An extract from early in our last voyage into the Amazon (2010), when we were looking for a river and route into the vast Tumucumaque wilderness – one of the largest areas of pristine tropical rainforest in the world.
We arrived in the remote mining outpost of Serra do Navio on a moonless night, tired and drawn to the glow of its ramshackle bar like moths. The din of a generator drowned out the jungle chorus and suddenly we heard belches, screams and breaking bottles. A pack of dogs paused their scavenging and observed the bar with their tick-infested ears pricked up, ready to bolt. Two drunks – a miner and a native Indian – chased each other around a tattered pool table exchanging blows.
A large man intervened, but in the process banged the miner’s head against the wall, and as he flopped unconscious to the ground the Indian struck him on the back of the head with a pool cue. The Indian was chased out into the night and the miner was dragged away, and the whole scene gradually faded out, with only the stench of cheap cachaça rum left hanging in the air and the muffled whelps of a jukebox that had long lost its battle against the tropical rot.
The barman welcomed us in and showed us to a room out the back where we could spend the night. There, on the doorstep of the Tumucumaque forest, I thought of the jaguars and other creatures in the surrounding jungle, all generally behaving, or at least fighting over something a little more important than a game of pool or the next round of cachaça. I also wondered about that Indian.
We left town on foot, following the thrashed out dirt road north and after covering just 15 miles we made camp in the skeleton of an abandoned shack, crawling into our hammocks dizzy with thirst, but happily embracing the mystery of what lay ahead. The shack sat in the middle of a field, bordered by a wall of jungle that cast out towards us a net of vines and creepers. We awoke with our heads tingling with dehydration, annoyed that it had not rained to allow us to collect a few litres of water in our tarp system.
Stumbling down the road sweating under the equatorial sun, a few miles later we were invited into the home of a kind family where we were well fed and stocked up with fruit and water. A child told of losing his pet dog to a jaguar the week before. We said our farewells and on we went. The jungle intensified and the little homesteads became rarer, the dirt road wound on and on and each night we would sleep in the roadside jungle or when passing a home towards dusk we would be invited by the friendly frontier settlers to string up our hammocks inside.
Five days later we reached the end of the road. Our scrawny map had been correct; the road we were following disappeared into the restricted territory of the Waiãpi Indians, to which entrance was strictly prohibited without official permission from the government Indian bureau, which we did not have. Along the way people had spoken highly of the Waiãpi tribe but also strongly advised against any breach of their territory. A sign marked the boundary of their land and we found a patch of shade, took off our packs and keeled over exhausted, trying to figure out our next move.
Beyond the sign the trail meandered into the forest and with Aaron staying sat with our packs, I crossed the boundary alone and rounded the bend. Two monkeys screeched at me, scampering across the trail and up into the canopy. Sweating, hungry and with feet raw with blisters, I continued for half a mile until I heard distant voices, and through the trees saw a large palm– thatched structure. I called out, hoping not to surprise anybody.
Edging slowly up a forest path I emerged in a clearing and for the next few moments in my near delirious exhausted state, time travel existed. A dozen women were grinding maize on woven mats, hoisting up water from a well and preparing meat. They wore a red cloth around their waists, nothing else. The men, I assumed, were in the forest. Conversations blended with the birdsong and I sensed I was about to disturb a scene of complete serenity.
They had not noticed me yet. For a minute I forgot the uncertainty of my situation as I watched a girl on the other side of the clearing slowly rise, her shining black hair falling down to her waist until our eyes met and she was staring straight at me.
She said something and suddenly everybody stopped. A dwarf woman dropped her work and waddled hurriedly towards me, whilst a small crowd gathered behind her. In broken Portuguese she explained that I should not be here and must immediately speak with the cacique, their chief, who emerged from the entrance of the hut and approached me calmly. An old man, tough and lean, revealing nothing through the signs of body language or facial expression that we are used to reading. A firm nod was followed by a handshake, and I explained our journey so far and where we were heading. His presence was immense, and never before had I felt so different to a fellow human being. It was a sensation that would puzzle me for a long time afterwards.
I was offered water and stepped forward to receive it, but a strong cramp had hit my legs and my limping prompted giggles from the crowd, breaking the tense atmosphere and making me laugh too.
Two boys joined the scene and looked me up and down, with huge white-toothed smiles, eyes gleaming with joy beneath a fringe cut like an early 1960s Beatle, their bodies painted from head to toe with intricate patterns. Yet something in their faces seemed familiar to me. I squinted at them with the sun and sweat stinging my eyes. It was the bar-fighting Indian – I remembered him in his stained denim clothes and his gut swollen with booze just like the miners that he now lived amongst. But I saw now that these were his people.
With many indigenous territories now under threat in the Amazon from industrial developments and unprecedented environmental backtracking by the Brazilian government, it might not be too long before these boys followed the same path and left this way of life behind forever,
Where was my friend, they asked? I had almost forgotten. The chief and the two boys walked with me up the trail to meet Aaron.