More on my Mom’s (Helen Findley) Visit to the Huaorani, straight from her. My 79 year old mother visited the Huaorani Ecolodge in Ecuador’s Amazon Basin with her friend Phyllis in November, 2012. Here is Helen’s story about it:
I have just had one of the most exciting and wonderful experiences of my life—a visit to the Amazon rain forest in Ecuador, where I spent five days with the Huaorani people. It started with the scenic ride from Quito to the town of Shell that took us past several volcanoes, one of which erupted just several days after we returned to the US. In just a few hours as we drove, the climate changed from the chill of Quito’s altitude of 9,00 plus feet to the warmth and lush vegetation of the jungle. At the little airport at Shell, an oil company town, a five-seater plane was readied and Phyllis and I, plus Xavier and Francisco, our guides for the trip, joined the pilot for the 45 minute flight to the Huaorani territory. My view was great as I sat right beside the pilot with my knees touching the dash. The buildings and open land soon turned to miles of dense green jungle. Suddenly the winding snake of a river appeared, the plane circled over a long bare slash in the jungle, and we were there!
A friendly group of the Huaorani welcomed us as we clambered out of the plane. We were introduced to Mancaye Enceri, our Wao guide and were off to the Shiripuno River where we were issued rubber boots (much needed for our hikes on the muddy trails) and settled into a dugout canoe. Our gear was stowed into the canoe and we were off, with two young men, one in back and one in front, poleing us slowly downstream. Besides enjoying the lush vegetation on the river bank, we could hear a variety of bird calls and see oro pendula birds flying near their nests hanging from some of the trees. For a while a huge, blue morpho butterfly danced over the water.
Rounding a bend of the river we suddenly realized that we had arrived at the landing for the lodge. The first test was getting out of the canoe and climbing the riverbank while stepping in mud that nearly sucked the boots off our feet. With Xavier’s and Mincaye’s careful help, we soon mastered the trick and climbed the path to our cabin. The lodge consists of several cabins with Huaorani style thatched roofs with a front porch complete with a hammock. The screened bedroom area had two attractively made up and comfortable single beds (a light cover actually feels good at night.) Other amenities included a bathroom with flush toilet and even a shower! Solar panels provide lighting and recharging for electronics, though a flashlight was also useful, especially on night walks.
After settling in, we went to the main lodge, a simple building housing the dining room and staff kitchen. There we met our fellow tourists, a young couple from the United States who were leaving the next day. For the rest of our stay, Phyllis and I were the only guests and had personal attention!
The food was very good and meals usually consisted of rice, a meat (usually chicken), some sort of salad, fruit juice, and a dessert. Breakfast could be granola, yogurt, milk, and eggs fixed to order along with coffee or tea and a large glass of juice. The cooks had been trained in Quito and made every effort to make us well fed and comfortable.
Every day we would set out on a hike through the jungle while learning about the people, plants and animals who live there. Mincaye showed us how to shoot a blowgun and we each got a chance to try. It doesn’t take a big puff to send the slender curare tipped dart flying, but it takes a lot of arm strength to manage the heavy blowgun that must be at least 8 feet long! I had to have help holding it up as I blew. Then he showed us how he uses a vine around his feet to help him grasp a tree trunk and shinny up, vine straps keeping his blow gun, quiver, and kapok holder dangling from his shoulder. We saw a pod from a tree big enough for a person to sit in and which the children like to use as a sled down a slippery hillside. We saw how certain vines can be split and woven to make crowns to indicate that you come in friendship, and how others can be split even finer to create threads from which baskets can be woven and jewelry fashioned. We learned which leaves make good baskets, which can be used as toilet paper and which as diapers. Until being contacted by the outside world, the Huaorani have lived quite well with the rainforest providing all their needs.
The best part of the trip was being welcomed by the people of the three villages we visited. We were asked to sing for them, and they in turn sang for us and included us in their dancing. At two of the villages the women and girls had painted their faces with juice from a seed pod, and we soon had red paint around our eyes and on our cheeks. At one village the men got into it, too, dancing while tooting flutes Mancaye had made on way to the village. The dancing turned into a game where laughing women chased the men to decorate them with as much red paint as possible.
We visited the high school in one village. It is a one room thatched building in which the teacher, a French/English woman, shares her living space with three families of vampire bats! This beautiful young woman is sponsored by Stanford University, but her stay is as uncertain as is the funding for her work. She faces the daunting task of helping the children learn both Wao, their own language, and Spanish, so they can get a high school diploma and function in the outside world. Another village has a one room school, but no teacher, no equipment other than a chalk board, and no books. How will these children ever be prepared to live in the world that surrounds their little untouched part of the jungle?
On day four of our trip we floated down to the camp site for our last night in Huaorani territory. There we found a roomy tent with mattresses made up for us on a roofed platform, keeping us high and dry. Staff women had gotten there before us and were busy cooking dinner that was served in a large shelter building. Several hammocks were there for lounging in and hors d’ouerves were available for snacking until dinner was ready. I decided to join Xavier and Mincaye for a dip in the river before dinner, and found the water a perfect temperature for cooling off from the jungle heat. The next morning I was offered a more strenuous hike to see a beautiful waterfall. It was well worth working up a sweat for that special treat.
Then off to our last village where we were again greeted with singing and dancing and had our faces painted one last time. We were headed for the bridge over the river and the Auca Road to Coca and our flight back to Quito. There we would meet up with Sara who had been visiting friends in Otavalo. Not ready to leave our Huaorani experience behind, Phyllis and I chose to fly back to civilization still wearing our crowns and face paint. We got stared at, but we didn’t care—we had had a wonderful time and wanted everyone to know it!