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And God created coca and tobacco – Amazon Colombia

Sponsored by Colombia Facil, I went on a two-day excursion with the hostel and tour company Omshanty. The report of this impressive trip is in 2 parts. The 2nd part of my trip you can read here: Brazilian survival in the Amazon - Colombia.

A rainy morning in Leticia, the Colombian Amazon. I grab my umbrella and wait for the bus that will take me to jungle lodge Omshanty, eleven kilometres from Leticia. A motocarro (tuk-tuk) is passing by and asks me where I am going. For 10.000 pesos (about € 3.50) I get out in front of Omshanty. At Omshanty I’m immediately provided with boots, a hammock and mosquito net and before I know it, I take off with my Huitoto guide Cornelio.

Off the paved road…
We leave the paved road and walk along a muddy path in the jungle. Cornelio asks me what I would like to learn during this trip. Suddenly I realize I have been here on this paved road a dozen times but I don’t know anything about its history. I would love to learn more about life in the jungle around Leticia. And about Huitoto culture. “No problem”, says Cornelio, and he starts talking.

I learn among other things that the Huitoto Indians originally come from La Chorrera, more than 500km (310 miles) from here. During the rubber boom in the early twentieth century, Indians were used as slaves to provide Europe and the US with tyres. Tribes were decimated in a very short period and many Huitotos were transported to Peru. Nowadays there is still a Huitoto community. At some point some of them began the journey back home but many lingered on their way. For example, today, the community in Leticia consists of about 200 families.

After about a one and a half hour walk, we arrive at the Tacana River and continue our journey by canoe. Along the way Cornelio picks up a plastic bottle from the water. I'm pleasantly surprised. Litter in Leticia is a big problem, and sometimes I fear that all the plastic in the environment is so common that it is now being seen as part of nature. Cornelio is also concerned about this problem, and picks up everything he finds.

When we arrive at the house Cornelio shares with his wife and two young children my hammock is hung in the maloquita, a simple traditional house with a dirt floor and roof of woven palm leaves. While we look for firewood to prepare lunch, Cornelio mentions I'm only the sixth tourist to visit his home. One year, he was thinking about the plan to share his house, and all the wonderful things the Amazon has to offer, with foreigners. Since January this plan has become a reality, through collaboration with Omshanty, the first hostel in Leticia opened in 1999. This way Cornelio (who he himself does not have the opportunity to travel) is acquainted with the rest of the world, sharing his experience and knowledge, and learning new cultures and customs. And so his words and stories can be heard, through my voice, in the Netherlands - and my words will, through his voice, will be heard through the Amazon. It’s a really nice concept, I think.

With chubby cheeks and green teeth
An important part of the Huitoto culture is mambeMambe is a green powder; made from mashed roasted coca leaves mixed with the ashes of Yarumo leaves. Cornelio’s brother Mario joined us and the three of us set off to collect a basket full of coca leaves. Once we return, the brothers start the roasting process, grinding, filtering and blending, until even the last grain has turned into a fine green powder. Meanwhile it is dark, and by candlelight, sitting on our little wooden benches around a bucket full of mambe, we start to ‘mambear’. First a small drop of ambil, black syrupy spicy stuff made from boiled tobacco leaves. This is inseparable with mambe, it purifies and gives strength. Then I put a spoonful of the green powder under my tongue so that it dissolves slowly in my saliva.

The men fill their cheeks with the green powder and I try to understand their murmur as they speak with chubby cheeks and green teeth, telling the story of the origin of mambe. Once there was the Abundance Tree, given by God, that made sure humanity would never by short of anything. Whatever they needed, they picked it from the tree and lived without any concerns. Disease and hunger did not exist because God took care of his people. But people showed no appreciation and were arrogant, and God decided to change things and took away the tree. Take care yourself! From then on man had to survive by himself, grow his own food, gather wood to build houses, and find solutions to diseases. To help the struggling people, God created two plants: coca and tobacco, which give the people strength and help them to think clearly.

Of course they are familiar with the negative reputation of the coca plant. But as with almost everything you can use something for evil or for good. They harvest the plant for the second option. For the Huitotos the plant, which is bursting with vitamins and nutrients, is holy. "Even if you were not here we would still do this, it is not a show that we perform, but an important part of our lives,” my guide explained.

Mambe is being used to talk; to tell stories of the past, or discuss  the here and now, what is going well and what could be improved, in order to think clearly and to find solutions. Also to focus on a difficult task, to work hard, to provide food, shelter, and a good life.

We talk a bit more, about the environment, sustainable living, and our jungle-trip, which is scheduled for tomorrow, until I have no more energy to focus on conversing in Spanish (maybe I should try some more mambe?) and I get into my remarkably comfortable hammock. Tomorrow we head further into the jungle. The brothers have already asked the universe during their mambe session for a successful trip, and for bizarre insects to pop up (my wish). I can’t wait.

Would you like to experience this for yourself? Some TIPS:

 1) Wear long pants and a long-sleeved shirt, preferably not too thin / tight because the mosquitoes, if they find you tasty, they will bite through it. Do not forget your insect repellent.

2) It is tropical rainforest, so always be prepared for rain. Omshanty will provide you with boots, but bring raincoat (these are available for sale in Leticia), fast-drying clothing, and wrap everything in waterproof bags. Since the humidity is high, consider packing some silica to help keep moisture out of electrical equipment.

3) There is no electricity in Cornelio’s house, nor in the jungle, so take a flashlight, and some extra batteries. Ensure to take your expired batteries back home with you please!

4) In a hammock at night it can be a little cold, at least if you're sensitive to the cold like me, so take a light blanket with you (hammock and mosquito you get from Omshanty) and long comfortable clothes to sleep in. If you’d like some extra comfort, pack a pillow.

5) No español? No problem, a translator (English or French) can be arranged by Omshanty, for 150.000 pesos per group per day.

6) If you (like me) are a vegetarian, then report this in advance. Rice with fish or meat is the staple diet, with vegetables rarely included.

7) At the site below you can read about this travel experience from Susan in the Dutch language. En God schiep coca en tabak

Written by Colombia Fácil Researcher Susan