On the hard clay shore of the Río Villano in the Ecuadorian Amazon, me and another volunteer jump around, shaking our limbs and wiggling our bodies to keep the tiny biting flies, known as chuspies, from leaving more angry red welts on our skin. We have also partially covered ourselves in the clay upon which we danced, another tool for fending off the tiny pests. Mid chuspie dance, it occurs to me that an observer could easily think we had lost our minds on the banks of the Río Villano. But after a week in the jungle, this may have partially been true.
Or maybe a more likely truth was that we had found our minds; or at least I had. Let me explain. I have long suffered from depression and anxiety that is at most times manageable, but at other times it becomes an overwhelming burden. In the months leading up to my week spent near the Yana Puma community, I was in a downward spiral, experiencing frequent bouts of severe depression and anxiety. Once in the jungle, the hard labor, the disconnection from the modern world, and the days spent out of doors all worked in tandem to chink away at my mental illness, and by the time I left, I felt like I had experienced an emotional lobotomy.
But let’s back up. I had gone to the jungle to write a story about oil companies exploiting natural resources and the indigenous Kichwa population that calls the Amazon their home. I was to stay with a local Kichwa family who ran a program called Wayra Wasi. Their intention was to preserve their culture through education and activism.
Two days after my arrival in Ecuador, I rode a bus on the unpaved road into the solid black wall of the jungle night, carrying an even more dense weight of depression and anxiety and wondering why I was going to this project in the first place. Already working on two journalistic projects that were sitting on the back burner due to weeks of worry-drowning tequila shots and cocaine, as well as the resulting hangovers that left me emotionally for the worse, combined with pestering existential questions of exactly what I was doing with my life, I had a powerful urge to jump off the bus and find the nearest room where I could do some intense fetal positioning. As happens in moments of severe anxiety, my mind was unknowable to me; a ball of gray matter shot through with striations of worry, second-guesses, and grief at the temporary loss of self.
Into the Jungle
My week in the jungle was a practice in living in the moment. Without internet, cell service, electricity, or any modern amenities to speak of, my thoughts were unequivocally anchored in the present. I can’t even recall a time when I was so disconnected from the modern world, and yet so connected to my surroundings. Internet and cell phones were already a thing by the time I was old enough to look up cat videos or send text messages, so I grew up and thrived in a world that left me nervous, at the age of 27, to leave my connection to email and Instagram for a measly week. In the jungle, my connections to the outside world (i.e. laptop, iPhone, tablet) became parodies of themselves, merely pieces of molded metal, glass, and plastic that told the time when I bothered to check.
Throughout the week, I had glimpses into the life of the native Kichwa people; a people that still thrive in an environment mostly devoid of these technological devices. Their use of their surroundings was impressive, even in the simplest of actions, such as cutting down large palm leaves to shield themselves from the onslaught of the Amazonian rain, or identifying edible fruit to eat during their ventures into the jungle. More than once it occurred to me that, left to my own devices in the jungle, my chances of survival would be near zero.
One day, we trekked with our hosts on foot an hour down the road to find where the earth offered up soft, gray clay beneath the roots of a tree. In the pouring rain, amongst the warm familial company and jokes told in their purring language, we helped extract it. We sank hands, fingers, and nails into the yielding clay to pull out rocks and twigs, and piled the finished product into bags that weighed more than 100lb. Strong Kichwa men and women carried the heavy bags on their backs, up and down slippery hills of mud to the horses that waited below.
After our effort, we were rewarded with the chance to learn the Kichwa tradition of ceramic-making; a zen-like activity of visualizing an outcome and working to achieve it with your bare hands. Our hosts used their finished product as dining-ware, or as vessels for the cultural habit of drinking large quantities of chicha. I watched as their clumps of clay transformed into exquisite bowls, cups, and vases, as my own vase somehow took on a striking resemblance to an overweight penguin.
Speaking of chicha, I and the other volunteers drank large quantities as well, although it was not an easy task to match the zeal with which the Kichwa people enjoyed this fermented yucca drink. During one of our chicha sessions, we were told how they make the drink. The locals chew yucca and spit the soft pulp into a container to be covered and left to ferment. The enzymes in the saliva increase the fermentation process and create a sour, pulpy, enzyme-and-vitamin-rich fermented beverage.
The culture surrounding chicha is one of hospitality and generosity. If you are ever in the home of a Kichwa person, it is very likely that you will find yourself caressing a handmade ceramic bowl with a seemingly bottomless well of chicha. The women of the family are the custodians of the chicha, making turns around the circle of visitors with a liberal bucket of the fermented drink, swishing their hands around your filled bowl to fish out any remaining pieces of yucca detritus. The chicha keeps flowing even after the guests begin waving their hands and making noises of refusal, in the end usually succumbing to another bowl or turning to their neighbor for help in finishing their most recent refill.
On occasion, we visited the family at their home down the road to drink chicha or make ceramics, but mostly we lived and passed the time in the compound built specifically to accommodate the volunteers and to function as a learning space. As I previously mentioned, there was no electricity or modern amenities to speak of, and that was true of the cooking situation as well. Whenever we wanted to eat, we were obliged to build a fire and cook over an open flame. There was something very satisfying about the prerequisite of chopping wood, carefully building a fire, cutting vegetables in the dark with Swiss army knives, and boiling rice that not only relieved hunger, but relaxed the mind with the simple manual labor of working to feed oneself and others. In the darkness of jungle nights, or the wetness of the jungle mornings, we formed easy rhythms; when someone pulled out a knife to chop a tomato, another hand would appear holding a bowl to catch the pulpy fruit. When someone lit a flame, a pair of lungs were there to breathe life into it.
