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Day 13: Wauja Village, Upper Xingu River

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Our director, John-Paul, and Emi with the computers they wanted us to bring as gifts.
Michael Palin - BrazilI get up early and walk into the village. Past the schoolroom, with desks laid out on a concrete floor, past a pick-up truck and a tractor in a state of disrepair. Two children, one pushing the other in a metal wheelbarrow, giggle as they catch my eye. A solitary figure rides a bicycle across the plaza. Overnight fires are still burning in several of the houses. There being no central chimneys, the smoke finds its way out from any available hole in the thatch, giving the impression of entire buildings gently steaming. On one of the houses a man is repairing the roof. A tiny figure against a wall of thatch. There is a ladder below him up which his young son carries fresh lengths of dried grass. The houses look so solid and secure that I'm surprised to learn that they only last about ten years before having to be rebuilt again.

After breakfast I accompany Emi and the women and children on a washing party. A well-trodden track leads through the manioc gardens for nearly a kilometre before petering out in the swampy banks of a pool, overhung with trees and bushes. The children skip excitedly across the mud and leap into the murky waters.

Emi wades in after them and I follow her, both of us fully clad. I don't think the children see this sort of thing very often and it seems to make them even more animated. Whilst they splash and jump about the women, standing up to their waists in the water, set to the washing. Emi tells me they love soap and shampoo, so there's much washing of hair, clothes and bodies. By the time we wade out the sun has strengthened and dries me out on the walk back to the village.

There had been talk of my accompanying the men on a fishing party, but at this time of year it would mean a half-day's walk, at least. They also hunt birds and monkeys but these are much harder to catch, especially since the Brazilian government passed a law forbidding the use of guns. A law which, Emi points out, was intended to deal with gun crime on city streets. It had never occurred to anyone that it might deprive legitimate hunters like the Wauja of a source of food.

Instead of hunting and fishing I spend the rest of the morning watching how their most staple food, manioc, is prepared. It's grown in the gardens around the camp and can be harvested at any time of the year. The women dig the tubers up and bring them to an open-sided thatched 'kitchen' where the brown-skinned, foot-long tubers are painstakingly transformed into pancakes. There's much suppressed mirth today because I'm going to be helping them out, and men just don't do this sort of work. I'm put on to peeling first and given what looks like a shallow metal dish with which to scrape away the husk. It's quite satisfying work, and soon I've a pile of ivory-white, freshly stripped lengths of manioc beside me. I'm promoted to grating now, and, although I didn't know it at the time, this is rich in comic potential. I'm sat, legs apart, in front of a rectangular metal grille and shown how to grasp the manioc tuber firmly and then to push backwards and forwards in a regular rhythm, until it's whittled away. This I do, to mounting smiles and laughter and, I like to think, a certain muted admiration. The more energetically I grate, the more they urge me on, and it's perhaps just as well that it's only after I've finished that I realize manioc-grating and the sexual act require exactly the same technique.

Such is my entertainment value that I'm moved swiftly on to the next stage of the process. This involves breaking down the hard manioc powder, after which I'm led to the fire and shown how to spread this powder onto a red-hot pan without scorching the tips of my fingers. Not an easy task, as there's a draught coming through, causing the smoke to billow back in my face, so my eyes are running and I can barely see what I'm doing. This is the highlight of the gringo cooking demonstration and is met, not with concern for the welfare of my fingers, but with renewed hoots of laughter. Emi explains, as kindly as she can. 'They say that if the smoke gets in your eyes it's a sign that your wife is with another man.'

Well, whoever my wife is with, I turn out a pretty mean pancake. And, according to Emi, my skills have not gone unappreciated. 'They say you will make a very good husband,' she reassures me, adding, a little unnecessarily, 'for the older women.'
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Food on offer outside the men's house.
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  • Series: Brazil
  • Chapter: Day 13: Wauja Village, Upper Xingu River
  • Country/sea: Brazil
  • Place: Wauja Village, Upper Xingu River
  • Book page no: 66

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  • Eating
  • Day 5 
  • Around the World in 80 Days
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  • Full Circle
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  • Pole to Pole