Sunday, August 24, 2008

Sun beaming through the trees in the fading light of the day.

Posted by Bejat

So many days have come and gone with little time to write. My head is full of things to say and my journal keeps a slight record of the past month, yet some minor details may drift back into the forest for another memory recaptured in a casual walk or meditative state. The stress seems to be drifting away as we push onward to catch up and get back on schedule. Every three to four days Shawn is climbing a tree since another assistant, Alfredo, arrived in the first part of this month.

We are all in much better health. I had a serious case of worms and amoebas that was transferred to Shawn. Just recently my headaches, that have persisted for well over a month, were cured when I visited the oil doctor to discover that I had low sodium levels and anemia. Kaya initially discovered that she had anemia and upon her return from the oil doctor we discovered that in fact I had the same symptoms plus one, a bloody nose. These are just a few of the physical challenges a gringa body faces when in the Amazon. Of course the Shawn McCracken body is like a rock and he is convinced that he would not have not been infected by the worms if I were not to have transferred them to him. He is a tough one, that iron butt McCracken, and the indigenous call him onguine teemo inga, which translates as something similar to extremely tough/strong man, like Rambo or Tarzan. Now to hear this out of a Waorani mouth is amazing, especially the strange reference to Rambo and Tarzan. I must say I agree. Shawn is one impressive individual.

The tree that was climbed with a local Waorani assistant, Bolivar, was spent in the rain and we were drenched and cold by the end of the day. Bolivar said that the Waorani and most researchers return to camp to stay dry and safe. We spent the entire day working in the rain. Rain or shine that’s our moto. Shawn went up and down the tree several times to avoid the downpours. After about 7-8 hours in the rain, no mater what one does to stay dry, one becomes soaked. Well, unless that someone is Bolivar. He built a shelter out of palms and vines in about 2 minutes as seen in the photo to the right. There he stood while watching us under our umbrellas that quit working after they had soaked through.

Kaya was stung by a wasp on her eyelid at the beginning of the climb. OUCH, now that hurts! Bolivar wanted to help ease the pain by placing the cool blade of the machete on the sting. As the blade came closer to her face she was tentative and backed away, uncertain as to whether he was going to cut her. But, in the end, she let him place the blade on her eyelid and it did help, as did my homeopathic sting stop and Ibuprofen.

As the day wore on, she began
to forget about the wasp sting, especially when she discovered we were right next to a hummingbird nest (seen in the photo to the right and left). The mom was periodically visiting the nest to warm her tiny eggs. She would just back herself into the tiny soft nest with her tail up and rest gently on the thumbnail sized dusty blue eggs (seen in the photo to the left). She would quickly fly off for a short period of time. Periodically she would return in a fit of frenzy because we were still there, but we could not move with the ropes hanging there and Shawn up in the tree. Fortunately, she did not abandon her nest, as we remained as quiet and still as possible.

I had managed to stay clean for the entire day until my venture out of the forest left me covered with mud, branches, ferns and leaves sticking out of my hair. As I left the forest after taking photos of the tree and humming bird nest, I found myself on a steep ledge at the edge of the road. Bolivar told me to walk around by going back into the forest and out another direction, so I did. I turned around and stuck a foot out and it got caught under a tree root covered thickly by leaves. My momentum took me end over end as I somersaulted down through the forest, landing on my bum in a patch of ferns. I put my hands up in the air and said I’m okay, although nobody noticed. I got up and took another step and down I went again in the mud.

I finally exited the forest to the road alive and told everyon
e the story, they were all laughing. As I was picking branches, ferns and leaves out of my hair, I looked down at my rubber boots to notice I had ripped the entire back end out of one boot, now that’s no good. I looked over at Bolivar; he looked just as he had that morning, perfect. Maybe a six foot gringa girl is a little out of place in this forest, but still that is not going to stop me, no way, no how, no, never. When we got back to the lab I noticed that my lens cap was stuck to my lens of my camera from the fall. Shawn was able to pry it off and I was happy my camera was functioning for the photo located to the left.

