Land of the Lost: A True Tail of the Amazon, with Guns, Indians and One Stubborn American

[This story, first reported in 2005, was supposed to run in a men’s adventure magazine, but was never published. The accompanying photographer froze up — freaked by the raw circumstances — and shot almost no photos. It’s a shame, because this was one of the most amazing stories of my life.]

As blood bubbles down my left arm, and the chief’s No. 1 wife begins to slice into my right, John offers me a tasty bowl of thumb-sized fire ants. They’re dead at least, drowned. I stare at him, keeping the pain from my face as Kamaihá uses a tool made from rapier-sharp fish teeth to cut lines into my arms from shoulder to wrist. I don’t wanna look like a punk in front of the indians. It hurts meanly, though, and I can’t imagine that tool has been sanitized… ever. “Thanks, John,” I tell the former Airborne Ranger evenly, “but I think I’ll deal with one pain at a time.” John, his shirt off, shrugs and pops an ant in his mouth. “Citrusy,” he says.

            Kamaihá tells me in Portuguese that I’m a warrior now. She could be joking, I don’t know. Blood coughs down my arms and into the dirt. She rubs green leaves into the wounds. The Kamayura ingest medicine this way, including natural anabolic steroids, which would explain why all the men are so pec-bulgingly yoked. Kamaihá is the chief’s first wife (he’s got four) and the only woman in the village not totally naked; she’s wearing a floral dress. I ask her what the plant does, but she just smiles. Screw it, though, when you’re in the remote indian village, do as the indians do, right? John takes my place and merrily snacks on ants as Kamaihá bloodies him. He’s lived in the Brazilian state of Mato Grosso-with its indian wars, piranha-filled rivers, and cowboy gun-dueling ways-long enough to find it all perfectly normal.

       

[Members of the Kamayura, dressed in their party finery.]

     This is the sixth day on a unique trip through a region of the Amazon that is half Wild West fantasy, half Conrad-inspired yarn. The Mato Grosso actually was the blueprint for Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s dinosaur-jungle fantasy, The Lost World, after a friend returned in 1910 and described the beautiful but inhospitable land. Almost 100 years later, John Carter, a Texan who’s lived here for ten years, has a plan to bring limited tourism that’s either mad or genius. 

            Technically it’s even illegal for outsiders like us to be with in Kamayura village, located in the Parque Indígena do Xingu, a six-million-acre preserve in the Brazilian Amazon Basin. Realistically, it could also be deadly. If you are caught trespassing by one of the 14 indigenous tribes living here, they might turn you over to the Brazilian authorities. Or, more likely, you’d  disappear. Eleven illegal loggers were massacred several years ago. Our gold card is John, who has been taken as an adopted son by the village paje, or shaman. Under his invitation and protection, we’re doing the undoable-meeting the indians on their terms, without any patronizing or first-world bullshit.            

[From the air, you can clearly see the demarcation between the pillaged forest and the Xingu territory — where the Indians defend their land.]

            The indians have good reason to be protective: The virgin forest where they live is  bigger than Belgium, and worth hundreds of millions to rapacious illegal loggers. Those loggers have fully auto rifles; the indians still hunt with homemade bows. There aren’t even any roads inside the Xingu; but just outside the park the land has been ravaged-it looks like a giant scythe was taken to it, leaving barren, sad ground. The Kamayura  only have to glance beyond their border to know the score.

            Two Western women and I had arrived early this morning in John’s single-engine Cessna Skywagon. We’d flown over unbroken rainforest for 45 minutes before dipping below the early mist, which revealed a half-dozen longhouses arrayed around a clearing. I couldn’t imagine what to expect of the Kamayura. Anthropologists and government officials visit the village, but an average person—never. John lined the nose of the plane with a landing strip that’d been hacked out of the rough by machete, and we weeble-wobbled to the choppy ground. Within moments the plane was surrounded by naked women, children and men. Patterned in red jaguar spots and berry-stain tattoos, they stared at us and we at them, separated by a pane of glass and completely different worlds. Many of the men carried heavy war clubs easily capable of  skull-slitting. I opened the door and stepped down. A heavy pause. Then the indians smiled.

