A Second Update from Catolica

Hello Everyone!

This will most likely be the last mass update from Catolica. I’ll be here for another few days but I suspect they’ll be pretty busy – we’re in the midst of mapping all of the trails at the station. As I hinted in my last update though this has been a fairly eventful week so I’ll fill you in on the details.

Just before I sent out that last e-mail Kenny, Bejat and I walked 6 km down to the local Waorani village, to Rosita’s Tienda – a tiny black-market convenience store. Because we are in a national park and because everyone has to pass through a military checkpoint in order to get into the area, visitors aren’t allowed to bring alcohol. This law doesn’t apply to the local Waorani though, so Rosa, a young woman in the village has started a very profitable side-business selling beer and other hard to get luxury goods (cookies, soda, candy) to those in the know. It’s not actually all that clandestine – her “tienda” is right on the road and it seems as though the locals are all in the know – mostly it’s just the tourists that don’t know it exists, which is most likely for the best.

To make matters more complicated, the tienda is situated right on the border between Waorani and Quichua territory. I am only starting to understand the political and social dynamics of Amazonian Ecuador. It’s very complicated and big multinational oil companies have played far too large a role I think in shaping the introduction of these extremely isolated groups to western culture. This border between the two indigenous peoples is contested, and I believe that to date the oil companies have found the local Waorani more “helpful” for drilling in this area, thus, the oil companies have built houses and supplied generators, gas, refrigerators, guns and other conveniences to entice a select few Waorani to relocate to this border village. It just so happens that these few were among the most aggressive and militant and are, in essence, holding the border against any influx of the Quichua. I’m still only starting to understand the dynamics of this situation but as near as I can tell tensions flare every once in a while and outsiders are certainly not encouraged in this village. So, it was with all this in mind that we set off for a cold beer after a long several days in the field.

In reality we weren’t putting that much at risk at all. Bejat and Shawn are well known to all of the local Waorani and are well liked because they buy lots of local curios and employ several Waorani from time to time. Don’t worry; the rainforest heat hasn’t yet sufficiently addled my brain such that I would actually risk having to dodge bullets and blowgun darts just for a cold beer. We made it to Rosita’s without a problem. Rosita was in her house at the time which was a bit of a concern because Bejat had to walk off the road a ways to ask her to open the tienda. Bejat gave us her camera to hold and told us to stay on the road and keep our wits about us but it was for naught, Rosita came down to the road trailed by her two daughters, two dogs and a pet spider monkey.

As luck would have it she was out of everything but coca cola, but after our long walk we readily purchased 2 L to share, and so we sat on the steps of the tienda and drank coke out of (who knows how old) plastic cups while watching the pet monkey frolic around us, not wanting to come too close but extremely curious. It was a fun, albeit somewhat surreal hour on the steps sipping coke while Bejat chatted with Rosita. The monkey was really fun to watch, at one point she snuck up and spilled Bejat’s cup of soda all over the floor. The monkey then furtively lapped up the puddles while the two children playfully scolded it. Our trip to the tienda was made a complete success after I found the courage to ask (in miserable Spanish) to purchase two packages of Amors – a glorious packaged cookie that I have recently discovered. They are delicious and disappear all too quickly. I’m told that Rosita inflates her price by about 400% so I can’t wait to get into Quito where I can buy them in bulk! They were worth every penny though.

As we walked back to the station it began to get dark and so we decided, per Bejat’s advice, to take the Wao bus – a free bus service provided by the oil companies to the Woarani in the area. It runs the roads quite frequently and as we saw it pass we stuck out our thumbs and it rattled to a stop next to us. We clambered aboard and were greeted with many friendly (I think) shouts of Gringos! Gringa! Oy! Over and over. It was quite a shock. There wasn’t enough room to sit so Kenny and I stood at the door and attempted not to fall from the rough driving while I tried to decide if the clamor was mostly positive or negative. It’s not always easy to tell – I guess Bejat, Shawn and Kenny were held hostage on a road a little ways from here before I arrived until they paid a “toll.” The entire time their captors smiled while threatening them. Catching rides here is a bit of a trick – hitchhiking is extremely common but on the only ride I caught with Shawn and Bejat the driver was blaring radio FARC. Kenny and I politely decline any rides we are offered whenever we are on the road.

We’ve had a good stretch of finding tortoises and turtles in the last few days. Last Friday we had three in house that to be processed for Shawn’s ongoing survey of local herpetofauna. The tortoise was quite large – easily 15 lbs. I was excited to be introduced to a new “suborder” of turtles – the pleurodira which, instead of retracting their head straight back into the shell as we’re familiar with in North America, bend their neck to the side for protection. It is quite interesting to see and is a trait found in a few turtle species specific to the southern hemisphere – I need to learn more about these guys when Shawn gets back from Quito. Although Cryptodira (the turtles and tortoises that pull their heads straight back into their shell) are much more abundant and widespread worldwide, Kenny was telling me that the side necked trait is ancestral. Cool!

On Friday Bejat left to join Shawn in Quito and so Kenny and I have been on our own for the last few days. We’ve been getting along just fine with the workers and other station residents despite our limited Spanish prowess. Mostly we’ve just been working long hours in the forest dynamics plot. We’ve been struggling to complete the transects over some really difficult terrain, all the while trying to avoid bending even the smallest saplings. It’s been extremely trying, we fall down slippery slopes a lot and are constantly getting torn at by thorny bushes we have to gently push our way through in order to stay on transect. Finally though, after 10km of transect walking we finished the last line yesterday. We were quite relieved to be moving on to the next project.

The rest of our days in Catolica are going to be spent on the trail system trying to create a GPSed map and a highly detailed GIS database of all of the trails and several other features around the station. It’s a big job but walking the trails has been a pleasure after the tough work in the plot. It’s fun too to come back after each outing to upload that day’s points and see the GIS map of points steadily grow.

I’ve been getting lots of reading in and have thoroughly enjoyed sitting out under porches reading in the afternoon rain. It’s hard to believe that I’ve been here over a month and my time is starting to wind down. It’s been an incredible experience. I can’t wait to see my pictures on something larger than the little screen on the back of my camera and then to share them with everyone. Hopefully a few will give you a sense of the things I’ve been seeing here.

I hope you have a fantastic Thanksgiving. Kenny were toying with the idea of trying to explain the holiday to the locals but given our limited Spanish it would no doubt have to be pantomimed and neither of us were too keen on that idea. Still, I’ll be thinking of you all. I’d appreciate it if you ate a bit extra of that canned, jellied cranberry “sauce” that I like so much in my absence. Thank you all for your notes, I’ve enjoyed the updates from back home too!

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