The anaconda ate my pirhana!


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South America » Ecuador » East » El Coca
October 2nd 2007
Published: October 8th 2007
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This little niña was very curious about us.
"¿En serio?" asked our bilingual guide, Elaina. Yes, he WAS serious. Patricio, our native guide had seriously just seen the back of an anaconda surface only 15 feet from our dugout canoe. We all looked to the spot in the black water where the bubbles still lay formed on the surface, but we were too late to see it. But that was close enough to shorten my breath and make me grip the edges of the small canoe for dear life. I have not ever seen the movie "Anaconda" but I couldn't keep my vivid imagination from developing all sorts of irrational scenarios... At any moment, the snake could capsize the boat, sending all 7 of us into the murky blackwater lagoon, and then the snake would have a free-for-all! What shore would I swim to? Which tourist would the snake choose for it's dinner? Maybe if I put Matt in front of me, it will take him instead... (just kidding!) Our bilingual guide had previously explained that the rarely seen snakes don't prefer humans. However, Patricio had also told us the story of his grandfather's close call with the giant animal. When he was building one of the trails that
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View from the canopy
runs through their land, he had been attacked and nearly killed by an anaconda. It took several other natives to kill the snake with their machetes and guns. The snakes can grow over 30 feet long (though many natives and explorers have unsubstantiated claims of snakes over 120 feet) and have a girth the size of a truck tire. They stalk their prey and kill by constriction (squeezing). They can wrap around a human until they can't breathe or until their internal organs rupture... Then the snake unhinges its jaw and swallows the prey whole. It is similar to the way that many crocodiles drown their prey before feeding. Speaking of large man eating reptiles, did I mention that the lagoon our canoe was on is also home to many black caiman? These animals are similar to aligators and can grow to over 15 feet long. Oh yeah, and when this all happened, we happened to be fishing for pirhana! So I was legitamately frightened, knowing that we had whipped up the pirhanas, caiman and anacondas into a frenzy with our raw meat (bait) while we teetered above in a small unstable canoe that was completely capable of tipping over
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Kids along the river where our boat dropped off some locals.
if one person shifted their weight too quickly. As you can imagine I was as still as can be. Of course, nothing happened and we returned back to the lodge without any pirhana to fry up for dinner. I blame the anaconda. He must have scared the fish away.

It actually took us a couple days longer than expected to reach Sani Lodge, a native, community run remote jungle lodge outside of Coca, Ecuador. We took the night bus from Quito on Tuesday night, anxious to see a new place. The 10 hour bus ride was typical- cramped, uncomfortable and our entertainment was blaringly loud music that played throughout the night while we were trying to sleep. We arrived in Coca before 6 am and made our way to hotel El Auca. Luckily, as we found out, hotels here will give you a free room when you arrive, so see did not have to wander the streets until some afternoon check in time. We went straight to our room and slept for 5 more hours.

When we awoke, we walked around Coca and found that the main part of town consisted of 5 square blocks of nothing to
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Señor is cutting up a coconut so I can drink the juice.
do. So we walked around, ate ice cream, and drank a beer to pass the time. I even had a street vendor cut a coconut up for us and we drank the juice through a straw. We were constantly harrassed by taxis in town... especially being the only gringos around. The taxis practically stalk us, even though we were not remotely interested in taking them. They would falsh headlights at us, and honk over and over at us... like they were convinced that we needed a taxi, but we needed the honking to come to the realization! No señor, I don´t need a taxi, especially since the town is less that 1 square kilometer! I guess New Yorkers would never complain about this.

When we could not think of anything else to do, we returned to our room and discovered a miracle- there was cable tv and one channel was in english (keep in mind we haven´t seen a tv in about 6 weeks...so this was big) There wasn´t even any cheesy spanish voice-overs! Just when I thought it couldn´t get any better, I heard familiar music... Could it be??? Is the malarial medicine making me hallucinate? No, it
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Some yummy Paice (river fish) wrapped in banana leaves. It was yummy.
IS true! "The Office" is on the hotel tv in Ecuador!!!! I thought I was in heaven. We hung out in the room watching American sitcoms for several more hours, satisfied with the fact that there was not anything else to do in Coca anyways. We were due to leave for Sani the next day.

