call her grandfather, a respected shaman, to drink ayaguasca, a medicinal plant, and blow it on her. Blanca said she would never hit her own kids because she feels the pain in her own skin. This dark muscled woman, weathered by the sun and her own life, worked hard everyday to make sure her four kids finish school.
Things were different now along the Napo, but the basic principles of living in a community remained the same. Kids wore jeans and listened to reggaeton but they still helped the family with all the daily chores. Like their parents, they were shy, kind and full of wisdom. They understood medicinal plants, could stand in a one-person canoe as they rowed up river and deeply respected their elders. They played everyday in the Napo as it flowed down to the Amazon carrying fish and gold in its veins. After a week of bathing in the river every evening and listening to a symphony of insects every night, our Quichua friends sent us on our way with plantains and yuca tied to the top of our jeep. They said they will come visit one day; and we will wait for them, in our concrete jungle.