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Friday
Feb102012

On the Other Side of Silence: Yasuní Park

 

 

These are the stories behind my article, Kingdom for a Barrel, published by Wend. It's a long entry, so feel free to skip ahead. This post is divided into three sections:

- The challenge of getting to I.T.T.

- The Amazon: excerpts from our time near the guard post with Pedro, Kawymeno and paddling, and the experience of cooking/eating monkey.

- Contacting uncontacted vs. remote peoples

 

*click on any of Valentí's photos to see more on his website.

 

GETTING TO I.T.T.

When we pulled out of the dock, our skinny boat was loaded so heavy - with 66 passengers sitting cheek-to-jowl amid their luggage, food, gasoline, drinking water and bags of live poultry – that the gunwales were just six inches off the water. Waves from passing boats regularly washed over and soaked our backs. But I was exuberant. There were times, after having flown to South America,  that I seriously doubted whether I would ever make it onto this boat.

Let me go back.  I had spoken to the Ecuadorian environment ministry’s regional director repeatedly in the months beforehand, and he assured me it was easy-peasy to get the journalist’s permit to enter Yasuní Park: show up, fill out some paperwork, good to go. I was in Cali, Colombia two days before the date of our trip down the Napo River when he dropped a bomb on me: the permit would require a US$500 deposit into a bank account along with a US$2,500 guarantee. This was just a tad out of our budget, and suffice it to say I wouldn't've expected to see that guarantee returned. Beyond that was the moral issue: it seemed rather like extortion, so my photog, Valentí Zapater, was certainly going to bail if we had to pay that, and I was pretty much in agreement. 

This threw our entire pre-expedition into a frenzy. My buddy Dan and I boarded a bus bound  for Quito, hoping to resolve this problem on the ground. We arrived to the hotel very late, and watched news of Osama bin Laden’s death on a fizzling 13-inch screen. It was otherworldly to get that news in Quito, but hard not to get swept up in the emotion. Up bright and early after a few hours sleep, I set to work. Ultimately I got my contacts at the Heritage Ministry to intervene on my behalf for an official exemption from the fee. But I still had to hop a last-minute flight to Coca so I could be at the regional environment ministry’s office when their exemption came through, instead of taking the bus as planned.

The ITT area is in the northeast corner of Yasuní Park I watched the White House press conference on Osama's death in the airport then took my window seat on the Dornier 328. The plane started dropping like a lead balloon from the Andean peaks, and the pilot came over the loudspeaker to inform us the sky was “almost clear.” I looked down at the immense cloud cover and begged to differ. (Clear relative to what? A plume of volcanic ash?) Once below the clouds, I saw the biggest forest I'd ever viewed from above. The trees gave way to farming parcels near Coca and, in the distance, a small flash of sunlight reflecting on the the Napo River that I would hopefully soon be navigating.

The Heritage Ministry's directive to the Environment Ministry came through at 5pm, an hour before the regional office closed for the day. Had we not gotten that before their office closed, it would've delayed departure by two days and torpedoed our plans. With an Amazonian downpour starting to come down, I got the last of an ATM's cash, bought a shitload of food for our team, snatched a snippet of sleep, then met Dan, Valentí and Valentí’s girlfriend Monica at the dock at sun-up.

Our supplies. Waiting for the boat at dawn. ©V. Zapater

After the boat pulled up, two other foreigners on the dock snapped photos of the hectic load job and seat grab. They already had their tickets, but saw the chaos and clouded skies and decided this boat was not the way they cared to spend the next 12 hours.

Even five minutes outside Coca, there were no buildings on the shores whatsoever. Rain started coming down, and a massive black tarp was quickly unfurled and passed up to those of us sitting in front.  Dan and I leaned back against the tarp, holding it fast to the gunwales with our backs to have a roof sustained with tension over our heads. The rain slapped at the plastic, and below it felt like a child's fort: an embracing sense of protection and comfort amid a threatening world.  The rain would stop, then resume, then stop again. Time slipped by under the clouds.

©V. Zapater

The “puntero” (pointer) stood on the bow the entire ride, motioning with his hand to guide the tillerman around sandbars. He got no thanks the whole time during which we avoided running aground. But when sand scraped against the hull and passengers felt the floorboards press up against their soles as the boat came to a rest, they whistled and yelled, “Punterooo!” Not a minute later, the puntero fell into the river. The raucous laughter continued for minutes as he scrambled back onto the prow with a hapless, embarrassed smile plastered on his face. It was the first entertainment we'd had in hours. We were nearing our destination, Nueva Rocafuerte, right beside the Peruvian border.

