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Thursday, February 26, 2015

THE AMAZON!!! (Part 1-- Waorani Culture and Hiking with Pegonka)

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With my incredible Waorani guide named Pegonka, by a giant ceiba tree

Oh, where to begin!?  I just spent four wonder-filled days deep in the Amazon of Ecuador!  From the jungle's edge, I took a three-passenger plane over the rain forest and then a canoe ride down a river to a remote indigenous community, and it was AMAZING! (I'm sure that the words amazing and Amazon must be linguistically related.)


So, I'm putting together a series of blog posts about my adventure, but it's so hard to figure out where to start.  I'll just dive right in and hope you come back to read my next posts, too, so you get a sense of the whole experience.

My comfy cabin with screen-walls

I stayed at the Huaorani (aka Waorani) Ecolodge right on the gorgeous Shiripuno river, which is part of the Amazon watershed. I chose this place because it's run by the indigenous Waorani people themselves, and it's a very culture-focused experience.  I would highly recommend this place/tour if you're interested in indigenous cultures and ethnobotany.

With Pegonka, blowgun and spear ready, about to leave on a hike together.

I felt so lucky that there was only one other guest there with me, so I had a very personalized experience.  The other guest spoke no Spanish and was more into animals than people/culture, so she mostly hung behind with the English-speaking guide... which meant that Pegonka (who spoke Spanish and Waorani) and I got to hang out together much of the time and have fascinating conversations.

He's 21 years old, and spent his childhood swinging on vines, climbing 5-story-high trees, having blowgun fights with his buddies, swimming in the river... he had lots of great stories.  I went alone on this trip, but would love to bring Lil Dude here when he's a few years older.  He was enraptured with the blowgun and spear I brought back for him...

We wore these rubber boots to protect our legs from snakebites, since there are some pretty deadly ones around here, like the fer-de-lance. Also, it was extremely muddy-- as in suck-your-leg-in-up-to-your-knee-muddy, so the boots helped with that, too.

Pegonka is working on a monography for his school project now... many of the young people were doing this-- recording aspects of their culture, which has been changing over the past several decades, largely because of oil drilling in their territory.  The drilling has brought horrible pollution and related health problems in other parts of their land.  (We weren't in that area, though-- the forest we were in felt like paradise.)  This unwelcome invasion of their territory prompted them to reach out to international indigenous rights organizations a couple decades ago.

Here, Pegonka is using a rolled-up leaf to imitate toucan calls.  Most Waorani I talked with could imitate all kinds of animal calls-- like birds and owls and caiman-- a skill used for hunting and also for communicating with other Waorani at a distance.  Until a few decades ago, they were warriors, and were often in violent conflict with the other indigenous groups in the area (Quichua and Achuar).  Back then, there was a spear-your-enemy-on-sight ethic, from what my new Wao friends told me.

"Monkey's Comb"-- A seed from a tree that monkeys use to groom each other!

On our hikes, I learned so much about the ways animals and Waorani people use the plants in the forest...

 This plant is used as a toothbrush with built-in toothpaste.  Cool, no?

Pegonka was an incredible tree-climber-- a skill that most kids have mastered already by age 7 or 8.  He uses this wreath of vines-- which he made on the spot-- to help him climb trees while carrying his heavy 10-foot-long blowgun and darts and equipment.

As you'll see in later pics, he only needs this extra help when he's planning on shooting an animal from high in the tree and needs to be able to hold himself there with his hands free...

He is VERY high up in the tree now... many stories high, maybe a hundred feet or so.

This photo is really zoomed in-- you can see him getting ready to shoot.

And now, my feeble attempt... ha!

That's about as far up as I got!  The woven vines helped me brace myself with my feet, but my arms weren't strong enough to heave up my body.  I think my husband, Ian, would've been awesome at this, though-- he's pretty strong and agile. (Alas, he was home with Lil Dude and Grammy.)


The Waorani use poison-tipped darts in their blowguns to hunt for food.  The poison comes from a ground-up liana (vine) -- I'll explain more of that process in another post.  

