For my final master’s thesis, my university had sent everyone in my class a list of potential projects. All the projects were lab-based and to me, they sounded extremely dull. I whined to my course supervisor about the less-than-interesting projects. He looked at me across the table and asked me, ‘Would you like to go to the Amazon?’
I almost fell out of my seat. The Amazon, did he say? Barely daring to believe it, eyes shining, I sat at the edge of my seat and said, ‘The Amazon? I would love to! I’ve wanted to go there ever since I can remember.’
‘A friend of mine is taking a group of students to Ecuador. You can join his expedition’
It really did feel like my wildest dreams were coming true. I very carefully planned my research project. This was going to be so amazing and I wasn’t going to mess it up. My master’s thesis was going to be fantastic. I was so busy planning my project, I barely gave any thought to the actual travel. A forest? We have plenty in India after all, nothing I wouldn’t be able to handle.
Unfortunately, I should have given some thought to the practicalities of travelling to the Amazon. It would have saved me a lot of unnecessary stress. Although there are bound to be surprises even the best prepared traveller would find challenging, a little preparation can go a long way. So here I give to you, some guidelines, based on my rather unfortunate experiences.
1. Do not try to save a few bucks by skimping out on buying a big rucksack.
I packed all my clothes in a red roll-on bag. I had contemplated buying a big rucksack, but after I found out the prices, I hastily revised my plans. After all, I’d just have to leave the bag in the field station, and we’d be using only the small backpack for fieldwork, I reasoned. Now ladies and gentlemen, there is a specific reason most travellers have big rucksacks and this I was to find out for myself. The moment I walked into the airport, dragging my bag behind me, and saw the whole crew with big rucksacks on their backs, I started to feel a little uneasy. They looked me up and down, eyed my bag, and judged me. Never mind, it’s not going to matter, I thought.
I was wrong.
The first field site I went to, my choice of bag gave me no hassle. The canoe took us right up to the bank of the field station and my bag was hoisted up, no problem. At the second sight, unfortunately, I wasn’t as lucky. The field sight was three kilometres from the bank of the river. And to add to my misery, it was uphill! I looked at my bag with a sinking feeling. This was not going to be good. I hoisted the bag onto my back with its two handles. My small backpack, I carried in front of me. It wasn’t too bad. I could walk with it. I thought I was going to make it to the base after all. Hundred meters in, I was feeling less optimistic. The bag handles were cutting into my skin. I could feel every kilogram in the bag. Sheer pride and bull headedness kept me going for another kilometre. But after that kilometre, I had exhausted my reserve of pride. I took off the bag and thought about dragging it. Why did it have wheels anyway? This was successful for less than a metre. Finally I cashed in on my last option- using my charms as a small, weak, vulnerable woman. I looked beseechingly at a strong young man, and he carried my red roll-on the rest of the way.
2. Find out about all your visa requirements.
I got all my information about travelling to Ecuador from the Ecuador Tourism website. ‘No visas are required for any nationals as we hope to better relationships with all nations,’ it said. No visa? I couldn’t believe it. I was Indian. I needed one to go everywhere! I called the embassy and they confirmed that I didn’t need a visa.
I was flying to Ecuador through Spain. So I checked the Spanish Embassy website as well and it said I need a transit visa which was sixty pounds. I was going to be in Madrid for less than an hour. I didn’t want to pay sixty pounds for that. Transit visa probably meant if you wanted to leave the airport for a bit, I decided. I don’t need one. Big mistake!
At the counter, just before boarding the flight, the lady looked at my ticket and then at my passport. She flipped a couple of pages.
‘You don’t have a visa to Spain?’ she asked.
‘I’m going to Ecuador, not Spain. And Ecuador doesn’t need a visa,’ I explained.
‘Yes ma’am. But, Spain needs one. I’m sorry ma’am, but we cannot let you travel.’
‘What? No! No! See I’m going there for my master’s thesis and I have to go. I really have to. Please,’ I said, tears glistening in my eyes.
She called some of the other airline staff and they had a hushed discussion. She turned to me and said, ‘Wait here a moment, ma’am.’
I waited in the corner, wringing my hands, and watched all the other passengers board the flight. Soon all the passengers had boarded the flight and I still stood waiting. Hours seemed to pass by. Finally, she came to me and said, ‘I called the Madrid Airport. You checked your baggage directly to Quito and you have a British student visa so you can go. Good luck.’