We have been working with the Waorani. We have become very close with Bolivar, he is special, extremely talented and intelligent. He assists us on tree climbs near Waorani communities. He is educated and familiarizes us on Waorani culture and their relationship with the forest. Bolivar can read, write and speak Waorani, Quetchua and Spanish. He understands what people are trying to say in whatever language they may be speaking just by body language. It seems that he has this 6th sense, like he is in touch with something we don’t know. He is peaceful, friendly and wise, differing from many of the Waorani we have come into contact with over the years. Bolivar is someone we have grown to trust and he is our dear friend.

For the first several weeks we were being harassed slightly by the Waorani to have a Waorani assistant while working on the road, so we took our time and after many recommendations chose Bolivar as our assistant. I was timid to have this occur since I would be the one on the ground working with him, speaking my broken Spanish and then also in English so that Kaya could also understand. Fortunately, Bolivar made this easy and my worries dissipated. He came several times to meet with me prior to the tree climb and we developed a relationship based on friendship. He even brought the female individuals of his family that lives near him to visit one afternoon, as seen in the photo above to the right. I was able to trust him and communicate with him for the tree climbs. Through our conversations he determined the words I understood and only used these words so that I would understand him.

We have been buying the handicrafts from multiple Waorani individuals nearby. Many of these purchases have been handicrafts that Bolivar and his family create. This Friday Bolivar will arrive with a 6’ blowgun and spear. I have no idea how we are to get it back to the States, but we will find a way. To the left Bolivar is seen with a small lance he created from Tepa, the Waorani name for this particular hardwood palm or Chota in Spanish. We have also purchased bracelets, necklaces and a shigra the Waorani use to transport fruit and meat from the forest. These are made from the native palm fibers of Chambira and colorized by plants and fruit to obtain the colors of purple, red and blue. We have also purchased an armband and a corona (as seen worn by Shawn in the photo above with Bejat and Bolivar), which is a Waorani crown worn by the warriors in times of war and ceremonies. Although I insist on items with no feathers I always receive feathers. I have been unable to deter the usage of feathers since I have been unable to translate my environmental reasoning behind this request. Therefor we are no longer asking for items that may have feathers for this Waorani artifact collection.

The balsa de fuego is what is used in combination with algodon de
ciebo (cotton seeds from the grand Ceibas) to start fires. The rarest purchase, in an art form that may soon be lost forever, is a ceramic vessel that very few indigenous elderly women create. The women create these vessels and pass down this knowledge verbally to the young women of the clan. These coil built vessels are created by hand from particular clay within the rainforest. After the vessel drys it is "bone dry" and is then placed into the hot coals of a residual fire to be "fired" with bones and organic matter. This provides it with color. The vessel cools for a day or so and it is ready for ceremonies, particularly for drinking Chicha. The young generations are becoming disinterested in their heritage and culture. Therefore, it is becoming lost as the generations pass on to the newer Westernized Waorani.

Chicha is a fermented beverage that is derived from Yucca. The Yucca is chewed by the elderly women of the community and spit into a vessel and buried in the ground. After several weeks the Chica is ready to be consumed. Bolivar would like to share some of his family's Chicha with us, I am uncertain as to whether I will actually partake. I am finally in good health. The oil doctors know me by name now, so they may be a bit disappointed to see me back because I drank Chicha.

Towards the end of July an unfortunate incident occurred with one of the leaders of the Waorani clans nearby in Timpoca. Tihue, whom we knew fairly well, was hunting with his brother, Mingi, several miles deep within the forest. The trigger to his rifle caught on a small branch and shot him in the head. Mingi was unable to carry him back by himself and had to run back to get help. The family retrieved the body and took Tihue to their Shaman in hopes of saving his life, unfortunately, this did not occur and he has passed on into the spirit of a Jaguar, Anaconda or Ceiba. Interestingly enough we did find a baby Anaconda in camp later that evening and he was quite fierce, representative of the personality of Tihue (represented in the photos to the right).

