In the jungle, the mighty jungle...

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South America » Ecuador » East » Shiripuno River
August 9th 2007
Published: October 4th 2007
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A month without electricity, hot water, any kind of home comfort, though we did have running water if they remembered to pump it… Looking back it sounds hard, but before and while we were there, we didn’t give it a second thought.
Before our trip we (me, Cheska, Zia and Claudia -my fellow volunteers, who became more like a part of me as we together literally 24/7 for the whole month) had all read the book Savages by Joe Kane and researched the Huaorani; a small but fierce indigenous population spread out in communities throughout the Oriente in the heart of the Ecuadorian Amazon. The Huaorani consider themselves the bravest people in the world and have never been defeated. Unfortunately now they are, and it’s happening so slowly, in a way that they don’t recognise, that many don’t even realise it. Missionaries come and kill their culture (though the first group in the 1950s were famously and brutally speared to death). The oil industry came, took their land and destroyed it. Both have caused disease and death. Many don’t realise the rights they have and those who do are often not heard. An organisation was set up to voice their rights but unfortunately even that became money hungry and in turn corrupt.
It is for these reasons that we headed to the Amazon. Some of the communities are in the process of building a self-run ecotourism lodge, for a healthy and sustainable income, without the destruction of their culture. We went to teach the children English and the adults about tourism.

During the month there we would wake up around 7am and would be in bed by 10pm, which is late compared to the Huaorani who go to bed at 7pm; I guess in a place where the sun sets by 6 there isn’t much one can do without electricity.
Most days we would be canoed across the river - though once we managed to get ourselves across in a dugout canoe. On a couple of occasions we couldn’t use the canoe, so we had to wade across at the shallowest point which was about thigh deep. Chino - the cook, aka the DILF - though to be honest, the Huaorani get married so young, and the way they’re built, well, they’re all DILFs! - showed us how and where to do it, though it was rather embarrassing having him there when I tried to climb out on the other side, got stuck in sinking mud and lost both of my boots and my dignity. We assured him we’d be able to find our way back in the afternoon. Later that day, true to form, we got lost. It wouldn’t have been so bad if night wasn’t already falling and we weren’t lost in the middle of the jungle in nothing but our underwear (the result of a clever plan of crossing the river).
After crossing the rived it would be around 40minutes walk through the jungle to the community. The walk involved balancing on precarious log bridges (once I did slip and my fall was only saved by a branch I managed to cling on to - bit scary!), squelching through the mud, dodging roots, vines and spider webs and climbing any new fallen trees. Eventually we’d arrive in the community caked in mud, sweaty, wet and just generally a dishevelled mess. I’m not sure what kind of impression we gave; the Huaorani always look so clean!
We taught the children at 11am but we often headed in earlier to visit some of the community. Our favourite was a charming old man called Nene who was in a wheelchair due to being crippled by polio when the missionaries first came. He spoke hardly any Spanish and so would teach us words in Huao and traditional Huaorani songs (which were mostly vivid descriptions of spearing outsiders). After one of these visits we’d walk through the community to the school, as we’d pass the houses the children who were not already at school would smile and follow us shyly. On one of these visits we were given Waorani names, mine is Omankamo (see now!?) and it means a tall tree, a feather or a pink and yellow flower (I guess they don't have a very big vocabulary!)

Teaching them was amazing; it was a challenge, but a rewarding one and you can’t help but fall in love with them! The school was divided into two groups, the younger one was so much fun, but impossible to teach English! So we mostly played games and did arts and crafts which incorporated English - whether they actually learnt and remembered is a different matter. The older group were stars, they were so intelligent and most of them were really interested in learning. It made us so proud and happy to see them progress. The adults too were amazing to teach; they were there because they really wanted to learn and they were interested in everything. One family in particular were incredible. They had eight children, ranging from 18 to 18 months; all were absolutely stunning looking and so intelligent. The mother, Veronica, was our best student and such a wonderful person, the children inherited her dark eyes and penetrating stare, and all had the gigantic smile inherited from their father, Gabriel. And I was especially attached to Toca, their ten year old son with the best and brightest smile I have ever seen!

