On the Need for a Huaorani A.L.F.

I’ve often wondered whether people who live their entire lives in places with really fantastic National-Geographic-esque animals still get excited when they see them.  Are elephants still cool if you live in Kenya?  And are squirrel monkeys equally entertaining for Amazonians as they are for me, or are they just like, well, squirrels?

For their part, the Huaoranis still seem pretty excited about the Amazon’s animal life, to the extent that their monkey-related-enthusiasm rivals my own.  There were times during my trip that it seemed as if we talked about little except for animals: our entire day’s journey was filled with observations of animals, mimicry of their calls, discussion of their ways of living.  When Bartolo’s father offered to tell me some “Huaorani stories,” every single one was a tale of the forest’s animal denizens.  For the Huaorani—just as for me—the wildlife of the Amazon seemed to be inexhaustible sources of entertainment, wonder, and interest.

This appreciation for animals, though, is a bit hard to reconcile with some of the incidences of incredibly wanton animal cruelty I witnessed during my time in Huaorani territory.  One evening one of the wives of the guides was fishing with chilapa eggs, and chucked her catches onto the beach.  Not content to let the fish asphyxiate in peace, though, her kids came up and started playing with them; chucking them around, knocking them against each other, poking them with sticks.  When Mom finally finished, she started flaying the fish, still wriggling.  I wanted to say something—“Just cut it’s head off, please”—but instead I retired to my tent.  We researchers can’t be culturally insensitive, right?  (Even when we’re studying social justice—oh the irony!)

The next day, we were motoring along when Bartolo announced that he had seen a sting ray, and insisted that I take a photo with it.  When I saw him grab a spear, I knew that this interaction was going to end poorly, but I once again failed to stop him.  A few seconds later, he had skewered the ray and lifted it into the air, a huge smile on his face.  I snapped the obligatory photo and sank back into the boat, feeling read to vomit.  Bartolo threw the ray back in, but with a laugh, said that it would die because it couldn’t swim anymore.  Coming from the culture that invented factory farms, I realize I am in little place to judge.  Nonetheless, I’m almost glad that we westerners at least hide our cruelty behind slaughterhouse walls; otherwise, I’m not sure I could get out of bed in the morning.

For those of you who don’t believe that fish can feel pain, I should throw out there that the mammals of the forest don’t fare much better with the Huaorani.  Somewhat to my surprise, the Huaorani villages we visited are teeming with dogs.  Always looking to make friends, I approached a few, only to have them shy away.  I quickly saw why: they are the constant objects of kicks, and targets for rocks and trash thrown by everyone, from children to adults.  For the best, I suppose, that I couldn’t touch them; I would have only felt their ribs, and realized that they are not only abused, they are starving.  Dogs are only one of a huge number of pets the Huaorani keep around.  Among those that I saw around Bartolo’s house was a juvenile squirrel monkey, which was tethered to a pole by a string, wrapped around its stomach, no more than two or three inches long.  For the entire time I watched it, it was spinning crazily around, struggling to free itself: the result was a bloody belly stripped of its hair.

And there is the contradiction: the Huaoranis—who spend all day talking about animals, smile the second they spot a bird flying above, and keep monkeys around just for the company—are also the authors of this unmitigated cruelty.  For the Huaorani, there is a huge gulf between appreciating animals and actually respecting them, just as with the “animal lovers” of my own country who donate to the Humane Society and eat battery cage eggs.  This leads me to think that the dominant strategy of the animal rights movement—that by rendering animal suffering visible, we will convince people to change their behaviors—is a bit silly.  In the Third World, animals suffer in full view, and people are entirely indifferent.  Creating an animal ethic is a project that is much, much more complex than simply generating sympathy and awareness.

Of course, there is no better place than the Amazon to be reminded that animals eat other animals, and that even bothering to write this post—my third about animal ethics while here in Ecuador—confirms me as one of those “crazy animal people.”  There is nothing more natural, I suppose, than humans contributing to a grisly end of other sentient beings.

But that still doesn’t mean I have to like it.


I don’t speak a word of Huaorani.  I didn’t speak a word of Huaorani before I went into Huaorani territory, and despite five days of the guides trying to teach me a few basic phrases, I still don’t speak a word of Huaorani.  (It’s a reminder that, although I have managed to learn enough Spanish to survive here, I really am terrible with languages).  This means that all my communication this weekend happened with both speaker and listener working in a second language, a situation bound to lead to a fabulous number of misunderstandings.  That said, I learned a few things from the experience, and for those of you who are dying to head into Huaorani territory for your next vacation, here are a few key phrases:

“Estabamos en la ciudad.  Ahora, estamos en la selva.”

