Many years ago, Kichwa peoples wandering through the Amazon came across a tree on the banks of the Yasuní river whose leaves, when mashed and cooked, gave them sani – purple in kichwa – a dye they then used to color their clothing and handicrafts… and the name they chose for their village and the lodge of Sani Isla.
The kichwa of Sani Isla have continued to live from the rainforest of the Amazon, hunting and gathering, as well as establishing small-scale agriculture, in a special enclave of the Napo riverbanks. They still use the plants and trees in their forested backyards, and the river is, of course, their main source of fresh fish. As one would expect of jungle denizens, they also gather nutritious fruits, heart of palm and peanuts from specific trees that grow naturally in the area.
In their traditional vegetable gardens, known as chacras in kichwa, crops like yucca and cacao have recently been combined with introduced species like plantain.
The tourism project they founded and spearhead in order to secure the wellbeing of their surrounding forests and traditional ways of life, has led them to no longer hunt monkeys and peccary. These, of course, used to also be an important source of sustenance.
Although some of the ingredients used in Sani cooking may have changed throughout the years, the way in which food is prepared has not. Most families still cook over an open fire set up in what is really a sandbox, and guayuso tea and chicha are still their beverages of choice. Our guide, Jeison, a Sani local, tells us that a typical breakfast consists of the highly caffeinated guayuso tea, for its strengthening properties and the protection it gives.
Amazon grill: cacao seeds, plantain, yucca, ‘fish maito’ and grubs.
Marlene and Hilda from the Sani Warmi (Women of Sani) association, spend the morning preparing typical dishes over their fogón, or grill. Ingredients used, the products that feed guests at the lodge and the entire community, have been harvested together by the hard-working women. Chicha, one of the emblems of Amazonian cuisine – mashed yucca mixed with a little grated camote (local sweet potato) and water – is also a priority in the lives of the Kichwa people. It can never be missing at the table. The yucca mix is left to ferment for between 3 to 5 days, but the longer it ferments, the more potent it becomes, which is why more mature brews are left for adults only.
The bowls in which the chicha is served are also made by the women, from the highly oxidized clay soil of the area. Plates and tablecloths are also provided by nature, for they are folded up leaves. Not to mention that the Kichwa of Sani resourcefully use seeds, bark, stems, leaves and trunks to build their houses and make numerous handicrafts. The giant leaves of the paja toquilla are cut about 30cm up the stem and left to dry, before being woven together and used as a type of thatched roofing. Their bags and utensils, as well as canoes and tools (and back in the old hunting days, animal traps and blowguns, too), have all been made traditionally from jungle resources; there has never really been a need for the Sani people to search elsewhere for their livelihood.
Every single plant and tree in the Amazonian river basin is a creation of extreme nature; it has competed with the best to stand where it stands on the jungle floor.
In their simple lives, the idea of poverty seems a distant notion. They say a handful of handpicked jungle berries are as nutritious as two crates of any given farm-cultivated crop (and lack, of course, the poison that come with fertilizers and insecticides). Filled with countless minerals and nutrients, these living organisms have reserved their right to survive. And every time one picks something from this super-foods nature store, he ingests the result of a larger-than-life quality-control system.
Living within a natural environment such as this may certainly seem a daunting endeavor. But one quickly notices – upon getting to know the men and women that make up the tiny jungle hamlet of Sani – that there are great perks to being sustainable. Independence from modern society and its constraints is replaced by a profound and awe-inspiring dependence on the territory one lives in, especially a territory as magnificently lush and beautiful as this. The Sani community, as a chosen few throughout the Napo River Basin, is connected to its land. This is not a simple lifestyle as much as it is a world without contemporary façades. Jungle life is about living it, surviving with what one can get and make with his or her own hands and ingenuity. The joy and stealth of children, the expertise and knowledge of every grown-up of what the forest offers and how to obtain it, are examples of how life is really played out when it becomes an integral part of your daily activities.
And a journey to a corner of the world that offers this vision and experience, is a necessary encounter with what, ultimately, links Man to his survival. Curiously, this is not your everyday encounter. It lies many kilometers down the Napo River, in the heart of the Ecuadorian Amazon Basin.