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The Waorani

Amazone trek reveals isolated culture with uncertain future

Posted: 10/1/2011 1:00 AM | Comments: 0

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As we headed down the river into the unknown I felt a surprising calm and wonder at the beauty of the jungle life surrounding us.

We were heading far from civilization, deep into the Ecuadorian Amazon to camp. Our ultimate destination was to encounter the Waorani (otherwise rather harshly called The Savages), who we were told had little contact with civilization.

Watch out for the overhanging branches and keep your feet and hands inside the boat, warned our guide, Franziska Mueller.

At the time, we didn't know she was recalling an earlier trip when, pointing her arm out of the canoe, an anaconda raised half of its six-metre length out of the river and sank its teeth into her wrist. Later, she told us how she wrestled free from its grasp.

As our canoe sped through the heavy, brown, silty water, I thought about the snakes, Caymans and piranhas that might be swimming below and resisted thinking about the daily baths I would be taking with them over the coming week.

The risk

For months I had been preparing for this trip, which seemed to involve more than what my friends and family considered a sane amount of risk. Snake bites, I was told by our tour company, would be the No. 1 risk, followed by the fact there would be no medical attention or satellite phone.

Malaria, hepatitis A and B, typhoid and yellow fever were also dangers, not to mention the candiru which lives in the Amazonian waters and can swim up your urethra and lodge there by erecting its sharp spines -- ouch. I was told that bathing in the rivers was essential to keep body temperature down and fungus from growing.

So I put my affairs in order, said goodbye to loved ones and tried not to think about what lay ahead.

The one risk that wasn't mentioned prior to arriving in the Amazon was the tribes. We didn't realize as we were travel further up the river, stopping for lunch and bathroom breaks along the shore, that we were going through territories of the only two remaining uncontacted tribes in Ecuador. These tribes are reported to have killed anyone who attempted to contact them and even some who have simply crossed their land.

We also didn't realize the tribe we were going to meet, the Waoranis, had in 2003 massacred 26 people from another tribe as well as numerous loggers and settlers between 2004 and 2009. I later learned to be considered a true Waorani man, one has to kill another human being.

Prior to reaching the tribe on our first night on the river, I expected Franziska to prepare us for jungle camping. We 10 middle-aged Calgarians, while all experienced in the backcountry of the Rockies, had no experience in the Amazonian rainforest.

Instead, she talked about the tribe. Although in contacted with missionaries since the 1970s, the Waoranis still believe anyone who isn't Waorani is non-human. In fact, the definition of Waorani is human. They are revenge-based and tend to interpret various types of incidents, including accidents, as an affront to be avenged, she explained. The Waorani don't believe in natural death, but that something (more often someone) must be responsible.

Franziska said we must accept whatever the tribe offered us, even chicha, a drink the women create by chewing and spitting up the vegetable manioc to be fermented eventually into alcohol. The warning was clear: to stay safe, we must not offend them.

River journey

Despite the warnings and unspoken tension, Day 2 of our journey on the Toquino and Cononoca rivers found us immersed in a fantasyland of rainforest scenery and endangered wildlife; toucans, monkeys, king vultures, macaws and other parrots, crested eagles, turtles, pink dolphins and large electric blue morpho butterflies. While motoring under the intense Ecuadorian sun, a fish jumped out of the river and into my lap.

During our breaks along the rivers, we saw centipedes, tarantulas, stick bugs, tree frogs and tree snakes. Thanks to our guide and two of my travelling companions who are avid bird-watchers, I was able to see and record 52 different species of birds.

We arrived at the Waorani village before sunset, having not seen any other humans or signs of civilization in the two-day journey -- and thankfully no snakes. Most of the 110 tribe members were in another village visiting family, so we set up our tents along the shore, built a latrine in the forest and had dinner. The intriguing jungle night sounds, which I thought would keep me awake, eventually lulled me to sleep.

Meeting the tribe

The next day, the tribe crossed the river in canoes to meet us. I was surprised to see them in T-shirts and shorts. The missionaries, in their attempts to "civilize" them, had started bringing them clothes in the '70s.

