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La Amazonia – Toxi Tour and More…

ahh!

Sorry its been foreverrrr… maybe once per week was a lot or maybe I just need to be a little more concise and just write about the most important things/people.  So here’s my first attempt at brevity.

…new room/house… love it. job… overwhelming. Amazon trip… no words …trying to find them.  crazy Americans… losing spanish, need latina friends.  Carnival….got all foamy and danced with 80 year olds.

YAY!  and thats it folks…

OKAY fine, elaboration…

See, the other stuff was easy to write about, because it wasn’t that significant more fun… because yes, I am here to WORK and LEARN, not just to travel around and meet crazy people/places.  So, here’s the hard part… describing life here in a way that does it justice.

This email focusing on the trip to Lago Agrio – where we saw exactly what I am working to fix/stop/save….

El Oriente

The Oriente (the Amazon)… I have to say I really wish I didn´t post that newspaper article, because honestly after the experience we had there, I could basically write my own personal account that is just as powerful… so I’m going to try.  (though as you know, I have major issues with brevity…sorry!)

My Travel Buddy, Nick

I have to start with a quick description of Nick  – the Australian intern who was working with the lawyers of the ChevronTexaco case.  Since we (Amazon Watch) share an office with the lawyers and the Ecuadorian organization El Frente de la Defensa de la Amazona (yeah long name), I ended up sitting at a big table across from quiet, soft-spoken, but terribly intelligent and sweet Nick. So we became friendly after a few days, since he was the only other person around my age and speaking English.  Honestly, if he wasn’t there, I would have had a pretty shitty and confusing first 3 weeks, so thanks Nick!!!!

Nick had been promised a chance to go to the Oriente to monitor some inspections that Chevron is insisting on doing for the Trial more, but they didn’t set a date so finally he just decided he was going to go his last week.  As I said before, I had nothing to do and since he was going to be doing a ¨Toxic Tour¨I thought it would be really helpful to see firsthand why I was here, even though I´d heard all the stories.  So very last minute planning ensued, and we were off!

The only photo of us in the jungle :)

The only photo of us in the jungle 🙂

We were set to take an 8:45 bus ride, met at the station and somehow ended up with the front seat with was SO CLUTCH because it meant I could straighten my legs and sit like the letter L the whole 8 hours! I know, sounds silly, but with my dumb knee caps that start throbbing after 10 minutes bent it was really the best thing that could have happened.  Nick and I chatted for a while, he really is very interesting, he asks a lot of questions and is a great listener, but its a bit harder to get him to talk but I think I got the hang of it.  He is studying law and philosophy, and in Aussie its different there isn´t law school but they are soon switching to a more American style system.  He lives in the city of Melbourne where it is hot summer right now!  He actually lived in Boston till he was twoish because his dad is a doctor and worked for a UN organization.  He also lived in Switzerland for a bunch of years.  He came to Ecuador on a global internship program with his school and actually was hooked up with the case I´m working on because his good family friend is the main US lawyer working on the case (Steven Donziger, more on him later).

Back to the bus ride . . though its a developing country and we were on the way to a tiny, run-down oil town, yes they indeed did have a movie on the bus!!  Ha okay actually, calling it a movie may not be quite the right word.  It was called ¨Justice in the Streets,¨and let me tell you, the name does not do justice to the extremely ancient, cheesy, yet, trying to be serious drama.  I´ll just say it involved guys on motorbikes doing coke and killing half a family and then the dad going out ¨to the streets¨ to revenge the heinous crimes.  I had to stop watching or I would have ruined it for everyone else by hysterically laughing for 2 hours straight.

Okay real, attempted-profesh, over-descriptive story time…rough start but its unedited and will have to do for now…

As we drove out of the bustling city of Quito and quickly reached the part of the route that we were told was worth the 8 hour trek, it was difficult to peel my forehead from the thin-glass window.  The endless shades of greens and distant blue clouds captivated me into the moment as I slowly fell deeper into the realization that I was really going to the Amazon.  The Amazon?  El Oriente?  The rain forest? Whatever the name, it was a place that seemed so foreign, yet we were just driving onward, in the massive bus that was so out of place in this beautifully natural scene.  My friend Nick beside me had closed his eyes for a while, but I had to knudge him awake when suddenly we were turning slowly about 10 feets distance from a plunging, gorgeous waterfall.  Completely unreal.

About halfway to our destination, my face still glued to the glass staring out at the landscape, I noticed that a large, rusty tube had entered the picture and was following the same path we were down the windy road towards the middle of the jungle. I turned to Nick and asked, ¨Hey, do you think that is the oil pipeline?¨ We weren’t sure.

