In 1991, UNICEF assigned me to photograph the effects of deforestation on the lives of indigenous women and children in the Brazilian Amazon for use in their publications worldwide. Completing the assignment would require months on the ground, fluency in Portuguese, local contacts, guides knowledgeable about indigenous groups and an ample budget for boat and seaplane travel. Instead, I had just three weeks, no contacts, no resources, no budget and no transportation. Neither the editor, who had grown up in Berlin and spent her working life in New York, nor I, who had grown up on Long Island and spent my working life in New York, had the remotest idea about the lives of indigenous Amazonians, much less where to find them. The UNICEF contract would pay 90% of my air ticket to the Amazon. The rest – internal transportation, hotel, food, film, processing and tokens of appreciation to local officials – would come out of my pocket. Nonetheless, I’d see the Amazon.
The following journal entries and photographs capture my experiences in this humid, tropical climate where I made lots of mistakes, chased false leads over hundreds of miles in the Amazon basin, trusted people whom I shouldn’t have, and wasted time and money trying to find an elusive, primitive place. Along the way, I realized that the journey itself was significant, regardless of whether I reached some elusive destination.
So with great enthusiasm and greater naiveté, on May 26, 1991, I flew from Miami to Belem, Brazil, 70 miles south of the equator and 100 miles upriver from the mouth of the Amazon at the Atlantic Ocean.
When the crew opens the plane door upon our arrival in Belem, a sponge of 90 degree wet air fills the fuselage, like lava flowing down a hill. Everyone is copiously sweating and I know the glass in my camera’s lenses is fogging. As I take a taxi to my hotel, Belem’s streets, buildings, the air itself feel thick, damp and putrefied.
Check in at the 1-star Hotel Ver O Peso, paying $15 for the night. The place is a dump, a thieves’ and prostitutes’ dive. Can’t leave my photography gear here so I immediately attempt to check out but the clerk refuses a refund and holds on to my passport. I call a cop. The cop sides with the clerk. After arguing for a half hour I give up the fight and my $15. To pursue the argument is lunacy, frustration; bad omens all around.
Find a 3-star hotel in the center of town, Excelaio Gran Para, for $24. My room is on the 14th floor overlooking a park. Unpack my gear, sit down on the bed and take some deep breaths. Not having a single contact and barely speaking a word of Portuguese is going to be a problem. How will I find indigenous people in the center of the Amazon from the skyscrapers of Belem? Opening the drawer in the night stand I find a Bible and Yellow Pages for Manaus. The Yellow Pages, of course!
Scanning the YP index I see entries with “organizações de serviços sociais para os povos indígenas” headings. Portuguese and Spanish are very close, they just sound different. I get the hang of reading Portuguese and call numbers down the list, asking whoever answers the phone: “Fala espanhol? espanhol?” until a guy answers “espere”. Sebastiao comes on the line; he’s an Indian president of a rights and community organization group that works with the Mura people, one of the larger (about 5000 ) indigenous ethnic groups in Brazil. I explain that I’m looking for someone to help me find an indigenous village in the interior. He says he can help.
Head straight to his address in Belem where I also meet Vivaldo, from The Society for Protection of Amazon Resources and Culture, who gives me the name of someone in Manaus who might help arrange a trip to find indigenous people. I’m greatly relieved to see that despite challenges, I am able to find resources.
Later that afternoon, I notice kids living on the street and in the park across from my hotel. These children, ages 6 to 10, appear homeless and living off what they can scavenge and steal on the streets.
I watch them prowl the street like a pack of wolves and then break into a sprint to grab a purse from a pedestrian or steal from a food cart. They run through traffic, cross the street and disappear into the park.
I follow them. They wordlessly allow me to photograph them eating – like dogs tearing through garbage. I work right in close with my wide angle lens. One girl is wearing make-up and looks at me provocatively. Good grief, a nine-year-old prostitute! The pictures feel right but later, second guessing myself, I wonder if I am working too close, losing context.
Check out of my Belem hotel to catch a 10:30 a.m. plane to Manaus. The two-hour flight crosses a time zone so we arrive at 11:30 a.m. An airport hustler tries to convince me he’s a state tourist guide and wants to steer me to a hotel. Instead, I find a small, six-story hotel that has a pool on the roof. Clerk at check-in seems helpful, even friendly. Can this be too good to be true?
In 1991, Manaus was a large sprawling city with a population of around one million. Greater Manaus occupied some 4,000 square miles of land and river, more than ten times the land area of New York City’s five boroughs. Manaus lies at the confluence of Rio Negro, Rio Solimoes and Rio Amazona and its neighborhoods are interlaced with many navigable tributaries and streams. People get around on a variety boats: 2 person paddled dugout canoes; family size canoes with motors; 20 foot diesel driven boats and 60 foot intercity boats that navigate hundreds of miles into the Amazon basin. The harbor is the transportation, commerce and fish selling center of town.
