Jungle roofing

Evil leaves

One of the heaviest days of work for our volunteers involved hauling and collecting leaves from the jungle. These leaves, which resemble palm fronds, were bundled in masse for roofing for a new traditional hut.

Much of the construction material used by the Shuar community comes from its reserve and this is no different. Local materials, locally harvested sounds more sustainable.

The “rope” used to bind the bundles of leaves is actually the husk of young plant stems. See below.

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Life in even the smallest streams

My little buddy whose name we can't spell

Meat my favorite Shuar boy, a four-year-old named Sing Sang or Thing Thang or Tsing Tsang. Blame the uncertainty on my poor Spanish and inability to understand his accent.

Sing Sang accompanied us on trips occasionally to the jungle alongside his father Jaime. He was energetic little scamp here fishing for river shrimp and crabs in a tiny stream.

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Plantas de la selva: Vol. 12

High, high above the forest

Palms in the Oriente are some of the most useful trees for the Shuar community.

Palms of varying types are used at different stages of their growth: Seeds are actually collected for planting as well as for jewelry and crafts. Leaves are used for covering and roofs. Palm heart — an incredibly tasty but not so sustainable produce — is collected from some trees for food. The roots harbor all manner of insects for eating. And the hardwood of a full-grown tree is precious and durable.

As volunteers, we spend several afternoons gathering their seeds and then dispersing them on to open fields.

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Graduation day

Rite of passage: Finishing elementary school

Arutam’s school caters to a handful of village children, staffed both by Domingo Vargas, one of the older Shuar brothers, as well as volunteers. At the end of the semester, the school celebrated a graduation of sorts before a holiday. Parents and children attended, and Domingo read aloud the accomplishments of each child.

Edgar, above, who will next year attend the government school, was cause for particular celebration. Education levels are abysmal in parts of rural Ecuador, like much of the rest of the developing world. His graduation and chance at higher education is a big deal. Such an accomplishment has replaced old Shuar rights of passage, and it is a happy occasion worthy of donning traditional clothing.

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Mira! Hay perrito cansado! (Look, there is a tired puppy!)

My favorite Shuar dog

There are various communal dogs that roam about the Arutam village. More than a few would come with us into the jungle daily for work. Or for screwing about while we worked. Or for nearly getting killed by falling trees, swinging machetes and poisonous snakes, while we worked.

This one was, in my opinion, the cutest of the Arutam dogs. Though this was debated by various volunteers.

The photo was perfect for my ongoing tribute to street dogs.

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Orchids of the Oriente

Succulent

Wild orchids are in abundance here. They’re beautiful and diverse and even odd. Here are couple of the most common, and also most accessible. Many also grow far higher up the canopy. Of course, as beautiful as they are, more than a few have been felled by a volunteer’s machete. We’re conserving crucial parts of the forest and working in subsistence agriculture for a poor community, which sometimes takes precedence over pretty flowers.

Hairy

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Grubbing about

Dirt is good

This little guy, unfortunately captive, is the absolutely adorable pet of one of the members of the Arutam Shuar community. He was allegedly found in the forest and is being reared into strength before he is released again.

He is however, pretty much domesticated, climbing on humans and following them as they work. Makes me doubtful he’d ever be wild again.

In Spanish, he is officially a cuchucho, a typical animal found in the Oriente, Ecuador’s Amazon basin. He is rather fun to watch, as he digs about for grubs and insects. Note: His claws are exceptionally sharp, as I found out when I got too close while he was mid-grub.

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A run-in with a poisonous grasshopper

Tranquilo, little buddy!

This little guy is, at the moment of this photo, climbing my shirt. And, according to Enrique, our volunteer leader, he is rather poisonous.

We were cutting scrub in a plantain garden when we stumbled upon him. Enrique asked if anyone would like to have him climb aboard. It was only when he had climbed my shirt, my shoulder and perched on the back of my neck that Enrique became worried. Apparently, if he became to agitated, I was in trouble.

“Tranquilo, tranquilo!” Enrique kept shouting at me. It took several minutes more for Enrique to tease the angry grasshopper — which when spread out was about the size of my fist — off me.

Good times.

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Jungle fruit provides chocolate surprise

Tasty

Cacao fruit harvested and eaten fresh in the jungle. Fantastic, fantastic end to a sweaty morning of machete work on a jungle trail.

The gooey part tastes like chocolate and we simply spit out the seeds. Below, you can see Sebastian, one of our Shuar guides, who climbed a tree to pluck a few for us.

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One-year anniversary of kissing the old life goodbye

I still don't know the name of that fruit

It’s been a year to the day since I officially started My Backpacking Life and hopped an international flight from Chicago. I’ve been on five different continents since then, produced a small amount of reporting, bummed about working when I could, volunteered as a teacher in rural India and a conservationist in rural Ecuador and smiled too much for my own good.

I encountered the limits of freelance journalism and discovered that I don’t have the hustle necessary to pay the bills that way. I also learned that I want to play a more active role in helping the planet and its huddled poor. I’m ready to take off the neutral observer hat and put the gloves of a fighter (even if it means going to graduate school).

I became what amounts to a dual citizen of both the U.S. and India. I’m moving back to Delhi for another extended (indefinite?) stay in a few weeks.

I learned to dive, fell in love with the sport and became obsessed with the oceans. I can’t now foresee a future where I’m not diving regularly. I learned how much I love sea turtles.

I’ve taken more than 16,000 photos.

I lost more than 52 kilograms (about 115 pounds). I had become incredibly overweight and was eating and drinking myself to death. Now, I’m vegetarian and only occasionally go near alcohol. I jog and am seriously contemplating running a half-marathon yet this year.

That’s not to say I don’t miss people and places and things from my old life. I have many fond memories and no real regrets.

But in the photo above, I am tired, sweaty, muddy, smelly and sucking on the remainder of a strange jungle fruit in the Ecuadoran Amazon. I’m also immensely happy with that new me.

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