View from bus - Beautiful sky, rainforest, tree, oh and....

View from bus - Beautiful sky, rainforest, tree, oh and....

What a dumb question it was. There are two pipelines that run the 300 miles from the Oriente to the coast, and we soon were well aware that beside the road was one of them.  From then on, it was almost impossible to keep myself from following the pipe´s path, as it sometimes ducked under the road, switched sides, and appeared and disappeared.  Even more ironic was the fact that the few times there were metal guard rails beside the bus (something I have come to truly appreciate, ahemmmm, after the infamous roadtrip to Clemson), it was merely to protect the pipeline when it was dangerously close to the road.

LOVE guardrails!!

LOVE guardrails!!

We finally arrived in Lago Agrio, which literally means ¨sour lake,¨ by no mistake – it was named by the oil workers of Texaco in the 1960s after Sour Lake, Texas. Stepping off the bus, the eerie atmosphere is something very difficult to describe. But I can say that it was immediately clear why our coworkers said to stay off the streets at night. We walked down the main road trying to find our hotel, feeling extremely uneasy and stared at. After walking back and forth and asking a few people, we finally stumbled upon Hotel D´Marrio – the cheapest beds in town (alhtough at 15$, it was the most I had paid in Ecaudor).  The rooms were very well-equipped, however, with private bathrooms, air conditioning and TV.  We ate dinner in the restaurant attached to the hotel (I had a slimey chicken crepe, the first of 4 icky meals in the hotel) and prepared ourselves for the next days adventure.

This was actually the same day that news came of the devastating fires in Australia, which were happening in the same state that Nick is from.  Thankfully, he lives in Melbourne and doesn´t have any friends or family in Victoria, but it was still a lot to take in especially since we were so far away in such a strange place where no one would be able to contact us. Needless to say, he was pretty quiet the rest of the night and we went to bed early.

Day 2 in th.e jungle – we didn´t really know how things were going to work out but somehow Pablo Fajardo, the main Ecuadorian lawyer who is always interviewed and pictured in the press and also won the Goldman environmental prize and the CNN Hero award, showed up at our hotel at 8 to meet us. So we had desayuno (breakfast) with him and chatted a bit, thought it was difficult in Spanish but we managed.  He is over-the-top warm, welcoming, and seriously friendly despite the countless years he has put into this endless legal battle.
Donald arrived soon after – he is one of the other 3 people that work for the Ecuadorian non-profit indigenous organization I mentioned before, El Frente.  He was going to be taking us on our ¨Toxi-Tour.¨

When we arrived in Lago, one of the strange things we noticed was the taxis and that many were trucks or off-roading type vehicles.  We soon learned why as we hopped in an öff-roading,¨yellow taxi with Donald and a driver on our way to the outskirts of Lago Agrio.  The road was rocky, bumpy, and harsh.  Yet, we were still passing huts, houses, and shacks along the way.

We arrived to a lake and the driver parked the car on the banks.  We got out and were able really see the beauty of the forest around us.  Apparently, we were waiting for a barge to cross the river and take us and the car across, but we passed the time throwing rocks at gas line that crossed the river high above us.  Obviously my throws came nowhere near and i nearly pulled a shoulder muscle trying (it was REALLY high!), but Donald was able to hit it a few times in a row, pretty impressive.

Donald - who brought us on the Toxic Tour - throwing rocks at gas line

Donald - who brought us on the Toxic Tour - throwing rocks at gas line

It took him well over 25 throws to actually hit it once, and I couldn´t help comparing his endurance, patience and consistency to the struggle for justice he has stayed loyal to over the last 15 years. (ok corny, but really I promise its written on his face)

The barge was finally fixed and ready to transport us across the river. Another truck pulled up next to us to get on the barge and it had barrels in its back, with the marking of Texaco on them. This was a surprising and strange sight, because Texaco has actually been out of Ecaudor for 20 years.  But it was not the last time we would see the remainders of Texaco´s damage left behind.

After driving another couple hours, we reached a clearing and got out of the truck again. There wasn´t quite a path, and Donald (our “guide”) used a machete to smack away the brush that was in the way as we slowly went down towards a small swamp.  Halfway, we stopped and Donald pointed upwards from where we had come and asked if we noticed anything.  There sticking right out of the side of the hill was half a rusty old pipe about a foot in diameter, impossible to blend in once pointed out.

look closely!

look closely!

Looking down the hill directly under it, it was clear what had once been spewing out of it.

