“Smash it on the head” yelled Geranio, our guide. “Quick!” The freshly caught piranha was flip-flopping in a desperate attempt to get back to water, sharp teeth biting at air as I brought a rotting stick down upon its head. Minewa, a 60-year old local tribesman, added it to his string of dead fish and smiled at me. “Now you are a warrior!’”, laughed Geranio.
We were fishing in the Amazon Basin on the edge of the world’s most bio-diverse ecosystem. I was there to spend time with the Waorani, one of Ecuador’s indigenous tribes who today number no more than 3,000. Not that any of that mattered to the piranha.
Getting to the Amazon had been no easy task. Far from the cobblestones and thin mountain air of colonial Quito, it had taken us two days by boat. I say ‘us’ because I wasn’t the only tourist onboard; sitting ahead of me was a machete-wielding, coca-chewing, bird spotting Dutch sociologist. He had been travelling for three months now and had something of a gaunt Colonel Kurtz of Apocalypse Now look about him.
The Cononaco River - one of the feeders to the 1000km Rio Napo - was low as the rains hadn’t come. The upside was that the bird and animal life were a zoologist’s dream. As we skimmed logs and scraped rocks, a Black Vulture screeched in the distance. Overhead a pair of White Throated Toucans flopped from one river bank to the other. Squinting into the Sun we could make out an Amazon Kingfisher, perched on the far branch of an even farther tree.
He had been travelling for three months now and had something of a gaunt Colonel Kurtz of Apocalypse Now look about him.
“Look”, exclaimed my new Dutch companion. Bringing our eyes back down to earth, he pointed to a strange animal gazing on the river bank – thin long snout, big bushy tail - a cross between a giant raccoon and a stretched pig. With a nonchalant glance the Giant Anteater ambled back into the grass behind it. On we continued.
As we approached another curve Geranio abruptly raised his fist. The engine was cut. Off the bow we saw movement, a pale fin cutting through the calm brown waters. Then bubbles – and we watched in awe as a rare Amazon Pink Dolphin surfaced 30metres from us. The largest dolphin of its kind had just made our day.
Still on a high by the time we got to our destination, we disembarked through the mud carrying water, camping gear and cooking supplies. I’d prepped myself for meeting the Waorani. Having been with tribes in Africa, Asia and the Pacific, I knew to expect very basic conditions, traditionally dressed people and a limited understanding of the modern world. How wrong I was.
I found something even more fascinating – a tribe in transition between two worlds. While the older members were traditionally (un)dressed, the rest of the tribe were in Westernised clothing. While their malookas (huts) were built using no nails, concrete bricks were lined up for construction of new houses. While we had taken two days to get there by boat, there was an airstrip down the middle of the village. And while they hunted using blowguns and poison darts, the Wi-Fi kicked on every night. The dichotomy that intrigued me.
Minewa was the personification of the old ways. With his stretched ear lobes dangling under his long hair, naked aside from twine tying up his foreskin, it was he who led us on our first hunting expedition. As we started out he gave me a closer look at his weapons. His blowgun was over 2metres long and perfectly straight, its pre-poisoned darts in a cylinder looped over his shoulder. Just as impressive was his spear, sharpened to a point with slight notches to make it difficult for monkeys to pull out.
Following Minewa’s lead we crept as quietly as two non-Amazonians can creep. The deeper into the jungle we got, the more distinctive the loud calls of the Howler Monkeys. Suddenly Minewa took off – spear raised above his head. By the time we caught up to him he was frozen, staring down at a salt lick between a group of trees.
Ahead of us were a family of Collared Peccaries (pigs) snorting through the undergrowth. With an almighty throw and not a single word, Minewa launched the spear at the boar. Narrowly missing by inches, the family rapidly grunted off, Minewa in close chase behind. When he returned half an hour later with nothing more than a look of resignation it was time to return to the village.
On the way back I asked about the changes he must have seen in this lifetime. The Waorani, I was told, were only ‘discovered’ by Europeans in the 1950s. That is now four generations ago since the average age of childbirth is 16. But it wasn’t until we got to the village that we were shown the biggest impact on their way of life.
Standing in front of a map, Geranio drew a circle around the Waorani territory that is officially part of the 10,000km2 Parque National Yusumi. A red line marked the border with Peru, and green shading showed where two ‘uncontacted’ tribes still roam. Most noticeable though were Bloque Petroleum – areas where the Ecuadorian government have allowed oil exploration and drilling despite the national park being a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve.
Suddenly Minewa took off – spear raised above his head. By the time we caught up to him he was frozen, staring down at a salt lick between a group of trees.
It was the oil industry that had brought electricity to the Waorani, levelled the airstrip, introduced the internet and built a covered basketball court, although obviously not everyone agreed with this ‘progress’.
As Geranio spoke, the Dutchman and I looked around. It was nature that made the place so special, not the material things that had been brought in from the outside. Despite the accelerated change the tribe was going though, despite the encroachment into their traditional lands, the Waorani simply wanted to protect their environment.
A few days later it was time to say our farewells and get back in the motorized canoe for the two day journey home. Minewa had picked up that we were sad to be leaving, but even sadder about what was happening to the tribe. As we got onboard he gave us a big broad smile and said something to Geranio. “It’ll be aright, he wants to let you know. The spirits and Mother Earth will look after them as they always have.”
And with that final wave of optimism we headed back up the Cononaco, towards ominous dark clouds covering the jungle canopy, hoping that for a little while longer the Waorani can hold on to their traditional way of life.