Literal translation: We were in the city.  Now we are in the forest.

Real translation: I will now be removing 95% of my clothing.

“Esos pican un poco.”

Literal translation: Those bite a little bit.

Real translation: If that animal touches you, it will probably eat you and you will die.

“Antiguamente, usabamos [planta / animal] para [problema], pero ahora tenemos civilización.

Literal translation: We used to use [plant / animal] for this [problem], but now we have civilization.

Real translation: That traditional shit was cool, but I will now be using a chainsaw / shotgun / outboard motor to overcome this particular challenge.

“Ella quiere tomar chicha contigo.”

Literal translation: She would like to drink chicha, a fermented beverage made from chewing up yucca and spitting it out into a bowl, with you.

Real translation: My sister would like to sleep with you and/or marry you.

– – – – –

Feeble attempts at humor aside, I have a real point to make.  Learning a group’s language is step number one in anthropology for understanding a group’s culture.  Without a doubt, I would have gotten much more out of my time with the Huaorani had I spoke their language.  Still, though, I think there are some things I was able to learn specifically because I don’t speak Huaorani.  Listening to hours of conversations in Huaorani, I became attuned to the handful of Spanish words that would pepper my guides’ interchanges, words for which there was no Huaorani equivalent.  “Money” “Contract” “Job”; realizing that the Huaorani had—up until 40 years ago—had no way to talk about commerce and exchange makes me realize why it is so challenging to develop businesses and jobs in their territory.  I also heard the Spanish equivalents of words like “Government” “Representative”and “Trust fund”; once again a window into why the Huaorani have struggled to be integrated into modern Ecuadorian society, and why communicating with them about Yasuní-ITT is so challenging.

My interviews with Huaorani were, of course, in Spanish, but my capacity to directly translate definitely did not mean that I understand the meaning of what I was being told.  Over and over again, for example, opined that “Queremos que el gobierno nos deje en paz,” only to follow up with the statement “Necesitamos apoyo del gobierno” and a list of desires (gasoline, motors, canoes, etc.)  For those of you who don’t speak Spanish, these statements are somewhat contradictory: “We want to be left in peace” but “we need money from the government.” It makes me wonder what “apoyo”—directly translated as “support”—actually means to the Huaorani, and how they can reconcile it with a demand to be left alone.  It’s these kinds of riddles that make me absolutely love fieldwork and, to some extent, sad to be leaving in less than two weeks.

Pinnacle of Evolution

Pre removal of clothing.

One of the highlights of my five day romp in Huaorani territory was that I didn’t just get to spend time with my guides, but their entire families.  Transport in and out of these remote villages is expensive, so when a gringo is travelling around, everyone takes advantage of the free lift.  Among our passengers for the first three days was the father of Bartolo—my main guide—who had an unpronounceable Huaorani name that I will not even attempt to reproduce here.


Bartolo’s father was, to put it softly, pretty traditional. He has hugely gauged ears—a sign of status—and as soon as we were in Huaorani territory, he removed 95% of his clothes.  He didn’t speak any Spanish, but claimed—through a translator—that he was involved in the killings of Westerners in the early days of contact, and that he hoped that the Huaorani would return to their warrior past and kick out the oil companies by force.  As if to emphasize how lethal he was, he demonstrated to me his ability to shoot a monkey in the eye with a blowgun at an absurdly long range.

While I suppose this discussion should have scared me a bit, other parts of our interactions were a bit more lighthearted and joyous.  As we motored along, he would often declare the presence of animals that I could neither see nor hear; only after we moved up the river another 100 metres could I see anything.  When we got close, with great enthusiasm and often a lot of laughter, he would mimic their calls perfectly, whether they were a frog, bird, or monkey.  At one point during our journey, he declared that he could smell a tapir.  He hopped out and, sure enough, quickly found tapir tracks.

That is a person, FYI.

My adviser, Laura Rival, wrote the book on the Huaorani.  One of my favorite anecdotes comes in her introduction, when she described that often, during her interviews, Huaorani would tell her, “I’d love to sit here and talk to you all day about your research, but I want to go walk in the forest.” My Huaorani friend seemed to enjoy nothing more than just wandering in the forest, showing me which plants could be used for which ailments and how to find ants that taste exactly like lemon.  At one point, I turned my back to him for a few seconds; when I spun back, he had fashioned some sort of contraption out of a vine and was using it to shimmy up a branch-less tree to gather fruit.  When he came back down, he declared that the fruit was too hard to open by hand, and proceeded to create a makeshift saw out of a leaf.

Actual Huaorani may be shorter than they appear.