He uses a cottony substance from the ceiba tree to wrap around the dart so that it fills the hole of the blowgun and creates a kind of pressure, which means that when you blow, the dart goes really far.

I was actually good at this (though I needed Pegonka's help in holding up the blowgun since it was so long and heavy.)  (And who knows, maybe he helped me a bit with my aim, now that I think about it ... ;-)

Look! I hit the target (that flower) on the first try!

We didn't actually hunt any animals, but Pegonka explained that the poison enters the bloodstream and makes the animal (often a monkey) loopy and sleepy, and they fall out of the tree, and can then be killed.

There were other foods that came from the forest... mysterious fruits I'd never seen or tasted before, and insects, like these ants that live symbiotically inside a branch.  I ate some, but they were so teeny-tiny, it was hard to figure out what they tasted like.

You can see a diagonal scar on Pegonka's cheek.  This is a kind of coming-of-age ritual-- it's done with a special vine, and makes an abrasion on the cheek.  His brother did this to Pegonka's cheek several months ago, and in several more months,  he'll do it again, on the same spot, to make the scar more distinct. (Yes, it hurt!)

On to spear-throwing!  In the past, these spears were used on their enemies, as I mentioned.  Usually, the spears would be thrown while running, but we did it while standing still.

I wasn't so great at this... I think I need to start lifting weights or something in preparation for the next jungle trip I take.

My cabin was simple and sweet.... and it was pure magic to sleep with the symphony of insects and birds and frogs around me. The sounds of the jungle are a huge part of the experience-- it's like these musical sculptures dancing all around you, all the time...

You know, I hardly got any bug bites at all in the Amazon.  It was the beginning of rainy season, and there were definitely bugs there, but they left me alone.  I attribute it to the permithrin spray that Ian put on my clothes as a Valentine's Day present before I left.  He wore a mask and gloves while applying it outside, but then, once it dried, it was totally non-toxic and didn't smell and I couldn't even notice it was on the clothes.   (And supposedly it lasts through many washings, too.)  Normally I stay away from synthetic chemical stuff like this, but the guy at the outdoor store, Jax, recommended using it along with herbal spray on my skin-- that's what he uses on his trips to the Amazon.  He felt like it was overall less toxic and more effective than DEET.  And based on my experience, I agree.

Pegonka painted my cheeks with river clay, which is done when you go to visit friends, to make yourself look nice.  In another post, I'll show you pics of red-face-paint-gone-wild!

Behold the misty jungle river that greeted me every morning on awakening, just steps from my cabin...

In my next post, I'll introduce you to the whole, wonderful Waorani community that I hung out with during my stay-- probably about 20 people total, including kids and babies-- all part of an extended family.  I loved talking with people (most spoke at least some Spanish), and we formed some really lovely bonds (which is why I'm already talking about going back...)

My little buddy, Fredy, in the foreground.  Luis with the Justin Beiber T-shirt in the background, holding the bamboo pole.  Laura with her sweet smile, nursing her daughter.

Also, in the next few posts, I'll show you pics of our gorgeous dug-out canoe rides, the teeny plane I flew in on, our piranha-fishing trip, our enchanting waterfall limpia (spiritual cleaning), me chillin' in a vine-hammock, a woman making chicha, a fun traditional marriage dance, an insanely cute baby-in-a-hammock, and all the other stuff that I want to tell you about all at once.... but I must be patient!  Oh, and I also have pics of Maria Virginia (The Queen of Water) and her daughter in Otavalo, in the Andes, and in Quito, where we did a fun school visit. So much to show you!!

 Now I'm off to wash clothes and catch up on emails...

Thanks for reading!  Come back soon for the next batch of photos!



  1. What an amazing adventure! Looks like you had a wonderful time Laura!

  2. Hi Laura, I´m Xavier Project Manager of the Huaorani Ecolodge, Javier the tour guide that was with you during the trip share with mi your blog.
    I`m very happy that you enjoy your experience learning and sharing with the Huaorani People during your trip, you are know contributing to this conservation project that has as a main goal to protect the Amazon rain forest through eco tourism, involving the local community for this achievement, I invite you to look Tropic Ecological adventures website there you can find many other community based and conservation projects that we are running all around Ecuador.


