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Aroma of Smoke, Moist Wood and Arid Grass


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Alternate Routes · South America · guyana · Guyana · Agata Smeltere-Maksimoviča

Aroma of Smoke, Moist Wood and Arid Grass

Author: Agata Smeltere-Maksimoviča0 COMMENTS

Aroma of Smoke, Moist Wood and Arid Grass

These three are coming into my mind, when thinking of the two weeks I spent in Makushi and Tarumas Amerindian settlements (descendants of Arekunas and Makushi), located at Moco-Moco and Nappi villages in Guyana - the only English speaking country in South America. Guyana in translation means "Land of many waters". The culture of Guyana is close to the one of Caribbean nations but its ecosystem is a part of the vast Amazon River basin. 90% of Guyana population inhabits a costal part of the country - only 10% of its territory, while in the rest 90% of the inland lives just 10 percent of its people. Amerindians, indigenous inhabitants of this country, compose just 5, 3% of its present population and practically all of them live in inland. The above mentioned villages are situated close to the Brazilian border in Rupununi savanna at the Kanuku Mountain range - one of the most unique natural wonders of Guyana. Nowadays, the same way as in the past, life of 18 Amerindians villages most of all depends on the bounty of nature of the surrounding mountains and forests.

No One Counts Time

Some time ago my friend and I, being in Brazil, decided to go to Manaus, the capital of Amazonas state, in order to have a four-day close up view of Amazon rainforests. Our guide was 33 years old Makushi Amerindian Leandro. He had started to wear a watch only a year ago - because of his work and closeness of the city. Actually, just a glance in the sky and he can tell the time with precision of ten minutes. During late night conversations at a campfire Leandro managed to amaze us with his storytelling talent and his deep knowledge of nature. We learned about his childhood, spent in Guyana, his native village and hunting together with his granny. It provoked my Nordic imagination so much that I decided to accompany Leandro to Guyana to see his about hundred years old grandparents, he had not seen for ten years already.

So - as agreed, we meet at Boa Vista airport in Brazil and then a bus takes us to Bon Fim, a Brazil-Guyana border-town. A short distance on foot and the border is crossed. Leandro just shows his identification card (Amerindians do not usually have a passport and do not need one either. An identification card is sufficient to cross a border). Then we take a boat to get across the river Takutu that marks a borderline between the two countries, and reach a small town called Lethem - a centre of the ninth district of Guyana. It is just a village with bumpy country roads, a police prescient, couple of guest houses, an internet café, 2 shops, a tavern, a landing-strip and a hospital, which - as I had checked before - has an experience in treatment of malaria, too. Leandro tells that his real name, given by birth, is Owen McDonald and only in Brazil he is been called Leandro Helio da Souza. It happens with Amerindians quite often and the explanation is very simple - at the age of fourteen he decided to settle down in Brazil, went to register at a local prefecture but did not have any documents. So, with consent of a Brazilian couple, who was there too, the Amerindian boy was registered under their surname, being in a way adopted by them. "You should take life easy," he says. For his relatives in Guyana he is Owen, however, in Brazil for his friends and employees - Leandro. While living in Venezuela, he had even one more name. To his mind it is not so important at all, how people call you. From his story I conclude that a registration of a newborn Amerindian child may take place even several years after the birth. It depends on parents' determination, a place of residence, weather conditions and other circumstances and is done only when some practical necessity comes up - an official doctor's appointment, for example, or maybe beginning of schooling. An ability of leading life in two different civilizations, existing closely side by side, never stops to amaze me also later on.

Foto: Aroma of Smoke, Moist Wood and Arid GrassFoto: Aroma of Smoke, Moist Wood and Arid GrassFoto: Aroma of Smoke, Moist Wood and Arid Grass

