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GRINGO AMONG WILD TRIBES

This will be a story about a tropical forest.

And also, about the last free Indians.

And about a white person who lived among them.

He’s pretty much the same as you, although for quite some time now he hasn’t been wearing shoes, instead of underwear he puts on a butt-flap and he obtains food with a blowgun. He also used to read travel books and dream about distant lands.

One day he got up from his chair, he flung his fridge over his shoulder and went to the nearby market. A short time after that, he came back, dusted the empty place where the fridge used to be and started to pack his things. Deep down in his pocket he had a wad of banknotes and a plane ticket.

And that’s how it all started.

A long time has passed since those events… But not a long time ago, by one of the little known tributaries of the Amazon River…
… A Brazil army troop came across a mysterious camp hidden in the jungle. There shouldn’t be anyone in a perimeter of a couple days journey by boat. An area the size of Belgium stayed inaccessible for people – officially as a sanctuary and the borderland, but in reality as such an unwelcome land that it still hasn’t been explored. So where did a new machete and the remains of a fire come from in this wilderness? Who was here, if the unit carefully made sure that no one would get in? Who, and why abandoned three hammocks, which were hanging in the forest under a small roof made of palm leaves? Two of them were plaited the Indian way – from phloem – they didn’t arouse any amusement. But the third one was a sensation. It was made from a thin, nylon sheet, which you were able to put into your pocket after rolling and squeezing it up. The commander tested it a couple of times: with delight and disbelief he hid the hammock in his pocket and took it out, hid it, took it out again, unfurled it, rolled it up, hid it… At last he got bored and rolled it up for the last time, put it in his pocket and…

Show’s over!! Stop staring! – He snapped at the soldiers, who were gaping jealously at his stuffed pocket.

He said it on principal, because the reason for being jealous was justified: you can’t get hammocks like this one in a store – they’re only in the equipment of the commando unit and they’re given out only with a name receipt and you have to give it back at the end of a mission.

And this was the problem: what did the appearance of a hammock like this in such wilderness mean? Why was it dangling in the jungle? And who was its owner?

And where was he now?

After a consultation on the radio the commander of the troop was given a message from the base in Tabatinga that two months ago a white man was wondering around in this area. He was looking into renting a boat, two skilful hunters and a guide. Unlike other gringos visiting these places he wasn’t interested in observing exotic birds, searching for rare species of orchids or catching butterflies for a collection. He wanted to find an Indian tribe. Three things were known about this tribe: it’s wild, it is constantly wondering around the jungle changing their whereabouts and it definitely doesn’t want to be found.
Sometimes this aversion assumed the character of ostentation. In this case characteristic, black arrows made out of hard wood shower down on the nosy intruder. The heads of these arrows are red, which means that they’re dipped in a thick, well-concentrated soft, sticky substance, which is usually called curara.

The hunter and the guide, whom the white man had found and hired, came back to Tabatinga some time ago, but no one knew anything about the whitey. He probably returned some time after those two and left for his country.

After the commander got this information and turned off the radio, he decided to give the order “To the boats!” Unfortunately he didn’t get the chance to do it. While he was opening his mouth, a little, black arrow flew into it. It got stuck in his throat at the base of the tongue. He hawked shortly and fell on the ground. His body flung once or twice and froze immediately.

A couple more arrows flew from behind the bushes surrounding the encampment. All of them were well-aimed. And all of them were poisoned like the first one.

A then – there was silence. Only an eagle’s eye would be able to notice a couple of naked, almost invisible silhouettes in the bushes.

One of these silhouettes emerged from the thicket, bent down next to the commander’s body, took out the hammock from his pocket and silently ran after the rest of the members of his tribe, who were already disappearing in the jungle.

Then, appropriately to the situation, silence fell upon the scene of utter confusion.

Something like a moan cut the silence a couple of hours later.

After a while one of the corpses winked.

At the same moment, a couple of yards away the arm of the dead commander rose above the rotting bedding…

And dropped.

Rose again…

And dropped once more.

If anyone was to observe this scene, he would probably be scared out of his wits and run away into the dark forest screaming – at dusk the dead were waking up to live their night lives.

At one moment, struggling, the dead commander reached to his throat and pulled out the poisoned arrow. Just after that, he threw up.

Soon, the rest of the corpses followed his wake. They also threw up.

This meant that the poison had stopped working. The paralysis passed, the stiffened muscles started to move and the eyes cleared.