It’s over 110 degrees but I go out to shoot the slums in Manaus where indigenous people have been displaced from the countryside. In order to make room for clearing the Amazon forest, the Brazilian government has been moving large groups of people from where they’d lived, farmed and fished since forever to the newly created slums. I’m able to walk around freely and take pictures. People are usually warm hearted, friendly and open to sharing their stories with me.
Across a 20-foot-wide trench of garbage, sewage, vultures and rats, I see a patio stuck onto the front of a house that has become an open air bar. Four indigenous guys are shooting pool. One guy is holding a two foot tall red, blue, green and yellow parrot on his shoulder. He and his friends are red-eyed and slurring their words. When I gingerly motion to take pictures he holds up the bird.
One of the guys then gestures for me to wait and runs off. He returns with a beautiful handmade bow with arrows fashioned from wood and bird feathers. He motions for me to follow him to the edge of the trench that separates the slum houses from the main road. He takes aim and shoots a rat 40 feet away.
This poor drunk refugee Indian, displaced in his own homeland, is reduced to using his thousand-year-old hunting skills, passed down from his father and many generations before him, to shoot a rat in a foul garbage trench. I can’t tell whether the heat, foul smell or his tragic fate overwhelms me more.
Stopping at a wooden shack with large cutout for a window, I speak with a man in his 40s. His wife is cooking inside and his little girl and boy eye me with a mixture of shyness and curiosity. I cannot understand his every word but it’s clear that he’s complaining bitterly about being uprooted to this slum. He has no work, no way to provide food for his family and is forced to rely on the government bureaucracy for everything. Along with his entire people, he appears cast into despair.
Later, I meet a young teen and her child hanging around with several other Indians outside a social service center for displaced indigenous people. There are neither social workers nor services available in the center. Many of the kids appear to be drinking. From her slurred speech, unfocused look and skin eruptions on her nose, I fear that this girl has been sniffing (“brown bagging”) some toxic, brain damaging solvent in order to get high.
It’s the dry season and a fine silt of clay dust hangs in the air, clinging to anything still or moving. The dust is treacherous for cameras, getting into the lens and film areas. Have to keep my gear covered as much as I can.
I make a contact with a young academic guy who is working for indigenous rights. He tells me there’s a nearby conference of indigenous leaders and rights activists starting tomorrow. He invites me, promising to hook me up with a village chief. “Nearby” turns out to be several hundred miles south, across the Amazon to Ariquemas, in the Brazilian state of Rondonia. This costs me another $180 in air fare for a treetop flight in a rickety nine-seater.
Not one indigenous person shows up at the conference. It is attended by rights organizers, activists and academics. I make friends with an older, ebullient Franciscan priest from Spain. When I tell him about my frustrating wild goose chase trying to find “real indigenous in the wild” Padre Pedro says “No problemo. Come with me. I’ll take you to a village tomorrow.”
His church is a mere 6 hour bus ride, through the night, to the small, ugly and sad village of Sao Francisco de Assis. I arrive at 3 a.m., sleep for three hours on a filthy mattress in the bus station “hotel” then go to find Padre Pedro.
Smiling broadly, the priest welcomes me and explains that a shipment of building supplies for addition to his church has unexpectedly arrived. He must supervise its unloading or else he might lose half the shipment. He promises we will definitely go to the village tomorrow then shows me a storage closet where I will sleep. This news evokes a feeling of deja vu and I feel faint. I choke it down, hope for the best and soldier on.
I take a midday walk when all the local folks know better than to venture out. A shirtless teen, 15 or so, stands in the middle of the street staring at me, looking keen and angry. I try to start a conversation in my lousy Spanish but he just stands and stares while I take his picture. Doesn’t even blink when I offer an obrigado and walk on.
Later on, I decide to shake my feelings of helplessness and boredom with another walk around dusty Sao Francisco despite a sore foot, sore leg and omnipresent heat.
Following three kites in the sky, I find a group of 10-year-old kite pilots. They don’t know Spanish and I cannot follow their Portuguese. Regardless, they are very sweet and escort me to the top of a hill with a good view.
One of the boys, Jose, seems to be leading us somewhere. We arrive at his home and he comes out with Fifi, a ring-tailed Coati; a furry animal in the raccoon family. Coatis have a three-foot-long tail and a pointed snout. They are wild in the Amazon but are happy to live as family pets too. Fifi is very cute, like a slightly wild cat.
I begin shooting with my last roll and realize it’s not going through the camera. Rewind the leader in by mistake and bingo, I’m out of film. Aaargh! I walk 20 minutes back my “room” in Padre Pedro’s church to get more film then return to Fifi. Exhausted, I shoot one roll then leave.
I hear that a local Acara Miri leader, 52-year-old Fernando Tearbe, was assassinated last month. He’d been organizing indigenous people against the illegal seizures and environmental poisoning of his people’s lands by gold miners, called Garimpeiros. These prospectors poison the land with the by-products of mining and are not above murdering the Indians to get them off their land. This helps the Brazilian government clear the Amazon for development without the government itself dirtying its hands by having to cleanse the Amazon of its indigenous. Indians complain that Garimpeiros bring malaria, pollution, alcoholism and prostitution.
