Nomadic Life: From the Amazon to the Atlantic

Day 1

Leaving Manaus on the morning of December 23, 2015, was not at all what I thought it would be. It’s midnight and I’m sitting on the top deck of the Amazon Star, the boat that will take me to Belém, thinking about how I was robbed last night. Just a few metres away from the hostel, two  men on a motorbike assaulted me and two other friends. It all happened so fast, and although my instict told me to run, the gun the thief had in his pants forced me to eventually allow him to rip my bag off my shoulder.

AmazonStar 3I tell myself it was a life lesson, I tell myself now I know better than to go out carrying things I won’t need, specially at night; as I try to forget all the things I had in my bag–sunglasses, two small note pads, a lock, a USB stick, my phone–I tell myself it could’ve been so much worse. But I’d had a long day and I wasn’t thinking clearly, and being so close to Christmas, the robbery shouldn’t have surprised me. People, desperate to bring presents home, go out in search of easy prey on dark nights in the city centre. I try to forget the robbery by looking up at the black sky of the Amazon.

Despite getting onboard at 7:30 am, there were only a few spaces left; I had to hang my hammock up in the middle of the crowded deck, surrounded by rows and rows of hammocks on either side. I think about how I could not only have a better spot but could have avoided the robbery had I slept on the boat the night before sailing. I know it’s useless to think about all the things I could have done differently to avoid the robbery, or my discomfort on the boat, but I can’t help replaying it all in my head in the darkness of the night.

The lights are still on when I go back down to the middle deck, which is so full of hammocks and luggage, I had to crawl under the sleeping passengers just to get out of my hammock. There are so many people, every movement triggers a tremour that shakes the intertwined hammocks, feet and heads dangerously close regardless of what position you choose. AmazonStar 19

While some people sleep, others read their Bibles and sing Christmas songs; I’m sure it’s hard for them to be stuck aboard a ship over the holidays, so they try to invoke a sense of normalcy during the long journey along the Amazon River. I still have hope that at least some people will disembark at the ports along the way, although I’m preparing myself for the very real possibility of being stuck among the crowds until I reach Belém, a city on the shores of the mouth of the great river.

Day 2

Most of the lights were switched off at 2 am, and past 7 am, they haven’t been turned on despite the darkness on deck, caused partly by the dim, grey sky (or is it smoke again?) and partly by the towels that hang from the ceiling, covering the windows, filtering the little light that comes in. Someone walked around, ringing a bell, just before 6 am to announce the start of the day.

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After a shower, I go into the dining room on my level and buy the big breakfast: for $10 Reales, I get juice, milk coffee, bread, ham, cheese, a fried egg, and a selection of fruit. There’s another breakfast for $5 Reales, which is just bread, milk coffee, and some sort of rice pudding. Sitting at one of the five blue tables in the room, I realise I’m the only person having the $10 Real breakfast; other than two couples who are sharing it, everyone else is smothering butter on their $5 Real piece of bread, hoping to make it more substancial.

We make our first stop in the port of Parintins, but only a few passengers disembarked. The day is cold (well, tropical cold) and the sky is completely white, contrasting sharply with the chocolate coloured waters of the Amazon. Lying between the bright hammocks that hang over the floor, which is already littered with garbage, I listen to snoring, crying, singing; I’m invaded by the smell of smoke that comes from the jungle; I keep reading until I fall asleep for the first nap of the day. As I fall asleep, I think about how different my trip aboard the Itaberaba, from Tabatinga to Manaus, was, more than two months ago already.

AmazonStar 13People’s excited voices and the silence of the engines woke me up from my nap. We made a quick stop at the port of Juruti, where I finally see blue skies, free of smoke. Wanting a change of atmosphere, I go upstairs to the top deck where there’s a completely different feeling to the relative silence downstairs: upstairs, where the sun and the warm breeze are strong, there’s music and people are having animated conversations, most of them drinking beers, taking selfies, enjoying the landscape and the journey. But there are so many people I can’t find a chair, so I sit on the floor and look out at the beaches and the dry trees of the jungle. It’s the same landscape I saw from the Itaberaba, although the vegetation isn’t as thick and trees are smaller and further apart, at least near the shore.

After a short but heavy rain, we stop at Obidos, in the state of Para, where there are little yellow school boats moored by the shore, one of my favourite sights so far. There are fireworks at sunset, probably to celebrate Christmas. With the air conditioning switched off and the windows open, it’s unbearably hot in the hammocks, and I’m still praying people will disembark in Santarem to spend the holidays with their families.

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I was relieved to see a lot of people were getting off at Santarem when we arrived just after 8 pm. Although I left my hammock in the same spot, I can stretch diagonally now without bumping into feet, elbows or heads, and I can even get out without crawling under everyone else. This is specially good news because I heard we’re spending the night at port.

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Day 3

My happiness and comfort of stretching out was short-lived; dozens of passengers going to Belem got on the boat in the morning, although there aren’t as many people as that first day we left Manaus. I also found out they sell hot ham and cheese sandwiches in the little cafeteria on the top deck, which would have been a much better option for last night’s dinner, since I bought (and couldn’t finish eating) a huge plate of meat, rice, pasta, and farinha.

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We left Santarem at around noon, and I saw a beautifully unexpected surprise: another meeting of the waters as spectacular as the one near Manaus. The waters here are turquoise and chocolate, and their dance creates a dividing line that contrasts against the green jungle that surrounds the river. My hope to see Alter do Chão now, instead of waiting until I return in nearly two years, intensified and then evaporated with our departure.

