Yesterday I got to speak with my father on Skype. Before we hung up I said, “Wish me luck. This next portion of my trip might be a bit dangerous.”
The cops and a few other locals told me not to ride through the indigenous Shuar communities because there is too much suspicion that gringos are responsible for the recent decapitations of locals. Peace Corps Volunteers said I’d probably be fine, just be careful.
So my goal was to ride as far and as fast as possible, carry a lot of water and food, and don’t stop in any towns for any reason. I needed to make it to a certain bridge where I was told it would be easy to find a safe place to camp.
I wasn’t there yet. The sun was setting. I needed to figure out where I was going to sleep. I knew the bridge was close, but how close?
I decided it would be okay to stop once to ask how far away bridge was. Just once. I would look for friendly people. Over there to the right, two men and two women. It looked like they were waiting for a bus. I greeted them, still rolling. “Hola!” “Hola,” they responded. Okay. I stopped. The men stood up to shake my hand. Friendly folks. Where am I from? What is my name? Where am I going? I answer the questions, then get a question of my own in: “How far to the bridge?” Ten minutes on a bus. Great, it must be more downhill than uphill, because the bridge goes over a river. I could see a valley in the distance. I bet that’s it. I can probably make it in 30-45 minutes. But I have to hurry.
I said thanks, I had to hurry before the sun set. Their hands were on my handlebars. They said to wait. And they flashed fake smiles at each other. Then the real questions began. Why am I in their town? How did I get into Ecuador? Do I have a passport? They requested my passport.
By now I realized they were drunk. Under the bench, 4 large, empty beer bottles. I kicked myself. Why hadn’t I spotted the bottles before?! I never would have stopped here had I seen the bottles.
Then the men and women started talking to each other in Shuar. Here’s what I heard, “Blah blah blah cortacabeza blah blah blah.” Cortacabeza means head-cutter-offer in Spanish.
I said, “I heard you say cortacabeza. I understand your concern. It’s horrible what is happening around here. The police in Macas were suspicious of me too. They searched my bags and wrote a police report. But no, don’t worry, I’m just doing an environmental project and I write journalistic stories on a website. I’m raising money to help protect a forest where indigenous Paraguayans live.” It didn’t work.
They started opening the bags on my bike. I tried to pull away, but their grip on my bike tightened. They said, “You’re not going anywhere until we say so. We’re the authorities here.” I started getting scared. Really, really scared.
I took the psychological route. “I came this way because I was told the people on the coast are dangerous, to avoid them and travel through the oriente because the people here in the oriente are friendlier.”
“We’re friendly. We’re just talking to you.” They were standing inches from my face, demanding that I provide proof I didn’t kill their neighbors. You don’t have to be a philosopher to understand the difficulty of proving you didn’t do something. Now they were unclipping my pannier saddlebags, unzipping my handlebar bag, looking all around my bike for evidence I was responsible for the deaths in the area. I was physically removing their hands from my bike each time. And I was trembling. There was no sign they were going to let me go and they were getting more aggressive.
“Yeah, you were friendly before but not anymore. You’re disrespecting me. I have travelled through many countries and you are the only two people who have ever grabbed my bicycle and prevented me from leaving.”
“Just show us your passport.” My passport was in a secret place with my cash and debit card.
Suddenly I spotted two young boys, maybe 10 years old, walking down the street. “Help me! Please help me! These men won’t let me go!” I screamed as desperately as possible so the drunk men would realize the weight of the situation. The two boys approached us as I thought Stupid, stupid. What are two little boys going to do against two drunk men?
The men continued to ask to see my passport, saying only a headshrinker would travel without identification. I thought about my sales training when I worked at L.A. Fitness in Arizona. There, I would say, “If I could get my manager to give you a discount would you become a member today?” (Wow, I hated that job.)
Now there were six people around and the drunk men were the minority. I thought it was as safe a time as ever to show my passport. I said, “If I show you my passport, you’ll let me go?” They said yes, kind of. I explained some rules, talking down to them, treating them like children. “I’ll show you my passport. You can memorize or write down any information you want, but don’t touch anything because I really feel like I am in a dangerous situation, you have both been drinking, and you might be trying to rob me.”
“We’re not going to rob you–” I showed them my passport. They tried to take it out of my hands at least three times. I jerked away each time saying, “I won’t let you see it if you try to take it from me. I don’t want any problems. Just look, please. Relax. Relax. I’m not a dangerous person. Look, I read my full name and passport number out loud.” They each had a hand on my shoulder and a hand on my bike.
After I showed them my passport and read every detail aloud they still weren’t satisfied, of course. They didn’t let go of my bike. Why would they? Of course the cortacabeza would have a passport. A passport is not a difficult thing to get. They started saying ridiculous things like, “We can’t just let you go. How do we know you’re not the cortacabeza? You understand. A gringo is responsible for the deaths around here, and here comes a gringo travelling alone through our community. We can’t let you go until we’re sure.” I was in the Amazon in a town not on my map and it was getting dark. Not good.
We argued for another 5 minutes. I didn’t say much. In the end, it was the two women and the two boys, both in a submissively shy kind of way, who magically convinced the men to let go of my bike. We shook hands goodbye at least 10 times.
I didn’t make it to the bridge, so I found a small path into the jungle and set up camp next to a river. Not as well hidden as I would have liked, but okay. A few meters away was an army of leaf cutter ants. I watched them for a few minutes, impressed as always by nature.
The thought crossed my mind, No, there’s no way leaf cutters could cut through a tent. And even if they could, why would they?
Then I went to bed, but not for long…
I woke up when I realized I had been slapping at bugs in my sleep for a while. Must have been hours. My eyes adjusted to the darkness and I couldn’t believe what I saw. No, those can’t be holes in my tent. No way. I grabbed the headlamp and turned it on.
I posted a facebook and twitter udpate announcing that ants had eaten at least 50 holes in my tent. After the updates I tried counting the holes. In one area the size of my hand there were more than 80. Hundreds of holes. The strange thing is they carried pieces of the tent away. They cut them like leaves and the pieces were nowhere to be found! Any entomologists want to explain this to me? It had been raining a lot. Maybe the nylon was molding and appeared organic to the ants.
Again, I was lucky. As I gave up on killing ants and finished packing the tent full of dead and live ants the sun began to rise. It was not the middle of the night as I had suspected. I got on the bike. It was probably around 6am.
By the end of today I should be in Puyo and out of headshrinking territory. What a week! I decided I’d get a hostel.