As we continued down the river we passed small groups of kids playing in the water. They all waved and smiled. Franklin’s home village was on this part of the route. We paddled ashore briefly as he made a quick stop to his house. Near the spot where we waited, there were two young boys about five or six years old playing by themselves in the water. Juan reached for the cooler where we had stored the leftover food from our lunch.
He pulled out the mixture of meat and beans along with some pineapple chunks. The boys happily accepted the food as Juan gestured for them to come and take it. The pair sat crouched in the water, close to us as they ate. Juan handed them the remaining tortilla as they were almost finished. One of the boys grabbed it and tore off a bite. He accidentally let it slip out of his hand and it plunked into the water. The boy reached into the water and pulled it out. He looked towards us and started smiling as he continued to eat the dripping-wet tortilla. All five of us busted out laughing for a bit. Franklin returned shortly after, visibly curious about what was so funny.
Two more hours of paddling and we were approaching the Kichwa village. On the way, Franklin described to us a brief history of the natives. The Kichwa (aka Quichua or Quechua) people were ‘discovered’ by the Incas in the 1400s. In modern day, there are roughly 400 organized Amazonian Kichwa communities. Many believe that humans, plants, and animals all have souls and should be treated as equals. A fundamental respect for nature is crucial to their existence.
We walked up a pathway leading uphill towards the village. Upon our arrival a few dogs ran down the path barking. The path led to an arrangement of several neatly constructed thatch roof buildings. Apparently the men were currently out hunting so the group we met there was all women and children. Several of the women came forward and started talking with us. Franklin translated to us, through Juan, that they wanted to share with us some of their food and show us a dance. Several of the children peeked over the short side wall of the building towards us.
It was great to have the chance to speak with the Kichwa, even if indirectly. We asked some questions about their daily lives. She explained how the children traveled for their schooling and how they left the forest for medical attention when necessary, even though they largely follow a shamanic system of medicine. I asked about their use of ayahuasca. They use it as a spiritual aide and for right-of-passage type rituals. Children as young as ten years old could partake in small amounts.
A couple of the women prepared fish and insect skewers over the fire while another prepared a tea and fermented beverage for us to sample. In Ecuador, you don’t drink the tap water. You have had bottled water everywhere. The prospect of accepting their drinks seemed risky at best. But, in the moment, the idea of declining their offerings felt incredibly disrespectful. Their ‘Guayusa’ Tea was refreshing and tasted similar to green tea. The milky colored brew was fermented from Yuca. It was sweet, tangy, and tasty.
We finished with our drinks and walked to the table where they had a spread of bottom-feeding fish, mashed yuca, and fire-roasted Chontacuro Beetles on a skewer. Each carefully laid out onto a banana leaf. The fish was salty and not very pleasant. I was actually very curious to try the beetles. The concept of edible insects has been very interesting to me for the past few years. We were surprised to find that the beetles were the best part. First you removed the head and then you ate the rest.
The Chontacuro Beetle has a buttery flavor and a texture that felt somewhere between chicken and shrimp. After our meal around eight of the kids assembled for their dance performed with native music (played from a tape recorder). They gestured for us to join them near the end. We hopped around treating them to some distinctly gringo dance moves. After the dance Juan realized that we were running out of daylight and we needed to get back on the water. We said our goodbyes and each bought a few of their handmade items in appreciation.