Along the endless curves of the rio Xiparinã

Carlito and Guri quickly leave us behind. Our canoe is heavy with 11 persons on it.
Divan commands the motor in the back with Chris. Michael and Ebbe sit on the wooden bench just in front of them, behind the bulge of bags, equipments and supplies. Cathleen, Nicole and Matteo share the bench to the front and the botanists and I sit with Chico at the front. I have a pan full of salted piranhas between my feet, our dinner for the first night because we'll have no time to stop for fishing.
At a slow pace we pass the forested borders of the wide rio Jauaperi. The girls are hungry, they haven't had breakfast having waited on the other side of the lake and soon start to 'attack' our provisions together with the botanists...if we continue on this pace, we'll have no food left for the rest of our trip..
Sweet coffee from a red vacuum flask is passed on all over the canoe. I take care of seu Chico's needs, he seldom asks for something but never says no to anything I offer to him.
After some hours we turn left into the mound of the rio Xiparinã. The river is narrower than the former one and the vegetation on the riverbanks becomes gradually lower. The sun is high up in the sky, it must be around midday, but in fact I have already lost the perception of time.
The river winds up in endless curves, on our left side there seems to be high canopy that looks like firm land to me, but it isn't. It's just tall trees raising up from the waters.
Near the mound of the Xiparinã there is a small stilted house on the left bank of the river. We see Carlito and Guri's canoes lying on the shore, they must have stopped for a coffee, or some lunch. It's the home of Dona Odete, an old woman with a peculiar character who lives there all alone. The legend says Dona Odete had two husbands, when both died she sometime found a third one but it didn't work and so she just continued living there on her own. She thinks she is the owner of the river...
We proceed without Carlito and Guri, our canoe is much slower and it will be easy for them to catch up. After two riverbends a small canoe approaches us, Dona Odete sent out her nephew to get seu Chico. She wants to talk to him, probably to enquire where we are going. We see them disappear behind the riverbend and continue on our own.
Soon we get lost...Divan doesn't know the way but insists on proceeding, incited by the boys. They have a GPS in their equipment, but don't really know how to use it...
Then the motor starts to make strange noises and stops. Divan shouts 'o rabo, o rabo' (the 'tail'), the small tail that moves the rabeta motor has broken off and here we find out that we have no tools on board...
There we are, under a burning sun in the middle of nowhere. The reserve motor is on Carlito's canoe but there is no sign of them.
Divan and Chris start to row back (I'm not so sure they know the looks as if we are proceeding in circles), in the hope to catch up with the other men. Stefan at some point manages to get through to the map on the GPS where his tutor from INPA had marked some points on the way to the buritizal and says that we are on the right direction.
We try to concentrate on the sounds carried by the water, hoping to hear the crackling noise of Carlito's motor. Nothing. The silence is broken only by Divan's desperate gibberish and some lonely bird's cry. Mike and Ebbe don't look very comfortable and I try to avoid their glances.
Nature around us is gorgeous by the way, it's not a bad place to get lost...
After what seemed an eternity our men reappear and Chico jumps into our canoe. Together with Divan he has a look at the motor, but without tools it's not possible to repair it, not in a short time. The 'Severino' is called to action, but it's obvious even to me that it's a far to weak motor to push the heavy canoe. We proceed very slowly now.
From time to time Divan shouts from the back that the motor has lost a screw, he is holding with both arms the motor because it doesn't fit well on the canoe and he's sweating like hell.
It must be mid afternoon already and dark clouds are building up on the horizon. Our folks are hungry but the only land strip we find is a steep mud embankment and we decide to push forward, eating some crackers from our supplies. Carlito and Guri deny the snacks, I'm told that they only eat 'warm' cooked food...I suppose they must have eaten something at Dona Odete's - but they never admitted it..
From the open river we enter the submerged forest. Here the hard work begins and we get a taste of what the next days will be. The motors are taken off to avoid their getting stuck in the vegetation. From now on we depend on the paddles. Carlito and Guri on their slim canoes go in front cutting through branches and fallen trees. Chico clears the way for the big canoe - a difficult task, because it's broad 'womb' keeps getting stuck between the trunks that stick out of the water. Some of us try to help out by paddling and pushing the canoe along the steep passages between the trees.
Chris looks worried at the rapidly darkening sky, we are still far from the first land strip we're supposed to reach for the night and it looks as if it's going to rain soon.
Chico is indefatigable, he cuts vigorously small, big, soft and hard trees, always turning back to look at us with a big smile when he gets through. He balances up and down barefoot on the slim borders of the canoe, sometimes loosing his balance causing me to grab his hand or his leg to get him back into the boat. He ends up cutting his finger badly with the ax and as we have no gloves on board I give him one of my socks to put on his hand.
Under the rain we arrive at the land strip. It's almost dark and Chico, Guri, Divan and Carlito after anchoring the canoes quickly penetrate into the forest. In no time at all they open a clearance, cut thick trunks and put up the blue tarpaulin under which we hang our hammocks.
Exhausted we all climb into the hammocks and not even the youngsters in our group have the courage to say that they are hungry. Soon silence broken only by the rain pounding on the tarpaulin gets over the camp.
My first night in the forest...I fall in a deep sleep, lulled by the rocking hammock.
In the middle of the night I wake up just to see that the rain has stopped and Chico, Guri and Carlito have moved out from under the tarpaulin and are now sleeping in the open. I promise to myself to do the same tomorrow.

