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Thursday, February 26, 2015

THE AMAZON!!! (Part 1-- Waorani Culture and Hiking with Pegonka)

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With my incredible Waorani guide named Pegonka, by a giant ceiba tree

Oh, where to begin!?  I just spent four wonder-filled days deep in the Amazon of Ecuador!  From the jungle's edge, I took a three-passenger plane over the rain forest and then a canoe ride down a river to a remote indigenous community, and it was AMAZING! (I'm sure that the words amazing and Amazon must be linguistically related.)


So, I'm putting together a series of blog posts about my adventure, but it's so hard to figure out where to start.  I'll just dive right in and hope you come back to read my next posts, too, so you get a sense of the whole experience.

My comfy cabin with screen-walls

I stayed at the Huaorani (aka Waorani) Ecolodge right on the gorgeous Shiripuno river, which is part of the Amazon watershed. I chose this place because it's run by the indigenous Waorani people themselves, and it's a very culture-focused experience.  I would highly recommend this place/tour if you're interested in indigenous cultures and ethnobotany.

With Pegonka, blowgun and spear ready, about to leave on a hike together.

I felt so lucky that there was only one other guest there with me, so I had a very personalized experience.  The other guest spoke no Spanish and was more into animals than people/culture, so she mostly hung behind with the English-speaking guide... which meant that Pegonka (who spoke Spanish and Waorani) and I got to hang out together much of the time and have fascinating conversations.

He's 21 years old, and spent his childhood swinging on vines, climbing 5-story-high trees, having blowgun fights with his buddies, swimming in the river... he had lots of great stories.  I went alone on this trip, but would love to bring Lil Dude here when he's a few years older.  He was enraptured with the blowgun and spear I brought back for him...

We wore these rubber boots to protect our legs from snakebites, since there are some pretty deadly ones around here, like the fer-de-lance. Also, it was extremely muddy-- as in suck-your-leg-in-up-to-your-knee-muddy, so the boots helped with that, too.

Pegonka is working on a monography for his school project now... many of the young people were doing this-- recording aspects of their culture, which has been changing over the past several decades, largely because of oil drilling in their territory.  The drilling has brought horrible pollution and related health problems in other parts of their land.  (We weren't in that area, though-- the forest we were in felt like paradise.)  This unwelcome invasion of their territory prompted them to reach out to international indigenous rights organizations a couple decades ago.

Here, Pegonka is using a rolled-up leaf to imitate toucan calls.  Most Waorani I talked with could imitate all kinds of animal calls-- like birds and owls and caiman-- a skill used for hunting and also for communicating with other Waorani at a distance.  Until a few decades ago, they were warriors, and were often in violent conflict with the other indigenous groups in the area (Quichua and Achuar).  Back then, there was a spear-your-enemy-on-sight ethic, from what my new Wao friends told me.

"Monkey's Comb"-- A seed from a tree that monkeys use to groom each other!

On our hikes, I learned so much about the ways animals and Waorani people use the plants in the forest...

 This plant is used as a toothbrush with built-in toothpaste.  Cool, no?

Pegonka was an incredible tree-climber-- a skill that most kids have mastered already by age 7 or 8.  He uses this wreath of vines-- which he made on the spot-- to help him climb trees while carrying his heavy 10-foot-long blowgun and darts and equipment.

As you'll see in later pics, he only needs this extra help when he's planning on shooting an animal from high in the tree and needs to be able to hold himself there with his hands free...

He is VERY high up in the tree now... many stories high, maybe a hundred feet or so.

This photo is really zoomed in-- you can see him getting ready to shoot.

And now, my feeble attempt... ha!

That's about as far up as I got!  The woven vines helped me brace myself with my feet, but my arms weren't strong enough to heave up my body.  I think my husband, Ian, would've been awesome at this, though-- he's pretty strong and agile. (Alas, he was home with Lil Dude and Grammy.)


