Creating Huaorani Discourse on Tourism


The Hunter and the Hunted

I heard his rustlings somewhere ahead, the snap of branches beneath his feet. Mima and Lowentoke were pointing into the thick forest greenery, whispering "oré."

We had been moving, sometimes crashing, through the forest for hours. I stood, dripping sweat, chest heaving, and doubtful. I had resigned myself to observing the plentiful tracks the herd had left behind in the muddy banks of the small stream -- the tracks that had given the herd's location away to the Huaorani hunters. Maybe the hunters would make a kill and I would see it, bloody and dead -- more meat than animal.

Two seconds later, I sensed new movement in the shade up ahead. My Huaorani companions were pointing wildly to the left. I turned, refocused. Only 20 feet away, and in the open understory, stood the dark, powerful pig-like form of the peccary -- oré. He swung his massive black head toward me. Our eyes caught and held each other's glare -- a split second, but penetrating. Oré then shot out in very un-pig-like fashion and bolted back into the thick green forest.

The shouts echoed from all over. Groups of men, women, and children seemed to emerge from nowhere and just as quickly vanish back into the forest. Each small group of people brought along a jumbled arsenal of 15-foot spears, shotguns, rifles, and machetes. An outsider (translation: rainforest novice) amidst the seasoned Huaorani, I had all but given up on being at the front end of the hunt. I had gotten caught in the animated chaos and, after four hours of high-paced rainforest trekking, I felt lucky just to keep up with anyone, be she elder, small child, or infant-toting mother. I kept tripping over my rubber boots; my feet were heavy with exhaustion. The pace was too fast to look up. I stumbled repeatedly over roots and vines. I crossed my fingers as I balanced over fallen trees that spanned small streams with steep muddy banks. I was doing my best to keep up with the group, but I was obviously failing to impress the hunters. Most everyone around me was barefoot. I was grateful that a few of the women and kids had finally stopped their mad rush and paused by a tree to wait for the results of this seemingly disorganized assault. I caught my breath as my sweat continued its deluge on the patch of rainforest where I stood. The Huaorani looked on, cool and amused. It was not until I had completely given up on the possibility of seeing a white-lipped peccary that we saw it: oré.

The others were not as lucky as we were. The great Huoarani hunters -- 10 men strong that day -- had miscalculated. Instead, capitan gringo and a small group of women and children had been left with the clear shot but no weapons. The hunters returned minutes later shaking their heads and mumbling "baco oré" -- many peccary.

For the Huaorani and other indigenous groups, these roaming herds of white-lipped peccaries can be a real windfall -- a successful hunt will yield four or five individuals weighing upward of more than 150 pounds each. The tasty meat is divided up and shared among family and friends. These herds are the only game in their forests that require coordinated hunting. I had imagined the heightened pressure and seriousness of an all-male hunting party. Instead, I was in the middle of a party-like atmosphere where all able bodies were invited. This festive gathering took place in the middle of the forest, 10 miles away from trails, rivers, or any other sign of our location. The hunt was a chaotic gathering of excited elders, young men, wives, children, and -- on this day -- an ecotourism researcher (me).

Participating in this adventure, I felt as if I had breached a timeless and nearly forgotten human reality -- the hunt. I tried to tell the others returning from the assault in my broken Huao tededo (their language) that, yes indeed, this foolish, exhausted gringo had actually seen a big peccary. "Atamopa wah! wah! Oré!" (I see big, big peccary.) I joked and gestured that if I'd had a gun, it would have been an easy shot. They nodded and smiled, disbelieving. I couldn't fathom how they could kill one of these huge, lightning-fast animals with one of their 15-foot-long, hand-thrown spears. They smiled and told others about my surprising luck as we started the long trek back to the community.

