Into the Rainforest
The motorised boat drove fast with the wind and water rushing past I opened the bag pack to find the bandana and noticed the poncho rain cover jacket which I gave to the lady holding a baby as with the arm rest seat. Within the hour we came to a tribal camp on the waterfront, stopping to get out my head still moves from side to side, we ascend up the hill to the living huts, dogs whined at the hands of tribal women in hand made hammocks while the chickens ran after a puppy, in the shadows unnoticeable at first but right in front was a Waorani hunter male.
The jungle had shown its ways on this one eyed practically naked man, large ear pierced holes came down from this noble and humbled warrior. He saw the camera despite my best efforts to hide it, consciously he touched his missing eye and returned to the cabin. I hope to this magnificent person again.
Invited into the main living quarter for water and eggs I walk in smiling to show a person with no harmful intent, the living space was dark with no window, 7 people sat in a room approximately 4m x 3m telling stories together which I’d expected were similar to when any family meets. Returning to the canoe where we began our voyage deeper into the heart of the Amazon basin, along the way I filmed our route into the ever growing depth of plant life, swamp and thousands of creatures silently judging our presence. Birds constantly flew at the speed of the boat, turtles jumped from their logs when passing, Penti stopped the canoe to show a boa snake wrapped around a tree branch, they poked it with sticks and threw twigs until it moved. We passed several albino caiman, butterflies flew past the atmosphere was fantastic, the smell of the jungle settled every time we slowed down I expected it to smell the same as growing up as a child in Thailand but it was very different, more pungent and thick, the swamp smell was surprisingly sweet with a tropical must. After 8 hours in the canoe a storm arose, when thunder came the tribe count fingers, sitting on a wooden makeshift bench complemented with heavy rain crashing down. I gave my comfy seat and rain jacket with hood to the lady with the baby Daboto but this did not go unnoticed and for the following 8 days she kept an eye on me to see I was fed and given water. The last 2 hours on the boat was hell but we got there eventually, it was dark when we arrived on the water front under outlines of pitch black trees, shadows stood meters around me, I was completely unexpected, someone took my bag in the blackness only vivid shapes reflected partial moon light, with hands and feet I made it up the mudslide barely able to walk after the 10 hour wooden plank, head still swaying, with a broken arse I collapsed in my hammock.
Waking up at 05:45 a spider monkey was swinging from and pulling up the mosquito net. Clucking throats and excited “oooh ooh” giggles came as though pulling up a ladies skirt in public. It became a game to see how much the little monkey with long limbs could swing on the net before I clapped my hands or stood up. The game then turned into how close pee could be dropped from above without actually hitting me. A few days went and closer and closer until one day I knew the monkey would sit on top of the net and drop bombs, ultimately winning the game. For this occasion I’d engineered a cunning plan; to leave a wasp in one of the bananas….
But that day never came, no one won the game, this morning she didn’t swing on my net, I found out her name is Digi, and she rolled back my sleeping bag and quietly woke me. She turned her back and through the mosquito net I stroked her shoulders and neck. She came under the net with a tail around my arm, with a hand on my chest she fell asleep.
After being here for 4 days I still can’t understand why some wear t-shirts, why some are topless and why some are naked, think it comes down to personal choice. We were in the jungle every single day, each time I was bitten and so were they, makes more sense to help prevent this? I love my new found relationship with the Huaorani, I met them alone and seldom to people come here, I’ve seen a video of a tour of 8 people visiting and staying for 3 days, a question put to Penti, the average length of stay was confirmed never usually more than 3 but in the Tribal Wives documentary the team stayed for 5 days, in the video’s the tribe came down to the waterfront to welcome them with traditional sing and dance. Valued as a long standing tradition it seems to aid the limited (if any) tourism which help fund Penti’s meetings with the United Nations to fight the political wars on logging and oil, in turn protecting the Tagaeri and Taromenane the completely un-contacted living very close to us. I requested that Penti spread the word around the village that in no way will I intrude in their lifestyle and prefer to go unnoticed on my hammock, or walking through the jungle with them.
I came here alone, the first person to ever visit them without a guide or translator, my visit was unexpected and for much longer than normal.
