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The Rainforest Is Not a Big Mac (and other lessons learned in Puyo, Ecuador)

The Rainforest Is Not a Big Mac (and other lessons learned in Puyo, Ecuador)

By Bani Amor On July 24, 2013

Originally published on Matador Network. Read, comment, like, share, all of the above mofos!


MY OLD APARTMENT in the capital of Quito is a rather famous hub for travelers in Ecuador. My roommates and I were active Couchsurfing hosts, and incessant streams of surfers from all walks of life crashed on mattresses around the house.

On a recent return visit to La Casa Equinoccio — named after the street we lived on, Equinox — a bunch of us decided to take my friend Omar up on his open invitation to visit Finca Argentina, his childhood home in the jungle. Even though it costs a dollar an hour to travel by bus in Ecuador (Quito-Puyo: 4 hours, $4), the ultra-budget-travel bros I ended up going with were dead set on hitchhiking, so that’s what we did.

Puyo is the biggest city in the Ecuadorian Amazon — or, as deep as you can get into it on four wheels, making it a crossroads for rivers, roads, and indigenous communities of El Oriente — “The East.” The chronological history of oil exploitation in Ecuador can be traced from north to south, with Puyo sitting symbolically in the middle, like the unexposed inch of film between ‘before’ and ‘after’ shots. The northern Oriente is full of devastated oil towns crawling with crude businessmen and a generation coming of age with cancer. Here, at the headwaters of the Amazon, an average of over one oil spill a week occurs. In the south, remote territories continue their now-legendary resistance against that kind of future, under the cover of the rainforest.


I took Omar’s room when he moved out of La Casa Equinoccio last year, unpacking my zine collection out of crates as he picked classic novels off a wood-and-concrete bookshelf and stacked them lovingly into a leather suitcase, their brown spines strong as the day they were bound. He was struggling through film school at the Visual Arts Institute of Quito and moving into the cheaper place next door with his girlfriend and her brother to save on cash. A conversation on books and films naturally sparked up over our mutual heaps of crap, and never really ended. We’ve been good friends ever since.


Finca Argentina

He was born and raised on 50 acres of jungle just outside Puyo, in a single-parent household with two brothers and his mom, Guadalupe. When I wasn’t trekking or swimming, I spent most of my time chatting with Lupe at the market or around her kitchen table, half inside and half out. Her father worked there when the land was owned by Germans and inherited it when they moved on to Argentina, naming the farm in honor of their new country. This is one of the cabins the brothers built to accommodate travelers who visit via Couchsurfing and word of mouth.

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Gateway to the wild

Puyo’s exclusive position in the Amazon keeps the wild around it more accessible than it is in most South American countries. You can be dropped in the middle of the city center and wander deep into the jungle within hours. Dive into its rivers’ waters and end up in Peru or Brazil within a few days. Meet folks who live in river villages on the way who don’t speak Spanish, but Shuar, Hoarani, or Kichwa.


‘The rainforest’

Half the Couchsurfers who Omar invites to Finca Argentina turn him down in one sweeping statement or another, saying “I’ve already been to the jungle – in Nicaragua,” or, “I plan to do that later on in Peru,” as if ‘the rainforest’ were one congruous, consumable destination, like a Big Mac that looks, smells, and tastes the same wherever you buy it in the world. Omar usually responds with, “Oh.”


Hello, life

A mix of truck beds, tin-can vans, buses, and our own feet took us to a waterfall about 3 hours north of Finca Argentina. A fallen tree trunk sliced cleanly in half and spread open over a tiny tributary separated our party and 555 acres of secondary rainforest at the Hola Vida Ecological Reserve, where the falls waited.


It’s only sleeping

Crossing the bridge was like walking into a big botanical tent – damp, dark, and quiet on the other side. It was as if everything beneath the jungle canopy had been fast asleep for ages – or just pretending – wrapped in mossy fleece glittered with raindrops and orbited by living particles riding on an absentminded breath, extinguished from the depths of sound dreams.


Life after death

A regimen of sun, rain, and birdsong keep colors saturated in Reserva Ecologica Hola Vida. Even dead things, like this fallen trunk, show signs of life.



