Do you set high expectations for your next travel experience? You should, of course, but if you’re anything like me you’re looking to one-up with an adventure that does more than live up to past experiences. You crave a new experience, one that takes you on a “life changing” or “mind-blowing” adventure. Ideally, both.
I define adventure simply as an activity or trip with an unknown outcome; to large extent one where the outdoors is central. The notion of getting hit – and hard! – with a new-to-me array of thrills, sensations or life-heightening experiences is so compelling it can drive me well out of my comfort zone.
Is this you, too? If you’ve been blessed with a history of life-changing and mind-blowing travel experiences, you may recognize the drawback: your expectations get set higher with each adventure.
An adventure snob is not to be confused with a travel snob or the debates around the differences between travel and tourism. Those are other subjects. Accepting that you are a true adventure snob is saying that you are a seasoned traveler who has the grit, honesty and experience to realize that for you no longer will just any adventure do. You possess a distilled sense of what it takes to satisfy your personal need for authentic adventure, and there’s nothing to debate.
I am an adventure snob. So when I was asked by Bozeman, Mont.-based sustainable adventure tour operator Detour Destinations to take a trip to the Amazon rainforest in Ecuador to visit the Huaorani people and the ecolodge built to support the tribe, I had my doubts. While Detour has been an early and vocal supporter of the Huaorani and the trip to the ecolodge, would the trip be right for me? With the goal of providing honest feedback on the trip and to write about the experience, would my adventure snobbery bias my reporting? In my travel infancy I would have jumped at the opportunity, even taking the good news to the streets to hug every passerby I encountered. But, having been to the Amazon rainforest many times, often to remote regions for weeks at a time without a guide, I had to consider whether a four-day guided trip to the ecolodge could measure up.
Spoiler alert: It does — beyond my wildest dreams!
When the small Cessna banked for its final approach to land in Huaorani territory, our group focused its gaze below on people bunched together on either side of a grass runway. Huaorani of all ages had flowed in from the jungle to meet the plane. On the ground, the joyful, chatty Huaorani rushed to greet us and to help unload the baggage. I was swept quickly into the celebration, but I also kept a steady eye on my bag. Always prudent in a swarm, correct? Even when the people seemed genuinely friendly, honest, trustworthy, right? Based on lessons learned in past travels, I felt a conflict brewing between my instincts and travel savvy. Lucky for me, it was the Huaorani who stood in the middle of this conflict. Over the next few days I would learn that the Huaorani had a lot to teach me about, well, me, and my adventure snobbery.
And they did it by doing nothing more than being themselves. “Huaorani” means “the people” to the tribe, perhaps 5,000 members today. Where Americans find patriotic strength as “the people” described in the Constitution of the United States of America, for the Huaorani the distinction takes a more universal meaning, as in “the bravest, strongest, fiercest and most paramount people of all.” The Huaorani are indeed a proud people who would like nothing more than to remain hidden in the rainforest, far from “civilization.” Unfortunately, oil and gas development and deforestation from palm oil plantations drove the Huaorani into the open to confront the threats and to fight for their rights.
Now contained on a 6,200-square-kilometer piece of land overlapping the protected Yasuni National Park, one portion of the tribe has strengthened its tenuous hold on at least some of its ancestral land by embracing tourism. They created the Huaorani Ecolodge, a five-cabin retreat located a short distance from the airstrip down the Shiripuno River. The lodge would be our base for two of the three nights we spent with the Huaorani. The ecolodge was built in partnership of the Huaorani tribe and Tropic, a forward-thinking Ecuadorian travel company with a mission of supporting sustainable, local travel within Ecuador. The lodge, which is fully owned by the Huaorani, supports the Huaorani people by employing Huaorani families who take turns at the lodge as kitchen staff, grounds keepers and guides, and by providing profits to be shared by all. More importantly, the ecolodge attracts visitors who are looking for a wild, authentic rainforest experience and who care for the deepening plight of the tribes of the Amazon Basin.
Although the Huaorani Ecolodge currently receives up to 350 visitors per year, limiting the income the Huaorani receive, they accept the lodge as the best way to expose their land, people and culture to the outside world, while maintaining some control over the pace of change that occurs in their lifestyle. Whether it stands to support permanent protection from a government with expressed needs for revenue from its mineral and forest resources (and who ultimately own the mineral rights beneath the ground), who knows? The struggle is relentless, having for decades now turned from doubtful to promising and, as of today, back to doubtful again.
Loaded into a large canoe with our gear, we set afloat bombarded with sights, sounds and movement, but it is not easy to see that our Huaorani guide Bai is fighting for his people. He’s staring into the tree canopy from where he stands at the front of the canoe, or wepo, which was hand-hewed from a jungle tree. He points out a toucan, a termite nest, anything that catches his eye. He says he’s looking for monkeys. Gabo, our second guide, an Ecuadorian from Quito, translates everything Bai says for the group. We’re mesmerized, not just by the forest but by Bai. He looks so wild, so real deal … so, warrior.
