Wel­cometo the jun­gle

A first en­counter with the Yanomami tribe in north­west Brazil

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel & Indulgence - MICHAEL PALIN

THE dogs are the first to wel­come us. As the pi­lot, Fran­cisco, eases our plane to a halt at the end of the bumpy grass run­way, they race to­wards us, roused to a frenzy of bark­ing and ca­per­ing by the sound of the engine and the ar­rival of an in­ter­loper.

Be­hind them fig­ures ap­pear at the doors of the two or three build­ings that com­prise Dem­ini airstrip. Here in the re­mote rain­for­est of north­west Brazil, any ar­rival from the sky is greeted with ex­pec­ta­tion. There are no roads that lead here, or even a nav­i­ga­ble river. Aero­planes are the life­line to the out­side world.

At the end of the airstrip are re­fu­elling fa­cil­i­ties and a small clinic, staffed by nurses on a monthly ros­ter. There is a kitchen and com­mu­ni­ca­tions equip­ment, and some fresh cof­fee to greet us.

As we un­load, fig­ures be­gin to emerge from a nar­row path that leads out of the for­est. First come cu­ri­ous lit­tle boys in long red shorts, look­ing, with their black hair, dark eyes and light brown skin, as if they might have stepped straight from the other side of the Pa­cific — In­done­sia or even China. They’re fol­lowed, a lit­tle more war­ily, by young girls and, with them, older women, most of whom wear noth­ing but a brief dec­o­rated red apron round their waists.

The young men, like young men any­where, make an en­trance of self-con­scious swag­ger. They carry bows and very long bam­boo ar­rows with thorn-sharp wooden points. As the women stand and watch from be­neath the shady eaves of the clinic, the men gather around, ap­prais­ing us cu­ri­ously. Sens­ing I might make a good foil, one of them arches back his bow and sends an ar­row fly­ing high into the air. Then he gives me his bow and bids me do the same. Amid much chortling I un­leash one of the ar­rows, which thuds into the ground about 5m away.

They seem to like me for hav­ing a go and when I take out mynote­book, they gather around it with great in­ter­est. The man with the bow asks for my pen and writes some­thing in my book, in his own lan­guage, in flu­ent long­hand. An­other likes my straw hat and pops it on his head.

I’m quite re­lieved by their af­fa­bil­ity, for my new friends are from the Yanomami tribe and have a his­tory of be­ing fear­less and of­ten fe­ro­cious fight­ers. The Yanomami are one of 200 or so in­dige­nous tribes still left from the days when the first Euro­peans set foot in the coun­try. There were es­ti­mated to be some five mil­lion In­di­ans in Brazil when the Por­tuguese be­gan to set­tle here early in the 16th cen­tury. To­day, af­ter the depre­da­tions of slav­ery, dis­ease and loss of land to log­gers, farm­ers and min­ers, they num­ber no more than 300,000.

It’s a walk of just over 3km from the clinic to the mal­oca, the home of this par­tic­u­lar group of Yanomami who are to be our hosts for the night. We­leave the mod­ern world be­hind at the end of the airstrip and fol­low them deep into the for­est. A very beau­ti­ful walk it is too, with sun­light fil­ter­ing through the fo­liage and a great quiet, bro­ken only by low voices and the oc­ca­sional screech of a bird. Af­ter 45 min­utes the mal­oca ap­pears abruptly at the end of the trail. Along, cir­cu­lar con­struc­tion sim­i­lar in di­men­sion to a small football sta­dium that, de­spite its size, seems to melt into the sur­round­ing for­est. Ris­ing pro­tec­tively be­hind it is the smooth grey bulk of a gran­ite out­crop, fringed with scrub.

This huge cir­cu­lar house, which they call a yano, mea­sures about 400m in cir­cum­fer­ence. The outer wall, a jumble of beams and planks, is topped with a palmthatch roof that slopes down at a sharp an­gle to­wards a cen­tral, sand-cov­ered plaza. Be­neath the roof is a beamed and pil­lared space about 15m deep, ac­com­mo­dat­ing be­neath it about 180 peo­ple.

