Life in the Amazon

In early January, I started an internship in the Napo region of Ecuador. While I’ll be discussing the details of my internship specifically in another post, today I’ll be detailing about life with an Indigenous family, the food we eat and more about the Amazon.

Life Amongst A Family of Twelve

Indigenous families in the Napo region normally have big families. Mine is no exception as we are six adults and six children between the ages of six months to 79 years old. Thankfully, I have my own room and we all get along. With the kids we play games, do English classes and go to the river to swim. The family wakes up early, between 5:30 and six, breakfast is served around 7 am. Then, the kids either go to school, play together or accompany the few adults going to the chakra (agroforestry garden). The mornings are dedicated to working and school and the afternoons to relaxation. After the 7 pm supper, everyone wounds down by watching tv or talking to the family members living far away. Bedtime is around 9-10 pm. Sundays are church and soccer time, a day spent with the community.

What has been the most interesting is learning how rural and economically poor families in the Amazon live and how they make ends meet. For some, washing in the river or from a bucket, eating very simply and living in a wooden house open to external elements may not seem life-changing but still requires adaptation and acceptance of lesser comforts.

The Kichwa, an Indigenous group in Ecuador, live from what their agroforestry ‘chakra’ farms give them. They also eat fish and other wild game. On average, Kichwa farmer families in this region make around 2,500 US dollars per year from the sale of their cash crops amongst them cocoa. But, the monetary stresses still allow for their plates to be full with food from their farm if well managed. Of the lesser comforts, it means wooden handmade furniture, concrete floors, a minimal kitchen and an outhouse. While there is no running water throughout my host family’s house, there is a faucet with a bucket underneath used for washing clothes and dishes, bathing and drinking.

While the family recognizes being poor, there is resilience, love for one another, happiness in spending the evenings outside playing sports and eating together every day as well as pride from cultivating their land in a culturally significant way. While they do wish for more, one has to recognize the historical precedents that marginalized and discriminated them there; the slavery they experienced at the hands of the Spanish, the insults they faced for their cultural background as well as the invasive modernization experienced in just the last 60 years.

The Food

The basics include yucca and plantain. Usually, they are boiled or fried, I particularly like smashed plantain mixed in with rice and fried yucca. Eggs and meat are obtained from their criolla chickens and fish from the many rivers.

Then there is the abundance of plants, vegetables and fruits. There are amazonian grapes, naranjilla, mandarines, wild fruits like tiny peaches, pineapple, soursop, papaya and abios. There is corn, chonta for the heart of palm, tree tomato, various ferns and leaves to chew and aromatize meals. There is also the guayusa leaf used in infusions which was and still is in very traditional families an important drink spiritually and is used as an energy booster from its high caffeine content. There is also chicha a fermented yucca drink that tastes like a pasty yogurt soup when unsweetened.

With every walk in the jungle, I learn about a new plant or fruit. There is the local cinnamon, lemongrass and traditional medicinal plants. I have even tasted something close to Amazonian rhubarb!

The Amazon

Temperatures are blissful, 15 to 30 degrees celsius. Anything below 20 degrees is deemed ¡Qué frío! and anything above 25 degrees is called ¡Qué calor! Rain is sparsely poured every day and the sun only ever truly shines a few brief moments as well. With the large quantities of rain coming through, rivers are everywhere meandering through the landscape.

Empty cocoa pods in a community member’s chakra

My family is fairly modernized and lives right beside a paved road with frequent passing of city buses headed towards Tena. We have wifi and cable tv. Life is very different than deep inside the jungle with other Kichwa communities but the forest is still an important part of daily life. The Amazon has incredible biodiversity which can be seen by the moss and plants living on and with other trees and plant species. The butterflies are so colourful but I have yet to meet any big bad snake or wild animal. It being such a biodiverse place also entails many bugs and insects which sometimes come to visit my room.

The land is not only rich in life but also in oil and gold. Illegal mining operations splatter the landscape with the marks of their digging. Oil wells can be found far inside national parks (sanctioned by the government), both activities which require lots of water and chemicals. The rivers get gorged by black petrol and destructive mercury, continuously flowing downstream (when not literally altering its course) to the riverside communities who use it to bath, drink and cook. Both entail massive deforestation and can be joined by modernization’s love for mono-cropping which not only damages the soil on the long term but also farmers’ ties to their climate change mitigating agroforestry practices.

Life in the Amazon is simple, but no less difficult as nature is in a perpetual state of give-and-take which often incites young kichwa to find jobs in the city or to leave for Quito. It is through their daily cultural acts that resilience and resistance come forth to protect large swaths of the Amazon from overzealous capitalism. I am happy to have pushed my personal comfort levels and to have learned about what life entails in the Amazon for them and other Indigenous groups. After my stay in Tena, I still have a bit of time until the end of my stay in Ecuador and I can say I have enjoyed every moment of it until now!

As always, stay tuned for more 🐝

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