He awakens before dawn to splash cold water over his body, as he has since he was a child and his father taught him the ways of the warrior.
“It invigorates your spirit and makes you strong,” his father assured him then. “And you need your strength for war.” And war they did – with the Cinta Larga, the Zoro, and the Gavião, but most recently with the Whites, who came by the thousands with guns, germs, and machetes.
But it was the germs that nearly got them in the end – germs from diseases like smallpox, measles, and the flu, which drove their numbers down from 5000 in 1969, when the Whites came, to less than 300 in 1974, when Almir Narayamoga Surui was born.
As soon as he could walk, he learned to rise before the sun to thwart pre-dawn enemy attacks, and to begin each day by plunging into the cool river to purge all vestiges of sleep from his system. It’s a ritual he maintains to this day, no matter where he is and no matter what the source of the river, so long as it’s cold.
On this particular morning in 1992, the river flows from the shower of a dormitory at the Centro de Pesquisa Indigena – a uniquely Brazilian institution of higher learning that transported Almir and a handful of other young indigenes out of the Amazon forest and into the glittering city of Goiânia, where each of them now carries the hopes and prayers of his people on his young shoulders. He braces his skinny frame and bows his head of jet-black hair towards the nozzle before turning the knob that blasts the sleep from his system, and he emerges invigorated, his dark eyes blazing. He dries himself and slips into jeans and a t-shirt before making his way to the cafeteria for what he later learns is his last breakfast at the Centro. He approaches his fellow indigenes in a manner that one of his future wives will call “coquettish”.
The small gaggle of indigenes at the Centro come from all across Brazil. Bruno and Gildo Tikuna, for example, come from Tikuna territory, which spreads across parts of Brazil, Columbia, and Peru; Geraldo Yanomami’s territory straddles Brazil and Venezuela; Jamiro and Marcus Xavante come from Mato Grosso, near Almir’s own home; and Carlos Kranak comes from the eastern part of Brazil. All were strangers at best before the Whites came, and if they ever met in the forest, they’d likely be enemies. Now they are brothers.
That afternoon he boards a bus named “Maya”, like the people whose pyramids still stand across Central America. He carries three items: a tattered suitcase, a Sony Walkman, and a bag of cassettes – each of which contains the music of Raul Seixas, the father of Brazilian rock, who provides the perfect soundtrack for this melancholy journey of two nights and a day from the grasslands of south-central Brazil to the rainforest Almir calls home.
At the midpoint of his journey, Almir skirts a magical land of cliffs and canyons and waterfalls known as the Chapada dos Guimarães, near the exact geographical center of Latin America, and that’s where the melancholy begins, because from here on in, this rickety bus on this clay road retraces the route his people took centuries ago, after the exodus from their homeland. He tries to imagine them out there, barefoot and naked as they fight their way through forests so thick they rarely see the sky, but the image dissipates when Maya swerves to avoid another pothole on the BR-364 – the cheaply-built, rapidly-disintegrating two-lane “highway” that injected modern Brazil into the heart of the Amazon in the 1960s. The invaders flooded in along the road, and when they saw the forest, they imagined the rich soil below. So they scraped away the forest to make way for farms and fields, but today those farms and fields are scarred and matted and sick, because the Amazon doesn’t live on soil. It lives on itself: on fallen trees, foliage, and dead animals. So all these farms and fields are on petrochemical life-support, leeching nitrogen and phosphorous into the rivers, feeding the algae and killing the fish. The only thing keeping the rivers alive are the remaining forests that mop up the excess fertilizer, and the only thing keeping that forest alive are the people of the Amazon.
But in 1992, the people of the Amazon are in no condition to save anything. They, themselves, are desperate, disparate and dispossessed; they are losing the forest to loggers, cattlemen, and soybean farmers, who’ve grown rich and powerful feeding the world; and the world is devouring the fruits of the forest, even as it destroys the forest that provides them. In the coming years, the forest will shrink even more, releasing millions of tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and contributing to the greenhouse effect that causes climate change – and all because our modern economy, which does such a wonderful job of pricing timber and tofu, has completely failed to account for the cost of environmental destruction.
It’s the great, defining tragedy of our era, and it all converges on Almir and his people in the Arc of Deforestation. That’s why they sent him out into the world, and it’s why they’ll soon call him back, but at this point in his young life, all he really understands is the enormity of it all – and the insanity of believing he can make a difference. That’s why he has the cassettes.
I am the fly that landed on your soup
I am the fly that came to abuse you
I am the fly that disturbs your sleep
I am the fly that’s buzzing around in your room
I am the fly that disturbs your sleep
I am the fly that’s buzzing around your room
And don’t even think about trying to kill me
Because I’m resistant to everything – even DDT.
