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Brazil

Day 12: Wauja Village, Upper Xingu River

Michael Palin - BrazilThe numbers of the Wauja are still small, 400 altogether, in three villages. But thirty years ago they were down to 200. Watching them now, swirling and turning in the dance, it seems almost inconceivable that they should have come that close to extinction. But though epidemics of measles and influenza and the depredations of malaria are a thing of the past, tuberculosis, diabetes, drug and alcohol abuse in the border towns were all unknown to the Wauja when Emi first came here.

Itsautaku, the shaman, is a shortish man with a yellow feather headdress and a string of white shells around his neck. He has a serious, almost pained expression and holds a clutch of arrows and spears slightly taller than himself. He, more than anyone, embodies the continuity of the Wauja. His grandfather was a great chief at a time when the tribe had been practically wiped out by a series of epidemics which Emi likens to the great plagues in Europe during the Middle Ages. The people were left too weak to bury the dead and those who survived gathered together in one village for protection. Even then they were not immune to further outbreaks of disease, such as a devastating measles epidemic in 1954. But now they have vaccines and the numbers have begun to build. Emi smiles as she remembers when she first came here. 'Many of the people I knew as children now have ten or eleven children of their own and they ask me, "How come you only have two?"'

The dance goes on much of the afternoon, with varying numbers of participants. When it finally stops refreshments are brought out. I find myself included and offered chicken and chilli in a manioc pancake. Itsautaku gravely invites me to visit his house and talk with him tomorrow.

In the early evening a most important part of our visit takes place, the giving of presents as thanks to the tribe for their hospitality. Once upon a time weapons, like guns for hunting, would have been a popular choice, but now it's something different. The Wauja have become so used to being filmed that they have become curious about the process and want to make films for themselves about their own culture. Marcelo Fiorini, the Brazilian who came out to greet us this morning, is here to teach them how to do it. A mat is laid out in front of the men's house and our director, John-Paul, displays what he has brought, including a laptop, an editing programme and various other video and computer accessories. The Wauja men investigate them quite critically. The days when a few lengths of cloth and some biscuit tins would have been accepted unconditionally are long gone. As Emi points out, many of the tribe have learnt Portuguese at school, and some have been to university. The village has its own communications centre, with a satellite dish powered by solar panels and a short-wave radio, vital, among other things, for keeping in touch with their villages and those of other scattered tribes.

By the time the presents have been assessed and accepted, darkness is falling and the flies are biting. We cook ourselves some food in our guest house and sit outside on tree stumps in the moonlight until one by one we wash at our single standpipe and take to our hammocks. It's too hot inside the house to close the entrances at either end and, as I lie gently swinging, I'm aware of bats swooping in and out and around the tall-beamed roof above me.

I find food for thought in a book Basil has lent me, The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll, by Álvaro Mutis. 'There is no mystery to the jungle, regardless of what some people think. It's just what you've seen. No more, no less. Simple, direct, uniform, malevolent...Time is confused, laws are forgotten, joy is unknown and sadness has no place.'

In the middle of the night there's a terrific downpour and water drips in through a hole in the roof.
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PALIN'S GUIDES

  • Series: Brazil
  • Chapter: Day 12: Wauja Village, Upper Xingu River
  • Country/sea: Brazil
  • Place: Wauja Village, Upper Xingu River
  • Book page no: 63

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