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Day 12: Wauja Village, Upper Xingu River

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Bird's eye view of the Wauja village as we approach its red-earth runway.
Michael Palin - BrazilYet another of the many tributaries of the Amazon is the Xingu, which flows for almost 2,000 kilometres (1,240 miles) north from Mato Grosso, in the very heart of Brazil, to join the Amazon some 400 kilometres (250 miles) west of Belém. A combination of serious rapids and a lack of gold and other tempting minerals effectively kept adventurers and prospectors at bay and it wasn't until the 1880s that anyone from the outside world permeated the Upper Xingu. John Hemming gives an account of the twenty-nine-year-old German anthropologist Karl von den Steinen, on the day he and his expedition first made contact with the indigenous people. 'They walked up a forest trail away from the river for almost an hour, in silence and increasingly apprehensive about what awaited them. The expedition suddenly entered a clearing with three enormous thatched huts. An Indian youth emerged and came towards them. One of Steinen's frightened Bakairi (guides) spoke in Carib and, to everyone's relief, was understood and answered. The two young men walked forward, leaning against one another and embracing, "both talking at once, and both trembling all over their bodies from a mixture of fear and excitement".'

Much has changed for the peoples of the Xingu between then and now, but as our single-prop plane drops down towards a thin, cleared strip in the midst of hundreds of kilometres of rainforest I experience some of that same apprehension that gripped Steinen's expedition 128 years ago. There are still no roads below us and, apart from a clearing at the end of the runway, the forest seems all-encompassing. We touch down, bounce and rumble to a halt at the point where the runway meets the village. There must be twenty huts ahead of me, and they are indeed, as Steinen found them, enormous, every one as big as an upturned ship's hull, thatched from roof to ground, and none with any apertures save a tiny triangular entrance cut in front and back.

For a moment all is quiet. Then, as I clamber out onto the wing of the aircraft, I hear a distant chanting, growing louder by the minute. I jump down onto a surface of dried mud and look up to see what appears like a war party coming towards me. All men, their nearly naked bodies covered with red and black markings and adorned with clusters of leaves and feathers on their ankles, upper arms and through their ears. Impressive in their unity and harmony, they move towards me, swinging from side to side, with a menacing, crouching stance, an insistent, thumping step and a high-pitched chant. Then, when they're almost upon me, they break step, becoming instantly amiable and welcoming, talking and shaking hands with me and all the crew. Curious women and children, also almost naked, watch from the sidelines. In the middle of the welcoming party is a pale-skinned Western woman wearing a billowing blue shirt, black pants and a floppy straw hat.

Her name is Emi Ireland, an American anthropologist who lived with this Wauja community fifteen years ago and has learnt their language. With her are two other non-Wauja, one of them a visiting American, photographing everything, and the other a Brazilian film-maker, his pale legs covered in bites. From being nervous of meeting the Wauja I now find myself feeling a twinge of disappointment that the outside world is much more visible here than amongst the Yanomami.

The difference, of course, is that the Wauja have had seventy more years of contact with the outside world. And they were fortunate enough to be infiltrated by anthropologists rather than gold prospectors. In 1945 two brothers from São Paulo, Orlando and Claudio Villas Boas, came to the Upper Xingu on a government project and were so taken with the people and the way they lived that they made their homes amongst them. In 1961 the Villas Boas brothers were instrumental in setting up a protected area and now the Xingu Indigenous Park covers 22,000 square kilometres (8,500 square miles). Their policy of change 'but only at the pace the Indians want' has been largely successful and the number of indigenous people has increased fourfold since the 1960s.

Emi walks us through the village to the hut where we shall be staying, first of all correcting me quite severely for calling it a hut. And of course she's right. Some of these constructions, clad from rooftop to the ground in thatch, are as long as a manor house and as tall as a church nave. They're laid out in a wide circle facing onto a central arena. Much of the domestic activity takes place where the houses back onto the forest. From here tracks lead to the gardens and to the washing pool. There are also the 'alligator paths', so called because these are where young men of courting age lie in wait for girls coming out from the houses and home in on them like the proverbial alligator. The hardy reptile, unattractive as it might look, is often used as a sexual image among the Wauja.
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  • Series: Brazil
  • Chapter: Day 12: Wauja Village, Upper Xingu River
  • Country/sea: Brazil
  • Place: Wauja Village, Upper Xingu River
  • Book page no: 60

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  • Miscellaneous
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  • Day 34 
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  • Pole to Pole