In the Jungle

The last week of December, we surprised my mom with a very personal trip to the tiny jungle town –where I was born– that she hadn’t been back to in 17 years. The trip had been planned for months, and we relished keeping the secret from her.


One of my sister’s friends even spilled the beans right in front of her, but we managed to mostly ignore what she said and my mom didn’t put the pieces together.

My dad and a friend had planned a gathering of many of the people they’d worked with all those years ago, and we arranged to stay in house you might recognize if you’ve seen End of the Spear.


I had a lot of childhood memories of playing in that house, especially when it was raining. The screened in porch is just as amazing, but the traffic outside is not. The sleepy jungle town of my youth now has a paved portion of the Panamerican Highway running right through town.


Pro travel tip: earplugs. I almost always sleep with them when I’m traveling. They’re helpful for traffic, barking dogs (looking at you, Turkey), roosters (Indonesia), the 5 a.m. call to prayer (Egypt), and snoring roommates (Cuba!) They’re also useful when jet-lagged husband starts snoring.


Some of my fondest childhood memories are of running around on the base property, making various forts and clubs with my two buddies, Jonathan and David. So it was cute to see the kids run off to do the same.


There’s the house I grew up in.


We headed straight for the hanger.


I took my first steps out on that tarmac, learned to roller skate and fished for guppies in that drainage ditch.


We had to recreate a photo from 1983 taken with my dad’s sister’s kids and us. The 2017 version has my sister’s and my kids in it. They look just as sweaty and flushed as we did in 1983. Some things never change.


My dad was jazzed to show his grandkids around.



And they were just as jazzed about the airplanes.


Then while he and my husband hung around the hangar, we took the kids on a trip down memory lane.


We passed my elementary school.


And crossed the bridge that led to my best friend, Bekah’s house.


Where I also dropped my super-expensive custom earplugs, and where my friend, Norma climbed down and rescued them.


There used to be just two ways across the river; today there are four.


Uphill both ways, snow, etc.

[Shell in a synopsis: 5,000 feet of altitude. 25 feet of rain per year. 100% humidity, all the time.]


Then we hoofed it back to the hangar for our flight.


There’s the Pastaza River basin as it passes by Shell.


There’s downtown Shell.


There’s the old swimming hole, which got washed away by rains just a few days after we were there.


There’s the soccer field, the hospital, my friend Bekah’s old house and our friends the Williams’s house.


My kids loved it when pilot Dan did some “fun flying:” turning the nose up until we went weightless, coasting, sharp turns, etc. He kept it light for the sake of the kids, but I’ve heard stories of the barrel rolls my dad used to do.


We enjoyed dinner with some old friends before heading down to put the kids to bed.


Meanwhile, about 20 people my parents worked with gathered in the living room to share memories. It was fun to see their faces, most with a few more wrinkles and gray hairs, some a little wider around the middle.

And with those few connections made, it was time to head back up the road to Quito.


The Jungle Road


The 50 kilometer/31 mile road between Baños and Shell was a big part of our lives growing up. My parents and their friends had t-shirts made up saying “I Survived the Shell Road.”

The road was a dirt track, cut into the sides of the mountains overlooking the Pastaza river, an Amazon tributary. The road was bisected multiple times by streams, which meant using the concrete, single lane WWII-era bridges or driving through several inches of water.

In many places, the road wasn’t wide enough for two, so if you met someone coming the opposite way, whomever was smaller was obligated to back up to the nearest wide spot in the road. My dad made it a practice to honk around corners, letting drivers know he was coming and thus avoid a head-on collision. There was a tunnel cut through one spot in the mountain, and the whole thing was pitch black. That was another spot my dad honked all the way through.


The pot-holed road was an instant car-sickness initiator, so my sister and I spent those hours under the influence of Dramamine (or holding our heads over plastic shopping bags).

Frequent landslides would close the road, or if you were unlucky enough to encounter one as you were driving, might push your vehicle over the cliff into the swirling brown waters and rocks below. The landslides would either block passage with building-size mud and rocks, or they’d melt the road away into the Pastaza.

Or your bus driver might be drunk, or sleepy, and miss a crucial turn.

That would land you in the river as well. I remember one night when my dad was called to help search for another expat who simply stepped off the cliff while stretching his legs. The men recovered his body down river.


Those drives to Baños were stress-filled for my parents. I have a clear memory of my dad edging the car forward on the cliff side of the road to get around a landslide and a stopped bus. My mom stood out front, guiding him with hand motions. Her pain-filled expression told me that she was convinced her family could tumble down the side to their deaths at any moment. When we got past the spot and picked her up, she told us that at one moment the tires of our car were just three inches from the edge.


But in truth, the drive could be beautiful as well. The 25-feet of rainfall each year makes the the vegetation lining the road lush and beautiful. In certain seasons, the sides of the mountains are alive with velvety white and purple orchids with stiff folded fan leaves. Several sheer white waterfalls plunge into the Pastaza along the way.

Cue the screeching brakes sound:

All that is different today.


