Between Two Worlds

Western civilisation is slowly spreading into the Amazonian rainforest. Timber, coca, beef, sugarcane and other agricultural goods drive governments and companies forward, confronting the indigenous peoples with a new model of society. The Tsimané of Puerto Ruso, a small community in the Bolivian part of the Amazon, are one such people in limbo between two worlds. This is the story of a week spent in their midst.
It is a grim and grey day. Dawn has barely broken when I meet Pedro, my personal guide. He looks tired, worn out, and is wearing a lime green fleece and navy-blue trekking trousers, black rubber boots and a baseball hat. An ornate Bowie knife hangs from his belt and he carries a machete — two indispensable tools in the rainforest. Pedro’s face bears the marks of a difficult life: small scars on his cheeks and below his ear; his left canine tooth missing. His hands are those of a hard-working man, wrinkled and callous. He seems shy, his voice is quiet and uncertain. “I’m still not quite used to foreigners,” he says and, indeed, confesses that, when he started out as a cook on organised tours, he was afraid of “the White Man.” Pedro uses the word panic.

Getting there

Our long journey into the forest begins in Rurrenabaque, Bolivia. We cross the River Beni, its brown waters carrying loose dirt from the Andes and much of La Paz’s waste. While we wait for the rickety van to fill up with passengers, Pedro eats a small breakfast which consists of a strawberry yogurt and a chocolate bar. “Good breakfast,” he says with painful irony, but he cannot afford a heartier one. Life in Rurrenabaque is expensive for him and his family and he has to work countless hours just to get by. Barely a full day did he rest between his last tour and this job, hardly enough time to see his wife and son. Yet, he has to take advantage of the short high season for tourism, for jobs are scarce.

On the bumpy road to Ixiamas, the last village before the pampas and then the forest — a dirt road, devoured by deep potholes and wide ditches dug by streams of water and torrential rains — the impact of industrial society on the forest becomes apparent: large deforested patches turned into beef farms, scorched areas converted to plantations, sawmills with piles of trunks and boards. “As soon as the roads get there, everything changes.” A hint of nostalgia floats in Pedro’s voice.

Our final destination lies a long hike under the tropical sun from Ixiamas into the ever denser Amazonian Rainforest. Night has already fallen by the time we arrive in the Tsimané community of Puerto Ruso. Electricity is far behind us; the pitch-blackness is only broken by the bright starry sky and the occasional fireflies along the path. At last, exhausted, we reach the village.

The village

Along the banks of the River Ugundu, a slow-flowing stream that eventually seeps into the sand and disappears, a few widespread clusters of huts make up the Puerto Ruso community. Not a single nail is used to stabilise the thick bamboo pillars, which are instead tied together by rope made of tree bark. A thinner kind of bamboo makes up the walls. Dried palm leaves serve as roofs. Inside, little more than an elevated board acts as sleeping area, while outside there is a small cabinet for the cooking utensils — pots, knives, a few eclectic dishes — and, on the ground, an open fire replaces the stove.

The Tsimané, the local tribe, are organised into independent families who live all generations conjoined, with the husband usually moving to the wife’s home. Around the families’ huts, plantains and cassavas, peppers and onions, papayas and pineapples are cultivated in disorder. There is no mass-production or profit maximisation; Tsimané families grow food almost exclusively for their own consumption. A few pigs and chickens roam about freely. The river provides fish; the forest, meat.

The Tsimané’s sense of community differs from the Western view. Each family is responsible for its own food production — there is no division of labour — and it is a good five-minute walk to get from one cluster of shacks to the next. The only communal building, which also serves as a village hall, is the school, to which everyone contributes. Only rarely do the families work together. One such exception is preparation for the village celebrations, which take place in early September to commemorate the foundation. For that, the men take jobs in Ixiamas to buy a cow and other “luxurious” goods.

Our host is Santo, a sort of ambassador to the rare foreigners who come this way. He welcomes us to his abode in torn shorts and a yellow Eighties’ football top: clothes brought by “civilisation”. His feet, however, are bare. He cannot get used to shoes, he laughs. Were it not for his kind smile, his strong and rugged physique would not betray his warm-hearted and joyful character. He tells stories and jokes, relates recent events and is curious about my culture, my language, the differences between us. But he is proud of his own heritage and happy to answer all my questions. Santo’s voice is soft and melodious, with a calm and appeasing tone. He speaks fluent Spanish but for occasional words he stutters over. He and his family are supremely generous, they share what little food and drink they have. They let me taste everything they cook and prepare. But, as Pedro informs me, they share only with those people who are curious about the Tsimané’s ways, who ask questions and are not reluctant to try things that might be perceived as disgusting or taboo.

