A couple of Norwegians and I stood in the middle of the Amazon jungle, surrounded by chanting Waorani tribesmen. It was an unfamiliar situation for me, but as it turned out, the Norwegians were about to do something far more unexpected.
I’d traveled to the Ecuadorian Amazon, and I was staying with an indigenous Waorani community a few hours' canoe ride into the jungle. I’m normally shy with strangers, but I hadn’t spoken English with anyone in a week and was getting lonely. So when I saw some European tourists arrive in a canoe, I transformed into an extrovert and struck up a conversation. I spent a few minutes convincing them that I wasn't a missionary, a researcher or a member of a tour group.
"You’re here by yourself?" asked the woman when she finally believed me. "Wow, you must be like one of the Waorani by now."
I shrugged like it was true but I was too modest to say so. I didn’t mention that, since I couldn’t speak the Waorani language, I’d spent most of my week in the jungle hanging out with the village's pet spider monkey.
Traditional activities in the jungle
If you're a Waorani in the Amazon and you want to earn some money (which, in the 21st century, you probably do), you have two options: become a tour guide or drill for oil. Oil companies like Chevron drill in the jungle, destroying habitats, contaminating rivers and killing off plants and animals. Tours, on the other hand, don't do any of that stuff. I was technically there to teach prospective Waorani tour guides English. Unfortunately, my ESL training had consisted solely of a program coordinator telling me "Just teach them parts of the body and other stuff," and I was feeling like a bit of a benign tumor on the community.
The Norwegian woman was a Eastern European refugee who’d moved to Norway as a child; she had bleached blond hair framing her olive skin, making her look like a surfer (which she was). The man was a blond, blue-eyed Aryan who towered over everyone. The two had been dating for something like seven years.
They’d come to the jungle to see traditional Waorani activities, the kind that the Waorani haven’t taken part in all that much since missionaries made them stop over the last century. (So this tour was a little like if an indigenous tribesperson showed up at your house and offered you cash to throw a sock hop.)
To make do, the Waorani decided to take them on a hunt. The rubber boom, missionary work and oil exploration have all dramatically changed the lives of these ancestral people since the 19th century. You're way more likely to see these tribesmen in T-shirts and basketball shorts than traditional garb, though it's a mix; I was once gifted with the sight of a young girl scowling in red war paint and a Barbie fashion blouse. But today, they were dressing up for the tourists, and that meant face paint, headdresses and almost nothing else.
An odd assembly
So a couple dozen nude Waorani men, women, children, the Scandinavians and I paraded loudly out of the village, immediately scaring away all the animals. Throughout the day, everything with four legs would wisely stay clear of our hunting procession, which for some reason included only one spear but several babies.
The terrain required that we walk single-file on a slippery log to get across the stream that separated the village from the forest. As we approached it, I knew this would be my moment to show off to the tourists just how well I understood the ways of the jungle. I casually stepped onto the log like I was crossing a sidewalk. Then I immediately fell into the water. The Waorani and Norwegians all laughed at me, cultural and linguistic differences melting over the warm fire of my incompetence.
We trekked into the jungle, the Norwegian man snapping photos of everyone’s unclothed backsides since we were moving too fast for him to get any other angle. I took out my DSLR camera too, hating myself for it. I’d brought it to take National Geographic-inspired photos of daily life in the Amazon, but I was apparently becoming a tourist, the lowest life form on any social ladder. It gave me the strange feeling of being both exploitative and unrefined; I thought of the gaggles of tourists in New York who screech like roller coaster riders every time the subway swerves.
I imagined myself showing photos of the hunt to family and friends later. "It was the real thing," I’d say. I’d been on a tourist-free Waorani hunt a few days before, but it was nowhere near this photogenic; just an old woman and a couple teenage boys waiting hours for a capybara to come out of a hole. The lighting had been terrible.
The area I was in, Ecuador's Yasuní National Park, is home to tens of thousands of species. It's one of the most biodiverse places on the planet, but it probably won't stay that way for long. About 17 percent of the Amazon has been cut down in the last 50 years. Oil drilling also affects the world beyond the jungle; much of the planet's oxygen comes from the the rainforest, and drilling depletes the air and contributes to global warming. Since many indigenous groups live on oil-rich territories, oil companies encroach on their areas both legally and illegally, and communities like the Waorani continue to dwindle. Their culture and deep knowledge of the forest is slowly disappearing with it. (Hunter-gatherers today help researchers document local flora and fauna; much of the world's medicine comes from plants native to the Amazon.) Tours like these are some of the last windows into a disappearing world.
A Kodak moment
Finally, the Waorani stopped walking and started chanted a song in their language. They surrounded the Norwegians and me, moving closer and closer until they formed a sort of acoustic mosh pit, their bare skin bouncing against us in what was turning out to be a pretty immersive tour.
"You are part of the jungle now," the indigenous tour guide told the Norwegians. One of the Waorani guys turned to me and whispered, "It’s not true."
The dancing grew exponentially more fervent. In the middle of the chaos, the Norwegian man realized he’d found the right moment or, at least, some kind of moment, and he dropped to one knee. He took his girlfriend’s hand.
"Will you marry me?" I snapped a photo, my camera suddenly perfectly appropriate.
A clap of thunder reverberated through the sunny day. In New York, rain kicks off with a drizzle. But in the rainforest, it just starts flooding. Everyone got soaked in seconds and took off sprinting back to the village.
"I hope that’s not an omen," said the Norwegian man as he ran, which was exactly what everyone must have assumed it was.
I didn’t mind getting wet, as my skin is waterproof, but I was terrified for my camera. I grabbed a massive leaf off the ground and shielded my camera case with it as we dashed, single file and mostly naked, through the narrow trail toward the log that bridged the stream.
I couldn’t even walk over the log, so running across was a cruel joke; I could already hear myself arguing with some Nikon customer service representative that my warranty obviously covers indigenous hunting accidents. But the moment had come; perhaps now I'd redeem myself. I took a deep breath and prepared to step onto the log.
Just then, a young Waorani man caught up to me.
"Want me to take the camera?" he asked.
"Yes. Please. Thank God."
I handed the camera over, and the hero raced barefoot into the distance, leaving me once again to fall bravely into the stream and trudge through the muddy riverbed.
When we got back to the village, we huddled under roofs made of giant jungle leaves, and somebody tried to start a fire. I was relieved to find my camera case looking pretty dry on the floor of a hut. The Waorani, who also have waterproof skin, dried off immediately. Those of us wearing soaked clothes waited to dry.
"Did you just get engaged?" I asked the Norwegian woman.
"Yeah. Wow, I forgot."
It wasn’t, perhaps, the most successful hunt, and the Norwegians dined on pasta that night, not wild pig. But a few days later, some actual National Geographic photographers came to the village to photograph the Waorani.
As I watched a mother and daughter putting on face paint to pose for the camera, I realized that I indeed took National Geographic-style photographs on that hunt. Getting indigenous people to dress up like their grandparents was, as it turned out, an ancient National Geographic tradition.