It’s been a bit chaotic, they wanted to know why I was there, what my job was, my families work…
But I’ve seen the real Huaorani, that was my goal. They are traditional and methodical, they use medicine from the jungle, the primary camp is next to an enormous sacred tree of life, which I touched today as a bat flew inches from my fingers.
Tonight I need to move into a smaller hut, Penti explained for the fiesta over 100 Huaorani will visit for the once a year tribal celebration. Everyone’s excited, the fruit we collected on the canoe has covered various faces and both my arms, however accepted in truth I’ve been shown boundaries, I eat with Penti’s immediate family never with the senior tribe members or the hunter males, they stay up late over the fire chanting and reflecting which I’m happy to see from a distance.
A new morning today and more family greet me with informal broken Spanish “dias” or “buenos” from the few who venture out to Coca, although many look to question why I am here. For breakfast a charred boar head came off the fire, I noticed my carving below the left eye and smiled again remembering the cheek is considered somewhat as a delicacy, the taste blew my mind. Later in the afternoon I came back to write, I don’t understand why but the mass of crowd have left, no one’s here I’m alone except for middle aged lady crying outside my hut. She swings her legs from the raised log where the cries come in long drawn rhythm, as though a chant for when you feel sad, she looks to her right in anticipation, but not to see me through the cracks in the panels.
Just back from a trip in the canoe the rapids and strong currents forced us to the upstream banks, we pulled the plants and trees to make it through the stronger centre flow, small yellow birds played and each time you look down a new insect is crawling on you. The calm water in small pools so still they seemed notorious for feeding grounds, different noises layered the plants growing through the thick brown water, I’d like to know the what’s beneath but maybe a thought best left to the imagination.
Arriving back to find on the small grassy centre hill where a stretch of grass separates the huts, 4 elders stand in a circle constantly active shredding vines with their fingers or sharp edges to free wood from its bark. I can’t help but wonder about the 5 journalists who were speared years ago before visitations were approved. Now a motion picture I know the incident occurred in Huaorani territory on a long grassy landing strip and can’t help but wonder if the actors played the roles of these men, or their fathers.
They didn’t like me or my camera.
My new hut seems to be the a housing for a female chicken, she’s laid 4 new eggs in the corner and since I’d gone unnoticed quietly writing, the neck feathers are now raised high and wings are spread in defence over the eggs, I stand up as the wind blows the cloth which acts as my door, it’s the last I see of her.
I’ll take them to Penti he’ll be happy for the new eggs, I enter his family hut to find relatives and his partner, I hand her what turned out to be 7 eggs and made a sleeping gesture, they roared in laughter as though I’d shit them out myself.
I’m sure the hunting men had special names for me like “princess balls” or “girly man” which is fine, I’m not being speared.
Sitting in the open grass observing the tribes play football a mature teenage girl comes and speaks, 10 minutes with her I’ve leaned enough to answer the previous questions asked, an elder tribesman walks past and frowns, tilts his head and walks on glaring. She assures me some senior members are traditional and not to worry. Reality still kicks in from the things seen here; walking with the hunting party through the rainforest, boars and monkeys over shoulders covered in blood, for centuries relying on the jungle for what they need and matching that with their own tools provided by the environments, spears, blowpipes, fire and medicine culminate the priority list bringing true culture with shaman’s visions and a genuine delicate touch to the things around them. The taller men are a few inches shorter than me whereas back in Scotland think I’m just below the average height, they walk with raised chests which rest their long hair I believe packs of dogs have once influenced their ways. They growl in day to day conversation and when all goes quiet a human wolf howl breaks the silence. In dances the girls chant in a circle and the boys form a triangle with the eldest at the frontal point panting loudly “hah hah hwooooooo” before howling as a group in sync. Some men smile wide showing teeth while talking followed directly with an immediate frown of anger, this happens in as commonly as the conversation itself, it’s hard to tell if they’re telling a funny story or very pissed off.
Eating around the fire today I saw my friend Digi for the first time since moving huts, as the small spider monkey came forward I crouched, hesitant and cautious before suddenly running into my stomach with the tail around my arm and shoulder, I’m one of the few who don’t kick her.
