This past June, I wanted to simultaneously travel and retreat. I wanted a week to connect with new adventurers while remembering what life is like without internet and cell phone service. I picked the Amazon region of Ecuador.
G Adventures offers small group tours focused on local culture and sustainable tourism. In Quito, I met up with my twelve traveling companions, a diverse and eager pack that included a 50-something Russian M60 bus driver from Queens, a precocious tween who could alphabetically list each cat in genus Leopardus, and two raucous and rowdy Aussies.
We traveled four hours by van to Tena, then another hour by open-air truck further into the interior, to arrive at a lodge owned and operated by an indigenous Quechuan family. More than twenty years ago, Delvin and his wife Stella partnered with G Adventures to offer authentic accommodations for small tourist groups.
Group hosting has enabled them to raise money to found and maintain a local school for children living in the jungle. We were fortunate enough to be able to visit with the six students (who range in age from 5 to 15) and teach them basic English in preparation for a future qualifying exam. Sustainable tourism has made a huge difference in this region’s access to education.
Nights, we slept in a large cabin with a thatched roof, in beds with wrap-around mosquito netting (I learned the hard way – meaning that I rolled onto something with an exoskeleton — that you must remember to tuck in all four corners of your netting.)
There was no electricity. When darkness fell, we lit candles, drank beer from the well-stocked fridge, played Yahtzee, and shared stories. The world was both startlingly new and primordial. I dropped my camera during dinner and the flash went off; I discovered that I was sitting above a tarantula. So much exists that we don’t see.
The greatest gift of the jungle was relearning the value of the self: it’s uniqueness, determination, grit. I understood who I was better against the backdrop of remoteness. It was revitalizing to interact with strangers and be forced to articulate your own life’s story. There was no one else to tell it. We changed from a group of outsiders into a community. We rappelled waterfalls, whitewater rafted, painted our faces red with achiote juice, made chocolate from scratch, harvested medicinal plants, and opened up to each other. One of us had lost a mother. One of us wanted to skip college and teach soccer. We held the ropes or steered the raft, and by doing so, engendered trust. And we made each other laugh. Big, full-bodied laughs.
It isn’t simple to go into the jungle, even for a week. There are the necessary preparations (the anti-malarial pills, the typhoid and yellow fever shots, the equipment you think is optional but isn’t – try using the bathroom at night without a headlamp). But even just a few days unplugged from social media and the adrenaline of deadline is invaluable. I never thought I would have been proficient at firing a blowgun at a distant melon. Like with so much of life, it’s all in learning to breathe.