Adventures in the Amazon on an entrepreneurial trip
Dan MacCombie recounts tales of his travels in Ecuador while setting up a business.
The New York Times
Northwest travel guides
(As told to Joan Raymond)
When I was younger we went on a lot of vacations, so traveling isn’t new to me. My business partner Tyler Gage and I went to Ecuador and other parts of South America when we were in college, and after taking an entrepreneurship class we started our beverage company, Runa. We work with more than 2,000 guayusa growers who are all members of the Amazonian Kichwa indigenous group. They call themselves Runa, which translates to “fully alive human being.” Guayusa is a caffeinated tree leaf, and we sell it and use it to make our bottled beverages.
I’m an ecologically minded person, and I don’t like to travel needlessly. But I enjoy my business trips throughout the United States. I’m in charge of sales, and I get to see places in the United States that I wouldn’t normally get a chance to visit.
When you’re working in remote areas, though, it’s never easy. It’s harder when you’re in a pickup truck that’s seen better days.
When we started the company we received a grant to build the first research and development facility for guayusa processing and export in Ecuador’s Napo province. It sounds impressive, but it was really only a small steel chamber located in a bamboo garage. Our mill was a cacao grinder.
We bought a dryer to cure the guayusa, but our grant didn’t include any money to transport the dryer deep into the jungle. So we loaded the dryer, which was about the size of a refrigerator, into the flatbed of a 1992 pickup truck we called “el limón.” The drive was supposed to take three hours. It didn’t. I had to stop driving every 15 minutes to check the brakes.
We were traveling down a steep grade, and I could feel the brakes stiffening and rubber burning because of the excess weight of the dryer. It probably didn’t help that the truck’s brake pads were worn. We wound up having to put about $2,000 into the truck to keep it working. We eventually sold it, and for all I know, el limón is still running somewhere in Ecuador.
When I started to work with the Kichwa, I was very cognizant of cultural differences. It was important for us come to them with a spirit of collaboration. These people know so much more about the land than we could ever hope to know. People wake at dawn to drink their guayusa around a communal fire. It’s part of a social ritual where village elders teach younger people about the myths, societal values and what it means to be Runa. To share in it is an amazing experience.
The people are proud of the work they do, and culturally, it’s important to be on time, which is a good lesson for all of us.
On one trip, we were set to pick up harvested guayusa leaves from one Kichwa community who had settled deep in the rain forest, but a bridge we had to cross was washed out. It’s also important to keep your promises and we wanted to keep our reputation intact, so a few members of our group swam across the river, which was wide and about three to 15 feet deep in spots. They then hiked into the jungle to meet with the community and explain the situation.
The rest of us piled back into our vehicle and took a detour, which involved miles of packed dirt roads littered with rocks and debris. We were eight hours late. A local boy walked out to the washed-out bridge to confirm our story. Everyone was somewhat understanding, but I do think they still thought we should have been on time.
Q: How often do you fly for business?
A: Probably four to five times a month, mostly domestic, but some international.
Q: What’s your least favorite airport?
A: Atlanta-Hartsfield. There’s always long security lines and then you have to scramble to catch a connection.
Q: Of all the places you’ve been, what’s the best?
A: Ecuador. We work there and I’ve gotten to know the people, who are amazing. It’s very culturally rich, and no matter how many times I go there it’s always wonderful.
Q: What’s your secret airport vice?
A: Grilled cheese sandwiches. Sometimes when you’re stuck at the airport you need comfort food. I do wince when I pay 20 bucks for a sandwich and a bottle of water.