I’ve lived in Brazil off and on for several years, but I’ve never heard of anyone, Brazilian or foreign, visiting the state of Mato Grosso, let alone considering it a tourist destination. Unless you were a gun-toting landgrabber, lunatic miner, cattle baron, or one of the prostitutes who loved them, this part of the Amazonian Basin wasn’t likely to be on your mental map.            

[John piloting his Cessna]

            A word about John: He’s a bit lunatic himself. John is fit but not large, with a boyish unlined face that belies his 39 years. He’s the kind of character you’d find in a Michael Mann film, super-intelligent, but hardwired for putting himself into iffy situations, unable to pull himself out of work and danger, even at the behest of family. After a tour as an Airborne Ranger (during the first Gulf War he was on a small elite recon team that buried themselves in the sand for days to watch Iraqi troop moments) he exited the military and got a degree in ranch management. As he was realizing that the days of genuine cowboyin’ were gone, though, he met a charming Brazilian woman at the Ft. Worth school. Her family were the Cartwrights of Brazilian cattle ranching, and they needed someone to look over the toughest ranch they owned, where gun battles and indian wars and the Louis L’Amour ethos of manhood still ruled-the Mato Grosso. So it is that John Carter married Kika and has spent the last decade skirting catastrophic thunderstorms in his single-engine Cessna, chasing down armed rustlers, fending off underhanded advances by neighbors, laying ambushes for criminals hiding on his property, and nearly coming to a violent end with a neighboring indian tribe who were butchering his cattle. It got to the point, he says, where Kika would sit on the porch to sun herself with a shotgun in her lap.

            But in the last four years or so the last of the virgin forests have been mowed down and the easy, dirty money made with it has vanished. So the frontier has moved north where forest still stands, taking along the gun men and mercenaries. This crook of the Mato Grosso is now calm, relatively. You know, just the standard small plane crashes, casual thuggery-thieving-homicide, and the occasional deadly snake bite, killer bee swarm, and croc or piranha attack. For John, pretty damn boring.

            So he’s undertaken a new plot: Bringing folks like us to his world. John partnered with the well-regarded African safari outfitter Ker & Downey, and devised a 2,000-mile route by bush plane that includes several days fishing and horsebacking along an Amazon tributary where red-belly piranha and a unique species of peacock bass flourish; another few at John’s cattle ranch in the rainforest, canoeing in his backyard and its wandering jaguars; and, the highlight: the time with the Kamayura indians, eating what they eat (think monkeys) and sleeping where they sleep. It’s now or never, John says. “In 20 years this will all be gone, and nobody will even know what they’ve missed.”

[The catch of the day — but the question is who’s caught whom?]

An arrow spits into the air and high into the foliage. A squawk, and a huge blue bird flies off. Our guide, a lithe, painted warrior, the best hunter in the village, swears in native language. He gives us a look, and then continues to lead us along a scant trail. It’s our second day with the Kamayura and we’re being taken to a sacred lake which has never been shown to outsiders. I’ve made the stupid decision to wear shorts – after all our guide is naked except for a belt of beads into which he tucks his penis – but my legs are already bleeding from razor and acid grass, and biting bugs hover in my ears. We’ve been following jaguar tracks, and just passed a series of spider webs that shroud some fifteen feet of forest, like the lair of the spiders in the Hobbit.

[Our fearless guide.]

            This is a far cry from the traditional tourist trip to the Amazon, a well-trammeled route from the coastal city of Belem to the populous city of Manaus. It is a 1,000-mile, five-day river cruise. That option is not exactly Kurtz-esque exotic as one might hope. It’s bug-ridden, to be sure, but the paths are beaten by looky-loo tourists, would-be environmentalists, and do-gooder Hollywooders. There’s small chance of seeing the authentic Amazon that is under wholesale destruction, the kinds of places that by nature lack infrastructure and are out of sight. In other words, locales where one isn’t likely to bump into Sting.

