Devil ants

Little bastards

One day, volunteers were put to work ripping down an old, traditional Shuar house. A round structure covered in palm fronds with a cooking fire in the center. Half the house had collapsed, so we salvaged the large timbers and burned the rotting roof.

This did not go well with a colony of biting ants who had since been living in the decomposing mess.

As we tackled the palm roof, they tackled us, biting and biting and biting. Devil ants in your rubber boots is not a pleasant sensation.

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Sacred waters


The Shuar consider waterfalls in their community a source power and respect them deeply. Here, Sebastian, one of the volunteer guides, has a moment of quiet with a waterfall deep in the jungle, after the volunteers finished goofing off.

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Primary forest, sustainable life cycle

Old growth

At Arutam, the Shuar community where I worked, the villagers are responsible for a couple thousand hectares of Amazon, allotted to them by the government. Their model, with the hands and dollars of ecotourists and paying volunteers (me), is to develop a small portion of the forest — cutting for banana plantations and fish ponds and whatnot — while keeping pressure off the remaining primary forest.

The above photo shows a tree reaching into the upper jungle canopy. The tree, by the estimates of our guides, could be 200 years old. In the present model, it’s protected because of, not in spite of, the community clearing land nearer the road and their homes for agriculture and aquaculture.

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Plantas de la selva: Vol. 1

Necesito un libre bontanico

There will be lots of these pictures, of flowers from the jungle, whose name Spanish or English name the local community doesn’t know. Hell, some of them don’t even have Shuar names.

But I’ve photographed them and will wait for word from a botanist, if one is reading.

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Leopard skins and dancing shoes

Shuar dance party

Well, maybe a lack of dancing shoes.

Every Wednesday en la selva is family dinner night. The community cooks a traditional meal of fish, palm hearts and yucca. And then we dance the night away to Shuar music.

Admittedly, there’s only a couple songs on repeat, and the steps — particularly for women who really only do a modified bunny hop — get old quick.

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Shuar warriors

Warrior pose

During the three weeks I volunteered in the Ecuadorian Amazon, or “en la selva,” I lived in a Shuar community caught between traditional practices and modernization. Meet our volunteer director, Enrique Vargas, a 23-year-old who is studied in traditional ways, drips machismo and wants, in male Shuar fashion, multiple wives.

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Hola de Ecuador


So I’ve run out of pictures from the times in the U.K. And while the blog sputters a bit, enjoy my Shuar guide Enrique painting my face.

I’m on the coast now enjoying lazy days of seafood and diving. Galapagos in a little more than a week.

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Ecuador or bust


As many of you know, I’m headed to Ecuador now for a couple months for volunteering with some conservation and community development programs in the Amazon. I’ll mostly be disconnected and that’s definitely bittersweet.

But my project is 50 kilometers from the nearest place to use the Internet. And I’ll actually have full-time work on which to focus.

This blog will sputter a bit on auto pilot as a result. For a while, you’ll be treated to a daily photo of street food from Thailand. Eventually, I’ll power down. My Twitter account is likely to stay updated more, but even a mobile connection will be questionable.

I will post more regularly when I can, but I expect that won’t be until late August at the earliest.

Viva Ecuador.

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Of masks and swords

Lopen's famous masks cast from mud

The highlight of my student’s cultural program early last month was a performance of the traditional Buddhist Mahakala chaam dance. I had seen the boys practicing but had no idea how elaborate the costumes and show would be.

Also known as the “Dance of Drinking of Blood,” the Mahakala is performed to eliminate obstacles in the Buddhist path.

The dance circle

More photos below.

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Starting the day

Morning prayers

Each school day starts with an assembly of Buddhist prayers and a recitation of India’s national anthem, Jana Gana Mana.

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