Staying with the Secoya – Part 1

In November 2009, Georgia and I stayed for eight days in the Secoya community of San Pablo, which is found in the east of Ecuador on the Rio Aguarico.

Dugout canoes on the banks of the Rio Aguarico

Staying with the Secoya was the single most authentic experience I had in seven months of traveling in South America. It was one of the very few times when I felt a genuine connection based on mutual respect and interest. We paid for our stay there; and we also contributed food for the family we stayed with; but this felt like a fair and easy exchange and didn’t detract from the experience at all. This was in stark contrast to so many other moments when I was traveling, where an opportunity to communicate and share experience with someone from another culture very often became overshadowed by commercial considerations. I understand that people are simply trying to get by, but after months of traveling, searching for real experience rather than packaged commercial tourism, it becomes wearying. The Secoya were a breath of fresh air simply because they were normal people, interested in sharing their home and their way of life with visitors.

While we were there, we stayed with the Payaguaje family. I took this photograph of the grandfather of the family, Delfin, preparing medicinal plants.

Secoya man Delfin Payaguaje, preparing medicinal plats

In order to say thanks, I am selling prints of this image, and donating 100% of the profits to Delfin’s family. The money will help fund the Secoya’s conservation foundation, which aims to protect their land from oil exploration and illegal logging.

The prints are 16″ x 24″ inches (the images are slightly smaller, because there is a bit of white space around them), on high quality photographic paper. I will be printing a limited edition run of ten signed copies.

I am asking for $250 for an unframed print, and $400 for a framed print (all prices are in AUD). The frames are simple black wood, with high quality acid-free matting. I can post unframed prints within Australia, included in the $250 cost; if you want me to send you a framed copy, I am happy to do so but I would like you to cover the additional cost. I can send prints framed or unframed internationally, however will need buyers to cover the cost of postage so that I can send the maximum amount to the Secoya.

How will I send the money to the Secoya?
I have some contacts at the University of Quito, who are the people that originally made it possible for us to stay with the Secoya. They have agreed to pass on the money. They have been working with the Secoya for many years, and can be trusted to give them the money.

I am hoping to be able to send the money by Paypal, or else in the bank account of someone I know who is travelling to Ecuador; however if neither of those plans work, there is always the money-laundering criminal syndicate known as Western Union, who will take hefty fees, but will reliably deliver the remnants.

I have sold two three of the ten prints so far, and I would like to send the money by October 1, 2011. This means I will be taking orders for prints until September 24. Please contact me to place an order.

Thanks a lot for reading; if you’d like to read the story of our time with the Secoya, please continue…


It had taken us quite a while to organise coming to San Pablo. The idea was originally raised in June, when we met a couchsurfer in Cordoba in Argentina. Upon learning that we were interested in indigenous culture, he suggested that we get in contact with his friends, who were biologists at Quito University. They were conducting research projects with the Secoya and could possibly help us to arrange to go and stay with them. Five months, thousands of kilometers, and countless organisational emails later, it finally happened.

We caught an overnight bus from Quito to Lago Agrio, a greasy oil town in the Sucumbíos province of Ecuador. Lago Agrio is very close to the Colombian border, and serves as a base for smuggling coca, cocaine, and illegal timber. Because Ecuador uses US dollars as currency, Lago Agrio is an excellent base for laundering drug money. Coca products flow from Peru and Bolivia to Colombia through Lago Agrio, and the money they generate comes back to be laundered in the oil business. Apart from several prominent money changers on the main street, we didn’t see any obvious evidence of illicit activity – but the smell of dirty money was everywhere.

Arriving before 6 am, we stumbled into the only cafe open to try and get some breakfast. While eating our plaintains, we watched oil workers in blue overalls eating their breakfast of fried chicken and rice.