 

THE AMAZON


On one of the first days, we canoed along the Yasuní River and followed an adorable troop of squirrel monkeys. Suddenly the forest erupted with their high-pitched screeching. They swung down to the underside of the branches and the talons of a Roadside Hawk, swooping in for the kill, found only wood before gliding out over our heads with no monkey in his grasp. Later, Quemontare “Pedro” Enomenga, Dan and I sat 50 feet above the water in a tree, smoking damp cigarettes as we waited for our ride back to the guard post. It was in this altogether appropriate place that Pedro told us about the Harpy Eagle - the largest, strongest eagle in the Americas. It makes its nest in the cradle of the imposing Ceiba tree, drinks water from the cups of tree-top orchids and, like other jungle raptors, hunts monkeys. But, unlike the Roadside Hawk, a Harpy never misses its mark.

Pedro, Dan and I playing Tarzan at the base of a Ceiba tree. ©V. Zapater

Pedro also asked us about dating and marriage in the US, then told us about the Waorani ritual of unions (as opposed to marriages). In Waorani culture you flirt with a girl or vice versa, and the elders play matchmaker. They bring the young couple together, encircle them, and sing “Que estén unidos, que no se separen, que cuando regresa él le sirves chicha.” (May you be united, not separate, and when he returns [she] must serve him chicha.)

Pedro has a wife, Yolanda, and they have a little boy. At age two, Nampa still has no middle name, and he wanted to hear if I had any suggestions. A friend of Pedro’s had suggested Usnavy: a name derived from “US Navy.” I've often heard a friend of a friend of a friend had that name, but always assumed it was urban legend. Never before had I met someone actually thinking about giving that name to their child, and I was in the unique position to intervene and prevent calamity. His boy’s first name, Nampa, is the same as the tree the Waorani use to make darts, so I suggested “Fiel” (faithful). He asked me what it meant, and I told him it's the characteristic of someone who can be counted on, who is loyal, who obeys you, respects you. Someone who is honest, or filled with strong beliefs. He said he liked it, and asked me to write it out for him when we got back to the guard post so he could be sure to remember. I felt honored he'd taken my suggestion to heart, and am now glad there's one less Usnavy in Latin America.

At the guard post one night, Pedro picked up the book I was reading, Savages by Joe Kane, and he pointed to the cover. “That’s Moi,” he said. “He’s my cousin.” Dan and I couldn't get over how unmoved he seemed at having found his cousin on the cover of a book.  He also looked at the photos inside, and saw a photo of his grandfather, a jaguar shaman. When he told me he didn’t have a picture to remember him by, I ripped out the page for him to keep. Pedro told us that he wanted to come to the US to study English, so that he could guide ecotourists who don’t speak Spanish; he probably still wants to, if anyone out there in internet-lands is in a position to facilitate.

