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.
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.
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.