On our third weekend the community were having a party to celebrate its anniversary. Each community has a party a year and these parties go on for three days, literally non-stop. During the day they hold inter-community football and volleyball tournaments. They initially signed us to the women’s football team, but Pato (our “guardian”) warned us: “it doesn’t matter if you’re good, but these women play hard; you’ll probably break a bone or two.” I imagined myself arriving in Brazil in a full body cast and quickly withdrew my name.
While they play the matches the rest of the guests mingle, watching the games, helping prepare the food, downing chicha or cooling off in the river - once we thought we were quite alone having a swim, until we heard some giggling and saw several pairs of eyes watching through the trees; the Huaorani seemed to find anything we did fascinating.
In the evening the real party begins. Everyone has freshened up and put on their best clothes. On the first night there was a beauty contest of traditional dress and dancing, and after this some of the youngest boys performed a sketch that was rather adult in content and absolutely hilarious.
Then the music started and we were not given a break all night until we escaped, exhausted to our room for some rest. It seems it was a bit of a novelty to dance with us, and as soon as one song finished, we’d say gracias and we’d have barely reached our seats before the next eager man, or boy, rushed up with his hand held out. It was such an experience and so much fun, so it wouldn’t have been at all bad if every song hadn’t sounded exactly the same. It was a type of music called chichera and I swear it was the same song repeated all night with perhaps different lyrics - though Marco (my first adult student and particular friend) assured me they were all very different.
Towards the beginning of the night the Huaorani did some traditional dancing which we joined in. It was then that we got married. I managed to get married twice, first to Quengohuanto, who was one of my adult students and my favourite dancing partner as he broke the mould with his flamboyant moves. And I got married second to Chino, which I couldn’t really complain about! Obviously the marriages weren’t real, but they were fun! We also had a pet monkey while we were there! It was a gift from the “miracle mute”… This woman, Nemo, came to the first few adult lessons, and never spoke, and the other adults told us she was a mute. So it wasn’t until the next week, when sitting in the community meeting, all of a sudden she stood up and gave the longest, most animated speech I have ever seen. The miracle mute.
Leaving the community was so hard. On our last day we visited each house one last time, we gave what presents we could, as they had given us so much, yet they showered us with gifts again, I now have an extensive Huaorani jewellery collection. And then we said our farewells. By the time we left it was already dark, thank goodness Marco was coming back with us. Everyday we were warned of the dangerous snakes that tend to jump out and bite along the path in the afternoon but this was never such a worry as it was now, walking through the jungle in the pitch black. Marco was leading the way with his trained eyes and the entire journey we passed back warnings down the line to each other: “careful, big dip here… jump over roots here… deep mud… big tree… duck under the branch…” It was kind of scary, being in the middle of the jungle and not being able to see a thing, but fun!
When we got closer to the lodge we could here Pato calling out to us, he found us when we called back and I have never seen
Las chicas del "lodge"Las chicas del "lodge"Las chicas del "lodge"

These guys became like my sisters, life isn't the same without them!
him look so worried. We felt so awful, he was scared that we had been caught by the infamous Tagaeri tribe. We went back to have our last dinner together at the lodge and went to bed; we had to get up at 5am as the river was low.
The canoe ride back was beautiful and would have been lovely if it hadn’t been marred by the fact that we were leaving. The sun was shining, the views stunning, and between moments of contemplative silence we spent the whole time laughing and joking. As the river was again quite low we were bailing waer constantly, patching up leaks and on various occasions we all had to pile out and heave the canoe over a sandbar; once suddenly hitting a log Pato, who was sitting at the bow, was pitched headfirst into the water and disappeared under the canoe for a few stunned moments, before bursting out again with a huge grin on his face - despite practically giving himself a concussion.
Along the way we stopped at some other smaller Huaorani communities. We met some wonderful people and saw the school they were building and visited Chino and his family. We also saw Bae and had a good five minutes laughing as we called out “Bye!” on leaving; the Huaorani were rolling about laughing, even though this wasn’t the first time the joke was shared.
We picked up two more Huaos, Felipe and Luis, who were to join us all the way to Coca. We reached the bridge far too soon, and the bus had just pulled up, so our goodbyes were rushed and unsatisfying. Saying goodbye to Marco was the hardest; he gave me a beautiful necklace with a peccary tooth, and two bracelets; I was so touched I found myself speechless, and even though I had so much to say to him, I couldn’t find the words. It has never been so hard to say goodbye to someone; now knowing when, if ever, I will see him again.
It was so horrible to go back to the city, where we’d fall asleep to the sound of traffic instead of frogs, and you can’t even see the stars. I still really miss it now; I hope I can go back and help soon.


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