On Huaorani Time - Page 3

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The Huaorani still use blowpipes to hunt for food, and Moi carries his eight-foot-long pipe and arrows, made of thin strands of palm, through the bush in order to teach us how to use them. He prepares an arrow by wrapping a piece of wispy cotton, taken from the seed of a local kapok tree, around it and etching a line with the teeth of a piranha jaw to prevent it from falling out of his target=. He loads the pipe, formed by two long hollow pieces of wood and wrapped in thatch, lifts it with one hand, and blows, hitting the leaf target= he had set with a decided thwack. When I try, I can barely lift the long plank, let alone stare down its dime-sized hole to aim it. By sheer luck, my arrow narrowly misses the target=.

While Moi's lessons in rainforest survival are fascinating—and show us how utterly ill-equipped we are to survive here—so too are the natural wonders the rainforest harbors. We come across a villainous strangler fig tree that killed its host tree by burying it in roots before growing to the width of a city bus. Another tree lives symbiotically with lemon ants, which actually do taste lemony, attests Jorge, after popping the squirmy bugs into his mouth. The ants emit a fume that kills nearby competing plants, forming a clearing underneath the tree's canopy. We come across toucans flitting between branches, a vulture peering down at us from a tree limb, and even a six-foot-long giant river otter, of which there are only a few thousand left in the wild globally. Come evening, the forest turns charcoal-black beyond the focused beam of our headlamps. Somehow, in the thick, black oblivion, Moi and Jorge spot a caiman by its glowing eyes, monkeys swinging in the trees above, and freshwater crabs skittering through the muddy puddles we hop over.

The next day, we make our way down the river, stopping at tiny Huaorani villages where some of the women and children still wear tree-bark dresses. Here, life is messy. Shoes are rare and residents think nothing of walking barefoot through inches of mud. At one village, half-dressed children stand on shore with wide, curious eyes as we pull up in the canoe and stumble up the muddy slope. The village consists of little more than a couple of thatched-roof huts and a covered porch with a hammock.

One middle-aged woman with bright eyes and a constant, bemused smile greets me with hugs and non-stop chatter—none of which I understand. Her name, she makes clear, is Bebantoque, and as the matriarch of the group, she invites me to participate in a traditional dance. She grabs my hand and a pint-sized girl in nothing but underwear grabs the other, while the other village women line up. We walk back and forth while they chant a haunting, rhythmic melody.

It isn't until the following day, however, that I really begin to understand the Huaorani's alternative concept of time. Around dawn, we arise and hike along a trail that leads over steep hillsides, using ropes to lower ourselves down into a small, hidden gorge. There, a 70-foot waterfall tumbles over a cliff into a rock-rimmed pool lined with long swinging vines. I strip to my bathing suit and dive in. The water is a tonic under the weight of the humid rainforest air. I float on my back, listening only to the pound of the water hitting the surface of the pool, and forget about time altogether. It's as though this forest has been here forever.

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