In February, 2012 while in an indigenous Shuar community in the Amazon jungle of Ecuador, my then-girlfriend of two years and myself found ourselves being offered a traditional indigenous wedding in our hosts' community. Though we never planned on being married on our adventure, we never planned not to be either. So, we let life happen. This is the email sent to close family and friends describing our ceremony and commitment barefoot in the jungle.
Buenos Dias a Todos,
Four months into our journey through South America and I still find myself breathless, wondering if this journey has all been a dream, wondering if we've really seen some of the things we've seen, met some of the people we've met, experienced some of the things we've experienced. I find myself overwhelmed with joy and happiness, unable to form concrete sentences to express such gratitude, thanks, and love for the people who have not treated us like tourists or travelers but as family. The simplicity down here in the way people live, surrounded by family and loved ones, living sustainably off the earth with little thought or energy put towards money is something I believe we're all capable of, a way of life Kara and I have been striving to find. These people are an inspiration to me just as each of you are an inspiration as well. Thank you for all you have given me over the years, from guidance, to advice, to support, to love. I am a blessed man through and through.
We have always set out to not have a plan, to let life happen in its most simplistic way, like a stream flowing through a forest that does not plan its way to the river but flows accordingly to the changes in topography that are laid out in front of it. We never expected to find Eden's Rose Foundation in Tosagua, Ecuador, an hour and a half from the beach. We never expected or planned to stay with Cecelia and Mario and their three kids, watching a woman support a family, teaching other women of the community how to make beautiful macrame jewelry, saving her husband from having to work 365 days a year mixing fatal pesticides and chemicals. We brainstormed with the director of the foundation and volunteered to take some of the jewelry to the beach town Canoa, to see if there was a market for selling some of the jewelry in Ecuador instead of waiting until the summer when all the jewelry is shipped to the states to be sold at music festivals. We spent a week at the beach, setting up a small table near the beach, talking with passing tourists about the foundation and how all the money comes back to support the women and children of Tosagua, raising a bit less than $1000 for the community.
While volunteering with Eden's Rose, our path brought us in contact with an American ethnobotanist living and working in Ecuador for the past 10 years. He told us he could take us into the jungle of the Amazon to stay with an indigenous Shuar community where we could teach English to the kids in the school. How could we have planned this? We arrived in Nantar, the community of about 25 adults and 30 or so children a little over two weeks ago. We were taken in as family immediately by Martin Chamik and his wife Nely, their beautiful 8 year old daughter Nanta, their 3 year old son Naiyemp, and their 6 month old baby Intia. Martin is a recognized hero of Ecuador, having fought in two wars on the border with Peru years ago taking seven gunshot wounds and surviving. He's been to the U.S. and Geneva as a spokesperson for indigenous people of Ecuador with the United Nations. We spent our days working with the community in the fields, Kara and Jess following the women into their yucca and platino fields, learning to make "chicha" or fermented yucca beer, a staple food source for the Shuar. We ate what they ate, at one point having the larvae of the Goliath beetle, giant worms found in the decomposing tree stumps of harvested palm trees. They were not bad either. They made us the traditional meal of taking chicken, yucca, platino, and heart of palm, with some native herbs, wrapped in a large leaf, and set upon the coals of a roasting fire. We were given Shuar names, myself (not Danfakha this time) given the name, Tsunki Chamik, "Tsunki" meaning "man of the water" (we would soon see if that was the case) a "man of the water" being someone who is sought out in times of help by the Shuar ancestors. Kara was given the name, "Kisar Wampanty," "Kisar" meaning "the spring that gives nourishing water to the land" and Jess being named, Aja Wampanty, "Aja" being a medicinal plant used by the Shuar. We spent nights sitting around a fire outside under the amazonian sky talking with David, the father of the community. All of Nantar is made up of the children of David and his wife Dominga. David is a teacher at the primary school in the next community but the children have the month of February off from school so we spent much time discussing cultural differences. David is an intellectual, a seeker of knowledge, wanting to know about our life and culture in the states, sharing the history and culture of his people, and content with the way things are.
Our first night in the community, David asked us how long we were planning on staying and we had said one week, leaving sometime around the 8th or 9th. He told us how on the 13th it would be the festival of Nantar, celebrating the founding of the community. The 13th also happened to be Jess' birthday and we decided it would be awesome to celebrate her birthday with an indigenous Shuar community so we would stay for two weeks instead of one. The conversation soon led to David asking Kara and I how long we've been dating and we said nearly two years. He was a bit taken aback and explained how in Shuar culture, two months is a long time to date before getting married. The community and David offered Kara and I a traditional Shuar wedding the day before the festival of Nantar. Let life happen. And so we did. We floated down that stream through the forest. As the weeks led up to the 12th of February, different people in the community lent us or gave us traditional Shuar clothes. David became Kara's adopted father in the community and Martin became mine. The day of the 12th, the women went out to a grass thatched cabana in the forest used for cooking and began preparing the fiesta. Chickens were sacrificed, heart of palm was collected, maeta was prepared. The women of the community dressed Kara in the tradition blue cloth of the Shuar with red face paint, earrings and necklaces made from hand, a belt and anklet made from the seeds of local plant. A smile grew across her face I can only describe as angelic, as happy, and right where she was supposed to be. She was beautiful. Next the women helped fit my traditional Shuar man-skirt around my thin body. Long strands of snake bones were draped over my shoulders, a necklace of local bright red and black seeds was over my head, a headdress tied behind my head, my face painted like the Shuar warriors, a spear put in my hand. Pictures were taken before Martin and I walked back through the forest barefoot to the cabana where the girls and David were waiting. Martin spoke first in Shuar, telling David that I, Tsunki, had come to ask for Kisar's hand in Shuar matrimony. I had to explain in Spanish why I wanted to marry Kara, who was sitting out of sight behind a curtain of paim fronds. I told David how I loved her. How I would work to support her and make her happy. How I had faith in what Kara and I share. Kara was brought out and in the Shuar language said, "Yes, I would like to marry Tsunki". David accepted. Kara and I were brought together to sit and drink chicha and eat maeta. After the meal, we were officially Shuar married.
I miss all of you and apologize if you're upset about not being in Nantar for the ceremony. But I hope you all understand that Kara and I have such love for each other and are so happy together and we never planned on getting married on this journey. We agreed to let life happen. To enjoy every breath of every day. And so we have. This doesn't mean we are planning a wedding in the states or even going to a courthouse when we get back. Just that we made a spiritual bond with each other and for now, that's all we need. I hope you are happy for what we have and have experienced. She is my light and love of my life. We cannot wait to share more stories with you all when we get back. We miss you and love you all.
Oh, and a couple days later I nearly died in a river with anacondas being swept downstream, barely being able to stop by decent down the roaring river and having to take the most terrifying swim of my life to cross the swift water to get back to the side with the trail. It was crazy and the closest I've come to dying, seriously. Miss you all. Stay Free.