A few hours later, talking to a group of women who were tweezing each other’s hairs and popping each other’s pimples on the top deck, I hear we’re not arriving in Belem tomorrow as I expected, but early the following morning. This means spending one more aboard the Amazon Star. To deal with this new information, I drink beer. AmazonStar 23

Sitting there with a cold beer, trying to follow the women’s quick conversations in Portuguese, I notice the river here is much wider than before, giving meaning to its reputation as the widest in the world, even during the dry season which has exposed the riverbanks and beaches of the Amazon. After drinking too many beers, bought by a man trying to conquer one of the women I’m talking to, I finally go downstairs to eat and sleep.

AmazonStar 25Day 4

A lot of people boarded at Monte Alegre, filling up the boat even more than the first day we left Manaus. My anxiety over our arrival is only worsening with the claustrophobia. I slept crammed between the other hammocks, which are so close together it’s impossible to move without bumping into someone, or staying still without my neighbour crashing into me. We’re all on top of each other, and even the hallways are occupied with the hammocks and luggage of all the passengers who boarded over night.

When I wake up from a long nap in the afternoon, I look out the window and see the jungle. I know I’ve been travelling through the Amazon for over two months, but this is the first time I actually see the jungle in Brasil just as you would imagine it: thick, lush, green, vibrant vegetation hanging over the river. We sail by small communities who live in wooden houses that are barely visible behind the coconut trees and mangroves. The indigenous people approach the boat in their small canoes, waiting for the passengers to throw bags of food and clothes into the river. Under the strong sun and the blue sky, we slowly make our way through the narrow channel that gives us respite from the monotony of the last few days. I feel that, although I left the state of Amazonas behind, I only just arrived in the jungle.

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We make one last stop over night at the port of Breves and my anxiety hits its peak; I’m desperate to sleep far away from the girls who move my hammock all day and the man who snores all night; tired of the filthy bathrooms and crawling on the grimy floor; done with the R$5 beers and seeing the same curious faces that stare all day; I need to get off this vessel.

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Day 5

Unable to sleep among the crowd, I spend the last night awake, watching the sky as it goes from a deep black to a soft purple and eventually a bright blue. I see Belem in the distance, bathed in the light of sunrise, surrounded by AmazonStar 27clouds. The size of the city surprises me; the tall buildings by the river, the clean, modern port. I arrive at the hostel to eat and sleep and recover from this journey which ended up being much harder than I imagined, but also made arriving in this new city all the more satisfying.

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Presidente Figueiredo, Amazonas

Presidente Figueiredo is a small city of just over 30,000 people, located around 100 km north of Manaus, the state capital of Amazonas. It is surrounded by tropical waterfalls that spring from deep within the jungle and are perfect to cool down the hot days of the Amazon rainforest.

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Ubicada a unos 100 km al norte de Manaus, la capital del estado de Amazonas, Presidente Figueiredo es una pequeña ciudad con un poco más de 30,000 habitantes,  rodeada por cascadas tropicales que brotan entre la selva y se prestan para refrescar los días calientes del Amazonas.

Urubui

Cachoeira Orquídea

Cachoeira Natal

Travel / Viajes – 2015-20162011-2014

Stories That Cross Boundaries: Leticia to Manaus

I like to live in a world without boundaries, and tell stories that follow that philosophy; I should live like that, too. So here are photographs of my journey over the Amazon River, from Leticia, in Colombia, to Manaus, in Brazil.

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Me gusta vivir en un mundo sin fronteras, y contar historias que siguen esa filosofía; debo vivir de la misma manera, también. Así que aquí están las fotografías de mi viaje por el río Amazonas, de Leticia, en Colombia, a Manaus, en Brasil.

Leticia, Colombia
Itaberaba I – Tabatinga – Manaus, Brasil
Manaus, Brasil
Travel / Viajes – 20152011-2014

Nomadic Life: Travelling to Manaus, Gateway to the Amazon

DSCN0192Day 1

DSCN0309From the deck of the Itaberaba I, the boat that will take us from Tabatinga to Manaus, we watch the sun set behind the river in a scandalous show of red lights that break through the few clouds that dare cross it. The sunlight shines on the colourful hammocks that adorn the decks and sway with the breeze and the movements of the boat. The moon smiles at the river as the Brazilian flag waves proudly, displaying its motto—Order and Progress—and we say goodbye to the Colombian border.

By now we’ve eaten a pork rib and pasta stew and, exhausted from waiting in the afternoon heat, we enjoy the view of the low embankments of the Amazon from our hammocks, a view that is somehow monotonous but never boring. It seems impossible that we’re finally here, eating a cupuaçu popsicle, which might not be in harvest in Colombia but seems to be in harvest in Brazil; as we savour the sweet taste of this Amazonian fruit, we sail away from the Brazilian port.

Our departure from Tabatinga was delayed, which isn’t surprising in such a hot, humid place. We finally left after being searched by Brazil’s Federal Police, who look for all types of contraband that can be smuggled over the borders. Shortly after setting sail, they stop us again, forcing us to wait nearly an hour while they thoroughly search the boat.

DSCN0256We prepare ourselves for the night with flashlights and sleeping bags, long pants and playing cards; in our hammocks, with the lights out, we anxiously wait for morning and what our first full day on board the Itaberaba will bring; I close my eyes thinking about the ports we will see on the way. But despite being so tired, it’s hard to fall asleep knowing we’re sailing along this great river of dark waters, watching the jungle fade into a silhouette that disappears as it melds into the blackness of the sky.

