A First Contact
With Amazon Indians
The dim, shadowy images are seared into my memory as if it had happened this morning. Twenty-three dark, naked bodies, standing perfectly still, were staring at me from behind a thin curtain of Amazon jungle. My heart raced as I studied their serious faces; the huge bows and arrows they held by their sides and their primitive necklaces made of large teeth and beads.
I had only read of such encounters in men’s adventure magazines or seen such things in Indiana Jones movies. Soon the reality of my situation set upon me. I was totally unprepared for such an event. Fear gripped me but I knew I must remain cool. After all, what were my alternatives? If these natives were hostile and wanted me for lunch, trying to escape in their own backyard, a place totally foreign to me, would be futile. Seconds seemed liked hours. Who would make the first move?
Only four weeks earlier I had accepted an invitation by a North American mining company based in Brazil to do some exploratory work on lands deep in the heart of Mato Grosso (literally, thick jungle), Brazil, hundreds of miles from the nearest city. Since I was a geologist who could speak Portuguese and held myself out to be an adventurous type, I was the likely candidate for the assignment. The prospects of traveling to the Amazon Jungle were more than I could resist, and after brief consideration, I had accepted their offer. I was also delighted at the thought of returning to Brazil, a beautiful country I had been privileged to live in several years earlier.
Necessary arrangements for such a trip were now in order; injections, malaria pills, camping gear, someone to look after my business, a geological consulting firm, and a hundred other details. As the weeks passed, I received updated information as to where exactly I would be working. Slowly, it began to dawn on me that I was being sent into an unexplored, unmapped, deep, dark part of the Amazon Jungle only a few miles away from where the famous explorer, Colonel Percy Fawcett, had disappeared on his last great expedition in search of the ancient lost city of Manoa. A small, dirt runway would be completed just three days before my arrival so that I could avoid the three-week journey into the site by river and by foot that the workmen all had to make.
The big day arrived and I found myself comfortably settled in my seat on a flight to Miami, chatting with the lady beside me about my upcoming adventure. Her response was somewhere between amazement and pity for my poor mother who would probably never see me again. This reaction made me question my decision. I wondered just what I was getting myself into.
As I awaited my flight to Sao Paulo, I heard Portuguese being spoken all around me. I felt reassured, returning to a country that, to me, was a home away from home. Early the next morning, I gazed out my window as we made our final approach over a city that seemed to have no end. I had never been to Sao Paulo before, but I could certainly see why it was described as the third largest city in the world. At the gate I was met by a company representative and taken to a very comfortable hotel for the night.
The next day we were off to Cuiaba, the capital city of the state of Mato Grosso. Once in Cuiaba, arrangements were made for me to fly with the company representative to the small outpost town of Aripuana, a three hour flight in a single engine Piper Cherokee over thick jungle. It did not take a genius to realize that any engine trouble would most likely result in death.
Soon after takeoff, the dangers of the journey were crowded out of my mind by the wonder of what I saw below. It seemed as if we were suspended over an infinite sea of deep green carpet. Only periodically could I detect a river below, like a huge snake, meandering its way through the dark green carpet. I wondered how the pilot could keep from getting lost, for there were no natural or electronic navigational aids in the region at that time, only the odd piece of bedrock jutting up to form an ancient low lying mountain.
After hours of this awesome experience, the pilot pointed out a huge waterfall ahead and explained that the settlement of Aripuana was near. As we reached the Dardenellos waterfall the pilot banked and descended. Water from the fall splashed on our windshield. The pilot looked over at my wide eyes and white knuckles and laughed at my obvious lack of bush flying experience. After several more steep banks executed with the skill of an Indy race car driver, we were on the ground.
Taxiing to the end of the primitive runway, we were greeted by an interesting mix of grizzled gold prospectors and pioneer settlers who had only a few years earlier established this tiny niche in the midst of the rain forest in search of a better life. Many had come from the coastal region, having heard of fertile lands and gold in abundance. The stories had been only partially true and in fact these people were struggling to eke out a very meager existence.
