El Oriente is said to contain 5 percent of all plant species on Earth, and through it now a growing web
of pipelines snake toward the coast. In the end this costly enterprise will provide enough oil
to fill the demand in the United States for a mere 15 days.
Having transferred from our noisy army transport vehicle into an equally noisy motorized canoe,
we move up the Shiripuno River. Its water is translucent green running over sand and rock. The
rolling terrain along the banks is breathtaking.
Alarcon tells me: "The boat ride is only 20 kilometers, but it's a journey back in time to
another world—a world of hunting and gathering food. For 99 percent of the life of our species we have
lived in this world, but we can no longer remember. The Huaorani have not yet forgotten."
Monkeys watch us as we glide deeper into their world. Alarcon continues: "The Huaorani possess a
knowledge we have lost. Their senses are tuned to the natural world. They can identify animals
hidden in the forest by their smell. They can call them, talk to them. In their world, the
individual, the community, and the environment are woven together with a world of spirits.
In each community there is one person we call the shaman who mediates between all these forces
and keeps them in balance. In Quehueriuno this man is named Mengatoi."
We arrive at the village as a hunting party returns. Alarcon and the shaman, Mengatoi, greet each
other with a warm embrace. For the next several hours, families gather to eat. Children and adults
relax together, squatting on the ground and lying in low slung hammocks around the fire. The rhythms
of hunting life are different from agricultural life. The fruits of one's labors are enjoyed quickly.
Gratification is almost immediate. When the hunt is done, it is time to relax and eat.
"People are happy here. You hear laughter and someone is always joking. Much time is spent
hanging out together as a family. Mengatoi is a powerful man, a man to fear and respect, but
people still joke with him. They've nicknamed him El Capitan."
The eating progresses without haste. Children play hunting games using toy blowguns and spears to
stalk imaginary creatures. As dusk settles over the village, Mengatoi begins to speak of the jaguars,
his spirit children, and what they have told him. He says it is a good time to fish upstream. He
predicts the weather will be good for the days ahead. He says the hunting is also good downstream,
but the shaman from a rival tribe has cursed them and it is not safe to go there. Alarcon listens and translates what she can to me.
'The shaman and his community share a set of beliefs that form a collective world view that
dominates the psychological and physical experience of each person. One difference between their
view and ours is that we separate the physical and the spiritual world. They do not. In their
minds there is no barrier between dream and reality, and they move easily between one and the other."
Into the night, the women sing songs describing the mythic creation of the Huaorani people, as tired
children curl up by the fire and fall asleep. At sunrise Alarcon goes into the forest to gather plants
with Mengatoi. He has a bunch of wild bananas, a fistful of vines, and a small cluster of hot peppers.
She quizzes him on what they are for and then relates her findings.
Photos: (1-2) courtesy Aaron Strong/Strong Images Inc; (3-5) Joe Seamans.
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