It is believed that Omaka, the pet Tapir that the Waorani gave the station, is the son of Iteka, who is the son of Nambi. Omaka, the son of Iteka, passed away around the same time that the Waorani had shot the mother of the baby Tapir that they named Omaka. Iteka believes that Omaka lives on within the spirit of this Tapir and members of the station paint a stripe down the mohawk and back so that when she is out in the forest the Waorani will not accidentally kill her by mistake. The station uses hair dye for this purpose. If anything bad happens to Omaka, Iteka has threatened to kill members of the Catolica Station. Omaka is the most beautiful creature I have ever laid my eyes on and everyday I am fascinated by her gentle soul (photo to left). So, Omaka lives peacefully out of harms way, although the young Waorani members of Timpoca, who are Mingi’s sons, have threatened to kill her for the bush meat market in Pompea Sur. Although it is illegal, it occurs and nothing is done to protect the many endangered species, possibly due to the fierceness of the Waorani and also due to the lack of environmental enforcement.

The Aftermath of this incident kept us from working on the road for a few weeks, so Shawn and Kaya began to survey the plot. They are located on line one of the plot of their first day in the photograph to the lower left. Shawn describes to Kaya how they will be surveying for trees with bromeliads as Kaya gives me a quick smile.

There were rumors of Waorani Warfare, as they believed that
another clan in Puyo had their Shaman cast a spell on Tihue to kill him. The Waorani are supersticous and have many interesting beliefs. This was only heightened by the fact that Tihue was the third Waorani individual to die within that month. The first had died from alcohol poisoning. The second was a young boy who was strangled on the Rio Tiputini, when drunk, fighting over a girl. His family found his body in the river.

Waorani individuals were arriving from villages deep within the park to honor Tihue. Mingi was rumored to be out of his mind. He had been drinking a beverage made from the hallucinogenic plant Solanacea; Brunfelsia sp., called Guanto or Floripondio. Typically only a shot is consumed, but Mingi had consumed maybe a cup or more and was parading up and down the road with his shotgun. Mingi has possibly over-consumed this beverage in the past and may be the reasoning for his outrageous behavior. Many people were worried he may loose his mind this time.

I have met Mingi, who is also a leader and lives in Timpoca, on several occasions when boarding the TBS boat in Timpoca. In the past he has been quite outrageous waving his gun and shooting it into the air. Luckily he has never shot any of us, but he has made a few people wet their pants. He has consumed too much Guanto over the years and has become irreasonable. However, I have walked up to his home one several occassions looking for Rosa to open here tienda to find him lying in his hammock, undisturbed by my presence.

ther brother of Mingi and Tiwi, who is also a leader, Nambi has also consumed immense portions of Guanto. The evening of the accident he was fiercely angry and arrived at the Catolica station with his family yelling and screaming. I was walking back to camp and witnessed the event, deciding that it would be best that I avoid all the action. Their anger is so deep and Nambi is known for his fierce behavior. He lives a kilometer 32 in the very community that Bolivar resides.

Nambi demands money from everyone that uses the road saying that he is basically the owner of the road. In 2004 I was assisting as manager, driving the road for the movements of food and supplies for the TBS Station. Nambi demanded one million dollars for us to pass. Of course I did not have this money, nor did I have any money. So, I bartered with a 2 litre bottle of Coke that I had ordered 3 months ago, only for him to ransack the entire back end of the truck to find and take all the coke, fruit and meat. Although I was only threatened with a broom, the next time it could have been a gun or blowgun, he is known for this behavior. He has shot people driving by on the road when they have not stopped to answer his demands.

