THE AMAZON!!! (Part 1-- Waorani Culture and Hiking with Pegonka)

With my incredible Waorani guide named Pegonka, by a giant ceiba tree

Oh, where to begin!?  I just spent four wonder-filled days deep in the Amazon of Ecuador!  From the jungle's edge, I took a three-passenger plane over the rain forest and then a canoe ride down a river to a remote indigenous community, and it was AMAZING! (I'm sure that the words amazing and Amazon must be linguistically related.)


So, I'm putting together a series of blog posts about my adventure, but it's so hard to figure out where to start.  I'll just dive right in and hope you come back to read my next posts, too, so you get a sense of the whole experience.

My comfy cabin with screen-walls

I stayed at the Huaorani (aka Waorani) Ecolodge right on the gorgeous Shiripuno river, which is part of the Amazon watershed. I chose this place because it's run by the indigenous Waorani people themselves, and it's a very culture-focused experience.  I would highly recommend this place/tour if you're interested in indigenous cultures and ethnobotany.

With Pegonka, blowgun and spear ready, about to leave on a hike together.

I felt so lucky that there was only one other guest there with me, so I had a very personalized experience.  The other guest spoke no Spanish and was more into animals than people/culture, so she mostly hung behind with the English-speaking guide... which meant that Pegonka (who spoke Spanish and Waorani) and I got to hang out together much of the time and have fascinating conversations.

He's 21 years old, and spent his childhood swinging on vines, climbing 5-story-high trees, having blowgun fights with his buddies, swimming in the river... he had lots of great stories.  I went alone on this trip, but would love to bring Lil Dude here when he's a few years older.  He was enraptured with the blowgun and spear I brought back for him...

We wore these rubber boots to protect our legs from snakebites, since there are some pretty deadly ones around here, like the fer-de-lance. Also, it was extremely muddy-- as in suck-your-leg-in-up-to-your-knee-muddy, so the boots helped with that, too.

Pegonka is working on a monography for his school project now... many of the young people were doing this-- recording aspects of their culture, which has been changing over the past several decades, largely because of oil drilling in their territory.  The drilling has brought horrible pollution and related health problems in other parts of their land.  (We weren't in that area, though-- the forest we were in felt like paradise.)  This unwelcome invasion of their territory prompted them to reach out to international indigenous rights organizations a couple decades ago.

Here, Pegonka is using a rolled-up leaf to imitate toucan calls.  Most Waorani I talked with could imitate all kinds of animal calls-- like birds and owls and caiman-- a skill used for hunting and also for communicating with other Waorani at a distance.  Until a few decades ago, they were warriors, and were often in violent conflict with the other indigenous groups in the area (Quichua and Achuar).  Back then, there was a spear-your-enemy-on-sight ethic, from what my new Wao friends told me.

"Monkey's Comb"-- A seed from a tree that monkeys use to groom each other!

On our hikes, I learned so much about the ways animals and Waorani people use the plants in the forest...

 This plant is used as a toothbrush with built-in toothpaste.  Cool, no?

Pegonka was an incredible tree-climber-- a skill that most kids have mastered already by age 7 or 8.  He uses this wreath of vines-- which he made on the spot-- to help him climb trees while carrying his heavy 10-foot-long blowgun and darts and equipment.

As you'll see in later pics, he only needs this extra help when he's planning on shooting an animal from high in the tree and needs to be able to hold himself there with his hands free...

He is VERY high up in the tree now... many stories high, maybe a hundred feet or so.

This photo is really zoomed in-- you can see him getting ready to shoot.

And now, my feeble attempt... ha!

That's about as far up as I got!  The woven vines helped me brace myself with my feet, but my arms weren't strong enough to heave up my body.  I think my husband, Ian, would've been awesome at this, though-- he's pretty strong and agile. (Alas, he was home with Lil Dude and Grammy.)


The Waorani use poison-tipped darts in their blowguns to hunt for food.  The poison comes from a ground-up liana (vine) -- I'll explain more of that process in another post.  

He uses a cottony substance from the ceiba tree to wrap around the dart so that it fills the hole of the blowgun and creates a kind of pressure, which means that when you blow, the dart goes really far.

I was actually good at this (though I needed Pegonka's help in holding up the blowgun since it was so long and heavy.)  (And who knows, maybe he helped me a bit with my aim, now that I think about it ... ;-)

Look! I hit the target (that flower) on the first try!

We didn't actually hunt any animals, but Pegonka explained that the poison enters the bloodstream and makes the animal (often a monkey) loopy and sleepy, and they fall out of the tree, and can then be killed.

There were other foods that came from the forest... mysterious fruits I'd never seen or tasted before, and insects, like these ants that live symbiotically inside a branch.  I ate some, but they were so teeny-tiny, it was hard to figure out what they tasted like.

You can see a diagonal scar on Pegonka's cheek.  This is a kind of coming-of-age ritual-- it's done with a special vine, and makes an abrasion on the cheek.  His brother did this to Pegonka's cheek several months ago, and in several more months,  he'll do it again, on the same spot, to make the scar more distinct. (Yes, it hurt!)

On to spear-throwing!  In the past, these spears were used on their enemies, as I mentioned.  Usually, the spears would be thrown while running, but we did it while standing still.

I wasn't so great at this... I think I need to start lifting weights or something in preparation for the next jungle trip I take.

My cabin was simple and sweet.... and it was pure magic to sleep with the symphony of insects and birds and frogs around me. The sounds of the jungle are a huge part of the experience-- it's like these musical sculptures dancing all around you, all the time...

You know, I hardly got any bug bites at all in the Amazon.  It was the beginning of rainy season, and there were definitely bugs there, but they left me alone.  I attribute it to the permithrin spray that Ian put on my clothes as a Valentine's Day present before I left.  He wore a mask and gloves while applying it outside, but then, once it dried, it was totally non-toxic and didn't smell and I couldn't even notice it was on the clothes.   (And supposedly it lasts through many washings, too.)  Normally I stay away from synthetic chemical stuff like this, but the guy at the outdoor store, Jax, recommended using it along with herbal spray on my skin-- that's what he uses on his trips to the Amazon.  He felt like it was overall less toxic and more effective than DEET.  And based on my experience, I agree.

Pegonka painted my cheeks with river clay, which is done when you go to visit friends, to make yourself look nice.  In another post, I'll show you pics of red-face-paint-gone-wild!

Behold the misty jungle river that greeted me every morning on awakening, just steps from my cabin...

In my next post, I'll introduce you to the whole, wonderful Waorani community that I hung out with during my stay-- probably about 20 people total, including kids and babies-- all part of an extended family.  I loved talking with people (most spoke at least some Spanish), and we formed some really lovely bonds (which is why I'm already talking about going back...)

My little buddy, Fredy, in the foreground.  Luis with the Justin Beiber T-shirt in the background, holding the bamboo pole.  Laura with her sweet smile, nursing her daughter.

Also, in the next few posts, I'll show you pics of our gorgeous dug-out canoe rides, the teeny plane I flew in on, our piranha-fishing trip, our enchanting waterfall limpia (spiritual cleaning), me chillin' in a vine-hammock, a woman making chicha, a fun traditional marriage dance, an insanely cute baby-in-a-hammock, and all the other stuff that I want to tell you about all at once.... but I must be patient!  Oh, and I also have pics of Maria Virginia (The Queen of Water) and her daughter in Otavalo, in the Andes, and in Quito, where we did a fun school visit. So much to show you!!

 Now I'm off to wash clothes and catch up on emails...

Thanks for reading!  Come back soon for the next batch of photos!