Dispatches from the Isle of Noise: A Coronavirus Diary
In 1965 an undocumented plague spread among the Huaorani in Ecuador, killing half of those infected. The only evidence I have of this exists in stories from a few of my tribal contacts who survived the sickness and death. Those who were there attribute the illness to the flu and other common pathogens brought by encroaching missionaries. I have plans to speak to experts and witnesses who can verify the extent and details of this tragedy; to scientists and historians at universities in Quito, to the elected tribal officials who live in Puyo and Shell, and to the village Awene and elders living in the various Huaorani settlements scattered throughout the upper Amazon of Ecuador and parts of Peru. Of course, during the early spring of 2020, these plans were suddenly, unexpectedly, put on indefinite hold. It feels like decades have passed since I sat at my kitchen table in Texas, canceling flights to Quito, truck rentals, and hotel reservations in cities throughout the Napo and Pastaza provinces while waiting for early news of COVID-19’s spread. Over the weeks, as case-counts rose, my research constricted to a slow drip of IM communications with my few tribal contacts who hadn’t fled for the safety of Huaorani territory. Even now, their words only travel to me intermittently and fadingly as bird cries in a storm.
After spending nearly two decades connected to members of the tribe, and two years planning research for a manuscript about my experiences living in their territory during my 20’s, I’ve been forced to helplessly witness the lives of my oldest Huaorani friends unravel on Facebook. I sometimes scroll back to Christmas shots Amo posted of Kenaweno’s waterfall. His and Gabo’s children pose on mud-slicked beaches for turistas. There’s Pablo proudly standing alongside his uncle’s lance and cerbatana collection. Before the borders closed, his wife Diame slid her bra straps out of sight to bear her shoulders for this shot. I scroll up to his grandmother wrapped head-to-toe in a blue-checked burial sheet. COVID wasn’t tested for. She weighed less than 80 pounds when they put her in the dirt. Nemo’s doctor brother, Ome, flies out twice a week to Bataburo and Bambeno tending to the sick and spreading word about prevention. The badly mastered video is blurred, but I can see his eyes under the mask. I’m urged to write the NY Times or senators about the fights in rice lines and the dead. Who will listen when their own morgues overflow? Repeat: no medicine. No meat. Nothing to buy or sell. A monsoon of foreign money can’t fill a stomach or prescription. We’re all equally powerless in the squall of this pandemic.
At first COVID-19 was a faraway curiosity I followed between classes. From between op-eds on the impeachment, came stories of a mysterious plague in Wuhan. When China locked down the province and started building 4000 bed emergency hospitals, I advised my students in Dallas to get a flu shot and routinely sanitize their hands. Within weeks, it was in Europe and the West coast. Then in my father’s city of Washington DC. Then in Plano, 20 miles up the road. The schools closed and we shrunk our lives to fit inside our homes. I measured my days in case-counts and social media refreshes. I traded pictures with my tribal contacts through IM: our dogs, our children, shots of their construction on a new thatch cabin or my family at the dinner table, any distraction. We batted news back and forth across the world. One by one, my Huaorani friends moved East to avoid the pandemic, deep into the forests of Yasuni or the intangible zone along the Napo and Curaray rivers. When things grew too dangerous in Dallas, I, too, packed my family and drove East, between the Trinity and Neches, to a quickly-available country house. I am high-risk for severe complications from COVID. It was simple as deciding what of my life could fit into my car, abandoning the rest, unplugging appliances, turning off lights, and bolting a door. Together, though a planet apart, we journeyed into deep isolation, insulated by land and distance — the Huaorani within their impenetrable jungles near the Peruvian border, and I in the lonely pine hills of East Texas.
I’ve learned there are four species of edible mushrooms that grow in the fields and forests near our new home. It’s illegal to hunt deer in the area, so herds of tame doe graze unafraid near roads, in clearings, and on lawns. My favorite group meanders from our back paddock at daybreak, to the Northern loblolly stands, around to the neighbors live oak and elm stippled hills, and finally back to our own unfenced pastures by dusk. They sample or devour any vegetables we plant. On occasion, we toss bad strawberries or greens over the boundary fence to see the produce vanish by morning. On cooler afternoons or evenings, we walk the length of our property along the Southern road, looking for chanterelle clusters or the occasional, delicious morel. My four year-old son has learned which mushrooms are poison and which are edible. He knows to sniff a chanterelle for the telltale scent of apricot. He’s memorized which shaded spots near trees, after a rain, are the best for mushroom hunting. Before the move, our house sat minutes from two freeways. On weekends, we learned about nature at the Perot museum in Dallas, where we’d ride a glass-encased escalator to a floor of taxidermied wildlife. Our first night in this countryside, my son thought the deer were dogs.
As the pandemic spread, conflicting messages about new cases of COVID-19 in the Pastaza flatlands filled my inbox. My contacts who didn’t retreat into the forest, and those journeying to town for supplies, sent irregular, sometimes frantic texts. The selva was angry. COVID was in the territory with two confirmed cases. Quechua settlers brought it. Petroleras brought it. COVID wasn’t in the territory. Maybe it was there, but no one had tests to verify it. Everyone was healthy. Everyone was dying. It was 1965 all over again. 1965 never happened. God was angry. God was good and would spare the pious. The selva was turning her back on the people. The selva had medicine that would save the Huaorani. It wasn’t lost on me that my own turmoil was only a smaller representation of what was happening globally. No one’s sure how many are infected or dead. We may never know. Our own president has said the horror in New York and abroad is made up, exaggerated, but I’ve seen the long rows of coffins in the mass graves on Pine Island — stacked two units deep, like shipping containers. I’ve seen putrefying bodies covered with sheets on Guayaquil’s streets.
The real and imagined dead crowd my dreams. I’m desperate to help, but I’m not a doctor or frontline worker. I’m aware of my impotence. I called family and friends for advice. Wrote unanswered letters to newspapers and emails to organizations on the ground in the upper Amazonian region asking for assistance on behalf of my Huaorani friends. Even now I’m unsure of how bad things are, so there’s no way to know what specific aid is needed. What can I do from home but blindly listen for truth within the cacophony of conflicting news and rumor? A storm’s roar is cumulative, made of thousands of smaller sounds; raindrops, leaves rustling in wind, the growl of close and distant thunder, water rushing on ground, the groans of trees and branches, animals shifting from within their shelters. No single noise makes the tempest, and no one sound can be extracted to give perspective to the whole. While within it, we human animals can only breathe and endure the din. The truth of this pandemic will only emerge once its chaos has passed. I’ll only know exactly what happened in Ecuador when I set foot there myself months or years from now, once a vaccine is discovered and travel is safe.
My remedy has been to give in to the stillness of the land around me and the details it provides. I’ve allowed these things to fill the vacuum made by COVID. I collect forest trinkets — my mushrooms, bird’s nests, seed pods, particularly beautiful lichen clusters. I teach my son to tell between fire and sugar ants, or the different silhouettes of vultures and hawks. We’ve slowly stocked our pantry with enough canned produce, powdered milk, rice, and pasta to last for months. We almost never see people anymore. While news is still varied, my Huaorani friends and I make hopeful plans for a life after COVID. We discuss my future trips to the territory, about their desire to visit the US — perhaps as part of a speaking tour at Universities across the Western states. They teach me words and phrases in Huaorani, which I trade for snippets of English. We talk of hunting, education, careers, our children, our spouses, travel, and everything we hope to gain or reclaim when we finally emerge from hiding in our prospective shelters and reenter the world. Everything for us is future tense. We can only wait.
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