The Novice on the Hunt

The oré hunt actually began the day before. Shouts rang out from downriver, and elders ran down the airstrip, yelling out the news -- a huge school of peccaries was nearby, its fresh tracks everywhere. Shouts of "Oré! Oré!" echoed from houses. People gathered weapons in a mad rush; some took spears from houses where the hunters had already left for the day, others grabbed sharpened machetes or small knives. A few minutes later we were motoring upriver in Penti's canoe. Some, paddling wildly in their small dugout canoes, had already beat us to the trailhead. We gave a lift to Miñewa, a strapping elder of about 50 who wore only his traditional comi (penis string) and carried two huge spears slung over his shoulder, who maneuvered his dugout alone.

We tied up near an overhanging tree and started along the worn trail. Kemperi, community shaman and elder, stormed ahead of us, calling out to the others and gesturing wildly into the forest off the trail. "Oré!" was the only word I gleaned from his rapid dialogue. Looking up as I crashed forward, I occasionally caught a glimpse of Kemperi -- his wrinkled backside and strong barreled chest, a shotgun slung over his shoulder. Maneuvering deftly and barefoot over the forest terrain, he dropped from sight once again.

The march halted abruptly as the hunters' trained ears searched for the peccaries' distinctive vocalizations. Men pointed into the forest and asked me if I could hear the sounds. I shook my head. They smiled, pointed again toward the phantom sounds, and moved on. The pace abruptly turned into a full-out sprint -- women, children, hunters, gringo, and all. Most surprising, and contrary to my naïve hunting assumptions, everything about the hunt was loose and relaxed. There was a constant stream of shouts, calls, laughter, and running conversations. Kids ran around, women shouted directions, men gave their opinions about the presumed path of the herd of peccary, and everyone trudged, with anticipation, onward.

Seeing our exhaustion and realizing that this hunt might be a wild, full day of tracking, Penti suggested that I head back with some of the women and kids. No argument from me. I had come unprepared, without eating breakfast and without water. Someone offered me a bowl of packed, mashed-potato-like chicha mixed with stream water -- fuel I needed to get out of the forest. I was completely parched, sweaty, and still reeling in disbelief when I arrived back at the canoe tied to the riverbank.

Penti and his wife Daboto returned hours later. The oré had gone. Despite this disappointing news, the oré aenente (peccary adventure) was far from over. Guinto arrived around dusk, telling everyone how he and some others had found fresh peccary tracks. Having received an invitation from Penti, I was scheduled for another tiring adventure the following morning.

Soon after Guinto's news, we followed Omene, Gawe, and the others down the airstrip to Kemperi's. His house was built in a neotraditional style with one side left open to the forest. Inside, it was crowded with the dark shapes of people -- young and old, big and small. Kemperi lay outstretched in his hammock, eyes closed but body active -- manic. In a shamanic trance, he sang, whispered, cackled, and talked, seemingly unaware of his surroundings. I could sometimes make out the mimicked cries of the peccary in his wild cacophony. Kids crouched around me, listening intently.

Miñewa, still dressed only in his comi, sat close by, pumping the shaman with loud questions and providing the others with a constant stream of commentary. Cominta, Penti, and other hunters asked the shaman further questions and told their own versions of the day's unsuccessful hunt. It was not a performance -- not a one-man show as I'd expected -- but a gathering as informal and loose in its own way as was the earlier hunt. Kemperi would break into a short verse of song and end abruptly with a wild cackling laugh. Sometimes he seemed to be interrupted by sharp blowing and growling sounds that emphasized his shamanic transformation into a jaguar. After nearly an hour, Kemperi's trance ended; he lay in his hammock, curled up, exhausted, and quiet. I followed the others out and walked onto the airstrip, accompanied by the mysterious hoots of the potoo, a nocturnal, owl-like bird. A full array of stars lit our path home.

The Arrival of a Your Group

A few days later, my immersion into the daily life of the Huaorani of Bameno came to an end with the approaching buzz of a canoe full of tourists. The distinctive buzz of the motor brought shouts and a rush to the riverbank to see who was coming. The children led the way; men and women followed, curious and animated. Seeing the opportunity to observe one of the infamous unannounced tour groups that arrive periodically in this traditional and remote community, I grabbed my notebook and scurried out to join the Huaorani. I had come to Bameno to observe these cross-cultural encounters between foreign tourists and the Huoarani. I had been living with Penti, father of six and a respected community leader, for almost two weeks, doing interviews and giving workshops on tourism. Through these hour-long workshops, I hoped to help the community gain the confidence needed to begin to control the guides and tour companies who brought tourists, unannounced, to Bameno and the surrounding forests. The arrival of the tour group would be my first chance to observe the current system in practice.

