By Linda McFarlin as narrated by Lynne Allen
Life in Ecuador: "My husband is a Shuar Indian. He grew up in the Amazon jungles of Ecuador and didn’t wear clothes until he was eight years old. The tribe he belongs to was still shrinking heads until the 1950’s."
Thus did Lynne Allen begin her startling narrative about her adventurous life in Ecuador. Lynne started life normally enough, growing up in Chicago, Dallas and New York. After teaching school for many years, she retired.
Here's more of her story in her own words:
One of my dreams was to go to the Galapagos. I decided to take time off from teaching and the school gave me the money to go on the trip. I was interested in making a living as a photographer, so I also went to Mindo and Otavalo, then took an add-on trip to Kapawi, deep in the jungle.
You fly to Shell or Macas, land in the jungle, and take a motorized canoe down the Pastaza River, one of the headwaters of the Amazon. The accommodations are comfortably primitive—mosquito netting, limited electricity from generators to charge the ever-needed camera batteries, and one “hot” shower a day with solar-heated water. But this is a factor of life in Ecuador. I loved it!
The eco-lodge is a joint project of the Achuar tribe and a travel company called Canadros. Canadros originally ran Kapawi with a staff of Achuars and translator/guides from everywhere to accommodate international travelers. When the Achuar had sufficient training, they took over the management of the lodge.
My husband Gilberto was a guide there. He was adorable, with long, straight black hair. He’s dark and short and at 35 years of age, he looked about 17.
I’d booked 5 days while others in my group had booked only 3 days. After they left, Gilberto was told to take me bird-watching. We set out in a canoe and he took me to Lago de Amor, the Lake of Love. Along the way he shared a dream of great importance in his life in Ecuador.
All Shuar young men undergo a rite of passage as teens, as is common in most indigenous cultures. Gilberto had a vision that 4 or 5 influential women would come into his life, one from a far-off country who didn’t speak his language. When we met, he was sure that I was that woman.
On our last canoe ride he told me he was in love with me. I told him, “You’re 25 years younger than I am. I’m just on vacation and this can’t be serious.”
But there were pink dolphins swimming with us and leading us down the river. I felt that the dolphins were a sign that something significant was happening. (I’m quite a believer in unexpected signs.)
So when I went back to the United States we emailed, kept in touch. When I wanted to return to my life in Ecuador to photograph, Gilberto offered to be my guide. We thought we had permission to go to Ashuar, but the permission was revoked. I found myself with six weeks in Ecuador and nothing much to do.
So we traveled all over Ecuador—to Banos, Quito, the coast at Puerto Lopez, Isla de la Plata, Machalilla National Park. We even hiked into the rain forest in Morona-Santiago where Gilberto grew up, and spent a few days in a typical Shuar village, Yawints.
When I first visited Yawints, we hiked for three hours along a muddy path. I had insisted upon wearing hiking boots while the natives wore regular shoes or rubber boots, so after a while my feet were encased in heavy mud-encrusted boots, making the hike even more difficult for me.
When we arrived they insisted I drink chichi, homemade yucca beer which adults traditionally imbibe all day while they are working. Then they painted my face so I could go to their sacred place. Sweat was pouring off my face and all I wanted to do was sit down. They kept telling me, “Just a little farther.”
When my guide proudly said, “Here we are,” he pointed up a mud mountain with an extremely steep incline. I never would have made it if Gilberto and his nephew hadn’t tugged and pushed me up the hill.
The plateau we climbed was holy to the people of Yawintz. It was the site where their oldest settlement existed. They had decided to build a tourist center there to show off their culture.
Once I got up to the top, I didn’t want to come back down at all. The views were phenomenal and ceremonial dances were performed and traditional native music played just for me.
The villagers tried really hard to make things nice for me. They brought in bottled water, made a platform and even dragged in a mattress for my bed. This was really special because the traditional way to sleep is on the bare platform. They built me a bathroom: two rough wooden planks over a drop-off! There was only rain for showers. Ah, life in Ecuador!
The food they prepared for me was delicious. Once when there was a chicken under my bed, I told a village boy to catch it and found out later that it was served to me for lunch! Another time I was served agouti, which was delicious and tasted like pork. It’s actually a rat that looks like a little pig. Good thing I didn’t know that at the time!
The oldest woman in the village was called “abuela” by everyone, which means “grandmother.” She took in children who were orphaned or abandoned. She was in charge of teaching the young girls of the village to plant the crops and sing songs to help them grow.
The abuela visited me and invited me to meet her girls, to see their work, and to sing to the plants with them. I wasn’t allowed to take pictures, in case it might disturb the holiness of their planting grounds. She did allow Gilberto to take a picture of both of us in another area.
The village’s idea of tourism was to have tourists experience living in a Shuar village. I told Gilberto that the village might be able to attract bikers, hikers and back packers, but not many tourists would come without a road to get there or proper steps up the cliff.
The villagers unearthed ancient artifacts as they were clearing the plateau for their new construction and kept them outside so the children could play with them. There were ax heads, pottery shards and other relics.
All of our experiences drew us closer together. By the end of our trip, I found myself falling in love with Gilberto.
I tried sponsoring Gilberto on a student visa to the United States. The U.S. immigration people were not cooperative, despite the fact that he was admitted to the University of Florida’s language program, a six-month-long intensive. I had to guarantee that I had $9000, so my bank wrote me a letter verifying that fact.
