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 Another relationship had ended and I was lonely and withdrawn.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…