After three days, we reached his “village.” Most of the buildings were clapboard houses built in Western style; they belonged to his relatives, all of whom had moved to cities to work.  Bartolo’s father and his wife were the last ones living in the village, staying in a traditional Huaorani hut.  Inside was hanging meat from practically every jungle animal I could imagine.  Outside, there was a veritable menagerie of animals he had managed to trap: monkeys, guanta, parrots, armadillos, and pecarí.  Shortly after we arrived, he wandered off to the river, where he managed to “catch” fish by jumping into the water and rapidly hacking them with a machete.

This four foot tall man may very well be the greatest predator the world has ever seen.

Radio Silence

To my shock, there is a vegetarian restaurant here in Coca.  This is very, very good news, as I have reached the point where the prospect of another plate of rice and beans is borderline soul-crushing. And to think, it was all of three blocks away from my hotel this entire time!

It is fitting that I would discover this restaurant yesterday, because today, I am leaving.

I´ve spent the last few days frustratedly trying to find something “exciting” to do this weekend.  I figure that if I´m spending six weeks in the Amazon, I need to come back with a picture of me half eaten by a python or dodging spears.  Yesterday, opportunity struck, in the form of a Huaorani friend who offered to take me into their territory for a few days.  He seems like a nice enough guy, although the lengthy discussion of how, in traditional Huaorani custom, if you do something wrong they will kill you was a bit disconcerting.  Still, I had a George Bush and Vladimir Putin I-looked-into-his-eyes-and-saw-a-good-man moment, and am going to let my trust in humanity get the better of me.

From a research point of view, I am really excited about this opportunity, which I think will be the cherry on top of my thesis.  Everyone seems have to have a strong opinion about the Huaorani: about half say that they still live like savages, and the other half says that they are all rich off of oil company largesse.  I don´t get the impression that many of these people have ever talked to a Huaorani, though, and while my own lack of Huaorani-speaking-skills and limited time means that I won´t be able to accomplish too much, I do think I might be able to add something important to the discussion.

This could be a total scam, of course, and I could spend all day waiting at my hotel for a guide that never comes.  But in the event that he does, this blog will be silent for the next few days.  If I don´t come back by Tuesday, you can look for a body near Shiripuno and Bameno.  A soldier got eaten by a python the other day.  That is all.

Holy crap, I am in Ecuador!

I made it to Quito!  Two days ago!  And, shockingly, I’ve actually been enjoying my time here! Enough that I haven’t had (made?) time to blog, which, I suppose, can only be a good sign.  Alas, a more general introduction—replete with unfounded cultural generalizations and a description of the never-ending emotional rollercoaster that is fieldwork—is going to have to wait a bit longer.  In the meantime, yesterday, I hit the experiential jackpot in a way that merits sharing.

My language program offers weekend excursions, and, figuring that I was going to be working for most of my next weekends, I sprung for this week’s trip to Otovalo, a market town about an hour from Quito.  The market itself was cool—a sprawling expanse of handicrafts of questionable authenticity and gringos bargaining in broken Spanish—but nothing exceptional.  Afterwards, we were driving higher up into the mountains to visit a Condor sanctuary, when we found our road blocked by a large group of indigenous people, easily recognizable by their traditional ponchos and hats.

At first, I thought the group might be creating some sort of a roadblock, which I had read was a frequent form of indigenous protest.  Seeing as we were far from any main highway and the only car to be seen, though, this didn’t seem too plausible.  Quickly, though, it became clear that the group was just dancing in the street, ringing around a handful of musicians.  We asked a campesino walking beside us what was happening, and he replied that this was the festival of the sun.  He added, rather matter of factly, “Es nuestro pueblo, nuestra tierra, nuestra fiesta.  Tenga que esparar.”  It’s our town, our earth, our party.  You have to wait.

Another man walking beside us added “Vamos a bailar”, which seemed close to an invitation, so we hopped out of the car to watch the growing throng of people.  Initially, I felt tentative about taking pictures, until I realized that the entire performance was already being taped by members of the community, using all manner of cell phones and digital cameras.  We followed them as they danced into their village—blocking their road the whole time.  There, we were met by a rather mind-blowing cultural mishmash (the kind that globalization proponents love to talk about): women in traditional dresses and men in Argentina soccer jerseys, corn-based home brew for the adults and lollypops for the kids, and a fully electrified rock band singing in Kichwa.  We tend to lament the introduction of technology and modernity into indigenous cultures, but in this case, I can certainly appreciate the fact that, for once, these people are taking pictures of themselves rather than having pictures taken of them.

The whole point of the gathering, though, was clearly to party, so out of respect for that, I’ll leave any analysis at the door and just say: holy shit, I was at the foothills of the Andes, and got to see a sweet indigenous party.