These miners are often down on their luck, urban poor who’ve travelled to the Amazon, desperate to strike it rich. I meet and photograph a Garampeiro and his family. They seem just marginally less wretched than the Indians.
Early the next morning, Padre Pedro cheerfully announces that he must drive over to Guajara Mirim and then across the Mamoré River, to the Bolivian border town of Guayaramerín, to pick up more supplies for his church addition. He tells me that instead of trying to find indigenous in their natural villages, I should do a story on the life of a Franciscan priest in the Amazon. Despite the brilliance of this suggestion, I leave god-forsaken Sao Francisco and its lying priest early the next day.
Back in Manaus, I call Orlandino Bare, indigenous leader and director of COIAB (Coordination of Indigenous Organizations of the Brazilian Amazon) and ask to meet with him and Sebastiao. He gives me an address and within the hour I arrive at a rundown two-story building. An elderly woman stares out blankly from a chair on the second floor patio facing the street. Inside, on the first floor, is a bed and several young men are sitting around on folding chairs watching an old TV. When I ask for Sebastiao, someone motions upstairs.
I run up the stairs and effusively introduce myself then thank the young man who is sitting at a desk for offering to help me. He tells me, in Portuguese, that he’s not Sebastiao. Sebastiao left. I ask when he’s coming back and the man replies “mais tarde”, which I now understand could mean anything from 5 minutes to 5 years. I give him my hotel name and number, repeat “Sebastiao” several times, and mime making a phone call.
Beginning to get the hang of Amazon time concepts, I understand that people here recognize events as happening ‘before now’, which includes today, and ‘later than now’, which seems to include the next ten days.
I have some good urban and rural images and debate whether to leave without a visit to a smaller town or indigenous settlement. I could rent a car and nose around the Manaus area for a day, or prolong my stay a week to keep trying to find indigenous people, which would be very expensive. Leaving now feel will feel like a surrender of sorts. I’m geographically close and my money situation is already an absolute disaster so I decide stay. By some miracle, I find a helpful Brazilian at Varig who gets me on a new return flight home.
The next day, I go directly to Orlandino and push a little harder. He offers two possible nearby aldeas – small villages or settlements, sometimes with only one family – so I get him to call the Autazes aldea, 100 km away on the map, a 12-hour trip by boat.
The transport system in the largely roadless Amazon is a network of diesel boats averaging 40 feet in length (think stretch African Queen) and carrying 20-30 passengers with their chickens, goats, sides of beef, fruits, vegetables, exotic birds, tiny monkeys and people babies. Each boat is owned by its captain and has a set route and schedule, all eventually passing through Manaus.
Orlandino’s calls go unanswered but I decide to go to Autezas regardless. When I ask him to send someone with me, a 20-something-year-old guy called Mariano volunteers. It’s late afternoon when we board the Maria Elena, a 40 foot long single deck diesel paddle boat, for the 12-hour trip on the Rio Negro and Rio Autazes. We head southeast, leaving another gorgeous Amazon sunset behind us.
Sun sets promptly at 6p.m. As the light is falling, everyone on board unrolls their hammocks and makes ready to sleep for the night. Everyone except me. I lay on the wooden deck on my back, arms behind head, brick hard camera bag as pillow, embarrassed and with no words in Portuguese to ask for assistance. One of the guys on the crew kindly volunteers his hammock and shows me how to hang it from the deck ceiling.
Stretched crossways on the boat, from beam to beam, each hammock is a different soft Brazilian color and together they make a beautiful pattern of red, orange, yellow shapes. About four hammocks up, toward the bow, I see a woman, around 30 years old, sitting and nursing her infant. She is expressionless but at peace, staring off into the river, lost in her thoughts.
Using a slight telephoto and trying to hold still, I frame her and her child with the many brilliant color hammocks, in failing light, and think I may have made a decent picture.
I sleep from 2 a.m. until we arrive in Autazus at 5 a.m.
Everyone knows the Amazon is chock-full of treacherous, murdering, killer fish. The Pacu, Payara and Piranha can eat an adult human within minutes. The possibility of death-by-fish after falling in the river, or after having my canoe overturned by river monsters, was one of my big concerns when I flew to Brazil.
Before leaving for the Amazon, I’d seen a tropical medicine specialist in New York to get the right vaccines and medicines to bring along with me. While in his waiting room, I’d read a tropical medicine magazine article about a parasitic worm in the Amazon that bites a tiny hole in your feet then swims up your blood stream to your heart, where it makes itself at home, eating away at your heart until some years later it kills you. Horrified, I’d immediately run to Paragon Sports to purchase their best waterproof, sealed, jungle boots.
On the way to Autazes, I put the boots on and realize they heat my feet up to about 120 degrees and their weight makes walking difficult. I also notice that the locals are sensibly wearing open bath flops. Heart eating worms notwithstanding, I gladly sell my expensive boots to the boat captain for half price.
