Carnival in Coca
Sunday, February 6 2005
setting: Sacha Lodge, Amazonia, Ecuador
Yesterday I'd decided to heighten my enjoyment of the afternoon walk by taking 120 milligrams of pseudoephedrine first. Part of the reason I took it was therapeutic. I was hoping to cut down on the amount of phlegm I was still hacking up. I suspect the pseudoephedrine had something to do with how high I'd been able to climb the that twisted pair of Strangler Fig vines.
This morning Gretchen was dealing with some minor phlegm issues of her own, so she asked for pseudoephedrine. I gave her sixty milligrams and I took another 120 milligrams myself. At the time it was still very early, not even six o'clock yet. And we'd yet to put anything in our stomachs.
Gretchen and I weren't in the Sacha dining room very long before I realized I'd overdosed on pseudoephedrine. I knew something was wrong because I could feel a wave of energy washing upward into my head, a fairly intense feeling coming way too soon after I'd taken the pills. Obviously something was wrong. Much of the problem was the foolishness of eating the pills on an empty stomach. But there was probably also some pseudoephedrine remaining in my system from yesterday, and one thing about low levels of pseudoephedrine is that they can be amplified intensely by taking either more pseudoephedrine or else something like marijuana. (This has been my experience in the past.) But the question was: what should I do now? I was in a panic, wondering if maybe this was it, that I was going to kill myself or else make a spectacle there in Sacha Lodge. I decided that my only hope was to go make myself throw up.
I couldn't go back to my room because I knew the sound of my forced wretching would raise an alarm with the neighbor in the other half of the hut duplex. So I decided to go a short way into the rain forest, back in the secluded place between the main compound and the mariposio. I sat down on the ground an put my thumb down my throat. There was a mighty gag and a wretching noise, but no vomit. At that point I looked up and saw one of the native guides standing at the boardwalk shining his flashlight at me. Oh shit! I didn't want to discuss this matter with him (in Spanish or otherwise). So I got up and walked calmly past the guy and retreated to my cabin. I was going to have to try to throw up there.
I turned on the shower to make some cover noise and then shoved my thumb down my throat. Still nothing. So I shoved my whole hand in my mouth, forcing a mighty muscle-pulling wretch. Still nothing! And now my neck hurt from the pulled "wretch muscle." The problem must have been that I just didn't have enough stuff in my stomach to vomit. So I drank a bunch of water directly from the tap, something we'd been cautioned not to do. But even then I couldn't vomit. The pseudoephedrine was determined to stay in my body and I was going to have to figure out a way to live with it.
So I returned to the dining room and found Gretchen, who had probably wondered where I'd gone. I explained the entire situation to her. Somewhat unexpectedly, she was amazingly calm and reasssuring. She told me to eat a little bread and drink a lot of fluids. Somehow we arrived on the idea of me drinking milk. This was the first time I'd had a glass of milk in well over a decade. I drank two of them. It was warm milk that had been set out for use with cereal. It seemed especially fatty, perhaps because I've grown accustomed to pouring 2% milk on my cereal.
Almost as if by magic, my panic and throbbing pulse ebbed away and I felt reasonably normal again. Don't get me wrong; I was still amped up on pseudoephedrine, but in a familar way. I didn't feel like my head was a few steps short of exploding.
Today was the day that Gretchen and I would begin our gradual trek back to civilization. A complication in our itinerary had materialized even before we'd left for Coca. It seems that Sunday is Carnival, a holiday in Coca, and there are no flights out of its airport on that day. But that had been the day that we'd originally been scheduled to fly back to Quito. Sacha Lodge had decided that they were at fault for this oversight and agreed to put us up in a hotel in Coca until Monday. They would have even let us stay at the lodge, but we wouldn't have been able to get to the Coca airport early enough for our flight on Monday.
In the meantime, though, there was no hurry about getting to Coca. We were told we could continue doing lodge activities until 10am this morning. From our various options we decided to go with just Ernesto on a walk through the rainforest looking for monkeys (possible because we'd spent months studying Spanish and didn't require a translator). Meanwhile the the British ladies and others would be going up the Napo some miles to a nearby national park to see parrots.
Things seemed promising as Ernesto and I rowed the canoe across Sacha's blackwater lake. Off in the distance we could hear the roar of Howler Monkeys. They are some of the loudest animals on the planet and it only takes a few of them to make a thunderous din similar to that of a landing jetliner.