Into the wild

Santo is planning to go on a hunting expedition for several days. The meat stocks need to be replenished, meat being the central part of their diet. “Without meat, we don’t live for two days,” he says. This is how they are used to living: by what the forest provides in addition to the few things they can grow themselves. He asks if I am interested in joining them.
It feels like a large-scale expedition as Santo and his entire family get ready: they pack up cooking pots and big amounts of salt — “to conserve the meat” — and even bring along the young chickens so as to protect them from other animals. As weapons, Santo carries an old rifle and a longbow, complete with different kinds of arrows. Almost every family member, including the children, has his own machete.

The sun is just past its peak as we wade through the Ugundu. Negrita, the young dog, is afraid of water and refuses to swim, barking and wailing as she feels left behind. But soon enough her fear of loneliness triumphs over her fear of the water and she catches up. We traverse a patch, I notice, in which the trees are thicker, the path less clearly marked. Santo explains that it used to be hunting grounds for the Tucurumé, a far more remote tribe that still refuses any contact with “civilisation.” He tells me the story of a helicopter sent in by the Bolivian government, laden with goods, that was attacked upon sight by the Tucurume’s flaming arrows. “Once,” Santo narrates, “I found a large, wooden pot buried in the area in which there were bones of a tall human being. Maybe a White Man like you ventured too deep into the forest.” He laughs but seems dreadfully serious. “Out of respect for the Tucurumé, we Tsimané never hunt in these grounds and never chop down trees.”

We take a small break during which Santo and Pedro prepare a bola, a small ball of coca leaves around a core of the Chamairo tree’s bark, meant to help digestion, and sprinkled with sodium bicarbonate to release the coca’s active agent. The indigenous peoples use coca as a stimulant and to quench thirst on long walks through the forest. “Take one,” they tell me, “you’ll need it.” One bola is placed in the cheek for several hours without chewing and the juices swallowed at regular intervals.

As we continue on the path, the three dogs suddenly sniff out a group of coatís and chase after them. Instantly, Santo and Pedro drop their backpacks and, machete in hand, follow the dogs. The other family members walk on, undisturbed. This is the men’s realm. In the distance, the dogs’ barks can be heard — a ferocious battle is taking place — until a loud wail melts into silence. The two men return with a coatí, a sort of badger; dinner is secured.

But it is only a half-success: Negrita was bitten in the neck and is fast losing blood. They have to act quickly. While Pedro runs to look for ‘uña de gato’ (cat’s claw, a liana filled with fresh water), Santo lights up a pile of dry leaves and I stabilise the young bitch to prevent her scratching and rubbing her wound on the ground. Santo rips one of Pedro’s cigarettes open, mixes the tobacco with water and presses out the juice onto the dog’s wounds — a natural disinfectant. Then, having burnt the coatí’s fur, he uses the ashes mixed with more tobacco to antiseptically seal the bite. Finally, Pedro pours water from the liana into Negrita’s mouth. She is weak and needs to be carried to camp, but she will live.

The sky is already a sunset palette of oranges and pinks as we reach the riverside “camp”. Fidelia, Santo’s wife, the abuelos (grandparents) and the children have already cleared a sleeping area. Upon a fire, freshly caught fish is cooking. In the embers a handful of plantains are being roasted. The frogs croak loudly. Crickets join in the concerto that accompanies the construction of Pedro’s and my basic shelter: a frame for the tarpaulin and two bars to attach the vital mosquito net.

The forest

The Tsimané call themselves a “Christianised people.” Indeed, they have Spanish-Catholic names — Santo, Fidelia, Eliseo, Juan Carlos — but otherwise there are no other religious signs. There is no church in the village, they do not wear crucifixes, they do not pray. Their pagan beliefs, on the contrary, are far more present. It is the forest, its trees and animals that the Tsimané venerate. A superstitious people, they observe many rituals.