Expedition to the buritizal - day one

At 5 a.m. the community is still enveloped by silence and darkness, broken only by the cries of the howler monkeys.
We are supposed to leave at 6, Chris had told us the night before, not a minute later, because the first strip of 'terra firme' (not submerged land) where we'll have the possibility to camp is far away from Xixuau and if we don't reach it before darkness falls we'll have to sleep in the canoes.
I had packed a small travel duffel with a few clothes, two torches (one for me and the other for one of the Danish guys), my hammock, a blanket and a mosquito net, photo gear, just the essentials.
After a quick shower there is still no noise from the Danes room, but a trembling light comes out of the kitchen: Paulinho must be preparing coffee for everybody. The trembling lights of two torches run up and down from the small quay.
I knock on the Danes door and call them to action. A sleepy Michael answers that they are almost ready...
I have brought just a small waterproof sack for my electronic gear, so I try to stuff everything else into the few thin plastic bags I had packed at the last moment.
After a while I walk up to the kitchen and ask Paulinho for some more plastic bags. In the meanwhile I have sweet coffee and some cake with Chico and Castelo while waiting for the others. Slowly all the men of the community gather around the kitchen veranda to wish us good luck. Chris, Matteo and the girls are waiting for us on the other border of the lake, and after Michael and Ebbe turn up we walk up to the canoes and load our bags.
Before leaving Castelo shows us a small poisonous snake on the muddy soil between the houses. Nobody seems to bother much and it disappears beneath the stilts of the nearest house.
Castelo and Chico have already filled the bigger canoe with food supplies, a gas canister, a small electric stove and of course the knives and axes they had been preparing for days. Carlito is sitting in his small canoe with the ever present hand-rolled cigarette hanging from the corner of his mouth, preparing his fishing gear. His canoe is equipped with a 'rabeta' motor and he will tow the other small canoe with Guri on it for the extension of open river waters. The rest of us is going on the big heavily loaded canoe powered by the new motor that had traveled with us from Manaus. For safety reasons we are taking a smaller reserve motor too, the 'Severino', in case one of the others breaks down.

We are going to navigate upstream the broad rio Jauaperi, then head north along the rio Xiparinã. From there we'll enter the big igapò (a large tract of submerged forest), where we'll have to proceed without the help of the motors. It shall take us about 3 days to get there and something less to come back.
Only Chico and Carlito know the way to the buritizal, they have no instruments whatsoever, just their experienced eyes and senses, that are used to decode the signs of nature.

