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Day 1: Demini, Roraima

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Harpy eagle feathers for the men.
Michael Palin - BrazilI have complicated feelings about being able to just fly in here. Three hours door-to-door from my hotel in Boa Vista. I have no motive other than curiosity about how these people live, but I feel I have nothing to offer them in return. As it turns out this is not entirely true. Over the years the Yanomami have learnt a lot about public relations. They know that some outsiders are bad and some are good. They must impress the good ones to keep out the bad ones. Davi Kopenawa Yanomami, who welcomed us to the maloca wearing his traditional paint and feather adornments, has been promoting the cause of Brazilian Indians all over the world. He appreciates that people like ourselves who come here in good faith will hopefully paint an attractive and sympathetic portrait of the Yanomami to the world outside and this will make them less easy to exploit.

They are getting together some dancing for us. Nothing moves very fast here, but the preparations themselves are fascinating. The participants gather in a sunlit glade in the forest, men at one end, women and children at the other, to prepare themselves for the afternoon's celebrations. A tree stump, covered with brushes and paints, acts as a make-up table. As a basic decoration, they rub each other with a red dye from the ground-up seeds of the urucum flower, which also protects their skin from insects and sunburn. Over this, other designs are painstakingly applied. Parallel stripes are drawn on the faces of the children and, with the aid of pink plastic hand mirrors, much attention is given to the hair. Necklaces of yellow plastic beads are carefully adjusted. The boys have thin wooden needles inserted into their noses and round their mouths and they walk about sharpening their arrows as if halfway through an acupuncture session. The men wear anklets and armbands adorned with clusters of toucan feathers. As a final touch the men and boys have a coating of white feathers from the breast of the harpy eagle stuck onto their heads.

They prepare unhurriedly, and eventually the procession sets out along the track to the maloca led by one of the tiniest boys of the village. He's followed by the women, a number of them holding their babies, followed in turn by the men striking fierce poses as they go. They assemble beneath one of the giant mango trees, but only when they've moved into the communal house does the procession become a dance. The women lead, moving gracefully, six steps forward, two steps back, as they circle the house. The men, representing the hunters, follow, stamping their feet, waving spears and chanting menacingly. The dance goes on for some time, despite the great heat, and when the women have finished the men gather in line in the central, unshaded plaza to shout and jump. At the end of the dancing everyone, from the oldest to the youngest in the village, is rewarded with a thick brew of fermented peach palm, pupunha juice, dispensed from huge buckets. The red berries, with their peach-coloured flesh, are rich in protein, starch and vitamins. The result must be quite potent and there's much competitive drinking among the men. No one is reproved for taking too much; in fact the young children take fresh supplies to their elders. It's a big communal treat and I'm offered a taste, and gratefully accept. After my refusal of another brimming bowlful their curiosity about us wanes, and they get on with enjoying themselves. This is their party.
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The women lead the procession out of the forest.
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  • Series: Brazil
  • Chapter: Day 1: Demini, Roraima
  • Country/sea: Brazil
  • Place: Demini, Roraima
  • Book page no: 19

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  • Eating
  • Day 5 
  • Around the World in 80 Days
  • Day 3 
  • Full Circle
  • Day 6 
  • Pole to Pole