Peter is one of 15 undergraduates who were awarded 2018 Streicker International Fellowships. Streicker Fellows design their own projects or internships in conjunction with a hosting organization. He intered for the World Wildlife Fund in Ecuador, where he analyzed the development of community-run businesses through the Sustainable Markets program.
The fourth of July arrived quietly in Zabalo. It was a particular quiet, characterized not by the rumble of wheels on distant freeways or the hum of plumbing in the crawlspace, but by the buzz of the birds and insects hidden in the forest. I sat on the steps outside the village’s guest house and pulled on the knee-high rubber boots I had bought in Lago Agrio. I realized only when my colleague Jessi followed suit that I had forgotten to invert the boots and shake out any slippery critters that might have entered overnight. I wiggled my toes uncomfortably. It seemed that I had the boots all to myself.
It was a wet morning, although in the rainforest, this may go without saying. After making sure that the Snickers bar that I had bought in Quito was in my backpack, I followed Jessi splashed across an expanse of muddy puddles to the guest kitchen, where a soft-spoken woman from the town made us breakfast: toast, eggs and sausage, with instant coffee and two types of jam. She was obviously accustomed to cooking for people from my part of the world, folks who were adventurous enough to venture two hours by car and six hours by boat into the western Amazon, but who still clung to the comforts of a proper English breakfast. I did not know it at the time, but it was the closest I would get to a fourth of July ritual all day.
Jessica and I met the rest of the volunteers at the soccer court at the edge of the forest. I would be accompanying Rommel and Jonah, two Cofan men from the town who observed me, the newly arrived gringo, with forgivable expressions of doubt. We would be walking eleven kilometers into the forest, placing six camera traps at even intervals in the hopes of snapping pictures of a jaguar or two over the next several months. I was hoping that the expedition would be more Desert Fox than belly-of-the-whale. They were probably hoping that I could keep up the pace. We packed the cameras away and stepped into the forest.
Strangers to the Amazon tend to describe it with false authority. Werner Herzog once said of the forest, “Nature here is vile and base.. I would see fornication and asphyxiation and choking and fighting for survival and... growing and... just rotting away. Of course, there's a lot of misery... The trees here are in misery, and the birds are in misery. I don't think they - they sing. They just screech in pain.” As is often the case with travelers encountering unfamiliar landscapes, this reaction probably says more about Herzog than it does about the Amazon.
In truth, the forest struck me as… well, a forest. It was humid, and dim and pervasively green, with no sign of the violence or eroticism that early European explorers diagnosed in every fallen tree and phallic stamen. Besides, I was too focused on staying close to Rommel to look around--these guys moved fast.
After two hours, we made it to the first GPS coordinate, and after another three, to the second. Beyond this point, we would be off the hunting trail. Pure bushwack.
By this time, Rommel and Jonah had warmed to me a bit. They asked me about what kinds of concerts played where I lived, and I told them just about every performer came through New York. They nodded, impressed, and Rommel told me that he would be traveling to Quito in a few months for a reggae concert. “I like David Guetta, but he never comes to Ecuador,” he told me, in perfect English. It turns out that he lived with an American missionary as a young child.
Rommel stopped. “Do you smell that?” he said.
“I don’t know,” I said. There was too much in this forest for my Instagram-whittled senses to comprehend. “What is it?”
“Munda,” he said. Then, recalling that I didn’t speak Cofan, he said, “Wild pig.”
Jonah appeared around the bend in the trail. “Munda?” he asked.
Rommel nodded. Then he turned to me. “Do you want to see them?”
“Why not?” I said. We dropped our bags (but kept the machete) and crept up the slope.
“If they come, get up into a tree,” Jonah told me. “They can’t climb.” I should hope so, I thought to myself.
After a minute, Rommel motioned silently, and I lifted myself up into a cleft in a tree trunk. Rommel and Jonah each found their own elevated perch.
I could smell them now. It was a wet, rancid smell, like a middle school locker room, minus the Axe body spray. Then they appeared between the trees, moving slowly with their snouts to the ground. The pigs were hard to distinguish from the rest of the forest--everything took on the same earthy color in the low light--but it was clear that they were big. The macho ones at the front of the pack made clicking sounds with their front teeth, which I found disconcerting. They bore little resemblance to the Wilburs and Miss Piggy’s I had grown up with. It was like looking at dinosaurs.
Suddenly, Rommel screamed and whacked his tree with the machete, and the pigs wheeled around and disappeared, clicking furiously. They had come close enough. Grinning at the two of us, Rommel knocked the trunk a few more times for good measure and then hopped down to the forest floor.
“We should have caught one,” Jonah said, gesturing to the machete.
“Do you want to carry it home?” Rommel said.
“We would split it up,” Jonah said, laughing. “A leg per person.”
“You should have brought your rifle.”
“I should have.”
As we continued into the forest, I contemplated the idea: killing a wild pig, butchering it in plena selva, and returning eleven kilometers to the village with forty pounds of bloody hindquarters hoisted over my left shoulder. I decided that I was okay with heading home empty-handed. I could forgo barbecue for one Fourth of July--a Snickers would be just fine.