The Waorani use poison-tipped darts in their blowguns to hunt for food.  The poison comes from a ground-up liana (vine) -- I'll explain more of that process in another post.  

He uses a cottony substance from the ceiba tree to wrap around the dart so that it fills the hole of the blowgun and creates a kind of pressure, which means that when you blow, the dart goes really far.

I was actually good at this (though I needed Pegonka's help in holding up the blowgun since it was so long and heavy.)  (And who knows, maybe he helped me a bit with my aim, now that I think about it ... ;-)

Look! I hit the target (that flower) on the first try!

We didn't actually hunt any animals, but Pegonka explained that the poison enters the bloodstream and makes the animal (often a monkey) loopy and sleepy, and they fall out of the tree, and can then be killed.

There were other foods that came from the forest... mysterious fruits I'd never seen or tasted before, and insects, like these ants that live symbiotically inside a branch.  I ate some, but they were so teeny-tiny, it was hard to figure out what they tasted like.

You can see a diagonal scar on Pegonka's cheek.  This is a kind of coming-of-age ritual-- it's done with a special vine, and makes an abrasion on the cheek.  His brother did this to Pegonka's cheek several months ago, and in several more months,  he'll do it again, on the same spot, to make the scar more distinct. (Yes, it hurt!)

On to spear-throwing!  In the past, these spears were used on their enemies, as I mentioned.  Usually, the spears would be thrown while running, but we did it while standing still.

I wasn't so great at this... I think I need to start lifting weights or something in preparation for the next jungle trip I take.

My cabin was simple and sweet.... and it was pure magic to sleep with the symphony of insects and birds and frogs around me. The sounds of the jungle are a huge part of the experience-- it's like these musical sculptures dancing all around you, all the time...

You know, I hardly got any bug bites at all in the Amazon.  It was the beginning of rainy season, and there were definitely bugs there, but they left me alone.  I attribute it to the permithrin spray that Ian put on my clothes as a Valentine's Day present before I left.  He wore a mask and gloves while applying it outside, but then, once it dried, it was totally non-toxic and didn't smell and I couldn't even notice it was on the clothes.   (And supposedly it lasts through many washings, too.)  Normally I stay away from synthetic chemical stuff like this, but the guy at the outdoor store, Jax, recommended using it along with herbal spray on my skin-- that's what he uses on his trips to the Amazon.  He felt like it was overall less toxic and more effective than DEET.  And based on my experience, I agree.

Pegonka painted my cheeks with river clay, which is done when you go to visit friends, to make yourself look nice.  In another post, I'll show you pics of red-face-paint-gone-wild!

Behold the misty jungle river that greeted me every morning on awakening, just steps from my cabin...

In my next post, I'll introduce you to the whole, wonderful Waorani community that I hung out with during my stay-- probably about 20 people total, including kids and babies-- all part of an extended family.  I loved talking with people (most spoke at least some Spanish), and we formed some really lovely bonds (which is why I'm already talking about going back...)

My little buddy, Fredy, in the foreground.  Luis with the Justin Beiber T-shirt in the background, holding the bamboo pole.  Laura with her sweet smile, nursing her daughter.

Also, in the next few posts, I'll show you pics of our gorgeous dug-out canoe rides, the teeny plane I flew in on, our piranha-fishing trip, our enchanting waterfall limpia (spiritual cleaning), me chillin' in a vine-hammock, a woman making chicha, a fun traditional marriage dance, an insanely cute baby-in-a-hammock, and all the other stuff that I want to tell you about all at once.... but I must be patient!  Oh, and I also have pics of Maria Virginia (The Queen of Water) and her daughter in Otavalo, in the Andes, and in Quito, where we did a fun school visit. So much to show you!!

 Now I'm off to wash clothes and catch up on emails...

Thanks for reading!  Come back soon for the next batch of photos!