Our friends in Quito had arranged for us to be met in Lago Agrio by the son of the family we were to stay with. I had his mobile phone number, but due partly to technical (finding a working payphone) and partly to linguistic difficulties (two Spanish-as-second-language-speakers attempting to communicate on a static-y mobile phone call), this was quite hard to achieve. After a few hours, and a change of cafe, we finally succeeded. We followed him around to markets, buying up the supplies we would need. A sack of rice, some vegetables, some oil, and some gumboots. At a butcher’s stall in the market, a dead armadillo lay on its back, its innards removed. I asked the seller if I could take a photo, but got an unintelligible and unusually grumpy grunt in response, so decided against it. Eventually we were ready and got on the bus to San Pablo.

Three hours later we arrived at a rickety bridge crossing a minor tributary. There was nothing else around. We got off the bus and followed our Secoya friend to a waiting canoe. A short ride down the river, and our Secoya time had begun…

Secoya boy sitting in the front of a canoe

…Stay tuned for the next part of this story.

Hunting fungi in the South West – Part 1

A post from the present: winter is here and so far, southwest WA has had a small but significant amount of rainfall. That means fungi! Now that the season has started, I’ll be posting photos of my mushroom finds throughout the winter. Today’s post is images from the area of Nannup, where I stayed with some friends and took some time to explore.

Trametes versicolor on a log
Trametes versicolor, Turkey Tail mushroom, growing on a log near Nannup, WA.

One of my current main interests is the medicinal mushrooms of the polyporaceae, including Trametes versicolor and Ganoderma species. There is significant evidence that these mushrooms can be used to treat some types of cancer, some viruses, and a range of physiological diseases. Trametes, called the Turkey Tail mushroom because of it’s concentric rings of colour, is also interesting biologically and ecologically. It occurs in many countries around the world and grows on many different types of wood, and has even been found to be able to decompose trinitrotoluene (TNT), the explosive in dynamite. It is highly variable in colour, as you can see by the following photo, which shows much paler specimens. Other mushrooms of this species that I have seen have quite striking concentric rings of brown, grey, and white, which accounts for its common name.

Trametes versicolor mushrooms and some leaves
More Trametes versicolor Turkey Tail mushrooms. Near Nannup, WA.

Another fungus that I saw the jarrah forest was this Gymnopilus species. I suspect this one is G. pupuratus, also known as Laughing Gym, a species that is also reputed to have ethnopharmacological potential as an hallucinogen. It does not appear to have entered the Western Australian psychoactive mushroom seekers’ culture to the extent that a certain other taxon has, probably due to the fact that it is from a taxonomic group that is not well-known globally for its psychoactivity. It may also be weaker or more variable in potency, and hence less reliable as a drug, but the common name speaks volumes. There are very few internet reports of its use. I admired its perfect form and fleshy orange skin without the temptation to perform any pharmacological analysis using my own neurology. I have found them growing in damp areas on Banksia and Melaleuca logs many times before. This one was growing from an old jarrah log.

EDIT: I have since brushed up on my Gymnopilus identification skills, and I do not believe this one to be G. purpuratus – however I don’t know what it is! Any suggestions welcome. I am still learning about these fungi.

Gymnopilus mushrooms growing on a log
Gymnopilus sp., possibly G. purpuratus. Near Nannup, WA.

There are several large areas of pine plantation near Nannup, and I went for a wander to see what I could find amongst the leaf litter. The most common were Slippery Jacks, Suillus luteus, a large mycorrhizal mushroom in the bolete family. These are reputedly edible, and I have eaten them; but I will continue to refer to them as ‘reputedly edible’. To make them palatable, you are advised to remove the tough skin from the cap, and also the pores underneath the cap, leaving only a small wad of mushroom flesh. This may then cause mild to severe gastrointestinal upset, although some people continue to claim they eat them without a problem. I ate them in Ecuador, picked from a pine forest near Vilcabamba. I found the taste acceptable, however the sliminess was a bit much for me, and the meal left me with a vague nausea. I won’t eat them again unless I have to.

