Jungle Firsts

Last week, I flew into the Achaur village of Wayusentza to document a team from Reach Beyond working with the community on a clean water project. There was only room for one of us on the flight, so Mark stayed home to edit our Generations documentary.

As soon as I arrived, I heard everyone was gathered in the village’s common area for chicha time. I knew right away this trip was going to be full of new experiences.

At this point in our travels out to the jungle, I’d missed trying the traditional chicha, a drink made from yuca root that most missionaries here avoid and abhor. This starchy root takes many different forms in Ecuadorian cuisine including manioc cakes and steamed yuca.

But what makes chicha special is that it is made from chewed yuca roots. Women (and only women) chew the tough roots and spit out the liquid. It is then strained, mixed with water, and allowed to ferment for a day or two. The flavor of the chicha varies depending on the saliva of the woman who made it and women are judged by the quality of their brew. In many jungle traditions, this nutritious drink is the refreshment of choice before and after hard work and often takes the place of meals.

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After a morning of hard labor digging trenches for the water project, the community gathered for a chicha break in a large covered building with benches all around the outside. Chicha time doesn’t mean just one drink of chicha, it means dozens of drinks as women walk around the square, each offering her chicha to those seated. It is very offensive to refuse the drink when offered and even more insulting to take one women’s chicha but not another’s. Despite all I’d heard from other missionaries, I could not pass up my chance to try the most famous drink of the jungle. It was pale yellow and a little sour, and actually not too bad. It was an honor to participate in a tradition so central to the community.

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After the chicha break, the Reach Beyond team and I were served lunch prepared by one of the families. A common meal is a stew made with a starch like boiled yuca, potatoes, papa china (a potato-like root), or palm hearts and whatever meat is available, like fish, chicken, or wild boar. The best stew we had was made with smoked guanta, a type of large jungle rodent that tasted a bit like bacon. Another great first!

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Throughout the day, the community continued to work hard digging trenches for a pipe that would eventually bring water up to the village from a spring. It was amazing to see how much was accomplished in one day with everyone working together! Even the kids were happy to be put to work.

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Because of the proximity to the equator, the sun goes down around 6:00 all year round. We ate our dinner of fish stew with our headlamps on in the receding light at a family’s home, their kitten prowling around our table for fish scraps. I had this idea that everyone sits around campfires at night in the jungle and tells stories. But by 6:30, the village was more like a ghost town as everyone retired to their huts and went to bed. Many villagers wake up at 3:00am when it is the best time to go out hunting.

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We camped out in a school building surrounded by the comforting drone of jungle insects and birds (and who knows what else) all night. Brilliant stars and little bursts of green light from fireflies interrupted the intense darkness outside. It was my first night in the jungle and I fell asleep feeling blessed for new experiences and the chance to learn about the Achuar people’s way of life. (A few hours later I was violently woken by hurricane winds and rain flooding my tent but we’ll just pretend that didn’t happen.)

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I recently posted a little more about my trip and waiting for the plane to pick me up on MAF’s blog.

We will be posting a video and photos soon that show more about the water project and ADSE’s partnership with Reach Beyond! Stay tuned…