The effects of getting poisoned by Indian monkey poison are very similar to death.
Voodoo wizards used to use a similar mixture to create zombies. Even experienced doctors can be deceived and very often they write out death certificates. And then, with the magic of the clever shaman-charlatan “corpses” come back to life and arise from their graves in full view of the terrified crowd (or someone, who exposed himself to the shaman, wakes up in a coffin buried six feet under).

The soldiers were very lucky that they met a group of hunters and not warriors. Warriors carry arrows that kill. Their weapons are poisoned with curara. The arrows that were shot at the soldiers were only paralyzing – for monkeys, not for people. When Indians hunt, they don’t want to poison the animal (they’re going to eat it after all). It’s only about getting the animal to fall off the tree or preventing it from running away.

But that doesn’t mean that it was pleasant for the soldiers. They experienced something like a clinic death. They saw and heard everything, they felt every touch, even the bite of a mosquito, but they weren’t able to move a muscle. For these couple of hours, their defenseless minds were thrashing about while being trapped in their inert, cold lump of flesh and bones. Although they saw everything, they weren’t able to move their eyes, or even wink. Not even one muscle was obedient. They just lay there terrified, unable to shout or even moan quietly. Seeing, hearing and feeling, but completely immobile.

When the commander was able to speak again, he started swearing quietly. The swear-words interlarded with the names of Jesus, Maria and a couple of other more popular saints. Then he gave a command which was unusual under these circumstances:

- Get the hell out of here! End of patrol! We’re going right to Tabatinga. Day and night without stopping. No hunting, no fishing. And if someone wants to go to the outhouse, he’ll have to stick his butt overboard. And we’re keeping to the center of the current. And as far from the banks as possible.

He needn’t have said all of that. The soldiers, who were usually lazy and sluggish, moved unusually quickly this time. Before the commander finished, all of them had been sitting quietly in the boat, the engine had been running and the moorings had been untied. They were hurrying so much that no one even thought about taking the new machete which was stuck in the log. Soon the only things that were left in the mysterious encampment were this machete and the hammocks dangling in complete silence.



DANGELLING HAMMOCKS

To answer the question where they came from, we have to go back a week in time.

It was like this:

Two Indians (from a tribe that isn’t as wild as it was a couple of years ago and lets someone find it once in a while) and I were on the lookout for 48 hours straight. Without any sleep, because we could either finally hunt something or rest and starve to death while doing so.

At last we captured a skinny ocelot which was the size of a cat. We ate him half-raw, barely scorched over the fire. And right after that we all fell into deep slumber.

A slumber which someone has just interrupted by tugging the strings of my hammock.

I was afraid to open my eyes – I felt that instead of them I would find two spoons of sand. I slept maybe an hour overall.

Another tug on the strings, plus a quiet hiss through the teeth. There’s no choice – I have to get up.

I clenched my teeth and opened my eye with a firm move. And it turned out that it wasn’t sand – it was granulated salt. It stung like hell, but I couldn’t shed a tear. While I was opening my other eye I had a feeling that I heard a quiet crunch.

Coming from my eye???

Nooo, don’t exaggerate… I concentrated on listening.

Something was really crunching… somewhere beneath me… somewhere in the back… The crunches repeated in sequences of three – like someone would be going three steps forward and stopping. Three again… and so on.

The rustle of the bedding in a coniferous forest full of old pinecones, dry spruce needles and brushwood doesn’t surprise anyone. But here, in the jungle, nothing ever rustles or crunches. It rather smacks with mud, molders quietly, softens and smothers all the steps.

So what’s rustling here? Someone’s creeping up on me or what?... Will I have a little black arrow in my back in a moment?

That’s impossible. When we found black spears stuck in the ground – the sign of prohibition to enter the Wild Tribe’s grounds – we always turned around nicely. And Wild Tribes are honorary – they don’t shoot at anyone without reason.
So what was…

Oh dear! Not good! The o n l y thing that has the right to rustle is chitin – the exoskeletons of insects.

I flipped violently in the hammock. I wanted to jump out of it as fast as possible…

… beee quiet gringo and don’t move – the Indian shouted whispering.
(You’ve probably heard about this – shouting in a whisper – you don’t raise your voice, you talk quietly, on the boundary of audibility, practically you hiss through your teeth, but really, what you say, and how you say it rings in your ears like a !S!H!O!U!T!)

Pretend that you’re not here, that you’re dead. Or else they’ll eat you.

?

