Magazine article Geographical

Clash of Cultures: Tribal Visits Can Be Mutually Rewarding and Enlightening Encounters-Or, They Can Be Excruciating and Explorative, Even Seriously Damaging. Richard Hammond Looks at How Best to Ensure That Your Indigenous Experience Is an Overwhelmingly Positive One

Magazine article Geographical

Clash of Cultures: Tribal Visits Can Be Mutually Rewarding and Enlightening Encounters-Or, They Can Be Excruciating and Explorative, Even Seriously Damaging. Richard Hammond Looks at How Best to Ensure That Your Indigenous Experience Is an Overwhelmingly Positive One

Article excerpt

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Visiting an indigenous tribe deep in the Amazon confirms the unwritten rule that the best experiences are often the most difficult to reach. After a day's bus drive from the Ecuadorian capital Quito to the highland town of Shell, we flew in a four-seater plane to the Shiripuno River airstrip, in the heart of the rainforest. Here, we disembarked and boarded a canoe to paddle down river to a lodge where we hauled up for the night before setting out before dawn the following morning to walk to a village inhabited by the Huaorani--a tribe of hunter-gatherers who've long lived the headwaters of the Ecuadorian Amazon, hunting wild game with blow pipes and gathering food from the forest.

As we approached their village, our guide whacked a fallen tree trunk with a stick to signal our arrival (just as tired tribesmen do when they return from a hunt). However, there was none of the usual tourist welcome party: no beating drums, face towels or pina coladas. The villagers were engrossed in their daily chores: some making chucula (a sweet drink of ripe bananas) and tepe (an unfermented manioc drink), while others were lying on a hammock in the shade, preparing poisoned darts for their next hunting trip.

When my guide eventually introduced me to the Huaorani, they invited me to spend the afternoon with them, demonstrating how they make traditional handicrafts such as bags, woven hammocks, pots and necklaces. For several days, a Huaorani guide led me through the rainforest, showing how his tribe uses plants for medicine, shelter and clothes, and how they hunt monkeys by climbing up trees and firing poisoned darts from blowpipes. He pointed out an astonishing variety of wildlife, including blue morpho butterflies, greater and lesser kiskadees and several species of Amazonian kingfisher; quite often, we heard howler monkeys high up in the trees.

Such a unique encounter is the result of years of consultation between their chief, Moi Enomenga, and Ecuadorian travel company Tropic Journeys in Nature. For 12 years, Tropic has run hiking tours with Moi, employing Quehueri'ono villagers as guides--a sign of its success is that a permanent eco-lodge, used as a base for village trips, has now been built. Solar-powered and drawing water from a natural spring, it consists of five palm-thatched cabins constructed of local wood, and a dining area where meals are prepared and served by staff from Quehueri'ono. Their sensitively managed trips to meet the Huaorani has earned Tropic several awards for responsible tourism, including a Best Sustainable Tourism Project award from the Latin American Travel Association.

CULTURAL EROSION

However, not all trips to visit tribes are so responsibly managed. There are concerns over the kind of amateur anthropology offered by an increasing number of travel companies that turns what should be an engaging insight into another culture into a cringing gawp at stage-managed tourism dressed up as 'tradition'. Certain tribal people have become so overwhelmed with tourists that some travel companies have pulled out of taking tourists to visit them.

Amanda Marks of Tribes Travel says that her company no longer takes visitors to meet the Hadzabe tribe near Lake Eyasi in Tanzania. …

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