His monkey was of the smallest kind in South America, and that is why I trusted him. In this place, it was as good a reason as any. The place was Coca, Ecuador, a small jungle town that I had big expectations for as a portal to an off-the-beaten-track adventure. This trip along the Rio Napo, which eventually merges with the Amazon, would be my first stab into the jungle. The plan was to make way to the border with Peru on public transportation — a dugout canoe, and then hop a cargo boat going all the way to Iquitos. It was a bit optimistic of a plan, but I hear such ingredients are key to cooking up an adventure.
I encountered Luis Garcia accidentally. His name was mentioned in the guidebook, and when I found myself walking by his bar, I just couldn’t help but peek inside. The man was jolly, hospitable, and what was most important, patient with my questions. As his mouse-sized pygmy marmoset helped itself to some murky liquor in a shot-glass, gripping it like a waste-high bucket, I inquired about the immense amount of amputees seen around town and was surprised to learn they weren’t the product of past wars, but rather the result of reckless and illegal fishing with dynamite.
I asked if at least some have also lost hands and legs work for the oil companies that have been ruining the local jungle, but was proved wrong as all the locals only clear the brush with their machetes, which they know how to handle since birth. Moreover, as it turned out, the townspeople have no harsh feelings towards the oil companies whatsoever, but then I could have guessed that for myself, as during one stroll through town I found what looked like the town’s Olympic mascot. All things considered, it was rather bizarre and dangerously ironic to see a smiling oil drop wearing pants and bearing a torch.
Looking back, trusting a man based on the size of his monkey is, to say the least, unwise. However, with my limited Spanish, the Tourist Center was of little help with information about cargo boats going further down the river from Pantoja on the Peruvian side. Running out of options, I shared my rickety plan with Luis who immediately confirmed my fears, the cargo boat schedule was as unreliable as everything else in town starting from internet cafes and finishing with cash machines. So, unless I considered sitting and waiting for the currents to change on the Amazon as my grand adventure, a different plan was needed. Stumped, I asked for his advice. I discovered in a few phone calls, my local connection was full of options: a two day ride in a speed boat, or an eleven day jungle trip along the Rio Napo all the way down to Iquitos in a canoe with a local guide. Canoe? Jungle? Was this the grand voyage I wanted? What is a green and inexperienced backpacker to do? A quick check in the handbook, and at least the guide seemed to be legit. The book sang praises to his wonderful work with the Huaorani people in the Ecuadorian jungle for the past ten years and assured that both he and his partner, Ramiro, can’t be beat at exploring the jungle. It seemed like a perfect fit. The group, I and my husband, would be joining was coming out the next day, and since this was a last minute arrival, the usual charge was cut in half.
It was set. All that was left was to stock up on miscellanea and bug-repellent by the gallon. Just for that purpose, I made my way to the pharmacy and was met by a white man in a lab coat standing behind the counter.
“Where are you from?” the man inquired.
“Ukraine, and my husband, Alex, is from Belaru… ”
“Ukraine?!” the man stepped back in alarm and now was more green than white. “Chernobyl!” he exclaimed in fear.
I smiled. I was not going to deny the nuclear catastrophe which made my family take an unscheduled “vacation” away from Kiev when I was four. Awkwardly, I stood there for a few seconds thinking how the conversation can be turned around towards the repellent, but the man beat me to the punch. He noticed the clear plastic tube snaking over my shoulder from the Camelback [convenient for hands free drinking] behind my back and pointed a shaking finger, “Esta problema…” I noticed a hint of curiosity sneak in amid the anxious notes of his voice. “No, no, no, no! It’s water. Agua! See?” I took of the pack, set it on the counter, and stepped back to demonstrate that there are no tubes draining radioactive fluids from my now-believed-to-be-mutant body. I twirled slowly on the spot displaying that there were no unplugged holes on my torso, now that the bag was no longer at my side, and even took a sip of the water from the tube, but all that only frightened the pharmacist even further. There was nothing left to do but quickly grab what I came for, pay, and scram.
Come to think of it, my Camelback tube seemed to be the object of much curiosity when I strolled the small town streets. Many people sneak a look. Some simply stare, but only one little boy had the guts to ask. I was browsing in a bakery, when I felt a tug on my shirt. Curiously, a little boy, with big dark eyes, pointed at the tube and asked, “Que es?” Utterly thrilled, I understood what he said, I demonstratively drank from the tube and said, “Esta agua.”
“Oh,” said the little boy mesmerized by the innovation. To this day, I can say that this incident was one of my most favorite interactions with a local.