Remember my first post about working with isolated tribes? Well, off we went into the jungle deep inside the Guajará Mirim State Park between the towns of Nova Mamoré and Guajará Mirim, in the state of Rondônia, Brazil.
There were three men and one woman (me). We drove a four-wheel-drive vehicle over a road that was mostly potholes resembling the craters we see on pictures of the moon. All they talked about along the way was the extra trouble, how women were such fragile creatures—it was clearly up to me to confirm that women couldn’t work among isolated indigenous tribes.
After traveling nearly 200 miles down a dirt road, we parked the car where some squatters were living in the park, heedless of the suspicious looks they gave us. We unpacked the food (2 pounds of salt, 10 pounds each of cassava flour, rice and sugar, a couple of pounds of coffee, a quart of vegetable oil, 5 pounds of dried beef and two cans of condensed milk), plus hammocks and tarps. We each had a 6′ x 9′ tarp, a hammock, a blanket, clothes for hiking and sleeping, a toothbrush, toothpaste, soap, a towel, and a pair of 6 foot ropes for stringing up the hammock. For utensils we had two saucepans, a coffee pot, five plates, five spoons, one knife, one 32-caliber rifle, four machetes, a camera, an unreliable compass, a file, a map of the area, a pen and a notebook
In divvying up the gear, it fell to me to carry the camera, maps, compass, pen and notebook — this in addition to my hammock, tarp, clothing and toiletry items. We stuffed everything in a backpack, and it was 3 PM by the time we got underway. We didn’t get far because nighttime comes early in the Amazon jungle, so we halted by a creek at 5 PM. Since I’m a lousy cook, I was put in charge of setting up hammocks and tarps while the menfolk cleared brush from beneath the hammocks, whittled forked sticks to hold the pots, gathered firewood and prepared the meal.
With the camp all set up I went to bathe in the creek. The water was clear and felt great, and I didn’t want to get back out — but it was getting late and dangerous. We ate the “mush” the guys made—rice cooked with macaroni (which was awful!). Then we told stories and jokes around the campfire and fell asleep amid the sounds of the jungle. At 6 AM we all got up, broke camp, had breakfast and resumed our trek. At times we chopped a trail through the jungle, otherwise we followed the creek, never venturing over 500 feet from the water.
We arrived at the banks of the Jaci Paraná, found a lovely waterfall and swarms of biting gnats and mosquitoes. There were so many mosquitoes that I dove into the water to try to lose them, but that didn’t work. They hung around draining our blood. To get across the river we put the backpacks in plastic bags and swam them all the way across to the opposite bank, all the while fearful of getting shocked by electric eels. Once across, we continued following the river bank until about 9 AM when we stopped for some cassava flour and condensed milk. That was delightful—it tasted like manna from the jungle goddesses. Once fed, we continued our hike alongside the river listening to the birds and watching bugs crawl and small game scamper… Ahead of us were strings of rapids, and pairs of macaws flying overhead.
After four days of hiking through gorgeous scenery, being bitten by bugs and feasting on fish, we followed a tributary shot through with rapids up away from the main river, and soon came to a cascade waterfall—magnificent to behold. We climbed the various levels with the water pouring over our sweaty bodies, and were soon cooled off and eager to see what lay over the top.
After shooting a lot of film with a camera no real photographer would be caught dead with, we arrived at the top of the waterfall and sat down with the compass to see where we were.
I forgot to mention that for days we had been hearing a strange sort of whistle. When asked for my take on it I said not to worry, that “The rubber-tappers say it’s a jaguar, but this one’s not about to attack us.” I was kidding, but had forgotten it was August — mating season for jaguars.
|Photo: ucumari under Creative Commons License|
As we poured over the 1978 Radam Brazil image map to check our position, there was a rustling in the underbrush which quickly parted before us. There stood an enormous fantastic and quite dangerous spotted jaguar, sporting an excellent set of ivory-colored teeth strong enough to assure it an adequate diet.
We were too startled to know what to do. The men froze and I single-mindedly went for the camera shouting “Don’t shoot, don’t shoot. I want a picture of this.” They were too frightened to move, much less shoot.
Evandro recovered quickly. He grabbed his machete and charged the jaguar. He managed to give it a cut on the snoot, and the animal coiled back to spring. Rogerio swiftly grabbed his 32-caliber rifle and fired a shot over the splendid beast’s head, and off it sprinted into the forest.
Everyone turned toward me. Peeved that I hadn’t let them attack the jaguar, they wanted to skin me alive and stretch my hide for drumheads. I was so frightened by the three men that I trembled for a good half-hour.
After everyone settled down, we strung out differently on the trail. Rogerio and Fernando took the lead, with me in the middle and Evandro taking up the rear. And so we lumbered on in search of signs of isolated native groups living deep within the confines of Guajará Mirim State Park.
Later I’ll tell you about how our search for signs of isolated indigenous tribes led us to establish contact with Akun´su and Kanoé on September 5, 1995. See you then.