Sunday, October 2, 2011

Dia 31: It's about what's not in the photos.

I will have to approach this particular post with a certain amount of care, as it may bring the writer to tears to recount the sublime events of the past few days in great detail.

We arose extra early in Rio Branco yesterday, heading to the airport in time to be picked up by the governor’s personal 12-seat plane. For someone who loves those few minutes of flights during take-off and landing when the world is visible in miniature, this 2-hour flight was a dream! Literally as well, since I did end up conking out for part of it. 

Upon arriving in Tarauaca (at my new favorite (one-room) airport), we were met by a group of Acre state officials and a brigade of pick-up trucks, all of whom escorted us on a 1-hour journey to the banks of Rio Gregorio, a tributary to the Amazon.

It was from this point that we embarked on an epic 100-mile boat ride upstream to the territory of the indigenous Yawanawa tribe. This leg of the trip lasted 8 hours. Eight hours in the heart of the Amazon, sitting upright on a hard bench, for the first two of which rain did not stop pouring. To find oneself alone with nothing but trees and thoughts for such an amount of time is terrifying at first -- but, in the end, I think I managed to have a pretty good conversation with “Hatna” (yet another pronunciation of my name, Portuguese this time).

After our tiring triathlon of photographs, guava juice, and soaked clothing, we finally approached the community of the Yawanawa -- and our journey was validated in a second. The sight before us was more overwhelming and memorable than anything I may ever experience again. Each and every member of the village stood lining a cliff high above us, wearing traditional clothing, and singing with one voice that reverberated  overwhelmingly through the still Amazonian ambiance. Never have I even heard of such a welcome. As we flopped out of our boats and headed up the hill, our slouches turned sprightly. We were energized. 

The villagers now formed two lines around our group -- one of women, one men -- and continued their haunting song. When we reached a circle of open space in the center of a village, they created a ring around us and continued to sing. I wanted to take a photo or video or something at this point, but couldn’t bring myself to do so. After many iterations of the song, they exclaimed jubilantly, “Yoohoo!” and the chief spoke his words of welcome. Alberto Costa Uncle translated: he told us that their tribe’s most important festival is to occur on the 22nd, and preparations for this have commenced. He apologized for the “small” welcome (about 50 people), but explained, “it’s all we have.” Cyprian Uncle then introduced us and thanked the chief for his hospitality. Papa responded to the chief by saying he has traveled to 70 countries and visited countless communities, but never seen anything like this. (More “Yoohoo!”s were exclaimed after this statement.) The chief told us dinner would be ready soon, after which we would gather around the fire for a traditional celebration.
After dropping my bags in the “ladies’ guest room,” or “Sala A” of the village school (how appropriate!), I joined our group and the chief’s family for dinner. Sitting at the candlelit table and eating the most amazing beef stew I have ever tried, I suddenly felt overwhelmingly at home. In this moment, I felt the same warmth and affection I experienced when I visited relatives in my ancestral village (Gheora) over spring break. The indigenous lifestyle feels so, well, natural. It really makes one wonder what we’re all running after. 

We gathered around a beautiful bonfire after our meal, and the chief offered everyone in the circle their local “healing drink,” said to have been used therapeutically before any contact with the outside world. Then began the singing! The Yawanawa formed a ring near the fire and walked to the rhythm of their powerful songs. We were invited to join, and I leapt up immediately (not something I would always do in a situation such as this). Having become a link of that ring, the words just came. When I tried to memorize and apply the patterns of the music, I would stumble. But when I just opened my mouth, I knew all the words. It was ineffably powerful and very, very uplifting. 

At a break in the music, I headed back to Sala A, where five hammocks mirrored the line of desks on the other half of the circular room. Magaly, a very sweet Acre state environment official, taught me the “proper” way to sleep in a hammock (diagonally!), and wished me “boa noite” before blowing out our candle.

I arose to the sound of cocks crowing. Tens of them. Continuously. I had heard the magical music float in and out throughout the night, once thinking it a wake-up call, but this was a true herald of the day. I folded my quilt, walked out of the classroom, and just stood there for a few minutes. Clotheslines decorated the houses spaced around the inner circle. Children ran about. Roosters shuffled around. What a sight.

I washed up at a big tub of rainwater behind one family’s house before joining the Yawanawa leaders in a circle where they discussed ProAcre, the World Bank sustainable development project which has been supporting them over the past few years. This first project helped them in constructing an administrative building in this village and a housing development in Tarauaca, as well as purchasing a truck to transport goods they produce. They now seek funds for small workshop in the village, that they may build furniture from trees which have already fallen throughout their 450,000 acres (!) of protected territory, “giving new life to trees which are already dead.”

This meeting was followed by a breakfast of tasty sandwiches and fresh fruits, after which we once again thanked them for their incredible hospitality, and shared with them that, regardless of the rest of the group, I certainly plan to return to their home. I am always welcome, they told me, and the wife of the chief presented me with a precious hair ornament make of stunning feathers and delicate yarn. Of course, by this point, I was about to cry, but I managed to squeak out an “obrigada” and a few hugs before our departure. 

Leaving was actually painful. I don’t do well with goodbyes. But I know I will be back.


  1. i devoured this piece......dream to be there someday......gr8 goin.......dis is d real stuff......

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  3. This is seriously incredible. For real. What you are doing is simply magical!! Keep having an awesome time!