Climbing out of the small aircraft, I was met with oppressive heat and incredible sounds emanating from the jungle. It sounded like something out of a Tarzan movie. As I introduced myself to the curious people who had never seen a gringo before, I became aware of an itching sensation on my arm. A small dot of blood appeared, apparently the result of an insect bite. An itch on my other arm directed my attention to another dot of blood. Soon there were ten and then twenty.
As diligently as I searched, I could not find any evidence of what was biting me. The pilot was laughing as me again as he observed my predicament. He explained that these were "piums" (" no-see-um" gnats) and that an unaccustomed gringo should probably get some repellent on as soon as possible. The repellent only partially helped, and I soon realized that this was one of those things - the first of many - that I would have to mentally desensitize myself to, or go crazy.
At this point, I was told by the company representative that I would be leaving soon in another small plane to fly to the site which would be my home for the next month. He explained that he was heading back to Cuiaba on the same plane in which we had arrived, and that he had simply wanted to make sure I made my connection. He further explained that he hated the idea of going into the camp himself due to the snakes and stories of wild Indians in the area and, besides, the first plane that had tried to land on the new runway had crashed, killing the pilot and lone passenger. He assured me that the runway was now okay though and that everything would probably be alright. "See you in a month", he said with an interesting grin as he got into the Piper.
Plane Wreckage Being Used as a Privacy Wall for Bathing
This last conversation had not fully sunk in yet as I was greeted by another smiling face belonging to a young man named Galindo. He was a partner in the only air transport company based in the region. The small company had two partners, three well-used, single engine aircraft and a new pilot recently hired to learn the fine art of bush flying. Thankfully, Galindo, an experienced five-year bush flying veteran, was to be my pilot for the day. The fact that he was still alive, were all the credentials I needed to see.
My equipment had already been loaded, and soon we were once again over the green carpet of jungle. I asked Galindo about the plane crash at the camp. He explained that a pilot from the coast was in the area and had heard of the new airstrip. He very much wanted to see what it was like to be in such a remote place but had no experience landing on that type of runway. He paid a very high price for taking the risk. Galindo had had the very unpleasant task of flying the bodies out only the day before and advised that the wreckage had been moved to the side of the runway where it would probably remain forever.
The Little Camp Runway
Soon I could see the campsite and the runway with a small welcoming party gathering. Descending rapidly, our landing gear lightly clipped the tree tops as my eyes remained glued on the wreckage of the other plane. Fortunately, Galindo delivered me alive into this amazing world filled with beauty and danger.
The camp foreman, Marcio, showed me to my quarters, a primitive hut formed from bamboo with a roof of thatched leaves. A hammock with mosquito netting overhead hung towards the rear of the room. In the corner was a crude table made of chain sawed planks and a chair fashioned out of a one-meter section of log. The dirt floor had been well packed and overall, I was impressed with the ingenuity that had gone into the construction.
It was getting dark, so I prepared for bed. It had been quite a day and my mind spun in several different directions. The roar of the jungle was deafening. Heavy eyelids drooping, I could picture myself in downtown Detroit, horns honking, the hammering of construction sites, hustle-bustle in all directions. How could this be? Wasn't I in the heart of the Amazon jungle? Many who have experienced this before refer to it as "Jungle Roar". Drifting off to sleep, I heard a huge crash in the jungle, not far away. This was a sound that I would become accustomed to as nearly every night gigantic trees crashed to the ground somewhere in the distance, finally giving way to centuries of growth and weakening root systems.
A piercing howl awakened me. It was just beginning to get light outside and I had the distinct impression that we were under attack from some great group of terrible monsters with hollow, booming voices. I sprang from my hammock, dressed and ran outside. Marcio, was already up and about business for the day. When he saw the look on my face, he asked if something was wrong. I was astounded at his lack of concern and asked "What in the hell is out there?" He laughed and said that they were Howler monkeys and that they were simply doing their morning howl.