Next we have to reach about ten kilometers remote Moco-Moco village, where Leandro's grandparents live and most probably some other members of his big family, too. I must admit that his family tree is a total puzzle to me! His father has had 5 or 6 wives and some 4 to 6 children with each of them. His first wife had been from a very rare, nowadays already extinct tribe. Rumors go that in ancient times they had been cannibals. This tribe had a tradition of burning their dead and it might be that in minds of people such a burial ritual was related to cannibalism.
I have a backpack and Leandro has one, too. In addition to that he has two modern suitcases on little wheels, purchased specially for this occasion. Wheels, of course, are already snapped off. Leandro reckons that taking bicycles would not be very comfortable and a horse wouldn't do either, so - we have to look for a car. Fortunately we manage to find a four-wheel drive jeep and soon after a driver, too - a spit image of the Caribbean pirate. Having haggled for a while over the price, we pay and a drive along the muddy, almost impassable road and a savanna, strait into nowhere, may start.
I have no idea, how long it took - maybe an hour or maybe two. At times we are almost flying - we had to reach the destination well before night fall, as the driver was determined to get back in Lethem in good time. Speedometer does not show more then 20 km/h and no one has any idea, what time it is - no one counts time there. No one cares about temperature either but it is very hot and humid. There is a dry season and a rainy one - like now. Knowing figures would not change anything - everything is just the way it is. In order not to miss the returning date to my own world, I decide at least to count the days.

Riding a Horse Not Stylish Anymore

Foto: Aroma of Smoke, Moist Wood and Arid GrassFoto: Aroma of Smoke, Moist Wood and Arid GrassFoto: Aroma of Smoke, Moist Wood and Arid Grass

Although Makushi Amerindians before getting in touch with western civilization lead mostly a nomadic lifestyle, they used to settle down for a comparatively long periods of time - before moving on again. Nowadays they build houses for 10 to 15 years and then choose another place - close or not so close to the previous one. An each family of a village has their own household. Modern economic tendencies, colonialism had brought along - selling of agricultural products, for example, or any other ways of earning - has not changed Amerindians' usual life or influenced their mentality much. Yet, the new generation, especially young people, having received more education, has different cravings. Talking their native tongue outside their own community does not seem stylish any more, the same way as riding a horse, by the way. Although during rainy season a horse is still the most practical means of getting about, they prefer a bicycle or even better - a scooter or a car. Nothing hurts a young Amerindian more than to hear someone of another race or nationality saying: "You are only Amerindian, a country bumpkin, you have nothing."
The major reason for extinction of local traditions, including the language, is abandoning of traditional lifestyle as well as availability of economic benefits offered by the modern world. Nowadays, due to the expansion of modern civilization and growing number of population, hunting, for example, is organized just 4 to 6 times a year. Hunting and fishing places are pushed so far from constantly growing population that it takes too much time for men to go there, thus providing everyday meals for their families. These "hunting routs" now are used mainly for special training of Guyana as well as British soldiers in extreme equatorial conditions. Such marches in tough conditions sometimes turn out to be too difficult for young guys, carrying heavy backpacks, and sometimes they even plead to turn back. During the rainy season local roads and forest paths overflow and turn into waist-deep ponds and steep stony and clayey slopes, covered with rotting leaves, get very slippery. Quite interestingly, about 10 - 15 years ago Amerindian men from the above mentioned tribes performed such trips on weekly basis, regardless of weather conditions - a way up into mountains through the jungle at nightfall and a way down with a game on their backs. Hunting usually took three days, followed by a feast - three more days. A short pause and everything started all over again.

Nowadays, families make their living by cultivating land, their farms sometimes being several hours walking distance away from their houses. Few years later a farm is moved to a new place, letting the land to rest. Another source of income can be also a small store, selling foodstuffs and essential household goods. Presence of Nescafe, chips and coca-cola on shelves seems a sad similarity with other widespread modern infections.
There are well-off families, whose everyday life seems more understandable to us. They usually live closer to roads or other objects, like churches, schools or municipality buildings, marked on map. In some cases they might even have their own electricity generator and all the conveniences coming along with it. In a kitchen they might have a gas-cooker and some items made of glass. Reeds or leaves, as a roofing material for clay brick houses, are replaced by tin and a living room is partitioned with walls into smaller rooms. The walls do not reach up to the roof, providing at least some circulation of air. People admit that it is still very hot in such houses - so a ventilator is required too. However, such roof is more durable, too. A properly made roof of reads or leaves may serve 10 to 15 years without a repair, while a tin roof might survive even 20 years and an installation of electricity is much safer as well.
There are also families that stick to a lifestyle much like the one, depicted in numerous westerns. The right word to characterize them, however, would be modesty, not poverty. Their surrounding still reflects the bygone glorious days of Amerindians, with handmade household items and other things. Their houses most often are built from handmade clay bricks or wattled from twigs, grass and leaves - the same way as roofs. Yet, not a single raindrop of tropical downpours would penetrate them and a constant soft whiff of air is felt there. And there is a hammock for everybody, been hanged wherever one pleases. Made from of crude cotton material, it is very suitable for hot and humid weather and is very comfortable for sleeping.

