Live from Xingu
Diary entry number four
By KEN WIWA
Tuesday, May 28, 2002
30,000 feet above the Amazon. On the map it looks like a tiny capillary snaking into the heart of the forest. By the time you are on a speedboat skimming over its choppy rapids and swerving past whirlpools, with a dense forest of green rising from distant banks, the Xingu seems so much bigger than a mere tributary of the Amazon.
It took four hours to travel to Tataquara Island 100 kilometres up river from Altamira. After sitting upright for that long, my back was crying out for support. Of course the Indians and many of the Amazon's inhabitants have been travelling up and down these rivers, sometimes in a simple canoe and often taking days to reach their destination. I doubt if many of them complain about bad backs on the way. In fact there were five Kayapo Indians with us and whenever I glanced back to Benajure (Chief) Kryt he looked pretty comfortable, his back was as straight as an arrow unlike the rest of the crew who mostly shifted and fidgetted around to ease and spread the strain on our backs.
Four hours on the river is hardly any time but I was relieved to get to Tataquara Island an eco-tourist lodge that is part of the Amazon Co-Op . The Co-op is an initiative funded almost entirely by the Body Shop Foundation to help six Indian communities in the Amazon. The Kayapo are one of the nations and five members of the community have accompanied us from Altamira to inspect the lodge.
The rest of us were a multicultural, multinational group consisting of a Swede, three Brazilians, two Englishmen, a Nigerian, two Americans and two Canadians. A photographer, a journalist, a designer, two businessmen, a political lobbyist, two adventure travel agents, an advertising executive and five Kayapo Indians arrived in the cool interior of a lodge in the middle of a jungle one afternoon and over the next few days visited two Indian communities who have been saved from certain extinction. We fished the rivers of the Xingu, trekked in the forests, and sat around by candlelight discussing issues ranging from environmental issues, human rights, cultural survival and cultural imperialism.
It was interesting listening and observing the debates, trying to figure out whether eco-tourism is just another variation on the age old theme of the white man using the jungle as a back drop to work out his frustrations and alienation about his way of life.
I took two books with me on the trip: Mario Vargas Llhosa's The Storyteller and Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. To me these are the great bookends of the debate about the white man's cultural and economic impact on the rest of the world. I keep rereading these books and the controversies they generated but I imagine the answers much like the questions that these books and a trip to the Amazon raises are very much personal ones.
Travel is often a personal exploration. It is a chance to put things in perspective, to question the world and to question your place in the world. It should be much more than a selfless act because every journey may start in the same place but you always return home to a different place.
So what else do I remember: the freshness of the jungle after a thunderstorm. The sound of silence, of howler monkey's moving heard but unseen in the canopy, the furious squawking of macaws, the invisible menace of rokrore - the predatory jaguar - which you occasionally hear but never got to see. There is a whole safari of memories, questions, doubts, feelings which will, in due course, be distilled and crystallized into a more complete narrative of my trip here. I've enjoyed this trip and found an interesting distaff between the challenge of trying to negotiate nature and having to send out these reports. This one has been typed 30,000 feet above the Amazon somewhere between Brasilia and Rio.
I'm hoping that somewhere in the steaming jungle of Rio is an Internet café that promises to connect me, you, the rest of the world to man's fount of accumulated wisdom. That's the promise of communication and technology but for me it is man's folly that dominates my thoughts right now.
Two hours up the Xingu we stopped by a flotilla of mahogany trees lying by a bank. Ibama the Brazilian environmental agency had impounded the trees. The logs were part of a cache of 60,000 mahogany trees had been poached from protected reserves. In fact 80 per cent of hardwoods exported from Brazil is illegally poached. The numbers are staggering but the figure that troubles me about that scene on the Xingu is that the value of the logs we saw was worth an estimated $200-million. What kind of a society gives a tree this abstract but very real value?
I'm sitting here on this plane looking down on the Amazon forest below and thinking of those trees lying forlornly in the water on the Xingu and it has just struck me that those trees are worth much more than $200-million.
Previous diary entry: May 27