 

~~~

 

Kawymeno ©V. Zapater

In the article, I wrote about Kawymeno's women obliterating us in soccer. One thing I didn’t get to include was the moment the men returned from the hunt with their eight-foot long spears resting on their  broad shoulders. I watched their faces carefully for any surprise (or, worse, anger) at our presence. They registered nothing, instead ignoring us completely, and soccer continued. A torrential downpour thrashed the tin roof, and I drank its runoff to quench my thirst. We played soccer until dark.

It was an election day, so some people had come by boat from other remote communities to vote. The rare interaction with their neighbors, plus the fact that one couple was "united," was cause to fire up the generator, illuminate the soccer court, and have a party. The young Kawymeno men chanted and marched in a circle with their arms over each others' shoulders. The tallest and strongest were in the middle and marched with little stutter steps. Smaller boys chased each other and orbited around the huddle, at times darting in and throwing a skinny arm up onto their shoulders. It was the forging of brotherly bonds, put to motion. Below is audio of the jungle by the riverbank and the Waorani chanting in the distance: 

 

The recording below is even closer. I had come upon the girl, Ove, who played goalie in the soccer game earlier (and who stopped all of my shots). I think she had been off by herself, because the celebration that night also should also have been for her union with a boy. The elders had paired them together that day, but she declined. It wasn't because of the boy chosen, but because she didn’t yet want to marry; she first wanted to finish her studies. I think she appreciated having someone to talk to and sit with.  

 

When we returned to the court after dinner, the men’s huddle no longer advanced with short and ordered steps, but instead was rather wobbly. The chicha was hitting them hard, and we started slurping down that foul stuff, too.

In the back, Edgar and another man from the environment ministry who joined us on the trip. In front, a pot full of chicha. ©V. Zapater

The men also brought their wives over to Dan and I, so that we could dance with them. We spent the night dancing with one man’s wife after another. It was very gracious of them as hosts, if a little weird.

Dan making moves

Our gasoline kept the generator, and the party, going longer than it otherwise would’ve. We drank and danced ‘til midnight, when the generator sputtered to a stop and the hum of the jungle reemerged. We went back to our little cabin and crawled into our sleeping bags. In the morning, we ate breakfast and soon got moving down the river.

Below's a recording of the Yasuni river while we paddled through the light rain, along with a few cool shots by Valentí. 

 

©V. Zapater 

When we reached the guard post, Saul and Zancudo watched Pedro from the water, refusing at first to disembark. The Waorani have extremely interwoven family structures (Saul, for example, was Zancudo's nephew,) and are notorious for past tribal feuds that involved spearings and bloodshed. The most important thing to them is family and trust. 

I pointed to Pedro, then asked Saul. "Do you know him?" I asked.

Saul continued to eyeing Pedro suspiciously, then said, "I think we're related on my mother's side."

"Your mother's side?" I repeated.

"Yes..." he said, then paused again for a bit.  "He's family," he finally decided. Only then did Saul get out of the boat, but he and Pedro didn't exchange a word the entire night we spent together.  

 

~~~

 

We visited Yasuni during monkey season. When rainfall is high, the river is swelled and it floods some of the jungle. This makes it easiest to hunt monkey, because you can find them along the river, then pull your boat into the flooded forest if they retreat. Saul and Zancudo first shot their darts, poisoned with curare, at a Monk Saki monkey from the river. The thing about curare is that is doesn't immediately kill an animal; it gets into one's bloodstream, relaxes its muscles - including the ones it uses to breathe - and it asphixiates. (This is why curare was also used as an anaesthetic; by coincidence, my dad studied curare at NYU when becoming a doctor.) You need to strike a monkey more than once to kill it, because it uses its paws to pull out the darts. The Monk Saki monkey took a couple shots before retreating; he didn't connect the dots between the pricks in his side and the three men in a boat 10 meters below with a six-foot long blowgun pointed in his direction. Below is the audio of Saul and Zancudo within the flooded forest as the hunt went on, whispering excitedly in Wao:

 

When rainfall is lower, all the fish are forced into a narrower, shallower flow that makes fishing easier for the Waorani. (It's also the best time to see jaguars, which come out of the jungle depths to find water.) Meanwhile, peccaries get fat by eating the fruit laying on the now-dry forest floor. So, after fish season comes the season of peccaries, which the Waorani hunt with the spears. The Wao diet is thus attuned to the jungle's natural rhythm, though they'll gladly hunt anything they come upon out of season.

Visiting during monkey season had one big pro and two cons. Pro: best time for us to to be sure we could reach Laguna Jatuncocha and elsewhere via canoe. Cons: no jaguar sighting, and eating monkey meat. I don’t eat any red meat whatsoever, but it was part of this whole experience and I wasn’t going to pass it up. (As I wrote in the article, the monkey Saul and Zancudo hunted got away; the monkey we ate was a gift from a passing Wao hunter.)

Note to my mom: I'm wearing boxers. ©V. Zapater

The first thing you should realize about roasting monkey is that throwing it on the fire fills the air with the pungeant stench of burned hair. This killed what little appetite I had. We then used our hands to rub the singed fur from the corpse's hot flesh, and to me fell the dubious honor of removing its penis fur between my thumb and forefinger. In other words, I gave a handjob to a dead monkey.

I could tell from the smell exactly how monkey meat was going to taste, but hoped with all my heart that I would be wrong. (I wasn't.) It was not a tastes-like-chicken experience; it tasted presumably like human. Eating the heart's left ventricle was fine relative to eating the ribs, which were so gamey it was revolting. Plus the rib meat was so sinewy that it was impossible to chew, so I had to gnash it between my molars and tear it into smaller bits that could be forcefully swallowed. Saul, meanwhile, took his meal to the canoe and, elbows resting on the gunwales, dug in with gusto.