As I ran to the doors, two airline staff shouted out ‘Good luck’ and they waved. It was very movie-like.
3. Take all your vaccinations. Seriously.
The Ecuador Tourism website says, ‘Yellow fever has been eradicated from Ecuador in 2000 and visitors are not required to take the vaccination’. Brilliant. This meant I didn’t need any vaccinations. This saved me a lot of unnecessary running around. I was very peaceful with my decision, until I sat down next to a fellow team mate, on the airplane.
‘Have you got all your vaccinations?’ She asked, making polite conversation.
‘Umm. Vaccinations? I thought only yellow fever might have been needed but apparently it’s been eradicated so that’s not required as well.’
‘Oh no, we took loads. Here,’ she said handing me a paper from her travel folder.
‘Hepatitis? Rabies? Typhoid? Oh!’
‘Yeah, and we have tablets for Malaria as well,’ she said.
‘I’m from India. We have all these over there and I’ve taken all these in India,’ I said.
Had I? I really couldn’t remember.
4. Travel insurance, my friend. It’s all about travel insurance.
I had been contemplating buying travel insurance but when I found out the price, my Indian cheap-gene kicked in and I decided not to. Why would I need it anyway? Now, on the flight, without my vaccinations, with my visa fiasco, and my lack of a rucksack, I was feeling extremely under-prepared and jittery. So I did the only thing any person in my situation would have done, I panicked. I imagined the most horrific of scenes. I was going to get yellow fever in the Amazon and die. Or worse, I would become terminally ill because of a tropical flesh eating disease that would call for my immediate evacuation by helicopter and as I didn’t have travel insurance it would be enormously expensive and my family would become bankrupt. The flight from London to Madrid was the most harrowing flight I have ever taken. The minute I landed in the airport, I called the only person I knew who could fix this – my mother.
‘Ma,’ I said, sobbing through the phone.
‘Baby! What happened? Where are you?’
‘I’m in the Madrid airport. I don’t have my vaccinations and I don’t have travel insurance!’ and I dissolved into incoherent babble.
‘What are you talking about sweetheart?’ she said, barely concealing the panic from her voice.
‘The vaccinations. I don’t have yellow fever. I’ve taken for hepatitis, cholera and all no?’
‘I don’t know, baby. We haven’t updated your vaccinations. Wait I’ll call Somnath Uncle and ask him what is needed for Ecuador,’ she said referring to an uncle who worked for the World Health Organisation.
‘Also call Imran and ask him to get me travel insurance, no?’ Imran is my miraculous travel agent who is capable of solving any crises. My faith in him is endless.
‘Okay baby. Call after half an hour’.
Half an hour later my mother told me that Somnath uncle had said only the vaccination for yellow fever was needed and Imran had bought me travel insurance. Somnath uncle advised getting the vaccination in a hospital in Quito.
On arriving in Quito, I left the rest of my travelling companions in the youth hostel in the guise of exploring the city. I nipped to the closest book store, shelled out twenty five dollars for an English copy of Lonely Planet and in it, looked for the best hospital in Quito. Metropolitano. I hailed a taxi and it took me to Metropolitano.
I land in the hospital and ask them for a yellow fever vaccination. The lady behind the help-desk looked at me in total incomprehension. Yellow fever, I repeated very slowly and mimed a syringe being injected into my arm. ‘Ah! Si, si’ and she indicated that I follow her. She took me into a room where they started putting a black band around my biceps and then it dawned on me they were trying to draw my blood!
‘Non! Non!’ I jumped up screaming. ‘I don’t have yellow fever! I want something to prevent me from getting it. Vaccination. Vaccination.’
I nodded vigorously. ‘Une momento,’ she said and walked away.
She returned ten minutes later with another doctor. To my great relief, she spoke a little English. She gave me the yellow fever vaccination and some tablets for malaria.
‘When are you going to the Amazon?’ she asked.
‘Tomorrow,’ I replied.
‘But this, it works only after ten days. Don’t worry; yellow fever is not common there.’
Sigh. I was finally ready. Bring on the jungle.
5. Don’t ever think it’s a good idea to lick the Equator. It never is, especially, if it’s a few degrees off the actual equator.
