After a weapy goodbye with Nancita and Raulito, our group drove southeast along the Avenue of Volcanoes to the town of Shell. Yes, that Shell. As in petroleum. A town that wouldn’t exist except for the world’s hunger for fossil fuels. As we enter the town, we are greeted by a billboard exclaiming “Shell! Working with energy!” My heart, open and vulnerable from the beauty of the simple life of the Karanqui, is sucker-punched by the dismal truth of that statement. Even here, on the edge of one of the most biodiverse places on the planet, the communities celebrate oil exploration at the expense of their environment, and that sentiment directly threatens the lives of the people we are going to meet.
The next morning, we board a 5-seat propeller plane for an hour’s flight into the headwaters of the Amazon. The cinderblock buildings and asphalt roads of Shell fall away surprisingly quickly, and the verdant green mosaic of the rainforest undulates to the horizon below us. We enter a cloud bank, rain spitting on the windows. The plane noses lower, dropping us out of the weather, so we can follow the meandering path of the ruddy Pastaza River to the Achuar village of Sharamentsa.
At a hairpin bend in the river, we stay straight, heading for the grass airstrip that has been hacked out of the jungle, thatched roofs lining the muddy, rutted runway. By the time we land, turn, and taxi back to stop in front of the largest of the structures, the plane is surrounded by villagers.
When the door opens, I am greeted by a lithe Achuar warrior, his head wreathed in bright red and yellow feathers. Bandoliers of red and black seeds crisscross his chest and a rifle is slung over his shoulder. The look in his black eyes is fierce and kind at the same time, and the dusky hand he reaches toward me is rough yet inviting.
I take his hand and crouch to step out of the cockpit, but find myself not quite able to breathe. The headdress that this knightly young man is wearing is exactly the same as the one worn by the man who has visited me in my dreams these past months. The dreams that sparked my interest in the Amazon. It is not the same man, but it is the same headdress.
I join the others as we are ushered in to sit on the benches that encircle the community hut for a formal welcoming ceremony. We have arrived during a debate about how much tourism the village should allow. Despite the language difference, there is no mistaking the intensity of the discussion and the depth of the disagreement. These are a warrior people, and their spirit is on full display. The conversation is respectful, and very orderly, but their words shimmer with passion.
When there is a break in the debate, the leader stands to greet us, and our guide, Julian, translates the leader’s welcome speech from Achuar into English. We are asked to introduce ourselves, and each one of us in turn stands and says our name and where we are from and what has brought us to their village. Some of my companions have worked with indigenous peoples in their own lands – the aborigines in Australia, the first peoples in the US – others have felt the pull of personal transformation through travel, some are seeking healing through ceremony. When I stand, I’m not sure how I will explain myself, but then I hear my words: “My dreams have brought me here.”
I don’t know how Julian translated it, exactly. It is a complicated statement to make to these people, whose lives are guided by their night visions, who experience no difference between waking consciousness and dreaming. But I am glad I said it. It is, after all, the simple truth.
Then our group is led to our lodging, a six-room, hard-sided, oval shelter with bath house and tile floors. Each bunk bed is wrapped in mosquito netting, and smoke from a wooden wheelbarrow of smoldering ashes swirls into the thatching to discourage termites.
At sunset, bats drop from the rafters to feast on flying insects and snakes slither out of the thatch and down the poles to hunt for their dinner in the coming darkness.
I am unsettled and in need of respite from the good-natured chatter of my companions. Truth is, there is a war raging within me. My rational mind, ferociously dismissing the coincidence between my dreams and the warrior’s headdress, is berating me for having been so silly as to be publicly honest about why I am here.
I walk away from our lodging to the palm-lined edge of the bluff to listen to the whisperings of the river below. As I wander down a stony path, I find a steep set of creaking, slippery stairs that leads to the water. At the bottom, I take off my knee-high rubber boots and step out onto a log raft loosely tied to the shore.
The raft gently raises and lowers with the ebbs of the passing current. The warm water pushes up through the logs and laps at the soles of my feet. A snag not far down river gurgles as it submerges and resurfaces in sympathetic rhythm with the raft. Every now and then a fish jumps. Just before full dark, I am startled by a caiman lunging into the water only an arm’s length to my right.
The splash startles tears from my eyes. Tears because the voices in my head might be right, that I am a fool for following my dreams onto this journey. Tears at the possibility that this trip will turn out to be an interesting eco-tour and nothing more.
Even as I allow those thoughts, I know that they aren’t true. Some sort of magic has called me here, and I can sense the magic’s welcome. It is wrapping its arms around me, reaching out to me from the lavender twilight transforming into an indigo evening, from the chant of the cicadas in the canopy, from the flashes of fireflies sparking along the waterline, from the sweet and musky scent of blossom and decay that is carried on the breeze.
The stars begin to appear, pouring into the darkness. They are fuzzy in the humid sky, less crisp than in the delicate air of San Clemente. But they are stronger here. They need to be to push their light through the dense air and dampness, and it seems that if only I listened carefully enough, I would hear their soothing music.