Monday, June 29, 2015

The Road to Pompeya, Part 1: Enter Coca Province

Dateline: Ecuador
July 1, 2013

The road from Tena to Coca is beautiful: towering walls of vegetation, vertical mountainsides covered with trees. The road winds in and out of the mountain as if it were an ant amongst the folds of a woman's green velvet skirt. Every now and then, the bus crests a rise and the view stretches to the east, past a small cattle pasture with a little campesino shack, out into the Ecuadorian montaƱa, one of the most marvelous landscapes in the world. Then it dives back into the dark forest, where the roadcut is hung with orchids and aroids, and clear mountain streams form waterfalls in the darkest recesses of every hollow.

Then we hit Coca. Welcome to the jungle.

A billboard reads "El Petrolero Mejora Su Communidad." Oil makes your community better. Just down the road is Hotel Exotica, then the Moulin Rouge. The latter is a fortress, enclosed by a cinder block wall on which hangs a vinyl banner showing a woman in fishnet stockings, lying on her back with her legs in the air.

Boomtowns and brothels. The second Amazonian oil boom is in full swing in Coca.

We pass more businesses, more development: The Superior Energy Services headquarters. A tree plantation. An oil storage yard with rows and rows of towering cylindrical tanks. Gated company compounds, barracks, apartment buildings, haciendas. There is money in Coca. And still, the thatch-roofed and tin-roofed wooden jungle shacks.

I could hear my guide talking to one of the other passengers about me. He told him that I was an anthropologist, going to the Shuar to study "medicinas naturales, plantas." He spoke loudly so that everyone could hear that he was guiding an anthropologist, not just any old tourist. I rolled my eyes and dug through my broken backpack for some Kallari chocolate, the only saving grace of my time so far in Ecuador. Be nice to him, I told myself. It's not his fault that your house in Colorado got flooded with sewage, that your back pack broke as you were getting on the bus, and that you didn't bring duct tape with you to the Amazon (who goes to the fucking Amazon without duct tape?). Of course, it WAS his fault that he'd sold me a false bill of goods with this trip, a fact becoming more and more clear with every bend in the road—but it was too late to do anything about that. We were well on our way to wherever we were going, for good or ill.
In case you are wondering, it's a SealLine.

We came to a small town, another oil-boom eyesore of rampant sprawl and arrested development, but here a greenway ran through the center of town, a lovely little strip of park with a sidewalk and the occasional park bench or flowerbed—clearly one of the important ways that oil makes our community a better place. And suddenly the bus stopped on the side of the road, and Eduardo motioned for me to get off. Here? We were apparently in Limoncocha.

We'd stopped, fortuitously, in front of a belt shop. I strapped a heavy leather belt around the bottom of my backpack, tied my shoulder strap to it, and was good to go. Thank god, because the sun was high, the streets were uneven, and the heat of a jungle city is damn near unbearable. We walked several blocks as Eduardo looked for our next bus stop. We wandered through a market, picking up some last supplies. We found our stop, Eduardo bought tickets, and we waited. And waited. And waited.

When the bus finally showed up, madness erupted. We, apparently, were not the only ones waiting for the bus to Pompeya. A crowd flooded out of the markets and storefronts lining the street and gathered around the door of the bus so tight that the passengers had to fight their way off. Men were pushing and yelling, pinning the rest of the crowd tight against the door of the bus. People were desperate to get on. At 5'7" and 115 pounds, I was bigger than almost everyone else, so I jumped in the middle of the fray—no way was I going to get left behind. I looked around to make sure Eduardo was going to make it on. I finally managed to fight my way up the steps and wiggled into an opening at the front of the bus, sitting on top of my pack on top of the hot engine cover, hoping that the heat wouldn't melt my rubber backpack.

And then we waited. And we waited. The driver of the bus was nowhere to be seen, and no one was going to get off and go look for him. The bus was completely packed with breathing, transpiring, and perspiring bodies. The heat was unbearable, and not a breath of air stirred.

There was a mother with a crying infant sitting in the front seat between me and the window. The baby's face was red and its hair was plastered to its head with sweat. I was afraid it would get heat stroke. I was certain, in fact, that it was in the process of getting heat stroke. It gasped for breath between wails. I tried to open the window next to them to get some air in. Several other people also tried to open the window. The window did not budge. I had my Spanish-English dictionary in my hand, and I tried to fan them with it to no avail. I think someone gave her a bottle of water to dampen the baby's head with. We started to realize that this was a real situation. This baby was going to die if the bus didn't start moving. Finally someone went to get the driver, and managed to drag him away from his dinner so that we could get on the road.

The name of our bus line was Petrolera. The oil pipeline followed us the whole way.

Agricultural expansion is one of the biggest threats to the rainforest. Resource extraction—logging, mining and oil—drives road building activities. Roads open the land up to colonization, and people move in, deforest, build homes and plant gardens for subsistence as well as cash. Here you are seeing a smallholder cacao farm; the little red footballs hanging off the lower branches are the cacao pods. Almost the entire road from Limoncocha to our final stop in Santa Elena was lined by cacao farms, driven by the booming market for chocolate in the North. 


  1. Lovely blog great vibe and enjoying your paper on icaros and plant human spirit relationships. Important work Id say.
    Jean-Francois Sobiecki

    1. Jean-Francois, thanks for your comment; it's good to hear from a colleague. And glad you are enjoying the paper. Keep checking back here; I've got a lot from this current trip to Peru that I look forward to getting up asap.