Day 2

Our sleep was interrupted by the ship’s horn which noisily announced our first stop at port. After waiting for what seemed like an eternity, we finally continue our journey to the south-east. The night is cold but the locals sleep with bare arms and legs while we shiver, wrapped in blankets and sleeping bags.

Dawn quickly reveals the grey silhouette of the jungle as it appears beneath the heavy mist that covers the river and the sky at sunrise; in the early morning, only the trees are visible while the rest of the universe is covered by a thick white blanket. The day begins with loud bells and bright lights, and the sun, just as red and strong as it was at sunset, shines on the river from 6am. We have breakfast—a very sweet milk coffee and small ham and cheese sliders—and get ready for the next 24 hours on board.
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At 10 in the morning, when the temperature has risen drastically and we’ve had time to wash some clothes and organise our luggage, which we strap in a mound between our hammocks, we get another visit from the Federal Police. They check our passports and react with surprise and admiration when they learn we’re in Brazil as temporary residents, with a permit to stay in the country for two years.

DSCN0210We stop by several ports on the way, like São Francisco de Assis, a community built on the banks of the river, dotted with colourful little houses made of concrete and wood, topped off with tin roofs that must get very hot in the dry season and cause thunderous noise during the rainy season’s storms. The horn finally blows and we continue on our way.

The day passes without much incidence. We sleep, we eat, we stare at the landscape that begs for the heavy rains to come; the horizon is strewn with dry, white treetops and is coloured by dusty orange beaches. We play UNO, talk to other passengers, and look after the mosquito bites we brought from Leticia.

The bells that announce lunch and dinner—served approximately between 10:30am-12:30pm and 5-7pm, respectively—make the passengers rejoice; they line up to be the first ones into the dining room, though most of them don’t even bother to look out when the river dolphins swim past or the macaws fly over the jungle. When the sun sets, the water is dyed with pastel blues and pinks; the lights come on and we prepare for another cold night sailing the Amazon.

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Day 3

IMGP0694The cold we were expecting during the night only came with the morning fog. But before it was cold, before we saw the stars, the half moon shone bright red, its reflection twinkling on the river; I’m still thinking of the moon when I wake up. The morning smells of rain; the sky is grey, the wind is cold, and the sand on the beaches rolls around in furious whirlwinds. A few raindrops drive the passengers to their hammocks, but the rain soon stops and the temperature rises. It hasn’t been raining enough and the river is dry, making our passage difficult at times.

When the Navy visits us again, armed and photographing everyone on board, we find out they’re mostly searching for illegal trade of wild animals rather than drugs, as we assumed; it’s the breeding season for most of the exotic species of the region, so there’s a higher incidence of trafficking right now. The engines start up again as soon as they’re off board. Boredom and cabin fever start affecting people, with every game, magazine and book finished, just like our patience. We spend the day sleeping, eating, and playing UNO.

Day 4

DSCN0248The sun penetrates through the heavy fog while the incessant bells ring, announcing breakfast. Again, it’s sweet milk coffee and small ham and cheese sliders. Routine is starting to weigh on me, and the boat’s passengers are becoming all too familiar, each one with his or her own particularities, so I spend my time observing them, wondering if they’re watching me, too.

There’s a woman in her 50s, for example, who sleeps in a yellow knitted hammock and wears a flower-print gown to bed. She has trouble sleeping, so she spends the nights walking up and down the deck while her husband struggles to stay awake, waiting for her to join him by his side.

There’s the eight-year-old boy who either stumbles by half asleep, forced by his mother to bathe and eat, or runs by yanking the strings of every hammock, unworried whether there is someone sleeping in them or not. He finally got smacked behind the head today by his mom, who realised he woke up a man who was taking a nap.

There’s a 30-something year-old woman, her hair dyed platinum blonde, who wears very tight and feminine dresses, and has a prominent varicose vein on her left leg, shaped like a half-moon that  travels down from her thigh to her calf. Delirious from the heat and movement of the water, I imagine it’s a scar left by one of the many sharks that visit the beaches of Brazil’s Atlantic coast.

And of course, there are our neighbours. Right next to us, there are two very young mothers with their babies. One of them is thick and has big hips, with very straight hair and almond-shaped eyes; she sways her calm, skinny baby in the hammock all day long. The other is very thin and dark-skinned, and looks absolutely exhausted from chasing around her son, a huge, loud kid, strong and stubborn, so big he has his own hammock hanging above his mother’s. He crawls around the deck with his tear-stricken face, in diapers held up by underwear made for a 4-year-old.

IMGP0806And there’s the old lady with the long, grey hair, who seems to never get up from her hammock, not even to go to the bathroom. She silently watches everyone around her as she eats saltines and drinks coffee. She’s always worried because we’re the last to eat and she’s sure the food will run out, although there’s always enough for seconds.

The confirmation that we will arrive at Manaus at 6 in the afternoon and not midday as was rumoured among the passengers—probably because during the rainy season the boat comes in earlier—has dampened last night’s excitement, and we all settle in for the last leg of the journey, which will finally take us to Brazil’s Amazonian capital after 96 hours of travel. The lunch bells ring, calling us for our last meal in the cool dining room—the only space onboard with air conditioning. We have grilled chicken, rice, beans, spaghetti, and farinha, a thick, crunchy yucca flour. Despite the strict and early schedule of our meals, I’ll miss the food on the Itaberaba I.

The closer we get to Manaus, the more frequently we see small communities along the river, each with an imposing church, and some with electric posts and even cars and motorbikes, which is surprising considering they’re completely surrounded by the thick Amazon rainforest. Fishermen work in wooden canoes, casting their nets into the river and covering themselves from the harsh sun with colourful umbrellas. We take another nap, the third of the day, just to pass the time.

