Student connects with tribe a world away


Herald Writer

Same moon. Different world.

For seven days, Emily Gaggia lived among the Waorani, a nomadic Indian tribe of Ecuador’s Amazon rain forest.

Once considered extremely violent – a majority of Waorani died from intra-tribal spear attacks – the tribe was discovered by the outside world less than 50 years ago when they murdered five American missionaries.

Today, the tribe lives a peaceful existence and many Waorani welcome "eco-tourist" trips like the one that brought Gaggia to their rain forest world.

Gaggia, a 20-year-old from Freeland, traveled with two dozen other college students into the jungle with missionary Steve Saint, the son of one of the missionaries killed in 1956, as their guide.

"I felt like I was in an anthropology movie. They were touching me, and carrying our bags," Gaggia said.

"And they just had these huge grins. They were so excited to see us, it was really beautiful."

The group was taken into the jungle on small planes that could carry just four passengers at a time. After landing on an airstrip that was nothing more than a clearing cut by machetes, the group hiked for hours through the dense, lightless thicket of the rain forest to reach a small fishing village used by the Waorani.

For the next week, both groups watched each other with fascination and amusement: The visitors watching the Waorani children playing with a bucket of baby crocodiles; the Indians watching the slow-motion antics of college students putting in contact lenses.

Each visitor could bring just a 10-pound pack. Gaggia loaded hers with bug repellent, a swimsuit, a journal, a blow-up sleeping pad, and "Ishmael," a book by Daniel Quinn that went unread.

They spent their days watching the Waorani hunt and fish. At night, they shared stories with tribal elders through a translator before sleeping in hammocks woven from grass in a huge hut made from palm leaves.

"Their lives are so beautiful, so simple," said Gaggia, a passionate and talkative Western Washington University student with a quick smile. "To see these people working with nature and not harming it all, and doing what people are supposed to do with the earth, instead of exploiting it and raping it and its resources, it was really beautiful to see."

Gaggia read a journal entry, an elder’s answer to a question about what had changed since outsiders came into the Indians’ world.

"Now we have new sicknesses. Foreigners are moving in and trying to take over our land. And that makes us very sad."

Other elders said they were worried about what would happen to the Waorani children.

Some Waorani have been to the world outside the rain forest. And the children were anxious to learn about it.

Theirs, Gaggia said, won’t last forever.

"There’s just not much hope for them. The missionaries are coming in, the oil companies are coming in," she said.

"I just don’t think they know what to do."

And though it was just a week long, Gaggia said the January journey changed her life.

"It was really heart-wrenching. Here, we’re constantly on a work treadmill," she said. "Everybody’s stuck in this uphill (struggle) to consume and to own."

Since the 1950s, the Waorani clans have learned to live in the same jungle without killing each other, or those from the outside who venture in. But each "Garfield" or "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" T-shirt brought in by the missionaries also serves as a reminder of another, bigger world outside the Amazon jungle.

"These people have such a peaceful way of life. And it was really sad to me to see the people who were living maybe the way God intended us to live – loving one another and living in peace and living with nature – that these are people who can’t survive."

"I felt like I was watching a movie where we know how the ending is going to be," she added.

During one of her last nights there, Gaggia stood on the riverbank and looked up at the full moon, the one she’d seen hanging above Whidbey Island where her mom, Crary, works in a floor-covering store and her dad, Mark, sells Volvos.

"That really touched me. This is the same moon I look at every night," she recalled. "That was an incredible concept to me, that we share this earth together."

On her last day, the missionaries held a church service. The morning sun had not yet started to simmer and Gaggia sat surrounded by Waorani girls who were weaving grass into her hair.

"I was thinking that these people are so many worlds apart from me. But just this one day, we were having this amazing human-to-human connection; to feel these little girls’ hands in my hair, and the wind at my back."

"It’s just one of those moments. You just have a few in your life."

Her airplane was the first to leave.

As the plane clung to the edge of the clearing, the bush pilot sat in his own sweat, contemplating an overloaded plane and his first-ever takeoff from that field.

"I could just see the sweat dripping off his neck," she said. "Once we got above the tree line, he was like ‘Yesssss!’"

The Waorani children watched and waved as the plane pulled away.

And Gaggia wept many, many tears.

You can call Herald Writer Brian Kelly at 425-339-3422 or send e-mail to

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