Waorani - Ecuador Adventures
I’ll never forget the color of her eyes…they were the color of a clear stream in the jungle, clear water that fish dance in if you know where to look. The only reason her eyes have a slight green is because of the reflection of the jungle canopy. Green, everywhere green and alive. Just a hint of faint color that makes them not totally transparent. Deep eyes… spooky and kind in the same glance, ancient. I thought to myself with a smile… “of course the eye’s of the shaman’s wife would be like that, timeless and searing.” Even as I write these words now… in my mind, in my memories, her eyes and those deep stares will be with me until the end.
A day earlier my friend Ryan had flown in from Denver to Quito to join us on an epic adventure. We were going to travel deep into the Amazon basin by canoe to visit the Waoriani people. They are a somewhat infamous Amazon tribe that had a deadly run-in with some missionaries in the 1950’s. To this day they hunt naked in the forest with spears and poison tipped blow darts. Knowing that we were going to the heart of the Amazon in what was sure to be a life changing experience; we decided to make a stop to drink ayahuasca with a shaman to see if we could get a glimpse of what was to come, a peek into the future. After a magical night of strange noises and hallucinations we had fresh eyes to see and experience all of the wonders the Amazon holds.
To get to the Waorani’s village of Bameno, we would travel by canoe for two days, over 14 hours motoring downstream in total. The catch was that we had to go through the territory of the “uncontacted” tribes of the Amazon. There are several groups of indigenous people that choose to remain isolated in their worlds of forests, and remain loyal to their nomadic hunting and gathering tradition. As elusive as these uncontacted people are, violent encounters have taken place in recent history when the locals have crossed paths with foreign visitors; giving one an extra sense of anxiety when passing down the river. Going without a local Waorani guide would not only be illegal but quite possibly dangerous.
As we made our way down the river there was a real sense of moving back in time. As Manuel, one of the guides, put it…”We are going to the real middle of THE nowhere now.” We meandered down the chocolate-colored tributary to the mighty Amazon herself; twisting and turning like a giant anaconda through the thick jungle….toucans and scarlet macaws flapping and screeching across the rivers, scouring the canopy for their next harvest. As wild and as raw as the landscape was, my mind kept drifting back to the pictures I had seen of the people. Naked, wearing feather crowns, handcrafted necklaces, barefoot, and hunting monkeys to feed their kids.
As we arrived in the village of Bameno we were greeted by the infectious smiles of beautiful children…lots and lots of children. They came in all shapes and sizes, wearing less than pristine clothing, and beaming smiles on all of them. The way that kids should look, disheveled from hours of playing outside. Dirt and mud puddles, trees and nature….the river..always the river. Now THIS was the playground that the kids today need now more than ever. No video games or YouTube, just the butterflies and the birds, snakes and the monkeys to entertain. Children playing in water must be the most calming scene I can think of. Regardless of the language barrier, jumping off the dock into a river over and over again to cool off from the jungle heat…it seemed to affirm in all of us that we were in the right place at the right time, doing the right thing….just being kids again.
Gathering our backpacks and supplies out of the boat and onto the rickety wooden dock, we climbed up from the muddy riverbank onto the flat area where the village lived. Above the high water mark the first grass huts appeared. You could see the age of the people by the way they dress. The younger generation wore western clothing, t-shirts with American Sports teams, and shorts with “JAMES #23” screen printed on them. The older generations were unclothed for the most part. The grandmas of the village wore handmade beaded necklaces instead of shirts or blouses, and somehow it seemed to fit. They seemed more comfortable being in just skin than they did the few times I saw them clothed. If there was a uniform that every Waorani wore though, it was their amazing smiles. Ear to ear, some full of teeth and some without. The word “Waponi,'' repeated over and over as their greeting for Hello, Goodbye, and as we would later find out, a million other meanings. Similar to Aloha in the Hawaiian language.
Over the next 3 days we would be completely immersed with the community and their way of life. Most of the day's tasks were based around food and acquiring it. This consisted of mainly fishing and setting up the fishing gear to attract different types of fish, from catfish to piranha. The little girls seemed to catch the most fish and they loved to show-off how many they caught. They would string the fish on thin sticks, right through the gills to carry them around like trophies. One little girl had “sticks” full of fish, no less than a dozen with only about 30 minutes of effort. Within minutes mini hands were working with mini knives to descale the fish. Scales flying around everywhere like jungle glitter, quick work made of the chore.
While exploring the river and upon arriving at a new beach, the children would jump out of the boat first onto the sand. They would begin doing a funny looking foot shuffle along the white sand, kind of like a lite stepping dance. They were constantly giggling and making games out of everything in life. They were trying to find the turtle eggs in their buried nests. They would use their feet to detect the voids in the sand and then that’s where the turtle eggs would be dug up, there would be literally 1,000’s of eggs on a 50 yard stretch of beach. After we had enough eggs collected for the next morning's breakfast we gathered a couple extra for fishing. Turns out if you cover a piece of sponge with turtle yoke and put it on a hook… the fish go crazy for it. Amazon survival tip #47.
Later that night we went on a caiman croc photo hunt. The crocs freeze in the light of a headlamp or flashlight. It blinds them and they don’t move, allowing the boat to creep in close. At the bow of the boat is a Wao ready to pounce on the croc when the boat approaches. From about 2 meters away our guide leaps out of the boat and grabs the croc by the back of the neck and pulls it out of the water. What a crazy experience to witness, adrenaline and disbelief sprinkled the air. After the pics and selfies were taken with the crocs they were released back to the river to continue their hunting for small prey. So fun.
These types of stories of adventures could easily fill another 10 pages of writing…countless adventures experienced in just a short 3 days…too many stories to tell here. What’s the point of this story….well I guess it is to demonstrate that there are still truly wild places and people on the planet. To find them you have to get up and look for them, get out of your comfort zone and push it a bit. What I love most about living in Ecuador is that you don’t have to look too far to find these special places. They still exist here. The people here are eager to share their stories.
What makes a place wild? Is it the geographical remoteness of the place? Is it the type or abundance of animals and wildlife that makes a place wild? For me it’s the people that make a place truly remote. The way that the people have adapted to thrive and be at the apex of the food chain, not at the apex of their earning potential. A place where your financial status or the speed of your internet connection doesn’t matter. I have a hard time with the “wildness” at the “end of that game” or the “wild” city life. For me that isn’t wild, that’s routine. Concrete jungles scare me way more than the real jungle of the Amazon. A life of routine is the scariest thing I can imagine.
Stories like these and adventures like the one we had are a daily occurrence here in Ecuador. Living the life of an expat is an adventure everyday if you choose to explore the unfamiliar sights and sounds. Being a foreigner in any environment comes with surprise, wonder, and maybe a bit of trepidation…it’s exhilarating and scary, but it’s worth it. Get out there and find your wild spots on the planet.