Writer and Traveller

Huaroni, Amazon


Man and woman from Huaorani village. Photograp...

Man and woman from Huaorani village. Photographed in Ecuador, May 2008. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


Deep in the Amazonian jungle, I am discussing maggots with a Huaorani tribesman. Sinking his axe into a fallen trunk, Bei opened the rotten wood as deftly as a surgeon, and lifted out a handful of squirming yellow grubs, the larvae of Amazon beetle. His smile was as wide as the river mouth. Bei is a maggot aficionado. In reverential tones, he explained the best seasons, the best state of decay, the best varieties. Maggots, according to Bei, were the greatest gift of the forest. Not really a main course, naturally, but as a starter you couldn’t beat them.

Other’s people’s food is often a bit of a wonder. For the Huaorani, monkeys have always been firmly on the menu while they remain resistant to deer. Apparently it is those great brown doleful eyes. The tribespeople believe they hold the souls of dead ancestors, and no one wants to dine on grandfather.

Maggots of course are another matter. No one could possibly have any objection to maggots, the prawn cocktail of the Amazon. Rocking back on his haunches, Bei began to munch on handfuls of the raw yellow larvae. ‘Eat, eat,’ he said in the manner of an Italian mamma. ‘You are too thin.’

I ate. What was the point of coming half way round the world to the depths of the Amazon if you were going to go all squeamish about maggots at the last moment. I lifted a few from Bei’s outstretched hand. They were squidgy, like a shrimp. Curiously they had a strong fishy smell. Closing my eyes, I popped one in, and chewed gently.

There are many wonders in the Amazon. It is cornucopia of marvels, of the weird and the bizarre. But squatting beneath a kapok tree, while the great forest gently dripped around me, I encountered one of Amazonia’s oddest facts. Maggots taste like olives.

Like maggots, the scale and complexity of the Amazon basin can take some getting used to. The whole river system, from the Andes to the sea, is over 4000 miles long, almost the width of Asia, or the equivalent of the distance from Istanbul to Beijing. Spread over nine different countries, this single system drains over 2.7 million square miles, an area not a long way short of the 48 contiguous United States. Carrying a fifth of all the earth’s fresh water, it pushes 5 billion tons of sediment into the Atlantic every year, staining the ocean for two hundred miles off shore. Depending on the season, its mouth is 200 to 300 miles wide, and contains an island larger than Switzerland.

I had come to Ecuador, where I was heading for the eastern lowland province of Oriente, one of the Amazon’s most biodiverse regions and the one with the most ‘uncontacted’ tribes. I wanted to visit the Huaorani tribe who have only been in touch with the outside world since the 1960’s. The last forty years have confirmed the fears of the old Huaorani who doubtless warned that no good would come of such contact.

The deforestation of the Amazon, through logging and cultivation, is a familiar issue. The incursion of the oil industry, and the havoc they have wrecked in regions like Oriente, is a less familiar scandal. Beneath the Huaorani lands, lie vast reserves, and the tribe has been battling the oil companies in the hope of saving their forests and themselves. To provide an alternative source of cash revenue, the Huaorani have turned recently to tourism, building a small lodge in the depths of their ancestral lands. I had come to the Amazon to see if small-scale tourism could be a useful weapon in a battle against Big Oil.

A car came to collect me from my hotel in Quito in the pre-dawn. In the empty colonial square, stout women from the highlands, wearing layered shawls and serious fedoras, were setting up handicraft stalls. Beyond the city we took the highway known as the Avenue of the Volcanoes.

This was hacienda country, a big wind-swept world of green valleys slung between Andean peaks. We passed trucks full of people wrapped in colourful blankets, and jeeps packed with men in cowboy hats. The rock and snow summits of Al Corazon and Ramanwe loomed above us. Tungurahua was still smoking from an eruption only two weeks before. We rose over mountain ridges through bunched clouds then dropped down again to grassy plains where cattle patrolled the horizons.

