I thought that if I put myself in the middle of an unknown and dangerous environment, I would be forced to connect with others, if only for my physical survival. And so I chose as my destination the rain forest of eastern Ecuador, home of the Huaorani people, a nomadic tribe I had read about in Life magazine as a boy in the '50s. The article told how the Indians had killed several American missionaries who had tried to make contact with them. If you're going to the extreme, I figured, why not go all the way?
Traditional Huaorani culture was extremely violent. The Huaorani viewed all outsiders as a threat (as most actually were, in one way or another), and they dealt with this by making the concept of "first strike" a tenet of their society. Their feuds would rage for decades, and they never forgot or forgave. Their neighbors called them Auca, a Quechua Indian word that means "savage."
To get around, I managed to hook up with a missionary named Jim--he belonged to the same group as those who had been killed years before--who was really more anthropologist and linguist than Christian proselytizer. By 1974, the year I showed up, few Huaorani still killed outsiders on sight, so it was relatively safe to accompany him as he visited Huaorani families in their temporary shelters hidden deep in the jungle. Just to be safe, however, Jim would alert the Huaorani of our approach by shouting "whoop, whoop"--an all-purpose Huaorani phrase signifying positive intentions--as we walked through the forest toward a settlement. Surprise guests were a definite no-no in polite Huaorani society. Unless you heard a return series of whoops, you did not approach.
So, one day Jim and I entered a clearing in which an extended family of a half-dozen or so men and their wives and children lived. The women and children scurried to the rear of the thatched-roof communal hut as the men, wearing an odd assortment of old bathing suits or leaf-and-bark genital coverings, approached us offering bowls of masato, a foul-smelling drink made from boiled and fermented manioc tubers.
They giggled and spoke nervously among themselves. One man touched my light brown hair. A third opened my hip pouch and looked inside at my note book and pen. Others fingered the stitching on my clothes, seemingly trying to figure out how they were made. I just stood there, my consciousness having been propelled into an altered state. I smiled broadly and allowed their curiosity free expression, as Jim had advised.
Then the headman--a squat fellow who couldn't have been more than five-foot-six--proceeded to ask me the sort of questions he asked all strangers, questions intended to determine whether I was friend or foe: Who were my relatives? Where did I live? Whom did I live with?
I thought it best to simplify my response. I said I lived by myself beyond the mountains and left out all details about a son living with an ex-wife, about family who were as perplexed as the Huaorani chief about what I was up to. Jim translated my words into Huaorani, and as he did the smiles that had lit up the faces of these Indians disappeared. Then the headman, his eyes locked with mine, spoke to me, and Jim again translated.
His genuine compassion touched me deeply. This "savage" knew something that I had missed about the importance of community, and hearing it unleashed my vulnerability. I started to cry, and the Huaorani continued to stand there, his gaze never wavering.
That moment in the jungle was a turning point in my life. It marked the beginning of a gradual shift in my thinking about my own "tribe" back home. Where before all I saw were restraints and responsibilities, I came to recognize as well the joys of family and community, and to acknowledge my deep need for the transcendent connection gained through living life committed to others and in embracing ageless wisdom.
Coming home has not always been easy. There are still times, so many years later, when I want to run off to another distant rain forest, both figuratively and literally. But I don't. Instead, I live with my conflicts, and struggle to remain focused on my deeper needs--and to remember that others harbor similar conflicts and needs.
In a society as rootless as ours, staying home can be a countercultural act. But so often, it takes a journey to transcend our deepest pain and to experience, in the unlikeliest of places, what staying home is all about.