Meeting the Shuar

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December 7th 2009
Published: January 2nd 2010
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Back in Baños we got ready for the expedition to the jungle. Via Rainbow Expeditions we took a trip to a community of the Shuar tribe set in a primary rainforst 40 minutes flight and then 40 minutes walk from Puyo. We could have done this walk in 2 hours and enjoy it but we really didn´t want to lose eye contact with the ‘guide’ - the man and woman from the community where we landed who carried food and other things to the community, Tuna, where we stayed the next 4 days. Tuna is a relatively new community comprising three brothers and each one´s family, all together about 20 people. They welcomed us with a short ‘official’ welcome including a traditional Chicha drinking (not yummy, a sour tasting drink that was made from fermenting, mashed yucca) and told us about the place and their goals and visions for the community. The Shuar tries hard to integrate into the modern Ecuador whilst in the same time preserving its indeginous culture, life style and inhabiting its teritory. It is quite a hard task in a place tucked far away from civilization that is accessable only by foot and only with a special permission from the Shuar Association. Needless to say that there is no electricity or running water etc. They live from the ground and from the river; eating yuca and other versions of tree roots like palmita and camote, plantain, papaya and for special occasions fish. We were the fifth group who visited them in the last 2 years, so that may give an idea of the excitement of seeing white man, especially for the kids. In the next three days we got introduced to different themes in their culture. We found yuca and made chicha, we learn about the spirits of Arutum and the hunting dog, we went into the undergrowth and spied parrots and birds returning to roost at night, travelled around with the the tribe and played and swam with the kids in the river, I even helped Roberto and family to build a chicken house and thus got introduced to the strength of this man. The more we stayed we learnt to appreciate the opportunity we had as we got an insight into a real indigenous community not yet spoiled by tourists. We saw their day-to-day life, through work, finding and making food, education of the kids
Picking up yucaPicking up yucaPicking up yuca

Liz peels the yuca
and fearing of snakes that may attack a chicken or a baby or one of the men…. We were happy that some nights Roberto or Victor joined us for a chat and we learnt more about the Shuar history, Liz got slightly nervous when the subject of head shrinking came up, yes the Shuar had been head shrinkers and in the not so distant past, Victor informed us that his father had shrunk a head or two in his time. We later learnt that we would never have been in danger, as the heads of women and children were never shrunk and as the whites or Gringos were considered far to lowly, we would have been fine, mainly it was Shuar against Achuar or other tribes. It raised thoughts about this desire to ‘see’ - to vouyer - these people. How much we contributed and how much we polluted them with our cameras and clothes? They have the right to progress and we have the desire to preserve the authenticity of their life. Somewhere these points meet and create a confusion. I think Tuna people brave this challege slowly and wisely and I hope the young generation will stay loyal to its origin.

On the last day with the tribe we were taken on a jungle walk, which was scary as we were warned of the real danger of snakes, the black snake that attacks from the ground and the green snake that sits in wait in the branches, to be bitten by these would mean the end for us. During this walk, we were introduced to the face painting that is a ritual and a respect to the spirit Arutum who lives in the waterfalls we were to visit, we found and ate Mani or peanuts, we were taught of the medicinal qualities of some of the plants in the jungle. Later in the afternoon the comunity put on a farewell ceremony for us, with dancing and singing, they were dressed in their ceremonial clothes with painted faces, wearing beads and the men were carrying their spears. During this ceremony we were all given Shuar names and necklaces made by the women of the community. It was a very moving experience and made us realise just how much these people appreciated us, and how well in such a short time they got to know us, as each name had a meaning that fitted each of us very well.

Saying goodbye was sad as it is when you make new friends, and the whole community came to see us off with hugs and handshakes, Roberto, the chief of the village , was obviously impressed by Ram and informed us as we were leaving that he and his wife had decided to name their youngest child Ram!!

The option to come volunteering to teach them English and help in communication with the outside world is open and is seriously considered. The way back to civilzation was an 8 hours speed walk in the jungle in non-stop rain, crossing mud swamps, passing seven other communities before finally, wet, muddy and exhausted, we reached a dirt road that could be used by a truck which took us to a partly paved road, a one hour ride away where we waited for a bus to Puyo, another 2 hours journey. We then had another bus trip to Baños, another hour or so, as you can imagine, we were VERY happy to get back to Baños, a hot shower and to get out of the wet, mud splattered clothes, we must have
River crossing at sunsetRiver crossing at sunsetRiver crossing at sunset

After returning from fishing
made quite a picture walking from the bus station to our hostel. When we look on the map the distance we covered is perhaps only 10% of the distance eastward heading to the border with Peru. Two days walk (for a white man) east of Tuna there is another Shuar community. Further ahead begins an Achuar community, at least a further seven days walk inside. These communities prefer to not-see a white man we were advised, and to go even with a guide could cause us to be kidnaped or worse.

Additional photos below
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Picking up yucaPicking up yuca
Picking up yuca

Ram carries the basket in the local way

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