Our Camp Jaguar Trap
During breakfast prepared by the full time cook, Marcio explained the overall operation of the camp and said that I could use as many men as I needed for my studies. He drew a simple map showing the general lay of the land. The government had not yet mapped this section of Brazil, so we were on our own to figure out exactly where we were. Marcio advised me to never go into the jungle alone and to always have several men with me. He informed me of how easy it was to get lost and warned me of the dangers of jaguars, snakes and unknown Indians in the area. I responded solemnly and agreed with everything he said.
Since it was Sunday, I decided to take a walk around camp, meet the men and get used to my new surroundings. Incredible beauty was everywhere: huge butterflies with iridescent blue wings, blue and green Macaws flying in pairs overhead and toucans making woodpecker-like sounds as they snapped their beaks together. I saw ants an inch and a half long and dragonflies six-inches long that looked and sounded like biplanes as they flew over. I worked my way slowly down the airstrip, walking alone in complete and total awe of the sights and sounds around me.
I paused for a moment to watch a hummingbird suck nectar from a beautiful and exotic red flower. As my head turned slightly to follow the flight of the hummingbird, I caught sight of something that chilled me to the bone, even in the steamy hot jungle. Twenty-three pairs of human eyes staring at me, watching my every move - total silence. There we stood, eyes fixed, it felt like an eternity. I actually felt like I was on the set of an Indiana Jones movie, but there were no cameras, this was for real!
Options raced through my mind. Reflecting back, I think I made the right choice. Thanks to a wonderfully happy childhood, I had the ready ability to smile a lot. It wasn't easy at first, but I put on the biggest smile of my life. It worked instantly! In unison, as if rehearsed, I was rewarded with twenty three beaming faces in return. Those pearly whites were a welcome sight. The men in the group began to approach me slowly as I made affirmative motions with my head and held out my arms with my fingers extended as if to shake hands. Some of the men grasped my forearms in a friendly manner as if to return the handshake, others began touching my face and hair.
Cinta Larga Tribe Chief Plucking an Eagle for Dinner
For a moment I feared they were either sizing me up for the lunch pot or I had discovered a tribe of homosexual men that were sizing me up for something else. The largest man of the group then began whispering things in my ear. Having grown up in Detroit, this was definitely something that I did not feel comfortable with. I did not want to insult my new friends, so I just went with the flow. Eventually, the women of the group joined us and it began to sound like a party with everyone laughing and giggling. The women were touching my clothes uttering "oohs" and “aahs" and one even grabbed my crotch to see what I had in common with the other guys.
Jaguar and Monkey Tooth Necklace Gift
I touched the mens' necklaces and showed great expressions of admiration. One man immediately removed his necklace and put it over my head. I was touched. Another native tied a beaded bracelet around my wrist. I was truly beginning to feel like one of the gang. One man grabbed the sleeve of my shirt, looked me directly in the eyes and asked, (what sounded like “Metera” ? I took it to mean, "What is this?" and so replied in English, Shirt". The man then repeated the word back to me almost perfectly. With that the whole group literally jumped up and down in wild laughter and howling as though they had just heard the funniest joke in the world.
Cinta Larga Mother and Baby Several Months After 1st Meeting
Our wild party was heard by the others back in camp. Marcio came running valiantly down the runway with a look of absolute horror on his face. Walking towards him waving that everything was alright, I yelled out to approach slowly and with a smile. He was finding it very hard to smile but at least made an effort. In a very crude sign language, I introduced him to "the gang" and everything went fairly smoothly, considering. Other men from the camp soon gathered around, amazed as I was to meet a tribe of natives that had never before had contact with the outside world.
Cinta Large Father and Sons Several Months After 1st Meeting
I lived and worked in the camp for more than a year and became very close friends with this tribe. I later found out that they were a part of the Cinta Largas (wide belts) who had once been a very war-like group, but, fortunately for me, had become more passive in recent years. I learned many things from these simple and wonderful people which I will never forget. I will also never forget that sad day when I left camp for the last time. As we took off, I asked the pilot to fly back over the runway to give one last wave to my friends. As the men waved their primitive bows and arrows in the air, I realized that no matter how different we may feel from one another sometimes, down deep, we really are all the same.
Taking Off From Camp