03.06.2016 - 09.06.2016
I never planned to return to the jungle-locked community of Tonampare where my friend Casey and I lived some 18 years ago. Part of the reason was I didn't want to take any malaria medication. I also didn't want to show up without knowing anyone there. Fortunately, Casey has spent years in the Waorani territory and was able to tell me how to avoid mosquito bites (by spraying our mosquito net with permethrin). He also send word out ahead of our arrival to our host relatives. Nonetheless, when we arrived in the jungle city of Puyo, where my and Casey's adventure began, I wasn't sure if we would make it "inside," as locals refer to the communities deep into the jungle.
By the time we arrived, two daughters of one of our host brothers had already come to our hotel looking for us. The next day we spent time with them at their house and got our supplies ready for the trip.
(From left- Tania, who was seven when I was there, her two daughters, Yadira, who was nine, Yadira's son, and me. You can see why I was named Nampa, a large type of tree, by our Waorani relatives.)
Tania and her sister live on a small plot of land on the outskirts of Shell, a city named after Royal Dutch Shell who spearheaded oil exploration in the area. They said the government provided the land at low cost for members of the different Amazonian tribes who had protested over not having land near the city where they could send their kids to the university. Ironically, the area is called Nampa neighborhood since a guy named Nampa was killed in the protests).
Before sundown on our first day, three other family members had traveled from the village to meet us and bring me back to the place I dreamed of so often. When Casey and I went there, there were only two options for travel: a half hour plane ride or an almost two day hike plus a long bus ride. Sadly, from my point of view, there are now many more roads into the jungle, and we were able to hire a pick-up to take us on an hour ride to the river from where we would then make our journey.
Tania had invited us to meet up with them the following morning at 3am (yes, I triple checked to make sure I understood her correctly) for a Guayusa party. Guayusa is a plant whose leaves are brewed to make a caffeinated tea. She said the party was a custom of her Quichua neighbors and an all day event would start early that next day. My and Delcia's heads were already spinning from just a day of stimulation with our friends and we declined. We also weren't sure if Tania would show up at 5am to depart for Tonampare as she said she planned to. Earlier in the day Tania had told me over the phone that she was on her way to our hotel, only to arrive an hour later. But, the next morning when I poked my head outside at 5am, the whole trucked was packed and Delcia and me were the late ones.
(Heading down the Curaray River on our roughly three hour trip, many times which we had to hop out and push the canoe as it got stuck on the river bottom.)
One major difference between when I first was "inside" was back then it was a rarity to ride in a motorized canoe. Now, they were more commonplace, though people still propelled themselves by pole.
And some couldn't wait to get going.
(tangle of trees and vines along the river)
By the time we reached our village of Tonampare, I was ready to be floored. Tania and others had told me that it was completely different and that a thousand people lived there. They also mentioned unpaved roads that people drove motorbikes on. When Casey and I were here for two months, we didn't see more than one hundred residents. The only trails were made for boots.
But, after we tied up our canoe and followed our friends up to their house, I was amazed. They lived in the exact same spot where we lived before: a mini-paradise, set on a forest covered hillside above the town's airstrip.
(the place where we stayed is on the right part of the hillside)
As we walked to where we lived, I remembered the thick mud. Fortunately, Delcia and I wore the almost knee high black rubber boots that are a godsend here. But since mine were a size too big they made a sucking sound with each step. Along the way we were met by Toca, one of the brothers that Casey and I spent the most time with. He had aged, put on a few more pounds, but was still his same jolly self.
(Here he is showing Delcia the blowgun and how to use it)
The area around our clearing was much larger. Upon arriving, Toca and his kids picked chirimoya, grapefruit, and papaya--many fruit trees and medicinal plants that were planted in the years since I was last there.
(View of our clearing)
(House where we stayed with Toca and his family.)
(A new species, Direct TV).
(house opposite ours where Toca's sister Nai lives with her family. Interestingly, they lived in this exact same spot before.)
(Nai, their daughter and children, and Amoa. Unfortunately, a week or so before we arrived a tree fell across Amoa's back. He was slowly recovering, though you wouldn't have known it given that one day while we were there he and Nai walked six hours on a fishing trip.)
Though most of the teenagers around were toddlers or unborn when I was last there, we did get to meet the newest members of the family.
(Delcia and the puppy she so wanted to keep. A litter of seven had just been born and stayed under Toca's house.)
(A baby wild pig that Toca had snatched when a pack roamed in the hillside above his house.)
(It grew fond of sleeping in the hammock and learned to crawl into it on its own.)
On one of the many visits we did to neighboring huts, Delcia and I also became godparents. We weren't sure whether Toca was joking when he did the ceremony, using some stream water as holy water, but it provided for comic relief.
If there is one, ok two things, I miss most about being "inside," besides the beautiful environment, it is the time they dedicate to just being and the fresh from the earth food and meat.
(Tania and Allison, Yadira's daughter who is living with Toca and his wife Sarita.)
Delcia noticed how carefree the kids seemed, how tenderly they are treated by adults, and how they're allowed to play and explore.
(a regular meal of smoked fish and yucca. YUM.)
(Me sipping a bowl of chicha. Made with mashed yucca that is fermented with saliva, it is a wonder drink in that it both satiates and rehydrates. Fortunately Delcia loved it, as it is served often.)
Another beautiful thing about life here is the cultural practice of sharing food. I'm no expert on it but there seems to be more of a value placed on giving than on hording, an anti-scarcity worldview. For instance, after a meager day of fishing when we caught just two small fish, we visited a relative, Dabo, whose bbq rack displayed his hunting skills.
(in the middle you see the head of a guanta, a small rodent. At the top right is a monkey head and in the left is an armadillo back.)
(Close up of monkey tail and hand)
Dabo's family gained a pet, the child of the felled mother monkey.
By the time we left his hut, we had enough food to feast on for days. And even this wasn't enough as his kids followed us to the river to give another fish.
From six to eight each night, Toca's family watched their Direct TV, had electricity for their refrigerator, and light so we could eat indoors at their large table. When Casey and I were there, once it got dark the only light was from the moon, candles, or a fire. Even now though once Toca's generator kicks off, it is so black that when I got up at night I felt inside a whale's belly.
When we walked to Tonampare's airstrip, everything looked pretty similar, until we got near the school. The portables and basketball court are still there. But behind them, in an area where Toca says anacondas live, the government is almost done building a massive new high school.
Toca was extremely proud of having a high quality school.
He says he personally advocated to the president for it. Though completely incongruous with the surrounding environment--they have to repaint the walls all the time since bats splatter them with poop--it is a victory of sorts to have such an investment in this community. Unfortunately, due to low oil prices the Ecuadorian government is slashing its budgets. Most of the construction workers for the school haven't been paid in months and the Ecuadorian president has said the remaining funds to finish the school may need to come from the next president, to be elected in a few months times. Many in the community say that the new school will have a better quality curriculum and dedicated teachers. With the government's current level of follow through, I hope this building doesn't become a vacant vessel.
(Billboard just outside school-- "Petroleum improves your community." The irony reeks given that millions of dollars have gone to foreign companies and the Ecuadorian state from drilling in Waorani and other indigenous lands, the areas close to which have become almost uninhabitable. Though Tonampare doesn't have wells, oil spills have washed down its main river.)
A road is also being planned to enter Tonampare in the next year. Toca said he and the Waorani residents of this village are opposed to it. At the same time, the village's majority Quichua (another tribe that has intermarried with the Waorani) residents are in favor.
It was truly a blessing to be able to return and see the "inside" while it remains so. We also felt warmed by Waorani culture and the bounty of the earth.