One of the first things I see on the Amazon are the children, teens and adults all gleefully diving into the water wearing nothing but their underwear, eager for relief from the heat. No one I meet has ever heard of a fish attack.
Near the end of the month, just for the record, I dove into the Amazon. Later on, back in New York, I learn that in the entire Amazon Basin, there is, on average, one fatal encounter per year between piranhas and people. The other fish are too rare to track.
While Mariano and I are en route to Autazes, Orlandino made contact with the chief there, Claudio Mura, and arranged for me to stay with his family.
We arrive in Autazes and no one is waiting at the pier to meet us. The pier has a roofed structure with an open waiting area, tiny kitchen-bar and bathrooms. After having a coffee and a pee in the bathroom, (a closet with a hole cut into the floor and the river flowing below), I see the women from the bar are washing the pots in the river, four feet from the bathrooms. Watch a mother fill a pot from the river and give it to a toddler to drink. The river is used also as a garbage dump, ash tray, etc.
A few street dogs of no particular breed lazily assess me for a handout. Local dogs are reliable indicators of a country’s level of nourishment. If they seem more or less healthy and reasonably fed, and they greet strangers happily, then the country is doing pretty good, food wise. When the dogs are showing ribs, skin and eye infections, and they run away when called, they are competing for available food with the human population. If the dog is starving but won’t even approach to receive food, then the country is so hungry it eats its dogs. In Autazes, no ribs are visible on the dogs in the street, they don’t skitter away from me and I am relieved that my dog indicator bodes well.
In 1991, Autezas was a large town with a population of about 15,000. Most of the residents are Mura Indians who have been “in contact” for years. According to Wikipedia, the Mura fiercely resisted colonization in the 18th and 19th century. Resistance was futile and their numbers were decimated by violence and disease. Today, they dress and eke out a living the same as most other people in the Amazonas and they have pretty much lost their culture and their language (Chief Claudio doesn’t speak it). Population estimates vary from 1600 to a little over 5000.
Obvious as an open wound, the lumber mill is at the edge of town on the banks of the river. Large logs are floated down, cut into lumber then shipped out. It is the end of the line for the rain forest.
After 45 minutes of waiting near the dock we see Chief Claudio arriving with Ruy, Autazes’ mayor. A third guy introduces himself as the prefecture and two other guys are not introduced at all. Claudio is 42, compact at five feet tall, with brown, short, wiry black hair, deep set eyes and short arms and short legs.
By 7:30 a.m., the sun is painfully strong. Everyone wears t-shirts, Adidas-type shorts and flops. Our delegation walks the five blocks to Claudio’s house, criss-crossing the streets for the protection of every tree’s shade.
The streets are hard, brick-red clay when dry and thick, sucking muck when it rains. The houses are wooden, single story, with thatched peaked or corrugated metal roofs. They sit three feet off the ground, supported by cinder blocks, about ten feet apart and four feet back from the street. Four foot squares cut into the walls on each side serve for windows. The “nicer” houses have cinder block walls and some even have louvered glass panel windows. I do not see a single house with anything resembling decorative elements other than whitewash.
Claudio’s house looks just like all the others; nothing distinguishing it as the chief’s. He lives with his wife Maria Gloria and their children. I think there are about ten of them but I can’t be sure. We take off our shoes at the front steps and leave them outside. The front living and entertaining room is empty of furniture. It’s common practice to sit on the floor.
At night, hammocks hang from the roof beams in the hall and living room. The middle room has a bed, a chest of draws and a bureau. Claudio’s immediate family sleep in the middle room, visiting in-laws and others sleep in hammocks in the front room.
The population of Claudio’s house changes every day. He and Maria Gloria, a mother-in-law, an uncle and six children under 15 make up the core daily group around which a couple of their older kids, another uncle, and another man who is either a friend or relative, come and go, sometimes hitching their hammocks and sleeping there as well. The children also have a free-range turtle that lives in the kitchen and eats bananas.
The back room is the kitchen. It has a small table and two chairs where everyone takes turns eating, Claudio first, then the kids (youngest first), and lastly his wife, who cooks the meal then cleans up afterwards.
Maria Gloria, a wonderful cook, serves lunch of spaghetti-like pasta, delicious meat similar to pot roast, blended bananas and milk. Afterwards, Claudio and I plan to take a small boat to some Mura aldeas and return on the following Friday. However, two friends come over to visit and they get drunk. Bad omen. This removes Claudio for the rest of the afternoon as Maria prepares a well-cooked fish for early dinner.
The job of local chief is hereditary, honorary and ceremonial; without any responsibilities or tasks to fulfill. In his early 40s, Claudio is neither an elder, nor a wise man, nor a healer. In fact, I see no evidence that he has a job during our entire week together. He spends his time drinking beer and gabbing with everyone he encounters.
Claudio has named at least half the children after himself; there’s Claudio, another boy Claudinho, a girl Claudia and a few other derivatives. I never learn whose mother is grandma. She spends all day either sitting on the floor or on a kitchen chair. She does not speak with or look at anyone, nor does she help in any way with the children, in the kitchen or with the hourly floor sweeping that Maria Gloria does to get the clay dust off the floors.
