I couldn’t believe this was happening. An entire class full of adults was staring at Felicia and I. We were nervously splitting our gazes between their watchful eyes and the kabobs that had been placed in our hands. They had been offered to us with such gusto! In my short time in Ecuador, I’ve learned that Ecuadorians have a tremendous amount of pride in their country and everything that comes with it: the people, the scenery, the cuisine. I’m pretty adventurous with my cuisine, but this was a first. Chontacuro.
Yes, seriously. Those worms. They’re actually larvae of the Rhinoceros beetle, found inside the Chonta palm trees of the Amazon rainforest. They are considered a delicacy and are eaten raw by the indigenous people, and enjoyed grilled by other Ecuadorians. Delicacy or not, I was staring at a skewer that contained no peppers, pieces of steak, or mushrooms: just bugs. And the students in this English class were looking at Felicia and I with smiles on their faces, so eager to see a few gringas who were helping teach their class just for that day take on more of Ecuador than we had really bargained for. After many nervous giggles, a demonstration on how these insects are enjoyed (this woman turned the skewer to the side, held it to her mouth like a flute, then pulled one chontocuro to the end of the skewer using her teeth, finally facing her prey and chomping down on it) and a few empty count-downs, we did what any anthropologically savvy visitors would have done.
It was not as bad as I thought it might be. Pretty fatty. Basically tasted like grilled chicken skin (another delicacy in Ecuador is pig skin… not a huge fan). The worst part was this unexpected crunch that came from somewhere in the center of the bug’s head. The students cheered us on as we did our best to not make a face, and after swallowing the larva, I figured “what the heck” and ate my second bug, then happily (with assurance that no Ecuadorians were offended in my handling of their delicacy) handed my kabob to the person beside me.
You know how in my last post, I mentioned how amazed I was by Ecuador’s geological diversity and how I hoped to make it to the Amazonas region at some point, but it would probably be a while? Well, on Thursday, I received an email from one of the English teachers in town who I’d met at a seminar a couple of weeks ago. In the email, she invited Felicia and I to join her and some colleagues on a trip to Coca, located in the northeastern Orellana province, a town that is one of the most popular gateways into Ecuador’s portion of the Amazon. It wasn’t going to be a long trip and we would be working, but it was an offer I couldn’t refuse Friday night, Felicia and I were on a van full of local teachers, headed to Coca.
After a terrible night of sleep (I’m realizing that in the last two weeks, I’ve spent four nights sleeping in a bus or a van- no fun!), we reached Coca at around 6 am. We were able to sleep in beds for about an hour before accompanying Cathy (the teacher who emailed me) to her English class at a Polytechnic school. We spent about the next 5 hours helping her students with their English. I won’t go into this part, because it’s pretty boring. Oh, except for the chontacuro part, which I think I already mentioned… they were making presentations in English about tourism opportunities in their region of Ecuador. After hearing (and sometimes tasting) their information on Coca, we spent the afternoon with this gracious, friendly group of adults and they showed us their city!
First, we went to lunch at a delicious, local place. I split this fish with two others. It was incredible. Accompanying it are verdes (in the banana family) and yuka.
I joked with someone I split it with (because he picked that fish dry- no gill seemed to have gone unturned) saying “Oh, you forgot to eat the eye!” He turned the fish over to prove that he had not forgotten the eyes. During this lunch, someone who ordered “guanta” gave Felicia and I a bite. We kept asking what animal it was, with hesitation, but we couldn’t figure out from their descriptions what it was. Throwing caution into the wind (again), we tried it. Today I googled it and found out that it’s a jungle rodent more commonly known as paca (oy!):After lunch, we walked to the riverfront, had a spontaneous “take a picture with the white girls” photo shoot (this happens at my school often as well), saw monkeys in the trees (right in the city!), then boarded a boat that would take us down the Coca River (a tributary of the Napo River, which is a tributary of the Amazon river).
Our boat ride was fun. Because any explanations of the area and the river were in Spanish, I felt a lot less safe in this water than I had when I was in a boat in the Jamaican black river. The difference was that, in Jamaica, I understood the language of my tour guide and knew full well that crocodiles were in those waters. Here, I kept asking questions like “Hay [are there] piranhas?” only to receive a too-long answer that I didn’t fully comprehend. It was enough to keep me from sticking my hands into the river. We stopped at a spot that one of the students said would lead to a path where indigenous people lived. During lunch, this guy had shown Felicia and I pictures he had taken of some of the indigenous people- they were like they had come from National Geographic. I was excited about what I may find and got off the boat like everyone else. After a minute or two of making our way through the jungle, our path became more and more muddy. We had to take off our shoes.
Then, we reached a large puddle-pool of water. Already feeling way more one-with-the-earth than I’d have liked because of mud squishing its way through the gap in between each of my toes, the unthinkable happened. I slipped, Anne of Green Gables style, and was covered in muddy water.
After a few more minutes of walking, we made it to the indigenous tribe. It consisted of four young men wearing very modern clothes. Not very Nat Geo… but it was cool to be in the jungle. When crossing the two large pools of water on my way back to the boat, I was always offered a gentleman’s hand. When back at the river, I forgot all about any large, scary fish with teeth or poisonous snakes and joined another poor clumsy girl who had fallen into the mud as well.
We returned to the port in our boat, my amigos and I. That night, we met up after dinner (and more importantly, a shower!) for some dancing. At around 11 pm, Felicia, Cathy, and I boarded a bus headed back to Riobamba. I had one day in the Amazon region. It was exhausting, full of firsts, and I don’t think I’ll be forgetting it anytime soon.