A bus was approaching in the distance. It was rattling and groaning while working its way uphill over an unpaved, potholed road. I continued rinsing my hair from a week of dust and sweat while the bus swerved around the corner. While drying my hair I peeked from underneath my towel and noticed that the bus was leaning sideways. Dozens of passengers were hanging outside the windows on one side.
I wondered what brought so many people to this dead-end road in the Amazon Rainforest, but I looked up only when it stopped pretty much right at my heels. Why was that? There was more than enough space all around me.
The herd got down and a couple of women started filling canisters with water coming from the black tube tied onto a boulder that I had used to wash my hair. The others stood around me, in silence. Something was going on and everybody was in it except for me. One young man, contrary to the rest meticulously dressed in a buttoned-down shirt, with short-cut hair and wearing braces, walked up to me, shook my hand and asked me what my plans were.
“We’re just checking out what the end of this road looks like. We expected a river but it is not (it was a drilling station). So from here we’ll turn around and return to Coca,” I answered.
“With whom are you traveling?”
“It’s just the two of us.”
“But who organized you coming here?”
“Well, nobody. We travel independently.”
I didn’t understand what he was getting at while he received answers he wasn’t used to. At least that much was clear.
“You crossed two Huoarani communities. Do you have a permission?”
We were in trouble.
Visiting the Amazon Basin – Searching for a Cargo Boat
If there was anything we had not wanted to do, it was going to indigenous communities. We have visited them in Brazil and are not particularly interested in visiting others. We drove to Coca, in the Ecuadorian Amazon, to find a cargo boat that would take us down the Napo River to Iquitos in Peru.
The result of two days of asking around: nope, that was not going to happen. Contrary to what we had hoped there wasn’t any cargo boat plying between the two countries.
The Petrochemical Industry
But since we were here we wanted to learn more about the Oriente (the Ecuadorian Amazon). In one aspect it differs from the Amazon we’ve seen in Brazil and the Guianas: the presence of petrochemical companies. For many years I have followed Amazon Watch, an organization fighting for the rights of indigenous people in the Amazon and helping them battle invaders such as oil companies (here’s the link to Amazon Watch’s website).
From the moment we had reached the Amazon Basin (coming from the Andes), the roads had been lined with oil pipes. Eighty percent of the Oriente is under concession of petrochemical companies. They (in this case Chinese) will start drilling in the remaining twenty percent next year, in the Yasuni National Reserve (read about it here). We decided to try to see something of that industry, just like we had visited gold mines in Guyana (read about it here) and the logging industry in Brazil (read about it here).
The Indigenous People
South of Coca used to be home to, among others, the Huoarani indigenous people. They were driven east when the Ecuadorian government decided to build an approx 120-km-long road into the Amazon to facilitate the oil industry. We checked with the tourist information in Coca to see if we could drive that road, called the Vía Auca.
“Yes. It is no problem as long as you stay on the main road and don’t venture into the forest as indigenous people may live there.”
We know only too well from Brazil never to venture into indigenous reserves without permission as it can get you into serious trouble.
Driving Down the Vía Auca
As it goes with the development of forested areas, it all starts with a crude track through primary forest. As the road becomes more accessible and an industry starts to grow, it attracts more people. About 90% of Coca’s inhabitants are settlers from other areas.
Forest gets cleared, people build wooden houses on stilts, and keep a couple of cows or live on self-sustaining agriculture. The asphalted surface was initially in excellent condition except for a couple of places where stretches were practically washed away.
Along the side of the road was a zoo. A zoo? Now that was a surprise, and although not particularly fans of zoos, we did stop for a visit. It is basic, built with little money, but the animals live in reasonably sized cages (for as much that living in a cage is reasonable). Explanatory panels were readable, there was a decent, shady walking path, and the cages stood throughout the forest and not all packed together.
We have seen most of the animals elsewhere: macaws, toucans, ocelots, spider monkeys. Outside the cages we stumbled upon coatis and three tapirs: a couple and a young one. The latter especially was nice because we have heard these animals stomping through the forest during many hikes but as they are shy, we had never seen them. We’re not sure whether these animals are wild or that a larger fence surrounds the zoo.