IMGP0825We see the silhouettes of big factories glowering amidst the smoke caused by forest fires; seeing the industrial mammoths that puff dark clouds into the hazy sun is a sure sign we’re getting close to the city. The captain tells me we’re nearing the meeting of the waters, the place where the Amazon River and Negro River meet without mixing, their waters visibly separated, as if dancing to an exotic and playful rhythm, where neither river gives in to the other, refusing to relinquish their territory. The chocolate waters of the Amazon and the black waters of the Negro create a clear line we can see from afar, signalling our arrival in Manaus.

The sun looks like it’s been drawn on the sky as it sets between the jungle and concrete, showing itself as it truly is: a live, incandescent ball of red fire. A few dolphins play around the ships, welcoming us to the city. After a long wait, Manaus appears in the darkness in an impressive show of lights. Despite preparing myself for the unexpected, this big, bright city of 2.5 million people surrounded by the Amazonian night surprises me.

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Anxious and excited, we disembark the Itaberaba with our luggage and cross a tiny bridge that towers above the black waters, and shakes with each passenger’s urgent steps, every one of us impatient to step on dry land.

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Nomadic Life: Back in the Jungle

Coming back to the jungle is like coming home; it’s returning to a place so natural to me that I feel like I was never far away. Arriving in Leticia has marked the beginning of a new adventure, of fulfilling an eternal dream that has consumed my imagination since I’ve had use of it.
And it really consumes me: the sound of the cicadas, agitated by the heat; of the frogs, announcing the rain is coming; of the jungle itself, so alive between the canopy of the trees and the mud on the ground, its vibrant colours flooding the senses.

Leticia - Omshanty 2

For months, our arrival in the jungle was like a ghost that promised forgotten emotions; a spirit embodied in the form of a plane ticket, counting down the days and the hours, sometimes too quickly, sometimes unbearably slow; a spectrum that sometimes loved us and at other times scared us with its proximity.

Leticia - Omshanty 15

Until finally it showed itself and there was no stopping it: the time had come to board the flight that would take us from the hypnotising Caribbean coast to the entrails of the Amazon, and to the unknown and promising Brazil—so far and so close, so similar and so different to what we know.

So here we are, in the deepest darkness imaginable; a gripping darkness as if from a dream, interrupted only by the occasional thunderclaps that break up the night with their bursts of light. Here we are, listening to the incessant raindrops change intensity, harmonising with the nocturnal animals who sing to the night, as if thankful for the water. Here we are, with only one certainty: that from now on, everything will be new. From today, every day will bring us new teachings, and new moments that we must find or let ourselves be found by them; a path to discover, hidden between rivers and deserts, between the jungle and the sea, which will lead us somewhere magical, beyond anything we could expect; of everyday life lacking routine and return.

Leticia - Omshanty 16

Daylight pulled me from my dreams—already permeated by the jungle, by flowers and water—with strange new sounds and smells: the bubbling songs of the golden orioles, fish grilling over a fire, the steam that the Earth exudes. In search of food, we went to the marketplace in Leticia, where we witnessed human life in the jungle; we saw exotic fruits like the açai, and tubers like the local saffron; shiny-eyed fish with reddish skins, their scales covering the concrete floor; entranced by the promise of a cupuaçu popsicle—but only a promise since we were told its not in season.

Leticia - Omshanty 5

And so the days pass by in the jungle: between the water that falls as rain and rises with the river; between the humidity of the morning and the not-so-cold nights; between heavy rainclouds and the smiling moon. And every moment brings us closer to the great Amazon River, a beating artery of the South American continent, bringing waters that are born in the Andes to its mouth in the Atlantic. We will follow its route until we reach the sea, that blue coastline that highlights Africa’s curves, that has kept its roots and songs and flavours.

Leticia - Omshanty 17

Carrying all of our belongings on our shoulders—a notebook, a collection of spices and wooden spoons, and a couple of other things—we will go downriver on the dark waters of the river to continue discovering our path, and everything that comes once you let yourself be guided by your heart and your imagination.

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Yaigojé-Apaporis: Protegiendo la Selva Colombiana / Protecting the Colombian Jungle

Para celebrar el estreno del documental “Yaigojé-Apaporis: Conocimiento Tradicional para la Protección de la Amazonía Colombiana“, vuelvo a compartir la historia de mi viaje al Amazonas como traductora para dicho corto.
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To celebrate the release of the documentary “Yaigoje-Apaporis: Tradicional Knowledge at the Heart of Protecting the Colombian Amazon“, I’m re-posting the story of my journey to the Amazon as a translator for this short.

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AMAZONAS: Visiones De La Selva / Jungle Visions

Amazonas map 1

ubicación de La Pedrera

En mayo de 2014 tuve la oportunidad de regresar al Amazonas colombiano, esta vez para trabajar como traductora en un documental sobre la minería y la importancia del oro para las etnias indígenas del Resguardo y Parque Nacional Natural Yaigojé-Apaporis.

A continuación, una selección de fotografías del trayecto que me llevó, junto con el director del documental, Jess Phillimore, y nuestros guías y acompañantes de la Fundación Gaia Amazonas, a la selva colombiana. Viajé desde Santa Marta a Bogotá, de donde salimos juntos a Leticia, capital del departamento de Amazonas en el extremo sur del país, y su ciudad hermana brasilera, Tabatinga. De allí salimos hacia La Pedrera, un pueblo del que sólo había leído hace unos años en el libro de Germán Castro Caycedo Perdido en el Amazonas y con el cual había tenido una leve obsesión desde entonces.