And then, we began to fall. For three hours the road wound downward from the dry sierran world of the Andes towards the dense tropical landscapes of the Amazon basin. Expanses of pasture and corn gave way to orchards, vegetable plots and banana plantations which in turn disappeared beneath incroaching jungle. Streams tumbled through a tangle of ferns, palms, and bedraggled epiphytes. After the breathless altitude of Quito, the air became thick and warm.

At midday we reached the town of Shell, named for the oil giant. A sprawling settlement, it is the centre for the region’s drilling operations as well as an important missionary post. In Oriente, God and Oil have become strange bedfellows.

At the airfield, the pilot was waiting by a six seater Cesna. I asked if he had flown into the Huaorani territory before. He gazed at me from behind his Raybans. ‘Hua who?’ he said. ‘There are a lot tribes out there,’ he shrugged. ‘And most of them are a lot of trouble.’

The Huaorani (pronounced Wow – rahn – ee) occupy an area of just over 8000 sq miles in Oriente between two tributaries of the Amazon, the Rio Napa and the Rio Curaray. They are said to number only 3000, outnumbered almost a hundred to one by their aboriginal neighbours, the Quichua and the Shuar. Their ability to maintain a large swathe of territory against the incursions of numerous and land-hungry neighbours reflects two key characteristics of the Huaorani — their fierce independence, and their reputation as warriors.

Until the 1960’s the Huaorani were living a Stone Age existence, slipping naked through the shadows of the rainforest with their blow pipes and spears, unconnected to the rest of the world. Outsiders were aware of their existence — people had glimpsed the tribespeople from time to time on the far banks of the Napo River — but no one who had entered their territory ever returned. The Huaorani were in the habit of killing all intruders. People knew the tribe only as Auca, a Quichua word for savages. As for the Huaorani, they called all outsiders cowode or cannibals. In this confusion of cultural misconceptions, it is we who were thought to be in the habit of eating one another’s children.

An indication of the tribe’s isolation is that the Huaorani language bears no relation to any other language on earth, not even to those of their aboriginal neighbours. They have no numbers above ten, no form of writing, no clear idea of their own origins. They are famous trackers, able to keep their bearings through vast stretches of forest; when they are unsure of the way they fall back on the old technique of following a butterfly. They make little distinction between the physical and the spiritual, and hope to become jaguars in the next life. They practise polygamy, and possibly polyandry as well, hunt monkeys for food, scavenge maggots as tasty hors d’oeuvres, and have a fearsome reputation for violence. An early missionary pamphlet offers a few useful Huaorani phrases. Prominent among them is ‘Do not spear me’ and ‘Let me live.’

The flight from the Petroleum Age to the Stone Age, from Shell to Quehueri-ono, took about forty minutes. Beyond the tin-roofs of the oil town, the forest began to close in. The tracks and the clearings dwindled and disappeared until the only breaks in the billowing arboreal quilt were snaking clay-coloured rivers.

Amazonian forest is different from any forest I had ever seen. Not only was the scale breath-taking — it stretched to the horizons without break and limit — but when you looked down from the plane window you could see that the forest was a dense patchwork, that each tree was individual — a different colour, texture, and shape to its neighbour. Oriente is reputed to have the greatest genetic diversity of both plants and animals on earth. Studying these forests, botanists have found 473 species of trees in an area the size of two football fields, more trees than are native to all of Western Europe. In the same area they have identified more plant species than are found in all of North America.

Animal species are just as prolific. The forests support three dozen species of monkey, 50 or more species of snake, including a giant anaconda over 38 foot long, and over 1500 bird species, from bee-sized humming birds to king vultures with a six foot wing span. As for insects, no one can agree, other than that the numbers are almost incomprehensively vast. One estimate insists a single square mile of Amazonian forest contains over 50,000 different insect species. This is fine when they are butterflies, fluttering picturesquely between the trees, but less appealing when species variation stretches to the Human Bot Fly whose larvae burrows into and consumes human flesh, or a 12 inch tarantula known as the Goliath Bird-eater.

Compared to the spiders, the human population of the Amazon is surprisingly small. There are reaches of these forests that have the same population density as the Arctic. Yet for tribes like the Huaorani, the forests provide them with everything they need in life, from food to spiritual understanding. The forests are not just a home. In a way that is difficult to understand for people with a more casual relationship to their environment, the forests are the central fact of Huaorani life. The forests are who they are. If the forests are destroyed, or if they lose their connection to it, they will face their greatest fear — that they will be no one.