A the swamp below, it looked like a normal forest, but Donald took a big stick and swished around in it for a minute, then pulled out the stick and asked us to smell the residue.  It was if he had stuck the stick in a pool of gas.  Disgusting. (see photos)

Donald and Nick

Donald and Nick

the "soil"

the "soil"

But this was only the beginning.  Our next stop, we only walked down a few meters when Donald pointed to our left and said, ¨Mira.¨ (look… see photo)  In Spanish, they call the the pits where oil companies (Texaco) dump their waste ¨piscinas,¨ meaning pools.  Well that is exactly what this massive land looked like – a pool of dirty, thick, black oil.

this is real.

this is real.

In terms that I most relate to, it was almost like an enormous vat of shiny brownie batter with some leaves and twigs thrown in the mix.  (see photo). Except the smell of the 30-year old oil was enough to keep me from feasting or even getting too close… Check out this video its quick:

Really didn’t think things could get worse, until Shushufundi 38.

Manuel Ignacio Salinas, was so proud to repeat his name when I asked him. The aged man who barely stood above 5 feet could not have stood prouder nor spoken with more passion.  about the lovely pool behind his house………….

As we stepped about 10 feet from his house and approached the indescribable scene in front of us, the thousands of hows, whys, whos  became so scrambled in my brain that it was impossible to form sentences.  Thankfully, Senor Salinas passionately told story after story about how it was discovered and the suffering it has brought him and his family.

He bought the house 25 years ago, before he knew what exactly what was lying beneath the surface in his backyard.  Soon after purchasing, he started clearing some land to make room to grow coffee and fruits.  That is when they discovered the pool of what they assumed was just a swamp, but obviously unsuitable land to grow on.  So they proceeded to plant coffee trees around it.

Soon after, his family began to find bodies of dogs, cats, cows and other animals in the waste pit. Realizing this was more than just a nasty swamp, they knew their well-water could not be safe to drink either.  The family became very poor, without any resources to grow their own food nor drink their own well water.  Senor Salinas recanted that “for a while, we had nothing, ni agua.” This is supposed to be a funny expression that my host grandmother would say to me if I refused a meal, “No quieres nada, ni agua?”  However, in this instant, its double meaning was hard to laugh at.
Manuel Ignacio Salinas in front of Shushufundi 38

Manuel Ignacio Salinas in front of Shushufundi 38

As we were talking, or should I say as Senor Salinas talked and I listened and took in the surroundings with a dropped-jaw, his pure-white dog scurried around our feet. It then scurried a little too far and hopped right into the pool of contaminated water.  There was nothing we could do – except scream for it to come back… which it did, however, with its coat now completely black.

:(

🙁

Telling this story back at my office, I was told the dog would probably not live very much longer.

As the case that the Ecuadorian indigenous groups are taking against Texaco gained more attention with the uncovering of more and more obvious pollution, finally Senor Salinas was able to get some attention to his home.
Video – Senor Salinas telling us about what has been happening:
People tried to get him to move, but who would buy his land? Its worthless.  And Texaco would not pay to remediate the area nor relocate the family. Their appaling backyard, which they could neither sell nor leave, finally brought President Correa to see the damage,  Salinas described the occasion with more than sadness in his eyes.  He said, “the President put his hand on my shoulder and asked, what can I do?”  But the truth is, not much.  And he has yet to do much.

Donald and Salinas and la piscina de petroleo

Donald and Salinas and la piscina de petroleo

Sr. Salina's backyard
Fortunatley, El Frente has helped the family purchase a large tank they can use in which the rainwater goes through a filtering process. Of course, this doesn’t change the fact that there is a oil pool behind their house.  And, needless to say, the smell in the area was overpowering.  I could not imagine staying near the pool for an hour, nevermind a lifetime.

The face of Manuel Ignacio Salinas as he described the experience is the main image I will take away from the experience.  Not the incriminating pools of pollultion, nor the site of a recently “remidiated” pool that we visited after, nor the flaming gas burners plopped right in the middle of the rainforest, with birds circling its hot emissions.

dsc09968

"remediated" oil pit

"remediated" oil pit

another nasty open air waste pit

another nasty open air waste pit

dsc09947 - flowers and trash

After the Toxic Tour

The 2 hour ride back to our hotel in Lago Agrio was more than somber, and almuerzo (late lunch) at the hotel with our guide Donald and the driver as well.  We could barely put our thoughts into words in English, and minimizing them into questions in Spanish didn’t seem plausable either.  So I ate quietly, trying to piece together how I would ever retell this burdening experience.  I don’t want to get too technical (unless requests are made for more info…) but I think its important to note that it isn’t as if Texaco dumped straight petroleum into the rain forest.  We saw a number of “water of formation” station wells also.