The ants – he answered the question I asked (only I asked it in my head)

In situations like this I don’t ask questions (out loud). When your guide says “get down” – you get down, when he says “shush” – you sit quietly until he calls it off.
A couple of times I have seen Indians stay still for hours – like stone sculptures – they were on the lookout for game. White people aren’t able to do that. We need to stretch our limbs more often, our necks, which are bitten by mosquitoes, need scratching, drops of sweat on our foreheads, scratches etc. Meanwhile, Indians sit motionless. Even their eyes don’t twitch. Only sometimes, in a half-closed eye-socket their eyes move bit by bit, slowly and unnoticed. You can tell that they have roused up after a couple hours of sitting motionless (because they spotted an animal in the bushes) only because a little, purple vane on their temple starts to pulsate anxiously.

Now we were lying still in our hammocks pretending to be part of the landscape. Nature’s inanimate part. And there was a war going on the ground beneath us. A deadly war.
An extensive, well organized, blood-thirsty and hungry rug of red ants was walking down there. The rustles I heard came from a snake which was coiling up in deadly convulsions. It was dying the worst way – being eaten from the insides. The ants were marching systematically through its insides and clearing everything that’s eatable out of it… crunching their mandibles while doing so.

Fortunately not one of them had the idea to look up which saved our lives. The ants, which were busy with the snake, didn’t notice us and went further after a while.

Just after that we also went further. The other way of course. And in a run! As far as possible from that place! Only dangling hammocks were left behind.

- And my new machete!

- You want to go back for it, gringo? – The Indian asked me with a clear mockery. – Go. And we’ll wait here for you.

I didn’t.


ANTEATERS

The same evening the Indians decided to take revenge on the ants for… suffered losses. They caught a couple of handfuls of so called “red heads”, monstrous ants – they grow up to above one inch – but they’re harmless. Then they roasted them alive and were eating them with gusto.

Gringo – they addressed me – tell us about your world. What’s it like there?

But what exactly would you like to hear?

Do you eat people?

What do you mean, do we eat people?!

With your mouths, teeth, through your throat, to your stomach. Do you eat people?

How did you come up with that? Do you eat people?

We can’t. It’s taboo.

What about the wild Indians?

They have the same taboos as us. They’re our brothers. None of the tribes in these areas eat people.

So why would you think I eat people?

We heard that whiteys eat people.

Who says so?

The Elders. They remember times, when white people wondered around in our jungle.

And I heard from my Elders that you used to eat people.

It’s because of people like you.

What’s because of people like me?

That people find out that we eat people.

Not from me they don’t.

What do you say about us, gringo? When you go home to your world you surely tell some stories.

I do.

Do you sit by the fire then?

Sometimes. I light a fire in the fire-place…

???

Never mind, I just light the fire, we sit around it and I start to tell stories.

About us?

Yes, about you.

Do you tell good things?

I tell everything. How I saw it. Sometimes only I throw people off the trail, so more whiteys wouldn’t come here.

Why? Are white people bad?

Although white people don’t eat people… they devour the jungle.

Not all of them gringo. You don’t. The jungle rather devours you – after these words the Indians bust out with laughter.

I started to laugh although I wasn’t in the mood for laughter. That’s because I was just being checked for ticks. It was an everyday, humiliating ritual. The Indian, who was laughing the loudest was crouching behind me and was plucking the ticks from places, which I couldn’t reach by myself. That means I could easily reach them with my hands, but I couldn’t see them… ever.

So gringo, tell us one of your stories now.

About what?

For example about the first time you met an Indian.

I started to tell the story, because we didn’t have anything better to do. Plus it was my turn to pluck.



HOW I MET THE FIRST INDIAN

It was on the isolated areas of Mesoamerica. In a place where you don’t exactly know what country it is, because one is already behind you and the other one hasn’t started yet.

There still are many places like this – like Mosquitia, the Caribbean Coast of Mosquitoes. It goes from Honduras, through Nicaragua up to Costa Rica. It’s 600 km long and reaches from 100 to 200 km inland. In Europe it could be an independent country – the Netherlands, Denmark – and here it’s just a big, overgrown jungle, nobody’s land.

Officially of course it has an owner. It’s even divided into provinces with capitals and gubernators, but in reality this is a deserted and wild place. It has never been civilized. There’s still a big chance for explorers and adventurers to display their skills. And still, in spite of the designs of civilization, there’s quite a lot of space for Indians.

First I rode an army truck. Slowly and for a long time. Roasting in the sun on the back of a truck without a tarpaulin. Airy? Well… yes, only that the wind consisted of dust instead of air.

The asphalt disappeared after a hundred kilometers. Two bumpy ruts came out from underneath the asphalt. It started to sway and the truck jumped up and down so much, that I got sea sick. I got off after eighteen hours in the middle of the wild savanna.

