Tena: Strangers Entertained

At 7:00 A.M., we left for Tena with Miguel Castañel, on public transport. Aware of how dodgy the bus trips can be in S.A., we knew we were in for an adventure. We stopped in Pifo, Miguel’s hometown,to pick up fresh bread (with chocolate in the center, and also with pineapple, Miguel says only his town does the piña) for the trip onward, and to meet his beloved mother. We unfortunately missed her; she is a very devout Catholic, and had already headed to church. But, to our delight, Pifo was in the second day of a 3-day festival celebrating San Sebastian, the town’s patron saint. Whoa!!! You already KNOW how the Skinners dig a parade—This should be big. The parade featured groups of dancers, musicians, clowns and, of course, the obligatory local beauty queens. I can still feel the excitement we felt as we just climbed right in and walked among the performers and floats to get lots of photos. What I loved most about this parade was that there were groups of dancers of all ages, from toddlers to a group of grandmas gettin’ down! The cutest indigenous kid of about three years was enclosed in a circle dance, boogying with all his family. What a doll! This festival is held every year at the same time. We were told that the entire day on Friday was given over to celebrating the Chagras, Ecuadorian cowboys. Many boys and men were still wearing their chaps from the previous days parades and partying. We will put San Sebastian on our calendars, making sure to take in the whole weekend event next year!

About one block from the corner where we would wait for the bus on to Tena, a young lady of 103 years of age, who had had a birds’ eye view of the festivities from her upstairs window, called down to us. Her daughter who was with her told us she was giving us her blessing, and they asked if we would like to come up for a visit. Even though we had no more time to stay and chat, we were reminded of just one more reason we love Ecuador; her people are as beautiful and inviting as the country. While waiting at the bus stop, we bought slices of fresh-cut watermelon, which we ate with our yummy chocolate bread right there on the side of the road. No three- star dining establishment could have made it any better than that.

When the bus arrived, we found seats wherever they were available. While things are quickly becoming more up-to-date even in Ecuador, where you rarely encounter live chickens and even small pigs, and where folks are no longer allowed to use the bus as a moving van (where entire household goods were stacked on top of the vehicle), it still sometimes seems like an every-man-for-himself undertaking. One woman who shared the space with Rankin and Ruthi on the back seat had little space and nothing to hold on to except the small child in her lap. No problem. She just politely leaned over, put her head on Rankin’s shoulder, and proceeded to fall fast asleep.

The ride to Tena takes one through a pass in the paramo, over 13,000 ft., the air turning very cold at those heights, before descending into the jungle. Sometimes the bus is held up for several hours until the ice/snow on the road melts, before proceeding through this pass. Condors are regularly seen here, if the clouds are cleared. We passed the lush green Papallacta Hot Springs, where there are many pools heated by volcanic activity. The terrain continued to become more tropical until we reached the edge of the jungle, Tena.

Tena is the capital of Napo Province and is considered the cinnamon (canela) capital of the country. The town sits at the convergence of the Tena and Puño rivers. The International Kayaking Championships were held here two years in a row recently. The area is well known for its whitewater rafting. We had a riverside room at the Hotel Posada, which faced an island park between the two rivers. Sleeping to the tune of whitewater running by the window, mixed with the exotic sounds of the jungle, made for sweet, peaceful dreams. The next morning we started our dental program, our first since Santo Domingo and Muisne. I will blog on the entire Ecuador Dental Health Initiative in a submission all its own.

Later in the afternoon, we took a dugout canoe to the island and were met by a green parrot which followed us everywhere we went during the visit. We called him “Coty”, after a beloved green conyer we used to keep as a pet. We found a drago tree, made a small cut in the bark, and a drop of the reddest “blood” instantly seeped out. As we have already reported, it is used to treat a wide assortment of ills, including Montezuma’s Revenge. Donnie’s greatest hero seems to be Samantha Brown, whom he watches somewhat religiously on the Travel Channel. She has been to Ecuador and preached, Chapter and Verse, on the efficacy of BOTD. We took a photo of him at the tree. He wants to tell his beloved Samantha that she has nothing on him. He has now been washed in the blood, so to speak.

