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Fifty years ago, five young American missionaries flew their small Mission Aviation Fellowship (MAF) plane into Ecuador’s eastern jungle, aiming to turn 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 modernized cultures in South America. What’s more, travelers 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 another group of Christian 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 an emerald labrynth, an eternal green carpet of life and vitality. 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—fortunately, without spears and blowguns.


The village is hot and humid, filled with sweet fruity scents and chirping crickets and frogs. The heritage of the people is one of head-shrinking, cannibalism and vicious blood feuds. 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-sized 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 — they are as thrilled as we are by the encounter with people from an unfamiliar world

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