A Fear From the Bride's Father and a Bee Swarm

Foto: Aroma of Smoke, Moist Wood and Arid GrassFoto: Aroma of Smoke, Moist Wood and Arid GrassFoto: Aroma of Smoke, Moist Wood and Arid Grass

Leandro's grandparents lead a very traditional life. We meet his 107 years old grandfather and some 80 - 85 years old grandmother. There lives also Leandro's sister-in-law, with her five children - the youngest of them just 2 months old and her eldest daughter with her own, one month old baby on her hands. All the male members of the family are working in mines and would return no sooner then after six month and would stay with their families for a whole year then. Leandro's grandfather is officially recognized as an oldest man of the district. The state had offered him a free cataract operation but he refused. He says he would not mind wearing glasses but to operate on his eyes - no way! He prefers to live his life without getting under the knife. He is a real old-time Indian, with adequate moral values. The father of the child of his eldest daughter is so much afraid of him that comes to see his bride only at night, hoping to slip in unnoticed by her father. He is ashamed of showing his face to the old man, who considered him not to be good and handy enough.
Leandro and his grandfather remember times, when young lads had to undergo special tests in order to prove their maturity and readiness for adult world and choosing of a spouse. The boys were able to decide at what age this ritual should take place - for one it was at 13 for another at 23.
Leandro had the following task - Makushi tribe elders told him to find a very rare tree in the jungle with a beehive on top of it. He had to find this tree alone and to precisely memorize its location. Then he had to come back and lead the other tribesmen to that place. Leandro had set out without water or any food, having just a knife with him. The identity sign of Makushi was painted on his face in red and he searched a tree in the jungle for two days. He spent nights high in the trees, making something like a hammock from twigs and branches - the higher it was, the safer. He ate whatever forest could offer. There was no need to hunt - he could dive in a river and catch any fish he liked. He returned to his tribe and guided men back to the tree, in order to complete the second part of the task - to climb up and get the honey with bare hands. Men, with smoking torches, were standing under the tree to control the bees. Leandro got the honey along with numerous bee stings. Having returned to the village without any help, he suffered from a severe fever for two days. He had cried in pain, not even hiding his tears from village girls. Leandro passed the exam only with a second time, thus proving his physical and moral stamina. By the way, as recently proved by modern medicine, stings of these bees reduce bleeding of injuries and strengthens coronal blood-vessels - very useful for active hunters, like Amerindians.
Girls, in their turn, when their periods started, had to spend the following 40 days behind closed doors in complete darkness, at the same time doing all the household chores including cooking. Only they themselves were allowed to eat, what they had prepared. Thus they had to prove that in their old age, being already blind, they would still be able to lead their household. It also tested their ability to give up their own wishes and needs - as in future they were supposed to become mothers of several children. After 40 days, coming out into light, their hair were plucked or cut off - taking away one of the attributes of their beauty and pride. In these circumstances, crying from pain, young people often chose their partners for life, as hardships best of all show ones true nature. These examinations were followed by feasts and celebrations. Suffering do strengthen, however, Leandro's grandfather thinks that in rapidly changing modern life youngsters are not ready for such trials any more. The life itself has hardships and trials in stock for everyone.