Before entering the forest, the Tsimané bathe in the river so as to leave all impurities behind: a sign of respect for the forest. Medicinal trees are treated with utmost care and never chopped down, for they provide remedies against many ailments and illnesses — from clogged noses to asthma, from stings to urinary infections, from indigestion to fevers — Pedro explains. “When I see lumber companies erase acres at a time, I cry. These trees, for us, are life and they are rare.” Pedro always covers the small holes he scratches into the rind with dirt. Other trees are believed to be surrounded by evil auras and Pedro carefully avoids them. Finally, the Tsimané never walk when the sun reaches its zenith, for the trees are then thought to release their energy, which has a negative influence on humans.

Their “Gods” are protective spirits invoked before each entrance: the Spirit of the Forest and the Spirit of Water. They are implored for protection and for luck. Amulets, like Pedro’s jaguar-toothed ones, are worn as shield. Pedro tells me the story of how, one time, he walked in the forest and suddenly the jaguar tooth around his neck cracked; it still bears the marks. He truly believes that it absorbed an attack by a malignant force and, if it had not, only the Shaman could have exorcised the evil.

It is hard to distinguish the truth from the stories concocted for the tourist’s benefit. But the forest’s sacrality cannot be doubted. Indeed, being the provider of life, it is only natural that it be revered.

Hunting, fishing, gathering

On the first day at the hunting campsite, Santo goes into the forest alone. He reconnoitres the area, tries to find a herd of chanchos, or wild boars. Meanwhile, Pedro and I join the women and children, who go out to fish and to gather plantains, yucca and peppers. Eliseo, the eldest son, is fishing with his bow, Pedro with the machete, and the rest of us with rudimentary fishing lines. Santo was not as successful as we were; all he could find of the chanchos were their traces.

The next day, we awake at the break of dawn to track the herd of chanchos that Santo suspects in the vicinity. Santo and Pedro lead the expedition, stop to listen carefully at regular intervals, sniff into different directions, follow the traces on the paths. Their senses are sharp —eyes, nose, ears— far sharper than mine, as they locate and distinguish different animal cries, see monkeys and birds hidden in the tree crowns, catch a whiff of the distant boars. They enter a hunter mode that has long since disappeared from Western societies. They have a kind of sixth sense developed by the need for survival. It is impressive and awe-inspiring to observe. I am equally amazed by their sense of orientation in this thicket of trees that, to my untrained eye, bears no recognisable waypoints.

Suddenly, a small boar flees from a bush. Santo tries to follow it but fails to catch up. “The only way to hunt Chancho is to approach him stealthily,” he educates me. Santo speaks of the animal with respect, as if of a person. “He scares very easy and he is fast, too fast.”

It is getting late and still no chancho. Santo decides to turn back toward camp but still continues the search. At last, he has sensed the herd and tells us to wait. His rifle locked and loaded, he treads softly into the denser woods. Not a sound, not a single cracking branch. He disappears from sight and within a few minutes, a shot echoes through the forest. Then another. And another. Santo has shot three boars — enough to feed the family for at least a couple of weeks.

We return to camp with shouts of celebration.

The next morning, I wake up to yet more jovial cries. Santo had gone to hunt early, while it was still dark, to catch the animals off-guard as they were out to look for food and water. He had come across a tapir refreshing itself by the river and, with two precise shots, killed it. Now, he needs our help to carry the heavy animal back to camp, lest predators seize the free meal.

The bloody load on my shoulders, dripping over my neck and clothes, I cannot help but wonder how many people would stop eating meat altogether, were they in my shoes.

At last, there is sufficient meat to last for a month or so. The hunt is over, for the Tsimané never kill more animals than they need to, never hunt for fun. Santo and his family stay behind to dry and salt the flesh, so as to conserve it. “What did you use before you had salt?” I ask curiously. “Honey, bees’ honey.”

Civilisation advances

Such is the Tsimané’s traditional way of life. Yet, advancing civilisation affects it more and more, even threatens to make it disappear completely. The government has claimed the indigenous peoples as Bolivian and imposes its laws. The industrial society has brought new goods to which the people are not used. Timber companies promise support in exchange for land. The concept of money slowly replaces the concept of barter trade. The Tsimané struggle to reconcile their culture with the modes of industrialisation — they are in limbo between two worlds.

