Tena Stories and Tips

Day 2 - Smoking Shamans

Indigenous Communities - Cuyabeno National Reserve Photo, Ecuador, South America

The first full day of my jungle adventure was not spent searching for pink dolphins and anacondas, but instead visiting a local indigenous Siona community and a nearby Shaman, coined as one of the most famous in all of Ecuador.

Having wanted to have an extended stay with an indigenous jungle community, this day out of all was the one that filled me with the greatest excitement. The main reason for this was somehow managing to come up with the dream of running alongside fellow naked tribesmen, shooting poisoned arrows from our blowpipes in the hope of feeding us for the evening. Walking back into the village as the sun sets, a huge capybara slung over my shoulder, the village elders come out to see what an accomplished hunter I am. In fact so happy are they at my efforts the elders offer me the best house in the village and a choice of the prettiest girls. Of course being happily in love, I would have to politely turn down these offers.

Okay, so such a dream had very little chance of coming true suppose, but it did surprise me upon reaching the village at how westernized everyone was. For a start there was no nakedness, in fact some of the younger adults were dressed like they were on Oxford Street in London. Houses even had TV's and DVD's, with electricity coming from generators.

Even so, the communities here still live a fairly sheltered and simple life, surviving from their plantations of banana, papaya, maize and yucca (a kind of cassava) plants. Small animals are also reared, while several types of fish, including piranha are abundant in the surrounding rivers. The coca tree is also grown as one of just a handful of money making options, with the tree's beans sold at local markets and fetching a price much higher than other cash crops such as maize. The one thing that amazed me more than anything else though were the small wooden shacks set up along the riverbanks as telephone kiosks, where the owner would hand out their mobile to paying customers.

I was later to find out that such naked tribes, mainly the Huaorani Indians, only number 800 out of the entire Ecuadorian population and you need government approval to even contact the tribe in the first place, and still being nomads they aren't the easiest to track down either.

Tourism offers another lucrative money making option, but in this area of the jungle only one house has opened up to this option. The rest of the village seems to shun such activities and the camera touting tourists that this industry brings. At times such an atmosphere made me feel slightly awkward, but the rest of my fellow tourists seemed oblivious to such feelings. I wondered why the $3 fee to enter the village was only going to one family, but after hearing that the money was going to be used to pay for their children to continue their education in the distant town of Lago Agrio, I felt slightly better.

During the two hours in the village the majority of the time was spent learning how to make yucca tortillas. Now this might not sound like the most interesting way to spend your time while in the jungle, but it was a quality experience. From seeing the root vegetables plucked from the ground, we were shown and even allowed to help in the step by step processes, such as the peeling, the grinding, the drying and the cooking of the yucca before finally getting to taste the cooked tortillas. To be honest they were very bland but a little pineapple jam that our guide had brought along helped immensely.

As to be expected, being a male and trying my hand at cooking, I was more of a hindrance than a help. Instead of grinding the yucca through the homemade corrugated sharp metal grater, I accidentally grated my finger instead, quickly colouring the virgin white mashed vegetable a nice shad of red. Luckily I noticed quickly enough to mix the spilt blood evenly through the yucca so it wasn't so obvious. I quickly changed hands, hiding my cut hand in my pocket. Luckily no-one was none of the wiser to what had happened, all busy clicking away at their digital high-tech cameras.

While watching the remarkably easy step by step teaching of cooking a yucca tortilla the village chief came over to visit, I think to try and cash in on the lucrative tourism market. He was dressed in his Sunday best, which in this case was a dirty old white night gown and a tattered old American flag bandana. To finish off his chief uniform he had painted his face with red circles, so that he more resembled a clown than anything else. I would have happily taken a photo of him, but after politely asking and being told one photo would set me back a dollar, I decided against it.

I was very happy to have turned this offer down. A few conversations later I heard our guide asked the village chief if there was anything he wanted for his 85th birthday. With a wry little smile protruding from his face, the chief replied "bring me some cute 14 year old girls". I'm sad to say that this doesn’t seem to be just a rare case of lusting after young girls. The driver of our canoe, already taking on the responsibilities of a fully grown man, even at the tender age of 16 years is marrying his 14 year old girlfriend next month. Many girls in this area already have children at this age. Views of sex as well are certainly different her to many Western countries. Our guide informed us that it is custom for women not to show any signs of enjoyment during sex, and certainly no screams or squeals of pleasure should ever leave their tongue. This re-emphasises the male’s position as the dominant head of the household.

After the indigenous community visit, it was time to visit probably the most important member of indigenous communities throughout the Oriente, even with such Westernized traditions infiltrating into the traditional culture. It was time to meet the Shaman, this Shaman unlike others though is probably the most famous and well known in all of Ecuador, regularly venturing to other Shaman loving countries and even meeting past Ecuadorian presidents.

After giving us an educational talk about the importance of his job in the Ecuadorian indigenous communities and telling of his medicinal knowledge of close to 700 plants he chose myself to demonstrate how he carried out his evil spirit cleansing rituals. I'm sure most of his talk was true and full of good information but I am a little sceptical of some of the information he was stating, especially that his grandfather died three years ago aged 180 years. I think time in this part of the world goes by in a completely different manner.

Clad in all his Shaman attire, once finished carrying out the demonstration of his daily job, he kicked back his feet, lit a cigarette and got to work fixing his mechanical diesel powered propeller. It seems this is a sign of the times and again of Western influence here. The Shamans house although traditionally built comes complete with an outhouse bathroom, flushable toilet and ceramic wash basin.

After saying our goodbyes to the Shaman and his family, having a quick play with their pet marmoset, and trying our best to get his propeller back into working order, we finished off the day swimming along the Cuyabeno River amongst the many Cayman crocodiles, piranhas, and leeches that also like to call the river their home. Luckily none of which made themselves known, only a lonesome turtle wanting a little company.

Just as I was thinking what an enjoyable day had been had I accidentally put my foot on a spiked piece of tree trunk that was hiding underneath the river bed. Painful as it was, luckily no hospital treatment was needed but I did have to spend the 1 hour canoe ride back to our lodge trying to carve out the 10 spikes that had implanted themselves into my heel with my pocket knife, much to some disapproving and unimpressed looks from the rest of my tour group. I got them all out in time for dinner and was fully fit to face another day of jungle shenanigans.

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