Monday, February 18, 2013

I procure a guide

In the afternoon I went to the Museu do Índio in Manaus, an old-fashioned sort of museum run by the Salesians in a building adjoining their school.  I like old-fashioned museums and think dust and poor lighting is important to the museum experience.  Facts are soon forgotten, but the romance of things lingers.

I was talking with a Salesian brother at the Museum and mentioned that I would like to go north, into the area around Boa Vista to see what I could of the Yanomami Indians, and he offered to arrange for me to meet a guide the next morning at my hotel.  (Nowadays, I would ask no such thing, as Indian tourism has apparently become a degrading spectacle and I would want nothing to do with it, but in those days it was apparently not yet what it has become.)
And the next morning I met George, an English Guyanese who lived in Boa Vista, who assured me the whole thing would be no problem, that the government agent charged with protecting the Indians from the cultural disruption of visits by people such as myself would be happy to help us for a $100 “tip” and we would be able to go anywhere we wanted.
This news was disconcerting, as I was concerned about the cultural disruption of visiting a primitive people and assumed that if I got permission at all it would be so limited that I would be protected from doing any damage, but here I was about to be offered unrestricted access to do who knew what kind of unintentional mischief.  But of course they might always just kill me, as they had a reputation as a violent lot.
We talked in a general way about the situation of the Indians and George was quite negative about their prospects and thought them ill-served by the political priests who were advising them, as well as by FUNAI, the government agency supposedly protecting them.  He said it was good to go now because who knew what the future held, and if I were interested in traditional culture that it was slipping away, that even the anthropologists who had tried to be careful had changed things.

One problem we would have, he said, would be the high water.  It had taken out the one road that connected Boa Vista to Manaus which, among other things, meant that gasoline was running low in the town as it now had to be brought in by barge and there seemed to be some delays, but perhaps that would be cleared up in a day or so.  He was flying back to Boa Vista later that morning and I arranged to follow in the evening.

My cab driver to the airport called himself “Jumbo” and was a fine fellow and we chattered away in that polyglot melange where if we do not know the word in one language you substitute one from a language that you do know and think might mean more or less the same and we got along just fine.  When I mentioned that I had never tasted cachaça, a potent liquor distilled from sugar cane, he stopped at one of those lean-to shacks with a palm thatch roof and a plank bar that we see everywhere along the road where they sell the stuff from large bottles without labels and I bought a round.  
Travelers who have written about cashaça describe it as tasting like paint thinner and I had wondered how they could know this, as I could not imagine that anyone had actually tasted paint thinner, though once I tasted cashaça I had to agree that it did taste like paint thinner, even though I had never tasted paint thinner myself.  I couldn’t finish the thing and gave it to a fellow sitting at the bar who clearly appreciated it more than I did.

Street vendors in Manaus sold large, fantastic and unfriendly-looking knives and I had wondered who bought such things.  It turned out that the fellow I was sharing the cab with had bought one.  The case was of a plastic material, molded into grotesque shapes, combined with bone and leather and fur. The handle was in the shape of a macaw, with a large red plastic eye.  The blade was massive and dangerous-looking.  Conan the Barbarian would have thought it excessive.  My cab mate had paid ten Dollars for it and was quite pleased with his purchase.  I wondered what sort of outfit you would wear it with.

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