They had never explored their own country, small though it was. Ecuador is a fascinating place, composed of four distinct ecoregions that every local schoolchild and tourist can describe. There’s the coastal plain, which starts at the edge of the Pacific Ocean and spreads eastward to the foothills of the Andes – mostly flat, once covered with tropical forest, but now supporting pastures and palm oil plantations. Then, there is the double ridge of the Andes mountains, with its snow-capped volcanic peaks and well-inhabited valleys. To the east is the Amazon – an almost endless expanse of dense tropical rainforest occasionally punctuated by sprawling and squalid oil boom outposts. And, 600 miles off the west coast, are the Galapagos Islands, unique in their ecology and animal life and famous for the role they played in the development of evolutionary theory.
They – cloud forest denizens, mestizos of mixed European and indigenous bloodlines – had grown up on the western side of the 20,000 ft. tall Andes. Their village, Marianitas, comprised 14 simple wood houses lining the four sides of an oversized soccer field. And, until I came along, their travel forays had extended only as far the capitol city of Quito, 50 miles to the east, where they would go to do business, obtain a license, a bank loan or receive their social security. Once there, they would walk the busy sidewalks slowly and deliberately, tentatively crossing the car-clogged streets and marveling at the tall buildings. They had not ventured further east towards the Amazon, full of legend and lore, jungle and indigenous communities. It’s not that they hadn’t wondered about it. It’s just that they had no reason to. Adventure, tourism, just wanting to see and know was not enough for them. They needed a connection, a reason. And that’s what I provided.
I was the director of the Maquipucuna Cloud Forest Reserve in northwestern Ecuador, and part of my job included training the staff as ecotourism hosts and guides. Our ecolodge was new, as were the roles of the nearby community members in servicing the lodge and its visitors. As longtime residents of the area, the villagers were imbued with the knowledge and the spirit of the forest. They were eager to share it with foreign visitors who had little concept of local ecology and traditional uses of the vine-draped trees and leafy understory of these highland forests, often bathed in clouds.
As for visiting the Amazon basin, they hadn’t really considered it. Until now, there had been no reason to see how their distant cousins from the lowlands hunted for monkeys or agoutis, caught fish, stripped palm branches to make household items, or scraped the outer covering of vines for medicine. Nor had they considered how other tourist lodges were organized, what they looked like, how they served their food, or how they conducted guided walks. All that they knew about ecotourism and their responsibilities for visitors and forest conservation, they had learned in the Maquipucuna cloud forest just outside their door.
I, on the other hand, came from a larger, diverse and experienced world. In fact, I was from another country, recognized for its size, creativity, and varied lifestyles and customs. I, had seen much, experiencing a variety of ecosystems and tourism operations, and I knew that useful learning involves understanding things, people and places in relationship to what else exists. I felt that it would be valuable for my staff to see and experience how ecotourism operations are run at another lodge and in another ecosystem. So, I proposed that we take a trip to the Amazon, to visit Cabañas Aliñahui on the Napo River, and to be ecotourists there. That is, to see another version of the Maquipucuna prototype, and to view it with new eyes – in part as a tourist and in part as a student.
We took the bus to Quito, climbing up over the Andes and back down again to the jungle city of Tena, a good eight hours away. The road, which started as a winding highway climbing the cordillera and passing treeless plains and busy highland villages, gradually became a dusty dirt track walled on both sides by dense green forests and towering trees. Just before nightfall, we arrived at our destination, a series of cabins built with tropical timbers and spread about on a grassy lawn overlooking a wide and lanky river. We were welcomed by Edwin, the cheerful lodge manager, who showed us our rooms and fed us piranha with plantains, treating us as if we were honored guests from another country. The food, locally caught and harvested; the wood and vines used to build the lodge; and the beaded decorations on the wall were revelations of novelty for my companions who had spent their entire lives less than 200 miles away.
The next day, on a thorough tour of the ecolodge’s grounds and attractions, Edwin lead us across a grassy expanse to the storage shed. Inside were three lawn mowers, as well as gardening tools, extra bed frames, chairs, tables and an old refrigerator. Pancho, a bright-eyed, yet timid young man eager to learn and to teach his new ecotourist friends, gazed at the mowers, hesitated a moment, and finally looked up and ask, “What are those?” “Lawn mowers,” was the response from Edwin. Trying to hide his reticence and modesty, he tried again, “What are they for?” “To cut the grass,” came the second response. Gradually, Pancho began to understand. It was possible to use a machine, powered with gas, to cut large expanses of grass.
For generations, he and his neighbors in Marianitas had used machetes to cut the large soccer field that formed the center of their village, but now it became clear that this was not the only way. It could be made easier. Modern technology could be applied. I saw a light go off in Pancho’s head – a spark of realization that the world was bigger and even more exciting than he had ever imagined.
And, I felt that by sparking that lamp of insight within Pancho’s mind, I had fulfilled my role as a teacher and mentor.