Deep In The Amazon – A Travel Journal
As we descended through the blanket of clouds into Leticia, the reality of the world we were entering took on new life and meaning.
The Amazon had existed in our minds before as an idea fueled by stories of unparalleled biodiversity, a century of countless ethnobotanical discoveries, and captivating legends of ruthless and seductive anacondas, massive tarantulas, unspeakable river monsters, and rumors of whatever else may live hidden deep in the heart of that jungle.
What lay before us was a vast sea of thick tropical rainforest — thousands of shades of green — as far as the eye could see in every direction from 15,000 feet.
There was no sign of human dominance aside from the airstrip, a small cluster of simple tiendas, and a series of stilted riverside abodes that made up the bustling hub of Amazonian operations.
From above, the jungle looks impenetrable and hostile, yet exotic and mysterious. The sight captivates the imagination and ignites a deep-seated yearning to understand and explore the unknown.
No roads lead to Leticia, the only semblance of “civilization” this deep into the Colombian Amazon. Carved out of the thick vegetation, it is accessible only by air or a long, grueling sail up the Amazon River. Seeking to learn from the perspectives of my hosts and immerse myself in their lives, so intimately tied with the natural world, I boarded a boat in Leticia to take me deep into the wet, humid wilderness.
I was to spend time living among the Ticuna — an experience that would profoundly transform the way I view humanity and my own interpretation of the world.
As the boat left Leticia, the stilted homes lining the banks of the Amazon River slowly dissolved away into the thick vegetation of the tropical rainforest. Still tied to a state of mind ruled by time, a remnant of the world I was leaving behind, I painfully counted every minute of the three hours of uninterrupted, seemingly-featureless jungle coastline and milky brown water.
As the week would go on, without a watch, a phone, or an appointment to catch, I was able to slowly let go of this attachment to time. As I allowed the moments of the day to come and go as they pleased, the tangible reality of time and its domination over life began to lose its potency. All energy was funneled into the moment at hand. Our rides along the river — the only way to travel reliably in this world — became a meditative exercise in awareness.
The featureless coastline sprang to life. Each tree and bush revealed its individual identity to the chorus of millions of birds, frogs and insects singing to la selva as it transformed from primary forest to secondary forest to ancient virgin forest. Time both slowed down and sped up, as our only reference for remaining daylight became the sun’s current position in the sky.
The unrecognizable cacophony of jungle noises began to separate into the distinct sounds and songs of each of its participants, from waves breaking to birds singing, to trees dancing in the wind.
Turning off the “Big River,” we started up an affluent named Río Amacayacu that would be our home for the rest of the week.
This stretch of river is the only world that many of the Ticuna know or ever will know. While some venture as far as Leticia or neighboring villages like Puerto Nariño for supplies or further schooling, most will spend close to — if not wholly — all of their lives along the banks of Amacayacu, coming to understand the land, its intricacies, rhythms, patterns, and non-human inhabitants more intimately than an outsider could ever begin to imagine.
Most of the Ticuna on Amacayacu live in San Martín, a village of 650.
With only a few thatch-roofed dwellings visible from our boat, we observed the community from afar as hoards of children played and bathed in the river, climbed up into the riverside forest canopy to use it as a high dive, and swung on vines as the women peacefully washed clothes on wooden rafts and canoes tied to the shore.
The river — the one filled with the anacondas and unknown creatures that haunted our dreams in anticipation of the journey — appeared to be the hub of all activity in San Martín. Our waves were met by the blank stares of the river-goers, justifiably wary and suspicious of outsiders.
After passing San Martín, we continued down the Amacayacu. The pristine wilderness was interrupted only occasionally by residents of San Martín in small canoes, venturing upriver in search of dinner with their hand lines and seeking refuge in the overgrowth lining the river as they had been doing for thousands of years.
Eventually, we reached our home, a small complex of isolated bungalows constructed by two Ticuna elders – “Don” Agusto and “Doña” Maria — who had left the “loud, big-city life” of San Martín for quiet and solitude.
Built with natural materials and the help of extended family and friends, the jungle compound revealed the remarkable skill and resourcefulness of the Ticuna people.
Agusto and Maria have turned to hosting travelers as an income stream with which to sustain their life of tranquilidad and solitude and to teach outsiders about their way of life. It was an intimate setting – our group of three were their only guests.
Sitting in the kitchen as the Doña and her daughter cooked a meal of yuca and exotic fruits grown in their garden and fish caught 100 feet away, Don Agusto told stories and Ticuna folklore, attempting to begin explaining the cosmology, spirituality, and identity of his people.
The mission to understand each other was a long, complex, yet fruitful process — and one that is very far from complete (it will require much more time spent together).
The juxtaposition between our outside lives could not be more pronounced. They live as the inhabitants of a jungle filled with creatures that could kill them at any moment, while I was raised in the concrete jungle of New York City, where all natural danger is controlled and mitigated by human domination.
Their small pocket of the rainforest is the only world they have ever known, and their sense of place, home, and community entirely defines who they are. I, on the other hand, have spent 11 out of the last 13 months living on the road out of a backpack, unsure of what place I can technically deem my “home.”
Their cosmologies, beliefs, and perspectives were formed in a world where all beings and natural entities are living and imbued with meaning, spirit, and mystery — where they are a part of an interconnected fabric of life, one with everything around them. And while I have grown to lean towards this perspective, my culture is ruled by objective science, where all entities are just collections of vibrating, unconscious elementary particles and the human self is separate from nature and everything that surrounds it.
As the days went on, we learned from each other and began to overcome the obstacles of the differences in our conditioning, such that we could truly connect as humans.
While our outside histories could not have been more different, we are fundamentally the same on the inside.
In recognizing our similarities and the vast differences in our worldviews, it is possible to understand that the perspective that dominates the Western world is not the inevitable progression of human development. It is but one way of seeing and engaging with the world.
Absent from any sort of measurable material wealth, technology, prestige, or power over others, Don, Doña, and their family are remarkably happy and peaceful people – more so than anyone else I have ever known. It can be seen in the light of their eyes and in the way in which they speak Spanish and their native tongue, as if singing it back to the birds and contributing their part to the ongoing song of the jungle. When the family is healthy and fed, there is nothing else in the world to worry about.
Connected and related to everyone and everything around them, life is filled with meaning. When the skies open up and rain and thunder reigned down on the world, Don Agusto would look up and say “Dios habla.” God Speaks.
Living with their family, spending time in San Martin, exploring the jungle and the rivers of the Amazon with the Ticuna, and taking a step away from the Western world, I was able to reconnect with reality: full presence and awareness in the current moment and that primordial feeling of being an active participant in the natural world, connected to its rhythms and flows.
I felt vulnerable yet whole and filled with meaning and purpose as I assumed that active, interrelated role in the uncontrollable, unforgiving wilderness.
I found a similar vulnerability in opening myself fully and completely to others, paying total and complete attention to what the Ticuna were saying in order to understand them and speaking honestly, thoughtfully, and incredibly intentionally to help them understand where I came from.
Experiences like these, absent from all distractions and open to the wisdom of these remarkable people and places, reveal what it truly means to be a human in this world.
They have the potential to significantly broaden cognitive horizons and stoke an urge to dig deeper to try to understand what really matters and what this thing is really all about. They show the vast, beautiful diversity of the ways of being that are available to us as people — revealing that the way we are accustomed to is not the only way.
*** My experience with the Ticuna was facilitated by Untrodden, an online travel discovery platform for those that want to venture off the beaten path and immerse themselves in wild places and remarkable cultures***