The ham­mocks and liv­ing ar­eas are at the back, leav­ing the front clear as a walk­way. There are no par­ti­tions. Ev­ery­one can see ev­ery­one else around the circle. Pri­vacy is re­spected with­out the need for sep­a­rate rooms or en­clo­sures and, as they help me sling my ham­mock, no one makes me feel con­spic­u­ous.

Un­til the 1950s no one knew much about the Yanomami. Their iso­la­tion from the rest of the world en­abled their way of life to continue as it must have done for

Amid much chortling I un­leash one of the ar­rows, which thuds into the ground about 5m away

thou­sands of years: hunt­ing, fish­ing and liv­ing off the fruits of the for­est such as bananas, yams, man­ioc and maize. Then, as John Hem­ming writes in Tree of Rivers, his his­tory of the Ama­zon: ‘‘That tran­quil­lity was de­stroyed by three in­ven­tions: the plane, the chain­saw and the bull­dozer.’’

This com­bi­na­tion pushed the Yanomami to the brink of ex­tinc­tion. In the late 1980s this re­mote bor­der area saw a gold rush, which drew thou­sands of garimpeiros (gold prospec­tors) into the forests, far out­num­ber­ing the Yanomami. Trees were felled and streams and rivers poi­soned by the mer­cury needed to ex­tract the gold. Al­co­hol, pros­ti­tu­tion and dis­eases such as syphilis ac­com­pa­nied this new in­va­sion.

De­spite a de­mar­ca­tion area be­ing drawn up to pro­tect the tribal land, the lust for gold con­tin­ued un­abated un­til, in 1993, the killing of a num­ber of in­dige­nous men, women and chil­dren, and the at­tempt by the per­pe­tra­tors to burn their bod­ies, led to se­ri­ous at­tempts to ex­pel the garimpeiros.

In the past 20 years a lo­cal non-gov­ern­ment or­gan­i­sa­tion, work­ing closely with the Yanomami, has im­proved their con­di­tions and things are look­ing bet­ter for them, with num­bers ris­ing to about 20,000 on ei­ther side of the bor­der with Venezuela.

I have com­pli­cated feel­ings about be­ing able to just fly in here, three hours door-to-door from my ho­tel in Boa Vista. I have no mo­tive other than cu­rios­ity about how these peo­ple live, but I feel I have noth­ing to of­fer them in re­turn. As it turns out this is not en­tirely true.

Through the years the Yanomami have learned a lot about pub­lic re­la­tions. They know that some out­siders are bad and some are good. They must im­press the good ones to keep out the bad ones. Davi Kope­nawa Yanomami, who wel­comed us to the mal­oca wear­ing his tra­di­tional paint and feather adorn­ments, has been pro­mot­ing the cause of Na­tive Brazil­ians all over the world. He ap­pre­ci­ates that peo­ple like our­selves, who come here in good faith, will hope­fully paint an at­trac­tive and sym­pa­thetic por­trait of the Yanomami to the world out­side and this will make them less easy to ex­ploit.

They are get­ting to­gether some danc­ing for us. Noth­ing moves very fast here, but the prepa­ra­tions them­selves are fas­ci­nat­ing. The par­tic­i­pants gather in a sun­lit glade in the for­est, men at one end, women and chil­dren at the other, to pre­pare them­selves for the af­ter­noon’s cel­e­bra­tions. A tree stump, cov­ered with brushes and paints, acts as a make-up ta­ble. As a ba­sic decoration, they rub each other with a red dye from the ground-up seeds of the uru­cum flower, which also pro­tects their skin from in­sects and sun­burn. Over this, other de­signs are painstak­ingly ap­plied. Par­al­lel stripes are drawn on the faces of the chil­dren and, with the aid of pink plas­tic hand mir­rors, much at­ten­tion is given to the hair.

Neck­laces of yel­low plas­tic beads are care­fully ad­justed. The boys have thin wooden nee­dles in­serted into their noses and round their mouths, and they walk about sharp­en­ing their ar­rows as if half­way through an acupunc­ture ses­sion. The men wear an­klets and arm­bands adorned with clus­ters of tou­can feath­ers. As a fi­nal touch the men and boys have a coat­ing of white feath­ers from the breast of the harpy ea­gle stuck on to their heads.

