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What It Takes...
To Be a Jungle Apprentice
Log-busting, monkey-chasing, blowgun-shooting, would-be love slave Jim de la Selva learns what it takes to survive the Amazon. By Jim Thornton


Photo: Jim Thornton joins the Huarani Indians on a monkey hunt
WELCOME TO THE JUNGLE: The author (uh, he's the bald guy wearing a shirt) joins the Huaorani Indians—from left, Bay, Vipo, and Ahua—on a monkey hunt near the remote village of Sandoval. The men shoulder handmade blowguns.

The fallen capirona tree stretches 20 yards (27 meters) from one muddy bank of the Shiripuno River to the other. There's no way we can navigate the jumbo-size dugout over, under, or around the trunk. Our 19-year-old guide, Stalin Armijos, barefoot in green gym shorts, consults with his brother Javier, 21, then grabs the chain saw.

Stalin, who resembles a five-foot-three (1.6-meter) Indian version of Tom Cruise, wobbles his way with the heavy saw out onto the sinewy, purple flesh of the capirona's one-meter trunk. Balancing precariously, he yanks the starter cord a half dozen times before the engine catches, sputtering blue smoke and mad racket into the primeval world. The saw blade bites into the hardwood and spits out yellow sawdust and rivulets of foul-smelling sap the color of blood.

Thanks to an unseasonable lack of rain, the Shiripuno River, one of the many tributaries that ultimately feed the Amazon, is unusually low for December. This has exposed hundreds of trees felled from the muddy banks by years of flash flooding and natural erosion. When we first began this trek downriver two days ago, I had no idea why our guides would bring a chain saw into virgin rain forest. This seemed to me at the time ecologically insensitive at best. Now I know. Portaging a 40-foot (12-meter) canoe laden with 700 pounds (318 kilograms) of gasoline and a mountain of gear would be impossible even if the palm-clogged river bluffs did provide a foothold—which, for the most part, they don't.

The only way through an obstacle like this capirona is to sink it. The barefoot lumberjacking process follows a predictable course, which has been repeated now on a dozen different fallen trees by the unflappable Stalin, Javier, and their buddy Juan Duarte, 23, a half-Quechua cook and chess enthusiast from the jungle oil town of Coca. The son of professors and a student of Amazon biology, Juan owns the dugout and its Johnson outboard motor.

To submerge the capirona enough for the dugout to float over it, Stalin first cuts as deep a gouge into the felled trunk as the chain saw will allow, until the engine freezes and the blade gets stuck. Second, Javier takes his machete and whacks away, barefoot and frenzied, in an effort to free the blade. Third, Juan uses his own machete to fashion a hardwood stake, and the three men take turns hammering this with rocks into the tree wound in an effort to lever out the chain saw.

Each time thus far, they've miraculously managed to avoid amputation and free the saw before repeating the whole process over and over again until enough of the huge trunk has been penetrated that the wood starts cracking. When the splintering sounds yet again, it's the signal for the two paying guests on this journey, me and my journalistic colleague, Corsican-American photographer Olivier Laude, to do our part. With Olivier and Juan positioned on one side of the cut line, and Stalin, Javier, and me on the other, we bounce in unison on a count of uno-dos-tres until the massive trunk finally breaks apart enough to partially submerge in the swift-running waters below.

Javier revs the outboard to full throttle, the canoe lurches forward, and the hull shears its way over a section of capirona trunk that's now suspended eight inches (20 centimeters) below the current. Somehow, the vessel survives intact, and it's back to cruising the snaky waterway.

Our ultimate destination is Sandoval, the ancestral village home of the Huaorani Indian tribe, impossibly deep in the Ecuadorian Amazon. For decades, the tribe has struggled against the dual threats of Christian missionaries and big oil. Now, they're hoping that the sort of tourism Olivier and I have signed on for may bolster the effort to protect their way of life. Under ideal conditions, Sandoval remains days away. But given our torturous progress so far, it's hard to believe we'll ever reach it.

Going to the jungle has been my dream since childhood. As kids growing up in the 1950s, my twin brother, John, and I awoke early on Saturdays to watch Bwana Don's Safari show on local TV. The host, in khaki suit and pith helmet, introduced Pittsburgh youth to the wonders of rain forest life as lived by the likes of Johnny Weissmuller and Frank "Bring 'Em Back Alive" Buck. Three hours of TV viewing later, John and I would go outside with our dog and spend the rest of the day painting our faces with wild berries, shearing sumac poles into spears, and Tarzan-yelling in the remote sylvan acreage that surrounded our boyhood home in the Sewickley sticks. Every garter snake we saw was a python; every flying squirrel a leopard pouncing; every cough or sneeze a symptom of malaria, that most romantic of tropical diseases we so longed to suffer, at least during the school year.