Logic Behind the Traditions and an Extortion of Demons

Living among Makushi Amerindians and participating in their daily life, gives a better understanding of the practical meaning and logic behind their cultural traditions, mostly dictated by the laws of survival. For example, women are not allowed to swim or even to move around much during their periods. An explanation is quite simple - they would attract too many predatory animals. Amerindian women are supposed to stay inside during these days and only an ignorant person would wonder why so. Quite interesting is also an order according to which Amerindians drink and bathe in a river or a brook. Being several of them together, the first against the stream go those, who want to drink, and only then, keeping a distance, go the ones, who want to swim.
The Christian church has a considerable role, too. Under its influence each new generation loses more and more of its traditional Amerindian spiritual values and comprehension of the surrounding world. Quite often I was asked if I read the Bible every day or go to a church every Sunday. There are villagers, who do attend services - they put on their Sunday best, dress their kids in lacy bonnets and black shoes - and off they go across the hill to the church. There they can get the latest news, too. In several families I noticed also booklets of Jehovah's Witnesses and Mormons, covering mostly those religious subjects that the poorest members of the society might be interested in. Leandro had been quite concerned once, thinking that he might become a Mormon. And there was a reason for that, as he thought. Being in Boa Vista in Brazil, he was approached by Mormon priests, maintaining that he was possessed by a devil. Demon must be extorted and only they would be able to do that. Leandro thought for a while and as Amerindians believe in spirits, he decided to see how the priests would rid him from the evil one. He went to the church, where the priests were already waiting, and the process could start. They had put their hands on his head and murmured something aloud. That went on for some time but Leandro did not feel any of the promised changes. Then the priests had started to sway, raised their hands above his head, and went on chanting something at great length, with closed eyes. Leandro did not like it any more and he slipped out of the church. He does not believe in Mormons ever since. However, he sincerely believes in Christ and in all the Amerindian spirits - not extorted ones as well.

Contagious Gaiety and Ferocious Pygmies

Foto: Aroma of Smoke, Moist Wood and Arid GrassFoto: Aroma of Smoke, Moist Wood and Arid GrassFoto: Aroma of Smoke, Moist Wood and Arid Grass

Having spent four days at Moco-Moco with Leandro's grandparents, I returned to Lethem, to continue my way to the Amerindian village Nappi. There I had to meet Maria, coordinator of the local "eco-lodge", meant for researchers and natural scientists, and she had ideas for me what to do next. This time I was taken to my destination on a motorcycle - in spite of heavy rains and muddy flooded roads. A driver was a young mulatto boy with a slight hollow in his forehead - where his skull had received a rather serious blow - and a piece of metal in his knee - consequences of a recent accident. Of course, as soon as darkness fell, the vehicle stops in the middle of the road and would not start again. The lad has a mobile phone - unfortunately the network coverage does not reach that far. Up to knees in the water, we still decide to push the vehicle on. Nevertheless the boy is in a very good mood and in these circumstances it seems to be contagious and even a hunger subsides. Having reached a dry place, I sit and watch the stars but my driver tries to repair a motorcycle. The moon does not shine so bright and stars do not provide much light either, and his fidgeting in the dark does not seem very promising to me. Still he succeeds - and after an hour or so we have reached Maria's place.
Maria, a local primary school teacher is Makushi Amerindian, too. She and her brother had grown up in a cloister and brought up by British nuns. Their parents died when the kids were still very young. At the cloister the children had spoken their native Makushi language and were separated in order to prevent that. They were settled in an opposite sides of the building and could see each other only in the presence of nuns. Maria has practically forgotten Makushi language and speaks pure English, even without a typical Amerindian accent. She tells about brainwashing that was carried out to achieve total assimilation of Amerindians. The present education programs do not support bilingual schooling either.

The next morning I get acquainted with Dexter, a local ranger and a forester, usually been hired by scientists, working in the district, to help in their expeditions. He had studied at the Georgetown State University and finished the first three study years with distinction. Then, in spite of his teachers' efforts to persuade him, he abandoned his studies and returned back to the forests as he was not able to stand city life any more. Together with his father Leo he decides to take me deeper into the jungle to show a mountain waterfall - the most spectacular during the rainy season. He is able to precisely determine the time according the sun - even not seeing it, and seems to know the cardinal points with closed eyes. Our trip takes two full days - a hike up in the mountains - precisely from dawn till nightfall, and returning back - about the same amount of time. My flip-flaps, taken from home, split in the very beginning, I have to go barefoot and, guess what - walking this way feels more comfortable. Under influence of Hollywood movies, travelers usually have quite a distorted understanding of jungle environment. First of all you should know that overrating your own abilities might lead to a lethal outcome. Certain "traffic regulations" exist in the jungle - the same way as in a city - just observe them, and you can feel comparatively safe. According to the instructions, I say a prayer in my mind, asking protection and benevolence of the Amerindian goddess of woods and promise to respect the power of nature in my thoughts as well as in deeds. In fact my tongue was itching to say a Latvian folk-song about a Silver groove, too... We reach our destination at sunset and a nightly swim takes place in a pitch-black darkness, while one of the men with a shot-gun is standing on guard. Asked how long he could survive in the jungle without any help, Dexter answers that jungle provides everything - food, water and shelter. Good health is the most essential - and then you can stay as long as you want. Some three months would be enough for me, I think. Then I would start longing for people.

