The dogs are the first to welcome us. As the pilot, Francisco, eases our plane to a halt at the end of the bumpy grass runway, they race towards us, roused to a frenzy of barking and capering by the sound of the engine and the arrival of an interloper. Behind them figures appear at the doors of the two or three buildings that comprise Demini airstrip.
Here in the remote rainforest of North-West Brazil, any arrival from the sky is greeted with expectation. There are no roads that lead here, or even a navigable river. Aeroplanes are the lifeline to the outside world.
At the end of the airstrip are refuelling facilities and a small clinic, staffed by nurses on a monthly roster. There is a kitchen and communications equipment, and some fresh coffee to greet us.
As we unload, figures begin to emerge from a narrow path that leads out of the forest. First come curious little boys in long red shorts, looking, with their black hair, dark eyes and light brown skin, as if they might have stepped straight from the other side of the Pacific. Indonesia or even China. They’re followed, a little more warily, by young girls and, with them, older women, most of whom wear nothing but a brief decorated red apron round their waists. The young men, like young men anywhere, make an entrance of self-conscious swagger. They carry bows and very long bamboo arrows with thorn-sharp wooden points. As the women stand and watch from beneath the shady eaves of the clinic, the men gather around appraising us curiously. Sensing I might make a good foil, one of them arches back his bow and sends an arrow flying high into the air. Then he gives me his bow and bids me do the same. Amidst much chortling I unleash one of the arrows, which thuds into the ground about five metres away. They seem to like me for having a go and when I take out my notebook they gather round it with great interest. The man with the bow asks for my pen and writes something in my book, in his own language, in fluent longhand. Another likes my straw hat and pops it on his head as unselfconsciously as an MCC member on a hot day at Lord’s.
I’m quite relieved by their affability, for my new friends are from the Yanomami tribe and have a history of being fearless and often ferocious fighters. The Yanomami are one of two hundred or so indigenous tribes still left from the days when the first Europeans set foot in the country. There were estimated to be some five million Indians in Brazil when the Portuguese began to settle here early in the sixteenth century. Today, after the depredations of slavery, disease and loss of land to loggers, farmers and miners, they number no more than 300,000.
It’s a walk of just over three kilometres (two miles) from the clinic to the maloca, the home of this particular group of Yanomami who are to be our hosts for the night. We leave the modern world behind at the end of the airstrip and follow them deep into the forest. A very beautiful walk it is too, with sunlight filtering through the foliage and a great quiet, broken only by low voices and the occasional screech of a bird. After forty-five minutes the maloca appears abruptly, at the end of the trail. A long circular construction similar in dimension to a small football stadium, which, despite its size, seems to melt into the surrounding forest. Rising protectively behind it is the smooth grey bulk of a granite outcrop, fringed with scrub.
This huge circular house, which they call a yano, measures some 400 metres in circumference and twenty-five metres across. The outer wall, a jumble of beams and planks, is topped with a palm-thatch roof which slopes down at a sharp angle towards a central, sand-covered plaza. Beneath the roof is a beamed and pillared space about fifteen metres deep, accommodating beneath it about 180 people. The hammocks and living areas are at the back, leaving the front clear as a walkway. There are no partitions. Everyone can see everyone else around the circle. Privacy is respected without the need for separate rooms or enclosures and as they help me sling my hammock no one makes me feel conspicuous.
Until the 1950s no one knew much about the Yanomami. Their isolation from the rest of the world enabled their way of life to continue as it must have done for thousands of years: hunting, fishing and living off the fruits of the forest like bananas, yams, manioc and maize. Then, as John Hemming writes in Tree of Rivers, his history of the Amazon: ‘That tranquillity was destroyed by three inventions: the plane, the chainsaw and the bulldozer.’ This combination pushed the Yanomami to the brink of extinction. In the late 1980s this remote border area saw a gold rush, which drew thousands of garimpeiros – gold prospectors – into the forests, far outnumbering the Yanomami. Trees were felled and streams and rivers poisoned by the mercury needed to extract the gold. Alcohol, prostitution and diseases like syphilis accompanied this new invasion. Despite a demarcation area being drawn up to protect the tribal land, the lust for gold continued unabated until, in 1993, the killing of a number of Indian men, women and children and the attempt by the perpetrators to burn their bodies led to serious attempts to expel the garimpeiros. In the last twenty years a local NGO, working closely with the Yanomami, has improved their conditions and things are looking better for them, with numbers rising to some 20,000 on either side of the border with Venezuela.