On a day early on in my week in the jungle, we were clearing away brush around the compound in preparation for Wayra Wasi’s inauguration. I had been thinking about my work waiting for me in the outside world, about the article I was meant to be writing there, about questions I should be asking and when I would do it. Standing in the jungle mud, machete in hand, I stopped what I was doing and stared inwardly at the weight of obligation, and felt an exhaustion I’ve never known before. I stood there, vaguely thinking that I should continue hacking away at the undergrowth with my machete, until one of the other volunteers, a 20-year-old Swiss girl, asked if I was okay.
“No,” I said. “I need to lay down.” Dropping the machete, I walked the short distance back to the cabin and laid down on the hard, wooden bed while my psyche made popping noises, releasing me from the crippling effect of severe anxiety, and welcoming a deep flood of well-being and revelation. When the Swiss girl came in a while later, I was still in a state of unhindered euphoric revelation. I said to her, awe dripping from my tongue,
“I think I’m having a life revelation!”
Peering at me quizzically, she asked, “Do you have a fever?”
“I don’t know!” I proclaimed and felt my forehead, confirming that I was not delirious. As we talked, I let the warm blanket of the jungle wrap itself around me, and when she left I reflected on the past couple of months. During that time, I often felt that my mental illness was a physical thing, a tumor that I could extract, perhaps by scalpel, if I only knew how. Instead, I found something much gentler; a sponge that soaked up the dark, sharp spaces of my mind.
When I tell this story, I’m often asked if I was under the influence of hallucinogens such as ayahuasca. As far as I am aware, I was not. And yet the experience I had is reminiscent of what I have heard about ayahuasca ceremonies, to some degree. Lying on that wooden bed at the moment of revelation or sitting on the bench outside our cabin, gazing into the green mass of the Amazon rainforest, I became an explorer into the depths of my own psyche. Previously locked doors were opened and I could enter and probe around with a keen curiosity. The interesting thing was that I could do it as a bystander, peering at emotional cracks and scars with a distance that allowed for non-judgement. I could see myself and my life with a clarity and compassion that I don’t know I’ve ever known before.
It’s left me to wonder on the connection we have between nature and happiness. Although this is no new concept, I’d like to give voice to the idea that our disconnect between the natural world and ourselves has manifested into a society in which we need pharmaceuticals to keep us from becoming a permanent fetal position imprint on our therapists’ sofas. It is certainly true that I’ve witnessed far higher levels of stress and anxiety in the world that I grew up in than in the one that the indigenous Kichwa enjoy, and that has to count for something.
But where do we take this idea? The thought that we should all get up and renounce our high-paying tech jobs, our Facebook accounts, and our homes in the suburbs is certainly impractical for many of us. Even after this experience I know I can’t commit to a life forever disconnected from the internet and without modern amenities. For me, being connected to the internet means being able to make money through freelance writing to keep up this world travel thing. Being a part of the modern world also means that I can continue to pursue my dream of becoming a successful writer. Not to mention that I did badly miss hot showers, gas/electric stoves, and flushing toilets while I was there. But it might be worth consideration to take a week or so off every now and then from crouching over our computer monitors, leaving the smart phone behind and completely disconnecting from modern life in order to truly reconnect with nature.
The Physical Proof
What amazed me most was the physical evidence I had of healing. On my last day in the jungle, I was relating to one of the other volunteers, a 33-year-old Czech nature and farming enthusiast and relentless optimist, of the constant tension I have in my upper back and shoulders. I have long claimed that the tension is from the emotional (and otherwise) stress that manifests in the muscles of my upper back. I do stretches on occasion to try to relieve the tension, but the pain is so breathtaking it’s hard to stay consistent.
At the end of the day, he and I walked to the river, our rain boots squelching in the deep mud, to follow up on a promise he had made to show me some useful stretches. On the hard clay of the Río Villano, my head on the ground, back rounded to the sky, and peering through my knees into an upside-down world, I was certain I was doing the stretch wrong. I felt nothing. We tried a different stretch, and again I felt none of the usual pain. Puzzled, I attempted the stretch that normally leaves my back screaming from its reluctance to relax, and to my enormous shock, there was no pain. I felt light and free of the usual tension; nimble and carefree enough to perform our chuspie dance on the shore of the Villano River with which I began this story.
On reflection, I feel like I had entered the jungle like a bull thrashing around in a china shop; ignorant to my surroundings and therefore capable of damage both to my environment and to myself. Even more so, I think that this is a profound analogy for my life. Lost in a haze of depression and anxiety, or fixated on the nearest screen, I often fail to see what’s right in front of me, and in so doing, I often lose myself. Although it was a profound realization, I know that what happened in the jungle is not a permanent fix; after all I am still very capable of ignorance to my surroundings and to succumbing to angst.
It does not escape me, as well, that I failed in what I had intended to do. I did not get a scoop on the oil companies exploiting the rainforest and the indigenous people, nor did I learn from my Kichwa hosts as much as I could have. I can only say that sometimes it’s okay to fail and that the story that came out of this experience was not the one that I meant to write, but it’s the one that needed to be written.
If you want to learn more about Wayra Wasi, check out their Facebook page.
If you’d like to volunteer for Wayra Wasi, check out their Workaway profile.