First we head to the other side of Xixuau lake, to  pick up Chris and his family. We try to distribute our weight evenly on the big canoe, between the supplies, the botanists equipments and the luggage. Chris and his daughters have two midlle-sized wheeled bags - not exactly an appropriate luggage to travel through the forest...but they hadn't any other kind of bags Chris tells me.
And there we go, leaving a winking bunch of people from the community behind in the early morning light.

The community and their neighbors, the Waimiri-Atraoari

After lunch everybody goes to take a rest, while Cat and I stay for a while in the shade of the big maloca. Isac, Divan and some others pretend to sleep while listening to our chitchat on the two sofas of the maloca.

We talk about the community's work structure, on how the tasks are shared between members. There are a few persons with particular skills or health problems who have a 'fixed' job; Carlito, who fishes for the whole community, Paulinho who is responsible for the kitchen of the eco-tourism facility, Francilaine, the teacher, Artemisia, the nurse. The others work on a rotatory basis, performing all tasks that are necessary for the communities maintenance, including working as guides with the tourists. Between the lines I have the impression that not all members always participate on the same basis, but maybe this is physiological in any society.
Not everything is made on a communitarian basis, each family has it's own income and domestic economy. I ask Cathleen what happens if someone is in need. In these cases the community itself in the person of Amazonia Association helps out.
I get lost with the intricated parental relationships of the members, their life stories, their many children, grandchildren etc. It seems to me that everybody is in some way related to all the others, which isn't really strange in such a small and remote place. And following the pattern of the here too beloved 'novelas' (yes they have TVsets...) many of them have a turbulent sentimental life, with flourishing second and third families in other communities to sustain, with many children.
Some are original inhabitants of the place, some have come back after failed attempts to live in big cities. Many have left the river communities of their birth because of the growing lack of economic opportunities, but ended up engrossing the lines of unemployment or low cost informal labor in the slums of the big cities, often with alcoholism problems. Alcoholism seems to be a recurrent problem in the story of many of the male members of the community.
It's the same story that happens all over the world to displaced 'rural' populations. There is no place for them in 'modern' society, their precious and unique skills and knowledge acquired during a lifetime in the forest and on the rivers are not expendable in the cities. Most of them are illiterate, all the elders are. But they have a wealth of knowledge, different from ours, a rare knowledge on how to live in apparently inhospitable places. But civilization is insidious, and they end up feeling inadequate, as 'lower' human beings confronted to the city people.

The 'people of the forest' have long been forgotten by Brazilian authorities and in a way still are. Like the Indios they have been painted as obstacles to development, as anachronistic actors of a story that has come to an end. In the end of the eighties the tragic story of Chico Mendes brought a lot of international and some national attention to the fate of the rubber-tappers. Before there wasn't even the conscience that beside the mistreated Indians there were other persons populating the vast Amazonian territory. And it was deliberately hidden to public opinion by farmers, cattle raisers, mining companies and corrupt politicians who wanted free room to exploit the riches of the territory and who mercilessly exterminated and evicted those people from their lands, while destroying the forest.
Nowadays there is some attention, there are some public services, but insufficient. Small communities are remembered mostly only before election time,  when politicians visit the communities and distribute goods and promises.
Primary schools have been set up in some communities, but it's not easy to find teachers who are willing to live in such remote places and often those who are sent there are the scum of the category.

