Wednesday, September 7, 2011

The Perils of Photographing Monkeys

I mentioned earlier in the week that I saw a lot of monkeys in Cuyabeno National Park.  Something I failed to mention was that my lack of photos was mostly due to the fact that photographing monkeys is probably a lot like photographing some celebrities.  Monkey are high maintenance.  They need zoom lenses, the right setting, good lighting, crazy shutter speeds, and soothing noises.  They need freedom and maybe a good snack spread. 

Most of my monkey photos lacked these things.  They look something like this:

"Hey there blurry monkey.  In my hurry to photograph you, I didn't realize that I practically bokeh-ed you out of the photo.  Now you look like someone's house cat.  Maybe the close-up of the leaf will be enough to confirm that this was, in fact, set in the rain forest."

Unfortunately, compared to my other photos, that one looks like something out of National Geographic.  The majority look more like this: 

There once was a pair of two monkeys sitting here kind of cutesy-like with their tails hanging down.  Then they fled like a thief in the night.  In between photos of caterpillars and tree frogs, I have long series of these.  Everything else about these photos is so focused, well-lit, or well-framed that I honestly had to spend time thinking about why I had so many photos of leaves.  Then I realized what they were.  They are now called the Pointless Tree photos. 

Of course, none of these unsuccessful monkey photos are even that upsetting until you consider this:   On the day of our departure my camera batteries died.  It was the same day that a family of 20 or so monkeys crossed RIGHT OVER OUR BOAT.  Even the tiny local baby on board pointed and said, "monos, monos!"  I just sighed.  I contemplated asking the guide to sift through my suitcase for my camera.  Maybe there was still a tiny bit of juice left in those batteries.  I knew there wasn't.  I cursed myself for trying to photograph the bats in our bathroom the night before.  I tried to tell myself that I was really just enjoying the moment.  I didn't have a shutter speed to worry about; I was just experiencing pure, unadulterated monkey observation.  It was lies.  I'm bitter.  I wanted that cool monkey shot.

If ever you are in the forest, know that if you bring anything less than a $700.00 camera, the little monks will elude you time and again.    But also know that you will be in Ecuador, and you will have so many photo-worthy opportunities that a $700.00 camera will be worth it.  If on these same travels you should see someone near the side of the road selling shirts that say, "Monkeys:  so badass pink river dolphins are just okay next to them," buy one.  It's my business.  I'm saving up for a $700.00 camera and another trip to the rain forest. 

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

“One’s destination is never a place.....

....but a new way of seeing things.” – Henry Miller

One of the best parts of my visit to Cuyabeno National Park was getting to meet people who had traveled all over the world just to visit or live in the Amazon.  Traveling in groups has a weird way of creating community among strangers; it is easy to find yourself in conversations you would normally only have with good friends at home.

On the second or third day of our trip, my travel group had visited the Siona people.  That evening's topic of conversation had kept coming back to whether these people were living like "true" natives.  Yes, it sounds disgusting.  We all knew it did.  Everyone agreed that you couldn't deny these people the right to modernize, yet there was a surprising distaste in everyone's mouth.  No one wanted to be spectators in a human zoo.  Still, the question kept popping up from different mouths as if by accident, "Why did we visit them if they weren't really all that native?"

I can't say that I was expecting anything different from what we had seen that day, but I have lived here longer.  I understood the others' disappointment though.  I had had it before.  I think their question was not posed well.  I think on some level what we really wondering about was whether there was anyone in existence who was truly untouched by modern conveniences.

It was later that night while sitting beneath the candlelight at the dinner tables, barraged by cicadas, that we found our answer.  Years earlier our guide had lived with a tribe called the Waorani.  When he heard our dilemma, he spoke up.  Everyone wants a better life, he said, yet our desire to improve our lives and the lives of others is something that should be controlled.  His answer surprised me.  People wanting to help other people was a problem?  Wasn't that the definition of humanity?  I thought it over as he talked.

During the months that our guide had lived with the Waorani, he was completing research for his thesis.  He had gone to learn about the oil companies' effect on the Waorani lifestyle.  Ethically, he could not do anything more.  When the Waorani people wanted to learn from his research, he had to reject them.  It forever changed his relationship with the community.  However, if he had helped the Waorani, he could not have predicted what would have happened next.  Their environment was unstable.  The desires of the people would change.  They could be taken advantage of.  He could not predict the dangers that might come, so he did nothing. 

"How could he have the strength to do this?" I thought, "How could one person deny the urge to help another and feel confident that they had done the right thing?"  At the same time, I had a strong trust in my guide's beliefs.  He had a respect for the tribes that I had not seen before.  Even as he disliked denying anyone help, his conviction and logic suggested that he had not made his Waorani decision lightly.  The experience left me with new things to think about.  Did the tribe need the modern conveniences?  Were we denying them basic human rights?  Or was it wrong to believe that the most important priority on earth was prolonging human life at any cost?  

We had spent all day feeling wrong for expecting more "nativeness" from the Sionas than we had gotten, yet those people had lost their ability to survive without tourism and government support.  In some ways, they were worse off than they had been before.  In other ways, their lives were better.  Their future seemed so delicate.  Recent years had brought so much change for them.  The slightest shift in power, a sudden drop in tourism, and their livelihood would be in serious jeopardy.  Yet the Waorani, though more secluded, were just as prone to this same problem.  My tour group and I were a necessary evil.  Like our guide, we would never be sure whether our actions were the right help at the right time or just another good effort with a bad outcome.  As our chat wound down, we sat quietly and watched the moths burn in the candle light.  We slowly drifted to bed without reaching any conclusions.  We didn't bring up the topic again, but two mornings later, as we filled out our departure survey, no one ranked the Siona visit as their least favorite activity.  Perhaps the trip had changed us.

Monday, September 5, 2011

My First Trip to the Amazon!

When I was in the fourth grade, I had an amazing teacher.  As a teacher now, I think back on her classes, and I'm always impressed by how much she impacted my life.  She was the first person to teach me about simple machines, my state's history, the middle ages, and, of course, the rain forest.  And now, over a decade later, I've made it to the Amazon!

On Monday the 29th, as my motorboat sped for two hours down the Amazon, I couldn't believe my own luck.  I whispered little thank yous to my teacher as a toucan's notorious beak caught my eye just before it soared into the trees.  I remembered having spelling tests over drip tips and bromeliads as I noticed different ferns and orchids from the boat.

I was traveling into Cuyabeno National Park, the second largest in Ecuador.  One of my guides told me that Cuyabeno has twice as many opportunities to see wildlife asYasuní National Park, which has gained more publicity and tourists due to its oil-fields and law suits.  Maybe it's a testament to how much I fell in love with the area, but after four days there, I believed him.  Among the things we saw were monkeys (at least four types), bats, birds (too many types to remember), white and red piranha, caiman, snakes, turtles, river dolphin, tarantulas, frogs, assorted insects and fish, peacock bass, an enormous arowana, and a gecko. That doesn't include the flora, like the Ceibos trees, a type of palo santo tree, sangre de drago, and some honeysuckle-like plants that I kept referring to as "chupitas de miel."  I couldn't possibly sum everything up in one blog post, so I'll stop here and start the photos.  Thank you to Cuayabeno National Park, the Siona tribe, Jamu Lodge (highly recommended), my assorted travel partners, and, of course, my fourth grade teacher!   

swimming and sunsets on Laguna Grande
piranha fishing
 hiking on the Tapir trail

almond-scented centipede


"­¡Qué chévereee!"