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Memories of my travels between 1972 and 1982

Monday, 22 November 2010

November 22nd: Dayuno in Eastern Ecuador

On November 22nd 1975 I was in Dayuno on the Nushino River in eastern Ecuador.

In Quito it had been suggested to me that, if I wanted to visit Amazonian Indians, I should look for a guide called Hector in Puerto Misahualli.  He took small groups to the Huaorani.  After a few days hanging out in Banos and doing some walks, I took the bus down to the jungle.  I met Austrians Andreas and Monika on the way down who were also looking for a guide.  Misahualli was tiny, but it did have a couple of hotels offering simple lodging and a shop.  We had a meal at Hector's place, discussing the trip, singing Ecuadorean songs, drinking mucho aguardiente, with Hector's brother Hugo playing guitar.

At breakfast next morning Hector had found a new arrival, Vietnam veteran Jeff, and suggested leaving immediately with Hugo as guide.  It turned out that Hugo hadn't done the journey before but that was not really much of an issue.  We bought what food we could, rice, sardines and chocolate, and some gifts, and went through the police check.  We took a motorised canoe, which had a leak and 15 passengers, and then the rain came down.  We got to Campana Cocha, a Quechua-speaking village where we were to leave our main rucksacks.  I carried what else I needed in an improvised pack made out of my plastic poncho and it was never comfortable.  We then set out past maize and banana fields.  We walked for the best part of six hours and at some speed because we had to get to our destination by nightfall, which meant passing over a watershed and carrying on as far as the next river.  There was not much to see, the huge trees, some red flowers and, high up, the clouds, but there were lots of sounds.  As it was getting dark we passed a group of Huaorani going the other way and immediately there we were on a cliff and the river Nushino was at our feet.  We were rowed across the river, which was only about 20 or 30 feet wide, and were welcomed under a bamboo shelter with a platform.  We were given yucca and fish, rice and noodle soup which contained monkey meat.  The senora ran the show and spoke a little Spanish.  Crocodile was another favourite for them to eat she said.

In the morning, after not much sleep, we were rowed along the river by two boys, and this was truly atmospheric, a narrow river, no engine, no radio, early morning mist over the water, many birds, different parrots and green kingfishers.  Two canoes passed us going the other way carrying mainly women.  Then on a bend shortly before Dayuno, our destination, was a Huaorani standing absolutely still on his canoe, his hairstyle characteristic, long at the front and short at the back, and he was fishing with a blowpipe.  After landing we put our things into a newly-built platform bamboo house, which was where we were to spend the night, and set out to look around. 

It immediately became clear that there was no-one who spoke Spanish there, as the Catholic priest who ran a small school was away.  However we were still made welcome.  There were several women and children there but only two men who had not gone away.  One of the women was a great mimic: she spent much of the time with us imitating what were saying, in Spanish, English and German, causing herself and everyone else endless laughter.  We gave cigarettes and sweets, were given good little bananas in return and then we were shown around.  The village was spread out around a beach on a curve of the river, with little fields of yucca, bananas and something which looked like small coconut palms at one end; they also kept chickens and a pig, attended by an egret.  There was a school and a latrine and large, open bamboo huts where people slept, often under mosquito nets.  They did not use money but bartered, even when they went to town. It seemed a happy place, with an easy pace of life, enlivened by bursts of activity.

We went into one of the large low huts where the people lived.  One of the older men was lying back on a hammock, watching us through the smoky air.  Looking around I could see they had a variety of artefacts made from gathered materials, some like the hammocks made of twisted vines, others for example using gourds.  Pride of place, however, went to the blowguns, quivers and bowls for the fibre used to hold the arrows in the guns.  I did however notice a good knife and we knew that they sometimes used guns and bullets for hunting nowadays.  We were shown how to handle the blowguns and how to tip the arrows with curare, and we had plenty of practice at shooting, to peals of laughter.  Andreas and Jeff both wanted blowguns and set about bartering.  I gave a man a tee-shirt which he immediately put on, and I gave a woman a mirror.  She went away and came back to give me an arrow-set, again to great amusement, and eventually I passed these on to Andreas as I could not carry them with me on my travels.

The journey back the next day was more relaxed in clearer weather.  At a river crossing we sat, drank and bathed for an hour.  Later we passed a group of Indians going the other way, running at great speed.  In Campana Coche we had pineapples, the best I have ever eaten, and a good meal.  We stayed at Alejandro's place, a comfortable house like most of those in the village, where everything was nicely laid out.

There is quite a lot of back story to the Huaorani.  For long they were called the Auca, still were when I was there, and it took me a while to realise they were one and the same.  Auca was a derogatory Quechua term and contributed to their image.  They were warlike and feared.  In the 50's a group of American missionaries from the Wycliffe Bible Translators, affiliated with SIL, the Summer Institute of Linguistics, were killed by them.  The sister of one of those killed returned and managed to convert a group of Huaorani.  Some groups receded to the deep forest to live without contact.  I believe that the Dayuno group were ones who were trying to live in a halfway house, with limited contact and a Catholic priest and a school, and welcomed the sort of controlled tourism I encountered.  However I believe the conflicts between missionaries and the converted and unconverted Huaorani continue.  They have protected land but this is an area many are keen to exploit for petrol.

Hugh Thomson, as recorded in his book The White Rock, stayed at Misahualli in 1982.  He too was looking for companions for a river trip; he found them and visited sites on the Napo.  Perhaps the inhabitants of Dayuno had cut themselves off by then.

Blowgun equipment like items I used:  Picture Tong-Jen, CC
Huaorani Man in 2008: picture by bbcworldservice, CC
Misahualli in 2006: Picture by Colonos, CC

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