When she was offered the opportunity to spend a dream trip anywhere she wished, model, actor and entrepreneur Frederique Van Der Wal said, almost immediately, “With a tribe in the Amazon.” Some months later, she found herself airborne in a tiny plane over an enormous expanse of jungle that looked “like the tops of broccoli.” She landed near a village deep on the border of Brazil and Ecuador, the home of one of the last native tribes still living according to traditional custom, the Huaoranis.
“Upon meeting them, you’re in awe. You realize we know so little and we are so far away from what we are as humans,” she says. “Whereas we’re seeking happiness and always trying to live in the now, they live in the now. If they’re hungry they go hunt. And if they’re tired they go sleep.”
Van Der Wal spent a week with the tribe, with the help of a local guide provided by the travel company Native & Green. She slept in their tents, ate their food (including a rodent-like animal that, maybe unsurprisingly, “tasted like chicken”), went on a hunt, and even jumped in the piranha and anaconda-packed river to swim with them. (“I thought if they’re doing it, why not me?”).
The trip proved transformative. When Samsung approached her months later about a modeling job, she included in the contract a $147,000 donation that went to buying more than 1,000 acres of land adjacent to the village. This summer she plans to return with a documentary team and her 17-year-old daughter to film a web series around their vanishing way of life and the dangers posed by oil companies eager to develop the land. “Often with causes, you want to do your best … but something like this is affecting us all,” she says. “It was one of the most amazing things to experience.” If you’re interested in donating, Van Der Wal recommends Save the Native Forest. If you’re interested in traveling there, look up Native & Green.