The road is paved. It is smooth, it is wide. There are guardrails, and several tunnels (maybe eight? we lost count) avoid the most treacherous areas. (In the photo above, the old road heads off to the right of the tunnel.) Bridges have been updated, rivers no longer traverse the road. There are official-looking road signs and painted traffic lines. It’s almost a boring drive these days.

The quaint, undiscovered territory feeling may be gone, but the beauty remains.


Most photo credits in this post go to my husband, who was sitting in the front seat.

Scenes from the Car Window


A couple days after Christmas, we made the pilgrimage down to the jungle town where I spent the first 12 years of my life.


My mom hadn’t been back for something like 17 years. (I went back about 8 years ago, to apply for Ecuadorian citizenship so I could get a passport.) It was a crazy process that entailed finding some old records office, having them pull out the dusty physical book from 1979 where the documentation of my birth was handwritten, and photocopying the page.


I’m very biased, but as we made the 3-hour journey east which drops more than 4,000 ft in elevation, I was reminded again about how lovely this tiny little country is.


Rugged mountains, green fields, white-washed mud homes with thatched roofes, the vegetation and the patchwork quilt effect of the cultivated fields.



And then there’s the beautiful sight of an energetic three-year-old passed out in her car seat:


In the Jungle


I recently was informed that the term “jungle bunny” is offensive. Consequently, I’ve had to reorder my whole vocabulary, because my sister and I have always used it to affectionately refer to ourselves. We are the real deal: born and raised in the Ecuadorian jungle. I think I started my college application essay with this sentence: “I was born in the Amazon jungle…” I have no idea what the rest of the essay said, but for some reason I remember using that as my intro. I think I’d come up with something more creative next time!

We lived in a small town called Shell. You might guess that the name doesn’t come from Spanish. It doesn’t come from one of the indigenous languages, either. Nope, that’s English. Shell was named after the Shell Oil Company, who established the town in 1937. They used the airstrip to prospect for oil.

The airstrip looks much different than it did in 1937, or even 1956, when the story of some men who left from that airstrip and were killed in the jungle made headlines. Back then, the airstrip was gravel. It stayed that way until sometime in the 80s. I vaguely remember it being paved. Today the airport serves an Ecuadorian army base, as well as Mission Aviation Fellowship.


In this photo, you’ll notice one of Shell’s other characteristics: the rain. I’m going to get this wrong, but I think my dad told me that the region gets something like 21 feet of rain in a year. And as you can see above, one part of the town could be dry, while the other side was getting drenched. I remember squashing to school with my flip-flops squeaking from the wet, and taking them off at the classroom door to dry out. I pretty much didn’t wear normal shoes until I was 12.

If I were cool with Photoshop, I’d draw a cool little arrow down at the right hand corner bottom of the airstrip, and put “Mi Casa.” Let’s get a closer look, shall we?


Oh! My casa! We had to go back and check it out. My parents have a similar shot of me standing in front of the house on my first day of kindergarten. (Note to self: should scan those sometime.) This house was built for us, and we the first people to live there. My mom used to have giant marigold bushes in the front beds, and the neighbor boys got spankings for throwing mud at our white walls. There was a lot of mud in the jungle.


Before I was born, my parents lived here. You might recognize this house from the movie “The End of the Spear.” My parents lived on the top floor, and it was in there that they brought me home from the hospital. I guess you could say this was my first home. Apparently I annoyed the downstairs neighbors with my crying.


This is one of the communities served by the MAF planes based in Shell. Many of these jungle communities have no other access to the outside world. For medical care, education or supplies they can’t make themselves, it’s a multiple hour hike through dense jungle to the nearest town. They estimate that a minute in the air is equivalent to an hour’s hike on the ground. So, 15 minute flight = 15 hour walk. Not easy.


When a community requests MAF service, they also have to agree to build an airstrip. First they find a suitable piece of land. Then, they chop down the trees, usually using machetes. Next, they pull out the stumps and clear the land. Jungle pilots like my dad fly over the vast mountainous terrain that looks broccoli covered from above and dart into these simple airstrips. Imagine spotting one of these when all you can see around you for miles is a sea of broccoli, punctuated by twisting brown rivers.


These rivers all eventually join the mighty Amazon, and together reach the Atlantic ocean somewhere in Brasil.

When we were small, some of our friends had local women who would come help cook or clean. My mom had a lady who came a couple of hours per week. But the Lemmon family, well, they had Salome. We were all jealous. Why? Well, at some point, someone taught Salome to make cinnamon rolls. From scratch. We would run in the kitchen while she was slathering butter on the freshly risen dough. She would pinch our cheeks and poke our bellies and laugh at us with her generous Salome guffaw. And right when we thought she wasn’t looking, we’d try to swipe a taste. But she would cackle, smack our hands and push us out of the kitchen, picking up her tuneless song as we left.

I happened to run in to Salome while I was there. And you know what? She shrank! When I was a kid, she was a huge adult. And now look at her! She’s shorter than me, and I’m a shrimply 5’2″.


But I bet she still makes excellent cinnamon rolls.