The Ernesto actually saw one of the monkeys in a distant tree. He pointed it out to use and it took several minutes of careful looking before we saw something moving in the boughs. In lieu of a difficult-to-understand explanation in Spanish, Ernesto handed us his mammals guide. Gretchen noticed a little cheat sheet Ernesto had made on the inside of the cover. It was a series of phrases in Spanish translated into phonetic English. This answered the big question I'd had all along, why didn't Ernesto try to learn English. The answer was here. He was trying. Gretchen asked if Ernesto had any books to help him and he said no, that books were expensive and hard to get. For a moment I wondered why Sacha Lodge doesn't do more to teach its native guides English but then I more or less figured out the answer on my own. They don't want guides speaking broken English to their guests. They want people with solid British and American accents speaking all the English. Otherwise they'd have a bargain-rate situation like we had on the Golondrina, where nobody really knew precisely what the guide was talking about.
Once we'd crossed the lake, we walked a short ways down the boardwalk and came upon a pair of native guides, one of whom pointed out what he said was a pair of sloths in one of the trees. To me they just looked like immobile blobs, but I figured he knew what he was talking about.
Ernesto, Gretchen, and I tromped through the forest for a couple hours, passing through an abandoned bannana plantation and ending up at the ruin of a building that had once housed the workers who had built Sacha Lodge. Occasionally we'd see or hear an interesting bird, and at one point we came upon a massive leaf-cutter ant colony, but where were the monkeys? Occasionally we could hear them, but they were much too far away.
We eventually ended up at Sacha's dock on the Napo River just as the others were getting back from their parrot watching expedition. Richard had been with the parrot watchers and he noted that we still had forty minutes if we wanted to keep on hiking. So off we went again, now joined by that trainee guide from yesterday, the one with the computerized Spanish translator gizmo.
Finally Ernesto found us some monkeys. It was a mob of squirrel monkeys, some off in the distance but clearly visible and then some right nearby. The nearby ones seemed startled by our sudden appearance and took flight through the trees. We saw one jump from one branch to another with both his little arms in the air, a move Gretchen imitated several times. She was delighted.
Eventually we returned to the Napo dock, said goodbye to Ernesto, and clambered onto the big canoe that would take us back up the muddy river to Coca. We were the only passengers on the ride. With us were two crewman and (for a mile or two) a Sacha employee who needed a ride home.
The weather was much better going to Coca than it had been the other way. The sun hung nearly directly overhead, strong but still pleasantly weakened by the translucent fabric forming the canoe's roof. Near Coca the crew broke out some box lunches for us. They were unexpectedly delicious vegetarian sandwiches.
The canoe dropped us off directly at the place where we'd be staying, Hotel La Misión, which had its own dock. The dock was a makeshift structure with lots of places to accidentally bump your head or pinch your foot. This tipped me off right away that our accommodations were probably not going to be quite five star. Still, I wouldn't have been surprised to discover that Hotel La Misión is the best hotel in all of Coca.
Things didn't get off to a promising start; the first room we were taken to had three beds in it but it also had an inch or two of water on the floor.
The second room was on the second floor and smelled a little unpleasant and overlooked a dismal construction site, but the air conditioner worked and there even seemed to be a full spectrum of Spanish-language cable on the television. Several of the channels were in English with Spanish subtitles.
The Coca Sacha employee came to our room and told us (in Spanish) that we could have anything we wanted at the restaurant, that the tab was being taken care of by Sacha. She also warned us about venturing out into Coca at night or venturing out at all, since, because it's Carnival, we might fall prey to typical Carnival pranks. Mostly these pranks take the form of hurled balloons full of water, but occasionally there's also spray foam. "It's ugly out there," she sighed.
For now, though, all we wanted to do was meet the Hotel La Misión's captive animals. The fact that the hotel has animals is its own sort of tragedy, since these animals had once lived wild in the rain forest and had at some point been taken from their homes. Now they spend their lives in cages providing amusement for a hotel. Since they were there and we were here, we figured we might as well take advantage of the entertainment they were there to provide.
When we arrived the parrots and toucans were out of their cages, hopping around, exploring their world, and occasionally eating things. To keep them from escaping all their wings had been clipped. The toucans were the most outgoing of the birds and they kept pecking at my toes. Always convinced that they'd somehow plucked off a morsel of flesh, they'd flick their beaks back to toss "it" towards their throats. But there never was anything to swallow. I saw them do this with bits of rice and you could see the tiny fleck of white executing a perfect parabola in the space between their colorful upper and lower bills, which looked like they'd been made of plastic at a sweatshop in China. You could almost see the little straps around the backs of their heads keeping them attached. Nothing about the toucan's anatomy is convincing. The joint where feathers meet beak looks like it is in desperate need of the subtle touch of an experienced designer.
Gretchen was most interested in the hotel's two squirrel monkeys Pepe and Pepito, which were running back and forth in their little four foot wide cage. We poked grass through the wires and they grabbed them with their little hands and hauled them in like mimes with an imaginary rope.
