My Ecuadorian Sister, Janita – More Family in South America

I can say without a doubt that this is the coolest thing I’ve ever experienced in my entire life. We took a boat down the Nushino River midday to stay with the Waorani tribe in Gomaton. We arrived via bus and slid down a mud slope to get to the three metal canoes we loaded ourselves and our bags into, and we were off!

We sat on the ground in a metal canoe with what we aptly named “Swamp Butt” because of the rain water sloshing on the floor. I stared out at the jungle, watching how the trees and surroundings gradually changed the deeper into the Amazon we travelled. About an hour in, our instructor Skipp Glenn AKA Bird Extraordinaire pointed out a toucan from about 200 feet away in the air solely based on the silhouette and the bill shape. The entire time, I was wondering how the description we were given of these people and the way they lived would match up to my own experience. With any new experience comes fear. To say I was fearless would be a huge lie. I was definitely nervous, partly due to being two languages removed from communicating with most of the Waorani (they speak Wao and some know Spanish as their second language; I speak English as my first language and my understanding of Spanish stops at “banyo”), and partly because I wasn’t familiar at all with this community. With most things, you can do as much research as you want beforehand to know what you’re getting yourself into. With a community living off the grid with no cell signal/service to use while there and a three hour boat ride away from Iyarina which is already a multiple-hour bus ride from Quito, I was definitely very nervous. What if something happened to me? What if I got sick or twisted an ankle? What if the description of the community was slightly off and we didn’t get along perfectly? What if I couldn’t communicate with anyone? These were all very real worries I had while boating there.

After two hours of swaying side to side, weaving between tree trunks and rocks, and staring out at beautifully luscious and green Amazonian jungle, we saw a sign up ahead that said “Welcome to Gomaton”. I felt an odd mix of overwhelming excitement/curiosity, fear of the unknown, and the strong urge to fix my “Swamp Butt” situation. But with an open mind and heart, ready to learn, we climbed off the boat and up the muddy slope.

The boats we arrived and left in on the Nushino River to get to Gomaton.

At the top, there was a tunnel/chute of tribe members to walk through with a man at the end putting three dots of red fruit paste/juice on our faces: one on the nose and one on each cheek. We walked in, set down our bags, and waited for the rest of the group to arrive. Luckily, we had our instructor in our boat that spoke Spanish, so we talked with them a bit while we waited.

Some of us with our red markings after arriving.

Later that night, we had dinner with them in the communal building near the river, and they told us the history of their community. It was absolutely amazing hearing about the area, their people, and their culture. We saw about 20 people during our time there, but there are 4000 members of the Waorani in the Amazon. We met the President and his family as well as the grandma there named Omanka, and those whose names we didn’t learn due to our short time there and/or the language barrier we gave nicknames (ie: “Yellow Boots” was our given name for a man whose name I later learned was Kevin).

Some of the Waorani tribe we visited and met.

The next morning, we woke up to a breakfast of oatmeal, pineapple, sweet and silky black coffee, and bread. We got on our hiking gear, knee-high rubber boots, and prepared to hike for a few hours to see the original area cacao trees were grown to collect some saplings for another farm (also known as a chakra). We started on flat, somewhat muddy ground deep in thick Amazonian brush. The entire time, I knew that there were bugs and animals aware of me that I couldn’t see. Our group of about 25-30 hiked uphill for 2-3 hours, clambering up incredibly slippery slopes with boots calf-deep in thick mud that turned to quicksand a few times. To successfully climb up, we had to grab onto tree roots (that sometimes ripped right out of the ground), stand on the balls of our feet, and grab each other’s hands to get to the top of the hill we were on at that moment. When we got there, we saw the ancient cacao trees and the pods from them, and Omanka taught people how to weave baskets from two leaves. From there, we traveled down the side of the mountain, holding onto trees, roots, and rocks for dear life to avoid falling down 30-foot falls onto more rocks and logs while the Waorani were sometimes running downhill with grace and ease. It was amazing and hilarious to watch all at once. If I wasn’t so focused on my footing, I would’ve laughed at myself for hours as there were many face plants in wet mud.

We got to a waterfall on the way back and jumped in for a quick, cold rinse, and all of the kids were playing games in the water with us. We got back to the village and swam in the creek, and then played a game with the Waorani kids. It involved throwing a ball at a stack of bananas sliced up to knock them over, and if you did, you had to try to run and stack them back up before the other team hit you with the other ball they had. It was like dodgeball, bowling, and cross country all in one!

The waterfall we stopped at. Left to right in front: me, Brooke Eyler, Melina Bradley.

Outside of the activities we did, I learned so much about the Waorani and myself. It was much easier than I thought to break past my language barrier. I was communicating through body language and playing with the kids all day long. We got so close with a few of them, and there were long hugs and crying when we finally had to leave. I gave the girl I got the closest with and held hands on hikes with, Janita, a bracelet I bought in Quito. I wasn’t expecting anything in return, but she ran to her house and grabbed the headdress she has that indicates what family she belongs to. She’s the daughter of the President, so hers was a wood headband decorated with white and black soft feathers, and it had one tall blue macaw feather standing up in the back. It was easily the sweetest and most beautiful gesture and gift I’ve ever received.

Photo above from left to right: Brooke Eyler, Yalina, Janita, me.

The title of this post sounds cheesy. “Finding family in a foreign country” sounds so typical of a movie plot line. But I feel like part of me is left in Gomaton right now with those people. They took us in like family and joked around with us, laughing all day long and showing us their way of life. Without a doubt, I’ll be returning whenever I can. They have such a beautiful way of life that seems “simple” from a stereotypical Western perspective, but is actually filled with so much love, meaning, appreciation for nature and each other, and so much more. The moments we had of laughing over shared experiences, holding hands with the kids, jumping in the waterfall, and being offered many hands up treacherous slopes has tied my heart to this place forever.

It was so difficult saying goodbye to such a beautiful place with some of the kindest, most open people I’ve ever met, but this trip has brought me so many good things. Here’s to all of the life-changing things Ecuador has brought so far and will continue to bring us.

Katie Gallo

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