This journal documents a two-week journey to Ecuador, South America during the year 2010.
Note: This section of my trip is what inspired me to film and edit a documentary about the oil pollution and the communities it has effected over the 40 years. You can watch it here: CLICK HERE FOR MY DOCUMENTARY!
Part 2 – Continued! Re-Visit PART 1!
That next morning the sun was absent from the sky and the weather cool and dry. When we arrived at the airport, the sun began to peek through the clouds, and as I looked out towards the long horizontal landscape of Quito, the buildings were illuminated in a breathtaking purple haze. The whole day that followed was simply breathtaking. Just the plane ride alone was the most beautiful aero-trip I had ever been on. It was a small jet with two rows of seats, one on the left and a two-person row on the right. I spent most of the flight watching the sun rise into the clear blue sky as we soared over a massive layer of full white clouds. It sat underneath our plane as a vast expanse of clouds that looked like something out of a children’s fairytale story, like Jack and the Beanstalk. It felt like we were approaching a magical land in the sky. Or maybe the clouds were actually a soft blanket of snow, covering the air for miles and miles and I could jump and leap in graceful bounds. It was just gorgeous. A few times a snow-covered mountain top peaked through the white layer of fluff. It was mind-blowing and just fascinating, as I had never seen mountains that tall. As we descended towards the ground, flying through the clouds, the blank white fog opened up to an expanse of pure jungle canopy. The foliage and geography had changed dramatically in comparison to Quito. While the city was crowded with buildings and lights, this oasis was overflowing with pure jungle, Amazon rivers, handmade huts, and small sporadic towns.
The Lago Agrio airport was heavily guarded by army personnel who carried rifles and automatic guns. The town of Lago Agrio is near the Colombian border and a land bursting with natural oil and gases. The stifling air immediately felt ten times more hot and humid than the dry, crisp air of Quito. I wore a sweatshirt over my tank top, and I didn’t hesitate for a second to take the heavier layer off. The town in which we stayed was even more impoverished than Quito. Buildings were ruined in unexpected places, roofs were missing, electrical wires exposed, and trash was strewn everywhere. Wild dogs roamed the streets and a feral cat even haunted the outside dining area of the hotel. Beggars were constantly passing by to ask for money. One blind woman came repeatedly to my table. After giving her some money, against my natural tendencies, I was forced to begin to ignore her because she kept coming back. I am never sure how to act and behave towards someone who seems to desperately need help. It is hard not to feel compassion and a desire to help those in need, but it is hard to know when to draw a line and create the comfort balance in one’s own life. Though I question why I shouldn’t sacrifice my own privileged comfort for someone else’s. Whether I should or not, I always feel guilty after an interaction with an impoverished person. That is something that will never go away being some one in the “have” category.
Though deeply devastating, it was hard not to see beauty within the town. Something was strikingly different about the people and buildings so that I had a strong urge to film and photograph them. But wanting to be respectful and not unconsciously exploit them, I kept to myself mentally capturing the moments.
Once settled at the hotel, I had a breakfast of fresh mango, pineapple, guava, some eggs, and bread with cheese. I was already cutting down on food, and ate slowly and in smaller amounts (which is actually healthier). I then left to take a small van towards the oil fields of Petro Ecuador. Originally, much of this land was owned by indigenous tribes such as the Cofan. The oil companies that came to exploit the land’s resources in the 70s removed these people and have consequently polluted their land and water supply. A private (and I’m not sure if it was legal) tour took us through gated farms and behind oil drilling facilities into the jungle where I was able to document on video the leaking of oil and gas emissions into the jungle, and the pools of oil and water the size of large ponds, hidden within the jungle’s canopy. Large pipes ran throughout the area carrying the oil that had been drilled from beneath the jungle floor. The pipes stretched hundreds of miles through Ecuador to the coastal city of Esmeraldas, where it would finally be refined and exported. They transport it so far away to refine it because it is cheaper to transport it through the pipeline to Esmeraldas than it is to refine it at the drill site and ship it out afterwards. However, these pipes are old and corroded and when there are spills and holes, they are not maintained or fixed – the land and wildlife surrounding them are punished for it.
I remember walking past a wire fence, crawling underneath an opening, hiking through the jungle, hearing the noises of distant birds, and then… a menacing and slow rush of air that sounded like a doomsday machine that would destroy anything in its path (think LOST). I later learned that this sound was the gas being released by a valve and sent through a pipe across an open field and then high into the air, where it was set on fire. I walked a few feet parallel to the pipe and it was burning hot. The temperature had already risen to at least 90 degrees. The guide stated that all over this area they would burn gas 24 hours a day because there was no way to dispose of the chemicals other than burning them. He basically said that it was cheaper to burn it than to actually utilize the resources. Throughout our tour we came upon this apparatus within the jungle. Our guide said that the fire and poisonous fumes would kill the many bugs who were curious enough to approach it. Birds and other wildlife that fed on these dead bugs would be affected too. We walked further and deeper into the jungle, and came across at least three large pools of oil.
