I’m entrepreneur and digital transformation strategist, Bob Carilli and this is the second episode of the sketchy dot-com podcast.
I’m going to talk about how I ended up consulting for the Ecuadorian Military in the Amazon Jungle while launching GoEcuador.com.
By August 2000, the “Dot-com Bubble” had burst and it wasn’t clear what was going to happen to an already volatile industry.
I thought I was on top of the world as my recently launched streaming media company, Merged Media had a couple of clients including Doctor Luis Yerovi.
Luis had contracted us to produce short tourism video clips and photos to be featured on the new GoEcuador.com website we were building.
My first trip to Ecuador included video shoots in the capital city of Quito, at the Hosteria San Luis in Cayambe, which is owned by the Yerovi Family, and at the Otavalo Marketplace, which is a popular tourist destination near Cayambe.
The second trip was brief, my friend and colleague Ron Patane joined me to document the Festival of San Pedro in Cayambe.
Doctor Yerovi’s family raises bulls for bullfighting and they were running the bullfights as well as other events throughout the festival. It was an interesting trip as we shot our first bullfighting footage.
I’ll never forget seeing the dead bulls being loaded into the back of a truck, it was like nothing I’d ever seen before. I’d visited with the bulls out grazing in the pastures just days before.
Things started spiraling out of control as I prepared for my third trip to Ecuador.
I’d produced a live streaming media project from Times Square on New Years Eve 2000 for the company, EarthCam.
My team and I spent the final 30 hours of 1999 in Times Square and the show almost didn’t go on…
It was New Year’s Eve and our ISDN lines were installed without long distance access and we had no network connection.
ISDN was designed to run on digital telephone systems that were already in place but it was never quiet fully deployed and was short lived.
Brian Cury, the CEO of EarthCam was there and he knew someone who had an office in the skyscraper next to where the studio was.
The studio was on the top of a Fridays Restaurant in Times Square, it was dubbed the Billboard Studio because it was all glass and it blended in with all the other billboards.
The guy Brian knew was Frank Lieberman, President of a company that was ironically named the Miracle Factory… They had a Penthouse Office on the seventeenth floor of the building next to where the studio was located and there were already cutting edge HD cameras being set up.
Brian introduced me to Frank but we never actually talked about the ISDN problem or our needs.
A couple of Frank’s Employees showed us around the phenomenal office and I noted plenty of open ethernet ports for us to plug into.
Brian and I descended to the studio where he left me to go do a television interview.
I had to figure out how to get us online; first we needed a few hundred feet of cable, which one of the guys from EarthCam was able to track down.
Later when a couple of us headed back up to the Miracle Factory, the doors were locked.
I noticed a guy sleeping on a sofa near the door and was able to get his attention.
It was one of the guys from earlier so I went with the flow and told him we were back to take care of the “thing” for Frank.
We proceeded to plug the ethernet cable into an open port and run it out a window down approximately 150 feet to the studio.
The show went on and was a great success.
Several months later I approached Brian Cury about partnering with GoEcuador.com on a project.
EarthCam didn’t have any live cameras in South America and it seemed like the perfect match.
We talked about where the camera might go; the Galapagos Islands, pointed at an active volcano, or somewhere in the Capital City of Quito, Ecuador.
I picked up the $25,000 Weather Proof Robotic Camera, Video Server and other equipment the day before Luis and I were to leave for Ecuador.
There was no problem checking the camera along with my bags but the equipment was held by Ecuadorian Customs upon our arrival Quito, Ecuador.
My ride and colleague, Pedro Luis explained that we needed to figure out exactly who to bribe and how much it was going to take so it might be a few days before we liberated the equipment.
Since we had our other gear, I moved forward with the other part of my production agenda.
We visited the Galapagos Islands and the Ecuadorian Amazon Gateway City of Puyo.
We shot underwater footage with divers in the Galapagos making lots of new animal and human friends but those are stories for another day.
In Puyo, we befriended a man named Orlando and he introduced us to Senor Carlos Vacca who was the Beer Distributor for the region among other things.
Our travels brought us back to Cayambe where we recharged and waited for word on what we needed to do to get the equipment released from customs.
After a week or so we got a call from Orlando who’d been consulting with the Ecuadorian Military on an ecotourism project called Amarun Hausi, which translates to “House of the Boa.”
They were ready for us to come to the military base in Shell, which was near Puyo.
We were so excited that we got our things together and hit the road almost immediately; we traveled some dangerous mountain roads at night, which is not advisable unless you have a driver as skilled as Pedro Luis.