In Xixuau they have been trying to change this. The teacher is a member of the community, son of illiterate parents who understood that educating their children would mean better life opportunities for them. The nurse too is a girl from a neighboring community, who has been sent to Manaus to study by Amazonia Association. Now all children and some adults have the opportunity to get an education without having to leave their homes and through tutors that have their same cultural background.
I ask why they ship in most of the food they consume from Manaus, meat, eggs, vegetables etc. and she explains that they have tried to grow all kinds of crops (beside the usual 'mandioca', that transformed into 'farinha' together with fish constitutes the basis diet of the ribeirinhos), without much success, because of the poor soil and all kind of illnessess that befall the crops in the humid tropical climate. Raising animals like cows, chicken or pigs is difficult here too: they attract predators, endangering the community, and easily get ill too. In the end they have to rely on what the forest offers seasonally as fruits.
Life expectancy is low, due to hard life and the poor diet. For men it is around 60-65. Common illnesses are related to the poor diet and the high sugar consumption; anemia, diabetes, bad teeth, almost all grown up men are teeth less.
I don't remember how we come to talk about their neighbors from the Indigenous Reserve of the Waimiri-Atraoari, I think it was related to sustainable behavior and illegal fishing.
The Waimiri-Atraoari got on the 'sad' wall of fame in the mid seventies, during the construction of the Manaus-Boa Vista highway, BR 174, that was built right through their territory. A team of FUNAI that was working in the area to mitigate the devastating impact of the road on the Waimiri-Atraoari was killed. One of them was the renowned indianist Gilberto Pinto. In the sixties another team had been killed. Nowadays the population of the reserve is in steady growth. According to what Cathleen tells me, the Waimiri-Atraoari have learned to interact with international society, which provides them with funds and protection to act against external threats. They have built up a 'westernly' educated group of young people who speak English and are skilled in the use of modern technologies. This elite intercedes with national and international society, the rest of the population of the reserve has no contact with the outside world. Not even researchers are allowed to go into the reserve. They have computers, internet, helicopters (!!) and are very active (and feared) in protecting the environment against illegal fishermen, hunters and loggers.
Their relationship with nearby Xixuau community is good, says Cathleen, the Waimiri are a precious help in the protection of the territory and once in a while a delegation visits to discuss common problems.She tells me that due to the growing population of the reserve the Waimiri have recently tried to move the demarcated borders in open conflict with local and federal authorities. The army was sent to put an end to the problem, in Xixuau they saw the heavily equipped soldiers pass by, ready to scare the shit out of 'the bloody 'indios'', as they said. When they got near the territory of the Waimiri the soldiers must have faced the whole male contingent of the Waimiri on war asset and they fled...
The Waimiri get quite upset when they find strangers entering their territory, especially if they don't behave well. Seu Joao, a man who lives alone not far away from Xixuau, got more than one advice not to throw his cigarette butts and food rests in indigenous territory, the Waimiri left him messages engraved in trees in the forest 'Seu Joao, seu Joao', as to say, we are watching you....

Behind the big maloca Castelo, seu Chico and other men are busy grinding axes and big bush-knives (terçados). Even those who are not coming on the expedition are excited. It looks as if we're going to war...
Isac, taking advantage of the interruption in our conversation asks me if I want to go on another canoe trip.

We leave with Guri and the Danes. We're going to look for a sloth they have seen in the morning in the igapò. I ask Isac to stick to Guri (maybe he is more experienced or just luckier, the fact is that they have seen many more animals than we). He doesn't seem too happy about it...and after 10 minutes he directs the canoe to another part of flooded forest eager to find his 'own' animals.The cries of howler monkeys resound through the forest, very loud. They rise in an impressive crescendo, then suddenly stop. After a while they start again. I have the feeling that they are all around us, but it's just an impression, the sound is carried far by the water and the trees.
Isac enters and exits parts of flooded forest and suddenly we are on a river arm opposite of where Chris's house is, on the other side of Xixuau lake. We canoe through the remnants of some old malocas, rotten wood structures throwing ghostly reflections on the water, partly engulfed by vegetation, living proof of how quick the forest reclaims it's territory. Until some years ago those had been the guests accomodations. They were located in a beautiful spot, but maybe now that the receptive structure has been rebuilt near the community it will be better for locals and guests.
After another strip of flooded forest we make a stop at Chris's house. It is completely surrounded by water. Isac uses the bathroom, leaving me alone on the small wooden veranda that overlooks the lake. Not far away I see trails of river dolphins in the water. Daniel and another guy arrive in a canoe from the community, they are looking for something in the house. There are no closed doors in this part of the world!
After my second day on the rivers I begin to recognize land marks, an extremely tall leafless tree with pink flowers signals the entrance to Xixuau lake.