Everyone seems to be related in some way or another due to Waorani traditional marriage beliefs. We discovered that Bolivar is also related to Mingi, Tiwi and Nambi, they are his uncles. Bolivar is Moi’s brother, who is represented in the book Savages by Joe Kane. He can be seen in a documentary about the Waorani along the Via Auca, Trinkets and Beads. Bolivar’s brothers are all working towards saving their culture and this amazing forest. It is not only admirable, but also phenomenal when you think about the forces against them. Bolivar wishes to visit the Untied States to speak with university students about his culture. His focus and life dream is that he maintains Waorani culture and educates others before it is lost. I would like to put him in contact with the proper people to assist him with his dream and if you may have any contacts please email me at

For several weeks we have experienced a lack of rain. The work with bromeliads has been simple as they have few occupants and very little water. The forest floor has been brittle with the crackling of leaves and we are INFESTED with CHIGGERS. They are all over our bodies in every crevasse you could possibly imagine. I find myself waking up at night from the insane scratching, elbowing Shawn, waking him in the process. Not much to do but try to ignore them. The rain arrived two days ago and the frogs are calling once more. The chiggers will subside, we hope, since they seem to be more prolific in the dry periods. The forest is saturated with color once more and all species are resuming activity after the intense dry spell. Gonatodes humeralis, in the photo below, is enjoying the fresh rain droplets as he laps them up off his face. The bursting blooms from trees, bushes, lianas and plants are spectacular. The fragrance throughout the forest is unlike any perfume could ever possibly mimic. Most of the time all I can do is close my eyes and breath deeply in a catatonic state.

We were walking back to camp late the other evening from shooting lines and Shawn and I were hit by this powerful fragrance, it was breathtaking. Then we rounded the bend and large bats were swooping down in front of us. In the dimly light sky we could see they were fruit bats taking brief moments to hover upside down at the fruiting Cecropias. Que Cheverre, I could not believe my eyes. They were huge and we could actually see them in the fading light of the day. We stood there mesmerized until we could see them no longer and returned to camp in time for a shower and dinner.

The following day Shawn climbed the tree we had attempted to shoot a line in unsuccessfully. Kaya and I tried a shot each with the big shot and one-shot McCracken took over since we were on a time frame to get back to camp for lunch. We walked to this tree since it was near camp and decided to enter on the ridge since we had the rope and gear. Our previous entry was through a ravine, what I called the gorge, and I believed it was a difficult entry. We got a bit turned around, however, and spent some time slipping a sliding up and down steep hillsides until we found the tree. In the process I saw a group of squirrel monkeys as seen in the photo to the lower right.

Lianas that had fallen recently and destroyed all the surrounding vegetation, including the trees. Therefor,
it was an open area at the bottom of the ravine, so we were slipping and sliding up and down the hillsides to get the job done. Luckily it was an overcast day since the Parkea mutijuga tree that Shawn was climbing was leafless. The sun is fierce this close to the equator.

At one point we realized that we were going to be late for lunch. Alfredo departed for the road to return to camp. He was going to let them know we were okay and that they could just save our lunch for later. Well, about 45 minutes later we heard something on the other side of the ravine. It was quite a rustling sound. Kaya and I could not believe that it could be possible that anything could be out there as loud as we were when yelling to Shawn when he is in the tree. I called out and Alfredo answered back, “It’s me, I can’t find the road”. The poor guy had made an enormous loop and luckily made it back to the tree! We are so thankful, we could have lost him and all he had was his snake hook! It happens to the best of us, Shawn has been lost in the black waters looking for a tree that was less that 5 minutes away and he was out there with only a machete. I have been lost looking for him.

So many stories, so little time. I could go on forever, but it’s time to get some photos taken. Shawn has 5 more trees to climb and he will be finished with his work here on the Via Maxis. We will then be moving the operation to the Via Auca and we will most likely not have any internet connection for a few months. Kaya leaves a week, and she will be sadly missed. She is a dear friend who is incredibly determined, intelligent, beautiful, caring, funny, friendly and tough. I wish she could stay longer.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Posted by Bejat

Shawn has climbed number 7 of 14 total trees on the Via Maxxus. This tree was a beautiful climb for Shawn on a cloudy day with no sweet bees, wasps or ants. He was only up in the tree for 5 hours and maneuvered to many various branches. Since we were on a hilltop in a cleared area, next to a satellite tower, we were able to see the entire climb. I was able to capture some photographs of the process with my new zoom lens.