They were just sitting there, unattended, uncovered, and completely exposed to the surrounding environment. In one area, oil had dried on the edges of the pool and we were able to walk closer. There were two birds that flew over the deep, black oil-covered water and landed on the other side. One almost went into the ominous death “water,” but instead just sat on the side and cleaned itself. Seeing animals so close to the poisonous oil made me so angry and emotional – I immediately wanted to do something about it. On top of the pool and nearby the pipes, I saw hundreds of dead bugs, some nearly the size of my hand. It was a blatant example of how the mistreatment of oil can affect the surrounding biosphere.
Feeling unbearably hot, we took a break from the tour to eat under a small, roofed platform building that had a stereo system and sugarcane stand. The tour guide said this was where the oil workers got together to dance and relax. The restroom (like most restrooms in Ecuador) had no running water and was basically an outhouse with a toilet but no toilet paper. I was glad that I had stolen a roll from the hotel that day for the hike, but it instead came handy at this rest stop (if there are two items one should never forget they are paper/tissues and hand sanitizer. seriously). We had a bagged lunch of white bread and cheese, a banana, and tang. It is hard to find natural or hearty food in this town because they are so poor – they are forced to sell all their prized fruit and coffee to foreign countries in order to pay for housing and clothing. However, because we were near a sugar cane farm we were able to buy freshly made sugar cane juice with fresh cut lemon.
While I rested, one of the girls walked a little further down the road and found a couple farming cacao, the plant used to make chocolate. She was excited to discover this odd looking fruit and asked them if she could buy one. They were happy to see someone interested in their crop and gave her three for free. It is a reddish brown colored fruit that is shaped like a football and ribbed with bumps. Once cracked open, the inside looks like mold, but it is actually a white, soft juicy covering that surrounds the inner seed. It was messy, and to eat it I scooped out a few of the white seeds and sucked on them. It was a slightly sour yet sweet tasting fruit, slimy and chewy, one that I had never seen the likes of. I don’t recommend biting into it, though, because the seed is very strong and bitter, and it juxtaposed the chewy sweetness of its outer covering.
After lunch, many of our accompanying travelers were worn out from the day’s walking and the dramatic images we had been exposed to. We stopped by one more farm and walked a little into the jungle. I came across an old Texaco oil barrel, like the kind people see in images of oil cans being dumped into the ocean. It was strange to come upon one in person, and in the jungle, just…sitting there. Nearby, there was another farm where a large truck was releasing water and oil into yet another pool. Across the way was a smaller oil-filled pond where a drain directly filtered the waste into a nearby stream that flowed into the rainforest. You could actually see the pipes that lead into the jungle. astounding.
When back in town, my translator and the guide discussed how many of the townspeople are surprisingly unaware of the true destruction that is going on. Many don’t believe that it is harmful to their environment, and many are forced to work for these companies to survive. It is ironic and sad that the thing destroying their home is also the thing keeping them alive.
That night, Amy and I went swimming in the hotel’s pool, a nice and refreshing change to the contrasting heat and intensity of the day. The rooms of the hotel were nice, large enough for two twin-sized beds, but without space for much else. The bathroom and shower were interestingly constructed on a slant, angled when connected to the room, reminding me of one of those circus fun houses. Much of the lobby area was under construction, and at most hours we could hear the workers clacking away at the wall’s tile. In the center of the hotel was the pool, surrounded by a pretty garden (though many plants weren’t flowering and some were even dead) and there was no roof covering the area, and the sun could peek through to warm the bathers. It was cool to be inside and at the same time feel like I was outside when sitting by the poolside. I was perfectly satisfied with everything, but can see how a high-end North American traveler might think less of the accommodations in Ecuador. For the bargain price we paid, we got everything we needed: a place to sleep, eat, bathe, and even a place to hang out and cool off in the humid jungle heat. Personally, I feel over-privileged when I have such nice places to sleep and the people right down the road are crouched on top of rubble under scraps of clothing…
After my swim I sat outside and wrote in my journal, watching people until the sun began to set. Looking at the various Ecuadorians and townspeople near the hotel and on the street, I once again I realized how different I was from them. Not only was I a woman alone in a foreign country, but I was a white, freckled, young, English-speaking woman, in a Spanish-speaking country. I couldn’t strike up a conversation with just anybody, and I also had to protect myself from dangerous people, especially sketchy looking men. In the U.S. I find that many times I make comfortable eye contact with strangers in the street or at a café. I even casually make an acknowledging comment or talk to them. In Ecuador, I felt out of place and I couldn’t blend in as easily. I was unaware of local customs, and on top of that I couldn’t even speak the country’s language! (note: how different from my experience in Argentina after having a year of spanish under my language belt.)
Meanwhile, while I was contemplating my isolation, two of the other girls, Lizeth and Katie, had gone walking together down the road to explore the town. They had been hungry and had stopped to buy a salad and steak from a street vendor, against our travel guide’s advice. That night, both became sick and spent the night awake and ill. I wasn’t planning to eat food from the street, but their experience just reinforced my decision tenfold.
We flew back the next morning bright and early, and watched the sun rise over the misty rivers of Lago Agrio, an unforgettable experience that will last a lifetime. I was sent back with a feeling that something had to be done, and that these pools would not be hidden for much longer.
photo credits: Amy Clark (these photos are the still-shot counterpart to the footage I filmed!)
Please continue to follow this travel account in the future! It will be located under Travel and Ecuador! More parts to come soon!