The first break in the forest canopy was a grass airstrip. The pilot made a fly-past just above tree-tops, peering out his window to check the runway condition, then we circled and came down, bumping on the uneven grass, sending up sprays of muddy water as the plane splashed through deep puddles. When the engine died, there was a sudden silence, broken a moment later by the shriek of a macaw.

We climbed out, and gazed at the forest enclosing the air strip. One by one people emerged from among the trees — a man with a spear, a woman balancing a toddler on her hip, three children, their faces painted, a young man in a pair of wellington boots. All were clothed — jeans and t-shirts; tribal nakedness never survives contact with outsiders. They came forward, shyly at first then more boldly, until twenty or so people of all ages had gathered round to stare at us, the curiosities, the cowode, their close examination faltering only for a moment when they turned to watch our airplane bounce away again down the airstrip and lift into the blue Amazonian sky.

A man in his fifties took charge of us. Bei was to be my Huaorani guide. He was a shy slender man with high cheekbones and a crooked smile. He wore a crown of toucan feathers and two criss-crossing strips of woven palm leaves across his chest. He had been educated in a mission school and spoke some Spanish.

Bei led us through the trees to the ‘village’, a scattered group of wooden huts almost hidden in the exuberant greenery. At its centre was a long open-sided pavilion with a thatch roof — the communal long house, a cross between the village square and the pub, where people gathered on log benches to chat and gossip and drink chicha.  A small fire was burning on the earthen floor tended by a boy roasting nuts. More and more tribes people arrived to stare, smile and nod. Children gazed at us then ran off into the undergrowth shrieking with laughter.

The outside world — in the form of American missionaries — first tried to contact the Huaorani in 1956. The meeting didn’t go well. The missionaries landed with a sea plane on the river.  Unfortunately neither their gifts nor news of the gospel seemed to impress the tribes and the lack of a translator led to a series of misunderstandings. Rumour spread among the Huaorani that the missionaries had eaten a girl who had gone missing some years before. Tensions rose, some of the women became hysterical.

Some weeks later, when news emerged from the jungle that the visitors had been speared and decapitated, the headlines flashed around the world — Amazonian Savages Murder Five Missionaries.

In the long house an elderly woman motioned for me to take a seat beside her. She had flat breasts, a confusion of bead necklaces, extended dangling earlobes, and a number of faded tattoos trickling across her torso.

Small talk with strangers is difficult at the best of times. When it is with a topless Amazonian tribeswoman with a nasty looking scar across her belly and no common acquaintances to gossip about, it can be a real struggle.

Through two translators — English to Spanish, Spanish to Huaorani — I tried to make light chit-chat about my day: I had come down from Quito, such a long drive, the flight from Shell had been smooth, charming pilot, happy to arrive in Huaorani territory, blah, blah blah. She said nothing. Her expression said — BORING.

I decided to shift the conversation, such as it was, to her. I made the mistake of enquiring after her health. She hardly knew where to begin. Her knees hurt, she had a terrible stiffness in her hips, one of her teeth was aching, she had a headache, appalling flatulence, an incipient fever, and some issue with her private parts — she illustrated this with a sound slap between her legs — that I didn’t want to know about.

Five minutes in Huaorani society and I am stuck with the Health Bore. She was about to start on an account of her various digestive issues when the translator deftly switched the subject by asking about the river, always a reliable topic round a Huaorani fire.

‘High,’ she said, with admirable brevity. In terms of interest the river was clearly a long way below her lower intestines. But she persevered with the subject. How was the river in my country, she wanted to know.

‘Not too bad,’ I floundered, realising I had no idea. ‘Navigable,’ I added. ‘Few obstacles near the bridge,’ I said, remembering the Sainsbury shopping trolley I had noticed when speeding past one day.

She laughed at some thought that had suddenly occurred to her.

