A small world after all?

Fragments of this post have been bouncing around in my head for a while. I´ll blame the inevitable frustration of trying to write in internet cafés with perpetually shifting hours for the fact that I haven´t managed to put this together in a coherent way. Rather than leave the readership in suspense, though, I´ll just put this up and leave it to you to sort it out.

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Fieldwork can basically be reduced to a string of confusing situations. I suppose that, hypothetically, my goal is to overcome my lack of understanding. Increasingly, though, I feel like my goal is to learn through confusion, accepting that truly figuring out what is going on would require more than just fluency in Spanish. To offer an example: I have recently reached the end of my list of phone numbers and contacts for formal interviews in Coca. The result is that I spend my time down at the docks, listening and chatting to guides and boatman as they come off the river. Yesterday, a Kichwa guide convinced me to go with him to a nearby town for a few hours. He showed me some medicinal plants, walked me around the town, and told me some highly implausible stories about cannibals. In summary, I have absolutely no idea what I did yesterday.

My confusion in this episode, though, pales in comparison with my inability to interpret and understand the Huaorani, members of the indigenous nation that lives within Yasuní Park. Coca teems with images of Huaorani – always carefully cropped to convey their supposed savagery while covering up the most offense parts of their equally “savage” nudity – but they themselves are a rare sight in this “big” city. The other day, though, I ran into a group of them mingling outside of my hotel. I knew it was them because of the ears: my adviser had told me that they, like me, gauged their ears – a fact that provided was my entry for an introduction.

In the last few days, I´ve shared a few beers with some Huaoranis and even managed a few interviews. I can´t shake the feeling that we are just talking past each other. Even when I can translate the individual words and sentences, the ideas they express to me often don´t make sense. One moment I think they want support from the government—the next, it sounds like they want to be left alone. One tells me his considering going to war with the oil companies, and then follows up by asking me if I can help him write an petition in English to attract more companies to his community.

I´m not the only one who is confused. I´ve talked to several government officials who are positively exasperated with the Huaorani. The Huaorani have no politics, no government, no representatives. They don´t know what they want, they tell me. No plan; no future. These government functionaries have the best interests of the Huaorani´s in mind. The problem is, to be protected, you have to be understood. We can´t help you if you can´t explain what you need, what you see in your own future. And it is for this reason, perhaps more than anything, that so many people—in the government, civil society, and academia—seem convinced that the Huaorani cannot survive.

Of course, if the Huaorani are confusing, their relatives the Taromenani and Tagaeri take inscrutable to a new level. When the Huaorani were first contacted, 50 years ago, some related groups decided to remain in isolation – a decision which, given the alcoholism, domestic violence, and poverty now rampant in Huaorani territory, seems eminently understandable. Of course, to call them “uncontacted” is a bit of a misnomer. Helicopters fly by their houses and get chased off by spears; illegal loggers stray onto their territory and get lanced; their Huaorani relatives raid them in an endless cycle of revenge killings. No one can leave them alone, including well meaning missionaries and NGOs who are convinced that to save them from modernity, they must become a part of it and learn to play our game: talk to anthropologists, go to human rights conferences, pull on our heartstrings a bit. A number of these well-meaning individuals have been killed, at the hands of the very people they are trying to help.

I´m not quite sure how this all fits together, but I will do my best to tie this together. I find little to idealize about the Huaorani, Tagaeri, and Taromenani. These groups, by all accounts, are pretty violent and xenophobic: some people think that the Taromenani recently wiped out the Tagaeri, an act that—if they numbered more than 300 people—would be considered genocide. Of course, I see plenty of savagery in my own country right now, even if it comes wrapped in political rhetoric about “second amendment solutions” and an end to birthright citizenship. I suppose, regardless of the culture, there´s a lot I don´t understand.

The first time I came into the Amazon, I came by bus, and it took ten hours. The second time, I made the trip by plane, and was surprised that the flight lasted only twenty minutes. Still, though, there were moments when the Amazon below seemed mindbogglingly vast, a truly endless sea of green. I can´t help but wonder, is the world really so small that there isn´t space for us all to be uncivilized in our own way?

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