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Amazonas map 2

location of La Pedrera

In May 2014, I had the opportunity to return to the Colombian Amazon, this time working as a translator for a documentary film on mining and the significance of gold for the indigenous ethnic groups of the Yaigoje-Apaporis territory and National Natural Park.

Below, a selection of photographs of the journey that took me, along with the film’s director, Jess Phillimore, and our guides and companions from Gaia Amazonas, to the Colombian jungle. I travelled from Santa Marta to Bogota, from where we journeyed together to Leticia, capital city of the state of Amazonas in the southernmost part of the country, and Tabatinga, its Brazilian sister city. From there, we left toward La Pedrera, a small town of which I’d only every read about a few years ago in German Castro Caycedo’s book, Lost in Amazonas, and developed a mild obsession with since.

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Para ver las galerías completas, haz clíck en los subtítulos / Click on the subheadings to see the complete galleries

Leticia, Tabatinga, La Pedrera

De aquel pueblo a las orillas del río Caquetá, levantado sobre puentes de madera, siempre preparado para las lluvias y la creciente del río que obliga a algunas personas a usar canoas para salir de sus casas, viajamos 10 minutos más para llegar a la sede de la Fundación Gaia, El Cocotal, donde pasaríamos la mayoría de nuestro tiempo en la selva.

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From this town on the shores of the Caqueta River, a town lifted above the water on wooden stilts, ever-ready for heavy rains and the rising of the river which forces some residents to use canoes just to leave their homes, we travelled another 10 minutes to El Cocotal, headquarters for the Gaia Foundation, and where we would spend the majority of our time in the jungle.

El Cocotal

Estábamos en el Amazonas para entrevistar y hablar con los jóvenes investigadores que participaban en el IV Taller de Sistematización de las Investigaciones Sociales Locales y el Proceso Régimen Especial de Manejo (REM) para el Resguardo/Parque Nacional Natural Yaigojé-Apaporis.

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We were there to interview and talk to the young researchers who were participating in the fourth edition of the workshop to digitalise the ongoing local social research to complete the Special Management Regiment process for the Yaigoje-Apaporis indigenous territory and National Natural Park.

Talleres / Workshops

Seleccionados de las siete etnias del territorio, estos jóvenes continúan su trabajo de aprender y compartir la sabiduría tradicional de sus ancestros y con ella conformar los puntos del REM que se le presentará a Parques Nacionales para consolidar la cooperación entre la entidad gubernamental y las tradiciones antiguas de los indígenas para el manejo del territorio.

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Selected from the seven ethnic groups of the territory, these young men continue their work to learn and share the traditional wisdom of their ancestors, and with it create the management plan that will be presented to National Parks to consolidate the cooperation between the government-run agency and the ancient indigenous traditions for the management of the territory.

Entrevistas / Interviews

También visitamos varios lugares sagrados durante nuestra estadía, como el Cerro Yupatí, un monte a las orillas del Caquetá. Desde la cima, se ve el río Caquetá y el departamento de Amazonas por un lado, y el río Apaporis y el departamento del Vaupés por el otro.

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We also visited several sacred sites during our stay, such as the Yupati Mount, a hill on the shores of the Caqueta. From the top, you can see the Caqueta River and Amazonas state on one side, and on the other, the Apaporis River and Vaupes state.

Cerro Yupatí / Yupati Mount

Caminamos por la selva espesa, llena de colores, sonidos y sorpresas, desde arañas hasta cerdos salvajes (los cuales oímos pero no vimos), y claro, muchos mosquitos.

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We walked through the thick jungle, full colours, sounds and surprises, from spiders to wild boars (which we heard but didn’t see), and of course, a lot of mosquitoes.

Chorro San Francisco / San Francisco Fall

Presenciamos los atardeceres amazónicos sobre el río, fuente de inspiración para quien los vive, y hora mágica para ver delfines.

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We witnessed Amazonian sunsets over the river, a source of inspiration for those who experience them, and a magical time to see the dolphins.

Atardecer / Sunset

Pero el lugar más especial que tuvimos el privilegio de visitar fue La Libertad. Este chorro sagrado es considerado el punto de origen de las siete etnias del territorio: es donde la Madre Tierra se convirtió en tierra, y de donde nacieron las poblaciones indígenas del Yaigojé-Apaporis.

También es uno de los lugares que la minería de oro busca explotar, ignorando las palabras, creencias y peticiones de las comunidades indígenas, quienes aseguran que la extracción del oro y otros minerales sagrados de la tierra traerá graves consecuencias para ellos y el equilibrio del planeta.

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But the most special place we had the privilege of visiting was La Libertad (literally The Freedom). This sacred fall is considered the place of origin for the seven ethnic groups of the territory: it’s where Mother Earth was turned into earth, and where the indigenous communities of the Yaigoje-Apaporis were born.

It’s also one of the places sought out for gold mining, an action in complete opposition to the narrative, beliefs and requests of the indigenous communities, who believe the extraction of gold and other sacred minerals from the earth will bring grave consequences to them and the balance of the planet.

La Libertad

El río estaba crecido por la lluvia y muchas de las piedras estaban sumergidas, pero La Libertad emanaba magia, pureza y fuerza. En todos los lugares sagrados parecía haber animales fascinantes; el más increíble para mí fue la raya que encontramos en una playa sagrada.

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The river had risen after the rains and most of the rocks were submerged, but La Libertad exuded magic, purity and strength. There seemed to be fascinating animals at all the sacred places; the most incredible to me was the stingray we found on a sacred beach.