On my second day in the house, grandma grabs at my arm as I walk by her and points to her mouth. She wants a cigarette. I give her one of mine and light it. From then on, she motions for a cigarette once or twice a day. I take a picture of her sitting and smoking under an ancient political poster hung on the wall of a Brazilian guy named Jefferson who’s wearing a suit.
Ruy shows me photos of traditional houses in a circle and folks in western dress. Mariano shows me that where we are going is finally Off The Map. After all the drama, I hope this trip comes true.
That night, Claudio takes me to a community meeting of the town’s Mura. He gives a long rambling and repetitive speech – cites ‘Jeffe da UNICEF’ at least 20 times – boasting that he has been selected to host the UN representative who will provide great aid to their town.
Claudio knew I was on assignment for UNICEF to photograph the effects of deforestation on the lives of women and children. I had made no promise to him but few North Americans ever passed through the town and my value for boasting rights was not to be ignored. I gave a very short speech, thanking them for their hospitality and mercifully ended the meeting.
We continue on to a dance party: drums, singing, townspeople forming a circle around the perimeter of a room to do a 2 or 4 step to the beat. They organize themselves by age and gender: littlest girls next to each other, getting progressively older until about age 15, then the boys. In the center are three teenage boys, dance masters dancing free-style around the circle, urging everyone on. Again, Claudio and Mariano get drunk.
The next morning, Claudio goes out early, saying he will look for a motor for our voyage. I shower at 7:30 and am immediately drenched in sweat. It’s a two-shower morning. Very, very hot.
People here spend a large part of their day sitting around watching TV. Daytime it’s cartoons and Bruce Lee. Nighttime it’s telenovelas and robot karate warriors.
Claudio and Gloria’s children are sweet. The 16-year-old girl is washing clothes. All the boys are out. Mama is sitting on the floor with the youngest, watching cartoons. Old woman is sitting on hallway floor, staring into space. Alessandra, about 5, watches TV and tickles me, giggling. Maria Gloria asks me for 2000 c ($7) to pay for the food she’s been serving me.
There’s a nice fruit tree – some kind of pear shaped apple – in front of the house which provides shade. Also in front is a trough-sized canal of waste water from bath, kitchen and sewage. It smells too horrible to get closer than 8’ for any amount of time. It’s boring inside but too hot to get out.
Boredom wins over and I go for a walk in search of Claudio. On a hunch, I question the crew of a boat regarding their schedule, since it’s a 12 hour trip each way. I have doubts about Mariano’s assurance that there are boats daily. Ask at the dock and sure enough, boats only leave on Saturday, Sunday, Tuesday and Wednesday. Thus in order to get a Saturday night flight, our trip to the aldeas has to return to Autazes by Wednesday at noon.
Resolving to see what’s going on, I return to Claudio’s house at 10 a.m. to find Claudio asleep on the floor, smelling of Antartica beer. I wake him up and he says “tomorrow.” I flip out inside but try to maintain communication, telling him tomorrow is no good. “We have to go today.” He says it’s difficult to find a boat; this is the Amazon not the U.S. I hold myself back from saying he’s not going to find it asleep on the floor or in a bar.
When Mariano returns I explain the situation to him. He talks to Claudio who yells how the Indians have been fucked over; they have no money. This is the Amazon not the U.S. Meanwhile, Mariano asks me for $8.00 for his boat fare home. I’d given him $16 for the fare, meal and a few beers, but that was a big mistake – he’d drunk it all. Losing it, I tell him, ‘Tough, you can stay in Autazes forever,’ but soon calm down and relent, remembering that I am not in Kansas anymore.
Gloria serves lunch, a friend of Claudio’s comes over and the 4 of us go looking for a boat. For Claudio, looking for a boat consists of stopping anyone on the street he knows, introducing me as his friend, an important person from the U.S. who wants to help Mura, and asking them if they can help with a boat. Unsurprisingly this tactic meets no success.
Finally, we go to a boatman who says we can use his boat, but not until it’s been unloaded – it will probably be ready next week. I ask Claudio to name the villages we’ll visit and how many hours it will take to get to each.
“The first, Limon, in 12,” he says. “The next, 36 more, the next, 36 more…”
“Hold it, hold it, hold it,” I interrupt. “Didn’t you remember, Claudio, that we had to be back on Wednesday?”
I plough on, “We can go to Limon and back and pass a day and a half there. How many families live there?”
“What do their houses look like?”
“How do they earn a living?”
Okay, sounds good, let’s go there and back.
The boatman says fine but assures us there are no Mura there. Claudio goes into a tirade about the boatman being Brazilian so he can’t know. Claudio is pure Indian, president of Mura consejo (council) and he knows.