Even­tu­ally the pro­ces­sion sets out along the track to the mal­oca, led by one of the vil­lage’s tini­est boys. He’s fol­lowed by the women, a num­ber of them hold­ing their ba­bies, fol­lowed in turn by the men strik­ing fierce poses as they go. They as­sem­ble be­neath one of the gi­ant mango trees, but only when they’ve moved into the com­mu­nal house does the pro­ces­sion be­come a dance.

The women lead, mov­ing grace­fully, six steps for­ward, two steps back, as they circle the house. The men, rep­re­sent­ing the hunters, fol­low, stamp­ing their feet, wav­ing spears and chant­ing men­ac­ingly.

The dance goes on for some time, de­spite the great heat, and when the women have fin­ished the men gather in line in the cen­tral, un­shaded plaza to shout and jump.

At the end of the danc­ing ev­ery­one, from the old­est to the youngest in the vil­lage, is re­warded with a thick brew of fer­mented peach palm, pupunha juice, dis­pensed from huge buck­ets. The red berries, with their peach-coloured flesh, are rich in pro­tein, starch and vi­ta­mins. The re­sult must be quite po­tent and there’s much com­pet­i­tive drink­ing among the men. No one is re­proved for tak­ing too much; in fact, the young chil­dren take fresh sup­plies to their elders. It’s a big, com­mu­nal treat and I’m of­fered a taste, and grate­fully ac­cept. Af­ter my re­fusal of an­other brim­ming bowl­ful, their cu­rios­ity about us wanes and they get on with en­joy­ing them­selves. This is their party.

It’s the end of the day. The cel­e­brants have dis­persed back to their ham­mocks to sleep off the ef­fects of the pupunha. Some will have taken a pinch or two of the hal­lu­cino­genic snuff that keeps hunger and thirst at bay. It’s made from a tree resin called epena and lit­tle jars of it hang from the tim­ber pil­lars, for pub­lic use.

As if par­o­dy­ing the mood in the yano, a baby tree sloth, which is be­ing kept as a pet, eases it­self ex­tremely slowly along one of the beams. The only out­side ac­tiv­ity is a woman with a broom chas­ing a black-bris­tled pec­cary, or wild pig, which has been shuf­fling round the place all day, get­ting the dogs very ir­ri­tated. She ush­ers it fiercely out through one of the doors, where it stands, snort­ing re­sent­fully, be­fore low­er­ing its great round snout and re­sum­ing its hoover­ing in the dust.

Once night falls there is lit­tle to pierce the dark­ness other than the em­bers of small fires lit around the mal­oca to keep the in­sects away and pro­vide some warmth in the early hours. Like ev­ery­one else I sleep in a ham­mock. The man next to me is wild-haired and a bit con­fused. He has a black wad of chew­ing tobacco per­ma­nently lodged in his lower jaw. He seems gen­er­ally ig­nored by the oth­ers in the community, and swings gen­tly in his ham­mock, mur­mur­ing to him­self. Cock­roaches scut­tle around by the fence as I clean my teeth.

I wake in the mid­dle of the night. It’s very dark and very quiet, but I need to an­swer the call of na­ture. I switch on my torch and head for one of the en­trances, only to find all the doors shut and fas­tened. I ease one open and walk to the near­est bushes. Fire­flies dance around. Then a grunt and a snuf­fle nearby makes me freeze. It’s the pec­cary, a few paces away and eye­ing me with malev­o­lence.

By the time I re­turn to the yano I find a woman stand­ing by the door. She lets me in, smiles, pushes it shut and se­cures it with a peg. It’s a hos­tile world out there and I feel em­bar­rassed that I might have mo­men­tar­ily jeop­ar­dised the col­lec­tive se­cu­rity.

top Dancers out­side the com­mu­nal yano left Michael Palin in Brazil above Aero­planes are the re­mote rain­for­est’s only link to the world

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.