From Murder to Medicine
Fifty years ago, five young American missionaries flew their small Mission Aviation Fellowship plane into Ecuador’s eastern jungle, aiming to win the country’s fiercest head-hunting warriors to Christianity. The Waorani people, then known as Auca, responded with barbed spears, butchering the visitors and ransacking their plane.
It would be easy to assume this was the last contact between the MAF and the Waorani. Not so. The event sparked an influx of volunteers wishing to carry on the work of the men now known as the “five martyrs”. Today, MAF workers provide vital services, including air ambulances, to one of the least Westernised tribes in South America. What’s more, travellers can join pilots, as suitable, on their daily flights for a unique glimpse of remote Amazon village life, accessible only by air.
An international organisation, MAF has three bases in Ecuador, including one in Shell, a peaceful town in the Southern Oriente. Two hours from Baños and 20 minutes from Puyo, it’s not a tourist destination — in fact, it owes its existence to the oil company of the same name, a military airbase and a cluster of American missionary groups.
My MAF flight starts with an ID check by local military and a weigh-in at the mission’s hangar. My fellow travellers include a nurse from Hospital Vozandes (run by HCJB missionaries) and a recovered patient returning to his jungle home. Our other “companions” will travel in the hold — two giant, gasping catfish, as long as my arm-span and wrapped in wet cloths. At other times, passengers include mothers with newborns, snake-bite victims, government teams undertaking immunisation and health education programs, and clucking chickens.
From the air, the jungle looks like a never-ending expanse of broccoli florets. The tiny Cessna buzzes and rattles, and we chat with our pilot, who clearly knows this journey inside-out. After 30 minutes, we descend onto a slick jungle airstrip and Waorani people rush to meet us.
The village is hot and humid, filled with sweet fruity scents and chirping crickets and frogs. Its people belie their heritage of head-shrinking, cannibalism and vicious blood feuds. Instead, they are delighted to show us their village — a rambling cluster of thatched huts on stilts. We are invited into a one-roomed home and feast on finger bananas while the woman of the house mends a woven bag. Three shy girls sit under hanging bunches of green bananas, while a couple of boys giggle and sway in a hammock.
Then we paddle nearby in a shallow river, watching women with swift reflexes snatch hand-sized fish from the water. A pet monkey rattles overhanging branches and butterflies drift by like scraps of blue and orange paper.
As we buckle up to leave, children press their huge dark eyes against the plane’s windows. The grass on the runway whirls and flattens as we take off and they dash after us on broad, splayed feet never touched by shoes — as thrilled as we are by an encounter with people from an unfamiliar world.
This story is based on my experiences while doing volunteer aid work in Ecuador and is one of two being published in April in the V!VA List, Latin America — an arm-chair travel book published by Viva Travel Guides and featuring 333 Latin experiences from writers and photographers around the world. See www.vivatravelguides.com/viva-list/ for more information.