Boatman calmly insists there are no Mura in Limon. Claudio keeps trying to shout him down. I hear the opening bars of Back Down Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues. Again I realize I’m not going to any indigenous aldeas on this trip. Claudio is acting very insulted and replays his harangue about nobody helping the Indians, they have nothing and it’s hard to get a boat this is Brazil, the Amazon, not the U.S.
I decide to stay a few days in Autazes (it’s cheaper). Photograph the town, rent a small boat for fun, if possible, and get away from Claudio, Benjamin, Mariano, the Mura and COIAB. It’s hard to accept defeat though!
I go for an afternoon walk (despite Claudio’s entreaties to go visiting with him) with the Leica, 4 rolls and Ruy’s book, with the intention of spending some time with him. While looking for his house, I find Luis and friends playing guitar and having cervejas. I join them for half an hour.
Attempt to shoot some images of kids playing by the river – kites, volleyball – but they’re too conscious of me so I head back to Claudio’s.
I’m passing a cemetery when I see flame flickers out of the corner of my eye. A couple and a teenage girl are placing candles on the grave of a child. Turning, I check my film and walk over to them as humbly as I possibly can.
They look at me as I motion with my camera and sit down, twenty feet away. Photograph them placing candles and then standing by grave. 1/60 at F2 – light falling – it’s deeply affecting, stark, human and tragic. Yet they keep on going. The father and mother are solemn, thinking of their child. I hope these pictures turn out the way it felt to take them.
Continue on to Ruy’s. There’s a jaguar’s skull on his coffee table – about two thirds the size of a human skull with a long protruding jaw and fangs almost as big as fingers. Nice paper weight, I point. Ruy says a good friend of his was killed by this jaguar, about 4 months ago. He’d been walking in the countryside at night when the jaguar ripped out his throat. When he was found, ants had eaten his face down to the bone. Village men had then tracked and killed the jaguar. I make a mental note not to wander into the forest beyond town limits.
Claudio comes back from his walk and announces that tomorrow morning we are going by boat to an indigenous aldea, 2 hours away. Hallelujah.
The next morning: RAIN!!! A tropical downpour. I hang out with the kids at the kitchen table and write about last night in my journal.
Gloria’s children are consistently delightful, whether by giving an unsolicited hug or a wonderful smile, or coming up magically with my toothpaste when I’m walking around the house silently searching for it, or bringing me their free-ranging pet turtle for my inspection. They’re a great blessing that balance the frustrations of this project.
Attempt to make my first exploratory inspection of the outhouse since my arrival last Thursday. From three feet away, I am overwhelmed by its smell from hell and cannot imagine entering and squatting in there. To the woods I go, jaguar, snakes, spiders notwithstanding. Notice even the ducks make a wide detour of the outhouse as they march across the yard.
Morning walk through indigenous neighborhood. Take a few pictures of an 11-year-old boy running down the street in the rain.
Rain, rain all day – back to Claudio’s to sleep, eat, smoke, sleep some more. Claudio’s 11-year-old boy shows me his school work. He has the beautiful handwriting of an architect or graphic designer. Four of the kids sit at the table with me and watch me write, all very busily writing or doodling, and as always, talking.
After a day of rain all smells are fetid, there’s no escape. Am dying for a shower but doing so now, at prime mosquito time, might actually entail Claudio’s solution to mosquitoes – burn a small pot of a certain wood on the floor in the kitchen, filling the house with horrid, choking smoke.
I’ve either been bitten numb or the mosquitoes have subsided – I’ll risk a bath.
Take a nap in the hammock in the front bedroom. Feel like part of the family. Find it very funny to be lying on the floor watching TV with Claudio and one of his relatives. I still can’t figure out Mura names. Many have their first names and the name of their tribe as a last name, but some also use a Portuguese last name. Claudio is sometimes Claudio Mura, other times he’s Claudio Perreira. Orlandino goes by Orlandino Bare (his people) but also has another last name which I can never quite get.
It rained all night but the sky might be clearing. A solid gray. Claudio asks me about the trip. I try to get his opinion but he keeps deferring. I say how about tomorrow? Good!! We’ll go tomorrow, although it’s anticlimactic at this point.
Not a second goes by when I don’t feel ‘the heat the heat’. It’s so present, constant. The rhythms of daily life follow its dictates – people are more active early morning and at night.
Next door to us, over the course of the last 4 days, a man has been solitarily tearing down his wooden and palm leaf roofed house. I go over to help him to find out how it feels to work in the heat and damp. After a half hour of pulling 75 pound posts out of thick red clay I’m exhausted, drenched with sweat and panting. This guy – my age – works most of day and evening.
I shower for half an hour and within 3 minutes I’m sweat-drenched again after just sitting. Have to write with a sock under my forearm to keep the paper dry. My legs are covered with mosquito bites, many infected from scratching in my sleep. Arms covered with mosquito bites and heat rash.
I’ve seen only about 4 pigs in town and they were all in captivity. I’m walking home when I realize a pig is walking towards me instead of nosing obliquely away, like every other pig I’ve ever met. I cross the road diagonally to the pig but then it turns and begins to stalk me. At about 10’ away I see it has fangs – what a weird pig? No! As it starts trotting towards me, I realize it’s a wild fucking boar. I’m close enough to Claudio’s house to reach his stoop running before Ms. Piggy gets to me.
