I had a pretty fun childhood. My parents took my brother and I on trips since we were little. In fact, most of my traveling happened before I turned 18. And I am very grateful for that, because I had a different look at the world from an early age. That probably explains why I feel the constant urge to explore more and more, starting in my home country, Ecuador.
Most people that live in the mountains (the Andes) in Ecuador like to spend their vacation at the beach. My friends spent their school holidays by the sea and many of them had a beachfront apartment. Me? I didn’t go to the beach. Ever. My mom didn’t know how to swim and she couldn’t be in the sun for more than 30 minutes without getting red like a lobster. My father was indifferent, I think, so we spent our holidays in the mountains, the cloud forests (mainly Baños) or the Amazon rainforest.
I remember very dearly our trips to the Cuyabeno Wildlife Reserve. This was the early 90s. Just getting there was an adventure in itself. Most tour groups would do a 2-day trip from Quito to Lago Agrio, visiting San Rafael Waterfall on the way, the largest in Ecuador, to make it less tiring. Once in Lago Agrio, you would take an open-air bus, called chiva in Ecuador, for about 4 hours until you reached the Cuyabeno River and the park entry point. Then, it was another hour to the lodge. For those that weren’t excited enough about the road trip, flights were available on a military plane. I remember these flights like it was yesterday, particularly the loud noise of the engines for which they gave us headsets so you wouldn’t go deaf. It really felt like you were going on a mission to explore the unknown.
Our Cuyabeno Lodge was very charming. It consisted of several cabins along a boardwalk with the main building in the center, where you had the dining room and the social area. At dusk, we would go bathing in the river with the local kids. We’d jump into the water and let the current take us down to the pier, and run back up the river to jump again, and so on, until we’d get tired, or it would be too dark to see where to grab a branch. Come to think of it now, I would not dare to do this knowing that the caimans are active at night! We were daredevils!
But before there was a lodge, we’d go camping. The sole idea of camping in the middle of the untouched rainforest is frighting to most of my friends. For me, this was just what we did over school breaks. And I loved it! I do remember, however, one time when we spent a night with a tarantula inside our tent. I only realized the intruder was there the following morning as I was dressing, when I moved the candle in the middle of the tent only to find my hairy friend asleep on the candle holder, oblivious to my presence and my sudden scream. I got scared and jumped out of the tent to tell my dad to take it out so I can go back in. Today, tarantulas, and spiders in general, fascinate me. Actually, I like all insects and from that young age I would look for grasshoppers, spiders, moths, lady bugs, crickets and especially the leaf-cutter ants, whose endless trail on the ground I’d follow.
Now, here’s the icing on the cake, or should I say, head. Once, I went to Cuyabeno with my father and a group of tourists. My mom had trusted that my dad would pack all the necessary things for my trip, but he didn’t think of hair conditioner, because he doesn’t use it himself. So, when the time came to take a shower and wash my waist-long hair, it became a mess. I could not comb it. And I didn’t comb it for the next week. My hair magically shrunk to almost my shoulder. By the time I got home, my head looked as if the oropendolas had built their nest over it. The conversation went something like this:
Mom: OMG! What happened to her head?!
Mom: It’s all tangled! It looks like a nest! Didn’t you comb it?
Me: I didn’t have conditioner, so I couldn’t comb it.
Mom (to my dad): I can’t believe you would just leave her like this and not try to comb it.—Mom in total disbelief.
Dad: I didn’t know about the conditioner.
Mom: Now we’ll have to shave her head!—She honestly considers this a valid option.
Me: What?! No!—Mayhem unfolds and I start crying as I picture my bold head.
Dad (to both): Calm down, we’ll fix it.
Two or three hours later, I had hair again, thanks to mom, of course. After that, my father never, ever forgot to take the conditioner along. As a matter of fact, he learned how to braid my hair so it wouldn’t grow a nest again. He actually became a braid expert!
Fast-forward 20 years, and things are so differently better. Driving from Quito to Lago Agrio takes 6 hours instead of 11, there are commercial flights daily, you can choose from a realm of lodges in Cuyabeno, and most importantly, I braid my own hair now! Cuyabeno still has a special place in my heart, not only my head!