Compassion in the Rainforest

When Ira Rifkin traveled to the jungles of Ecuador years ago, he discovered that though he was far from home, he had come closer to experiencing an authentic human connection.

In my early thirties I went to South America in a futile attempt to escape from myself. Another relationship had ended and I was lonely and withdrawn. Romantic that I am, I decided I needed to put myself in an alien and dangerous environment. Only there, I believed, in a place where I would be forced to reach out to others for basic physical survival, could I fully experience the authentic human connection I so craved.

My destination became the Upper Amazon rainforest of eastern Ecuador, home of the Waodani people, a historically nomadic and violent tribe I first learned about in the pages of Life magazine as a boy in the nineteen fifties. I remembered being fascinated by the story of how the Waodani had killed five American Christian missionaries who had tried to lure them from the safety of their jungle cover with plastic buckets, machetes and the like. Impetuously, I made Waodani territory my destination.

Traditional Waodani culture bordered on the paranoid. All outsiders were presumed to be a threat—as most were, in one way or another, including culture-altering missionaries. The Waodani acted on this belief by making the concept of first strike a cornerstone of their survival plan; hence the killing of the missionaries. Their neighbors called them the Auca, a Quechua Indian word generally translated as “savage.”

To get to Waodani territory I traveled as a journalist with the same organization to which the five murdered missionaries belonged, the Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL). The group’s stated purpose was to translate the New Testament into every spoken language. If a language lacked a written form, the SIL’s skilled linguists set about creating one, spending years in the process.

SIL officials in Quito allowed me to hitch a ride on one of their rickety DC-3s to Limoncocha, their Ecuadorian jungle base camp. From there I went by single-engine plane to Tiwaeno, a Waodani village and advance missionary outpost. By 1974, when I turned up in Tiwaeno, the Waodani who wanted no part of the outside world and who remained fierce had separated themselves from the rest of the tribe by retreating deeper into the forest. That allowed me to accompany a missionary named Jim on his jungle visits to Waodani families open, to varying degrees, to outsiders.

So it was one day that he and I entered a small clearing in which an extended family of a half-dozen or so men and their wives and children lived in a temporary thatched-roof communal structure. The women and children scurried to the rear of the hut just in case as the men, wearing an odd assortment of old bathing suits or leaf-and-bark genital coverings, offered bowls of masato, a soup-like drink made from boiled and fermented manioc tubers flavored with palm fruit.

The men giggled and spoke nervously among themselves. One at a time, they approached and started touching me all over. One opened my hip pouch and took out my notepad. Another fingered the stitching on my clothes, perhaps trying to figure out how they were made. As Jim had advised, I smiled broadly and allowed their curiosity free expression.

It was an extraordinary moment. I remember being transported into an altered state of consciousness, feeling less self-conscious, peaceful and in the moment than I ever had. Recreational drugs had brought me close to this point, but this was different. This felt genuine. This was transcendence, momentary as it was. 

Then the headman—a short, squat fellow named Cawaenae—asked me the sort of questions he asked all strangers, questions intended to determine whether I was a potential enemy: Who were my relatives?  Where did I live? 

I thought it best to simplify my response. I said I lived by myself beyond the mountains, leaving out all details about a son living with an ex-wife and a family as perplexed as Cawaenae was about what I was up to. Jim translated my words into Waodani, and as he did the smile disappeared from Cawaenae’s face. The headman, his eyes locked with mine, spoke again. Cawaenae, Jim explained, was saddened to learn I lived alone. He wondered who hunted for me when I was sick or injured, who fought alongside me when I was attacked, what children would take care of me when I became old?

His compassion touched me deeply. Here was the authentic human connection I had come for. Hearing it unleashed my vulnerability, and I became tearful, as Cawaenae continued staring at me. The Waodani were once unrepentant killers—Cawaenae had likely killed. But he and his people also understood the importance of kinship and communal responsibility to a depth that many of us moderns have lost.

Our technological age offers untold opportunities for connection. We can Tweet inanities 24/7 and surf the Web obsessively. But how that pales beside the experience of authentic human connection with a lover, a child, a parent, a friend—or a near-naked “savage” who displays instinctive compassion in its uninhibited deepest sense.    


Ira Rifkin is the author of Spiritual Perspectives on Globalization: Making Sense of Economic and Cultural Upheaval (SkyLight Paths).


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