Apaporis

Para llegar, debimos subir por el río Caquetá hasta una trocha, que después de cruzarla, nos llevó al río Apaporis. De allí fuimos hasta La Libertad y luego a la comunidad de Ñumi, donde pasamos la noche y hablamos con un curador tradicional, el viejo Jorge Makuna.

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To get there, we had to travel up the Caqueta until we reached a land crossing which led to the Apaporis. From there we rode to La Libertad and then to the community of Ñumi, where we spent the night and spoke to a traditional healer, old Jorge Makuna.

Ñumi

Regresamos al Cocotal y a los pocos días, con demoras por el clima impredecible de la selva, estábamos otra vez en Leticia y yo llegué a Santa Marta unas horas después.

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We returned to El Cocotal and, a few days later, after some delays due to the impredictable weather of the jungle, we were back in Leticia and I was back in Santa Marta a few hours later.

Puedes ver la historia original aquí / You can see the original story here

Visita el Archivo de Galerías de Fotos / Visit the Photo Gallery Archive — 2011-2014

Amazonas: Visiones de la Selva / Amazon: Jungle Visions

Amazonas map 1

ubicación de La Pedrera

En mayo de 2014 tuve la oportunidad de regresar al Amazonas colombiano, esta vez para trabajar como traductora en un documental sobre la minería y la importancia del oro para las etnias indígenas del Resguardo y Parque Nacional Natural Yaigojé-Apaporis.

A continuación, una selección de fotografías del trayecto que me llevó, junto con el director del documental, Jess Phillimore, y nuestros guías y acompañantes de la Fundación Gaia Amazonas, a la selva colombiana. Viajé desde Santa Marta a Bogotá, donde me encontré con ellos, y de ahí salimos juntos a Leticia, capital del departamento de Amazonas en el extremo sur del país, y su ciudad hermana brasilera, Tabatinga. De allí salimos hacia La Pedrera, un pueblo del que sólo había leído hace unos años en el libro de Germán Castro Caycedo Perdido en el Amazonas y con el cual había tenido una leve obsesión desde entonces.

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Amazonas map 2

location of La Pedrera

In May 2014, I had the opportunity to return to the Colombian Amazon, this time working as a translator for a documentary film on mining and the significance of gold for the indigenous ethnic groups of the Yaigoje-Apaporis territory and National Natural Park.

Below, a selection of photographs of the journey that took me, along with the film’s director, Jess Phillimore, and our guides and companions from Gaia Amazonas, to the Colombian jungle. I travelled from Santa Marta to Bogota, where I met them, and we then journeyed together to Leticia, capital city of the state of Amazonas in the southernmost part of the country, and Tabatinga, its Brazilian sister city. From there, we left toward La Pedrera, a small town of which I’d only every read about a few years ago in German Castro Caycedo’s book, Lost in Amazonas, and developed a mild obsession with it since.

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Para ver las galerías completas, haz clíck en los subtítulos / Click on the subheadings to see the complete galleries

Leticia, Tabatinga, La Pedrera

De aquel pueblo a las orillas del río Caquetá, levantado sobre puentes de madera, siempre preparado para las lluvias y la creciente del río que obliga a algunas personas a usar canoa para salir de sus casas, viajamos 10 minutos más para llegar a la sede de la Fundación Gaia, El Cocotal, donde pasaríamos la mayoría de nuestro tiempo en la selva.

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From this town on the shores of the Caqueta River, a town lifted above the water on wooden stilts, ever-ready for heavy rains and the rising of the river which forces some residents to use canoes just to leave their homes, we travelled another 10 minutes to El Cocotal, headquarters for the Gaia Foundation, and where we would spend the majority of our time in the jungle.

El Cocotal

Estábamos en el Amazonas para entrevistar y hablar con los jóvenes investigadores que participaban en el IV Taller de Sistematización de las Investigaciones Sociales Locales y el Proceso Régimen Especial de Manejo (REM) para el Resguardo/Parque Nacional Natural Yaigojé-Apaporis.

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We were there to interview and talk to the young researchers who were participating in the fourth edition of the workshop to digitalise the ongoing local social research to complete the Special Management Regiment process for the Yaigoje-Apaporis indigenous territory and National Natural Park.

Talleres / Workshops

Seleccionados de las siete etnias del territorio, estos jóvenes continúan su trabajo de aprender y compartir la sabiduría tradicional de sus ancestros y con ella conformar los puntos del REM que se le presentará a Parques Nacionales para consolidar la cooperación entre la entidad gubernamental y las tradiciones antiguas de los indígenas para el manejo del territorio.

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Selected from the seven ethnic groups of the territory, these young men continue their work to learn and share the traditional wisdom of their ancestors, and with it create the management plan that will be presented to National Parks to consolidate the cooperation between the government-run agency and the ancient indigenous traditions for the management of the territory.

Entrevistas / Interviews

También visitamos varios lugares sagrados durante nuestra estadía, como el Cerro Yupatí, un monte a las orillas del Caquetá. Desde la cima, se ve el río Caquetá y el departamento de Amazonas por un lado, y el río Apaporis y el departamento del Vaupés por el otro.

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We also visited several sacred sites during our stay, such as the Yupati Mount, a hill on the shores of the Caqueta. From the top, you can see the Caqueta River and Amazonas state on one side, and on the other, the Apaporis River and Vaupes state.

Cerro Yupatí / Yupati Mount

Caminamos por la selva espesa, llena de colores, sonidos y sorpresas, desde arañas hasta cerdos salvajes (los cuales oímos pero no vimos), y claro, muchos mosquitos.

