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Day 14: Upper Xingu to Brasília

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My pilot in the Xingu, Gerard Moss.
Michael Palin - BrazilAfter we strike our hammocks and pack our bags, an impromptu market takes place outside our guest house. It begins with a group of curious boys gathering round Nigel, taking turns at looking down the viewfinder of his camera. Then word gets out that we've decided to leave behind our towels, hammocks and some of the food we brought with us. Soon there is a jostling crowd viewing what's on offer. It's very different from the day we arrived. This is not some official welcome organized by the elders, this is shopping. Instead of feathered armbands and grass skirts there are long shorts and striped T-shirts, and many of the women, almost naked as we made manioc together, are wearing print dresses this morning. Hammocks, blankets, pots and pans are bartered for ceramics, bead decorations, local oil for skin protection. Two Wauja arrows are exchanged for a head-torch.

Our two planes are ready to leave by mid-morning. Emi will be staying behind for a few more days. For her the Wauja are family, and they treasure her too. She tells me that the idea of kinship is very important in the village. There are so few Wauja here and in the two other villages that everyone is in some way related, and everyone is a cousin or an aunt or a brother-in-law. She was made very aware of this when she took a small group of Wauja to São Paulo and every time she met anyone they would ask how they were related to her.

I sense that we have been more deeply affected by the contact than our hosts. They're now back to getting on with their lives and there's markedly less interest in our departure than our arrival. Apart from a last look through the camera for a young Wauja in a Beatles T-shirt.

We climb away from the village and out across the rainforest, an environment which my pilot, Gerard Moss, knows as well as anybody. A tall, pale, mustachioed, rather dashing figure, Gerard is Swiss-born, married to an Englishwoman and living in Brasília. For the last ten years he has been criss-crossing the skies above the world's biggest rainforest for what he calls the Flying Rivers project. This involves gathering data on one of the least understood resources of the Amazon, the huge amount of energy emanating from the trees themselves. The forest as a rain machine.

He simplifies it for me. By process of evaporation every tree in the rainforest gives off somewhere between 300 and 1,000 litres of water each day. Averaging it out, this means that twenty billion tonnes of water is pumped, daily, into the skies above the Amazon Basin. Understanding the science will, he believes, lead to a much greater appreciation of the importance of the rainforest, not just for biodiversity or the world's climate but for the Brazilian economy. He's trying to push home the message that forest in place is worth considerably more to the country than forest destroyed. Ten years ago, he admits, it was a hard struggle to get any backing for his research. Since then, he says, there has been a 180-degree change of attitude, and people are listening. Unfortunately far too few of them are politicians. It's clear that Gerard has great respect for the power and beauty of the rainforest and an empathy for the people who live there. As we fly south-east towards our refuelling stop at Canarana, he banks the plane and points out the rivers we're crossing as if they're personal friends. The Rio das Mortes, snaking through the trees, clear and serene. The 2,500-kilometre-long (1,500 miles) Araguaia, a river which all Brazilians regard as especially and magically beautiful.
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  • Series: Brazil
  • Chapter: Day 14: Upper Xingu to Brasília
  • Country/sea: Brazil
  • Place: Wauja Village, Upper Xingu River
  • Book page no: 72

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