THERE are many great questions which have dogged mankind across the centuries.
Is there a God? To be or not to be? Is the earth flat? Why are Coldplay so popular?
To those we can add, should you have a wee while floating gently in a large inner tube down a tributary of a tributary of a tributary of a tributary of the Amazon?
It was a pretty idyllic way to spend an afternoon, having been taken upstream from our base on the Rio Arajuno by boat – pretty much the only way to get around in these parts – handed a tube and a beer to wind our gentle (most of the time) way back to our lodge.
But the effects of the beers handed out off the boat as we drifted along for an hour or so raised that important question and threw us back to our first stop on the road out of Quito on day one.
The Mittel del Mundo museum sits on the equator which gives its name to Ecuador and offers an insight into the scientific effects of being slap bang in the middle of the earth and the experiments which pinpointed its exact location, together with a look at the lives of the tribes of the country.
As well as various native creatures, blowpipes and cultural exhibits, we were treated to the sight of sunken heads and – the one which had us all wincing and questioning our decisions a few days later – the penis fish.
Sure there was a proper scientific name, but all we heard while looking at the size of the exhibit on show, was how it latches on (male and female) when people use the Amazon as a public convenience. So penis fish it will remain.
Thankfully we had plenty more to flush that thought from our minds as we wound our way through the mountains, via a first communal roadside truck lunch, to the town of Otavalo.
The main weekly market which takes over much of the town may not have been on, but the smaller daily version was more than enough to lure several of us out and several tents are adorned with alpaca blankets.
After crafts during the day, one side of the square is given over to street food stalls at night and that was enough to attract pretty much the entire group to feast on huge sticks of various meat, cheese empanadas and sheathes of corn among others, all for a couple of dollars (there’s a recurring theme here over the coming days).
Day one, for a good number of us, came to an end at the Red Pub with free-flowing Cuba libres and some rather less pleasant shots enlivening a game of Jenga which ignored most of the traditional rules.
Sore heads or not, the next morning saw us up, tucking into huge plates of pancakes, chocolate and fruit and heading out on a hike around a volcanic lake – a prospect which would have stunned me as much as anyone else not that long ago.
One local bus ride and a journey bouncing around on the back of a utility truck to get there – the last part uphill and off road – we headed off from the high point of the three-hour trek (bar a smaller group who opted for the entire circuit) and all that time spent on the treadmill in the last few months began to pay off.
Considering the elevation – all above 3,100m – and the amount of uphill sections, my body held together and while there is much tougher to come (one lengthy ascent giving a hint of that) was pleasantly surprised at how well it went.
Certainly better than those unable to get a berth inside the trucks on the return journey who had to deal with a downpour of epic proportions. It certainly looked unpleasant for those of us who benefited from a bout of tactical politeness that ensured hanging back for the last truck saw us all seated in the dry.
A brief evening return for street food apart, there was little time to dry off and pack a day bag before we headed off to our jungle retreat for the next three nights – via a lunch stop in the town of Tena which introduced some of us to the delights of neck (recommended) and feet (not so much) in a chicken soup at another ridiculously good value roadside meal.
Run by an American and his wife, the Arajuno Jungle Lodge is a little bit of overlanding heaven – except when you are getting bitten by any number of insects, as my legs will again attest – on the banks of the river which gives it its name.
Between three ridiculously good meals a day, a stream of beers from the lodge and spirits we had carried in ourselves, games to while away the evenings and spotting any wildlife close to home – notably a sizeable tarantula in the roof above the campfire – we headed out on a package of activities over our two full days.
A trip down river to the animal rescue centre Amazoonico was enlightening but a bit depressing, magnificent creatures forced to live out much or all of their lives in cages and enclosures so close to their natural habitats after being mistreated by humans.
The weather took a turn for the worse as we headed upstream – itself an issue with the low water making navigation a bit of an issue – to visit a local community.
Among the parts of their lives covered, we discovered my future does not lie as a blow pipe hunter, the local drink chicha is unlikely to catch on in a big way back home (even with the tradition of using saliva to help the fermentation being ended) and that cooked grubs taste like smoky bacon.
At least when you first start chewing them. That taste quickly morphs into something fishy and then into something that basically urges you to swallow, spit or get it out of your mouth as quickly as possible.
Considering the first stirrings of an upset stomach were already evident, it perhaps was not the brightest choice of snack from those provided, but when in the rainforest…
Not sure the bug was to blame, but my stomach was enough to opt out of the jungle hike the next morning, but no way was it stopping an afternoon tubing.
You are, largely, at the mercy of the river as to your speed and direction, the odd flailing arm steering away from anything potentially tricky.
Somehow managed to hit the current well before everyone else and shot off down river, eventually trapping myself on a tree to wait. Only to struggle to get free and back to the boat to pick up a refill beer.
The boat was needed again to prod me back to shore – and a very ungraceful flop out of the tyre – as the current took hold close to the lodge and we finally had an answer to that great question.
It appears the women did, the men opted against it.
Probably very wise.