The tribe was quiet in that first meeting. They spoke Waorani, which didn't resemble any of the Spanish some of us knew. They were told we were coming and to prepare items to sell or trade with us. We were delighted when they set up a display of their handicrafts. They made necklaces out of seeds and smaller replicas of the blowguns and spears they use to hunt for food -- mainly monkey and peccary (wild pigs).

Franziska translated for me once I had chosen my purchases. I had cash but the tribe ladies were more interested in trading. I went to my tent and found my windup flashlight which they much preferred to cash. Once I was out of things to trade, the ladies were willing to take my cash but it was clear they didn't understand the value so our guide decided on prices for them.

After we had finished purchasing our mementoes, one of the women presented me with another necklace to thank me because I had bought the most. I was touched that they appreciated my business, despite not knowing the value of money.

Later, the women and children sang us songs that resembled chanting. We joined the singing and played games with the kids, all feeling a bit tentative. Rob, a fellow traveller, warmed things up by starting a game of tag with the kids which expanded into a game of throwing them in the water. The kids seemed to love it but some of us watched the parents hoping they wouldn't take offence. But the Waorani apparently have a playful side, and Rob's shenanigans and infectious laugh went a long way to building rapport.

As we got more comfortable with the tribe, the elders, in particular, reverted towards their tradition of wearing fewer clothes. The women typically had a child at their breast. It was interesting that we never heard a child cry. This also explains why the tribes' women curiously touched our breasts, trying to understand why ours weren't drooping to our waist.

We had planned to stay one night with the tribe and head further into the Amazon during the week. But the water was too high and we doubted we could find dry land to set up our tents, so we decided to spend the next four days next to the Waorani village.

We went on jungle hikes with our guides and Waorani friends. They introduced us to lemon ants, which we all agreed were tasty. They also took us on a simulated monkey hunt -- the Waorani would make the sound of the animal to attract or locate them (they can imitate every animal sound), and then we would run through the jungle as silently as possible to get closer to the prey. Once we would reach them, instead of a blowgun we shot them with our cameras.

We saw five monkeys, three of them endangered --woolly, howler and spider. The Waorani showed us how they climb trees, use blowguns to paralyze and kill the monkeys and how they carry them out of the forest by quickly making a basket from palm leaves.

On one occasion, after being dropped off by canoe, we planned to walk back to our camp through the jungle. But the water was so high we couldn't pass in places. Our guides impressed us with how quickly they chopped down small trees and made bridges with hand railings. After spending the day trying to get back to our camp in this manner we finally reached an area that was so flooded that we had to walk waist-high through the water back to camp.

Village life

The Waorani village is a blend of old and new. Thatched huts sat alongside newer buildings such as the schoolhouse, which are constructed of lumber (with the help of the missionaries). The huts seemed superior to the newer buildings because they prevent light from coming in and so are cooler. The hut is designed to feel like a womb -- and in the event of an attack, the enemy would not be able to see because of the light adjustment coming inside to the dark.

The homes for a family of four are as large as my house in Calgary, with an open firepit for cooking and making curare (blowgun poison), hammocks and a shelf for keeping the food of the day, fresh from the jungle.

The villagers showed us how they make curare by heating up the bark from a woody vine and rolling the tips of darts in the liquid. When they shoot the dart at a monkey, the curare paralyzes it, but the fall is what kills it. Sometimes the baby monkey will survive the fall, in which case the women in the village will breast-feed it. Our guide also witnessed a tribeswoman breastfeeding a pig.

Although the tribe has a school teacher, hunting takes precedence. The teacher will drop his chalk for his spear and blowpipe if he hears the wild pigs are near.

Our group of 10 had chipped in to purchase anti-parasitic and deworming medication, plus first-aid supplies for the tribe. Although the Red Cross comes in annually to provide vaccinations and one-size-fits-all false teeth, we helped distribute the first medications of these types that the tribe had seen.

Franziska's stories

We listened to Franziska's stories nightly, and I got the impression she's spent more time with the Waoranis than anyone.

We heard about the massacre of the 26 men, women and children from another tribe and how the Waoranis presented her with the head of one of the men they had killed as proof of what they had done. She told us about other Waorani killings, mainly loggers, from 2005 to 2008, as well as those of three Ecuadorian settlers in 2009.

She also described times when she herself, a longtime (albeit non-human) friend of the Waoranis, had been afraid for her life. However, the Waorani will not kill for the sake of killing. They must have a reason.