When I tell Claudio he says ‘ladrones’ are dangerous and laughs. Gloria confirms this. Aside from the thieving hotel clerk in Belem, the pig has been my most dangerous encounter in two months of being in the 3rd and 4th world.
As I’m leaving with my cameras, at 11:30a.m., Claudio calls me back to eat. The family in order: Claudio first, then the youngest kids, then the teenage girls and then Gloria. Although Claudio drinks too much sometimes and repeats himself a lot, maybe because I don’t understand Portuguese, my harsh feelings towards him on Saturday morning were equally about my own frustrations and style than about him. In truth, things are difficult here. They don’t have a boat, they don’t have money. I was operating out of my belief that through persistent bluster, belligerence and sheer willpower, I can make anything happen – it works better in NY than in Autazes. I should know better than to get angry and assume ill will.
Claudio doesn’t show much emotion – I haven’t seen any anger – more like bluster, and small laughs sometimes. Nor is he very expressive – never seen him kiss Gloria or their kids. Sometimes he’ll chuckle over something little Juma does. He lives in his home like a boarder. He usually wears what was, at one time, a pair of silver satin swimming or boxing trunks. Now they are literally black in the behind. I have him try on my belt – we’re the same size – I’ll get him a new pair of shorts.
Today’s homily: Things are always more complicated than they seem and there is a lot more gray and color than black and white.
As Claudio and I get to know each other, he begins to ask me to buy him beers, several times a day, which descends quickly into Claudio pleading. This feels awkward and demeaning to us both. I’m angry and not sure how to respond. To be honest, it was also expensive on my shoestring budget.
In the afternoon, Claudio comes to me, bleary-eyed and embarrassed, begging for two dollars. I tell him he has to work for it and sit him on the front steps of his house, in the shade. I begin taking pictures of him with a long, portrait lens. Red-eyed Claudio looks like a beaten dog and I think he knows it.
Without a word, he goes into the house and comes back wearing an ancient, tattered woven reed chief’s hat. At first, he’s playing the fool, a parody of himself as a Mura chief. As I take pictures, his foolish grin fades, he sits up straighter and calmly looks me in the eye, looking at once more serious and more relaxed than I’ve ever seen him. I believe in that moment he remembers some long gone dignity, his own or his peoples’.
Ruy comes by and offers to take me to a local pre-school, the Creche Laura Siquiera, for kids aged 2 to 6. The school has 500 kids who attend from 7-5 p.m., receiving 3 meals a day. Its 46 Brazilian and Mura teachers make around $66 month, a decent salary for Autazes. Ruy says “Hay un cambio: la hambre por la olegria” (There has been an exchange, happiness for hunger.) The kids are learning alphabet, writing, playing and practicing a dance. Some are getting dressed and made up as Indians for a celebration.
The teachers look very involved and active. Every kid gets a shower, teeth brushed and hair searched for nits and lice. The scene at the creche is wonderful, the nicest I’ve ever seen. I hope my photos live up to it.
I tell Ruy about my narrow escape from death by wild boar near Claudio’s house. Ruy questions me carefully:
- What color was this ‘wild boar’? Brown with white patches
- How big was it? Big, 4-5 feet long, 300 or so kilos!
- And it followed you? Yes, it chased me!
Gently, Ruy explains that wild boars never, ever come into a village and, unless cornered, they avoid people, always. Moreover, they are black or dark brown in color, about 3 feet long and weigh 50-60 kilos. Ruy tells me that this was not a wild boar but a pig, moreover, “I know that pig. It is a crazy pig and sometimes does strange things.” Ruy repeated emphatically that this was “one crazy pig.”
I enjoy talking with Ruy. He shows me a bone-like 3” long scale from a fish called piraco. The fish weighs over 100kg and is 3 meters long. His wife uses the scale as a nail file. Ruy gives me three scales from his pile. I notice he has a wide scar on his forearm and ask how he got it. Fishing: he was a fisherman for 5 years and tells me when you fish you have a lot of scars. He also has a big scar under his arm.
Back at the house, I lie on the floor watching the news with Gloria, Claudio, Claudio’s cousin and the two other men who are around. More delicious dinner, thank you Gloria Maria.
Tonight the kids eat first, then me, then the three men together, then Gloria and Juna. I guess there is no order to it after all. Juno has lost her timidity around me and now tries to copy Alessandra, sitting on my lap etc. She takes Alessandra by the hand and leads her to my lap. She knows what’s what. Claudio starts his anti-mosquito fire in the kitchen and smokes me out – back into the TV room.
I’ve noticed many of the kids here with coughs and wheezes – it’s the humidity. It was 114 degrees here today!!! Alessandra’s temperature seems to be normal although she is still a little congested and keeps snorting up her nose.
