We returned to Quito and met with Nana and Vassilis who had arrived from Athens the day before. Our hotel for the night was on La Ronda, the nightlife strip of Quito, but surprisingly the sound isolation was perfect and I slept like a stone.
The next morning we got on a mini van together with Andres, our guide for the next four days, two Swiss ladies – mother and daughter – and John, a retiree from England. The five hour drive to Baños was uneventful. After a short stop in Baños and a visit to the local market market we continued east through a beautiful road, known as the avenue of the waterfalls. We arrived at small airport of Shell, a small town named after the international oil company that serves as a hub to the Ecuadorian Amazon. We were on our way to visit the Huaorani Ecolodge, a remote lodge in the Oriente that is co-owned by the local Huaorani community.
The Huaorani is a special case. They first made contact with outsiders – referred as cowode in their language – in the late 1940’s when Shell attempted and failed to exploit the local oil fields and again in the late 1950’s by missionaries. Today they have a population of around 4’000, in a social transition phase. Still, there isn’t almost any segmentation – professions – in their society and they have a very odd and limited sense of time. As of today, as many as five communities – the Tagaeri, the Huiñatare, the Oñamenane, and two groups of the Taromenane – have rejected all contact with the outside world and continue to move into more isolated areas.
Once exclusive hunter-gatherers that lived a semi-nomadic life, they have now settled in several permanent communities. Many missionized Huaoranis moved to the town of Coca. Those living in the communities still hunt and live on ecotourism, but most of the men living in permanent settlements work for oil companies and some in construction and agriculture. The government of Ecuador founded a number of local schools that are understaffed, offer an irrelevant curriculum and have failed to date to educate effectively the Huaorani children.
Huaoranis speak the Huaorani language, a linguistic isolate that is not known to be related to any other language. They are also referred as Aucas, mainly by the Quechua (or Kitswa) population, a term that means savages and upsets them. They became better known through their dispute with the oil companies and the government of Ecuador to exploit the Amazon oil fields and the inevitable destruction of the rain forest in their territory. An interesting article on the social reality of the huaoranis can be found here. Another great source is Savages (Vintage Departures), where Joe Kane tells the story of the tribe and their fight to preserve the environment they live in. He speaks of several persons, among which Moi Enomega, the current Huaorani leader and his brother Enquere, who we later met.
We boarded two small single engine Cessna and after forty minutes of an impressive flight over the impenetrable rain forest we landed in a short runway in the middle of nowhere. We were greeted by the population of Quehuirono, local community of some 30 people and proceeded immediately to our pirogue for a further two hours downstream the Shiripuno river. The ride was a pure delight down the shallow waters of the winding river, among dense foliage and fallen tree branches. We stopped many times when the boat got stuck on the sandy river bed. Our crew consisted of Emme, our local guide that spoke Spanish and Bartolo and Hui, the young drivers of the boat.
The lodge was rather basic, but quite comfortable, with spacious rooms powered by car batteries and solar. I have been before in the rainforest – in Ecuador – but most things about it still impress me. The fact that it always feels like dusk even at midday since there is very little sunlight penetrating the thick canopy. The amazing number and size of insects and bugs, in shapes and colors that beat the most vivid imagination. The sounds, especially at night that make you sit and enjoy for hours. The size and shape of creatures that find shelter in your boots during the night. The ambiance, the solitude and the night sky that is truly unique.
We spent the next three days trekking and visiting communities. On the second day, we trekked for three hours back to Quehuirono. Emme went to great lengths to explain the secrets of the rainforest, how they go hunting and how make and use their weapons. It is amazing how precise the 4 meter blowgun can be, but you need to be a bodybuilder or a huaorani to be able to hold it straight without any help.
We met his wife and children who greeted us dressed in their traditional uniform, meaning she wore nothing but a mini skirt made of plant leaves. I thought that they only dress like this for tourists, but the next day I saw her again by accident when we were going down the Shiripuno and she was dressed exactly the same. The kids though, they usually wear western clothes, i.e. shorts and t-shirt.
We spent about an hour with Ronel Tapui (aka Felippe), a twenty something old Huaorani that served as the teacher to the local school. He explained all the difficulties he has in teaching the kids things that they will be of use, how he lacks basic teaching tools and that the books they sent him from the government talk about things that are irrelevant to the living conditions of the community. On our way back, we were lucky to meet the local kids swimming and cleaning in the Shiripuno river, apparently the highlight of their day.
On the third day we rode for three hours by engine down the Shiripuno to reach the campsite where we spent the night. On the way we visited the Apaika community, where we met Bebantoke, Moi’s sister and Emme’s sister in law. Bebantoke is quite a character, very hospital and never stops talking in her mother tongue. There was no point in trying to understand her incomprehensible blubbering, but it was definitely amusing. She showed us to her house and she even offered us some chicha, a fermented drink, the only alcoholic drink available in the rain forest. The alcohol content is very low and chicha honestly tastes bad, but Huaoranis seem to really enjoy consuming it. During lunch I had an unfortunate meeting with a bullet ant. While I was eating I suddenly felt that something bite me and grew the strongest pain I have ever felt. It went one for about twenty minutes. I never took a bullet but I guess that this is how it feels. I guess this is why they call them bullet ants.
We continued to the campsite, an elementary installation with wooden platforms where the tents were set and a central hooden hit with a large dinner table. There was a couple of shared toilets that i did not dare to visit and no shower. The feeling was totally amazing, as we were days away from the civilization and our only reminder was a electric generator in the kitchen hut. In the afternoon we visited Nenkepare, another community, about half an hour downstream the Shiripuno. In the evening I showed the local kids pictures from the Serengeti while Emme was doing the translation. They were totally captivated and I was happy. In short, the experience was once-in-a-lifetime.
The next morning we visited the 20m high waterfall, ninety minutes trek through difficult terrain. The bath under the falling water jet was rejuvenating and one of the highlights of our trip. Emme said that the waterfall was the only place his grandfather would ever go to take a bath.
We continued by boat to the Bridge, an iron bridge on the Shiripuno where the Auca road that connects to Coca ends. We got on a minivan and drove back to Coca passing through a number of oil exploration facilities. Along the side of the road, there is an ancient oil pipe, build in the 1950s where most of the oil is running through. Often it breaks and it takes days before someone notices the loss of pressure, resulting in serious spills and contamination of the rainforest.
We arrived in Coca in the afternoon to catch our return flight to Quito. The airport is located next to the Napo river, a fifty meter wide river that leads straight to the Amazon. Cruise boats leave from Coca and can cruise all the way down to Manaus.