            The state of Mato Grosso, which means “Big Forest,” wasn’t even fully explored until the 1970s. Maps of Brazil’s interior, with its massive swamps, savanna and rainforests, are still incomplete today. Settlers began moving into the woods some 20 years ago as the frontier began moving northwesterly through the state, bringing with it the same Wild West mentality as America circa the 1800s. The towns that popped up were straight out of a Deadwood episode, peopled with pistoleros, robber land barons, rowdy cowboys and roughhewn settlers. Quite simply, had Sting visited he would have got his ass shot off.

            The expansion also brought illegal logging. Forests are chained for their hard woods, to clear land for cattle, or simply to secure land rights. Often the local politicians are complicit, and getting in the way can prove deadly. (An American nun who was a prominent environmentalist was murdered in the neighboring state of Pará in 2003.) Two-thousand-four saw more forest destruction than any other year, and Mato Grosso lost more area than any other area in Brazil. For the tribes like the Kamayura, the biggest challenge is protecting their land locally and politically (FUNAI, Brazil’s equivalent of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, is famous for systemic corruption)-and for that they need money.

   

         After arriving yesterday morning, I’d sat down with the chief, Kotok, who speaks Portuguese, and asked why he wanted to bring visitors. Small, strong and ever-smiling, Kotok pointed to the lake outside the village, where the tribe fishes and bathes five times a day. “We have to protect our land, our waters, our food,” he told me. “Part of that means using Brazil’s political systems in our favor. Making sure the Xingu remains protected land. To do that, we need money.” It is why, he says, he’s asked John to start up a small small and select trip to the village. “It will be under our own terms. The government has sent people here, but always for their own benefit. We don’t mind sharing our culture, but it must benefit us.” I asked if he was afraid that too much contact with the outside would erode the tribe’s traditions. He jumped up and motioned me to follow, leading me to another longhouse. At the center of the dirt floor sat a chest-high mound covered in thick plastic. “Technology is not always a bad thing. We have to get the information about our fight to the world.” He whisked off the plastic to reveal a desk with a PC atop it.

            “Does it work?” I asked, surprised.

            Kotok shrugged. “I don’t know. No electricity.”

 

For many Americans (me included), American history can be a hard sell (War of 1812 anybody?). The childhood exception, of course, are the tales of the Wild West. There’s good reason that Western movies are so enduring. Still, even though I grew up on a ranch just outside the Navajo Reservation in northern New Mexico, a still unsettled place, the details of how the West got that way have always been a bit fuzzy. After a short time in the Mato Grosso, though, the vision is sharpening. In the States, the expansion of the frontier ran east to west. Brazil’s frontier runs south to north and northeast to southwest-it will someday meet in the middle. “In the U.S., 1880 was the official close of the frontier. Today, in the Mato Grosso, we’re living in the equivalent of 1890,” John says. “After the frontier passes, the cattle and farms come in next.”

            It is several days before our time with the Kamayura. The first two days on the eight day adventure are at a permanent camp on the remote banks of the Rio Das Mortes, where we fish  for enormous catfish and horseback through flooded savannah. The “River of Death,” a slow-moving expanse of water wandering through the mangroves, was once called Rio Suave-calm river-until it was renamed for the blood that was spilled into it during fighting between settlers and local Xavante indians. These skirmishes took place during the ’40s-the 1940s. We talked to one of the original settlers of the village of Nova Santo Antonio who recalled the days when people would go upriver to go “indian hunting.” “It was a way to pass a day,” he said.

            We leave the camp and fly to Fazenda Esperenza, John and his wife Kika’s 22,000-acre ranch. Kika and their two young daughters no longer live here, having abandoned the ranch life for the city of Goiânia in the adjoining state of Goiâs, where she can sit outside without a shotgun. John commutes by plane, coming home on weekends when he can. Kika would prefer him to live full time in the city, but he can’t quite let go. “Somebody’s got to look over all this,” he grunts.

