Last month I had the incredible privilege of spending some time in the Amazon again, but this time for work. Part of our journey was spending a short while with an indigenous community in Pará (Brazil), and see for ourselves how indigenous reserves are key when it comes to stopping deforestation. For me, this was a dream come true. It had always been my dream to spend some time in real, unspoiled, pristine rainforest. And this trip lived up to all my expectations.
Reaching the indigenous community was a trip in itself, involving a plane, a car and three boats. Once away from the larger cities in Pará, you could definitely sense that you were in the Amazon (so many trees), but there were also wide rivers, farms, people, towns, trash and deforested land – so it did not feel like this pristine forest I had dreamed of for so long. Actually, it reminded me a little bit of the Amazon region I had visited in August, which also had a lot of human activity.
But, thankfully, everything changed the moment we left the last real town before entering the protected area. The rivers became smaller, the number of human beings decreased, the trees multiplied. It was the most beautiful sight. Which was a good thing, because it took us almost eight hours by boat to reach our hosts.
Once there, we were welcomed by half of the community (the other half was travelling to cast their votes for the elections), who kept following us, looking at us – we realised with a shock that they must have seen none or very few foreigners. Besides the indigenous communities themselves, only FUNAI (the government agency responsible for the indigenous population) is allowed in, and whoever else the communities invite as their guests. Lucky us.
They had certainly put a lot of effort into welcoming us, as they had prepared eel and a few other fish for our dinner. This was complimented with a sort of bread-pancake made from mandioca, and banana juice. Eating from big leaves, at a long table outside in the middle of their village, with just a few flash lights to lighten up the dark, this was definitely an experience to treasure.
The next day, we set out and travelled by boat on the creek, which was even a more beautiful sight than the one we saw the day before. The creek was more narrow (only 10 meters wide at most), surrounded by trees, and we were the only ones on it. On the river the day before, we did encounter some others, mostly indigenous travelling by the typical Amazon boat. But here, it was just us.
We travelled upstream for six hours, till we decided to set our camp at a narrow turn in the creek. And this was as basic as you could get: cutting down some bushes, hanging your hammock in between two trees, and voila. Thankfully we had also brought some covers with us, as it started to pour rain later that night. I’m a terrible sleeper, but there in the forest, I had the best sleep I had had in a very long time. I had to admit, I was a little bit scared too, as the indigenous told me that they sometimes see or hear jaguars. And we had no protection whatsoever. But rationally I knew better: jaguars try to avoid people as much as they can, and the indigenous families we were with grew up in the forest, knowing every sound, light and smell, and therefore being able to sense danger.
I woke up to howler monkeys, rustling leaves (a jaguar?), beautiful soft rain, and also massive rain showers. There in that hammock in between two trees in the Amazon, I felt so at peace. Completely surrounded by Pachamama and her elements.
Daytime was equally mesmerising. We travelled the creek further upstream, lifting the boat to pass fallen trees dozens of times and occasionally falling into the water. Only to realise we wouldn’t be able to get where we wanted to and therefore returning to our first camp. We spotted many fish, and looked at them not for their beauty, but as potential food. We went hunting with the men, who shot animals I had never even seen before. We watched our colleague get stung by a stingray, whose pain was relieved after one of the women built a small fire – the heat reduced the sense of pain. We watched as our hosts dug into the sand to find turtle eggs. We spotted an anaconda. We saw many macaws and a toucan. We watched and watched and watched. This forest was the most beautiful one I had ever seen.
After two days in the Amazon jungle it was time to return. Internally, I rebelled and resisted. I so did not want to go back; back to modern life with its concrete buildings and people and screens and never ending streams of information and obligations. I just wanted to be with Pachamama and keep enjoying her beauty.
Now back in Brasilia, I think back of this amazing experience so fondly. I realise how lucky we were, being able to spend some time in official indigenous territory, which only few of us have been allowed to. It was incredible to be with these lovely indigenous families, who took care of us like we were their family. It was eye-opening to speak with them about their struggles, their way of living, their dreams. In the Western world, we have a romantic view of indigenous communities and see them as sober living people, who have their own nature religions and traditions and who want to avoid the modern world. Yes, these people do exist – but there are many indigenous communities that are protestant, wear clothes made in China, want to earn some money and even live in cities. Speaking to them, the dilemma became painfully clear. Indigenous communities living in the traditional way are the gatekeepers of their forest and have proven to be key in preventing deforestation. We know that the more they adapt to modern day living, the more this protectionist role will diminish. But who are we to stop their development?
Questions to think about. They certainly motivate me to try to live as sustainably as possible and to learn more about the Amazon. And make me treasure this paradise trip even more.
Have you been to an indigenous area as well, perhaps elsewhere in Latin America? I would love to hear your experience!