Music for madmen, Almir thinks to himself as Seixas’s lyrics bounce around inside his head, blending with his own thoughts. So many people say Raul was crazy. Maybe he was. Where does that leave me?
The soundtrack continues as Maya pulls into a cluster of cinderblock houses and tin-roof shacks known as “Cacoal”. It means “City of Cacao”, or something to that effect, and it’s an invader name. A quarter century ago, it was a lone invader outpost in his people’s vast territory. Today, it’s an invader town, and his own people are the outsiders.
He steps out into the bright sun that his people rarely saw when the forest was their sky. A light breeze blows the dust of dry clay over his feet as he drags his bags up the small hill towards a combination dormitory and medical center known as the “House of the Indians”. Along the way he passes dozens of his brethren – many drunk or stoned or both. It’s party time in Cacoal, but all he can think of is sleep.
In the morning, he takes his customary cold shower, and then he waits for Agamemnon, one of Almir’s many brothers (named for an early invader they liked), to pick him up in the village truck. Almir climbs in for the two-hour ride along the rutted strip of mud that leads into their territory. Gone is the unending din of monkeys and birds, replaced by the growl of chain-saws and the crackle of falling mahogany giants. To either side of them, logging arteries tear off from the main road into the forest, leaving gashes of red clay exposed on the green floor like garish wounds – but above them, the forest canopy provides the familiar, green sky of his youth. Then, suddenly, the canopy opens up, and they pass into a clearing dominated by two laps – massive grass-and-bamboo longhouses that are traditionally shared by several families. Beyond these stand a few tin-roofed cinderblock houses and something new – a church, built by new missionaries.
Like Cacoal, Almir’s village also carries an invader name – “Lapitania”. Unlike Cacoal, Lapitania has been reclaimed by Almir’s people. It happened less than a decade earlier, when his uncle, Itabira, led a famous midnight raid that sent the invaders scurrying out into the forest in their underwear. Like Almir, Itabira also finds solace in the music of Raul Seixas, but he can never remember his name. “Let me hear some more of that crazy guy,” he says.
But Itabira isn’t here today, for no one knew for sure when Almir was coming home. He finds his father, Marimop, outside the new lap that he and other men of the village recently built.
“Kanatenga,” says Marimop. “Greetings.” His lean, tattooed face is smiling, and his eyes are glistening, but Almir notices that his father’s hands are nervously fingering the ceremonial straw perebab that he wears around his neck, and his thoughts seem elsewhere.
“Atele de, Ba,” Almir answers. “Hello, Dad.”
They duck into the lap, past the charred remains of a boar’s head in the embers of a fire pit just inside the entryway, and move towards their family’s cluster of hammocks, all of which are empty.
“Ba, what’s wrong?” asks Almir, gesturing towards the perebab. “You’d only wear that on a festive occasion, but you seem dejected.”
“We opened a new matare (agricultural plot) the other day,” his father answers.
“Well, that’s a cause for celebration. Are you angry because I missed it? If I had known…”
“Almir, you’re not the only one who wasn’t here,” he says. “None of the young men attended the ceremony. They don’t work their plots. They don’t feed their children. They stay in town and spend their logging money in bars and whorehouses.”
“I thought that was behind us,” Almir says. “I thought…”
But he hadn’t really thought anything. At best, he had hoped, but he’d also seen his brothers in town, and he knew what they were doing there. By selling trees, they’re selling their world, and they’re doing so in exchange for trinkets and booze while the loggers are getting rich. In the outside world, he’d experienced firsthand the wealth that his people’s poverty created; but he’d also learned to appreciate the wealth that his people enjoy in the forest – wealth they often take for granted, and that the outside world knows nothing about.
He feels a strong hand on his shoulder, and it’s his father’s brother, Pawaih. Large and loud, Pawaih is Ba’s opposite in so many ways: jocular where Ba is serious, impulsive where Ba is patient. But the two men are brothers, and they share the same soul. You can see it in their eyes. Both are chiefs: Ba, of Lapitania, their village; and Pawaih, of the Gameb, their clan: the warrior clan of the Paiter-Surui people.
“We’ve fought many wars, and we’ve beaten many enemies,” says Pawaih. “But we’re facing a different enemy now – an enemy that comes from within, an enemy of the spirit. It’s unlike anything we’ve ever seen before.”
“A new kind of enemy needs a new kind of warrior,” says Ba, and Almir knows this is the moment they’ve been preparing him for since he was a child. This is when he knows he won’t be returning to the Centro.
That night, he wanders over to the edge of Lapitania – to a place he’s visited many times before.
Right around here, he thinks to himself. This is where it all began, a quarter-century ago, when Itabira was just one year younger than I am now, before they all died.