Ukumbi: Tales from the Amazon
by Sara Roberts
“Ukumbi!” Orlando stopped and pointed at the long red and black snake in front of us. Gorgeously patterned, it lay across the middle of the path luxuriating in our attention. We were setting off on a night excursion into the jungle (the so-called “creepy crawly tour” about which I harboured mixed feelings) and we hadn’t even left the hotel. Our guide assured us it wasn’t poisonous – part of the boa family, apparently – and sent someone off to fetch the other guests. “This is very special. She is not just coming out like this, difficult to see.” He was excited. “Ukumbi is mother of the winged ants and is living under the earth and singing. If you are seeing her, this is bringing good luck.” I frowned. “The mother of-?” but he was apologising for not knowing the name of the snake in Spanish, only his native Quechua.
This happened a fair bit during our stay at Sani Lodge near the Yasuni National Park in Ecuador, but we didn’t mind. We were happy to hear Orlando’s stories and his countless recipes for making medicine from the plants of the rainforest. We learned that the Sani believe that by eating lots of ‘ají’, chilli, they can outstare a jaguar with the heat from their eyes should one cross their path while hunting. We discovered that they feed their children a specific kind of larvae (barbecued) that eats palm hearts in order to protect them from catching colds. And we were told of the American lady who came to visit with her husband and a terminal ovarian cancer who was given a plant remedy by Orlando that – according to our indefatigable guide – reduced it by 40% in four months and eventually cured it.
We watched toucans and parrots from a tree house at dawn among the orchid-clad boughs of a mighty Kapok tree 36m above the ground. According to local legend, the tree contains a sacred spirit and is “the owner of all the animals”. If the spirit is scared away, it takes its animals with it to protect them. “After oil companies came and tested with dynamite they went away long time,” says Orlando. “Now still many animals hiding inside forest, but spirits come back.” He grins.
Orlando is one of the last Sani to remember the remedies his mother used to make; he is a ‘curandero’ or traditional healer. The younger generation is more interested in other things: his nephew Javier – a self-styled Mowgli, cat-eyed and longhaired – studied biology in Washington and knows the names of 170 species of bird in Spanish, English and Latin. He can spot a green bird in a tree a hundred metres away while I am still rooting fruitlessly for my binoculars in my backpack. Impressive, certainly, and no doubt more likely to please the foreign tourists who visit the lodge. But he doesn’t know most of the plants and can’t remember the legends. This, I realise, is what is being lost.
On the positive side, though, Sani Lodge is an inspiring example of eco-tourism and sustainable development that is both genuine and refreshing. The hotel was Orlando’s brainchild and his pride at its relative success story, eleven years on, is warming to see. The whole community of Sani People owns and administers the lodge, which works remarkably well and employs many of the community’s members, thus providing the only real local alternative to working for the oil companies which are ubiquitous in the region. Orlando should know: he worked for one for twenty years drilling holes in other indigenous groups’ ancestral lands and witnessing, in some cases, the environmental and social devastation this caused. If the Sani have managed to avoid the same fate until now, it is largely thanks to him.
Sara Roberts is a writer and former journalist who has been lucky enough to travel widely across Latin America, Spain and Portugal and document many of her experiences there. Her visit to Sani Lodge in 2011 was one of her most memorable trips into the Ecuadorean rainforest.
learn more about Sani Lodge http://www.sanilodge.com