We made excellent time, although I slept most of the way and it clearly seemed even quicker than it was for me.
Upon our midnight arrival to Puyo, we checked into our rooms at the Hosteria Turingia, which consisted of a walled compound with several buildings housing cabañas that had private bathrooms with hot water.
Our instructions were to be at the base by 7am or risk missing our flight… The made us pizzas to eat, which was something Pedro Luis could always agree on.
The guard woke us at 6am and we had an excellent breakfast before headed to the base. It was relatively easy to get onto the base and find out where we needed to go.
The people we needed to meet were not there yet, so we waited. I was relieved when Orlando showed up with his brother-in-law, Phil Yoder who was also a North American.
Phil is a biologist that had worked as a shrimp farmer and was asked to come along in order to assess the bird life and other aspects of the locations we were headed to.
The Ecuadorian Military was in the early stages of investigating the possibility of engaging in an Eco-tourism Program. It was a visionary project that would offer select visitors a magic portal into an enchanted world.
Far from the main tourist destinations, the infrastructure of the Ecuadorian Military’s Base Camps could serve as exclusive jungle lodging to provide unprecedented access to the very heart and soul of the Amazon.
The exquisite and otherwise inaccessible natural environment that is the remote Amazon would now be just a helicopter or plane ride away with Ecuadorian military personnel ensuring top-notch safety and security.
The locations are only accessible only by air. The bases are distributed over the two provinces that border Peru, Morona Santiago and Pastaza.
The hope was that the project would also benefit the Indigenous communities that live near the military bases as deforestation and oil extraction were running rampant.
Orlando headed into the hangar to find out what was going on and when we should expect our transportation.
Phil and I spent some time getting to know each other.
He’s a Mennonite that had been living in Ecuador for over ten years after first moving there to be in the Peace Corps and eventually getting into the Shrimp Farming Industry on the coast.
He eventually married an Amazon Woman that just happened to be Orlando’s sister.
Our first destination was Lorocachi; we loaded into a large Russian Helicopter and prepared for takeoff.
It was my first time in a helicopter and I was a bit nervous, seeing the Russian writing and such didn’t help.
It was a smooth take off as we noisily glided over more trees then I’d ever seen in my life.
I started frantically shooting video out the windows of the helicopter as we continued to our first destination.
Shooting video helped me to relax as I was able to focus on that and stopped thinking about the fact that I was hovering over the Amazon Jungle.
The Curaray River, a majestic Amazon tributary came into view. I had never seen anything like it; it wound back and forth forming what looked like horseshoes in the thick sea of green.
I was curiously videotaping the river as one of the soldiers got my attention.
We were close to Lorocachi and they wanted to open the door so I could better videotape our approach and landing.
I didn’t have time to think about what was going on and before I knew it two soldiers were holding me in the open doorway.
The sea of trees was suddenly gone and there was a large clearing with a runway and many small buildings.
As we landed the soldiers pulled me back from the door and closed it just before the helicopter kicked up a cloud of dirt.
We were immediately greeted by the base Colonel. His enthusiasm about the project was evident as he spoke with us about what his base had to offer.
I’d studied Spanish in High School and College but I was not where near fluent at this time so I learned to act like I knew what was being said while gazing out the windows at the natural beauty that surrounded us.
Lorocachi gets its name from the parrots that inhabit the area.
There amid hidden lagoons and lush vegetation, visitors could enjoy expeditions to observe Cayman and piranhas, track jungle jaguars, and marvel at the many different attractions while flocks of parrots flew overhead.
After the meeting with the colonel, we were shown to our accommodations in the Officer’s Bungalows area of the base.
We settle in for a bit before heading to lunch.
Lunch was in a building that housed several dining tables as well as a pool table and a lounge area with a television.
We had a lovely lunch with the officers and their families who lived at the base with them.
The base had a well kept swimming pool that was wonderful to float in while taking in the surroundings.
We hiked to a Butterfly Lick on a beach-like bank of the River Curaray to spend time observing the hoards of butterflies moving about so peacefully.
In the morning, we boarded a canoe and headed to a remote outpost located at a spot called Dantacocha Lagoon.
We set up camp and fished for Piranha before I became ill from dehydration and turned in for the evening.
When I woke I was greeted with a breakfast of Piranha, which wasn’t bad and was exactly the right amount of protein I needed to start the day off well.
Our next destination was the larger Montalvo Base, where we were greeted by the General for the region.
We talked about what they had planned for us but I tuned out.