Then I rode on the back of a mull – for two nights, because it was too hot during the day – all the way to the place where the bog started. The mull didn’t want to go any further. It balked firmly and grunted unpleasantly at me. I urged him with my heels, a stick and some words of encouragement, which interlarded with some unpleasant suggestions of its nearby future. Then the mull turned around and bit me on the leg. So I got off, drove him back and went on further on foot.

A narrow, almost invisible path was meandering between two ponds. The air around me stunk with heated defects, and to make it even worse, everything buzzed and bit. After a dozen hours or so the path led me to the other side of the swamp. There, on the edge of the tropical forest I met an Indian for the first time. An Indian who still lives like before – he lives in a shelter, walks barefooted and eats what he can hunt in the jungle.

We, white people, would say that he’s wild, but for him I was “wild”.

The first evening it was like this:

Can you hear the toucan’s call gringo?

No. Which one is it?

The one that goes trook-trook… trook-trook…

Now I hear it.

This is the singing that foretells good weather – he explained.

And the next day at sunrise it was like this:

Can you hear the toucan’s call, gringo?

I can. It’s going trook-trook… trook trook… again. It foretells good weather – I answered pleased with myself because I knew something.

You don’t know anything, gringo. It’s going trook-trook foretelling rain this time.

But it’s the same trook-trook like the one yesterday. The one foretelling good weather – I protested.

It’s going to pour. I’m telling you. It’s trook-trooking because it’s foretelling rain.

The Indian was right – an hour later we were soaking wet. As well as our luggage and food. The worst thing was that the humidity also got into the can in which I kept my gun powder.

- Niiiiiiiice, SOMEONE didn’t close the lid – I looked Indian’s way meaningfully. – Now the gunpowder is useless and it won’t dry for a couple for days in this rain.

- It’ll dry, it’ll dry, gringo.

Yeah, right. I wonder how that’s possible.

Because of the sun. Don’t you hear the toucans going trook-trook? It’ll be sunny all right! We’ll spill the gunpowder on a warm rock and it’ll to dry. And we’ll go hunting at night.


As always, the Indian was right – we went at night. We hunted. And we shot a young capybara. And at dawn, while we where roasting the meat, the toucans above us started to go trook-trook again.

What are they foretelling this time? Rain or good weather? – I asked completely staggered.

Why can’t you gringos learn one easy thing? You just have to observe the world around you and then you know.

How am I supposed to know which trook-trook foretells rain and which one foretells good weather when all the trook-trooks are IDENTICAL?!

Exactly.

What “exactly”? – Now I was really staggered, before it was just a little muddle-headedness. – So maybe you’ll explain it to me? How am I supposed to know?

Look at the sky – he sighed and rolled his eyes.

I’m looking.

And what do you see?

The sun.

That means that it’s going to rain.

Ooooh… So if it would be raining the trook-trooking would mean that it’s going to be sunny? – I was starting to understand.

Exactly – the Indian replied. After that he smiled like a shrink at the sight of a bad case that is getting a little better. – The toucans go trook-trook, when there’s going to be a change of weather – he finished.

What if there’s not going to be a change of weather? You’re not going to tell me that toucans don’t sing for three months during the rainy season, are you?

They sing all the time – he answered calmly. – They’re very talkative birds.

So how does the trook-trooking sound when there isn’t going to be a change of weather?

Normal: trook-trook, trook-trook. They can’t do anything else because nothing else can come out of those huge beaks.


MORAL:
Spending time with Indians is exactly like playing “Frustration” – you can’t get irritated. You have to accept them the way they are – with their mysterious logic of the “wild people”. They do the same thing towards us – they accept the incomprehensible (and then they smile like shrinks at the sight of bad cases).



GRINGO AND THE CANNIBALS

You finish with a moral. Just like our Shaman – the Indian summed up.

Then he threw a handful of fried ants into his mouth and started to crunch unpleasantly.

Nice tale, gringo – the other one reviewed. – I didn’t understand everything but I liked it all the same.

He was nibbling “red heads” one by one with a specific crunch of chitin shells. First he ate the head, then he chewed the legs and at the end he put the abdomen on his teeth and crushed it with appetite. Disgusting.

Gringo – he said after a while – have you ever met people like us before?

People like what? You mean Wild?

We’re not wild! – He protested, still nibbling on the ants.

The only difference between you and them is that you live a little bit closer to the outer world than they do and a couple of our plastic bowls got into your hands.

And shorts.

But you don’t wear them all the time.

But I do! And the Wild Tribes never wear them.

Your sister is Wild, your nephews are Wild, and your brother-in-law is the chief of the Wild.

But I have shorts. They run around with their pingas flying around.

But apart from that are there any differences between you?

