In the 1500s, Tena was settled when the Quichwa population fled the Spanish. The Spanish soon found them, built a church, and named the town. It is now the capital of the Napo province, although it has lost regional power due to the oil boom farther northeast.
When we got down to the river, our guides told us it was too high and not safe to raft. At first we thought they were joking--we´d never considered the possibility. But, soon it became clear they were not and we were grateful they made a professional decision not to put our lives at risk.
Rio Blanco is in the middle of some pretty thick jungle. Wilo, an 18 year old community member, served as our guide throughout the weekend, hanging out with us and explaining the various plants and cultural activities. It´s a good thing Dave and I both speak serviceable Spanish because Wilo does not speak English (although he taught us some Quichwa).
Here´s Dave with Wilo on the hike in, looking very much like the Gentleman Explorer in his collared shirt, khakis, and jungle boots.
Here we are sampling canagria, which is used for bath vapors and to fight diabetes:
Finally, this phallic-looking thing I´m holding is appropriately called the ¨penis of the devil:¨
Here´s the center square slash futbol pitch:
Anyway, our first night we all participated in a ¨cultural exchange¨with the residents of Rio Blanco. They showed us aspects of their culture--mostly music and dance; and then we presented something from ours. The girls sang their alma mater. Dave and I bored them with a short lesson in U.S. politics and the upcoming presidential election (hey, at least it was in Spanish and y´all know we can´t sing).
The coolest part of their presentation was the ¨dance of peace¨which commemorates the end of fighting between the Quichwa and Warani tribes. The crossing of the spears represents peace. Here´s a photo and some video:
On our first morning, we took a hike through the jungle to some waterfalls with Wilo and his younger brother Maximillian who is 11 (at right).
Here I am with Maxi on a bridge on the way:
Here´s me in the water...
...and Dave conquering the falls.
Finally, here´s a shot of us returning to Rio Blanco via canoe:
After dinner on Sunday night we took part in a shamanistic ritual. Wilo´s father Clemente is the village shaman. He drinks the potion on the right, called ayawaska, which causes him to have visions. After he drank and before the potion took effect Dave and I each asked the Shaman for what we wanted from the spirits. I requested good health for my family friends and self; contentment with my life; and good luck for the rest of my travels.
Although I´m not one to believe in evil spirits--or good ones for that matter--I actually had a fairly reflective experience. As the Shaman was brushing the plants over my head, I thought about my relationship to the world and the kind of spirits within me. I quickly concluded that I´m pretty well-situated and that the only negative spirit plaguing me in any significant way right now is self-doubt.
I used to be pretty confident, but also cocky and not very self-aware. As I became more self-aware, experienced up and downs at law school, and had a very tough experience working on the 2004 election, I entered the cruciable of self-doubt for the first time in my life.
Now, perhaps, I was ready to have this doubt whisked away and enter a period of synthesis--emerging less cocky, more self-aware, but confident enough to pursue my dreams aggressively and not be crippled by my self-perceived shortcomings.
So, for the rest of the ritual, I imagined that this self-doubt is what the Shaman was removing. It wasn´t what I asked for in the beginning--but I don´t think that´s too critical. It remains to be seen if I was transformed, but one can hope...
The next morning, I asked Wilo about the relationship between Shamanism and Catholicism in Quichwa culture. He basically said that they are separate but equal beliefs held simultaneously. This doesn´t really make sense to me--it seems that belief in evil spirits is pretty anti-Christian. But, I didn´t get the sense that I was going to be able to explore this fruitfully with our 18 year old guide.
On our final morning in Rio Blanco we visited the community´s school. One room with one teacher houses seven levels of students. Here´s what the school looks like from the outside and the inside:
Finally, here are some of the more adorable shots from in the classroom. Kati (last photo) is very smart and will break some hearts in ten years.
Overall, I´d say Dave and I had a very good experience in Rio Blanco. We didn´t get to see any exotic animals, but we got a genuine cultural experience and I think our money ($40/day) went to the right place. I would definitely recommend the experience--but I also hope to get back into the jungle to see some monkeys and anacondas and shit.