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How the Waorani tribe made me relax

Karen Morris-Lanz
Before and after... Karen in the day job (left) and in the jungle

Before she went to the Ecuadorean jungle to live with the Waorani tribe, Karen Morris-Lanz was a BlackBerry-toting workaholic single mother from Milton Keynes. Here she explains how life with this remote people helped teach her to relax.

With a hut, a log, water and a hammock - and no BlackBerry or teenage daughters - there was a shock phase after I arrived in the almost toy-like plane that landed on a patch of grass deep in the jungles of Ecuador.

Bameno is four days down river on a dugout canoe from the nearest town and does not, as yet, have a postal address.

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There are times when you just have to get on with it to survive. My shock of landing did not last. I was living with the Waorani tribe. The business of the tribe was gathering and hunting for food.

The jungle was our supermarket. It provided what we needed. The Waorani know everything there is to know about the world they live in. It is so different to our life.

For example, I had taken some biodegradable hair conditioner but it did not work well. My hair soon became dry. Debota my hostess gave me a fruit from the forest that we heated in the fire. Her daughter Yamenca put it on my hair and my hair quickly regained condition.

Mash and spit

We mostly ate fish that was served on a leaf and sometimes had manioc. Manioc is a root vegetable which when mashed is a bit like a potato. The manioc always tasted better if it was boiled in the fish water.

Manioc is first mashed by the teeth and spat into a bowl. Everyone spits the chewed manioc back into the same bowl. It's easy to see how if one person gets sick in the tribe, they all do. I was never sick.

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For breakfast every morning we had choncha. It's a suede-like fruit that grows on the top of trees. It's boiled for half an hour and then peeled and chewed in the traditional way and put back into the same bowl. This mixture is added to water for our breakfast drink..

Tough times

I missed my Ready Brek. I really missed coffee with clean water that came from a boiled kettle. I didn't miss not having to run around shouting at teenagers to get ready for school, checking early e-mails on my BlackBerry and preparing myself for a long car journey.

Ecuador

There was no shower or toilet for me to use so I used the tribal log. The Waorani have an amazing sense of balance. I learned how to use this log quickly. Failure would have meant landing in a pit of maggots and flies and God knows what else.

The Waorani have never lived in a money economy and prior to its recent introduction did not consider themselves poor. They have, after all, survived in balance with their environment for thousands of years. They were not conquered by the Incas or the Spaniards.

I believe being poor to the Waorani is not being able to take your own food from the jungle when you need it. In their community they support people who cannot hunt and they take on different roles for the benefit of the community. I learned our culture can be pretty judgemental about what we don't know. Even in a recession we really don't know what tough times are.

Karen with two women from the tribe
The tribe has a very different social structure to the West

Getting back to the very basics in life does give you a different perspective on things.

It's all about needs not wants.

It shows you that people are more important than things. When we were hunting it was so easy, in just a few steps, to lose sight of people. Luckily for me the tribe appeared to have assigned a small boy to look out for me during the hunt. Every time I got lost and found myself on my own he was there to find me.

Childcare is different. The children of the Waorani are never told off. The siblings don't argue, there's no fighting and arguing.

They learn by watching the adults. As a mother, to see a two-year-old wandering by an open fire, is strange. We would never allow that kind of thing in our society.

Space to relax

The whole experience has helped me balance my past, giving the bad things that had happened to me in the past less weight on the scales. This leaves me with more room for good things to happen.

My life before the jungle was very busy. I tended to work 24/7 and never stop. Now I'm self-employed with my human resources firm Waponi [the Waorani word for "beautiful" or "everything in balance"]. Since I've become a consultant, I can stop. I don't have a BlackBerry now. They rule your life.

Karen applies facepaint
Tribe members support others in times of need

One of the most important things I've learnt from the Waorani is that when you have a space to relax in you grow more as a person. I've learned so much my head is bursting. The tribe know how to rest.

I learned so much about myself during the experience and since I have returned. I will continue to hold on to the balance they gave me and fight to keep it.

I will also fight with the Waorani to save their land that is under threat from the oil companies. My friends want to keep their home. I also want to help large corporates and businesses with their corporate social responsibility issues to help us all find a bit of balance.

I truly think I was given a gift. I would like to give a gift back to my tribe and help them save their land and heritage.


Below is a selection of your comments:

What a great story! This experience truly gives you a chance to appreciate life and realise what is important to you. For example, nurturing yourself enables you to function better in your work and relationships. I have learnt this key lesson over the years and realise that being busy does not have any health benefits.
Joan Martin, Milton Keynes

I don't understand why Westerners should go and pollute the lives of these simple people by showing them things that they are not interested in. Let them live in their little world. Leave them alone.
Peter, Mexico

I fully agree with the blackberry thing but they do have an off switch. My boss used to email me from his at 10:30 at night, so I used to email back the reply at 5am. He soon stopped. As for the tribal experience, good for her but I don't understand what drove her to do it.
Alex, Birmingham

I'd like to have had more facts. The most basic ones would be how many of them were there and what size was their territory.
Gerry, Exeter

What a lovely story and a very brave woman. I personally could not eat like that, but the relaxing and togetherness of Waorani makes their lives so fulfilling - it just shows that we really do get the basics totally wrong, even for our children.
Karen Simmons, Leicester


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