Unlike myself, many in our group were hopeful to see an anaconda, but by Day 4 we hadn't seen one. One afternoon I stayed behind while the rest of the group went with the elders into the jungle. Shortly after the group left, two of the tribe children in a small dugout canoe spotted a smaller anaconda in a tree near where we'd been bathing every day.

One of the Waorani took me out in the canoe to take pictures of the snake sunning itself on the surface of the water. He grabbed the snake and managed to hold it safely while paddling our very tippy canoe to shore. To my surprise, I found myself holding the snake.

Fiesta time

One night, after we were in our tents, we heard what sounded like a generator. It wasn't until the next morning that we learned Jakub Vagner, a journalist for National Geographic, had flown into the village to film the tribe's traditional fiesta. He'd come with two small planes and a full camera crew.

Waorani fiestas occur quarterly. They dress in traditional style -- the women are in leafed g-strings and the men are naked. They drink chicha, sing songs and dance around a fire. A way of life prior to the missionaries, it's also one of the few remaining occasions the tribe reverts to its tradition of polygamy.

After the crew was finished filming, I spent some time talking to Jakub, who felt that the tour companies bringing people like us into this area were not telling the whole story about the risks. Explaining about the uncontacted tribes, he said he'd never travel the river in the areas we'd been. He added that, fairly recently, a group of tourists like us had been speared from shore by one of these tribes.

Seeing us all in our sport sandals, he said his own small tour company always insists that people wear rubber boots, particularly at night. He said he'd killed three pit viper snakes so far on this trip because they are deadly, territorial and will keep coming back.

On his tours, he added, he flies in with a doctor, anti-venoms and a satellite phone, and has a plane on standby. He told me there was a possibility we may all get out of the jungle unharmed, but he also warned it was just as likely one or all of us might not.

Although he conceded that it's unlikely to happen, Jakub believes the tribe should be left alone. Right now, the Waorani territory is protected in Ecuador, but oil companies will soon move in. Jakub believes the Waorani culture will be threatened or lost to oil and tourism.

Franziska disputed Jakub's assertions about the speared tourists, and spoke of the Waorani's transition into civilization and how they have changed. She believes tourism is a sustainable approach to support them during this time. They can continue their customs by demonstrating how to make jewelry, baskets and weapons, and how to use these to survive, while learning more about how to do business and interact with the civilized world, she argued.

Franziska believes ultimately the Waorani can manage their own transition and should be left to make their own decisions.

In the end

It's clear the Waorani are open to welcoming tourists. They were interested in us and opened their homes and shared their customs.

In spite of the risks, known and unknown at the time, I feel privileged to have experienced the Ecuadorian Amazon as I did and when I did. Travelling by river was spectacular, though it's clear that wildlife is disappearing and the list of endangered species in the Amazon is growing.

To have met and spent four days with the Waoranis at a time when they are starting to transition into our world was a unique and special experience.

Were we fools who just got lucky, as Jakub insinuated? Perhaps. But all of us feel this was a trip of a lifetime. It couldn't have been any better and we wouldn't have missed it. Diving into those places that seem, and perhaps are, full of danger and risk may be what keeps us alive and growing.

-- Postmedia News

About the author

When Cindy Saunders decided to take a week-long adventure to the Ecuadorian Amazon, her friends and family thought she was taking too many risks. Anacondas, killer insects and the fact that there was no quick route to medical help were just some of their concerns.

Here are thoughts about the trip in a brief Q & A.

What made you take this trip?

Something about the trip spoke to me, but I didn't know why I was doing it. I asked myself the question many times as friends and family warned me not to do it. Yet I was unwittingly determined.

Were there any disappointments?

I was a lot more comfortable than I thought I would be. Things that I thought would scare me -- tarantulas, anaconda, monkeys -- I was fascinated by and couldn't get close enough to get a picture.

Would you do it again?

There are many other places in the world to experience. But I would recommend it to others, because it is a trip of a lifetime.

What were the highlights?

Just being in this amazing place, knowing how privileged you are to be one of very few people in the world who will ever experience it.

What type of person would enjoy this trip?

Anyone. Our group of 10 were all very different and all came for their own reasons.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 1, 2011 D1

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