....but a new way of seeing things.” – Henry Miller
One of the best parts of my visit to Cuyabeno National Park was getting to meet people who had traveled all over the world just to visit or live in the Amazon. Traveling in groups has a weird way of creating community among strangers; it is easy to find yourself in conversations you would normally only have with good friends at home.
On the second or third day of our trip, my travel group had visited the Siona people. That evening's topic of conversation had kept coming back to whether these people were living like "true" natives. Yes, it sounds disgusting. We all knew it did. Everyone agreed that you couldn't deny these people the right to modernize, yet there was a surprising distaste in everyone's mouth. No one wanted to be spectators in a human zoo. Still, the question kept popping up from different mouths as if by accident, "Why did we visit them if they weren't really all that native?"
I can't say that I was expecting anything different from what we had seen that day, but I have lived here longer. I understood the others' disappointment though. I had had it before. I think their question was not posed well. I think on some level what we really wondering about was whether there was anyone in existence who was truly untouched by modern conveniences.
It was later that night while sitting beneath the candlelight at the dinner tables, barraged by cicadas, that we found our answer. Years earlier our guide had lived with a tribe called the Waorani. When he heard our dilemma, he spoke up. Everyone wants a better life, he said, yet our desire to improve our lives and the lives of others is something that should be controlled. His answer surprised me. People wanting to help other people was a problem? Wasn't that the definition of humanity? I thought it over as he talked.
During the months that our guide had lived with the Waorani, he was completing research for his thesis. He had gone to learn about the oil companies' effect on the Waorani lifestyle. Ethically, he could not do anything more. When the Waorani people wanted to learn from his research, he had to reject them. It forever changed his relationship with the community. However, if he had helped the Waorani, he could not have predicted what would have happened next. Their environment was unstable. The desires of the people would change. They could be taken advantage of. He could not predict the dangers that might come, so he did nothing.
"How could he have the strength to do this?" I thought, "How could one person deny the urge to help another and feel confident that they had done the right thing?" At the same time, I had a strong trust in my guide's beliefs. He had a respect for the tribes that I had not seen before. Even as he disliked denying anyone help, his conviction and logic suggested that he had not made his Waorani decision lightly. The experience left me with new things to think about. Did the tribe need the modern conveniences? Were we denying them basic human rights? Or was it wrong to believe that the most important priority on earth was prolonging human life at any cost?
We had spent all day feeling wrong for expecting more "nativeness" from the Sionas than we had gotten, yet those people had lost their ability to survive without tourism and government support. In some ways, they were worse off than they had been before. In other ways, their lives were better. Their future seemed so delicate. Recent years had brought so much change for them. The slightest shift in power, a sudden drop in tourism, and their livelihood would be in serious jeopardy. Yet the Waorani, though more secluded, were just as prone to this same problem. My tour group and I were a necessary evil. Like our guide, we would never be sure whether our actions were the right help at the right time or just another good effort with a bad outcome. As our chat wound down, we sat quietly and watched the moths burn in the candle light. We slowly drifted to bed without reaching any conclusions. We didn't bring up the topic again, but two mornings later, as we filled out our departure survey, no one ranked the Siona visit as their least favorite activity. Perhaps the trip had changed us.