Our first real chance to make it to the jungle was the Vietnam War, which I admit dampened our enthusiasm considerably. With student deferments and a 256 lottery number, we ultimately missed out on touring the jungles of Southeast Asia. After college, I had planned to try for a Ph.D. in evolutionary biology, then land a job doing fieldwork somewhere in the tropics, preferably near a beach where I could also do some surfing.

Instead, by my late 20s, I was teaching at an elementary school in South Florida, in the process acquiring a duplex one mile (1.6 kilometers) west of the Intracoastal Waterway. Thanks to a congenital lack of yard skills, the property soon became an unruly tangle of scheffleras, ficus, and palmettos—an eyesore to my neighbors, a battery of code violations to municipal authorities, a tiny plot of jungle paradise to me.

Life ground on, debts accrued, responsibilities mounted, and somehow throughout it all the dream of making it to a real jungle faded—until, that is, Olivier called me about the possibility of going to Ecuador. His contacts at a Quito-based sustainable-tourism foundation, he said, could arrange for us to ride a dugout down the Shiripuno and Cononaco Rivers to visit a remote Huaorani settlement. The foundation's president, Marianna Acosta, had called this tribe one of the most anthropologically unspoiled human groups in the Amazon basin.

Acosta, he told me, began her nonprofit organization Imagenes para un Nuevo Mundo (Visions for a New World) with the goal of saving the rain forest and its native peoples from exploitation by oil, mining, and timber interests, agriculture, and the like. Even in good years, the Huaorani barely eke out a living on their land. The dollars generated by limited ecotourism excursions, Acosta reasoned, could provide them with a viable alternative to trading away their land rights just to survive. Ecotourists with the stamina to make the arduous trek to villages like Sandoval receive in the bargain an adventure trip of a lifetime. The Huaorani, for their part, invariably send back to the modern world diehard converts to their cause.

"So," Olivier asked, "Would you like to come and write about what we find?"

Would I? What Bwana Don-watching, Vietnam War-dodging, jungle fantasist could possibly resist such an invitation to plug, in one fell swoop, the gaping missed opportunities of youth?

Six months later, my bloodstream flush with antidotes to yellow fever, malaria, and hepatitis A, and my body outfitted in jungle wear ridiculously reminiscent of my TV role models, I boarded a plane to Ecuador.

El Oriente is the name Ecuadorians have given to their nation's vast stretch of selva, or rain forest, on the eastern side of the Andes mountains. We arrived in Coca, an oil hub and El Oriente's main town, in late November after an all-night drive from Quito, in the process descending some 8,500 feet (2,590 meters) through spectacular cloud forests to the jungle plain that I took to thinking of as Selva Lite—that is, once-virgin rain forest now mostly deforested by impoverished squatter colonists who moved in the moment the oil companies built the road. Paralleling us along every twist was a one-foot-diameter oil pipeline raised off the shoulder like an explosive guardrail—which, in fact, it has regularly functioned as throughout the increasingly polluted Oriente.

In the week before our expedition to Sandoval was set to begin, several Ecuadorian military officers—friends of Marianna Acosta—had graciously agreed to show us the basics of jungle survival. Olivier and I learned, among other skills I hoped to never actually use, how to chum a fishing lagoon with termites and differentiate vines that leak pure drinking water from those that drip with poison. In between such lessons, we spent time accompanying a squadron of military recruits on patrol for the FARC, or Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia. This 17,000-man force of Marxist guerrillas-turned-narcocapitalists is the largest rebel army in Latin America and a growing nightmare for Colombia's neighbors.

At breakfast on our final morning before departing for Sandoval, a lieutenant colonel and a captain joked in broken English about the prospects for our upcoming excursion, which would wend deep into Yasuní National Park and far from any possibility of military protection.

"The principal thing ees thees," said the lieutenant colonel in a heavily accented deadpan. "Do you have insurance?"

Pick up the October issue to tag along with Jim de la Selva on his jungle adventure, and to read the other amazing stories in this month's What It Takes cover article.


Photograph courtesy of Olivier Laude


Additional Excerpts
From the print edition, October 2004

What It Takes: The best dream adventures you can make happen—today
- To be a jungle apprentice
Welcome to the Neighborhood: Can mountain lions and mountain bikers get along?
Secrets of the Black Hills: Granite towers, sunken caves, and singletrack abound
Pelton's World: Five things travel guidebooks never tell you


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Related Web Sites

Photo Gallery: Welcome to the Jungle
Contributing Editor Jim Thornton and photographer Olivier Laude take us inside their amazing Amazon eco-tour with outtakes from the trip.

Tropic Ecological Adventures
Hike the selva with a Huaorani guide and pole down the Shiripuno in a dugout canoe, spotting caimans and sloths along the way.



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October 2004



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