While we both would have preferred to live together, or at least live on the same continent before we married, we soon realized that a spousal visa was probably our best chance to be together. We both had previous marriages, although mine had been when I was much younger.
Once in a while I’d have a moment of panic, thinking, “What am I doing?” I had divorced at 26 and was now in my 50’s. After much soul-searching and prayer, I decided to take a great leap of faith and get married.
In a beautiful place called Nanegalito, a tiny town near Mindo, there is an old house that has been turned into a hosteria called Alambi, owned by a couple we had met during our travels. A river runs through the property and hummingbirds are everywhere.
On the porch of the house, a table was set up for our wedding and decorated with toilet paper draped like crepe paper streamers. We were married on March 19, 2005, amid the hummingbirds and fruit trees. Local friends were witnesses.
But at the embassy in Quito, when we showed our wedding pictures, documents and tried to get a visa, the woman refused to grant it. She didn’t believe that our marriage was real. I became very emotional.
I’d been a school principal for over twenty years, dealt with irate parents and New York lawyers. But I completely fell apart at this news. I burst into tears at this woman’s judgment.
I returned to the States and made at least two international calls a week to check on the status of Gilberto’s visa. Sometimes I think he was granted the visa because the people were tired of hearing my voice on the phone! After six months Gilberto arrived in the U.S., right before Thanksgiving.
Gilberto and I lived happily in the U.S. for three and a half years. He studied English, then worked at a few jobs, including one as a maintenance supervisor, making good pay. We traveled as much as we could so he could see the beauty of the United States. Now he speaks pretty good English.
I introduced him to some of my family’s customs, such as a rather over-the-top Christmas, with loads of presents, well-filled stockings and a huge dinner with friends. A few months later a St. Patrick’s Day party served as a delayed wedding reception.
Growing tired of life in the states, Gilberto was tempted to leavewhen one of his friends in Ecuador, who was the mayor of Palora and also the commissioner of tourism, told him he had a job for him. The job was near Puyo and a national park where there was hiking, some villages, but it’s not a safe place for me to live.
Gilberto wanted to help his village. He grew up hunting and fishing and the village lives off the land. There has been no transition from the old culture to the new one and the villagers have picked up the worst of the new culture.
They have little or no education or training. But they do have cell phones, internet accounts, televisions and DVD’s.
They would pump up the generator and watch movies on television despite telling me stories about how they had nothing. Everyone would call me on their cell phones and ask for money.
And they would lose things. They were not used to having many belongings, so when I gave them things, they were quickly lost or misplaced.
There was no sense of long-term commitment or planning. People live very much in the moment, with little thought to what the future will bring. Life in Ecuador is changing dramatically.
Gilberto built his sister a new house with a thatched roof, up on stilts. It has bars on the windows and regular doors.
I raised money through my church and added my own money to pay for a water system for the village. The town needed to put up several thousand dollars but they couldn’t.
The old grandmother, the abuela who sang songs to the plants to help them grow, wanted money to buy 20 chickens. When I was in Ecuador for six weeks, I told the chief that I wasn’t rich and I would help with one thing. I bought supplies for the school in Yawintz, but I also slipped the abuela some money for her chickens.
When the villagers found out I had done this, it was a really big deal. When they talked, their speech was loud and staccato. It sounded as if they were fighting, but they were just talking.
Gilberto said to me, “The chief wants to know if you’d only do one thing, why you also gave money to the abuela to buy chickens.”
I replied, “Because the chief said she was the oldest, most revered woman in the village and I couldn’t turn her down!” This got me off the hook.
There was a rumor among the Shuar that the chief’s son ran off with all the money they took in from tourism. I’m glad I went with the teacher to buy supplies instead of just giving them money.
I had promised Gilberto that I would check out Shell as a place to live, but he says conditions there are getting worse and that if I like Cotacachi, I should move there. Shell is a military base about 15 km west of Puyo and 45 km from Baños. Evangelical missionaries have been there since the ‘50’s and a movie, “The End of the Spear,” was made there. It’s based on a true story:
The Huaranis, a tribe living near the Shuars, were killing each other off. The missionaries were told not to have contact with them, but when the missionaries found a young girl whose family had been killed, they raised her and taught her English.
Two of the missionaries were pilots and they decided to try to find the girl’s village. As they flew over a village, they called the girl’s name out and one of her brothers, who had not been killed, answered that he knew her.
When the plane landed, the Huarani villagers couldn’t understand why the missionaries had said the girl’s name but hadn’t brought her back to them, so they killed the missionaries.
The wives and children of the missionaries lived in Shell but traveled through the jungle with the girl to find the Huarani village. They wanted to take her back because they didn’t want their husbands’ deaths to have been in vain. Once there, they built the village a church.
The Huarani were impressed by the missionary women’s faith and changed their ways. The missionaries now run a school and a hospital. Later the downed plane and the missionaries’ bodies were found.
The villager who had killed one of the missionaries was forgiven by the man’s son. The villagers decided that they should find out about the missionaries’ God because that God had stopped their fighting.
My life in Ecuador and with Gilberto has led to adventures I could never have imagined in my wildest dreams. None of us know where life will take us, but like the mighty Amazon, life can have a direction that is strong and relentless. And once we are in its flow, it’s best to let life take us where it will, without too much resistance.
My journey with Gilberto continues to this day. We are pursuing our long-term dream—living a new life in Ecuador--together. Once we decide where we will live, I will apply for my residency, then wait to see what else life has in store for us.
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