‘He reminds me Newa,’ she said to the translator. Newa, a relative dead for some years, had been tall like me, and a great warrior who killed many Quichua when they invaded Huaorani territory in search of girls. She gripped my thigh and squeezed it hard as if to confirm the resemblance.

‘Just like Newa. Big man with the spear.’

Was this a euphemism. Who knows. It was time to go. A boat was waiting.

‘Go carefully,’ she said, suddenly solicitous now that my resemblance to the famed Quichua killer had been established.

We waved goodbye and made our way along a muddy path to the river.

‘She is quite a famous character,’ the guide said. ‘Her name is Weba. She is the woman who chopped the heads off the missionaries fifty years ago.’

Quehueri-ono — the name translates as ‘the river where it is good to live’ — was set up as a breakaway community of the Huaorani in 1989. The idea was to create a settlement independent of the evangelical ‘stations’ present at older villages like Tihueno and Dayuno to the south. Those who came to Quehueri-ono were keen to return to a more traditional Huaorani life of hunting and gathering, of chanting and forest spirits, which the missionaries had done so much to discredit and undermine.

Once they had got over the initial hiccup of the five murders, missionaries had returned to the Huaorani territory to win the acceptance of the tribespeople. They dispensed food and treats — wellington boots, salt, radios, batteries, knives — all the enviable materials of the modern world unavailable in a forest glen. Gradually a culture of dependency grew among people who were defined themselves by their self-reliance, their independence. Many Huaorani abandoned their forest enclaves to live close to the mission stations where electricity was available, where air strips allowed access to the outside world, and where goodies were dished out with the gospel.

This acceptance of outsiders, and the tribes’ growing dependence, paved the way for the oil companies. Since the mid-sixties, oil drilling in Oriente had proceeded with little regulation or restraint. There have been catastrophic oil spills and numerous cases of water table pollution. In some areas tribal life had virtually ceased to exist. A hundred miles north of the Huaorani, the arrival of Texaco reduced the Cofan tribe from a prosperous thriving society to virtual extinction in the space of twenty years.

The first incursion into Huaorani territory were the wells at Tiguino in the 1970’s. A pipeline was constructed and a service road built, known as the Via Auca or the Savage Road. A great swathe that cut through their precious forests for over sixty miles, the Via Auca has brought every kind of calamity to the Huaorani from diseases to Andean settlers who are clearing the forests on either side of the road to farm.

Oil has served to reinforce a culture of dependency. Young Huaorani men were employed by the oil companies for a variety of menial jobs, and their cash wages opened new worlds to them in the oil towns like Coca, Puyo and Shell, worlds that were too often centred around alcohol and prostitution. In search of political influence within the tribes, the oil companies have sponsored various Huaorani ‘associations’, setting up  self-proclaimed leaders in offices in the towns with computers, pickup trucks and salaries.  Many young Huaorani never went home, never returned to the forest.

Quehueri-ono is one of the many attempts to break free of the culture of dependency. There are no missionaries in the settlement and it is three or four hours by river to the Via Auca. The Ecolodge to which I was heading is part of the community’s strategy to regain a degree of economic and cultural independence. It is a way to create employment and income without having to leave their forests or to abandon their traditional lives.

But there is another important aspect to this low-key tourism. The Huaorani are savvy enough about the outside world to know that pressure can be brought to bear on multinational companies. The Huaorani may be some of the most marginal people in the world, but they know their visitors are not, and that they may help to increase the tribe’s visibility in the places where decisions are taken, and that such visibility may make it more difficult for the oil companies to destroy their forests, their culture, their world.

From Quehueri-ono we slipped downstream in a quillan, a wooden pirogue. The Shiripuno, still almost 500 miles from the Amazon, was twenty to thirty feet wide with a powerful current. The jungle grew close along the banks, the trees arching over the water. We glided between viridian shadows and open sun. Bei poled the boat with another Huaorani in the bow, leaning on their long poles to keep the current from slewing us into one of the mud banks. We saw no one. We seemed to be gliding through an uninhabited world. The long liquid of notes of birds slid out of the forests.