"water of formation" pump

"water of formation" pump

When oil is extracted from the Earth, it takes a great deal of water to do this, which in the process becomes contaminated with some of the most dangerous known chemicals, including benzene, toluene, and Policyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAHs).  It needs to be deposited somewhere, and Texaco chose to do so in the Amazon rather than the accepted pracitice of drilling it deep into the earth.


Switching gears – to tourists visiting la selva (the jungle)Realizing it was important (and of course would be enjoyable) to see both sides of the spectrum – Nick and I got a last minute deal to go to the Cuyabeno National Park with a tour agency called Samoaa.  We actually just thought it would be a lodge in the middle of the jungle that we could hang out at.  But actually, it was a whole regimented trip with activities at most moments and huge delicious amounts of food included.It was pretty much what I now understand to be your semi-typical jungle tour.
We drove 2 hours from Lago Agrio in a bus where our hilariously weird Spanish guide spoke to all of us in English, pointing out certain sights along the way.  Then arriving at the entrance to the park, they had brought along “bag lunches,” which were actually in tupperwares (yay recycling!). Then it started to POUR, so we waited and waited, then finally piled into small motorized canoes, thick rubber panchos in hand, ready for the next downpour, which came about an hour into our 2.5 hour canoe ride down the river to the Samona Lodge/Camp.

Check out photos of this place – it was basically like being at summer camp, but way prettier and more serene!

Samona Lodge

Samona Lodge

The dock where we left the boat connected to a large, almost boardwalk type construction, where all the huts were connected by the circular dock that we remained on… it was as if there were water or lava under us!  There was a kitchen/eating area on one end and also a huge hut of hammocks in the middle! Really neat place with no electricity!

Snuggles my roommate in the jungle!

OOH and PS there was a tarantula bigger than my hand that lived in the roof under OUR cabin… I named him Snuggles and tried not to think of him as I crawled into bed…

Snuggles my roommate in the jungle!

So we did the normal jungle tour stuff – night trek to check out bugs (huge spiders!!), day trek to see more flora y fauna and trying to find animals.  I found that every outing had a main goal of seeing some bird or animal – which I wasn’t really too concerned with.. I just loved being around all the beautiful trees and tranquilo atmosphere.

took lots of shots of sweet creepy trees for you Matthew!

took lots of shots of sweet creepy trees for you Matthew!

Lenny our Guide and the driver who looks possessed!!! oh and a caiman

Although, it was easy to get caught up in the excitement of, “YEAH lets catch some piranhas and find a caiman (alligator)!!”
The one thing that was unforuntate was the rain – I know its the rainforest – but it was supposed to be the dry season! And they said it was sunny up until we arrived – bummer because we went on a special canoe ride to see the sunrise in this huge lagoon. . . definitely didn’t get a glimpse of it… next time!  Our guide, Lenny, ws great to talk to, I made him talk to me in Spanish. But he was a hilariously weird nature dude as well, and the sounds he made to the birds were just ridiculous.

Photos of all of this speak much louder, so check them all out.  Got shots of all the cool stuff we saw such as an alligator, snake, piranhas, birds, tarantuals, frogs, sloth, oh and all the amazing trees!

Lenny searching for a snake!

Lenny searching for a snake!

Piranha! look at them teeth!

Piranha! look at them teeth!

One last crazy thing about the trip – Nick ran into a friend from Austrailia at the lodge!!?!  If we were playing the dollar game, he should have won a thousand, because seriously this place was beyond remote.  And whats more, there are tons of different jungle tours, agencies, and places you can go in Ecuador.  Yet he happened to run into a friend from across the world? Whack!

Video -Driving away in motorized canoe:


Okay I’m going stop for now, even though I’ve said nothing about my new Quito life. This is just way too long. Here’s what to come, perhaps I’ll blog post and you can check that out there.

Roomies/Amigas/os!
Regina, Jasper, Marion, Kristin, David, BU kids, Pamela the Great!

More on the job and Adventuras! The BIG trial again ChevronTexaco and how its playing out, the role of everyone here, other random cool stuff (Daryll Hannah and Sting?), Spanish troubles, Carnival, Ambato, exploring Quito

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Natasha says:

    WOW Michaela, I’ve really enjoyed reading your really detailed insights into your life in Ecuador! Glad you’re having such a life-changing and interesting experience!

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