Gail Howard explores the Ecuadorian jungle with Jivaro Indian guides of shrunken head fame, meets a witch doctor and learns how to cast a spell. Gail is befriended by a red clay-coiffed Tsachila Indian witch doctor – the Brujo – and his family In Santo Domingo de Los Colorados, where she is forced to go native (and topless).
In Quito, Gail and her sister, Terry, meet adventure writers Jane Dolinger and Ken Krippene, who spin some wild tales about them in newspapers around the world. Gail and Terry travel by train through the Devil’s Nose – Nariz del Diablo to Guayaquil, by plane to jungle towns, Tiputini and Pastaza, and by dugout canoe guided by Jivaro Indians down the Rio Napo, an Amazon tributary, to reach Nuevo RocaFuerte.
Gail Howard hunts for art and artifacts in the lush emerald rainforest jungles thick with wildlife, song, and beer-drinking soldiers. She gets the knack of buying good tigre (leopard) hides (ones that are tanned as opposed to stinking fresh) and other Indian artifacts, the most gorgeous being colorful tiny dead birds, brilliant as gems.
Gail describes the amusing antics of the tiny fly-eating Pichico Mystax monkey named Chichico she adopts in the jungle and, weeks later, smuggles aboard a flight to Peru. After an 11-hour train ride through 69 tunnels, across 58 bridges on the world's second highest railway,she reaches the barren highlands of Huancayo, Peru, where Gail conducts a “Gail-Up Poll” asking poverty-stricken Quechua-speaking Indians what is the one thing they need more than anything else. Their uniform response is guaranteed to surprise you.
As our plane landed in Quito, Ecuador, my sister, Terry, and I were greeted by throngs of people on the flight deck waving signs: "Yankees Go Home," "Down With Imperialism," "Cuba Si, Yanquis No."
We were relieved to learn they were not there to protest our arrival, but to welcome their Vice President, Carlos Julio Arosemena, an avowed leftist and champion of Castro, who was returning from Moscow on the next flight. The year was 1961.
Quito is a charming city, rich in 17th and 18th century colonial buildings. The oldest section of the city, La Ronda, has quaint old buildings (some dating from the 16th century), on either side of a narrow cobblestone street. Near the city on a clear day, we could see rising in the distance seven snow-capped Andean peaks.
On a side trip from Quito, Terry and I traveled six hours by bus to Santo Domingo de Los Colorados to see the Sunday market. From there we traveled another two hours by Jeep to San Miguel, where we hired a ten year-old boy named Chico to lead us to the witch doctor's house a mile away.
We walked single-file down the well-worn jungle path, through mud and across streams. After losing our sandals several times from the suction of the mud, we took them off. Chico expressed concern about our being barefoot because hookworm was prevalent there. As we hiked farther, the mud was knee-deep.
Barking dogs and banana trees meant that we had finally arrived. Chico chased off the half-dozen lean, hungry-looking gray and white dogs as we walked up to the hut. Standing in front was an old Tsachila Indian woman. She had long stringy black hair, bare flat breasts that hung like pendants, and a brightly striped cloth around her waist. Speaking in broken Spanish mixed with her own dialect, she told us her son, El Brujo (the witchdoctor), was away, in town.
A baby crawled out of the doorway, his face painted with black stripes and designs for which the Colorado Tsachila Indians are known. When he saw us, he started bawling. A girl came out of the thatched roof hut to fetch him. She was shy, and pretty in a native way.
"This is Antonetta," said the proud mother. "She is queen of the Colorados this year."
The friendly mother and daughter welcomed us. Antonetta indicated that she didn't like the clothes we were wearing. She wanted us dressed as they were: bare-chested with a striped wrap-around skirt. It soon became evident, as she tugged on my shirt, that what Antonetta wants, Antonetta gets. Where the norm is to be bare-breasted, civilized modesty seemed pointless. Yet, 'going native' was more than a bit uncomfortable.
As our hen party continued, Antonetta happily painted Tsachila stripes and designs on our faces and bodies, using a black powder. She moistened a splayed stick with her saliva, then dipped it into the powder. I could still smell her breath on my face and body after she had finished painting me.
Not long after she had completed her human canvases, El Brujo came galloping back on his horse. He was all a brujo should be — proud and magnificent — with shiny red bowl-shaped hair that looked like a cap. His hair was plastered with red clay, probably mixed with achiote.
Terry and I were still bare-chested, but we assumed he was used to seeing bare breasts and figured they were just for babies to suckle. He was terribly important. Anyone could see that. He had an appointment in another pueblo, but allowed us a couple of minutes to take photos. Then he just had to be off. We thanked him. He mounted his big horse and galloped away.