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We walked through the thick jungle, full colours, sounds and surprises, from spiders to wild boars (which we heard but didn’t see), and of course, a lot of mosquitoes.

Chorro San Francisco / San Francisco Fall

Presenciamos los atardeceres amazónicos sobre el río, fuente de inspiración para quien los vive, y hora mágica para ver delfines.

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We witnessed Amazonian sunsets over the river, a source of inspiration for those who experience them, and a magical time to see the dolphins.

Atardecer / Sunset

Pero el lugar más especial que tuvimos el privilegio de visitar fue La Libertad. Este chorro sagrado es considerado el punto de origen de las siete etnias del territorio: es donde la Madre Tierra se convirtió en tierra, y de donde nacieron las poblaciones indígenas del Yaigojé-Apaporis.

También es uno de los lugares que la minería de oro busca explotar, ignorando las palabras, creencias y peticiones de las comunidades indígenas, quienes aseguran que la extracción del oro y otros minerales sagrados de la tierra traerá graves consecuencias para ellos y el equilibrio del planeta.

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But the most special place we had the privilege of visiting was La Libertad (literally The Freedom). This sacred fall is considered the place of origin for the seven ethnic groups of the territory: it’s where Mother Earth was turned into earth, and where the indigenous communities of the Yaigoje-Apaporis were born.

It’s also one of the places sought out for gold mining, an action in complete opposition to the narrative, beliefs and requests of the indigenous communities, who believe the extraction of gold and other sacred minerals from the earth will bring grave consequences to them and the balance of the planet.

La Libertad

El río estaba crecido por la lluvia y muchas de las piedras estaban sumergidas, pero La Libertad emanaba magia, pureza y fuerza. En todos los lugares sagrados parecía haber animales fascinantes; el más increíble para mí fue la raya que encontramos en una playa sagrada.

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The river had risen after the rains and most of the rocks were submerged, but La Libertad exuded magic, purity and strength. There seemed to be fascinating animals at all the sacred places; the most incredible to me was the stingray we found on a sacred beach.

Apaporis

Para llegar, debimos subir por el río Caquetá hasta una trocha, que después de cruzarla, nos llevó al río Apaporis. De allí fuimos hasta La Libertad y luego a la comunidad de Ñumi, donde pasamos la noche y hablamos con un curador tradicional, el viejo Jorge Makuna.

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To get there, we had to travel up the Caqueta until we reached a land crossing which led to the Apaporis. From there we rode to La Libertad and then to the community of Ñumi, where we spent the night and spoke to a traditional healer, old Jorge Makuna.

Apaporis & Ñumi

Regresamos al Cocotal y a los pocos días, con demoras por el clima impredecible de la selva, estábamos otra vez en Leticia y Bogotá (y yo, en Santa Marta).

Esperen el documental!

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We returned to El Cocotal and, a few days later, after some delays due to the impredictable weather of the jungle, we were back in Leticia and Bogota (and Santa Marta for me).

Wait for the documentary!

Videos

Regresa a Galerías de Viajes / Back to Travel Photo Galleries

Regresa a Foto de la Semana / Back to Photo of the Week

Amazonas: Talleres & Entrevistas / Workshops & Interviews

Los jóvenes indígenas a quienes acompañamos durante las dos semanas del taller, fueron escogidos por sus comunidades para realizar el trabajo de investigación y digitalización de la formación del Régimen Especial de Manejo (REM) para su territorio, el resguardo y Parque Nacional Yaigojé-Apaporis.

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The young indigenous men we stayed with during the two weeks of the workshop, were chosen by their communities to complete their research and digitalisation work for the creation of the Special Management Regiment for their territory, Yaigoje-Apaporis National Park.

Talleres / Workshops

Varios de ellos fueron entrevistados para el documental por el cineasta británico, Jesse Phillimore, sobre la minería y el significado del oro en las tradiciones indígenas.

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Several of them were also interviewed for the upcoming documentary film on mining and the significance of gold in their traditions by British filmmaker, Jesse Phillimore.

Entrevistas / Interviews

Regresa a Amazonas: Visiones de la Selva / Back to Amazon: Jungle Visions

 

Amazonas: Apaporis, Ñumi, La Libertad

They said the gods smiled upon us long enough to complete our task. Then the rain came. We sailed down the Apaporis River, away from La Libertad, a sacred waterfall considered to be the origin of life for the seven ethnic groups of the Yaigojé-Apaporis National Natural Park in the Colombian Amazon.

 

As we made our way over the dark waters, a storm quickly approached, its white, wet air creating a blanket between the thick jungle on either side of the river. Small raindrops covered us in a refreshing mist, cooling us down after the long hours spent travelling upriver under the sun in the fifteen-horsepower engine boat.

 

Before arriving at a sacred sandbank, we passed other sacred sites like the Pork and Star Falls, their rocks almost completely covered by the risen river.

 

Edgar, our guide, advised we all have mambe when entering or leaving a sacred site. Mambe is a bright green powder made of toasted coca leaves and ash from the Yarumo tree (Cecropia peltata); the combination becomes a basic conductor to spiritual contemplation and learning—and in this case, a way to appease the gods for stepping on their sacred places.

These places, thought of as natural malokas (communal houses central to indigenous communities in the area) are said to have been where the gods lived before they were turned into rocks, water, sand and precious minerals.

 

This beach looked like any other sandbank would, but to me, it was magical. I spotted a river stingray, who was vacuuming nutrients from the soft sand only centimetres away from my face. Seemingly a chance encounter, I’d like to attribute it to the blessings of the gods; a reward for not overstaying our welcome at La Libertad.

