Why I go to the Napo

The point of going somewhere like the Napo River in Ecuador is not to see the most spectacular anything. It is simply to see what is there. Such words begin Annie Dillard’s Into the Jungle. In one month I will be attempting sleep aboard a flight to Portland – four weeks ahead of me, four months somehow passed. On Facebook my friends are orchestrating one-month-left posts for mass social media appeal. To me, though, pasting a paragraph for all of my friends to ‘like’ seemed too much like an easy way around a more meaningful reflection.

I have seen spectacular things over a summer and study abroad – sunsets in Africa, leaf-cutter ants in the rainforest, and volcanoes that spill waterfalls from their steaming flanks. It has been a wild stretch full-filling my craziest travel dreams and taking me to the most spectacular places on earth.

Yet, I agree with Dillard. The point of going somewhere like the Napo River is not to see the most spectacular anything. It is simply to see what is there. People want lists of the best places, vistas, and sights that I have witnessed so far, but my most enriching travel experiences cannot be ranked on a scale of spectacularity.

While idling for a bus under the starry Ecuadorian sky, enjoying a festival in a remote town untainted by other gringos, I begin realizing that simply seeing what is out there is so much more meaningful than chasing what is labeled as “most spectacular”.

For dinner I gnaw on skewers grilled by a curbside vendor and toss the bones toward a gangly pack of stray dogs. I go for my fifth skewer, striking up a conversation with the tiny old woman as she slaps more meat on the sizzling grill. She tells me her elaborate opinions in lilting Spanish. My Spanish flows fast and natural now as I talk with her; my skin has darkly tanned from months of daytime sun, and I realize that I might look like a local. Bobbing headlights appear from the bus trundling into town, but I do not want to leave; I have no need for a destination.

Traveling is about spontaneous moments. Traveling is about starting a competition with someone you just met. Traveling is about striking-up a conversation with an Ecuadorian riding the bus, grilling street food, or sitting around a campfire in the woods. Traveling is about embracing being the only gringo in an out-of-the-way village. It’s about reaching a town called Tena late into the night and conking-out before changing your clothes soaked through from the nighttime humidity of the Amazon rainforest, and awaking the next day excited just to see what is there.

Tena abuts the Napo River on the rim of the Amazon basin, where the Andes tower in the west. Spines of jutting ridges rear into sagging clouds, begging to shed their lush jungle shawls. Green mountainsides spill rivers that crash down like cymbals. Massive trees line the river banks – giants with with spreading crowns dropping vines just how rivulets pour from an umbrella. Flocks of parrots wheel overhead shrieking noisily before fading over distant forested hills.

Here we slide into the gentle current in a yellow raft, prepared for my first whitewater run – an adventure that will take us thundering through mighty rapids of the Rio Napo headwaters. We practice our technique on tranquil water until we can discern a distant hissing of rapids.

The river turns suddenly meaner. I am sitting at the bow, and minutes after aligning with the calm current, waves start crashing around me, swamping the boat and sucking heat from my core. We paddle for our lives. Calm riffles morph into looming walls of thrashing whitewater, thrusting the flimsy raft into car-sized holes before slamming us up and over the other side. In the wildest pounding rapids the boat is swallowed and I surface gasping for breath after the merciless river tosses me like a child’s toy into the roaring torrent.

Wheezing, I haul myself like a survivor back aboard the raft. We have a minute to regroup, preparing for battle, before the throttling river drops again from beneath us. I am strengthened by adrenaline, deafened by the roaring that engulfs me; and blinded by cold water blasting my face. My heart torques as we freefall down into the next gaping cavern bullied by thrashing towers of whitewater.

On the other side the rapids exhaust themselves and the river tames into threaded channels lapping at muddy shores and draining, suddenly lethargic, toward the Amazon. My body still pounds with adrenaline, but the scenery becomes tranquil as warm clouds sweep in from the humid lowlands ahead.

We float straight into the ripe scent of rain. The air is overpowered by the sweet, pungent smell rising around us. My shivering skin starts to sizzle from hot fat rain drops that begin plopping from the sky. Suddenly it is pouring. Warm rain falls in sheets, splattering the muddy river and steaming the landscape. Water runs in furrows through my eyebrows, dripping into my eyes and clinging to my face. Everything is hot and humid, and quiet except for the soft pattering of rain on the water’s surface. Drops splash, steam is rising, and the streaks of rain pelt from the sky, as the hot downpour runs down my face.

Suddenly the rain stops. The smell evaporates into the clearing air. A chill quivers through me again. On either side of our yellow raft stretches the vibrant Amazon wilderness. The swelling brown river swirls us along the shore where bright green trees spill-over the banks as if trying to escape the strangle of thick vines. Colorful birds flock in treetops, bouncing on limbs and squealing happily from their perches.

For a brief evening moment the sky clears. Parrots fly noisily overhead again, winging towards their nighttime roosts.  Upstream behind us, the sun begins burning-up over the distant toothy Andes. We let the muddy steaming river pull us down-current. Our tempo matches the lento sink of the sun. Shadow falls over the jungle, and as we are hauling to shore over smooth riverside cobbles, the flaming sunset sky is extinguished.

The next day begins as the last one had, an exciting blur of experiences and emotions. We rise with the sun, again excited just to see what is out there, excited to be traveling and on the road where everything seems to have meaning.

I cannot pinpoint why I love traveling. Some might suggest that it’s the breathtaking sunsets, the adrenaline from a roaring rapids, or the spectacular sights you will see.

I suspect that something else is at play. The best moments while traveling cannot be ranked, or compared. These moments comprise a synergistic entity that hits all of your senses full force like the strong onslaught of a hot downpour in the Amazon.  As Dillard writes, We are only here on this earth once. We might as well open our eyes and see what is out there. Spectacular or not, there is something remarkable about conversing with strangers in another language; the blast of exoticness as you step down from a bus; or the wind on your face as you embark into the unknown.

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