On Huaorani Time - Page 2

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After our arrival, Moi, a Huaorani community leader and guide, offers us fresh, warm juice made from naranjilla, a native plant that tastes slightly sweeter than an orange. Moi wears palm-leaf sashes and a headband made of red feathers. His missing teeth somehow make him look wiser, as if he had traded them for life experience, and the enormous scars on his bare chest suggest a lifetime of adventures.

We follow Moi through the tall grasses down to the river where Tewa, a canoeist, is waiting with a 25-foot-long dugout canoe carved from a single tropical cedar tree. The Shiropuno River is the Huaorani's highway, though far more pleasant than the average interstate. Barely as wide as an Olympic pool in many parts, it can rise 20 feet in one night when rains surge down from the Andes. As Moi and Tewa punt, we glide silently along, listening to the hum of insects and the twitters of tiny birds. We watch riverside trees with enormous sprawling branches compete for sunlight, spot exotic birds like lipstick-red tanagers, and contemplate the prehistoric-looking fish that lurk in the mocha waters at our elbows: catfish relatives, piranhas, eels, and freshwater rays.

After about an hour canoe ride from the airstrip, we arrive at the ecolodge—a dining hall, kitchen, open-air hammock house, and five guest cabins consisting of screened tents stretched between wooden poles and traditional thatch. Each has a cold-water bathroom, solar-powered lights, biodegradable soaps and shampoos, and a hardwood front porch. Wrapped in screen, they offer ideal spots to fall asleep to the foreign and wondrous sounds of the forest—the pops of the toads, the chirps of the nocturnal insects.

The next morning, we lounge about while Moi paints our faces with charcoal, which he says is a sign that we're ready for a party. the question remained: Who is going to see us? The lodge is a six-hour canoe ride from the nearest town.

"For nomadic societies, time is not an issue," says Jorge, explaining why things seem to happen in no particular rush here. "You worry about today because you don't know what happens tomorrow." Time and numbers are measured relatively here, rather than by any standards.

While Moi, shirtless with Western shorts and Wellington boots for the mud, leads us along a rough, root-infested trail—part of a network of over ten miles of trails the Huaorani built for visitors—he shows us that he has uses for what seems like every plant. He fashions headbands out of palms and cross-like charms from leaves to drop along the trail and deflect evil spirits that might be following us. In the eerie morning fog, I imagine the strange creatures or spirits this forest might hold. We spot signs of jaguarundi, tapir, and anteater, and Jorge says that even capybaras, the world's largest rodents, lurk here.

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