Kaya and I had adventures on the ground catching
Dendrobates haneli and I also caught an amazing horned beetle. We were only slightly drizzled with rain at the beginning of the climb, creating a cool atmosphere for the rest of the day. When we returned to camp it rained heavily. As we watched the rain from the balcony, we gave one another a glance that said it all...."Whew, just in time."

Scinax punerea discovered by Shawn inside the extracted bromeliads.

Dendrobates haneli ventral view for specimen shots.

Dendrobates haneli discovered by Kaya as we sat at a tree waiting for Shawn to send down a bromeliad. Glamor shot taken for the new frog for our species list.

Small scorpion and it's molt discovered by Shawn inside the extracted bromeliads.

View from the top of the tree by Shawn McCracken.

Shawn lowering a bromeliad from the crotch of the tree.

Shawn collecting weather data.

Shawn lowering another bromeliad.

Shawn bagging a bromeliad.

Shawn cutting a bromeliad out of the tree.

Shawn descending to the ground after extracting
bromeliads from the tree for 5 hours.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Posted by Bejat

Shawn’s birthday was fantastic! We took the day off to catch up on some work on the computers and around the lab. I was able to get some paint down on paper and took hundreds of photos of birds with the new 300 mm zoom lens my mom purchased for me as an early birthday and Christmas present. It was sent in with John and I have been practicing for several weeks with my new zoom lens. I have decided that birds are extremely difficult to photograph.

After lunch, Shawn got some more computer work done and I got some rest. In the afternoon we went for a short walk on the trails, however, we decided to return to camp before the sky opened up and dumped. The thunder was unbelievable and we could hear the rain off in the distance. It was a race against the incoming rain clouds to get back before the “jungle wave” hit.

Once we were back in camp, we climbed the hillside to get a view of the rainbow, rain, sunset and lightning. We had no rain gear, but up on the hill is a house where we could take shelter on the porch. I was able to get a few photos of the rainbow and sky before the serious rain hit. Shawn covered my camera with my bandana from the light sprinkles and I was able to get a few photos before the downpour.

We ran up to the porch to watch the lightning. It was something like a fireworks display. The lightning was so brilliant and close that it burned our retinas and left imprints of lightning bolts in our closed eyes. The thunder was so loud that it shook the ground and our eardrums were left with a slight ring. It was the most amazing storm I had seen yet in the rainforest. The wind was blowing fiercely and the rain was so heavy we could not see our hands in front of our faces. We waited for 30-40 minutes for it to stop, but it just continued and we walked down the hillside in the intense rain. We were drenched!

Poor Kaya was worried sick about us because she thought we were at the tower that is up in the canopy watching the sunset. She had located Ramone, who works at the station, and was asking if he could try to find us. We walked up just as she was asking this and she was so very happy to see us. We felt so badly for making her worry so much. She had never experienced a rainstorm like that before in New Zealand. She was so excited.

Kaya had spent the afternoon baking a traditional New Zealand cake for Shawn and made him the most beautiful card with the two different Eleutherdactylus species that he described as new species. I also made him a card with the ventral view of Dendrobates duellmani. We gave him some 70% dark chocolate from Ecuador, cards, cake and a movie (El Presidio). That evening we watched the new Indiana Jones flick, since some other photographers that were visiting the station left it with us for viewing. In Ecuador people can buy pirated videos, sometimes even while the movie is still in the theatres. The quality might not be so good, but you get to watch something entertaining. We’re not complaining since we’ve only seen a few movies this year. Not many theatres in the middle of the Amazon.

We were so hopped up on sugar we were wired and our stomachs hurt so terribly bad. We stayed up until about midnight lounging and the next morning it was back to work. What a wonderful day, Shawn’s birthday.