This preserve has enclosed different kinds of jungle animals, plants and serpents, protecting them in as close to their natural habitat as possible. We were lucky to see an anaconda. They are usually very difficult to view as they are very shy, and also camouflaged. This one had just had a close encounter with an unfortunate duck (give you one guess who won?) and was consequently satiated and sluggish. We poled the canoe off the island at sundown, and finished the evening with a delicious dinner of Ceviche de Camarone (Shrimp). Our friend Victoria Carrasco would later tell us this healthful, scrumptious dish is called “lavante muerte“, roughly translated as Raised From The Dead, an apt description in our opinions. Yum.

The next day the group, (excluding Ruthi), took off for a whitewater rafting excursion on the Rio Anzu. The river runs by lush, thick jungle scenery, with an abundance of birds (we saw toucans) and monkeys. Amid the intense green there were trees covered with beautiful orange flowers, called Erytrina (Flame of the Jungle). After exhausting ourselves paddling through rapids we stopped for lunch at a river beach called Shangri-La. All I can say is it was aptly named. We pulled the raft from the river, turning it over to make a table. Our guide, Manual, served us homemade Ceviche de Palmitos (a vegetarian version of the usual seafood variety, and delicious!) yuca, hot rice, pepino (a melon-like fruit), fresh pineapple, apples, bananas, and (but, of course), Coca Cola. This meal will long remain in our minds as one of the 25 best of our lives. There was something mystical about standing on that beach, closing my eyes, and listening to the unbelievable jungle sounds and life which surrounded us.

The water temperature in the Anzu is relatively comfortable. That changes rapidly when the Rio Jatun Yacu converges. It comes from the glacial melt of the volcano Cotapaxi. The water turns frigid and we all began to pray not to fall out of the raft. (There we go, getting religion again). Eventually the Rio Anzu converges with the Rio Napo, which is the longest tributary in Ecuador of the Amazon River in Brazil.Donnie and Rankin just about killed themselves trying to drag that heavy raft back up the hill to the truck at the end of the trip. Thank goodness Ruthi was there with the proper provisions (dark Ecuadorian chocolate laced with hot pepper. Ruthi had not been completely idle during the day, herself).

While we were rafting, Ruthi had a private tour of the entire area, meeting many new friends, and seemingly learning all she ever wanted to know about the three surrounding towns. She ended up at a chocolate factory (Ecuadorian chocolate is considered to be second to none in the world, save the Swiss version). Free trade chocolate is a cottage industry for the indigenous tribes in the rainforest. It is one way they are able to sustain both their culture and the forest. She also bought jewelry made by the Yaorani (sic), sometimes spelled Warani. This is a once-fierce tribe in the rainforest which still retains its culture (excluding the headhunting and just general mahem they were famous, er, infamous for). Over the next decade, this will change drastically if we continue to explore their land for oil, and this people becomes more exposed to our way of life. Since they are now self-sufficent (and have stopped killing the missionaries), does our culture, our modern world, really have anything of true value to offer these people? We finished the day with another great seafood dinner, followed by ice cream made with fresh fruit. A huge single dip is 50 cents. Rankin’s favorite is Guanabana, which he considers the nectar of the gods. But, Coco, the cocoanut having been taken directly from the tree, WOW! This is divine.

Sadly, our stay in Tena came to an end with another hair raising (Daggone! This dude was in a hurry!) bus ride back to Pifo. Miguel’s dear elderly mother had made a wonderful, simple dessert for us, Quembolitos. (They reminded Ruthi so much of the simple treats her Grandma Landrum always made, called Sweet Cakes). Quembolitos are made from ground corn with raisins inside. They are then wrapped in banana leaves and steamed. They have just the right amount of sweetness, not to compare to the sweetness of his mother herself, as she hugged, kissed and blessed us all and sent us on our way. In our country, most folks have become so jaded and fearful that it is hard for us to pour out unconditional love,remembering to “entertain strangers” as the good book says. Yet one more reason to love this enchanting part of the world. An hour and a half busride later, we arrived at our apartment in Quito, grabbed a taxi and rushed to the laundry with all those dirty clothes from the trip, fighting to get there before closing time. Not to worry; it is all working out. As Roberta pointed out more than once, we have been blessed by at least two lovely Ecuadorian women; what other blessings could we possibly ask for?

Rankin and Ruthi

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