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.
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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.