Daily Life on the Expedition

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It is time to say a little about our day-to-day life here, and the equipment we are using.

Our boat “Coração do Brasil” is a 7-metre aluminium voadeira. It is reinforced to withstand the rocks in the rapids and waterfalls we will be passing in the next part of the expedition. The parts are welded together, which is a stronger method of construction. The boat cuts through the water beautifully, driven by a 40-hp Yamaha 2-stroke outboard motor. Our electronic equipment requires constant charging, and the boat is equipped with a battery and two flexible solar panels, which are mounted on a canopy.

We have been accompanied by local boatmen from the start of the expedition. The first was Aparecido, a genial non-Indian from Canarana who has plenty of experience in the area. He has worked for FUNAI, the government Indian agency, and has a wealth of knowledge of the people, plants and animals of the cerrados. Aparecido was joined by Ari Matipu, who, in addition to being an excellent boatman, kept us provided with plenty of fish, which was always well received when we arrived in a new village. Ari was also able to explain the purpose of our visit in the Karib language.

A typical meal in the XinguThe Indian way is to eat when food is available. The concept of three meals a day is alien, and a meal may occur at any time of day, though it usually happens in the afternoon or evening. Some days, if the fish are not biting, there is no food. Most days there is one meal, and if we are very lucky there may be some fruit in the village.

A meal in the Alto Xingu is simple; fish grilled over an open fire with beju, a kind of manioc bread or pancake which is snow-white. It is crisp on the outside when still hot and fresh, but becomes slightly elastic when it is a few hours old. Many non-Indians find it unpalatable, but for us it is a perfect complement to the fish. The beju serves as starch in the diet, but also doubles up as plate, knife and fork; each person takes a hand-sized piece of beju and uses it to take some fish, then eats beju and fish together. Sometimes in the morning we get some beju on its own.

This may sound a little repetitive, but there is a wide variety of fish, all of which is absolutely delicious because it was swimming in the river only an hour or so before the meal!

Occasionally during the day, someone will prepare mingau, a thick drink based on manioc, sometimes with added banana, pequi or sweet potato. Mingau can be sweet, sour or bland, and varies greatly in flavour and consistency. Mingau with pequi is quite sour and not to my taste, but is highly appreciated in some villages. Only the Yudja (Juruna) of the Baixo Xingu prepare caxiri, a fermented type of mingau which is alcoholic.

In the Medio and Baixo Xingu, beju is less common. The Kaiabi make it from a different type of manioc, and their beju is yellow and much thicker. The alternative here is farinha, coarse toasted manioc flour, which is eaten by the handful, stirred into fish stew or sprinkled onto pretty much any food.

Hammocks in a village houseWe sleep in hammocks, either in a family house or in the medical post. It is usually more comfortable in a family house, but there is very little privacy, and if the house is full we have to take down our hammocks during the day. We sit on low stools, which are occasionally carved but are more often just sections of tree trunks.

The day starts with the dawn. Our alarm clock is the crowing of cocks, the barking of dogs and the sounds of various other species of bird and animal which the villages keep as pets. We swing out of our hammocks and head for the river to bathe in the early morning mist. Most of the Indians in the Alto Xingu are still accustomed to going without clothes, so there is only mild inquisitiveness when we bathe, and occasional giggles about our whiteness – and our even whiter bits – from the children!

Refreshed, we return to the village, where we organise our things for the day. This is much more of a problem for us than for our hosts, who in most cases simply don a pair of shorts.

Sue having her face paintedOur days are filled with activities in the village; visiting houses, talking to the whole village, walking out to the gardens where they grow their food, watching someone working on a house, seeing people making artesanato. Sometimes there is a festival to see, or a football match. We also visit the village schools and first aid posts.

We take part in festivities, having our faces painted at the suggestion of our hosts, dancing into the small hours. We help to collect fruit from the trees in the village, my height being an asset. My feet are the source of much amusement, being size 47.

We remain in each village only a few days, and each parting is hard. Even in such a short time we get to know people. They very quickly become individuals; the names are difficult for us to learn, and there is usually a language gap to bridge, but the faces, the smiles and the characters soon become familiar. In every village there are many people who open their hearts to us and welcome us into their houses and their families.

© Patrick Cunningham

⇒Next: Dams, Soya and More Dams

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