            I meet John’s cowboys, including a fellow with a savage scar on his neck where a local thug named Lizard cut his throat in the nearby village of Alô Brasil-which is comprised of exactly one bar, one whore house. “For a while it was the most dangerous town in Brazil,” says John. “Murder was a daily thing.”  A large portion of the ranch has been left uncultivated; John’s answer to local eco-agricuture. To get an approximation of that land, we take a canoe float through a fast-moving stream flowing through the rainforest. John lets me struggle along as I continually get my boat caught in sticker bushes. He’s an excellent guide, but he won’t nanny his guests.

[Talk about Heart of Darkness…]

[Kurtz, oh, Kurtz!]

When we return for lunch, we have a visitor: The Xavante chief. He has heard John has visitors, and wants us to come to the village.

[One of the younger members of the Xavante, a tribe that lives on a Brazilian reservation.]

  The notorious warrior tribe that fought mightily with the Brazilian military and homesteaders throughout the 1900s. They were eventually banished to a reservation, and suffered terrible population and cultural losses-very much akin to the U.S.’s own dismal record of relations with Native Americans. The Xavante, though, began to use the Brazilian legal system for its own advancement: There is a famous photo of two Xavante warriors walking down the streets of the capital of Brasilia, wearing war paint and feather headdresses while carrying briefcases stuffed with legal papers.

            Four years ago the tribe was reallocated a portion of its former land, which adjoins Fazenda Esperenza. For months, though, armed land squatters wouldn’t allow them to reclaim the territory, and the tribe was forced to live by the side of the road while several children starved to death. They began poaching the ranch’s cattle. John warned them, several times, he says, and then got mad. “I sent word that if they did it again, I’d kill ’em,” he says emphatically. There are lines to be drawn in a lawless world, he maintains, and threats are one of the few common currencies which carry any weight. “I’d have been burned out long ago if I’d let people steal my cattle.” Still, he quickly came to regret it. “Threatening a warrior tribe isn’t the best of courses,” he allows. Looking to rectify things, he drove his old Willys jeep to the village, alone and unarmed. “I wasn’t sure if I was going to make it back out of there.” He was met by Xavantes with rifles, who took him deep into the woods. There, he was met by an old warrior and the chief, Damion. John pulled a knife, he says, and turned its hilt to the old warrior-handing it to him. It was a token of peace. John and the tribe agreed that he would give them 15 cattle a year to help feed the tribe, and he also helped plant fields of rice.

[A proud old Xavante warrior.]

            Today John tells Damion that we’ll go to the village, but he’s nervous. “You never know with those guys,” he says. But an hour later we’re in the Willys, bumping along atrociously bad dirt roads. The village is a depressing sight: A dozen longhouses in a semicircle around a sun-scorched field. Bits of trash are speared by the yellowing grass. The huts are constructed of a mixture of thatched palm and black plastic bags. The kids are naked with distended bellies; everyone else is wearing modern, tattered clothing. The tribe has just begun to plant manioc and wild peanuts.

            We sit down on a wooden bench with Damion. We talk about the future, the past. He’s mostly quiet and given to looking at the ground. At one point a gaunt old warrior strides up, holding a war club and looking defiant, proud. It is the warrior to whom John gave his knife. They speak for a few minutes-the old man calls John “son.” Eventually he turns and walks with straight shoulders off into the field, framed by the falling sun.

            I ask Damion what he sees for the future of the tribe. He waves at the rough village. “For our grandchildren, things will improve,” he says.

            “And for you? Your own generation?” I ask.

            Damion kicks at the dirt, and says nothing.

 

“My father told us not to kill the white man,” Tacuma is saying. “He said, ‘They’re probably not even any good to eat.'” He laughs. Tacuma is the Kamayura’s shaman and the former chief (his son Kotok has taken over), and it’s impossible to tell his age-possibly in his 70s. The Kamayura have no concept of time. Wiry and animated, Tacuma still looks formidable.  A friend of John’s, a white man who opened a lodge outside of the Xingu, first introduced John to Tacuma seven years ago, and it was this relationship that burgeoned into trust and eventually John’s official adoption into the tribe.

