For some reason, I really thought quicksand was going to be a huge issue in my life as a kid. After almost 19 years, I finally fell into quicksand. It wasn’t exactly how I imagined- I was laughing hysterically with some of my closest friends while two members of the Waorani community dug my feet out… in the middle of the Amazon Rainforest. How did I get to this point? Let me explain.
On May 12th, the group woke up at the Iyarani lodge for an early breakfast to fuel another long travel day. Our destination was the Gomaton community of the Waorani people- one of few contacted Indigenous communities of the Amazon. They have built a lodge for travelers and students who want to research in the Amazon, creating profit and an opportunity for them to share their culture in hopes of preserving it. I was told to pack a dry set of clothes and a wet set, and to not worry about bringing soap because running water wasn’t guaranteed. After breakfast, we boarded the bus for a two hour drive to a canoe port where we would embark on a 2 hour canoe ride down the Nushino river; deeper into the Amazon Rainforest.
During the canoe ride, we saw some beautiful birds including toucans. As we got closer to the community, I started to get nervous because I had no idea what to expect. Before long, I was petting their pet monkey, playing peekaboo with the kids, and eating dinner with their whole community. The president of all Waorani nations , Humberto, told us his peoples’ history and his own story. The Gomaton leader, Gonzalez, gave each of us names in their language- Wao. I received the name “Yinokee” which means blue bird. After a beautiful sunset and some card games, I bathed in bug spray and went to sleep.
The next morning we went on a 5 hour long hike. The tribe wanted to show us a waterfall that they had found in 2021. Most of the tribe’s hunters came with us, as well as their elders, leaders, and a couple of young girls. We took a route that lead us through archeological sights of pottery from generations ago. At one sight, two of the little girls came up to me and grabbed my hand while the oldest woman in the community was demonstrating how they make a basket out of leaves. I volunteered to make an attempt at the basket, and she guided me through it. The tribe leader gave me a cacao plant wrapped in leaves to carry in my new (and quite fashionable) basket. When we continued with our hike, the little girls, Yalina and Genita, were stuck to my side (cover photo.)
The hike consisted of so many climbs up and down- I learned to use the ball of my foot while hiking up the mud and my heel while walking down. I held Yalina and Genita’s hands for most of the way, but I think they were helping me more than I was helping them. It was right before we reached the waterfall that I ended up in quicksand, but like I mentioned, two of the Waorani people came running to help and got me out with no problem. Melina held me up by my shoulders and we both just couldn’t stop laughing. Is my life real?
The waterfall was an amazing moment of union between two groups who had not gotten along only 40 years ago. We swam together, took pictures, and were refreshed for the long hike back. (They later told us that the distance was very short and made us oddly tired.) Once we returned, we ate lunch and learned about their cacao business. They have recently cleared out about an acre, using the dead trees to fuel the soil for cacao and plantain plants. We each helped plant a young cacao plant and also saw beans that they have recently harvested and started the drying and fermenting process.
To finish the night, I played a game called “gema” that was kind of complicated, but can be described as dodgeball with a banana tower. It was so fun, and just gave us another opportunity to get a feel for their way of life. The Gomaton community is small, with only about 25 people, but they are so happy. They treat their children well, are connected to the earth, and live day by day to put their people first. The night was topped off with a presentation of their cultural dances. As mostly a marriage tradition, the dance normally lasts all night long. It started with just the people dancing, but it wasn’t too long before we joined in. We sung in Wao about birds, union with the Europeans, marriage, and hunting. I never stopped smiling, and we danced ourselves to sleep.
It was hard to say goodbye the next morning. I gave one of my bracelets to Yalina, and then she wanted to give me a feathered headdress in return. We spoke very few words but had so much fun together. Her people are severely misunderstood, but there are efforts being made to reverse that. We were the first group to visit since they built their lodge, giving me the opportunity to see the impact awareness can bring. The Waorani want to enter the world market and grow opportunity for their future generations. The tricky part is preserving their culture in the process. After experiencing their amazing way of life, I realize the amazing opportunity I have to help them bridge that gap.
Current Location: Somewhere in the Amazon Rainforest, Ecuador