Also amongst the pines in Nannup I found these tiny mushrooms which are probably in the genus Mycena. Due to a few dry days, the caps had started to shrivel, but they were still pretty cute.

Macro photo of tiny mushrooms amongst pine needles
Some tiny mushrooms of an unidentified species growing under the pines

After a day of fungal foraging, I was rewarded by this spectacular sunset through the trees. The light was like honey, trickling through the smoke from a fire on a neighbouring property.

A beautiful sunset behind trees
Red sunset

I’ll be adding further posts over the next month or two with my winter adventures. Enjoy.

La Rioja

We went to La Rioja only as a necessary stop on the road from Villa Union to Cafayate. However, we had heard some interesting things about the town, and it seemed like a good opportunity to enjoy the luxuries of urban living after a week or so on the road and in small towns, but it ended up being one of the strangest and most frustrating places we went to.

Road to La Rioja from Villa Union
Road to La Rioja from Villa Union

One of the things we had heard about La Rioja that interested us was that Jesus Christ was the mayor. It turns out that he is just the ‘symbolic’ mayor, but the story is still interesting. Apparently in 1593, early in Spanish colonisation of the area, the local indigenous people, the Diaguita, reached an impasse with the colonising forces. The priest, being a good negotiator, and in the interest of ‘saving’ native souls, was the intermediary between them. I have not been able to find exact details about what they disagreed about – perhaps it was the Spanish were stealing their land and forcing them into slavery. The official history is still that the Diaguita ‘accepted’ peace (they also apparently ‘volunteered’ to build one of the churches in the town). I’m cynical about these things. Anyway, a condition that the Diaguita put on peace was that they got to choose the mayor. They chose Jesus. I can just imagine the poor priest when the Diaguita came to him and said “You know that Jesus guy you are always talking about? Yeah, him. That’s who we want to be the mayor”. They now have a small statue of Jesus as a child called ‘El Nino Alcalde”, which lives in the Convento de San Francisco. They bring it out for a festival on New Year’s Eve, which sounds quite interesting; unfortunately we were not there at that time and did not manage to see the statue in the short time we were in La Rioja.

Shopfront of a Santeria in La Rioja
A santeria - where saints are sold

Arriving in the evening, we could have caught a bus north that night, but we were keen for a good sleep and a good meal, so we went to find a hostel, which entailed spending the entire following day there as well, because in the great South American tradition, bus services from rival companies going to the same destination all tend to leave at the same time. We found an ugly but affordable room in the Residencial Anita, a small place run by a friendly but reserved Doña. A pay-by-the-kilo restaurant had a the best vegetarian food we had eaten for quite a while.

In the morning, we enquired with the Doña about keeping the room for the day at a reduced rate, given that we had until 11pm that night before the bus. She would only offer us a slightly reduced rate over staying the night, so we elected to check out then and spend the day around the town. Unfortunately, we had not realised that La Rioja was apparently famed for its long and complete siestas. This may or may not have been influenced by the fact that at that time the swine fu epidemic was at its height and Argentina was very badly affected. After emerging from a few days in the wilderness of Talampaya and Villa Union, we discovered when we got to the bigger city that many people were wearing face masks and the media was full of swine flu anxiety. In most other places we had been to that had long siestas, we amused ourselves on days without much to do by spending time in internet cafes; but due to the swine flu outbreak, the regional government in La Rioja had declared that internet cafes were to be closed at all times. Amusingly, many internet cafes (known as locutorios) also have public telephone booths, which were allowed to be used, however the computers were off-limits. All of this resulted in us having absolutely nothing to do from around 10am until about 4pm.