 

As we were leaving, Edgar said we must mambe (in Spanish, it’s a noun and a verb: mamebear) so we could leave the place peacefully, a way to continue without bringing punishment on ourselves. We were told our visit to La Libertad was special and rare. Communities seldom allow outsiders to step foot on the rocks, let alone to photograph the water, which the indigenous people themselves may not look at for long as it is believed to be the very loins of Mother Earth.

 

Traditional narrative tells the story of a woman who tried to take men’s power with her own spiritual strength, so they used their combined power to turn her into the Earth, into the Mother, the provider. Her head is upriver, where the falls start, and her legs downriver, where they end.

 

After her transformation, she regained her power in a new way: she now dictates how men must care for her in exchange for her bounty. If her rules are disobeyed, it is said she will punish and even kill, manifesting her displeasure through displays like thunder, disease and the deaths of children. Two researchers came with us and Edgar to see this place. Jaime, another elder, was meant to come with us but was mourning the death of his five year-old granddaughter from a snake bite a few days earlier.

“Each sacred site has an owner,” Edgar explains,”it is their home. It’s not correct for anyone to come into a home and remove something without permission: it’s stealing.”

 

Extracting sacred minerals from the earth like gold, petrol, emeralds, uranium, diamonds, or any other mineral, is seen as mutilation and destruction of the gods, their malokas and the people’s instruments for communicating with them. They see mining as a clear sign of disrespect, theft, violence.

 

We were allowed to witness this beautiful place and to photograph it because the short documentary film being produced has no commercial purpose and is meant solely as a vehicle to share the indigenous communities’ traditional knowledge with the outside world; a platform for their voices to be heard; a message to the mining companies and the magistrates of the Constitutional Court, who are yet to make their final decision determining whether the national park that safeguards the Yaigoje-Apaporis remains or if the illegal mining license the government granted the multinational after the creation of the park will allow the destruction of these sacred places for the extraction of gold.


 

We made our way back to Edgar’s wooden house in Ñumi, a small community of seventeen families, where his four young children played with rubber balls with FC Barcelona’s logo and watched pirated Dragonball-Z DVDs on an old TV set hooked up to a diesel-powered electric plant, the dubbed voices at an excruciating volume, the kids’ faces aglow with blue flickering light.

 

Once the power was switched off, the only sounds were those of frogs and nocturnal birds; the only light the reflection of the full moon. I don’t know that I’ve ever slept so deeply.

 

The house came to life with dawn, at around 5am, as the air filled with the voices and cries of children, pans clanking in the kitchen and chickens clucking outside. The morning started slowly with the kids going to school and breakfast being served: a communal pot of steaming hot, very salty fish broth, casabe (yucca starch) and farinha (yucca flour). Bones and unwanted bits were thrown through a hole in the wooden floor, below which chickens waited anxiously for leftovers. After we ate, we went to the maloka to mambe with Edgar and his father.

 

We sat in the dark, round house, the packed dirt ground creating a cool, wet atmosphere. Outside, kids and women cleared the basketball court of weeds with machetes under the oppressive overcast sky for an upcoming mothers’ day celebration.

 

We heard ancient stories passed down over generations through oral narrative. Jorge spoke of the birth of the Apaporis—once a great tree which was cut down and became the river as it sliced through the mountain. He was lively and energetic, switching between Spanish and his native tongue, sitting on his thinking bench, proudly displaying a generations-old necklace with eight jaguar teeth and a heavy wooden staff.


Amazonas map 3

land crossing between the Caqueta & Apaporis rivers

We left Ñumi and headed back to the land crossing that would take us once again to the Caqueta River, about two and a half hours away. We stopped for lunch at a small house that guards the entrance to a chain of seven sacred lakes and exchanged bags of rice and sugar for smoked fish which ate on the sand with some casabe Edgar’s wife had packed for us.

 

Once at the crossing, we walked through the jungle with our packs and gear while we fought mosquitoes and waited for our boat to pick us up.

We had succeeded in our mission: we saw places many indigenous people themselves only ever hear about, returning wet with rain and sweat, our equipment foggy and threatening to break down, but happy and satisfied.

 

The great rivers of the Colombian Amazon and the communities who inhabit the thick jungles are under threat from multinationals seeking to extract their sacred minerals, backed by an undecided government who oscillates between protecting its people and fattening its pockets.

 

Gaining a deeper knowledge of the culture and the jungle has only made the threat seem more real and the possibility of the ancient territory and traditions disappearing even more tragic.

 

Although they’re hopeful for the future conservation of their land and traditions, the local communities are aware of the commercial wealth their territory represents for both the miners and the national government. They can only ask the spiritual and cultural wealth it represents to them is understood and respected by the outside world, and that righteousness prevails over greed.

*All views and opinions are my own.
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Amazonas: Cerro Yupatí, Chorro San Francisco y atardecer sobre el Río Caquetá / Yupati Mount, San Francisco Falls & sunset over the Caqueta

El Cerro Yupatí es otro lugar sagrado para las etnias indígenas de la región de los ríos Caquetá y Apaporis, en parte porque desde su cima se ven ambos ríos. Cubierto por una espesa selva que atrapa la humedad, el Yupatí no es fácil de subir, pero la vista justifica el esfuerzo.

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The Yupati Mount is also considered a sacred site by the indigenous people of the Caqueta and Apaporis rivers, partly because you can see both rivers from the top. Covered by a thick jungle that captures the humidity, the Yupati isn’t an easy climb, but the view entirely warrants the effort.

Cerro Yupatí