Below, a photo of Chuso manning the stove and cooking our breakfast: Patacones (mashed, fried and salted plantains). Below that, a photo of the Waorani breakfast: monkey tripe. I couldn't even consider eating monkey again, much less its intestines. In fact, I wound up feeling sick/lethargic all day from the meal the night before.

©V. Zapater

©V. Zapater

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 Wilson Pastor, Ecuador's minister of non-renewable resources, explaining plans to drill ITT if the Yasuni-ITT initiative fails

CONTACTING UNCONTACTED vs. REMOTE PEOPLES

It's important to distinguish between the Taromenane/Tagaeri and Waorani peoples. The Taromenane/Tagaeri people very clearly do not want to be contacted, as the below photos should make abundantly clear:

A page from the study by Cicame (Research Center for Ecuadorian Amazon Cultures) on the Los Reyes incident, entitled "Otras Historias de Vida y Desorden"

On the other hand, the Waorani, though isolated, do look outside Yasuní to some extent. Among the few people in Kawymeno who sported the traditional bowl-cut and stretched ear lobe holes was one of town's founders and leaders, Kai, who sat with me for an hour and spoke very little Spanish. But even he wore Western clothing: a red Nike jersey, red athletic shorts, yellow socks pulled up over his hairless shins, and knock-off Chuck Taylors. 

The WaoraniWaorani people in their traditional (un)dress. Photo from www.nrk.no  don't really go nude or wear the traditional piola (translation: penis strap?) anymore unless someone – a tour group, the government – pays them to do so, which I think is almost akin to anthropological pornography: Take your clothes off, let me gawk at you and snap photos, I'll give you cash, then we'll go our separate ways. The photos will be a hit in the city!  

Admittedly, a large part of why the Waorani now crave outside goods and wear Western clothing is the legacy of having been contacted when they originally didn’t want, and particularly the efforts of  the Summer Language Institute. (A really engaging history of this can be found in Wade Davis' book One River.)  

A Victorian anthropologist, as opposed to Sir Richard Burton, hopes these remote tribes would stay that way. I think this view is mostly wishful thinking, and at times borders on arrogance. I’d argue that people are seduced by the idea of uncontacted peoples, because collectively we want to believe that, no matter how much we mess things up in the civilized world, there are still people out there beyond its clutches. But is that even realistic anymore?  This great Salon article by Jonnie Hughes, about Papau New Guinea villagers who come to England and then join Facebook, presents a strong case that resisting "open-access humanity" is futile, and that exchange can prove beneficial. (Likewise, my editor for this story told me he’s now FB friends with people from the village in Kyrgyzstan where he was a Peace Corps volunteer.) 

So I believe it shouldn’t be a question of contact versus isolation; it’s a question of the nature of the contact. In some cases, exposure to new ideas can offset others that are infiltrating. For example, I explained to Saul my opinion on the toll unbridled consumerism takes on humanity, which I doubt was clear to him the first few times he marveled at digital cameras. He also asked my thoughts on homosexuality. Catholic missionaries in the region would be dismayed to learn that I told him I believe there's a spectrum of sexual orientation. 

Saul and I in Nueva Rocafuerte ©V. ZapaterEven just on a material level, my exchange with Saul got him a Sierra Designs Meteor Light tent and me a spear, blowgun and poison darts. He was thrilled he'd now have portable shelter to protect him from bugs and snakes and, when I went to show him the trick to setting up the tent, I found he'd already figured it out on his own. He was like a giddy kid on Christmas morning, and I was just as pumped about my new toys. (To answer the frequent question: I got the weapons back home by stuffing them in a PVC pipe, then lying to the customs agent by saying they were an important component of the research for my Anthropology PhD.)  

While the Waorani today look to the outside world, the Taromenane and Tagaeri wish to remain in isolation, and I do think that should be respected. We shouldn't force contact. And that’s part of the reason why it’s not just ITT that should be protected, but all of Yasuní. The other part is its astounding nature and biodiversity. We can and should be grateful that Ecuador hit its first US$100mn target by the end of 2011, but there’s still a long way to go to US$3.5bn. And ITT is just one corner of an enormous, and enormously threatened, national park.

 

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