Over our four days with Bai, he’s always looking … for something. I had seen this behavior before in ship captains who look endlessly out to sea, scanning the water … for something. “There,” says Bai (through translation), “monkey!” Overhead is a trio of Titi monkeys, hopping tree branches to cross the river.
It appears Bai enjoys our company.
With Bai leading, over our four days we visit three Huaorani villages, including Bai’s home. At each, we’re welcomed in the same manner by all, with smiles, chatter and, forgive the French, a pervading joi de vivre that works like a drug to warm our already high spirits. With the naked, grinning young boys at the first village, I raise my hand for a high five. Nothing. I knuckle up for a fist bump. Nothing again, other than shy, bewildered looks behind beaming smiles. Obviously, “the people” prefer their ways to the gringo.
Something is coming over me. In witnessing the ways of the Huaorani, my entire being seems to be swelling with gratitude … no, something greater. Something like ambrosia. Spending time among authentic forest-built people is getting to me, and I recognize the opportunity as a pure privilege, one so rich that I feel bad for ever questioning it.
We wander through the village to a traditional longhouse used for gatherings, where inside women and girls are seated behind handmade crafts. They’ve been expecting us. We enter to the theme of laughing and chatting, and not a soul takes a break to speak up to sell a basket, a bracelet laced with seeds or a necklace adorned with peccary tusks or a howler monkey vocal box. Competition bartering is not the Huaorani way, we learn. It never has been and from what we see no changes to the practice will be happening anytime soon. Either we want what they have or we don’t, goes the Huaorani thinking. As the forest provides most of the Huaorani needs, the crafts are proud expressions of their culture.
While the Huaorani are content to put all their effort into making the crafts and not selling them, I find the unpushy approach refreshing, even uplifting. Suddenly, I feel like buying. As I ask about this item and that one I realize that I’m not really looking to buy, I’m looking to engage the people. It’s fun and easy with the Huaorani people, and I walk away gifted with more crafts than I bargained for.
Before we can gather to go, several of the women and girls stand, assemble in two rows, and face us. As usual, their faces beam. They begin to chant, and then to dance. They extend a hand to the women in our group, inviting them into the dance. I take photos and videos, so many that on our first full day with the Huaorani I begin to wonder whether my two cameras hold enough digital memory to capture this trip.
Everything, the forest, the villages, the people, is so beautiful.
Our final days are spent visiting more of the Huaorani people, village by village, family by family, and learning their ways. More dancing, more sharing. In the forest, Bai shows us how the Huaorani use vines looped about their feet to climb trees, a skill that over time transforms their feet into inward-bent tree-gripping tools. We watch and learn, and are provided the opportunity to climb trees the Huaorani way. Bai shows us how to use a blowgun, a spear and to make a basket to carry bushmeat harvested during a hunt. With kindness, splendid detail and a smile, he tells traditional stories.
At Bai’s home, we are introduced to his wife Beba, one of his daughters and a grandchild. His wife gives me a Huaorani name, Nantowe, which I understand to mean the bullet ant, or “conga,” a stealthy, crafty ant with the most powerful bite in the jungle. The painful bite of the conga is memorable, lasting for a good day. The men take turns sparking a fire, using only a stick spun back and forth in their hands until the heated tip ignites cotton from a kapok tree.
Bai and another Huaorani man strip off their shirts and ask the same of me and another visitor. We are equipped with a spear and a grass wand, and our faces painted with red achiote. Bai leads us in a dance, a shuffle set to the pace of a guttural chant. I chant, I dance, I shuffle, trying to keep rhythm and pace with the Huaorani. A woman smears my face with more achiote, giggling with each swipe, and I, Nantowe, raise my chin, stand tall and, for the first time in what seems like ages, breathe deeply.
Then, it hits me like the bite of a bullet ant. To now, I had relied on gaining on past experiences to satisfy an adventure, which usually included both a journey and destination, but rarely had I taken the time to get to know the people along the journey. Sure, I had met many fascinating people, including indigenous people, but I had not taken the time to get to “know” them.
Now that I had spent quality time with the Huaorani, my life had indeed changed, fully satisfying the evergreen hope I cling to for any adventure. The best part: thanks to the Huaorani I felt a whole new world of adventure opening up to me.
In this world, even snobs can do little more than surrender. The wild adventure of exploring and getting to know new cultures and people is both unequivocal journey and destination, complete with an unknown outcome.
If you want to experience the Huaorani Ecolodge for yourself, contact Detour, The Local Travel Marketplace, online at www.detourdestinations.com or via phone at 1-866-386-4168.