  3. Love this post, Laura. And what gorgeous photographs! Think about taking Lil Dude when he's 12 or 13. We took our son at that age to the rainforest and it was an amazing experience for all of us. We didn't know at the time (until our son who was sitting with the pilot told us) that the tiny plane we were in had no working dials -- pilot was flying with a hand-held GPS! The most amazing views, however. Like "giant broccoli" our son said. Can't wait for your next installment!

  4. Thanks, Amy... looking forward to telling you more about it over lunch sometime!

  5. Thanks for the advice, Katie. Yes, that's about the age I was thinking for Lil Dude. The tour guide said that eleven was about the youngest he'd seen on the tour. And oh my gosh, Katie-- I would've freaked out about the lack of working dials in the plane! Good thing you didn't find out till afterward... ;-) I sat next to the pilot on our tiny plane, and it was a tad nerve-wracking, even with the dials in working order... ;-)

  6. Xavier, I really enjoyed my experience at the lodge-- you all do a fantastic job with it. Thanks for the link to the other projects-- I like your philosophy. Javier was an awesome tour guide, by the way. I have some great pics of him which I'll share in another post. :-)

  7. Hi Laurita,

    I concur, beautiful photos. I liked being close enough to see the perspiration beads on your guide's nose as he used the blow dart. Your cabin looked like a very special little retreat, too. It made me remember our S's & my trip to Ecuador... like we talked about, there were differences, but I think (this is obvious) that one of the main things that helps you connect so well is your Spanish. It will be so great that B can speak it, too, when you go back. Love,

  8. Truly AMAZING Laura!!!! I ❤️ your descriptions of the sounds as "musical sculptures." Your perceptions are gorgeous. So jealous! Are you working on research for a new book?

  9. I need to use your posts as travel guides -- my daughter has been planning a trip for us to the AMAZON when she promotes from 8th grade in 3 years! She's been planning it since she was 6. 😃

  10. Thanks for swinging by, Andrea! Yes, I felt really grateful to speak fluent Spanish-- we could go so much deeper in conversations that way. I heard some fascinating stories which I'll talk about in later posts... stuff that probably wouldn't have come up if we'd been talking through an interpreter. Now you'll just have to find some Amazonian groups that speak German... ;-)

  11. Hey Lori!

    Thanks for your nice comments. You know, I do actually have an idea for a book that's partly set in the Amazon... we'll see what happens with that!

    And how cool that your daughter is a kindred traveling spirit! I absolutely love that this has been a lifelong dream of hers. What an awesome girl. Stay tuned for my next few posts-- they might give you two some ideas. And of course, feel free to email when the time draws nearer and I can give you personalized advice... :-)

  12. How very, very cool. I went to the Amazon in Peru many years ago and just loved it. I'm sure you are collecting (and will write) amazing stories based on this experience.

  13. Leah-- Thanks for your comments! One cool thing about my trip is that I've been discovering that several other writer friends of mine have also had their own Amazon adventures! We should all get together and reminisce together...

    Big congrats on the Parents' Choice Award for LOST GIRL FOUND, by the way! So glad that good things are happening with the book.

  14. Wow. Just, wow. So what's Waorani for "holy moly, how exciting"? That is mainly what I have to say in response to this awesome post. Incredible photos, too. And I'm fascinated by all the little details you shared. An anthropology dream trip. Can't wait for the next posts. Will be in touch soon! xo

  15. this is incredible! I had no idea the blow guns were that long (among other things I had no idea about.)

  16. Thanks, Melissa! I was surprised by the length of the blowguns, too! The ones I got for Ian and my Lil Dude were significantly smaller-- they just barely fit into my suitcase. :-)

  17. Thanks, Richele! I know only one word in Waorani, and it's WAPONI, which seems to be a positive, one-size-fits-all word (meaning: hi, what's up, good, cool, etc... It's not too much of a stretch to think it might translate to "Holy Moly" too. ;-)