After an obligatory but unsuccessful attempt at a couple of internet cafes, we eventually resorted to sitting at restuarants and in the plaza all day. Sitting at a table outside the largest and most prestigious hotel in the city, overlooking the plaza, we ordered papa fritas (potato chips) and beer. The beer came out first, and the waiter asked “with foam, or without?”. We thought about this for a minute. Normally in Australia, beer comes with just a litle bit of head, so you know it’s still fresh and bubbly, but not so much that it’s hard to get at the actual beer. That’s the right amount of foam, according to my cultural assumptions. The question ‘with foam, or without?’ should never be asked; too much head means the bar staff are incompetent or the beer was shaken, and too little means the beer is old and flat. After coming to terms with the fact that things were done differently where we were, I asked for just a little bit of foam, hoping that that would produce the desired results. The waiter poured from a large bottle into a small glass, and it was drinkable.

This was followed by perhaps the worst papas fritas we ever ate in South America; about half an hour after bringing out a plate of crisps, and us explaining that we had ordered hot chips (both are apparently called papas fritas), a plate of soggy, cold, slimy pieces of something that may have been potato arrived.

Strange local guy in La Rioja
Friendly but insulting local in La Rioja

Following this, we were paid a visit by a local who was on the way to fill his thermos from the hotel’s urn for mate. We had had a small conversation with him and his friends a while earlier when in the plaza (evidently rugby fans, they had asked us where we were from, and when we said “Australia”, said “All Blacks!” and seemed very pleased about it). He stood next to our table and talked at us in thick Argentinean for about half an hour. We only understood about 10% of what he was saying, but after a while, it appeared he may have been insulting us. He asked us if we were married. When we said no; he proceeded to talk about 11-year old whores with several children. We weren’t quite sure how to interpret this; but after a while we became uncomfortable and told him it was time for us to go.

We spent the rest of the afternoon relaxing in the plaza, talking to street dogs and reading books. The time passed slowly and we became quite bored. At exactly four pm a diesel engine started on the other side of the plaza, and the ears of the three or four dogs nearby perked up. A tinkly song started playing over a crackly loudspeaker: ‘How Much Is That Doggy In The Window”. A strange vehicle emerged on the other side of the plaza. It appeared to be a small truck or tractor that had been covered with metal sheeting to make it appear like a train locomotive. A clumsily painted Bart Simpson adorned the front. Immediately, every dog in the plaza – at least six of them- jumped up and started running towards the vehicle. It seemed they had been waiting all day for this. They were ecstatic. As the ‘train’ drove slowly around the square, evidently in order to attract children for a ride, the dogs chased it, barking excitedly. One of them evidently decided that it was the leader – it ran ahead of the train, looking back happily to make sure that it was still being followed. Of all the things I saw in South America, this was one of the funniest, and is the thing that I most regret not getting a photo of.

Georgia sleeping in the plaza at La Rioja
Asleep in the plaza

In a restaurant that night, we had further interesting interactions when ordering food. Georgia ordered wine, and asked for a ‘vaso de tinto’ (direct translation for glass of red wine). The waiter looked slightly confused, but came back bearing a tall tumbler of chilled red. After that we remembered to order a ‘copa’ when asking for wine, because in Spanish, wine glasses are called cups, not glasses.

Following this, we finally made it to the bus and headed north. La Rioja, Argentina: I can’t really recommend it.

Photo talk this Saturday

Just a short note to let you know about an event happening this Saturday May 14 at Hole In The Wall Gallery. Alex Soares and I will be each presenting short talks about our photos and the places they were taken, starting at 1pm.

We’ll also be at the gallery for an hour or two either side of 1pm on Saturday afternoon in order to meet people and answer questions. The exhibition opening was a very hectic and busy evening, so we’re hoping to be able to have a more subdued event when we can stop and talk for a while.

The exhibition ends on Wednesday 18th, so this is a great last chance to come and see the photos if you haven’t already.

Please come and say hello.

Post Exhibition

We had an awesome night on Thursday. At its peak, there must have been a hundred people inside the little gallery, which created quite a sauna. Alex and I received plenty of positive feedback about our photos and a few sales.

If you didn’t manage to make it down to the opening, the photos will be on the wall at Hole in the Wall until May 18th. The gallery is open weekdays 10-6 and Saturday 11-5.

