Dateline: Quito, Ecuador
I can’t say I had ever really thought of traveling into the Amazon. All those creepy books and movies about violence and insanity deep inside an unforgiving jungle, spied on by menacing natives just never made it seem all that appealing. But in the past few months, I’ve been dreaming, literally, of the Amazon, so I started researching. The more I learned, the more fascinated I got. In my wanderings through the internet, I happened upon Pachamama Alliance, an organization that is working to provide support for the indigenous peoples in the headwaters of the Amazon as they fight to defend their territories from destruction by oil drilling and mining.
When I read the Pachamama Alliance mission statement, I about jumped out of my skin:
To build an environmentally sustainable, spiritually fulfilling, socially just human presence on the planet
Is that kick ass cool, or what? They are working at just that intersection of conservation and community that so fascinates me: How do we tie the vitality of the local community to the health of the environment so that both can thrive?
And they were advertising for a Writing Intern. It took me about a minute and a half to send in my resume. It doesn’t pay well, but it has been intensely rewarding, and now I get to experience the rainforest and the cultures firsthand. We will visit villages of three different tribes, one high in the Andes and two deep in the rainforest. I am beyond excited. What a privilege to be invited into people’s homes, to participate in their ceremonies, to live, even for a few days, in complete alignment with nature.
Pachamama is the indigenous word for what we would call Mother Nature, but it means more than that. For the peoples of the Amazon, Pachamama encompasses not just Earth, but Space and Time as well. Pachamama is All-That-Is.
One of the tribes we will be visiting, the Achuar, are a dream-based culture. The Achuar don’t differentiate between sleeping consciousness and waking consciousness, between the spirit world and the manifest world. They experience everything as woven together in a single reality. Every morning around 3:00 a.m., they rise, make guayusa tea, and share their dreams. The elder interprets the dreams and they use the interpretation to guide their lives.
That’s how Pachamama Alliance got started. Just over twenty years ago, the different villages of the Achuar started having dreams of a threat from the north. They didn’t know the exact nature of the threat, but they soon discovered that the Ecuadorian government had just leased their territory for oil exploration. They had witnessed the environmental and social devastation that oil drilling brought to neighboring tribes, so they decided to defend themselves, and the rainforest itself, from the invasion. First they banded their own villages together, then they created an alliance with the neighboring tribes whose territories were being threatened as well.
Quickly they came to realize that they needed to understand how to deal with the Ecuadorian government and international corporations, so they started “dreaming into” people in the modern world to come to support them. Soon the three co-founders of Pachamama Alliance found themselves sitting with the Achuar deep inside the rainforest. What they heard and experienced so inspired them, they agreed to provide expertise and resources to support the tribes in defense of their lands and their culture. For twenty years now the tribes have successfully fended off continual attempts at oil exploration and mining, but the pressures are building, and hard-won legislative assurances of sovereignty are being violated by the Ecuadorian government in need of servicing its international debt.
So here I am, at a simple hotel in Quito. My single, 23 pound, waterproof duffle bag is packed for both for snow in the Andes and rain in the jungle. We leave in the morning to drive to the first village at 11,000 feet, then we will fly to a dirt airstrip in the still-roadless rainforest to visit the next two. We are bringing food and fresh water with us, as to not be too much of a burden on the people’s own food supply and to minimize our impact on the forest we are working to protect.
I am trying not to have too many expectations, to allow the experience to be whatever it will be, as I learned to do in Madagascar. But after Madagascar, where the environment has been destroyed and the cultures that depended on it have been devastated, I have to admit to hoping that the pristine, primal Amazon jungle will still be alive and vibrant, revered by the indigenous peoples who are fighting to protect it.