The following afternoon we checkedout of the hotel and sat in the lobby, waiting for our guide to meet us at noon. At 12:30 we were still waiting. Oh well, Ecuadorians have an issue with timeliness. A couple years ago, the government even launched a multi-million dollar campaign to encourage the population to change their tardy ways. So much good that did, I thought. I looked over out jungle itinerary again, and looked at the date... "Matt, What is the date?" I asked... "The 27th, why?"... "Hmm, well this paper says the 28th..." I said...."Yeah, but today is the 27th.... You mean we are here a day early?!?" he asked... Um, yeah...sorry about that...sweetheart." This actually isn´t even the first time I have done this. Last year we drove the 2 hours from Sacramento to Berkeley for a concert. But no one was there...
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Passing the day with beer and food in Coca
we had come a day early. So I slowly walked up to the front desk again and embarassingly explained that we actually wanted a room again for one more night. But it all ended up being okay and we even got a new room WITH a remore control this time!!! And we had more time to walk around aimlessly, eat ice cream again and drink more beer. We ate a tasty traditional lunch of maito (fish cooked in banana leaves) and watched The Office again. We relaxed in the garden of the hotel for a preview of the jungle. Monkeys and parrots lived in the trees and the ground was covered with paca, the biggest rodent in the world! The animals hung around thanks to the endless supply of fresh fruit they were fed by the hotel. Still, they seemed to like Matt´s ruffles potato chips. When they saw him holding the bag, the monkeys and one parrot followed him around the garden. The 3 monkeys were scaring Matt so we went back to the room, the colorful parrot walking close on Matt´s trail.

Two days in Coca were more than enough and the next day were were sucessfully
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Another tame version from the hotel. We were also able to track down this monkey in the jungle at Sani. We have seen many natives keeping them as pets, on their shoulders.
picked up by our guide, and we made our way to Sani by way of the Rio Napo river. We traveled 115 km in a motorized canoe (3 hours) and then switched to a dugout canoe to paddle the last 45 minutes up a stream to the black lagoon where the lodge is located. When we reached the end of the stream, we entered the lagoon and saw the lodge for the first time. The area was beautiful and the tops of the palm thatched roofs stuck out above the lush green surroundings. We could not help but be in awe at the beauty and we became even more excited about our next 3 days at the lodge. Our private cabana was nicely equipped with a private bathroom, screened windows and a mosquito net (which we never needed to use... suprisingly there are more mosquitos in Kansas than in the jungle!). The cabana was definitely luxurious for us. There was even a tiki torch next to our front porch! Our room, like the rest of the lodge was powered by solar panels. Later, after a 3 course dinner (lunches and dinners always had 3 courses!) we split up into two
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Yes!!! The Office is on!!!! Without voice-over!
groups. When we were at Sani, there were only 7 other guests. We were in a group with 3 other very nice Californians. Our guide Elaina was from Finland. She was a very knowledgeable biologist who was motivated to study biology so she could learn more about the jungle. Our native Quechua guide was Freddie, and he was a bird expert. The first night, we entered the jungle for a night hike. This is the time that the jungle is alive. We shined our flashlights on snakes, giant tarantulas, salamanders, catapillars and all sorts of strange insects. I think being out (and in search of scary bugs and animals) in the jungle the first night helped keep me from being too intimidated. Many people had warned us that it is hard to sleep the first night because of all the strange noises. There were certainly all sorts of bizarre sounds but I slept incredibly well. Good sleep was important because breakfast was to be served at 5:45 am the next day! We were excited to get up, because we were going to the canopy tree tower. The 100 foot tree tower allowed us to be at eye level with the
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Matt plays tarzan in the jungle, swinging on a vine.
top of the jungle canopy. We were there to bird watch, and after 3 completely engrossing hours had passed on the platform, we had spotted dozens of red, blue and green macaws (parrots), toucans (think Fruit Loops), and a large variety of other colorful birds. The toucans were one of the most beautiful creatures I have even seen. Unfortunately, the zoom on my camera is not as good as the binoculars, which explains the lack of photos. Our guides were incredible at spotting birds. They would point one out in the tree 2 km away, when to me, the bird looked like a leaf. They would continue to astound us with this talent throughout our time at Sani. By the time our 3 days were up,we had seen over 64 different types of birds.