The mother served us hot cooked bananas and a kind of starchy vegetable that we had never tasted before — and never want to taste again. We finally said our goodbyes to Antonetta, her mother, the baby and the lean and hungry dogs and pigs.
We dreaded the barefoot walk back through the slithery brown mud, but Chico made time go faster by telling us El Brujo stories.
El Brujo makes herbal medicines and uses them in curing diseases. He digs a hole in the ground and fills it with special leaves and herbs mixed with mud. The patient is placed in the hole and covered with a poultice to cure rheumatism and arthritis.
People come to Brujo to be cured of various ailments, but his specialty is removing hexes. It is common practice in many Latin countries to cast spells to win over a lover. This is how they cast a love spell:
Take photographs of yourself and your loved one. Place them face to face, but between the two photos, place a hair plucked from the loved one's head, and a medal of St. Geronimo (St. Jerome). Secure the packet with two straight pins and place it under your pillow. Soon, the object of your affection will fall uncontrollably in love with you. Once hexed, the only way to break the love spell is to see a witch doctor.
To remove a hex, our Brujo chews a special native leaf, then spits it into a green drink and has his 'patient' drink the concoction. Brujo then removes the hex.
Terry and I had met a man who told us that he was wild about an ugly woman. Logically, he couldn't understand why he should care for her at all. He was becoming weak and tired, so he consulted one medical doctor after another and each one said there was nothing physically wrong with him. He was just bewitched. The medical doctors could do nothing for him. A witch doctor would have to remove the love spell. The man had the hex removed and his attraction for the woman vanished.
On another adventure, Terry and I took the 13-hour scenic autoferro train ride from Quito to Guayaquil, Ecuador. A one-car train with a motor, the autoferro looks like a bus, sounds like a truck and rides like a Jeep. It was a long, tiring and breathtakingly beautiful trip.
The autoferro was one of the most difficult railroads built in South America and one of the greatest engineering feats. Before the autoferro, (built from 1895 to 1908), it was a five-day journey by mule. It has 20 tunnels and a switchback called Nariz del Diable — Devil's Nose. In places, the tracks cling precariously to the ravine's sheer cliffs. Five thousand Jamaicans were brought in to help build it because Ecuadorians were afraid to use dynamite. In those days, they just lit a match and ran. Many were killed.
Along the way, a wide range of scenery varies with the elevation, which drops from 10,600 feet to sea level. Towering above are some of the highest peaks in South America. Snow-capped Mount Chimborazo rises over 19,000 feet. The first half of the journey has the steepest descent. Then the mountains flatten out. Across the meadows, little shepherds in bright ruanas tended their flocks. After Nariz del Diablo, vegetation became tropical with bamboo houses on stilts over marshes and water covered with a surface of green scum. We passed through grassy lowlands just before arriving in sweltering Guayaquil.
From Guayaquil, we boarded the Cristobal Carrier bound for the Galapagos Islands, where we jumped ship and spent 41 days exploring the islands. (See www.galapagostraveladventures.com to read about that trip.)
Upon returning from the Galapagos Islands, Terry and I wanted to go into the jungles of Ecuador. At the Hotel Quito InterContinental, we met Jane Dolinger and Ken Krippene, travel writers who made Quito their home base. They wrote for United Press International and for travel and adventure magazines. Years ago, Ken Krippene gave up his law practice to travel and write scripts for motion pictures.
Jane had met Ken eight years before, when she answered his ad in a Miami newspaper for a Girl Friday to go to Peru. He was working on a script there. They lived with the Indians on the Ucayali River between Puculpa and Iquitos, where Jane wrote her first book. Later they lived with the Jivaro Indians in Ecuador, where she wrote another book. When we met Jane Dolinger, she was writing her ninth book, Inca Gold. Jane, who was hired as a Girl Friday became an author herself, not only of books but countless magazine articles that appeared in foreign language magazines all over the world.
Terry and I made trips to the surrounding areas with the Krippenes — Latacunga and the Valley of the Volcanoes, Ambato, Banos, and Otavalo for the Saturday market (Jane's favorite). Otavalenos are descendants of the Incas and they still used the ancient Inca method of dying and weaving wool. In the colorful Indian market, we saw blankets and wood carvings as well as severed cows' heads and fried guinea pigs.
Jane and Ken advised us how to get a newly Christianized Jivaro Indian guide at a Missionary Camp. Only a few years before, Jivaro Indians (of shrunken head fame) decapitated and ate missionaries.