A Dose of Reality in Ecuador Shunning Sun and Fun for Social Activism

Article excerpt

Byline: Mike Comerford Daily Herald Business Writer

We flew under the clouds in a single-engine, four-seater plane viewing miles of Amazon rain-forest canopy.

Rolling green jungle fading into the horizon, the experience was so cinematic a fellow passenger remarked: "Now, I can die happy."

We landed on a grass field runway as children, some with painted faces, ran out of the jungle to greet the gringos.

No roads connect the village of Sarayaku in Ecuador's southern Amazon basin to the outside world.

The six of us and a guide would spend the next few days living with these rain-forest people, eating their traditional foods and sleeping on wood beds in huts as part of a reality tour organized by San Francisco-based Global Exchange, a nonprofit social activist group.

Late one afternoon we sat on logs with villagers near a communal fire and listened to the sounds of the Amazon jungle.

"Baby don't hurt me"

"Don't hurt me"

"No more"

The techno/disco song from the movie "Night at the Roxbury" blared from a boom box as a group of young people walked out of the bush on their way down a dirt path and then disappeared again.

In another remote Amazon village, accessible only by rivers or jungle trails, a tribal leader showed us his son's satellite TV dish.

"We get 57 channels," he said. "Our favorite is the Discovery Channel."

The encroachment of modern civilization is reality in the Amazon basin and a bit of a surprise lesson on our "reality tour."

Our two-week tour of Ecuador explored the effects of the oil industry and globalization on the Amazon basin. The Toxic Tour portion of our trip brought us to open oil pits left behind by oil companies, polluted rivers, cleared forests and ramshackle oil boom towns on the edge of one of the most spectacular rain forests in the world.

Our van sometimes sunk into mud roads, forcing us to get out to push. We wore rubber boots on jungle trails to guard against poisonous snakes. And in Sushufindi, near the Colombian border, we went to bed early at a local hotel because we were warned about the drug runners, kidnappers and paramilitaries who rule at night.

Most tourists go to Ecuador to see the Galapagos Islands or the Andean highlands and volcanoes. When tourists do go to the Amazon basin, which constitutes half the country, they often stay at posh eco-tourist lodges, complete with bars, pools and soft beds.

Instead, we were experiencing the reality of life in the rain forest as interpreted by Global Exchange.

Reality tours are part of a sub-category of travel that comes in a variety of themes. Global Exchange leads more than 1,000 people a year to about 30 countries from Cuba to Afghanistan. Their tourists study issues from refugee camps to sweatshops. I paid for my trip, but some participants hold fund raisers to subsidize their journey, which they often hope will result in social change through education. Check with the tour operator; many trips are tax deductible.

Going by a variety of names, from "meaningful tours" to "volunteer tours," numerous travel options are open to the traveler who wants to work with the poor, study a topic or visit a war zone.

Critics point out that the "reality" of these tours often depends on the tour operator.

Global Exchange's reality comes with a heavy dose of social activism. The group opposes the "undemocratic institutions" of the World Trade Organization, North American Free Trade agreement, World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.

Our guide's narrative on Ecuador's history and current political scene was peppered with praise for Cuba's Fidel Castro, Venezuela's Hugo Chavez and local political dissidents.

Yet no political point of view is forced on tour groups. We met with representatives of several sides in Ecuador, including government officials and oil executives. …