With more than 20 Huaorani gathered and staring, the tourists -- a group of eight Americans -- seemed nervous and self-conscious. The guide popped out of the canoe, smiled confidently, and struggled up the slippery mud bank toward Penti's house. The tourists, wide-eyed, began to gather their articles and come to shore. Some Huaorani continued to stare while others offered to help unload the tourists' baggage. Two of the elders were present and were already showing the tourists their 15-foot-long blow guns. The kids joked around and giggled. Some, more precocious and with a better grasp of Spanish, tried to engage the tourists. Apaica, an eight-year-old, handed them some guava fruits, breaking open the green, bean-like casing and offering them the soft, white flesh inside. Twelve-year-old Luiz introduced himself to two American women. Two other kids crashed into the river, swimming after each other in a game of chase. Elder women Bebanca and Conta smiled widely and waved at the tourists, revealing their gentle, toothless gums. Some of the tourists waved back at the women; others gathered and organized their colorful outdoor gear. One tourist slipped getting off the boat and splashed halfway into the river, making everyone laugh.

On shore and more relaxed, the tourists smiled, played with the children, and began basic introductions with their new hosts. Many tourists tried out "Waponi," a Huaorani greeting that translates roughly as "good" but seems also to serve as "hello" and "thank you." The Huaorani replied. A few times, I heard the tourists try out basic Spanish; the Huaorani, not fully understanding, did their best to imitate the words. Tour members eyed me suspiciously and asked if I was a missionary. They seemed concientious; no one in the group pulled out a camera and snapped pictures during an arrival already marked with chaos. Everyone seemed to be in good spirits.

The trip was organized by Toby, an American who had lived and worked in the area as a tour guide. He brought together friends who had an interest in journeying to learn "primitive skills" from some of the indigenous people living in this part of the Ecuadorian Amazon. Toby had arranged for a guide, Hector, from the gateway town of Misahualli to take the group out into Huoarani territory. The group spent its first night in Noñeno, the Huoarani community most visited by tourists. In Noñeno, they picked up two Huaorani men, Pata and Baica, to accompany them to Bameno, a more traditional community located two days downriver. On the way, they passed logging camps, a tourist lodge named after Kemperi, and an area known to be inhabited by the Tagaeri -- a "renegade" group of Huoarani who have refused to make contact with other Huaorani or with outsiders.

Following an order from one of the guides, the tourists returned to the boat and unloaded their gear, transporting it to the community's schoolroom, where, with permission from the community, they planned to spend the night. A group of 15 Huoarani looked on, curious. Pata told me, "the people always like to see what the tourists bring." This group was very concerned about the impact of their visit and stressed that they wanted to learn directly from the Huoarani. Penti took the group down the airstrip toward Kemperi's house, explaining along the way the history of Bameno, the origins of the families who lived there, and the challenges the Huaorani now face in confronting oil companies, loggers, uncontrolled tourism, and the rapid cultural changes that seem to be ocurring in nearly every Huaorani community as a result of their increasing integration into the modern market economy.

At Kemperi's, the group watched as the elder sanded down a spear. Kemperi invited them into his thatched-palm house. Inside, he lay down in a hammock and sang the tourists a song taught to him by his grandfather. The tour group later split; some went with the women and children to visit a garden and learn how the Huoarani harvest manioc, while others followed Bai -- comically dressed in a bright orange jumpsuit given to him when he worked for the oil companies out into the forest to watch him gather a special vine used to weave baskets. After gathering four coils of woody vine and returning to the community, Bai taught the group the weaving technique used by the Huaorani. Bai had never led a group of tourists before. Afterward, he said:

Unlike working for the oil companies, tourism does not seem like such hard work. We just need to be around here, talk about the centuries and the tools, and we can receive benefits for our families. Working in tourism, you do not need to miss your family while out working somewhere else -- you can be permanently in the home. Tourism is good because we can stay with our families. Before, I worked for the oil companies far from my family and I always missed them and wanted to return to my home. I had to return from far away. It was tiring. Afterward, the money was not enough for my family. I had to leave them alone and could not go out to hunt meat.

