I'm a traveller who appreciates all the comforts of urban life -- plenty of thick towels, multiple pillows and even the chocolate on the pillow. But heading into the rainforest of Ecuador, I decided to leave behind the big city and with 14 other travellers participate in G Adventures' inaugural Local Living trip in South America, which allows visitors to stay with a family, and explore their environment through their eyes.
We stayed with Delfin Pauchi and his family, who live a four-hour bus ride and almost an hour truck ride into the southeast heart of the country, far from the big city.
For five days, I was wet, dirty and essentially wore the same clothing every day. I resented the rubber boots I wore to go hiking and adapted to showering in cool creek water while remembering to always use bottled water to brush my teeth. But in the same five days, I realized I didn't miss my urban life -- and gained a new tribe of friends.
Like most group tours, ours met at the pre-tour meeting. Our trip CEO Daniel Maldonado went over the details, encouraging us to purchase flashlights, rain ponchos and bug spray if we didn't already have them, while suggesting we take the minimum into the rainforest, since space would be scarce and wheeled luggage an encumbrance.
Reminded that we wouldn't have access to electricity, I sadly left my laptop, cellphone, mp3 player, video camera and other electronic paraphernalia securely stored with excess clothing in the hotel storage room. It felt odd to have one camera and two charged batteries as my only tech companions.
Early the next morning, we headed to the rainforest by bus, and by mid-afternoon, with backpacks and five-litre bottles of drinking water, we walked into the camp, a rustic lodge and cabins perched on the side of a hill, surrounded by tall trees and flowering bushes.
Greeted by the family, the house dog, two puppies, hens and chicks, we were divided into groups of three and assigned our cabins, open air bamboo and wood structures that I termed rainforest chic. They had simple twin beds with mosquito netting, a couple of shelves, candles and were immaculately clean. There wouldn't be chocolate on my pillow, but the cabin was surrounded by jasmine bushes that would be my aromatherapy to lull me to sleep each night.
Despite varied backgrounds, ages and experiences, we easily banded into a tribe, sharing stories and laughs as we fell into our daily routine. We were up with the sunrise, waking to the patter of Spanish, the barks of the dogs and the random crows of the rooster. We would slowly arrive at the hammock area, waiting for the bell to signal breakfast. The dining area, a long communal table, was where we fuelled up on rainforest-sourced teas like lemongrass and cinnamon, fresh fruit, scrambled eggs and instant coffee, while Daniel would tell us the daily plan of activities.
It didn't matter if it was raining or sunny -- the weather would alternate between both extremes all day long. Rainjackets, hats, rubber boots and Ziploc bags became essentials, along with sunblock, bug spray and cameras. The group took care of one another, sharing tips and supplies.
As we explored by foot, boat and pickup truck, the rainforest's secrets were revealed to us through Pauchi's explanations and stories, as he showed us numerous indigenous plants that were used for shelter, food and medicine, and were part of his traditional life as a member of the Quichua people.
The descendent of shaman and the current shaman of the area, Pauchi was proud to continue the rituals that he had learned since he was child and to show them to us. We learned to make a small shelter in the rainforest, how to roast cacao beans to make chocolate, had a local spa treatment, tried our hand at a blowgun and participated in a healing ceremony and mock wedding.
In between dealing with mosquito bites or ignoring the sore muscles from a day filled with activity, we could retreat to our small cabins for siesta. But we would generally spend our daytime downtime hanging together in the hammock area.
Dinner would be after sunset and since we were so close to the equator, daytime was roughly from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. As we ate the evening meal by candlelight, we became obsessed with the homemade salsa, which seemed to make the vegetable soups, stewed chicken and fried fish with beans and rice even better.
And then we would entertain ourselves -- with more stories, impromptu karaoke and drinking games.
Once the chatter and laughter ended, the rainforest sounds would take over -- and although I never saw any giant spider or scorpion, others did encounter them on the way to the toilet.
We weren't just racking up first-time experiences for our bucket lists, we were learning about ourselves as much as the Pauchi family. We could see how our money made a difference to the family and their community. It wasn't just about being eco-friendly or sustainable or being a volunteer -- it was all these things.
I returned to Quito with numerous mosquito bites, clothing that would never return home and took the longest shower of my life. But I immediately missed the intimacy of the group and the simplicity of the rainforest. And I didn't unpack my electronics right away.
The G Adventures Local Living program debuted in 2012 and includes trips in Italy, Croatia, Mongolia, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Morocco, France, Iceland and Spain, with trips averaging between five and eight days. www.gadventures.com/trips/local-living
-- Postmedia Network Inc. 2013