I haven’t written for a while, allot has changed, I made a joke about being nervous when I first arrived like charades I scratched the side of my neck, looked left then to my feet and picked my nose mumbling. The whole camp loved this gesture and now when I see people they do it back. By the next morning everyone in our community was doing it when they saw me laughing hysterically, I did it back as they almost fell over. To laugh at yourself seemed to be the key. They could also see now I showed no signs of being awkward, very much relaxed with them. One man in particular who held stern face, a physically strong hunter male and from the beginning I thought he’d been plotting to turn me into a baguette… this afternoon he stood next to me as I watched the young ones start the field fires for the fiesta, he folded both arms, sharp eyes pierced the thick brow below the straight line traditional fringe. He looked at me, I looked back, he looked away and smiled almost holding in a laugh. Yea he wanted to do the nervous joke thing, but far too honourable for shenanigans. When I’d returned later back I found waiting in my hut an old senior frail man, with a long grey moustache he sat cross legged for me to join him. I laid out a world map from Coca tourist information, offered him a smoke which he accepted and pointed to highlight Ecuador on the map, the Amazon, equilateral line through to the Congo and on to Asia. Circling Europe I ended the shape at Scotland and put my hand on my chest. He took some time staring down and pointed at the Antarctic and the mass of white. I made a gesture of being cold; we sat for around 15 minutes as he conducted his completely silent interview.
After this day I sat with the group unnoticed, mostly just watching them play football with my paper and pen, they had adopted the sport and somewhat revitalised the way it’s played. The Huaorani in our village had enormous strong flak jacket feet, the thick bottom layer had grown into dark yellow armour which in some cases had almost reached as high as the ankle bone. The girls played rough rugby football, a large slap bellowed each time the ball whizzed from the kick they’d give the rugby boys back home a run for their money. One player was around 7 months pregnant; they all used their chest to stop the ball, combined with shoulders this also acted as an offensive battering ram.
Penti showed me the ways of their people in what felt like the final time we would go together on another adventure through the selva, he was a very busy man during this celebrations and took me with an armed hunter for what I think was protection. Delicately opening a circular leaf to show the colors of a red caterpillar, before closing it very softly leaving it exactly as he found it. Such a contrast from the flying spears and blood baths witnessed before, to the now soft careful considerations. Before me stood for the second time the enormous ancient tree, this is more than a jungle, it flourishes with wonder, flocks of tropical coloured birds unsettle as they flash colours through the playful monkeys observing our presence, a spiders silhouette lay on a leaf above my head. The silent quicksand waits to help the tribe claim food, the red leaves serve a purpose to mark trees with petroglyphs, orange and blue butterflies land to investigate and lush green leaves surround us with water drop reflecting the sun. Penti and the hunter that smiles with frowns seem more than interested in my video documentary and when alone with them it feels very different as when filming and not trying to hide the lens when in public. They want to know how many people will view my video, and possibly choose to visit the Huaorani. The writings I’d made lying on my hammock- how many will read this and venture into meet them; ultimately bringing finance to help Penti campaign with the UN for land rights oil and logging.
Arriving back at camp to be greeted by an indigenous Huaorani women who had probably never been out the territory, practically naked she greeted with a smile held up by large raised cheekbones, enormous feet and few remaining teeth encompassed in her scarred face, I wondered what people at work would do if they saw her walk through the doors and log into a PC.
I played the nervous charade joke hoping she’d heard the news, she confirmed as her knees gave into the laughter….
I was back in the community and welcomed well for the beginning of an incredible celebration.
Something’s Left Unsaid
I’ve left many things out of these tales with the contacted region of this mystical Amazonian society.
If you’d like to know more for yourself come to Equador alone or with a friend, head to the Orellana province, do not speak to any guides and find a Huaorani who likes you, and be prepared to properly shit your pants.
Stop washing your hair, wearing deodorant and putting anything on your feet, especially in the jungle.
The dirtier you are the less they notice you.
The more I smelled the closer they came.
You will never be one of them, they are the proud Huaorani
and you are a tourist.
The untrue smiles in the first few days will stop, to be exchanged for small touches and an honest consideration.
They’re curious about us too and for a short time you can feel the ways of their lifestyle while in careful hands.