After dinner, made on a campfire, handily lit on the wet ground using wet branches and a long hike sweet sleep, with lulling sounds of the waterfall in the background, is guarantied. Leo tells some jokes from his young age - after some celebrations, guys used to exchange their horses, clothes and other things and left in the darkness at their hammocks, hoping to fool the girls, who would come to look for their fiancés. And lots of jollity followed on the next morning. After a while Leo, too, decides to hit the sack, while Dexter would stay up at the campfire till morning. Before falling asleep I still hear a story about some pygmies, who communicate among themselves, imitating bird's whistle. They are fierce creatures in the height of an Amerindian child, with faces painted in red. Dexter swears having recently seen some of them in this neighborhood - what else could they talk about with me around, sleeping in the middle of the jungle...

Foto: Aroma of Smoke, Moist Wood and Arid GrassFoto: Aroma of Smoke, Moist Wood and Arid GrassFoto: Aroma of Smoke, Moist Wood and Arid Grass

Our way down the mountains seems much quicker. Also my bare feet have used to jungle paths. I feel that my attitude towards pain and life and death issues is a bit different now. There are circumstances that I can control and the ones that are far beyond it. My mind feels unusually relaxed as any stress is such situation is futile. On our way back I ask Dexter and his father if they are able to tell which plants are useful in medicine or maybe in food. Along with ancient knowledge, passed over from their ancestors, they also trust their intuition, taste and smell. Dexter notices a small black frog among rotten leaves, which he had never seen before. Yes, most probably it is poisonous - his father agrees. Why they think so, seeing this frog for the first time - they can not explain. Then I take an ointment "Evija", produced Latvia, out of my backpack and ask if they can determine what it is and what it is used for. The father and the son carefully examines it, smells and even tastes, and their opinion is the following - it can not be used in food, it must be some medicine, most probably for an external usage, however, dissolved in water it could be drank too. As to its smell and taste it seems to be an outstanding product - very good for various injuries, ulcers and open wounds as well as burns and inflammations. "Are we right?" they ask. "One hundred percent," I have to agree.
Dexter's father, age of 65, never even slipped during the whole hike in spite of a heavy backpack and other things he had to carry. Suddenly he is dropping behind and calls me and Dexter to come closer. There, on the clayey path, he has found a small stone axe, with a sharp blade on one side and a hollow for attaching a handle on the other. Makushi Amerindians have never used such tools for a long time already. Either heavy rain had uncovered this archeological find or we had not been just three all this time. Maybe somebody had followed us - meaning a pygmy, of course. Next to the axe there is a small human footprint - much smaller than any adult could leave and no child could wander alone so far away. But who knows and Dexter's father takes the axe with him to examine it more carefully at the village.

Nappi Village

Foto: Aroma of Smoke, Moist Wood and Arid GrassFoto: Aroma of Smoke, Moist Wood and Arid GrassFoto: Aroma of Smoke, Moist Wood and Arid Grass