Nearly finished hanging

Dean hanging some of Alex’s photos

A few of mine on the wall

Some happy visitors

Quite a few beers were drunk

Non-human species also enjoyed the exhibition

Simon Pynt (with my blurry face in the foreground)

Big news

After a long wait, I am finally announcing my debut exhibition, displaying my photographs from South America.

I’ll be sharing the space with Alex Soares, a photojournalist who will be exhibiting work from Timor Leste.

Thursday May 5
6pm – 8pm

Exhibition runs until Wednesday May 18.

Hole In The Wall Gallery
64 Adelaide St, Fremantle
Gallery open: Mon-Thu 10am-6pm, Fri-Sat 11am-4pm

I look forward to seeing you there.

Northern Argentina


There is an openness and a scale of the landscape in northern Argentina that reminded us of Australia. There is a quality of the light that is softer; particularly at the higher latitudes. In the north the light can be harsh, and the mountains create deep shadows. It can be hard to take a good landscape photo.

The landscape is young and fresh; but between the mountains and where they plateau, are gorges, which are weathered ancient sediments. Strange geology abounds.

The evenings and sunrises are soft and golden. I took an early morning bus from Cafayate to Quilmes, a ruined city of the Diaguita. The people of Quilmes succesfully withstood the invasion of the Incas from the north, but could not survive the Conquistadors.

Walking from the road to the ruins in the darkness, the skin of the saguaro cacti shone dimly in the moonlight around me. When the sun rose, their silhouettes were dark against the dawn.

An epiphyte growing on cacti

The people are quiet and humble. They sit patiently on rickety buses, zigzagging back and forth along hairpin roads, chewing coca. They might ask to be let off at on the side of the road, at a place appearing no different to any other, and disappear into the cactus and scrub to a distant house.

We were there in winter, and it was cold and dry. In the town of Humahuaca, at 3500m altitude, we first ate Oca (Oxalis tuberosa), an Andean staple similar to potato in texture and flavour, but not related. Oca tubers come in an interesting range of colours. After the bland food that we had been eating for several weeks, these fresh vegetables were much appreciated.

In Chilecito

We travelled to Chilecito in order to visit Parque Nacional Talampaya, which we thought was nearby, see a botanical garden of cacti, and various other attractions. Being the first place in the northwest we had been to, we were excited to arrive in ‘outback’ Argentina after a few weeks in cities. We arrived early in the morning, and sat in the petrol station, drinking coffee and eating medialunas. When the sun rose, we walked into the centre of town to find accommodation. At the first hostel we knocked at, no one answered, so we walked around the corner to find another. At this place, there were guests eating breakfast, but we couldn’t find any staff. We left and retreated to the central plaza for some breakfast of our own, and to find an internet cafe to try and find a place to stay.

Statue of Jesus overlooking the town of Chilecito at sunrise

There was a place advertised just out of town; it was a bit expensive for us but we were running out of options, and it was close to the botanical gardens that I wanted to visit. We took a taxi out there. The driver waited while I walked to the house and knocked. Once again, there was no answer. On the way back to town, we asked the driver to let us out as we went past the cactus garden. Here also, the gates were locked and no one responded to our knocking. We walked the rest of the way back to Chilecito.

After all this had happened, we had still only been in Chilecito for a few hours, but we were starting to get discouraged. We decided to try once more to find a place to stay, and returned to the first hostel we had tried. We knocked on the door for some time, and eventually it opened. The woman that opened the door appeared flustered and confused. A man was emerging from a doorway behind her, and we got the feeling we may have interrupted them having sex. Embarrassed, she led us to a room through an open courtyard, and explained that it was the only room left. It smelled terribly, and we left.

We went straight to the bus station. When we got there, we realised that we were not even very close to Parque Nacional Talampaya, which was our main reason for going to Chilecito in the first place. We got on the next bus to Villa Union, a nearby town much closer to the park.