There must be millions of palm-tree bridges or whatever other ambiguous variations of passage over water in the tropical forests of the world, and I’ve carefully inched my way along many of them, single-stepping like a bride. But each one is unique – next time, I could slip through cracks, or end up in a completely unexpected world on the other side. Bridges are the places between places, a title for that transitional space in songs between the beginning and the end. That sensation of suspense, both literal and figurative, is something I like to hold on to, so I photographed each one on our hike. If I jammed all the tenuous, trembling jungle bridges on Earth, or even just in ‘the rainforest,’ into one big box in my head, I would have given up on traveling long ago. Left far behind the group, I got lost in a forest of walking palm trees.


The walking palm tree

Instead of just one trunk, Socratea exorrhiza, or the “walking palm” tree, has a network of long legs that crawl (over the course of years) toward sunlight and nutrient-rich soil along rainforest beds in Central America and expanses of the Amazon. Their roots sink deep into the earth, getting grounded for a generation or so before dying off at the bottom while younger ones renew the process up top. When a palm walks into a fallen trunk, it just continues growing horizontally until it’s moved a sufficient distance away from its original site of germination, where it then resumes vertical growth.


Not so much

But as much as I’d like to identify with the vagabond lifestyle of these sol-searching trees, a hard wall of science came down between our romantic metaphor and reality. My later research pointed to arguments relegating the walking palm to myth, while another sizable chunk of evidence still suggests they do walk indeed – just very slowly. I’m not about to sit still in front of one of these with a wooden ruler and a notepad for 60 years, so the walking palms are allowed to drift toward that murky horizon in my mind separating Things I Know For Sure and Not So Much (except that the latter takes up almost all the space).


Cascada Hola Vida

Starting from 70 feet up, the Hola Vida Waterfall plunges into a warm pool carved from a bed of stones – rose quartz, emerald, and even gold. Like all waterfalls in Ecuador, and in native communities around the world, I expect, Hola Vida possesses a ritual significance. Here, going for a swim is a cultural and spiritual ceremony, one of cleansing.


After the storm

The name Puyo comes from the Kichwa word for “cloudy” – puyu. It rains about five times a day here, and I mean serious, doomsday-style storms that scrub the flora good and clean before the sun glazes a waxy sheen all over them again. The clouds part and technicolor hues pop up everywhere you look, like this young colca tree that reflects every color of the rainbow in just a few square inches.


Originally published on Matador Network. Read, comment, like, share, all of the above mofos!

Expedition Denali: The first all-black team to climb America’s tallest mountain

IN THE YEARS I’ve spent climbing mountains, descending into canyons, and generally getting into all sorts of adventures, I’ve rarely run into another person of color in the outdoors.

by BANI AMOR June 7th 2013 Originally published on Matador Network. Please comment and share!

Skimming through the travel glossies that so captured my young imagination revealed images of white people doing what society defined as white people things: hiking, camping, climbing. This vague and at once startlingly direct message from travel media and society at large left an impression on me — a Latino city kid — of total exclusion.

Despite the lack of role models in the outdoors industry, I flung myself into it, with hopes that the next generation of youth of color would find a wild world waiting for them if they only were given the opportunity. If they just saw one other person like them doing it, too. It was after hearing about Expedition Denali that I finally felt like this could become a reality.

This June, 100 years to the month after the highest point in North America, Mt. McKinley (Denali), was first successfully ascended, the first team of African-American climbers will attempt the summit. Besides making history, their expedition can pave the way for a new generation of young people of color to get outside and become stewards of America’s wild places. Thanks to the success of their Kickstarter campaign, a documentary film crew will be chronicling their journey, and a book is in the works.

I recently had the chance to speak with team member and 20-year-old alpinist Rosemary Saal, to talk about inspiring diversity in the outdoors with Expedition Denali.

* * *

Climber posing on mountain
Rosemary Saal / Photo courtesy of the National Outdoor Leadership School
BA: How long until the expedition now?
RS: Just short of two weeks! I can’t believe it.
BA: How do you feel now that it’s so close?

RS: “Pumped” is the first word that comes to mind! Nerves are definitely building up a bit as well, but mostly nervous excitement.BA: On other expeditions — comprising mostly white folks — they’ve got to overcome the altitude, cold, physical exhaustion, etc. They’ve got to climb the mountain. But you guys are representing your race and, you know, climbing the mountain. And not just any mountain — a 20,320 foot-high one. Do you feel the pressure?RS: Only slightly, I’ll admit. The media attention is the main source of pressure, just knowing that the entire expedition will be meticulously documented. But then I remember that this pressure-inducing-exposure will greatly help the whole purpose of the project, and my confidence in this team is reassured.BA: You’re definitely following through with what seems to be the goal of the project, to get the word out and inspire other people of color, mostly young African-Americans, to get out ‘into the wild.’ A 2010 survey revealed that over 80% of Americans who engage in outdoor activities are white. Any idea as to why that is?