We decided to go on a walk through downtown Coca, mostly so I could get a beer. The sidewalks were full of people, some standing around smiling, others looking irritated and in a hurry. Everywhere little boys were holding balloons full of water, each waiting to conceal himself so he could covertly dampen the prospects of some unsuspecting stranger. Every now and then there'd be a little dustup as some teenage boys would spray colorful foam into a teenage girl's hair. The ones doing the spraying seemed to be having a much better time than those being sprayed.
Further out, the sidewalk population thinned out and those few remaining had to be careful about people hiding on rooves and balconies above. Many of these people were intoxicated adults with vast stockpiles of water ammunition. I saw at least one group of water slingers with an entire kiddie pool of water. For them, soaking pedestrians was a simple matter of filling and then quickly emptying a bucket.
At a dusty little grocery store Gretchen and I bought beers and sat at an outdoor table watching some kids armed with super soakers blast pedestrians and open vehicles from the roof of a business with an interesting name: Lubricadora Nueva Delhi. Could it be that it was owned by an Indian from India? If so, how did he get to Coca and why was he still here?
On our way back through Coca we took a side street and ended up in the target range of some very determined Carnival celebrants. They weren't content to simply assail us with water from afar, particularly after I'd given them the international sign for "bring it on sign." They came charging over and thoroughly foamed us, giggling hysterically the whole time. Gretchen was pleased; we'd come to Coca and were participating in it thoroughly. But then she saw a guy basting an intact but thoroughly dead pig right there on the sidewalk and she felt the need to reconsider.
As we drew closer to our hotel, we saw another sight that made us wince. It was a courtyard with a few puppies and maybe a cat, as well as some animal shrieking in piercing notes at the upper end of our hearing range. It was a little squirrel monkey that was, get this, tied up. For a moment Gretchen went crazy with empathetic rage but there was nothing we could do. We later learned from the Hotel La Misión staff that this particular monkey actually has a fairly good life (for a captive monkey) and that he has to be tied up some of the time or, like Curious George, he gets into trouble.
The Hotel La Misión has a nice big swimming pool with a water slide, but we found it completely unusable because it was overrun with children of various ages ranging from whiny little kids to flirty teenage girls and showoffy teenage boys. Gretchen dove in briefly but then immediately went off to visit the squirrel monkeys.
By now they'd been let out of their cage and they were free to swing about on the wall conduit, harass the toucans, and clamber all over whomever thought they were adorable. They were all over us, jumping from one of us to the other and streaking across the sidewalk, around a column, and then maybe back again. It's impossible to describe how agile a monkey is. They break all the rules of non-monkey locomotion. What other creatures can pivot their arms and legs in any direction? Have you ever seen an animal that bank shoots itself off a wall? As far as I could tell, the monkeys lacked prehensile tails, but it was not feature they seemed to require. When the monkeys weren't wowing us with their gymnastics they'd impress us with their curiosity, an attribute intimately tied to their tiny human hands. If one wanted to know about your lip, he'd grab it and knead it like a piece of dough and then maybe pull himself up on it so he could grab the side of your nostril with his other hand and then maybe go sailing up onto your shoulder. Gretchen couldn't get enough of the monkeys, even after they'd pissed down the back of her shirt and shit on her multiple times.
Of course, eventually she did want to take a shower. In our bathroom there was a frightening-looking device on the shower head haphazardly wired into an electrical box. I guessed it was some sort of just-in-time water heating system, but I had my doubts whether it would work or whether it was safe. Sure enough, when Gretchen went to adjust the switch on the thing she felt a current surge through her body. That was the kind of hotel we were staying in. It didn't take much effort to find other things about the hotel that would be considered serious building code violations in the United States.
Going down a major stairway, for example, I found that I could easily hit my forehead on the concrete overhead just by leaning forward slightly.
Little third world details like those made us feel a little less bad about washing all our mildewy clothes and then draping them over a publicly-visible balcony rail to dry.
We watched a little teevee in our room and then Gretchen watched a DVD on my iBook. At some point we wandered down to the outside area of the Hotel La Misión restaurant and ordered our complimentary meal. I thought my rice and shrimp entré was a little expensive at $12 (we were in Coca, after all, and there was nothing special or particularly delicious about it). As for Gretchen, she was appalled to discover that the red sauce that had been put on her pasta had been made from ketchup. That's a very basic no-no in the world of food preparation.
Termite tunnels make this tree resemble leaded glass.
A very green beetle near the Napo.
This electrical shower heating unit looks like it might shock you. Looks don't deceive.
A captive toucan at Hotel La Misión.
Captive birds at Hotel La Misión.
A young woman with a super soaker waits to celebrate Carnival on the streets of Coca.
An unsuspecting pedestrian passes beneath some well-armed juvenile Carnival celebrants.
A bus passes beneath our celebrants.
A captive squirrel monkey at Hotel La Misión.
Oh, the face hugging!
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