Lunch with Ecuadorian Settlers
By the time we left the zoo it was past noon and time for lunch. The road meandered up and down, swerving from left to right. More houses, more grassland but no restaurants. Finally we found a place. We filled our plates from a buffet with rice and fried manioc and a choice of chicken, beef, or pork. Not exactly our favorite but it would do.
We were the only guests and the family wanted to know about us. We opened the doors of the Land Cruiser and showed them the map on the front doors. Alex, the 9-nine-year old loved sitting in the driver’s seat. “Such a big steering wheel!” and wanted to know about all the buttons on the dashboard.
His father, Ceasar, is one of the many settlers in the area. He is from the Ecuadorian highlands. The salaries draw people to the Amazon. For a couple of years he worked for a petrochemical company and with the money earned he opened a hotel and restaurant two years ago. “I can spend more time with my family now,” he gave as his reason for this move.
Oil Rigs Along the Side of the Road
We said our goodbyes and drove on. At the beginning of this road we had seen side roads leading to oil rigs. Now we saw a couple of rigs along the side of the road. The red-white towers stood incongruously against the green landscape. One had flames shooting into the air, burning gas. For a couple of hours we meandered through this monotonous landscape but were determined to reach the end. We had understood it was a beautiful area with a river.
An Indigenous Reserve
The road changed into an unpaved surface and an hour later or so we stopped. A bar across the road blocked the road. A guard asked where we were going to which we responded we wanted to reach the end of the road. He asked for permission on his walkie-talkie and let us pass. A Y-turn followed with on our right another oil station so we kept left.
A sign said “Indigenous Terrain” but since this was still the main road, and we know from Brazil how roads can cut straight through reserves, we didn’t give the matter a second thought. Apart from one or two huts we saw only white plastered houses on stilts, looking new and we wondered who lived here. This couldn’t be indigenous communities, could it?
The road narrowed and we were increasingly surrounded by forest. It was five o’clock and we were ready to set up camp. It was a disappointment not to find a river but yet another oil rig. The place was void of people so we couldn’t ask permission to camp there. I insisted we parked the Land Cruiser in such a way we’d be able to drive away quickly and easily, if need be. I wasn’t convinced that camping here was a good idea but knew Coen was exhausted from a long day of driving. I didn’t have strong arguments to drive with dusk descending.
Of course, you should listen to those feelings. They are there for reasons and we know we should follow them. Often we have them at the same time at the same place. This time it was just me. That little voice nagging, ‘I don’t think we should stay here’. However, I was tired as well and I had spotted a clear stream of water flowing from a black tube that came apparently out of nowhere and was held in place by a couple of boulders.
I decided to immediately wash my hair. Laos flashed through my mind where we had waited taking a shower until it was dark by which time police officers had shown up and a long, warm night had followed with bureaucratic hassles while I craved my shower. Another sign and another denial on my part.
Meeting the Huoarani People
And so there I stand, with my hair clean and fresh, but surrounded by what I now understood are Huoarani people. Coen is out of sight. Later he told me that he had sat in the car, had seen the bus approach, considered taking a photo but thought the better of it. At that moment he realized we had a problem and he didn’t want to provoke aggression.
Thankfully we speak Spanish and at least the guy I am talking to does as well. For a while the conversation continues in the same manner as I described in the beginning of this post and Coen joins us. The speaker for the community says we should have stopped at the village as it is an indigenous village. We explain we didn’t know this as there is no sign saying so. Coen adds that we figured that those beautiful modern, white-washed houses belong to employees in the oil industry.
The spokesperson smiles. “No, they gave us that those houses because they drill in our area.” We try to explain how for us it is impossible to see it is an indigenous village, however, for them this is no valid argument. We should have asked permission. We explain how we thought that the guard at the gate had given us permission to drive here but no, that is just for the oil company, the spokesperson says. How could we know? we ask.
We are only all too aware how these kinds of encounters can explode and are very much aware of our body language and words. The speaker translates our conversation to the community while we keep smiling, pretending to be relaxed. The two women next to me smell money. I smell that they smell it. Not once they smile.