After an hour or so we drew into a wooden landing stage, and followed a path to five wood and thatch cabins set back from the high riverbank against the press of trees. Each had a porch and large screened windows. Inside it was summer camp simplicity, functional and comfortable. There were twin beds, a couple of chairs, hooks for one’s clothes, and an ensuite bathroom with hot water and a flush toilet.  Further along the path was the main building with the kitchens, the dining facilities, and a wide communal porch.

The lodge is a joint venture between the Huaorani and Tropic, a Quito based travel company, with the construction itself partially funded by aid money. The idea is that Tropic will provide a lodge manager, and look after the guest logistics, while the Huaoroni will provide the local staff, from cleaners to boatmen, to guides. It is hoped the Huaorani will eventually take over more and more of the operation and ownership leaving Tropic just to market the lodge to international visitors.  Eighty members of the tribe share the work at the lodge, and part of the income goes towards community projects.

After dinner of mashed plantain, rice and beans, we sat outside on the porch. Night fell swiftly. Fireflies floated along the dark paths. Pygmy owls were calling back and forth in long staccato phrases heralding a crescendo of night noises from the forest, a spectacular symphony of croaking, grunting, barking, chirping and squeaking.

Stars thickened between the trees, their reflections dancing in the dark river. Bei pointed out a satellite. He called it ‘a walking star.’

In the morning I set off into the forests with Bei. Trees closed round us, and in a moment I was lost. Every direction looked the same — the thick columns of the trunks, the tangled greenery, the shifting shadowy light. In this green tumultuous world, it was impossible to orientate oneself. Even the earth beneath our feet felt suddenly uncertain. Millennia of mouldering leaves had made it soft and springy.

In the leaf filtered light, in the depthless perspective of trees, there was an eerie secretive quality. The forest seemed to be silent, though it was not. Bird calls sidled between the trees. A crescendo of cicadas swelled. Monkeys were grunting somewhere in the distance. A parrot shrieked and fell silent. But the origin of the sounds was hidden. Echoing in the strange acoustics of the forest, they might have been the sounds of a dream. I found myself talking in whispers, a kind of aural reverence between the massive cathedral columns of the tree trunks.

The fascination of Amazonian forests lies in the details — the tiny floral mushrooms growing on a fallen tree, the trail of leaf-cutter ants, each bearing its green leaf sherd, the epiphytes growing on the big trees, their leaves turned upward to catch and hold rain and dew, the hermit humming bird, hardly larger than an insect, buzzing among a swathe of heliconeacea, the black moth, the size of a thrush, floundering between the marble white trunks of the cecropia trees.

To Bei the forests were a larder, a pharmacy, a wardrobe, and a corner shop. He pointed out a big leaved plant that was used as loo paper, and another used to wrap food to bake in the coals of a fire. He introduced me to the Yanchama tree whose bark is stripped to make fabrics for mats and baby hammocks, and whose fruit that was used as a soap and a shampoo, and to the curare vine whose leaves were boiled to produce the poison for the blow darts.

But most striking were the endless medicinal plants — the juice of a flower squeezed on to a nursing breast to stimulate the flow of milk, the sap of a tree used for curing wounds, ulcers, and acne, the leaves of another tree used to cure ringworm, the bulb of a wild onion which reduces inflammation, the stinging nettles used as an analgesic against pain. These are not just old wives tales, quack remedies by an unscientific society. Over 650 plant species with pharmaceutical properties have been identified in the Amazon. Experts agree that we have only scratched the surface of this extraordinary resource. Many believe that the cure for diseases like cancer may lie deep in these forests, waiting to be discovered.

The following day we set off downriver in kayaks. The morning was bright and warm, the forests rang with bird song, and the current carried us without little effort of our own.  The Huaorani measured their river journeys by bends. We were going 47 bends apparently. The early morning river was so exquisite, I wished it was 147.

It was a morning for wildlife. Three scarlet macaws flew overhead, their long tails streaming. Russet-backed oropendolas flitted in and out of woven nests hanging like decorations from the trees. Parakeets chattered in the treetops. An Amazon kingfisher flashed upstream, veering from one bank to another.  A white-bearded swallow led us round a wide left hand bend to where dragonflies hovered above a smooth stretch of water.

