Somewhat to our initial disappointment, Edi and Souza were very clear we would be visiting “settlers, not indigenous people.” While it would have been infinitely more interesting to meet the latter, I was actually much more comfortable with the idea of mixing with the settlers. It is one thing for David Attenborough or somesuch naturalist/scientist to be granted special permission to visit a tribal village, it is quite another for a bunch of tourists to invade their village every week. In Tanzania we visited a Maasai village and it was embarrassing, extremely uncomfortable, and worst of all, clearly impacting their way of life. The huge open “market” in the center of the village, where they haggled like crazy to beat you down to a price that was still ten times more than you would pay for the same thing on the sidewalks of Manhatten told us everything we needed to know. The only remotely pleasurable part was it being okay to openly take their portraits. The aggressive life-style of Brazil’s indigenous Indians, learned from Mark’s remarks about one of the reasons large tracts of forest are still intact is “because loggers tend to go in but do not come out again” and Redmond O'Hanlon's great account of the Yanomamö suggested a somewhat different welcome, and one that frankly I applaud.
So yes, we’ll settle for the settlers, thanks very much. They are, after all, part of the environment along the Rio Negro, and they provided us a sort of half-way insight into how folks can make a life in the forest, and how the Brazilian government is working to balance the needs of its very different populations. And before we criticize them, especially we Americans should pause to consider the historical record of the US government in balancing the needs of the indigenous Indians of North America.
Above left is achiote (Bixa orellana) which was littering the ground around its small bush. The tree is best known as the source of annatto, a natural orange-red condiment. The ground seeds are widely used in traditional dishes throughout tropical America, presumably as much for its color as for its flavor. To that end annatto is an industrial food coloring adding yellow or orange color to many products such as butter, cheese, sausages, cakes, and popcorn. Achiote has long been used by American Indians to make a bright red paint for the body, hair and lipstick. For this reason, the achiote is sometimes called the lipstick tree. Barb applied the lipstick. It worked.
I would not have bothered to mention the tucumã fruit in the middle picture, and on the right, growing in its low tree, if it were not for the fact that a couple of days later this was the flavor of dinner's ice-cream.
In poignant contrast, the one person who seemed isolated, lost in their own private world, was a young woman studying the only cell phone we saw on the whole trip. Adam and I wondered to ourselves how it could be working, and who she might be calling that was not within shouting distance.
I had noticed a similar thing in Ghana. These folks who seemed so obviously poor on the outsid, seemed so rich on the inside. I asked Souza about one of the biggest differences I noticed: “Every village we visited in Ghana had someone who brewed the local moonshine. Neither of these villages seem to have a still. How come?” They definitely drink, because I spotted more than one empty vodka bottle lying around. “They don’t know how.” Perhaps one of the disadvantages of settling—returning—over being native, is having the history and tradition. Certainly the actual natives in Brazil are very skilled in creating the drugs of their choice from the materials available. But this was another indicator, along with the gas-powered equipment, of a dependency on the outside world and a need for commercial activity to generate buying power. An interesting balance.
Manioc is an important, not to say vital crop that we were shown growing in a field and spent some time discussing. Next stop was the hut where the settlers processed the harvest. The manioc is ground to a pulp with a small gas-powered mill. This masa is then squeezed in a press to dry it out. The liquid that drains contains the toxins. The pungent cheesy aroma of the squeezed but still draining masa filled the village. Already shredded, washed and squeezed (dogs have to be kept from drinking the drainage water because it will kill them), it sat in an open box about 6 feet by 3 feet by 1 foot tall, waiting to be baked in huge open pans. As we watched a couple of the villagers re-seal the ovens under the pans, Souza explained the process, and it was during this tale that he made the so-controversial observation “manioc is also known as tapioca.” There were audible scoffs of disbelief. The tale is too long to tell here but is chronicled on its own page.
School was actually in session in one of the villages, and we were invited to interrupt the class. The two things they wanted to know, like any elementary school kid, was “how old are you?” and for Tamao “where are you from?” (aka “why do you look different from the rest of these white people?”). To her eternal credit, she was able to answer in Portuguese that although she was an American, her parents came from Japan. The five year olds knew the name of the American president, though most of us hadn’t a clue who their president was. They could point out the US on the world map that was pinned on the wall, (sent to them by a previous Tucano guest). When Adam said he was from London, I was amazed to notice that Edi could not point to England, let alone London. Later I asked him if he’d ever seen a picture of the Sydney Opera House (one of the most photographed buildings in the world) and he said no. It made me very conscious of how European/white my historical and cultural knowledge was, despite all the privileges of education and curiosity with which I have been so generously bestowed. Yes, at six years old I could point out Brazil and the Amazon on a map, but basically I’d added nothing to this knowledge-base since. I found the privilege of meeting these young people extremely moving. It would have had a profound effect on me as a child. I vividly remember the teacher from New Zealand and the visiting Australian rugby team (which soundly kicked our collective derriere). If this was a way to strengthen the bond between the ecotourist and the people in the places they visit, and perhaps more importantly the bond between those people to the ecotourist and the possible value they can supply, then bring it on. Peace on earth.