Indigenous vs. Foreigners
All this goes back and forth in a friendly manner, with us apologizing for the inconvenience and explaining (for the umpteenth time) we have no intention to visit an indigenous community. We have the feeling that the spokesperson is on our hand. It is obvious what this whole thing will boil down to: money. He is building up a case to ask for it; we for paying as little as possible. There is no way they are going to let us go like without paying – our experience has taught us that. In fact, we expect to get stiffed here.
The issues around indigenous people are incredibly complex and it is one I have no clear standpoint on. I see how they are pushed around, don’t have a voice in politics, and lose their territories. I see how industries destroy their land, their forest is cut and their rivers are polluting, destroying the only livelihood they have ever known.
In an attempt to protect or help the indigenous, governments created reserves to define their territories as well as laws to protect them. Before President Correa, jail time for murder was 25 years for an Ecuadorian, but only 5 for an indigenous person. In Brazil (which we are more familiar with) an indigenous person can flee into his reserve after having murdered somebody and can’t be prosecuted except by the federal police (which doesn’t happen)). The indigenous people don’t pay tax but are entitled to pensions and other social welfare. In some ways, non-indigenous Ecuadorians and Brazilians claim, the indigenous people have many rights but no obligations. I see that side of the coin too.
When we visited indigenous communities in Brazil we were genuinely interested in another group of people. For them the meeting was a mere business transaction. I can’t blame them for feeling that way, but it did lead to the fact, as said in the beginning, that we are not particularly keen on going to these communities anymore. They have no interest in us whatsoever. We are a bag of money and no more. We don’t carry hard feelings but accept that this is simply how it is.
Here that feeling resurfaces. It is all about how much money they can get from us. Of course we shouldn’t be here. That much is clear as well. On the other hand, the spokesperson gives no acknowledgment that with the road leading as it does, the lack of signs, let alone a sign mentioning a fee, it is not so strange that we misinterpreted the situation. They are indigenous people, we passed their village, so we have to pay. That’s their logic and we know it. And so Coen says having no problem paying 5 dollars if the spokesperson will write him a receipt.
“No, we don’t do that, giving receipts. We are indigenous people. But you have to pay. Everybody pays.”
And so the conversation starts over once more, both explaining where we come from. Meanwhile some of the women want to return to their village and are pushing the spokesperson to hurry up. They name their price, 20 dollar per person. Truth be said, I expected 200 dollars.
Coen protests to paying that much money for a toll fee because that’s what it comes down to as we are not going to visit their village.
We come to an agreement of paying 10 dollars and I walk to the Land Cruiser to get it. When I get back the two women are protesting, and so the conversation starts once more (never, ever be in a hurry when dealing with indigenous people). I believe the spokesperson is actually on our hand. He explains (for as much as I can gather) in their language that our intent isn’t malicious, that we will leave right away, etc.
We pay our 10 dollars and Coen walks up to the bus driver (a non-indigenous person who is employed by an oil company) to apologize he had to wait so long.
“So they are letting you go?” he asks.
“Yes, they do,” Coen answers and realizes again it could have gone very differently.
“Better hurry before they change their mind,” Coen speaks my thoughts.
I quickly pack up the stuff lying around the car and close the back doors. As we drive off one man walks up to us – the only one who had displayed a knife, seemingly cleaning it, during the 20-or-30-minute discussion. He wants a ride.
“The bus is full,” he argues.
“No seats,” Coen answers in a friendly way and we drive off.
Meanwhile the word has spread quickly and now, at the entrance of the first village, the bridge obstructed with a bamboo pole. A couple of women stand nearby, watching. I greet them, remove the pole, let Coen pass, and put it back. For a second I wonder if it is just a security measure to indicate the big gaping hole in the bridge as night is falling (especially because nobody bothers us). But no, the second bridge is blocked on both sides.
I remove a recently-cut, young tree from the entrance of the bridge. A man asks from a distance where I am going and I respond that we are returning to where we came from, and that we talked with the people on the bus.
It is okay, I can clear the bridge. The man is giggling all the time and shouting something to people on the other side of the bridge. On this side I remove the barricade of a half-broken ladder and wire that is tricky to unravel. All villagers are outside their houses, staring at us. We smile, wave and say hello while driving out of here as quickly as possible.