I have complicated feelings about being able to just fly in here. Three hours door-to-door from my hotel in Boa Vista. I have no motive other than curiosity about how these people live, but I feel I have nothing to offer them in return. As it turns out this is not entirely true. Over the years the Yanomami have learnt a lot about public relations. They know that some outsiders are bad and some are good. They must impress the good ones to keep out the bad ones. Davi Kopenawa Yanomami, who welcomed us to the maloca wearing his traditional paint and feather adornments, has been promoting the cause of Brazilian Indians all over the world. He appreciates that people like ourselves who come here in good faith will hopefully paint an attractive and sympathetic portrait of the Yanomami to the world outside and this will make them less easy to exploit.
They are getting together some dancing for us. Nothing moves very fast here, but the preparations themselves are fascinating. The participants gather in a sunlit glade in the forest, men at one end, women and children at the other, to prepare themselves for the afternoon’s celebrations. A tree stump, covered with brushes and paints, acts as a make-up table. As a basic decoration, they rub each other with a red dye from the ground-up seeds of the urucum flower, which also protects their skin from insects and sunburn. Over this, other designs are painstakingly applied. Parallel stripes are drawn on the faces of the children and, with the aid of pink plastic hand mirrors, much attention is given to the hair. Necklaces of yellow plastic beads are carefully adjusted. The boys have thin wooden needles inserted into their noses and round their mouths and they walk about sharpening their arrows as if halfway through an acupuncture session. The men wear anklets and armbands adorned with clusters of toucan feathers. As a final touch the men and boys have a coating of white feathers from the breast of the harpy eagle stuck onto their heads.
They prepare unhurriedly, and eventually the procession sets out along the track to the maloca led by one of the tiniest boys of the village. He’s followed by the women, a number of them holding their babies, followed in turn by the men striking fierce poses as they go. They assemble beneath one of the giant mango trees, but only when they’ve moved into the communal house does the procession become a dance. The women lead, moving gracefully, six steps forward, two steps back, as they circle the house. The men, representing the hunters, follow, stamping their feet, waving spears and chanting menacingly.
The dance goes on for some time, despite the great heat, and when the women have finished the men gather in line in the central, unshaded plaza to shout and jump. At the end of the dancing everyone, from the oldest to the youngest in the village, is rewarded with a thick brew of fermented peach palm, pupunha juice, dispensed from huge buckets. The red berries, with their peach-coloured flesh, are rich in protein, starch and vitamins. The result must be quite potent and there’s much competitive drinking among the men. No one is reproved for taking too much; in fact the young children take fresh supplies to their elders. It’s a big communal treat and I’m offered a taste, and gratefully accept. After my refusal of another brimming bowlful their curiosity about us wanes, and they get on with enjoying themselves. This is their party.
It’s the end of the day. The celebrants have dispersed back to their hammocks to sleep off the effects of the pupunha. Some will have taken a pinch or two of the hallucinogenic snuff which keeps hunger and thirst at bay. It’s made from a tree resin called epena and little jars of it hang from the timber pillars, for public use. As if parodying the mood in the yano, a baby tree sloth which is being kept as a pet eases itself extremely slowly along one of the beams. The only outside activity is a woman with a broom chasing a black-bristled peccary, or wild pig, that has been shuffling round the place all day, getting the dogs very irritated. She ushers it fiercely out through one of the doors, where it stands, snorting resentfully, before lowering its great round snout and resuming its hoovering in the dust.
Once night falls there is little to pierce the darkness other than the embers of small fires which are lit around the maloca to keep the insects away and provide some warmth in the early hours. Like everyone else I sleep in a hammock. The man next to me is wild-haired and a bit confused. He has a black wad of chewing tobacco permanently lodged in his lower jaw. He seems generally ignored by the others in the community, and swings gently in his hammock murmuring to himself. Cockroaches scuttle around by the fence as I clean my teeth.
I wake in the middle of the night. It’s very dark and very quiet, but I need to answer the call of nature. I switch on my torch and head for one of the entrances, only to find all the doors shut and fastened. I ease one open and walk to the nearest bushes. Fireflies dance around. Then a grunt and a snuffle nearby makes me freeze. It’s the peccary, a few paces away and eyeing me with malevolence. By the time I return to the yano I find a woman standing by the door. She lets me in, smiles, pushes it shut and secures it with a peg. It’s a hostile world out there and I feel embarrassed that I might have momentarily jeopardized the collective security.