Groomed by Nacho and whipped by a shaman.

“How about we go to Papallacta, the town in the mountains near Quito rumored to have the best hot springs in the country, relax, email, and write about our jungle trip?”

Good plan, except this place is so bloomin’ beautiful I could rant and rave about it for a week, easy. (Plus the power tends to go out, delaying this post.) Laying back in any of the several pools (or the grotto!), weightless and wrapped in heat…divine. I enjoy wearing a bathing suit to church.

In the warm water you can just see the marks on K’s back from the whipping…

Day Three in the jungle began (after breakfast of course, what are we, savages?) on the river, spotting pink dolphins, toucans, and weary tourists. At one point we smelled the large dead caiman rumored to be in the area, but couldn’t find it.

We were headed to one of the local villages of the Siona people for something of a Meet and Eat, shamans and yucca bread, respectively, but roared up to find a deserted village. One of the local shamans, extremely respected and important people, had died a few days before, and everyone was at the burial taking place just upriver.

Woolly MonkeyWell, not entirely deserted. Nacho came running up, although “running” isn’t quite the right word for the motion of basically four hands and a tail, somehow clumsy and graceful at the same time.

Someone killed, and ate, his parents (woolly monkey meat is supposed to be quite tasty), but Nacho became part of the village, wandering around with his goofy monkey knuckles, thumbs on his hind feet, and amazing prehensile tail with its thick leathery pad. He hung from laundry lines, danced in trees overhead, and happily engaged in grooming behavior with anyone, giving or receiving (when receiving he sprawls on his back, totally limp and blissful).

While we waited, Jairo brought out a blowgun (made from the core of a palm tree wrapped in black duct tape), still used to hunt bush meat, using poison from the poison dart frogs (the “ruby“ one was my favorite) who excrete it from their backs when threatened. One session of annoying a tiny frog and rolling darts on its back produces enough poison to kill multiple animals.

We took turns shooting (unpoisoned) darts at a small spiky fruit, while Jairo painted on a couple of our faces with the red juice of its small pomegranate-like seeds.

Nacho’s incredibly dexterous tail and hangs seem to automatically reach up and grip things, and he ended up hanging from the blowgun several times, until our boat driver mentioned that he might break it.

Oh, by the way, our driver, a super friendly young man named Juan, spent the whole week driving us around, morning, noon, and night, spotting animals, and waiting hours while we tromped through the bush. And the whole time he was sick as a dog. Fever, chills, headache, body ache, nausea, the works. Not a word of complaint (I only found out via intercepted quick Spanish comments with Jairo, who didn’t seem to want us to know).

Pygmy MarmosetWe heard a chirping sound like a hummingbird, and a tiny handful of animal came galloping up to me, then up me, climbing my pant-leg, shirt, and onto my shoulder with quick grips of its tiny claws. There was a pygmy marmoset riding on my shoulder.

They are the world’s smallest (true) monkeys, and feed on the sweet sap of certain trees, which they get flowing with little pygmy nibbles of their little pygmy teeth. They live in groups in a territory of a tree or two, which they eventually deplete and move on. His wee head darted around like a bird’s the whole time, though he seemed pretty darn relaxed exploring us.

We were pleased as peaches with the pygmy marmoset, but eventually it was yucca time, ostensibly “helping” the impressively efficient woman who peeled the root with precise machete chops, shredded it on metal sheets with jagged holes in it (like the annoying back side of your cheese grater whose only purpose is ruining sponges), squeezed all the juice out with a woven rope net, then cooked the yucca into a sort of tortilla, which we ate with tuna or pineapple jam. (Pygmy marmosets apparently also enjoy pineapple jam.)

The bread tasted like the dusty stuff at the bottom of a bag of shredded wheat (unfrosted of course), packed into a dry pancake that resembled cardboard more than anything in your kitchen. It was good, but I can’t honestly say I would welcome a diet that features it so heavily (it is the primary food source for the villages in this area).

Saying goodbye to Nacho, which was difficult for everyone (including the monkey, who made a last-minute sprint to try and climb into our boat) we headed downstream to where a shaman had agreed to talk to us.

I was a little uneasy about meeting the shaman, fearing it would be one of those abhorrent cases of cultural exploitation verging on mockery. “Okay, native-type-person, put on something ‘tribal’ and do a little dance for us tourists so we can take your picture. And look noble.” Face paint in the market. Eagle feather headdresses in the roadside attraction. Culture turned into advertising for a product that is diminished with every performance.

Sally told us a story of her sister arriving with a tour in a village in Africa half an hour early, and all the startled inhabitants jumping up to run home and change out of their jeans and T-shirts into “tribal dress.” But Jairo reassured us that the shaman here would be wearing what he always wears, and it would basically be a Question & Answer between us, then he would demonstrate a basic ritual, using one of us as a volunteer.

We met shaman Raul in one of the thatched-roof huts, and I immediately felt reassured. Here was a genuinely kind man, supremely and comfortably dignified, wearing the outfit he designed himself through ayahuasca-inspired visions, who was happy to share his time and information with us. Excellent.

He told us how, when, and why one becomes a shaman in the Siona culture, and about his own initiation, in enough detail to be interesting and informative while clearly keeping his own secrets. Perfect. K, the consummate vegetarian, got to ask how they feel about eating animals given their respect for the animal spirits. (The spirits check to see if the community and the shaman are in harmony, and if they are, the animals are happy to join with them. Bush meat is a significant part of the diet, along with yucca bread.)

Then it was time for the ritual. We had all looked at the nasty-looking clipping of nettles on the table, and I had investigated enough to find that brushing it didn’t hurt as much as the nettles I was used to, but even a slight prick of the skin stung in that familiar way (I have something of a torrid past with stinging nettles).

I was ready to volunteer in order to give you guys something to read about, but K’s eyes shone with desire to do it (and I wasn’t really that keen anyway). She took a seat in front of Raul, who began a chant of preparation through which he tunes into the patient’s aura, like a diagnosis. Then it was the nettles, swept across her back, gently, but enough to leave the skin shining red and covered with small welts. Apparently K is either genetically superior to me or tough as nails, because when asked if it hurt she replied with a shrug “un poco.”