"Live a good life, and in the end, it’s not the years in the life, it’s the life in the years."

Up a jungle river: Canoeing into a remote and bio-diverse South American park where a tribe is trying to survive modern life

By on January 31, 2018 in Travel with 0 Comments

A tent on a raised platform is where Nicole Clennon stayed during the jungle expedition in Mandari Panga. The pathway made of tree stumps is guided by solar lamps which leads to the Rio Tiputini, a tributary to the Amazon River.

By Nicole Clennon

This past December, two friends and I ventured to Ecuador together… destination, the Amazon.

I had flown into Quito a few times before my most recent trip, but this was my first time landing without a heavy or uncertain heart.

The first time I arrived in Ecuador was in the winter of 2004 on a Peace Corps assignment. I was anxious about the two-year commitment, but was beyond thrilled to be living in Ecuador and deeply compassionate about volunteering in the Natural Resource Conservation program.

I loved looking to be part of another culture, helping them better their community. I felt like I could actually make a difference. I also felt adventuresome and self-reliant, ready to take on any challenge.

Looking back, I was also incredibly naïve. And, little did I know at the time of my departure that my mother’s cancer would return in full force and quickly take over her once heroically resilient body.

I returned to Cashmere a few weeks before her passing and after spending about a month home with my family, I decided through my heartache and despair that it would be better for me to be helping others so returned to Ecuador. But my heart was no longer in it, it was in Cashmere with my family.

Needless to say, I did not last the full two years. At the time I felt defeated, broken, depressed. The fire and passion I had, soon became consumed by the mundane.

Eventually life moved forward, and I moved on by taking on new challenges and creating new passions. I feel very fortunate to have been able to go to college and beyond lucky to have met my husband and to have two healthy and kind kids.

Raising kids has by far been the most rewarding and challenging experience in my life thus far, but there has been a part of me left behind.

What happened to the idealistic adventurer in me? The one who wanted to make a difference in the world. The one who wanted to soak up all there was to learn and spread that knowledge to others. What will I be teaching my kids if I am not living an authentic life?

So, when the opportunity to return to Ecuador arose, I felt it was something I needed to do.

We went exploring the possibility of an adventure learning opportunity with Wenatchee Valley College somehow. My travel companions — JDSA Law attorney and Wenatchee Valley College Foundation past president and current member Michelle Green, and John Darling, a retired dentist and the spouse of Dr. June Darling, Trustee and Board Chair for the Wenatchee Valley College Board of Trustees, both of Cashmere — didn’t know exactly how, we just knew the opportunities for learning were endless.

As I flew into Quito again, this time I was without trepidation. From Quito, we took another quick flight into Coca, then a two-hour bumpy truck drive down to the Rio Tiputini and the entrance of the Yasuni National Park. From there, we boarded a motorized canoe and traveled another two hours down river.

As the jungle became denser modern conveniences quickly began to fade away.

Finally, we arrived at our destination, the indigenous Kichwa community of Mandari Panga.

It is inconspicuously situated on the lush green bank of the Rio Tiputini. Ten platforms with tents surround the humble communal building. Exotic fruit trees are intermixed with bamboo and flowering trees that hummingbirds and butterflies swarm to.

The only power on site is generated by two solar panels that provide enough energy to charge camera batteries, but not much more.

No cell phone service. No internet. The only sounds are those of the jungle and each other. Early in the morning, even before the birds wake, we could literally hear the trees breathe.

We spent a few days exploring the incredible biodiversity within the Yasuni National Park.

It is arguably the most biodiverse place on earth with over 200 mammal species (12 of which are monkeys!), 600 species of birds, and over 100 types of each bats, reptiles and amphibians — not to mention the extraordinary plants and trees that could be found in this pristine primary rainforest. All of this in an area close to the size of Yellowstone.

We had instinctive and knowledgeable guides whom have spent their whole lives in this jungle, hunting and subsisting off the verdant land.

Our Kichwa guides taught us many things, including medicinal purposes for plants as we hiked through the forest. We barely scratched the surface of the knowledge there is to gain in the Amazon.

Without the distractions of the modern world, I was truly able to connect with the moment and fully embrace the experience. This was a crash course in mindfulness.

We had the rare opportunity to immerse into Kichwa culture and learn directly from the locals about their jungle, their culture and their new project of ecotourism and education that we were getting to experience. The people we met were generous and kind, welcoming us with open arms.

We played soccer with community members, ate hormigas de limon (lemon tasting ants), swam with piranhas, drank chicha (fermented cassava made by chewing the plant and spitting it into a vat to ferment), learned to make chocolate and explored the river in a dugout canoe.

We hiked through dense jungle, saw howler and squirrel monkeys jump from tree to tree, and listened as a baby monkey cried for its mama as a vulture stalked them from up above.

Pink dolphins even followed us up river on our return trip back.

It really did feel magical.

As we retraced our steps to get back out of the jungle, the luxury and cost of modern society was glaring. Our phones started dinging, and the pipelines that seemed insignificant and ordinary just a few days earlier now looked invasive and ugly.

Clear-cut land was in stark contrast to primary forests full of multiple canopies of thriving species that we had just explored.

The people of Mandari Panga see this destruction and understand that the expansion into their land could happen if they let it. They have banded together as a community to resist the temptation of the quick sell of their land to oil companies.

They have created a plan to educate students and tourists by inviting them in to their community. This provides jobs for the community members while also giving those who visit a unique opportunity to learn about Kichwa culture, conservation and the biodiversity of the Amazon.

For now, their jungle and culture are safe. The guides spoke a lot of symbiotic relationships between species in the jungle — perhaps this could be another.

Visiting Mandari Panga reminded me of the inescapable interconnectivity of our earth. It rejuvenated my passion for knowledge and conservation.

This experience has reawakened that part of me, the idealistic adventurer, that I was once proud of becoming. Afterward I hoped that I could embrace my 23-year-old self and tell her that it was ok that she did not have life all figured out; that she didn’t need to be so stubborn or strong.

After my renewing experience in Mandari Panga I thought perhaps I could finally give myself a little grace.

Nicole Clennon returned to the Wenatchee Valley in 2010. She currently enjoys being an archaeologist, museum volunteer, outdoor enthusiast and mom living in Cashmere.

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