Salt, refined sugar, candy and oil: products, all of them, previously unknown to the Tsimané but for which they are developing a taste. Regularly, a family from Ixiamas brings what the Tsimané want from modern society and exchange the goods against the community’s produce. However, they value them unfairly low and exploit the Tsimané’s lack in trading experience.

Worse still are the new diseases resulting from the previously unknown aliments and from contact with civilisation. Diabetes and high blood pressure, excess weight, fading eye sight, pneumonia and tetanus: illnesses that never used to affect the peoples from the Amazonian rainforest. Their diet consisted of purely natural foods: animal fats instead of processed oil; sugarcane juice instead of refined sugar; bees’ honey and all its virtues instead of salt; hunted meat and fish instead of farm animals fed with hormones and antibiotics; plants, seeds and bark remedies instead of meds and their side-effects. Whereas people used to live long and sturdily — like Donato the village elder, who is nearing his eightieth spring yet still runs like the wind, hunts, fishes and works hard — inhabitants of Rurrenabaque and Ixiamas by now have a far shorter life expectancy. The Tsimané, so far, are not affected but it may only be a matter of time.

The school

One of the government’s imposed laws is mandatory education. For all its positive aspects, like preparing the children for industrialised society’s ever more important influence, there are also many problems connected to it. 
Walking across the dry grass of the school yard, on the far side of which two gnarled staffs serve as a football goal, I can already hear the children’s restlessness. There are two small buildings, connected by a veranda. Each one holds exactly one classroom: in the left one, the older pupils from year four through six, concentrate on studying Maths and Spanish; in the right one, Years One through Three welcome me with excited cheers. Clemente, their teacher, has invited me to observe a class and, later, to say a few words about French culture and my travels.

The classroom is shabby. Old wooden desks, seating two, stand on bare dirt. The walls, mere boards, offer no room for windows: the only natural light comes in through the small entrance and thin cracks. A few posters add some colour on an otherwise uniformly dark beige: side-by-side, “The Evolution of Man” and “The Creation of the World in Seven Days”; the tables of multiplication for the numbers one through ten; in the back, an eclectic collection of the children’s drawings.

There are two different blackboards. The big one in front shows mammals and reptiles on its left half and a drawing of trees in perspective to explain fleeting points on the right. In the back, a small board has the word “po-lli-to,” small chicken, written in large letters and split in syllables: Years Two and Three are studying Earth Science; Year One, Writing. Classes are held in Spanish, since Clemente is from La Paz; most children, however, barely speak it, their language at home being Tsimán. Clemente walks from pupil to pupil, tries in vain to juggle both groups at the same time. Too restless are the children, too curious about me, and whenever Clemente has his back turned, they get up and run around the room, come to see me and wonder what I write in my notebook. They want to demonstrate their ability at writing their own names.

Already it becomes apparent: the government has made education mandatory for the Tsimané, but it does not provide enough financial support to help the teacher in his mission. “Money is missing,” Clemente tells me during the break, while the children are out playing football with a punctured ball. “Look at the desks, for example; at the state of the building. And most children don’t even have a textbook.” Indeed, only two pupils have a book, in very bad condition. The parents are supposed to buy them but many cannot afford them or care too little about education to procure them. “We lack pens, paper, books. How can I properly teach in such conditions? Parents, whom I teach a couple of nights a week, don’t understand why they should invest in their children’s education.”

Indeed, doing so might be like digging their own grave. School education — and the occasional foreign visitor — tickle the young Tsimané’s curiosity and many of them leave the village, never to return. The appeal of civilisation slowly kills the community. Abandoned shacks, reclaimed by the forest, testify of it. “I would like my children to be well-educated,” Santo tells me. “But I also teach them our culture. I hope that they will bring what they learn back here.”

On the way back to Rurrenabaque, Pedro shines a grim light on civilisation’s advancement into the forest. “I came out of the forest in the hope of finding a better life for me and my family. Yet, I work hard all day long only to pay bills I never had to pay before. I barely see my son. What is the point?” His voice has lost its energy and joviality. Somehow, the constant smile he had in the forest slowly vanishes as we return to town. No longer does Pedro radiate the lightness of being, no longer does he appear free of worry, no longer does he live in the absolute present of the Tsimané. He is pensive, sombre. “This is my last season as a guide,” he says. “I’m going back to live in the forest with my family.”

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