Later that morning, we took a jungle hike and learned about the flowers and plants and our native guide explained their medicinal uses. One plant could be crushed and made into a paste to treat athelete's foot. The bark of another tree could be used for a solution to make your hair shiny. Almost anything could be made into a tea to treat and illness
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ANACONDA!!! Just testing to see if you are still paying attention.
such as a stomach ulcer, intestinal infection, or circulatory problem. One bright red flower when drank in a tea served as birth control for 5 years!!! Our guide swore that his sister took the tea after having 7 kids. 5 years later, she had another baby and she took the tea again after and did not have another child for 5 more years! I am not convinced this is exactly healthy, but this is the only medicine they have. It is another reason it is so important to protect the rainforest from being cut down, because as it is destroyed, we are losing many potentially usefulmedicines. An incredible amount of the medicine we have today are synthetics from jungle plants. For example, the malarial medicine we are taking right now is a synthetic created from a tree we saw in the jungle. Also, 25% of cancer medicine today was discovered in the jungle. Who knows what is left to be discovered!

One of the best parts of our time at Sani was monkey hunting. Not real hunting, of course, but hunting for a view of them. It is not so easy when you are standing on the jungle floor
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Yes, we ate here... and their crispy fried chicken was delicious!!!!
and the monkeys are freely swinging from tree to tree 100 feet up in the canopy. We did manage to spot 4 different kinds of monkeys during our time, which was fairly lucky. The process usually went as follows- we would be walking along one of the trails that runs through Sani's over 60 sq mile land. The suddenly Freddie would hunch down and motion for us to be quiet. He would look up and then suddenly take off quietly running down the trail. We would scamper behind him, trying to be quiet as a native. Of course with each step we were rustling leaves, breaking sticks on the ground or tripping over tree roots. However, we would catch up just in time to see a troupe of monkeys fleeing from tree to tree above us. One of the highlights was when we saw about 8 monkeys take turns performing a seemingly dangerous and definitely acrobatic jump to a far off tree branch. Each one was barely able to catch a hold of the end of the branch and climb further up to safety. They were great to watch, and it was nice to have the thrill of the chase.
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This is the biggest rodent in the world. It is the size of a dog!
When I originally imagined the jungle, I thought of animals crawling everywhere, at every level of the canopy. And while I am sure this is true, it is not something that you can see. The animals here hide, and they are good at it. I now am certain that the Galapogos are an anamoly- the only place where animals are out in the open and unafraid. However, having to seek out the jungle animals made us feel more of a reward when we were sucessful at finding them. Some animals were really scary! We saw a red scorpion on a hand rail, and our guide said that its sting will make your arm numb with pain for several days. Another of the strange insects was the 'bullet ant'. If you watched the 'Planet Earth' series, you may recall the ants that would ingest a parasite and slowly die as a mushroom grew from its back and took over its body. This is the bullet ant. Our bilingual guide had gotten bitten by this poisonous ant and explained that they call it a bullet ant because it's bite feels like being shot by a bullet. She verified that this is true
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When caught in a downpour enroute to Sani, we had a roof. These locals in the boat were not so lucky.
and said it was by far the worst pain she has ever felt. I prefer the friendlier leaf-cutting ants. These colonies will create desolate paths through the jungle, carrying our every piece of greenery in its path. They really are fascinating, and if you look close, you can see that each ant carrying a piece of leaf has a body guard ant. This ant sits on the leaf that the worker ant is carrying. They actually don't even eat the leaves. They poop (very scientific, I know) on the leaves, and an enzyme in the leaf helps produce a bacteria that they feed on. These are probably the coolest creatures that feed on their own dung! We also found another type of ant that makes it home in a tree branch- the lemon ant. They are tiny, and they taste like lemon! You really have to get a few in your mouth to get a good taste. One even bit my tongue!

