February 2016
Homeplace & Community

Into Ecuador

  Carter Sanders of Goshen had a rare opportunity to visit the deep jungle and the indigenous people who inhabit Yasuni National Park.

Carter Sanders journeys to meet  the primitive Waorani.

The grunting of a jaguar raised Carter Sanders from a light sleep. Without moving, not even blinking, he listened for movement in the darkness of the jungle.

The jaguar is feared even by the indigenous people of Ecuador. There, Sanders had come face-to-face with one of the big cats. It was a thrilling moment but not one he wanted to repeat – especially not in the dark of night with only the walls of a thatched-roof hut between him and the jaguar.

Sanders stilled himself in the hammock, not sure if the grunting of the jaguar was real or imagined. But he soaked in the night knowing he was in a place where few men had gone or ever would.

Sanders, a Goshen native, owns property in Ecuador – property on which he planned to grow cocoa, but now plans to grow corn instead.

He fell in love with the vast jungles in northwestern South America when visiting a friend who had been an international exchange student at Troy University.

The Waorani sleep on hammocks in thatched-roofed huts. Carter Sanders spent nights in the huts listening to the sounds of the jungle around him.  

"The biodiversity of Ecuador is amazing," Sanders said. "The more I visited, the more I wanted to be there. When a certain piece of property became available, I realized that was my best opportunity to become a part-time resident of that remarkable country."

Sanders purchased the property that is on a river and surrounded by the jungle.

In time, Sanders began to feel more like an Ecuadorian and he wanted to know more and experience more about the country that had become his second homeland.

"I wanted to travel into the deep, deep jungle," he said. "I wanted to experience the Amazon Basin and, even more, I wanted to know more about the indigenous groups who inhabit the jungles, especially the Waorani that remain uncharted within the 2.5 million acre Yasuni National Park."

Sanders said what he knew most about the indigenous groups of Ecuador was that five American missionaries were killed by one of the groups in 1956.

"There are now so few of these indigenous people because, until fairly recently, killing each other was their solution to any dispute. About 70 percent of the men of these indigenous groups died by being speared," he said. "I was fascinated by these indigenous groups."

  Carter Sanders holds a Waorani blowgun, quiver and kapok.

Sanders learned that the most primitive of the indigenous groups live in the restricted area of Yasuni National Park.

"About 400 Waorani live in the restricted area of the park," he said. "They are the most primitive of the indigenous groups and are clinging to their old ways of life. I wanted to go into that area and see what life was like for people who are living as if they were back in the Stone Age."

Sanders knew the possibility of his being allowed to visit the restricted area of Yasuni National Park was almost nonexistent. But, his chance came unexpectedly when he was invited to go with the brother of friend who is a Waorani princess.

The journey was a unique experience and a rather harrowing one.

"An international health card was required and I was afraid the invitation wouldn’t be extended until I got that done," Sanders recalled. "The main part of the journey was by water taxi that was nothing more than a canoe with a motor. It took two hours by truck to get to the water taxi and then 12 hours on the water. That’s a long time to be on the water in the jungle. When we finally got off the water, it was a long truck ride to the park."

Sanders described the area where the Waorani live as a donut with the most primitive of the people living inside the donut hole.

"The Waorani who live outside the hole are mainly young people," he said. "Most of them are 20-somethings and younger. There are some people around the age of 40, but very few as old as 70 or more. The indigenous people were fierce and fighters, even headhunters, and they had killed each other off. So the population is now mainly younger people."

The indigenous people who live on the outside of the donut hole have acclimated to the ways of the outside world.

"They enjoy the same things we do – bottled drinks, sugar and store-bought bread," Sanders said. "I was very surprised to see that they had cell phones and computers. Their way of life has changed. Their old ways of life are preserved only inside the donut hole."

Sanders realized, when he entered the donut hole, he would be stepping back into the Stone Age and to a place where few men had gone and to a place that would soon no longer exist as it was.

"I was looked at pretty much as an oddity, but the Waorani were accepting of me because I was with one of them," he said. "At first, it was rather uncomfortable for me because the Waorani were nude. They live in thatch-roofed houses. They cook over open fires. They are primarily bush hunters so I got to eat on the wild side. I had an opportunity to watch them processing a wild pig and enjoy the meal with them. I got to fish for piranha and enjoy the sights and sounds of the deep jungle. It is a beautiful and intriguing place.

"The biodiversity of Yasuni National Park is said to be the greatest of almost any place on the planet. There are monkeys, jungle birds and reptiles of all kinds. It was just an amazing place to be, but it’s all threatened by oil development. The area is rich in oil – 800 million barrels – and oil drilling is already underway in the outer parts of the park and it’s moving closer to the donut hole where the Waorani are maintaining their way of life."

Sanders said, as the drilling continues, roads will be carved out, the rich mix of trees will be cut destroying the habitats of the birds, amphibians and reptiles in that part of the world.

"The Waorani’s way of life will be gone forever," he said. "There are only 3,000 of them remaining with 400 of them in a place where they thought their ways of life would be protected.

"But already outside the donut hole they are drinking colas and talking on cell phones. I was fortunate to step inside the donut hole and to be a part of a vanishing way of life. Soon what I experienced will no longer exist."

Jaine Treadwell is a freelance writer from Brundidge.