Friday, February 6, 2015

Interview on Writing the Notebooks Series

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Hey guys,

I've been getting such amazing reader mail lately (thank you!)-- some of it has been from people who read my books years ago, and they got in touch to let me know that the stories have stayed with them over time.  This makes me SO happy!

Jihane is one of these wonderful readers (and I just found out that her native language is French, so she has a special connection to The Ruby Notebook!)  She asked me some great interview questions about the Notebooks series as part of a school project.  I thought I'd post some of her questions and my responses here, in case you're curious, too.

1st in the series

Is there a message in your novels that you wanted readers to grasp?

I don’t usually set out to give a particular message in a novel—I basically start writing a story to explore some issues (or people or places or scenarios) that fascinate me.  Once I’m well into a rough draft, I start seeing some themes/ideas pop up in the story.  When I’m revising the story (usually at least 10 revisions), I try to bring these themes into relief and weave them throughout the story.  These are often things that I’ve struggled with in my own life at some point in time, and writing about them is a way to explore and resolve them to some extent.  It makes me happy when readers can relate to these struggles in some way too, and maybe glean some wisdom or useful message in the story. 

With the Notebooks series as a whole, I did hope that the books would inspire readers to travel, to want to learn more about other cultures and languages, to approach the world with an adventurous spirit and curiosity.  I also remember thinking that I wished I’d been introduced to Rumi as a teen, and I thought it was a kind of cool added bonus that I could introduce his poetry to readers via one of the characters, Layla.

The way I see it, in each of the three books, a different main theme/message emerged.  (But of course, every reader is going to have a different interpretation of the messages, and that’s exactly how it should be! I love that readers bring their own perspectives and experiences to my books—essentially, we’re co-creating the story.)

For The Indigo Notebook, it would be something along the lines of:  We don’t always want what we think we want—there may be something better and deeper and more meaningful in store for us!  Or we might learn to appreciate what we do have in a whole new way.

For The Ruby Notebook, I think the theme involves the complexities of love over time, and the idea that the hard moments are just part of the bigger journey.

For The Jade Notebook, something like: Life is beautiful, but messy, and that’s okay—embrace it all!

2nd in the series

What were the challenges (research, literary, psychological, and logistical) in bringing it to life?

Well, the research part is great!  It mostly involves me wandering around gorgeous settings with my antennae up for cool stories.  The Ecuadorian Andes and southern France and coastal Oaxaca are all bits of paradise, if you ask me.  That said, one challenge in writing the second two books was that we’d just adopted our 9-month-old baby (from Guatemala), which was a dream come true… but I was just plopped right in the middle of motherhood. All of a sudden, I had this very active, demanding, (and thoroughly adorable) little guy crawling (and soon toddling) around while I was wondering how on earth I’d meet my tight deadlines for books 2 and 3 of the series.

 Working on The Jade Notebook in its setting in Mazunte, Oaxaca, Mexico

If you had to do it all over again, would you change anything about any aspects of the books? 

You know, I’ve learned more about the marketing aspects of the publishing industry over the years.  I think that since most readers are more familiar with (and enamored with!) France than Ecuador, I might have begun the series in southern France, so that a wider audience would’ve initially picked up the book.  And then, I could’ve set the second book in Ecuador, assuming that the readers would continue with the series once they’d gotten into the characters and their world. But of course, there are still hardcore adventurous readers like you, who for one reason or another, felt drawn to the Ecuadorian setting.  (Thank you!)

3rd and final in the series

Do you recall how your interest in writing originated?

I absolutely loved having books read to me (mostly by my mom) when I was a little kid.  And once I learned to read, I devoured books on my own (but my mom continued reading to me at  bedtime through middle school.)  As a young kid, I found that I loved writing my own little magical stories.  I’d write them on notebook paper and illustrate them and staple them together.  I got such a huge thrill from the act of creating stories and sharing them.  It made me feel so ALIVE!