After touring the based and enjoying a fantastic meal, we went to bed as we were all exhausted.
We were awakened when it was still dark out and we loaded into canoes as we apparently had a long day ahead of us.
We weaved through the otherworldly Amazon Jungle on the Rio Bobonaza headed towards the Rio Pastaza, this was much different than the streets of New York.
We spent the nights at remote camps along the river where everyone was excited to see us and it was amusing to see that they had TVs with satellites hooked up to generators so they could watch them in the evenings.
We traded salt with the indigenous people we met for all sorts of food including catfish and giant snails.
It was about this time that I remember having the most vivid dreams, which seemed like they were under my control.
I attributed this to the over stimulation I was experiencing from the surroundings but later discovered that it was a side effect of the anti-malaria medication I was taking, Chloroquine Proguanil.
Upon reaching the frontier of Ecuador with Peru, we made a plan to head to the Kapawi Ecolodge, which is ecotourism lodge on the Rio Capahuari near where it joins the Rio Pastaza.
Kapawi Ecolodge was built following ecotourism principles, inspired by the “natural history of the area, including its indigenous cultures, whose areas have been adapted for this activity in a spirit of appreciation, participation, and responsibility.”
When it opened in 1996, Kapawi Ecolodge set the standard for community ecotourism in Ecuador, promoting practices that protected wildlife, generated local employment and empowered local communities.
Kapawi Ecolodge was built respecting Achuar construction styles and using building materials from the forest.
It was really neat to see how the solar panel array and battery banks were integrated into the design of this beautiful place.
Back on the frontier, we planned a soccer match with the Peruvians at the base across the river.
I didn’t know any of the history of the area, especially the fact that the Cenepa War had just ended a few years earlier and the peace treaty was just recently signed.
The soccer match was so much fun even though the Peruvians won.
Everyone was getting along so well that we planned a trip down river further into Peru to the village of Andoas.
We loaded into canoes and met up with the Peruvians to begin our journey down the Rio Pastaza to Andoas.
Along the way, we stopped and met some indigenous people that offered us chicha.
I was told it would be insulting not to drink so I gulped away, which wasn’t a good idea as they later told me chicha was made by chewing on Yucca roots so they’ll ferment, yum.
We were greeted in Andoas by a large welcoming party that proceeded to tour us around the village and take us to the school where photos were taken of us shaking hands with people, etc.
I didn’t understand exactly what was happening at the time as I was already in a daze from the chicha but it seems we were the first non-military personnel to cross the border from Ecuador into Peru since the war ended and the people associated our visit with the recently signed peace treaty.
There was an epic fiesta… We danced in the streets drinking beer into the night but I blacked out so I didn’t remember much of that.
I woke up on a piece of plywood that was sitting on concrete blocks to raise it above the dirt floor of the hut I was in.
There was a lit candle on the ground at my feet and the last thing I remembered was dancing in the street.
I don’t know why but my first inclination was to check to make sure my kidneys were still there… I guess I’d seen one too many movies.
I stood up to find the room was empty or so I thought as a young soldier stepped out of the shadow. He’d clearly been posted there to make sure I was okay through the night.
I asked where the others were and he guided me to another hut where everyone was passed out on the dirt floor.
Someone explained that we’d drunk all the beer in town and the tab still needed to be paid so I gladly handed over the $50 to cover us.
We headed back up river to the frontier where we found out that the general was extremely pissed off about our trip into Peru and he was sending a helicopter for us.
Apparently the officer in charge of the frontier camp was there as punishment due his involvement with some sort of coup attempt and he took this as a chance to mess with the general.
The adventure continued with visits to two more major base camps at Taisha and to the south in Santiago.
The highlight of this part of the journey was spending time with the indigenous soldiers at the Santiago base learning jungle survival.
They’d heard the story of my experience in Costa Rica and wanted to make sure I was ready if I ever got lost in the jungle again.
By the time this adventure ended, I’d been in the jungle for almost 10 weeks without being able to get word to anyone… It was only supposed to be 2 weeks so you can imagine the drama this caused.
The GoEcuador.com Team and I hosted the World Wildlife Foundation at the Hosteria San Luis later that year for their annual summit but that’s all a blur as I was in a sensory overload for a long time after coming out of the Amazon.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this as it’s the second of several podcasts that will explore stories with jungle themes from my past.
These stories include the time I got lost in the jungle in Costa Rica, which I covered in my first episode as well as my early journey into the Heart of Darkness while attending Boston University, which I have yet to finish.
Thanks for checking out the second sketchy dot-com podcast!