The Equator. We had never seen it, so naturally we went a little bit crazy when we saw the ugly orange line they had painted to represent the Equator. Although, this line was in reality painted a few degrees left of the real Equator.
‘Look! Half of me is in the southern hemisphere, half in the northern. This is so cool!’
And then someone came up with this bright idea. ‘Let’s lick it! How many people can say they have licked the Equator?’
I, although vaccine-less, had by now managed to recover some of my initial gusto. ‘Let’s do it!’
What could happen, really?
The next day at the back of the truck, on the way to the forest, I lay curled up. Moaning. Ugh. ‘Wait! Stop the truck, I need to throw up.’ The rough truck and the bumpy roads were not helping ease my nausea.
However, I can now proudly say I have licked the equator.
6. If you’re four feet eight inches, do not jump out of the canoe to help push it when it’s stuck.
A wooden canoe with a motor attached at the back was our primary mode of transport in the streams. In the shallow areas, especially while we were travelling up stream, it would get stuck. At this point, every person in the canoe would enthusiastically jump out and start pushing it. This was much harder than it looked. Although the water was only waist deep, in my case, chest deep, the currents were very strong and the canoe was heavy. So even, few minutes of pushing were strenuous.
Most of the time, I helped in the pushing, not wanting to appear lazy. On one day, the currents were particularly strong. The canoe was stuck on an island of sorts and on either side, the water was deep. All of us jumped out and started pushing. The water came up to my chest and I was finding it very hard to push through the current. I ended up clinging to the sides of the canoe, to prevent myself from being washed away. I got caught by a particularly strong current and I lost my grip. The current pushed me right into the crotch of the guy behind me. My limbs flailing in the water, I struggled to get out this compromising situation but I had no control over my body – the current was too strong. Finally the crotch guy grabbed hold of my shirt and the guy in front grabbed my legs and they threw me in to the canoe. I sat there spluttering.
I was seated in the canoe and the only other person in the canoe with me was a five year old girl. After that, if pushing was ever required, I was not allowed into the water. It would be the five year old and me, in the canoe. My moment of pride. To prevent myself from feeling completely useless, I started taking photos of their hard work. And that is how I became the official photographer of these canoe-pushing-moments.
7. Choose a canoe with no holes. This probably has fewer chances of sinking.
On one of our days off, we decided to go to a cave which was up stream. The previous night it had rained lightly in our camp. We had seen heavy clouds and heard some thunder upstream so we knew it had been heavier further up but we hadn’t known exactly how heavy. We were enlightened the minute we set out in our canoe. The river had becoming a raging torrent and the volume of water had swelled. Our friendly river looked extremely menacing. Most of us thought it was better we go back, but our field guide said that it would be fine, so we carried on. The water crashed over the sides of the canoe as we pushed our way along the river. In no time at all, we were soaked to our skins and the canoe was filling up with water. The guides picked up two buckets and started throwing out the water from inside the canoe. We reached the caves safely, only a little wet.
However, on our way back, our luck changed. The river had managed to swell even more and mysteriously some holes had appeared at the bottom of our canoe. Now we had water crashing in from the sides and gushing in from the bottom. What chance did a small, tiny canoe have against such forces? The two guides were finding it difficult to keep bailing out all the water. To help them out, each of us pulled off one of our wellington boots, and filled it with water, and threw the water overboard. We managed to keep this up till we reached the base camp. We got out of the canoe, our arms aching and thoroughly pleased with ourselves. Our boots had saved the day!
8. Look before you pee!
Considering the circumstances, our toilet facilities were quite fancy. A huge pit was dug in the ground and over it a cement seat with a hole in the centre was built, over which wooden toilet seat was placed. Like I said, considering the circumstances, this was luxury. The first few days, the toilet was comfortable to use, however as the days passed, it got progressively worse. One night, I was struck by one of those unfortunate night emergencies. I grabbed my torchlight and hurried to the toilet. Without looking too carefully, I sat on the seat and was just about to find inner peace when I felt something or rather many somethings squirming under me. I jumped up in a hurry and looked at the toilet seat. On the wooden seat were a hundred termites; their pasty white, squat bodies reflecting my torchlight. My body froze. I slowly looked down, and sure enough, there they were – crawling on my thighs and pushing their way into worse places. I opened my mouth in a silent scream. I gave myself a moment to freak out and then did what I had to do. I started picking them out and once I was sure I was termite-free, I decided a nice tree would be the best place to go pee under.
