You arrive by plane to the capital city of Quito. It’s over 2,000 feet above sea level. Your plane begins to descend. The city gets larger and larger. You start to worry that you’re coming in awfully low as buildings and cars become alarmingly close. Just as you think you are going to crash, you touch down. The airport is in the city and there isn’t much clearance at all as the city crowds in. Everyone on the whole plane claps. It is a landing where no one was killed or injured. I joined in. I learned that people regularly clap and occasionally cheer in South America upon safe arrival at an airport. The airport itself has been going through renovations. I learn this is courtesy of Canada. “It used to look like a Greyhound bus station before,” I was told by Canadian Embassy staffer Byron Hawkes.
This is only my second time in South America and I am looking forward to seeing just what this country is like.
Right away I notice something, the smell of car exhaust. You see brand new cars all over the place. Someone told me it was illegal to import second hand cars but it seems catalytic converters are relatively unknown.
I stayed at the Savoy Inn Hotel, near the airport. It is a little distance from downtown but in a safe area. Quito has a reputation as being dangerous in some places. You wouldn’t know to see all the police around. They are especially heavy around the tourist areas of the city and are very helpful and friendly.
There are people begging on each street corner it seems. They are indigenous people and they are everywhere. Some have stoves in which they are cooking something. Many have nothing. I see them as the poorest of the poor as young kids run around you with their hands out. An elderly grandmotherly woman looks at you and motions towards the children and puts her hand out. It is hard to refuse but they are everywhere and money is limited. I discover that trucks come around at night, pick the beggars up and then they leave the city for some undisclosed location. The trucks then return with them in the morning. It seems like something out of a Charles Dickens novel and I expect to see Fagan making his rounds.
Make no mistake though, the poverty is real and widening the gap between the haves and have-nots is that Ecuador has switched over to the American dollar.
I didn’t realize this at first and it was a costly lesson. Taxis recognize the newcomers and they take advantage of them. All you need to start up a taxi in Ecuador is 50 cents. That’s the cost of a sign saying TAXI. Paste it in your car window and you are good to go. It also means you’d better ask the rates before accepting a ride. A regular rate around Quito is $2-5 U.S. The rip-off rate I was subjected to was $ 10-12 US until I found out that little piece of news.
A rule when visiting a new country is to never take anything for granted. Ask questions of the airline or hotel staff. They are glad to help you out. While tips aren’t a matter of fact in most South American countries they are much appreciated and will result in a increase in service unlike some places in the US or Canada where such things are taken for granted. Tips need not be money. I brought t-shirts, vitamins, pens, pencils and pantyhose. Yes, pantyhose. I felt like some American G.I. on leave in Paris in one of those war movies, but with three people insisting, I brought some along. The chambermaids in the hotel loved me. I’d seen some of the other rooms and I must say the smiles and extras in my room were worth it.
Outside of the hotel you see that Quito is a fully modern city with a few differences. There is the taste of the old and new world mixing. You see traditional shops alongside of Burger King, KFC and other icons of globalization. Of course in Canada one does not see a shotgun toting guard in your local Burger King. They wouldn’t pose for a picture unfortunately.
The city itself has acres of green space and statues galore. It is also very spread out and so confusing I didn’t dare try the local buses but took taxis to all my destinations.
One of the first destinations was a tourista/ex-pat bar. These bars are the ones where locals, tourists and immigrants all mix together. It wasn’t the dancing or the beer that drew me. It was with a purpose I went there. Local translators cost $250 US a day in South American countries. If you go to a bar you will find someone who speaks English and Spanish quite well. They will work for you at a cost of about $20 a day quite happily as the average daily wage is $12 at best.
My first interview came with a translator. The interview was with Moi Enomenga, a member of the Huaorani tribe.
The Huaorani people have lived at the headwaters of the Amazon for thousands of years. I found their story strikingly similar to the Crees. They have lived as hunters and gatherers, without a lot of contact with outsiders right up until the end of the 1950s. Huaorani means “the people” in their language.
They say they are the only tribe that has never been conquered and see themselves as fierce warriors. As hunters they see paradise as a never-ending hunting ground. In the past the Huaorani, like the Cree, used to have more than one wife but today, due to the missionaries, have only one. Other influences have been through the oil exploration and exploitation in and around Huaorani territory. Some communities have moved further into the jungle to avoid contact. Others have turned to eco-tourism to be able to control what happens on their land.
Moi told me that at least one Huaorani clan continues to shun all contact with the outside world, preferring to live a strictly traditional life. The numbers of the Huaorani are small: Their nation has approximately 1,200 individuals that to this day continue to live a largely traditional lifestyle, living as part of the rainforest.
I met Moi at the offices of TROPIC Ecological Adventures. This is a non-profit group with a big heart. They have a close relationship with the Huaorani developing a joint venture in eco-tourism. The venture is under the complete control of the Huaorani people with TROPIC acting as advisers. The type of eco-tourism is community-based, which is more beneficial to the tribes and the tourist. Tourists are treated as guests and the hospitality reminds me of the Cree. The aim of the venture is to bring visitors to the territory of one of their communities on the upper Shiripuno River.
Tropic manager Pablo Ayala told the Nation that his company is committed to the principles of sustainability. “We make sure that the community and ONHAE, the Huaorani Federation, receive an economic benefit from the tourism operation,” Ayala said. “A fee is paid per visitor to the community and the Huaorani Federation. The local people are paid for the work they do and we are training them how to do everything at the site.” Training includes guidance, restauranteering, maintenance, proper waste disposal methods and logistics of eco-tourism.
Moi believes that eco-tourism is the best way in which his people can receive an income while maintaining the integrity of Huaorani culture and conserving their rainforest territory.
The venture involves the exploration of both primary and secondary rainforest in the company of Moi and one of our own bilingual naturalist guides. People stay in cabins of local design and ecologically friendly infrastructure, close to but not in the community. This way people get to experience and learn about the Huaorani culture’s close relationship with the forest without disturbing their traditional way of life said Moi. Continuing that way of life is important to Moi and the Huaorani. They have a very specific purpose in bringing tourists in to look at Amazon wildlife and the Ecuadorian Amazon rainforest.
Moi feels it is one of the ways his people and their culture can survive intact. Coming into the territory are oil and logging companies. Often, these multi-national corporations hire security forces to assist them. Some of these forces are paramilitary in nature and clashes take place. Two weeks before Moi met with me in August, one of his female relatives was killed when Colombian paramilitary forces working for a resource exploitation company attacked two villages. While the paramilitary forces were armed with modem day weapons, the Huaorani have only spears and blow guns. The battles are uneven at best.