A turtle appeared, basking on a log. Suddenly there was a scurrying in the riverside reeds and three fat capybara — a South American rodent the size of a pig  — scurried away into the undergrowth. Half an hour later a troop of howler monkeys arrived, shaking the treetops, a couple of big males grunting for sex. Later I spotted a black-mantled tamarind monkey, delicate as a dancer, skipping away through a screen of leaves.

Twenty bends brought us to Bei’s home, where we stopped for lunch. The house was a rickety structure made of wooden planks set on stilts in a clearing above the river. A couple of pigs were rooting beneath the house and chickens and tribes of grandchildren wandered about the yard. A pet toucan, with a piratical limp and an attitude problem, was the guard dog.

Inside the house had a minimalist simplicity. The Huaorani are not people for clutter, and the idea of furniture has not really taken hold in these regions. A fishing net hung on a nail, a couple of torn mats lay on the bare floor, a wire stretched from one wall to another over which various articles of clothing were draped. Decoration ran to a four year old calendar, and a torn poster of the Swiss Alps.

We sat on the steps and gourds of chicha were produced. The trick to drinking chicha is not to know how it is made. Women (apparently it must be women) chew raw manioc, then spit it into a pot and leave it to ferment. When it is ready — it never gets much stronger than a weak beer — they add water and drink it in long draughts. Let’s just say it was not as the good as the maggots. It retains the slobbery texture of its origins — think corn mash mixed with raw egg.

When we had drunk enough to feel mildly tipsy, we set off for a spot of hunting. Bei led the way, his blow pipe and spear over his shoulder. We walked in silence along a forest path. After twenty minutes or so, Bei stopped and cupped his hands over his mouth and made a grunting sound like a Great Dane on heat. It was the call of the howler monkey. We listened. The howlers, if they were in ear shot, were not impressed.

After a couple of more attempts at howler calls, we tried some blowpipe practise. In a moment, using a piranha jaw which he kept suspended round his neck, Bei fashioned a handful of slender arrows from a palm reed. Then he lifted the long blow pipe to his mouth and fired an arrow that spilt a stem thirty yards away. My go was rather less successful. The first arrow flopped out of the end of the blowpipe to land, tail first, on my foot.

When Bei stopped laughing, he showed me how to prepare poison for the arrow tip, how to track and spear a peccary, and how to climb a straight branchless trunk using vine reeds that prevent you slipping down the tree. Until now, Bei had been a shy diffident figure. But here in the depths of the forest, showing me the traditions and techniques of the Huaorani hunt, he grew animated and excited. In this forest track, at the centre of Huaorani existence, he was entirely himself.

It is impossible to predict the fate of the Huaorani. Only those tribes who resist all contact with the outside world — as some Huaorani clans still do — can hope to maintain their old ways. For the rest some compromise must be found. The Huaorani hope is that small scale tourism will help preserve rather than undermine their way of life. Uniquely, it is a revenue stream that allows them to remain in their forests, living as they have always done.

I spent the last night downriver in the lodge camp, where tents had been erected on wooden platforms overlooking a bend in the river. In the morning we pushed our quillan out on a river glistening with sunlight. After an hour or so of paddling the forests began to thin and wide reaches of sky opened on either bank. After another hour we reached the bridge that carried the Via Auca and the modern world across the river and into Huaorani territory. It looked shabby, the modern world — a rusting pipeline, sagging overhead cables, a small shop, a battered police post, an oil company pickup roaring past, engulfing us in a cloud of dust. The air had acquired a sickly tar aroma — the smell of oil.

I said goodbye to Bei and the two boatmen who had come downriver with me, then climbed into a waiting truck that would take me the length of the oil road to Coca from where I would fly back to Quito. As we drove off, I looked back at the three Huaorani standing outside the shop by the side of the dust road. They looked lost. In their own world they moved with grace and confidence. Here they seemed shrunken and awkward. They looked like any of the anonymous tribesmen you might see on an South American roadside — distracted, down-at-heel, hovering uneasily on the edge of the 21st century, strangers in someone else’s world.

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