It’s a little bit absurd to say this, but up until Wednesday of last week, I had never actually seen Yasuní Park. As my research went on, my understanding of Yasuní-ITT moved from generalizations drawn from the secondary literature and rumors collected in Quito to concrete, firsthand accounts on the ground. Yasuní itself, however, remained almost a mythical place, the stuff of Discovery Channel documentaries and novels about the “Green Hell” of Amazonia. With my flight out of the country just one week away, though, I took advantage of the presence of my father (a “walking ATM” as he describes himself) and finally set off for the park itself.
Yasuní is not easy to get to. Our journey started with a twelve-hour boat ride from Coca—itself, not exactly the center of the universe—to Nueva Roca Fuerte, the closest town to the ITT bloc of the park. The river was sufficiently low that we occasionally had to hop out and push ourselves off a sand-bank (“Anyone with an open wound or sore needs to stay in the boat,” our guide informed us, “because there are Pirahnas”). As trips that involve twelve hours of transportation go, though, this one was pretty entertaining, thanks to the fact that we shared our canoe with sixteen unforgettable and fabulous Ecuadorian ecotourism students from Puyo.
Six hours in, I got my first glimpse of Yasuní. Sadly, I knew we had reached Yasuní not because of a visitor center or a signing declaring “Welcome to the Park.” Instead, I could tell that we had reached the park—declared “protected” by the Ecuadorian government and a “Reserve of Cultural and Natural Patrimony” by UNESCO—because I could see oil wells belonging to REPSOL, an Italian corporation. This dispiriting introduction aside, though, as we moved further downstream, the scenery became steadily more spectacular. The forest was no longer secondary regrowth, but untouched primary canopy. Signs of humanity diminished; motorized boats were replaced with dugout canoes; thatched roofs appeared in place of corrugated metal ones.
It was dark when we reached Nueva Roca Fuerte. NRF isn’t nearly as distant or as small as Bameno, the Huaorani community I visited last week, but it felt to me like the ends of the earth, the last gasp of civilization before it is swallowed by the Amazon. The two thousand residents have one car among them, which functions as the city garbage truck. Everything comes in by canoe, and is sold at prices two or three times those in Coca. The water goes off at 9 p.m.; the power at 11 p.m. What really makes NRF seem abandoned, though, is the sense that it’s moving backwards—or, as my Dad put it, that “The future has come many times, and it has always left.” There used to be a plane that came three times a week; now it comes every fifteen days. Gradually, the Rio Napo is “eating” the city (to quote some residents); the first two main streets have now eroded away, and number three is set to last only a few more years.
I can’t explain why, but I absolutely loved NRF. The city is about as isolated as a place can be while still pretending to be a part of modern society. To me, it showed the universality of human aspiration, even in the most impossible of situations. There are restaurants and stores and even a discoteca, all of which are tiny and undersupplied, yet still open at regular hours and attended with care by their owners. As forgotten as the residents seemed to feel, they also appeared to find pride in what their town could offer: “Isn’t it so quiet here? So peaceful?” I was asked over and over again.
On Wednesday, we left early to go inside the ITT bloc; for me, it was a chance to see if the park was really so spectacular as to merit the $3.5 billion dollars Ecuador has demanded to protect it. It was nice to see that the entrance was guarded by a well-kept cabin, with a sign that announced in Spanish “Yasuní National Park: Preserving the Amazon, Protecting the World.” The single ancient ranger, though, didn’t seem quite up to the task of fending of Peruvian loggers and local hunters. Nor did he seem particularly concerned when a few students started fishing under a sign that read—in rather bold font—“No fishing.”
Before I had actually gone into the Amazon, I had an idea for a blog post that would start with something to the tune of: “And on the eight day, God stopped fucking around and created the Amazon.” I got the idea that the Amazon was mighty and fearsome combination of inclement weather, floods, vicious snakes, killer diseases, and a health number of vampire bats. In reality, though, the forest is much lighter, more open, and much less menacing then I expected. It’s not as hot as I thought it would be, nor, really, as rainy. Going through the forest is no safari: the animals are scarce and hidden. In short, I left Yasuní with an acute sense of how incredibly fragile the place is. As much as I like to think of the raw power of nature, here is a place that humanity really can destroy—and, sadly, is actively destroying. Even as far from “civilization” as we were, signs of the depradations of overhunting and colonization were inescable.
On Thursday, I life-listed another country: Peru. In the 1940s, Ecuador lost something to the tune of 40% of its territory in a war with Peru, about which they are still smarting. Ecuador didn’t accept its new border until 1998, though: apparently, according to my Dad, customs officials used to confiscate any map that didn’t show the border of the lost Amazonian territory as “disputed.” My first look at Peruvians, then, was of some gunners manning a cannon at the border, ready to repel an invasion at any moment. (Though the Ecuadorian soldiers I’ve seen can’t even put together matching uniforms, so I’m not sure Peru should feel that threatened). They wouldn’t give me a passport stamp, but I did see some dolphins, so I returned to NRF feeling quite content.
That night was the last of our trip, so we convinced the owners of the NRF discoteca—“The Yellow Shack”—to open up for us. After a few cheers of “Que viva Yasuní!” we started downing Pilseners Peruvian style, in which one person goes around the group with a large bottle and a single glass. Our student friends started to dance, and eventually my Dad joined in, which was fantastic to see (although embarrassing from my point of view, given how utterly he showed me up). At eleven, se fue la luz, but—in a clear show of good priorities—the discoteca has one of NRFs few generators, and the fiesta continued long past midnight.
When we left the discoteca, the night was the darkest I have ever seen in my entire life. The town had not a single light beyond the blacklights of the dance floor behind us. We were too far from any city to have any ambient light on the skyline, and thick clouds covered every single star and the moon. How crazy is it that, at twenty-three, this is where I have come to?
At five a.m., we were back on the boat, motoring back to Coca. Five weeks ago, Coca felt like the ends of the earth, but now that I’ve actually seen the end of the earth, landing felt like a return to civilization. I have a really weird sense, though, that I will be back to NRF at some point in my life.