Late morning, without a word or promise in advance, Claudio says “Let’s go, I have a boat.” He’s got a 16 foot diesel with a small wheelhouse. I gladly give him the requested money for gas and head for the town dock. All worries and previous annoyance with Claudio slip away as we motor off from the dock. I can barely believe it: at last, a boat, Claudio came through with a boat!
Claudio puts his 10-year-old son, Claudio Jr., at the wheel and stands behind him, every once in a while murmuring a little guidance. The boy is serious, focused and, I think, very proud of himself and his dad. They take turns piloting the boat.
The Amazon is like a giant capillary system that encloses thousands of land masses and islands. The Rio Negro and the Amazon branch off into thousands of streams, which in turn have thousands of increasingly narrow streamlets. Depending on the time of year, there are hundreds of navigable routes to choose from to get from one place to another.
We travel for about an hour without seeing a building or any other sign of humans until I see that Claudio is heading for one lone house on stilts, 10 feet above the shore. He tells me the name of the aldea. There may be more than the one house, further inland, but here there is only a woman and some kids. She leads us matter-of-factly up a ladder and into her house. It’s an open platform, about 20 feet square with a thatched roof. Hammocks are the only furniture. She gives us some fish along with the ubiquitous pasta grain. There is no breeze and it’s very hot.
We continue on during the late afternoon. Claudio tells me we are heading back by another route. We travel quietly, each occupied by our own thoughts and enjoyment of the incredibly beautiful sunset.
Early the next morning, Claudio walks with me to the Autazes dock to make sure I get on the right boat back to Manaus, and not get taken away by thieves, he says, in a last pitch for a handout for saving me.
A smaller boat arrives and when the captain sees me, obviously not a Brazilian, he says hello and asks where I’m going. Offers to take me to Manaus at a reduced price if I don’t mind a one day detour to a party he wants to attend in a small village called Murutinga. It sounds intriguing, worth risking a day’s delay in the schedule.
The captain knows some people in Autazes, including Claudio. After a short wait, Claudio and a few other guys show up at the dock with a plastic cooler for food and a boom box. We travel for six hours up small tributaries until we arrive at the river bank that serves as Murutinga’s dock.
Murutinga’s hundred or so inhabitants live in pale yellow woven reed houses set on a circle around a small open meadow. Like almost everyone else I meet in the Amazon, men and women wear flops, Adidas shorts and T-shirts. Unlike other people I’ve seen in the Amazon, the Murutinga look like they just walked down from Asia yesterday, not 60,000 years ago. After giving up my quest to find Indians who’ve had little contact with modern life, I’ve finally gotten pretty close.
Most of the town is watching a soccer competition at a field nearby. I watch a ball being placed on the ground then the kicker, who takes a ferocious running windup, kicks the ball with all he has towards the opposing player who’s standing 30 feet away. The ball is kicked so hard and the catcher is so close that it seems like the ball will take the catcher’s head off. But the catcher lunges, dives sideways to deflect the ball. Later, I’m told that this game has been played continuously and unchanged since the Mayan civilization.
The men’s faces are wine-red from the sun, from their exertions, and from the toxic looking home brew they’re passing around. I try a gulp and spit it out; it’s just about pure alcohol and tastes like gasoline. When the kicking contest is over, they have a proper soccer game, running with all their might, in the stifling heat and humidity.
These guys have been drinking all morning but still run around like maniacs. After the soccer game, folks return to the town square to hang out and talk. Many of the women have unhooked the front thatched wall of their house and are selling fried plantains, sweet fruit juice, or toasted corn cobs on a stick.
One house, twice the size on the others, is perched on stilts near the village entry. This is the Men’s House, where half a dozen unsmiling middle aged men sit in silence, watching everyone passing by. The boat captain suggests that I not get too close, nor leave my camera bag on the ground anywhere near it. I try making eye contact with the men but they ignore me. I take a few pictures and leave them alone.
An electric band is setting up in the town’s largest building, the meeting house, which has been cleared for dancing. The dance gets under way, but considering the amount of booze that has flowed into the men in town, I take a quick look, leave the party, and go to sleep on the deck of the boat, so as not to miss its departure in the morning. It’s just the captain and I, Claudio and family staying in Muritinga. We never say goodbye.
I arrive in Manaus in time to catch the flight to Belem and then head home.
After spending three weeks roaming the Amazon, trying to find people with bones through their noses and carrying bows and arrows, I learned that I was simply not equipped to get that far off the map, and that the destination was unattainable, under the circumstances. I could not just fly to Manaus, take the number 5 bus to a village and drop in on a prehistoric culture.
This assignment required a big boat, then a little boat or canoe, then walking for a few days to make contact. People who make this kind of trip routinely carry firearms, never knowing what they might encounter on their trek through the jungle or at their final destination, where they will most likely get chased away by the Indians.
During my month in the Amazon, I learned to relax and stop trying to control things that I could not. For me, it was the journey itself, rather than arriving at an elusive destination, that made this assignment worthwhile. Best of all, I believed that in the 300 precious rolls of Kodachrome that I carried home, there were a few good pictures.