Just after dusk, three of the tourists visited Penti's traditional thatch house and tried chicha, a slightly fermented manioc drink that provides the bulk of sustenance for the Huaorani. I joined them and sat by the firelight, listening through the din of cicadas as an elder woman, Moima, told a brief legend of the anaconda and its special place in Huoarani mythology as a powerful life-giving spirit. The tourists slept in the school house, jokingly referred to as their cage. The next morning, the tourists packed up to continue their journey upriver and announced that they would be giving a special presentation to the Huaorani as a goodbye tribute.

In their tribute to the residents of Bameno, the group entertained the Huaorani with American folk songs, tug-of- war competitions, and demonstrations of their recently acquired weaving skills. They danced the Hokey Pokey and convinced the Huaorani to join in the fun. Just before getting on their canoe, two of the tourists told me that their goodbye to the Huaorani was the highlight of their three-week Amazon excursion.

The Next Tour Group Arrives

Less than a day after the American group left, I again heard the buzz of an approaching canoe. And once again, children and adults ran down to the riverbank to watch the approaching tour group. This was a bigger canoe, packed With nine European tourists. There were curious stares from both sides, and, once again, the guide telling Penti and scooted up toward Penti's. I overheard the guide telling Penti that he wanted the full demonstration of the blowgun and spear and that he would take his group to Kemperi's. The guide called to his assistant to gather the tourists without waiting for a response. I could sense Penti's discomfort and reluctance to comply with the guide's demands. Minutes later, the tourists were in Penti's traditional dorani house, staring through the low light at the elder woman (Penti's mother-in-law, Moima) sitting in the hammock by the cooking fire. The guide grabbed a blowgun and dart holder and started to explain to the tourists how it was used and how it was made using only natural materials. He never once asked Penti to help out with the explanation. He then told the tourists that they would be heading over to Kemperi's for a visit with a shaman. Penti kept silent.

Later that afternoon, the Huoarani assembled around Penti's house for the cultural presentation. Women and children gathered inside while some of the men, seeming uninterested, lingered outside near the tourists. Bebanca, Cope, and Conta walked around in unison. All three were nearly naked and unselfconscious. The women -- two of them toothless, and all three with the traditional Huaorani style of droopy earlobe had volunteered for the "special presentation." They walked around together, arms locked, singing their traditional Huaorani songs of welcoming.

Penti looked on expectantly. His shirt was off and his face was painted with red stripes made by mashing the seeds of the achote fruit. Next to him stood his older brother, Bai, and his father, Ahua, both with similar red face paint, athletic shorts, and brightly colored red macaw feathers in hand. Both the men and women danced and sang.

Toting cameras, the tourists approached from the back. They seemed confused as they waited. Some, without asking, snapped photos of the Huoarani, the thatch hut, and the children. Two talked to a guide about buying the Huoarani's blowguns as souvenirs. As the time passed, the tourists looked more impatient and uncomfortable.

Taking advantage of the perfect chance to get my subjects in a photo, I pulled out my camera and pointed it at them. Having a stranger's lens reversed on them made the tourists even more uncomfortable. Assuming that I must be trying to snap a picture of Kemperi, who stood grinning widely near them, the tourists all moved away from him. I kept my lens trained on them. Again they shuffled out of my sights, running for cover from my evil lens. I had to explain their behavior to Kemonka, a 20-year-old Huaorani standing near me, and asked him to pose in front of them so that they would not move out of the way. He smiled, obliged, and seemed to understand my predicament.