9. Don’t jump into the river with your boots on.
Bath time also known as swimmy-swimmy time, was the most fun part of the day. A little way from camp, we had a lovely area where the water was not too deep and there were many small rocks, which was ideal for bathing. Initially, that’s what we used it for. We’d get in the water, stand around a little, sit on the rocks and get out. But as we got used to the river, we got bolder and ventured into deeper waters and swimming. Soon, we were fearless. The river was our friend and we laughed at the stories of the anaconda and the penis fish. The drop from the land right outside our camp to the river, that had initially seemed so daunting, started looking smaller and smaller. Finally, one of my team mates decided to jump off it, into the river. The rest of us stood on the bank and looked down, anxiously. She surfaced soon. ‘Jump in guys! That was awesome!’
That was all we needed. Our wellington boots came off and in we went. From there, we swam downstream to the usual bathing area, climbed out of the water and made our way back up the path to camp. But now, the walk back, without any boots, was very painful. The path was slushy, with tiny pebbles, thorns and a hundred other objects that could poke our tender feet. To circumvent this little problem, some of them started jumping into the river with their boots. I, terrified of losing my boots in the river and of not being able to swim well with my boots, requested whoever was going through the path to the usual bathing area, to carry my boots with them. On one day, no one was going through the path. ‘It’s easy, just jump in with your boots and don’t kick. Your legs will float up automatically and then start kicking.’ One of my teammates told me. Encouraged by this, I decided to jump in with my wellington boots. ‘Remember, don’t kick!’
I took a deep breath and jumped. The murky water was swirling all around me, my head then broke through the surface and I was gasping for breath. The current was very strong and it was pushing me against the rocks. I could feel my boots filled with water. I had to kick. With the first kick, my left boot came off and floated away. Some of the others saw it and tried to chase after it, but the boot was determined to escape.
Dejected, I got out the water downstream. ‘What am I going to do?’ I wailed.
‘You could use your sneakers till the next time someone is going into town, and then they can buy you boots and bring them back,’ someone suggested.
‘But what about the really muddy areas? I’ll never be able to survive with those sneakers.’
‘Hey, how about one boot and one sneaker. Then you can use the boot in the very tricky areas. It’s better than nothing!’
So for the next week, I walked about in one boot and one sneaker.
There you have it, some of the more unfortunate incidents that happened to me on that trip. Of course, amidst all this, I had some of the best experiences of my life. It was better than anything I could have ever imagined. Those experiences, however, are for another time and a different blog post.
The dream of every writer is to be read. And to be read and appreciated by as many people as possible. BWW makes that dream a reality.
BWW Star is a writer who has worked with us at BWW and whose work amused, moved, inspired, and/or made a difference in our lives. We are sure you will enjoy and be encouraging too.
The effervescent Ranjini Murali from the first batch of Bangalore Writers Workshop, always managed to make us laugh even in the workshop. Her writing reflects her sense of fun. But she is not all fun. Our wildlife biologist has penned ideas of conservation and perspectives on alternate sexuality that the rest of us didn’t even dream of.
Ranjini Murali in her own words
Nature, wildlife, adventure, travel, food. Those words pretty much sum me up. I like anything that gets my adrenaline pumping. The wilder, the better. I work as a wildlife biologist and I love my job. If I hadn’t become a wildlife biologist I would have liked to do something with literature. I’m fascinated by people and culture and I enjoy meeting new people. I want to write about places, people, food and issues that matter to me.
Born and brought up in Bangalore, I’m your typical Bangalore girl. I don’t like how fast the city is changing though. Every time I come back, something is different, and that makes me sad. I love reading and right now, I’m discovering the genre of fantasy. I think Douglas Adams was supposed to be my soul mate. It’s a pity he died. In my free time, I enjoy cooking and scouting through old bookstores. I’m currently collecting second-hand recipe books for my bookshelf in my future kitchen.
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In this piece that might be a tad long but is entirely hilarious, Ranjini talks of her exploits at the equator. And really, how many people do you know who have kissed the equator, consequences be damned? 🙂 So do share your feedback. Leave a comment. Spread the word. Encourage our Ranjini. 🙂