One day, we were lucky enough to visit Freddie's house and meet his family. This was a wonderful experience to see how natives live. You may have a picture in your head of natives with weird nose
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HEre, I am, killing time in Coca.
or lip piercing, carrying a spear with feathers, etc. These natives actually do exist deep in the jungle, and they resist any contact with the outside world (except, apparently, for National Geographic documentaries). In many cases, if you stumble upon them, they will simply kill you. It is understandable considering how many oil companies have tried to disrupt their lives and steal their land. The natives we met however, are a bit more modern. They wear clothes, use stove tops to cook, and some of their canoes even have motors! They don´t have any easy life however, and live mostly off rice and produce they grow on their own. They collect and drink rain water when possible. Otherwise they drink from the Rio Napo (which is pretty similar to the Missouri river...gross). They were so welcoming with us, and Freddie's cousin even used a plant seed to paint my face with a traditional festive design. They also made us some Maito, boiled yucca (like potatoes, but better!), and chicha- which is an alcoholic drink made from fermented yucca. They were very hospitable and it was nice for us to see what a normal native family lives like. One of the
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The coconut is young, so the juice is mild and watery (not yet turned to coconut milk)
reasons we chose Sani Lodge is because it is owned by the Sani community. All proceeds go back into the lodge or into the community. One thing they will use our money for is to send our guide Freddie to the USA to study english and biology. In January, he will travel to Minnesota to study. He was lucky enough to be invited by an american tourist visiting the lodge (an American citizen must complete his paperwork in order for him to enter the country). But can you imagine being a native from the jungle, and going to Minnesota...In January?!

My absolute favorite thing at Sani was taking the canoes out. It was so relaxing (except when the anaconda surfaced) and peaceful. IT was always a great opportunity to relax, watch for wildlife, and enjoy the sounds of the jungle. One of our best canoe rides was during our last night. We went out at about 9pm. The sky was unbelieveably clear and the milky way shone down brightly. It was surreal to see such a starry sky through the profile of big jungle trees on the horizon. We were actually out searching for caiman. We spotted about 5
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Freddie's family house
of them. One even let us get really close to it. They are easy to spot with their eyes turning red with the reflection of a flashlight. Unfortunately, the every elusive 'king of the jungle' is harder to spot. Our guide has never even been lucky enough to spot a feline. Their jungle names are puma and jaguar. But I will call them what they really are- giant man-eating lions. Okay... so they don't typically eat people... but they could if they wanted to! The puma looks like your typical light brown lion and the jaguar is spotted like a cheetah, but is only found in the americas. While their prints can sometimes been seen on Sani land, they are rarely or never seen by anyone. Maybe this is a good thing... Both cats weigh over several hundred pounds and have the ability to easily take down an animal the size of a horse!

Although it would have been exciting to spot a feline, we still left Sani satisfied and wishing we could stay for just one more day. The intensity of the jungle and the life it contains is amazing, and it can only be felt after a
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Here was lunch on the boat- 2 mushroom cheese and tomato sandwiches wrapped in banana leaves.
couple days of exploration. Of course, as we all know... the jungle is disappearing. Much of this has to do with the extraction of oil in the area. One of the worst cases of oil exploitation of the rainforest actually occurred in Ecuador, when Texaco knowingly dumped 37 million gallons of crude oil and drilling by-products into rainforest waterways. In the 1990s, an area oil spill even caused the Rio Napo to run black for several days (and yes, this is still the same water the natives drink when there isn´t much rain). In additional to the widespread environmental devastation, the health of the local people failed greatly and natives in the area still suffer from a higher than normal cancer rate. Of course, oil companies are always easy targets for environmentalists, but it is because they make themselves such great targets! For me, our visit was just one more example of how we, like parasites, are actively destroying the beautiful host we live off of- our planet Earth.


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en route

Here we are on the way to Sani. The only way to move in the boat was to walk on the edge and hold on to the roof.
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laundry

Our extra day in Coca gave us time to wash some socks in the sink.
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fruit

Here is a jungle fruit (naranjilla?) that we have with lunch. The little fruit jewels inside were slightly tart, and eaten whole- seed and all.
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chicha

Matt gulps down the chicha...without making a face.


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