Cabana where I stayed in Mazunte, where The Jade Notebook is set

How did you develop the notion of Zeeta's wandering life as part of her background? (Living in a different country every year, etc.)

I taught ESL (English as a Second Language) for two years in Oaxaca, Mexico, and did some traveling around Central America and Mexico at that time.  I had the chance to meet lots of fascinating people who had chosen to live a wandering, nomadic lifestyle, moving to a new country every year or so.  I felt very seduced by this idea—there’s something incredibly stimulating about being in a new culture, speaking a new language… everything feels sparkly and exciting.  Part of me wanted to head to South America next and teach ESL there.  But there was part of me that craved a long-term home and community… a garden, a house, furniture, etc. In the Notebooks series, Zeeta represented the homebody part of me, and Layla the part of me with wanderlust. (I let them duke it out!)

Street performers in Aix-en-Provence, France, who inspired characters in The Ruby Notebook

6. How much of the books you wrote came from your own experiences?

Quite a bit was inspired by real experiences that happened to me or stories people told me.  I love meeting interesting people on my travels and letting them spark new character ideas.  For example, during my research in Aix-en-Provence for The Ruby Notebook, there was an old man who loved pigeons and hung out with them by the fountain, an old woman who watched the activities in the main square from her second floor window, and a dazzling troupe of young musicians and dancers who performed in the streets.

To flesh out the settings, also I make good use of the little detailed observations that I record in my own notebooks as I travel. For example, while in Ecuador, my friend’s mom warned me that their shower would give me an electric shock if I didn’t use a washcloth to turn off the faucet—I stuck detail that into The Indigo Notebook.  There are hundreds of  examples of bits of real-life inspiration for my books—too many to list here! I like to combine real life with a touch of magic and my imagination to create something new.

 The Andes mountains of Ecuador, the setting for The Indigo Notebook

These books are filled with in-depth descriptions of Zeeta's surroundings such as the cafes in the streets of Paris and the beach of Punta Cometa, and really seems to give the reader in insight into the world she is currently experiencing. Were the descriptions based off what you were actually seeing when you visited these places? How did they affect the imagery and vibe you wanted to give off?

Yes! I take lots of photos to get the visuals right, but I also bring my spiral notebooks with me everywhere I travel, and I spend time recording the smells, tastes, sounds, and sensations I’m experiencing.  I really love weaving all the senses into descriptions, and playing with poetic imagery, too. I want to transport my readers to these incredible places, both as a form of blissful escape, and to inspire them to travel.

Would you say Zeeta's personality mirror yours at all?

I do have a lot in common with her, personality-wise.  Obviously, we both carry notebooks around everywhere!  We’re also both fascinated by the people we meet on our travels, and try to glean wisdom from their experiences.  We both find elderly people to be valuable sources of wisdom and stories, and tend to create meaningful bonds with them on our travels.

Aix-en-Provence, France, the setting of The Ruby Notebook

How long did it take you to write each book?

Probably on average, two years… but there was overlap. So, for example, I might have been revising Indigo while doing a rough draft of Ruby while brainstorming ideas for Jade.  (It’s all a blur to me now!)

Out of the three books, The Indigo Notebook, The Ruby Notebook, and the Jade Notebook...which is your favorite. Why?

That’s hard to say.  I think the main characters’ emotional dynamics and relationships were my favorite in Indigo.  I was getting ready to adopt my son as I wrote that book, so a lot of the psychological research I was doing on adoption issues for the book was also relevant to my personal life.  My favorite one in terms of magical elements was probably Ruby, since I was always enchanted by the fountains and springs and ancient history of Aix, even back when I was a college student there.  And as far as the setting where I’d most like to be right now (in the middle of winter), Jade wins on that count!  The Oaxacan coast is paradise to me.

Speaking of travel, I have some wildly exciting travel coming up soon... and I promise I'll tell you all about when I get back.  Hope you're having a happy winter so far...