No. There aren’t. Wild Indians are our brothers.

So why do they live separately?

That’s what the Elders decided.

The Indian started to raise his voice dangerously and his eyes glittered angrily so I stopped the questioning and started consuming ants. Tasty or not tasty – it’s not important. We didn’t have anything else.

To kill the bad taste I ate wild pepper. It has the size of a pea and it’s extremely hot. Indians add it to everything, just to kill the taste. I heard that it kills the parasites of the alimentary canal. Judging by the taste I think that it can kill everything when given in the right amount.

When I saw that the Indian calmed down, I continued the earlier subject.

Why won’t the Wild tribes let us in their territory?

Because of you. I can go there whenever I want.

In shorts?

Not in shorts.

What if you take them off?

When I take them off I can go there because then I’m Wild. But only then! Remember gringo, only then.

Would they let me in if I took my shorts off?

You’re not Wild.

Don’t be so sure about that…

I bit my tongue at that moment. I didn’t want them to know. We haven’t known each other long enough. Although they have accepted me, they have let me live in their village, they have taken me hunting, but the shaman still treated me reservedly. I didn’t know how hey would react to the fact that I was indeed…

You have eaten people gringo, right? – Not for the first time the Indian was reading my mind.

All of them can do it. Call it intuition. But I know for sure that this is something more than that. A specific way of opening your mind to everything, the way that the mind of a white man has concealed from at the sight of burning stokes of the Inquisition.

Once, I ate a person.

Does anyone believe you, gringo?

No. I don’t brag about it, because there’s really nothing to brag about. And when I do tell someone, he snorts and says that that it’s a hoax.

I believe you – he said reluctantly, as if we were talking about nibbling on a corncob.

Tell us how a person tastes – the other one threw in.

His voice didn’t even tremble. Just as if he was asking not about human meat, but about the taste of my granny’s pie.

A person tastes like banana soup with ashes.

?

First the body was carefully burnt and then the ashes were added to the soup.

Why did the Indians do it like that?

They’re one of the nomadic tribes. This way they can take their dead wherever they go.

Why did they give this soup to you?

He was a hunter, just like you. His dying wish was to be taken to my homeland. He wanted to see the animals, which I told him about. You don’t refuse a dying man’s wish.

This way you became one of them, gringo. You connected with the soul of that tribe. Wherever they went you’re with them and they’re with you.

Our shaman can feel it. That’s why he’s a little afraid of you.

Silence fell after these words. None of us had anything more to say. It was pitch dark – a black, tropical night – the moon wasn’t rising and the only things left of the fire were glowing embers and a lonely, purple flame creeping lazily. We were eating the ants in silence.

Suddenly, in this silence, in the purple glow of the fire, which was slowly dying out, the shaman’s figure appeared. Out of nowhere, noiselessly. He approached us unnoticed even by my companions who were supposed to be the best trackers.

I was terrified. Scenes like this don’t augur good things. They still are wild people, even if they put on shorts once in a while. A dangerous, strange culture which I haven’t got to know well enough to feel safe.

Tell us about those Wilds – the Shaman’s voice was calm, even gentle, without a shade of terror. More like an apology for the sudden intrusion.

Tell us about all the Indians you’ve met before you came across us – he encouraged me crouching by the fire.

That would be a very long tale.

Doesn’t matter. It’s not going to rain and until there’ll be more water in the river you can’t go any further. So tell us.

What was I supposed to do? You don’t refuse an Indian’s request. Not a Wild Indian’s request anyway. When someone has their face painted red, a feather in their nose and a necklace made of jaguars’ teeth, plus he appears out of nowhere, in a place that’s a 3-day-long-journey away from the village, it’s not wise to refuse him. So without any further lingering I decided to tell my story. But I didn’t get the chance to do it. When I was opening my mouth, an uneaten ant fell out of it. I have forgotten to swallow it out of fear.

You’re eating this filth again?! – The shaman cried outraged – I told you many times that your pinga withers when you eat “red heads”.

Both of the Indians chuckled.

Ours don’t. It’s just the opposite. We want it even more.

You’ve been on a hunt for too long.

After that, the Shaman stoked up the fire, the Indians made themselves comfortable in their hammocks and I started my Tale without any other obstacles. And then, during the next couple of evenings I told them many other stories. I always began with the same word:

Listen…



And that’s how you start. And I hope you’ll find out how it finishes soon enough – after a visit to the library.

tlumaczenie/translation: KAJA WIERUCKA
Copyright © Wojciech Cejrowski 2005 - 2019
Designed by Agnieszka Rajczak (& Marek Laptaszynski)