How Switching you off, Switches you on
These days, it’s fairly common for people to make a change – to quit their jobs and decide to travel the world, or at least dream about it through their Facebook timeline or the latest Instagram updates (totally guilty!).
Look back 20 years or so and society would call you an idiot or very brave to fly into an unknown continent, with only a 13kg rucksack, alone.
Rewind back even further and we didn’t even have planes or trains to make these experiences happen and perhaps it was only a passing thought… try to imagine how this would feel and you may share some thoughts with the indigenous people in South America right now. Their only knowledge of the outside world is from a few travellers stopping by, or from old films & the limited internet access in the nearby town. This is the case for the community that I have been living with anyway.
I caved in to those unbelievable insta-snaps with a “hashtag no filter”, quit my job and decided to travel South America. Everyone has a reason to travel, and mine was quite personal. Cutting the sob story short, my year went from being the best to feeling the worst in a very short space of time, and my answer was not to wallow but to make that radical change in life to reset the system. For me, that change was to live my (South) American dream: to live the simple life and experience a culture, far detached from the western world (quite literally). As I write this, on a Monday morning, swinging on a hammock inside an Amazonian bamboo shack, I can successfully say my mission is complete – and I still have another 8 months of travel!
To avoid exploitation and tourism, I must respect the native community’s culture and keep the location hidden, but what I can say is that I’m in a cloud forest on the outskirts of the Amazon basin and here’s my story…
I’ll paint a picture; my bed is a mattress in the dirt on the floor inside a hut made of bamboo, which I share with many insects, frogs, spiders and other jungle critters that come and go throughout the day. As rural as it sounds the community are still blessed with limited electricity, which powers the one light in the ‘living room’. That said, the electricity is often made redundant due to the regular power cuts we get from the torrential rain. If that happens, our light source is the full moon and/or material extracted from a specific tree in the forest. At this point, I should add that, although we are surrounded by it, its pretty dangerous to forage deep inside the forest in the rainy season because of the snakes. Some stretch to over 5m long so the forests resources are used sparingly.
In the evening, our “Henry the Hoover” (other brands are available) is the ants nest picking up the scraps of foods and a clan of frogs swiping all the insects flooding to the one lightbulb above us as we eat.
At night, I drift off to the ”suena” of water flowing and the forest song of grasshoppers, frogs and many other nocturnal animals just a few meters from my bed. It really is a world away from my hometown but I’ve become so familiar with it all now. I drink from an untreated tap that takes fresh drinkable water directly from the river flowing underground. Further downstream, I wash myself in a nearby river which may sound peaceful and elegant but depending on rainfall the previous night, it can be pretty fast flowing! Comically grappling onto the loose rocks, butt naked whilst the dirt is power blasted off me… Sometimes people wash their bodies upstream from me which isn’t ideal but I’ve already committed to the challenge so I just have to deal with it!
Spanish or the native indigenous tongue are the only languages used to communicate in here, which to the average Brit abroad is an absolute nightmare… unless you’re a world class act in charades. I assure you that I am not. I had my basic knowledge of Spanish before arriving and combined with the 15 hours of lessons in Argentina, I was on to a winner… if only. Their rapid speech masked with a foreign accent made it incredibly difficult to pick out a single sentence that made sense. But, after intense listening and having Google translate as a friend (…other apps are available), my brain magically adapted and I could extract particular words by day 3 and unbelievably, after 1 week I could dissect almost any conversation. By this point my learning was tenfold anything you would experience in a school.
In the day, I help build the developing bamboo shack that I’m sleeping in. That involves going into the forest, collecting bamboo and then cutting them to size with old saws to create walls & windows and literally any idea that comes into the owner’s head. At one point, we discussed building a mosaic window using empty wine bottles!
Another day involved playing tug o’ war with a 40ft tree using a coil of rope, and an axe for a handicap. To start the game, A ninã of the family, who must have only been 11 years old, climbed barefoot to the cross section (30ft high) and tied the rope around it for us. No bother for her; this is life. The game commenced, and it wasn’t long until I realised there was a 3rd party joining in: an army of ants, attacking my limbs as we pulled. Blocking out the pain, I kept calm and carried on. The tree cracked and started to fall, I wanted to shout “timberrrr!” but another guy beat me to it and shouted “Avispaaa! and legged it, I instinctively joined and later discovered the word meant “wasp!”. Health & safety, eat your heart out.
There are heaps of unique anecdotes I can share with you but I’ll leave you with only one more and that’s the time I met the chief of the tribe.
He invited me to drink their local specialty “Masato”, which is Yuca root fermented into a traditional alcoholic beverage. It’s a local favourite and seems to be drunk more often than water! I obviously, politely accepted.
The chief was at the head of the table and took ownership of the Masato jug. He poured himself a glass and finished it a second later. He then topped up the same glass and passed it on to his left, the next person finished it just as quickly.. It didn’t take long to notice that there was a pattern developing here – only one person drinks at a time and it would have to be finished in one go. I liked the idea of this, my 3 years at University set me up for this very moment. It was my turn, I said “Salut” in exchange for the drink and saw it off and played my best poker face upon completion, hiding the fact that I didn’t actually like it. It was warm from being left in the sweltering heat all day, none of the starchy components were filtered out so it felt like drinking a very acidic, chunky soup, but nonetheless it was tradition and I was respectful.
Once the jug was finished it was taken into the back and stocks were replenished. The conveyor belt session lasted for hours, and the alcohol started to take effect. The chief shook my hand and thanked me for all the hard work I done in the community and later went on to say that if I wasn’t here to work than I wouldn’t be welcome. Tourism was not welcome here especially not Gringos. It was at this moment that I realised that I was extremely lucky to be accepted into this community and very fortunate to experience a culture a world away from what I considered normal.
I set out on my journey to remove myself from the mainstream society that we have become so numb to. I strongly encourage others to find a break (even if it’s short) and take an experience outside their norm because sometimes you need to be switched off in order to be switched on.
If you’re looking for a starting point, then Eco Companion’s eco experts are a great way to fast track that process and are always a knowledgeable helping hand for you to figure out the right route for you.