            Tacuma is trying on each of our sunglasses, mugging. As the shaman and sort of voice of the village, he tells exactly one story a day, and today it is of a German anthropologist who studied the tribe many years ago and reneged on a promise to bring metal hatchets. The end of the story involves the German’s comeuppance-an uncomfortable denouncement involving castration and chile peppers. The Kamayura take promises seriously, and Brazilian law does not exist here. For instance, women are not allowed inside the sacred men’s hut, a longhouse in the center of the square. The penalty for a woman who enters is death-by rape. Jennifer and Jessica, who are along for the trip, give it wide, wide berth.

[The cutest, happiest kids you’ve ever seen.]

            Still, the Kamayura are full of laughter and are totally playful—much different that the once-conquered Xavante. When I first entered the men’s hut I stood in the darkness quietly, listening to the banter, expecting some type of animist spirituality. Soon I realized that no invocations were taking place; rather the men were gossiping, talking sports, bullshitting. The sacred men’s hut was a place to get away from their wives.

            After Tacuma’s story, it is time to leave. A storm is on its way and the Cessna’s navigation instruments are minimal. We say our goodbyes. A big group accompanies us back to the Cessna. Tacuma has gone into the men’s hut and I duck in and hand him my sunglasses. It will protect his sensitive eyes from the sun, I say. He turns them over, tucks them out of sight, and nods. “Next time you come I will tell you stories about the origin of our tribe.”

            I’d like that a lot, I say.

The last day of the trip. It is early evening, and John and I are zooming up a serpentine tributary of the Amazon, the oddly named Rio Von Den Steinem, in a flat-bottom, aluminum boat with a powerful outboard. We’re just outside the border of the Xingu park, and the fishing is monumental. As we head upriver, I’m looking onto the mangroves, amazed at this different universe where predators include jaguars, anacondas, crocodiles, piranha, and killer bees. It is not entirely welcoming, but the primitive beauty resonates in an instinctive, DNA-like way. Every person should at one point in their lives stand, alone, in the middle of a rainforest in waist-deep water. It’s instructive. Impossible to think that two bulldozers with a chain linked between their buckets can raze this Land Of The Lost land with the brutal efficiency that I’ve seen from the air.

            We’re slicing cleanly and quickly through the water, and I’m holding onto my baseball cap, when John suddenly loses his grip on the outboard motor. The outboard slams left, and the already squirrely boat throws hard right. I’m struggling to get to the other side to equalize the balance but we’re leaning-leaning-leaning-the boat flips on its side, still hauling ass. I’m about to tumble into the water when the boat rights itself. I turn. John’s seat at the outboard is empty.

            The engine is still in gear, and the boat is hurtling toward a tangle of tree branches bristling over the edge of the bank like lances. There’s no time to reach the engine. I look at the water; the word ‘piranhas’ flashes in my mind. Then to the trees. WaterTreesWater-I dive just before the boat careens into the bank with an aluminum scream. The water is nice, but I have no wish to be in it. Too much shit that eats you. I speed swim to the boat, and pull myself up. Dislodging the boat from the trees with an oar, I swing around and pick John up, who is coasting with the current. “Actually,” he says, “the sound of splashing water is what attracts the piranha.”

            We laugh. Amazon. Adventure. It’s close to the surface here. John takes over and we continue upriver, wet, but somehow enlivened. Birds lift off from the top of trees. A cool breeze skims off the river. The forest seems so immutable. If John is right, and I suspect he is, the days of virgin forest like this are just as numbered as the pristine forests of California were 100 years ago. I’m doubly thankful to see it now.

            I turn around and look back at him. Maybe it’s a mixture of the brief danger and the natural beauty of the place, but he’s as happy as I’ve seen him. He’s wearing a huge smile, completely and utterly in his element.