Despite having met numerous cabocos (the more modern, civilised Indians of the Amazon), we were still curious to see if we could visit a true Amazon Indian tribe, but were extremely disappointed to find out that this was impossible as they are ardently protected by the 2 Brazilian government agencies, FUNAI and IBAMA. Everyone told us it was strictly prohibited, and that to visit a tribe we would need to be either Christian missionaries or medical researchers, and would need to get permission from Brasilia up to 6 months in advance. So things weren’t looking good, until one guy gave us something that sounded a bit more optimistic. He said: “Maybe it’s possible, but you’re gonna need Pablo Diego Sousa*.”
So we met up with Pablo at our hotel the next day, but it still didn’t sound too positive - he knew where to find the Indians more-or-less, but he had only done the trip twice before, and the last time was two years ago. Furthermore, it was going to take a few days and be expensive, and when we got there we would have to try to either beg or bribe the agents at the FUNAI checkpoint to let
us through. So there was a big risk of spending a lot of money for nothing if we got sent back, and also a small chance of being arrested or deported for entering the protected land. However, we managed to negotiate to have the trip at next to nothing (mainly because we could use our car instead of hiring a 4x4, but also because Pablo was more excited than us to see the Indians again), so we decided we had to give it a shot.
So we did the compulsory gift shopping - 6 kilos of tobacco (for chewing), 10 machetes, and 2 boxes of fish hooks and line - and hit the road north towards Venezuela.
On our second night, we stayed in a small town quite near to where we would start the off-road part the next day. We went out that night looking for something to eat, and it was then that we saw something very interesting - standing with the barbecue-man outside the restaurant were two hungry Indians and their baby.
We went to try to talk to them, but their Portuguese was almost nothing. What was clear, though, was that they were
starving, and so we bought them some meat and invited them to join us, but they declined - they seemed scared and vulnerable. A while later, they came back and took us to their chief, Babajuru*, who was surrounded by many more Indians.
The chief spoke better Portuguese, although still incoherent at times. He explained that they had walked for 6 days from the jungle to this town to sell fruits and bow-and-arrows. We asked him where they stayed in the town, and he took us to their shelter - an abandoned piece of land, now lined with hammocks, and where even more Indians were to be found, squashed together in appalling conditions, some very sick. We then met a local fisherman who told us that this had been going on for a long time - they come to the town to trade their goods, but then they discover alcohol, soft drinks and sugar, and they stay. Clearly, FUNAI were not doing such a good job of looking after these Indians.
After an hour conversing with the chief, Pablo managed to get the chief to invite us to his shabona, where we would trade their meat, bananas and
fish for our tobacco, rice and money. We would go the following morning with the chief and his family.
Early the next morning, we arrived with the car to meet the Indians. Surprisingly, they had some luggage they wanted to bring as well - about 6 bags, some pots, and a bicycle! After we finished loading them on the roof, the Indians began climbing into the car, but not just the wife and 3 kids we were expecting - clearly, the chief had invited his extended family too! We watched in shock as one-by-one they packed themselves into the back of our small jeep.
We are not quite sure exactly how our little jeep (which up to now had been having difficulty just holding up on normal paved roads with only the two of us) managed to keep it together for what was to follow next. With 13 Indians in the back, the 2 of us in the front, and the guide (who halfway through couldn’t take the smell of the babies’ faeces anymore and went to sit on the roof with the luggage), we somehow survived the 2 hour ride to the river on a badly pot-holed
dirt road from hell.
When we got to the river there was only one canoe and so some of the Indians went first while we waited for them to return. Suddenly, a helicopter came flying by and Pablo grabbed and pulled us under the trees. It was probably FUNAI, who had most likely seen our car coming. It circled us about 3 times and then disappeared, to Pablo’s relief. We then heard the kids laughing hard and looking at Tom, who, in all the chaos, had inadvertently been standing on a termite hill and was completely covered from the knees down in angry termites (which bite mercilessly!).
Whilst waiting for the canoe, Babajuru informed us that there was a much bigger tribe nearby that would be easier to visit, and he agreed to come with us and introduce us to the chief there.
10 km down the road, we got out the car again and this time began hiking through swampy wetland. A half hour later, we arrived at the tribe. It was something quite amazing - discovering these people that live completely secluded in the middle of the jungle.
Fortunately, they had only recently moved
to this location to escape the rising waters, and so there was no FUNAI base there yet. It also meant they didn’t yet have a shabona - a huge round hut under which the whole tribe lives - but instead live in clusters of small huts with palm-leaf roofs, sleeping on weaved hammocks. We spent the rest of the afternoon with them, handing out our gifts, and learning about their culture and the way they live and hunt in the jungle.
When it started getting late, we said our good-byes and made our way through the swamp and back to the car to drop Babajuru and his family back at the river. They invited us to cross the river with them and to spend the night at their tribe, where we would get to see their shabona and maybe even their yopo ritual - a ceremony where they blow an extremely hallucinogenic drug from the forest 5 times up each other’s noses through a long blow-tube. Babajuru explained that it wouldn’t be a problem as he would convince the FUNAI people to let us stay, but unfortunately Pablo had to be back in Manaus the next morning and so
he had to catch the 8-hour bus-ride that night.
So, with the sun setting, we slowly headed back to civilisation, with some proof at least to remind us that this day was not all just a crazy dream - 2 memory cards of photos and a bow-and-arrow gift from the Yanomami.
* Not his real name, but almost.
For more info on the Yanomami check out: http://indian-cultures.com/Cultures/yanomamo.html
Odometer at start: 33 900 km
Odometer now: 39 753 km
Tot: 2.71s; Tpl: 0.064s; cc: 19; qc: 102; dbt: 0.0617s; 2; m:saturn w:www (188.8.131.52); sld: 1;
; mem: 1.5mb