Go East, Young Man

Go West, young man, and grow up with the country.

The passageway into the bus terminal is wide and angled slightly uphill, with a big sign reading “Oriente” hanging ominously at the end.  It could serve well enough as the setting for one of those dramatic movies, in which a group of astronauts / soldiers / football players walk four abrest as they embark on some great journey, as friends and family wishing them good luck and wondering if they will ever return.  Except that, for me, the passageway was more or less empty—there was no one to see me off, no one to meet me when I got there, and hardly anyone who even knew where I was going.

It was, I figured, time to move on.  Things in Quito had been going almost too well.  What I had built up in my mind as the great challenge of field research was practically painless: interviews were easy to schedule and carry out, and when I was done with my work for the day I could eat at a vegetarian restaurant, share a beer among friends, or kick back in a guest house with wifi.  I definitely could have stayed for nine weeks, perfecting my Spanish and interviewing my way steadily upwards in the Ecuadorian government.  After delaying my departure for a week, though, I finally packed up and left for Francisco de Orellana in Eastern Ecuador.  Despite having had three weeks to prepare for the journey, though, I still lacked a place to stay or any contact more concrete than a phone number of a friend of an acquaintance.

Convincing myself that the ethnographer travels among the “gente” I save five dollars by being the only gringo to buy a ticket for a non-luxury bus, and as a result am jammed against the window by a mother and her two sons, all of whom are sharing a single seat.  This trip is for me an experiment in new sort of long distance travel; at school I won’t walk next door without my iPod, but now I have to stay awake for ten hours without being able to read or listen to music.  It’s an experience, I guess: without the imaginary barrier of headphones, I have nothing better to do than take in the scenery and absorb the murmur of Spanish around me

The first three hours of the bus ride feels like free fall, as our rickety bus drops three-thousand meters from the Sierra into the rainforest.  Once the mountains give way, we are plunged into clouds and canopy.  The road gets bumpier, and takes us over raging rivers on questionable one-lane bridges.  As Heart of Darkness analogies seem progressively more appropriate, I start to wonder what the hell I think I am doing here.  The bus ride feels interminable, but I know that it’s going to end, and when it does, I’m going to have a lot to worry about.  The inexpicable exhaustion of sitting still for five hours trumps anxiety, though, and I take a quick catnap.

I wake up a few minutes later, and I feel like I’ve once again been transported to a new world.  The sun has burned off the mist, and, in the light, imposing and unkind jungle has turned into verdant sensory paradise.  Still pressed against the window, my heart leaps with every tell-tale flash of color from a tropical bird or branch shaking from a troupe of monkeys.  I’m now in the right mood to appreciate the constantly throbbing meringue and salsa blaring from the bus speakers.  I take a bit of comfort from the image of my Dad doing the same as I, bouncing along along some unpaved road in the Andes.  He did it, and so can I.

A few hours later, it’s dark.  Not just nightfall, but a penetrating and enveloping darkness, only rarely punctuated by buildings with electricity.  I see my first sign of oil exploitation: a 30-foot flare from a well.  It is, I think, a perverse and constant reminder of what oil means here: wealth so abundant the companies can afford to let it burn, while the people around it can’t afford electricity.  The early explorers used to describe the Amazon as a “green hell”, but as I see more and more flares interrupting the darkness, I can’t help but think that for East Ecuador, the devil comes as pipelines and tanker trucks.

Arriving in Coca feels like the scene in Lord of the Rings in which the hobbits first come to Bree.  The town is bigger and uglier and busier than I thought it would be.  Someone told me it was a “wild-west”-esque frontier town, but right now it feels just like a big, impersonal city.  After getting off the bus, I stand hopelessly on the corner for a few minutes, feeling like a mute idiot with my ultralite backpack and lack of Spanish skills.  Eventually, I figure out that the cabs here aren’t yellow and pay an amount that would be exhorbitant even in New York to go to blocks to the only hotel in town I know.  Just my luck, though: it’s full.  The clerk takes pity on me, though, and calls a cab to take me to another.  I go to bed hungry, a bit too afraid to go exploring at ten at night.

When I wake up, I pull back the curtains to reveal a few turtles mating in the courtyard and some unidentified rodents running around.  An hour later, I’m on the banks of the Napo River, talking to a group of slightly inebriated, toothless old men about sustainable development and climate change.  Fast forward a bit further and I’ve already managed to get my first formal interview, and have perhaps lined up a few more.

I can do this.

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