Walking in the forest

Isac emits a soft whistling sound from time to time. From not far away a similar sound seems to answer from the forest. It must be Guri, hidden by the foliage. They are calling monkeys, Isac says.

I try to put in practice Chris's advice of scanning the top of the trees looking for unusual forms or movements. It seems impossible to be so near and still far away of the top of these enormous partially submerged trees. 10 meters water hide their trunks and still they are so high that they don't fit in a picture...even with a wide angle lens.
Suddenly Isac points at some bustling branches - monkeys!! Their loud cries fill the air and I get glimpses of their thick tails while jumping from one branch to the other - Saki monkeys. As they have appeared they disappear and silence reigns again.

On the spiny trunk of a palm tree we see a big brownish spider, hidden between the spines, and it's nest with two small white eggs in it.
We get out of the canoes on a slippery muddy land strip. Dark clouds hover over us. Guri leads us through a small trail, showing us all kind of trees - cedro, figueira, caju-do-mato. He walks quite fast and Isac stays behind taking care not to loose Mike who stops to take pictures of a lot of trees. I stick to Guri who seems to know deeply every vegetal and animal form of the place. I try to translate to Ebbe without much success, he doesn't hear very well and I don't want to shout out in the forest, afraid of scaring away animals.
A blue morpho butterfly passes by, an almost unreal electric blue spot in all the green and brown that surrounds us.
We 'see', well Guri sees and tries to show us some birds: mae-do-mato, galinha-do-mato, the mother of the forest and the chicken of the forest, but we only catch glimpses of them.
photo M. Falkendorf
Then he cuts a thick liana and hands it to me. "Drink", a conspiciuos  trickle of sweetish and fresh water flows out of it. "Cipò-d'àgua" they call it, a precious water source when walking in the forest.
The air is hot and humid, but there aren't many biting insect around.
Guri shows us the trails of a tapir, the hole of an armadillo and the signs of the passage of a jaguar. The latter are scratches on a big root on the soil. He tries to vocalize the tapir's whistle, but the only answer he gets is the loud chant of a Japicum, a bird. He explains us the use of many trees, seeds, barks and Isac seems to be as curious as I am.
A thunder explodes not far away and soon thick and heavy rain drops start hitting us. Guri and Isac don't seem to mind at all. I'll learn during my stay here that rain is just part of it, as you get wet you get dry again, so nobody makes a big fuzz about it. I store my camera, the only thing I don't want to get soaked. My shoes are still humid from the rain in Manaus, in fact they feel quite uncomfortable, so it doesn't make a big difference...The dense foliage of the trees protects us partially from the rain and soon it stops again.
After some more walking we return to the canoes and plunge again into the igapò.
Isac keeps looking back from time to time, to control if I'm still on the canoe... Whith skilled movements he empties the canoe with a cut plastic bottle from the water that has filled up the bottom.
Isac is not a big talker, but he tells me that he is not from Xixuau. He and his brothers work there, while their father works on a farm on a nearby river.
Back at the community we have a quick shower then lunch with Chris and his daughters.
Stefan and Camilo have brought a lot of açai from the fazenda and we drink the purple tasty juice. Maybe it's the suggestion of the place, but it tastes great, completely different from the watery taste of those sold by Rio's juice stalls.
During lunch Chris asks me if I have decided to go to the buritizal with them. Oh well, had I ever said I wouldn't? We will be leaving tomorrow morning at 6 o'clock on four canoes, a big and three smaller ones. Chris and his two daughters, Matteo, Nicole's Italian boyfriend, Divan, Cat's boyfriend, Mike and Ebbe, Chico, Guri and Carlito (the fisherman of the community). Chris is a bit worried about Ebbe and tries to find out with Mike if he thinks he is prepared for the hardship of the tour.
After lunch everybody goes to take a rest, while Cat and I stay for a while in the shade of the big maloca. Isac, Divan and some others pretend to sleep while listening to our chitchat on the two sofas of the maloca.