Behind the scenes, the tour guides were working out the fee for the cultural presentation. A Huaorani from another community -- contracted as a native guide by the tour group -- had arrived in Bameno the night before and told the community that a group of important tourists were coming and that they had offered $10 per tourist for a special cultural presentation. Penti now wanted to get the promised money up front and avoid a confrontation afterward. He hesitated, then nervously approached and asked the head guide for the money. The discussion that followed was chaotic -- filled with misunderstanding from both sides. Rather than the $10 per tourist expected by the community, the guides agreed to pay only $5, and claimed that Moi -- who had brokered the deal -- must have misunderstood them. They towered over Penti and spoke in agitated voices. A few minutes later, he returned, his enthusiasm obviously diminished. He had been able to get less than half of the promised fee.

While the women continued their chanting and dance, Bai had taken off his athletic shorts. His penis was outstretched and held upward by his comi. Adding red achiote face paint and a bright crown made from parrot, macaw, and toucan feathers, he was the perfect picture of the "naked savage." He held a little wooden flute on which he played only one high-pitched, strongly discordant, note. Bai played his one-note flute and started to hop around, penis and buttocks jiggling in front of the Huoarani women. Laughter and hoots rang out from the Huoarani. Blowing his flute and jumping up and down, Bai seemed completely oblivious to the tourists. I couldn't hold back my own laughter. He girated his pelvis and continued his hopping, thrusting his penis into the giggling mass of women and children, most of whom were close relatives. He then joined in behind the women, still discordantly blowing on his flute. On the other side of the hut, the tourists were straightfaced and growing worried: I could almost hear them grumbling, thinking Bai's show a mockery of the Huaorani traditional presentation. Perhaps it was.

I suddenly felt pained at witnessing this cultural clash. Moi was trying to keep it serious, explaining the meanings of various songs, The tourists nodded, unsure and uninterested. One lady snapped a photo of Bai hopping up and down. That done -- the image recorded, the story complete -- she smiled and seemed more relaxed. After nearly 10 minutes, the women stopped singing. The uncomfortable silence was broken, not surprisingly, by Bai's flute. Penti and Ahua joined him, and the men's rythmic stomping and singing began.

After two songs, Moi asked the tourists to join in and dance with the others. None of the tourists stepped forward to join their hosts. The presentation was soon over and the tourists filed out. One Italian, shaking his head, said, "It's so sad -- it seemed forced." I asked a few others and they agreed that they didn't enjoy the presentation. "It didn't seem real," they complained. I tried to explain the confusion with the money. I told them that the Huaorani were not unaffected by the outside world and that their group was not the only tourist group to arrive here. Even more difficult to explain was that the Huaorani performers, dancing "authentically" or not, were having fun. The tourists had hoped for something more genuine and unplanned -- a true welcoming of guests.

As I walked away, an older tourist pulled me aside and asked me about the Huaorani's most serious health problems. Another walked over and wanted to know how the Huaorani get along with the oil companies. I was discouraged that these critical issues had been left unanswered during their visit. Unfortunately, the guides who organized their trip and carried out the arrangements with the Huaorani didn't understand the tourists' interests and concerns. Like other outsiders before them, the guides had structured their tour to satisfy what they assumed were the desires of their clients. And they had failed to give any expression or voice to the Huaorani.

The majority of the tourists I'd encountered seemed interested in the environmental and socio-cultural challenges faced by the Huaorani and other indigenous groups. What will they learn if their experiences merely reinforce stereotypes of the Amazonian Indian?

Creating Meaningful Interaction

What can indigenous groups and tourists do to transform their interactions? Balanced, mutually beneficial interactions between indigenous groups and tourists are not unattainable. Tourists willing to interact and share directly with the Huaorani through language, stories, soccer, blowdart practice, or song, for example, broke down the barriers set up by the structure of their tours. Tourists who manage to interact directly are fondly remembered by the Huaorani and almost always experience the genuine hospitality and balanced interactions they seek. And the Huaorani are hopeful that tourism will empower their leaders and communities.

The Huaorani have developed a small program to reap greater benefit from tourist visits. Other communities have followed Bameno's lead and have designed their own programs. Tourists should use judgment in considering outside tour programs claiming partnership with indigenous communities.

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

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