Dexter and his father kindly invite me to stay the following week at their family house. Their household is a very similar to the one of Leandro's grandparents. A living-house is built of handmade clay bricks, a roof made of leaves and hammocks for sleeping. A house has several entrances and it smells of fresh air, timber and dry grass. A kitchen is situated in front of the living house and it has two doors. All the windows have shutters, opening and closing not to the sides but up and down. The doors are split into two - closing the lower part, the upper can still stay open, yet, no dogs or chicken are let in the house. A path strait down the hill leads to a well - you can perform your daily hygiene procedures there.
Unlike at Moco-Moco village, in Nappi one has to obtain an oral permit of the village elder allowing to stay there. It is in compliance with the "Amerindian Act", adopted in 1976, providing that foreigners are not allowed to stay on the Amerindian soil without a permit, received in advance. I was asked questions about my family status, purpose of my trip and my professional background and all the answers were carefully listened and written down. Finally the permission, allowing Dexter to have a guest at his home, was solemnly announced. Probably a visitor like me is quite a rarity there and my stay in Amerindian settlement, moreover, in an Amerindian family is truly exceptional for Nappi.

Dexter's father and his mother Rufina are the most considerate and intelligent people I have ever met. Rufina is a very good story teller. She speaks in a suave and calm voice and can tell with a great precision about almost anything - about shamans and their treatment methods, about how she restored to Christianity and does not believe in shamans quite so much ever since. She tells that shamans have started to take money for their help, yet, true shamans, being very rare nowadays, would never do such thing. She tells about pygmies, the ones I have already heard about, and their ability to put "ordinary people" to sleep, without them even noticing it. She tells about her baby daughter, one of her six children, she had lost long time ago. About old days and cooking skills of that time, about ancient customs and family planning methods, about the values, she had grown up with and the ones her own children are confronted now. She is one of the few, who still knows Makushi written language. And when Rufina looks deep into your eyes, it seems that she can read your thoughts.
We eat diner until nightfall and go to our hammocks straight after, just drinking a mug of lemon grass tea before sleep. Sitting in the light of oil-lantern, Dexter and his father tells that the ancestors of Makushi Amerindians had been descendants of the God of the Sun. They pride themselves of their love of freedom, as no one ever has managed to enslave them. They have always managed to escape, in hopeless situations even committing suicides. Often they used blowpipes, to neutralize their persecutors. A strong blow in a tube with a poisoned dart inside - a poison, mixing with victim's blood, kills in just a few of seconds. Finding a poison and making a blowpipe had been quite easy even under strict surveillance.

In spite of Christian values and regulations, influences of the modern world and commercialism in almost everything, they have still managed to preserve their free spirit, inherited from their ancestors, and their individuality, no one has ever managed to annihilate. It manifests in their everyday life, their houses and settlements - creating a sense of a very special freedom. White people, who employ Amerindians, tell that they are not worker just like any others. Some Frenchmen relates his conversation with an Amerindian man - "Hey, help me to do this work, I'll pay and you will be able to buy a motorboat instead of your wooden one." But the Amerindian asks: "Why I would need that?" The Frenchmen answers: "You would be able to reach fishing places much faster." Amerindian says: "I do not hurry." Frenchmen: "You would be able to catch more fish." Amerindian: "We would not be able to eat more." Frenchmen: "Then you would be able to sell it and earn more money." Amerindian: "We have enough already."
Amerindian never kills more - hunting or fishing - then in a certain period of time is able to eat - and not a single bit more. Even not for selling. It is a fascinating ability - to know ones sense of proportion and to have such modesty.
At the last night at Nappi sky was very starry. Lying in the darkness and staring at the little twinkling dots of glow-warms out in the savanna, I caught myself contemplating that maybe I am not there, on the Earth, anymore. A star above the Kanuku Mountains fell and was followed by several more, one after another, and I said a silent wish to myself. Suddenly Dexter's mother was passing by and she said it aloud: "I know what you are thinking about but you will return."

Useful Information

- Leo, Rufina and Dexter from Nappi plan to finish a house, built deep in the jungle, in December 2007. There they would accommodate not only professional natural scientists but also ordinary visitors, as well. They are eager to share their knowledge about the jungle wildlife, usage of various plants and to show the traditional methods of fishing, hunting and other Amerindian skills.

Dexter's mobile phone is +592 614 0802, his sister's Maribeth's phone number is +592 669 0689. They speak fluent English. The best time for calling is between 1 and 2 pm - it is early morning in Guyana then. I have managed to get through to them only on my mobile phone.Yet, there is no electricity in their family house and network coverage might be quite poor, too, so you should arm yourself with patience.

Posted in 2008.

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