What a Trip: In the Amazon jungle, spending time with an indigenous tribe


Kevin Dimetres, far right, of Annandale ventured to Ecuador’s Amazonian region to learn trades and traditions of the Waorani tribe. (Kevin Dimetres)
May 29

Our readers share tales of their rambles around the world.

Who: Kevin Dimetres of Annandale.

Where, when, why: The Amazon jungle, Ecuador, last summer for one week. I wanted to spend time with an indigenous tribe and learn how to construct a hammock from scratch in the jungle with natural materials.

Highlights and high points: After arriving in Quito, Ecuador, I traveled south on local buses to the village of Misahualli, on the edge of the Amazon jungle, where I was introduced to a Waorani woman named Carmen. I introduced myself as a history teacher and explained my quest to learn how to make a hammock using traditional Waorani techniques, and she invited me to spend a few days with her family’s tribe in the Waorani Ethnic Reserve in the jungle.

Arriving there, I saw a group of women spitting chunks of a yellowish substance into a large bowl. This was chicha, an alcoholic beverage made from the fermented, chewed-up pulp of the yucca plant, that tribe members drink socially and on special occasions. The sight of women chewing yucca and spitting mouthfuls of yellowish glop into a community bowl assured me that I was nowhere close to Kansas anymore. But I was willing to embrace the experience of living as a native Amazonian to the fullest, so I put the bowl to my lips and chugged away.

On a more in-depth level, I witnessed a lifestyle of old tribal traditions that was slowly integrating modern-day capitalism and global connectedness. The elder generation, displaying stretched earlobes with holes the size of silver dollars, spoke only the traditional Waorani language and showed no interest in learning Spanish (never mind English) or any curiosity about me. The adult generation was reluctantly beginning to embrace the customs of the modern world, “giving” me spears, hand-woven bags and tribal jewelry before then “asking” for money. The younger generation was fascinated and followed me around everywhere as I taught them how to take a picture with a camera or write their names in English and introduced them to new styles of music on my iPod. I can proudly say that I introduced the music of Bob Marley and the Wu-Tang Clan to the tribes of the Amazon jungle.

Cultural connection or disconnect: The Waorani have historically been violent and resistant to outsiders, so I thought it best to establish positive relationships with the children as a path to acceptance by the rest of the tribe. I’d brought along things for them to play with, including a few tennis balls. They were fascinated by the fuzzy green ball, the way it looked, the way it felt and the way it bounced. I showed them how to play catch, and eventually, the concept of throwing a ball back and forth for pleasure started to sink in. Before I knew it, everyone wanted to play. Soon the tennis balls were flying all over the place as the children giggled with delight. Over the following days, I taught them how to pitch and hit the ball with a stick, and a jungle version of Home Run Derby — whoever can hit the ball past a certain line the most times wins — naturally emerged.

Eventually, the Waorani taught me in return how to throw a spear, how to accurately shoot a poison dart blowgun, and how to make a hammock from scratch.

Biggest laugh or cry: The most extraordinary scene occurred during a tribal feast on my first night in the community hut. After two peccary (jungle pigs) were slaughtered for our meal, each child and teenager was called to the middle of the hut and ceremonially whipped on the arm. I was informed that this was a sign of respect for a member of the tribe who had chopped off his hand while cutting up a peccary with a machete. This individual was there, sure enough, with the lower part of his arm bandaged up. In the eyes of the Waorani, he had sacrificed his arm so that the rest of the tribe could eat. In return, they demonstrated their gratitude by being whipped on the arm as a way of sharing his pain. I willingly participated in this ritual and had my arm whipped before accepting any food. It didn’t hurt enough to cry, nor did I find it amusing enough to laugh. But I couldn’t help wondering whether an outsider like me had ever before been privileged to participate in this particular ritual. And the thought was so overwhelming that I broke down in giggles and tears simultaneously. Despite the gag-inducing chicha and the unsanitary peccary meat and organs, that meal remains one of the best and most memorable I’ve ever had.

How unexpected: Class warfare and social prejudices exist even among the tribal communities of the Amazon jungle. The Waorani who live deeper in the jungle and lack access to the fruits of the modern world are resentful of those who have the means to acquire highly desirable items such as guns, tools and boots, and act aggressively and violently toward them. Simultaneously, those Waorani with greater access to modern resources have a more negative perspective on the distant jungle tribes. It’s surprisingly similar to the social perceptions that have historically existed between city dwellers and country folk, and very much like the animosity between the upper and lower classes that we see in the United States and elsewhere.

Fondest memento or memory: As we said our goodbyes after four days, a woman I had spent much time with told my guide that she wanted to know exactly what my name was. I wrote it down for her, and we practiced pronouncing it together until she became comfortable saying it. She then pointed to the baby boy she was holding and repeatedly said “Kevin.” I looked at my guide for clarification, and she confirmed that the baby was now going to be named Kevin. Wait — what? Never in my wildest dreams had I imagined that a Waorani woman would name her youngest son after me. But today you can find a young boy named Kevin living on the Waorani Ethnic Reserve in the Amazon jungle.

To tell us about your own trip, go to www.washingtonpost.com/travel and fill out the What a Trip form with your fondest memories, finest moments and favorite photos.

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