RS: I feel that many people of color have the mentality that we do not “belong” in the outdoors. When the sport was first being developed and explored, the traditional participant was a white male. For some reason, this image has stuck in the minds of many and in actuality has not changed significantly.

Many people of color [in my life] have even jokingly claimed that my urge to explore the outdoors myself is the “white” side of me, following that up with “people of color don’t do that.”

BA: As a teenager into punk rock, I was branded as being into “white people stuff” by family and friends. Maybe some POC are hesitant about losing their ‘race badge’ or something. Like it’s easier to fully belong to one community than take the initiative to be different and risk not really belonging to any group. Is Expedition Denali trying to change that story?

RS: Absolutely! It is stereotypes and labels such as those that perpetuate the notion that POC do not have a place in the outdoors or the means to embrace nature. We seek to shift that view, or at least begin to.

BA: You’re breaking down all sorts of boundaries. Your team is incredibly diverse — from teenagers to elders from all over the States, many of whom are women and mixed-race folks. You represent a whole range of the Afro-diaspora.

RS: We most definitely do! I am very proud to be a part of the diversity within this team.

BA: It’s very refreshing. On the other end, I was a bit surprised that in James Mills’ Nat Geo profile of you guys, he felt compelled (by an onslaught of ‘post-racial’ rhetoric from the majority white climbing community) to explain the critical necessity of an expedition of this sort. Have you had to answer to comments like that, too?

RS: The team has had to answer to such comments, yes. There are a few skeptics out there who do not see the necessity or significance of this expedition.

BA: What do you say to them? Or is the message of this expedition just not for them?

RS: We simply acknowledge and stress that this expedition aims to change the views of one aspect of the outdoor industry. While there are many issues involving ethnicity, socioeconomic class, etc. concerning the industry, it would be an entirely different story to tackle and make an impact on them all.

BA: They should look at the facts: By 2018 the majority of youth in the United States will be of color. Considering that most of them are not spending much time outdoors, a message of inclusion would seem imperative to any environmentalist or climber.

RS: Absolutely, a message of inclusion and a set of role models.

BA: Considering all this stigma, how did you first get involved in climbing?

RS: My involvement in climbing proceeded quite naturally. I always enjoyed climbing on anything I could get my hands on practically since I could walk. I was fortunate to be exposed to resources in an environment that introduced me to technical and more “official” climbing opportunities before I was really aware of the stigma.

BA: The way it should be.

RS: Exactly! I totally agree. That is one of the reasons I’m particularly excited to spread the message of Expedition Denali to youth of color. Hopefully they can see this story and realize their ability to get outside before being exposed to the stigma surrounding this topic.

BA: Finally, what does it mean to you personally to be a part of Expedition Denali?

RS: Personally, this expedition means a lot to me. On a personal level, it is a huge physical challenge to accomplish…

Most importantly, however, I am really looking forward to being a role model, to going out and providing an example of how POC truly do belong in the outdoors as well. I had wonderful role models and mentors when I was first getting involved in climbing. I wish to be that person, inspiring and encouraging the next generation the way I was inspired and encouraged.

BA: You’re only 20 and about to make history by ascending the highest point in North America in the first afro-centric expedition. No biggie, no presh…

RS: I know right?! It’s absolutely bonkers! I could not be more stoked.

BA: It’s a very vivid, beautiful metaphor. In a way, you’re carrying a lot of folks — folks like us — to the summit with you. It sounds like you see that as more of an honor than a burden.

RS: I really do. I am so incredibly fortunate and grateful to be a part of this movement. How could I see it any other way?

BA: Word. I’m stoked too, and honored that you took the time out of your training to talk today. Say hi to Denali for me! I know you’ll do an awesome job.

RS: Thanks girl! I will most definitely send your regards. 

Group of climbers poses for shot
Photo courtesy of the National Outdoor Leadership School

Originally published on Matador Network. Please comment and share!

Read more at http://matadornetwork.com/sports/expedition-denali-the-first-all-black-team-to-climb-north-americas-tallest-mountain/#JC0h1BuKymB6uJU8.99