My Ambivalent Rainforest Odyssey


by margie.

Sure is tempting to view the world in polar opposites, isn't it? Good guys and bad guys, right and wrong, angels and devils. Would that reality conformed so neatly. But, alas, real life consists of infinite shades of gray, a fact that was hammered into my dense little skull when I went to Brazil's rain forest.

The Amazon is home to one-third of the world's trees. There are an estimated 15,000 animal species living there: jaguars, boa constrictors, alligators, toucans, armadillos, hummingbirds and 200 kinds of mosquitoes. (Oh, goody.) But 8.5 percent of the rain forest worldwide has been cut down. Seventy-four thousand acres are being destroyed daily. Not only does this threaten the animals and people living there, but it could affect us too. You've heard of the Greenhouse Effect? Pollution and carbon dioxide building up in the atmosphere, due in part to the lack of trees, possibly throwing the temperature of the earth of whack, meltin the polar ice caps and eventually obliterating life as we know it? Yes, that.

Who'd want to chop down the forest? Lumber companies, miners (there's gold in that there Amazon) and ranchers-many of whom were sneakily coaxed in during the '80s by the corrupt Brazilian government, which hoped to profit from the development of the area.

As for incorruptible me, I went on my expedition with Sebastian International. They are a no-animal-testing, no-aerosols, popcorn-as-packing-material kind of hair products company. They run a contest called The Little Green Creative Arts Project - you draw a picture with an environmental theme and can win a trip to the rain forest. This year the contest was open to teenagers as well as tykes, so I got to go along.

The teenage winners were Becky, 14, from Atlanta; Adriana, 15, from Pacific Palisades, California; Cathy, 13, from Quebec; Thanh, 13, from Seattle; and Yildith, 13, from Holland, plus four younger kids. But who were the other 34 people milling around the Miami airport with Sebastian tags on their luggage? Mostly salon owners and distributors who'd won the trip for selling the most Sebastian products. I was about to descend on the jungle with a platoon of hairdressers, children, teenagers, parents and world-weary vendors.

On the plane there was a man sitting in front of me with a hipster haircut. He was good-looking, with a sharp nose and a pouty mouth, but his features had the dissipated, puffy look we associate with Eurotrash. The publicity coordinator introduced him as Jean-Pierre, famed Belgian filmmaker (not a Sebastian employee) and co-founder, with Sting, of the Rainforest Foundation. The Rainforest Foundation is committed to protecting the forests and the rights, culture, health and education of the Indians who live there. JP was aboard to feelm the trip.

Six hours later we were in Manaus, Brazil, four and a half hours from the wet, fringy edge of the rain forest. My feelings were rocking back and forth between psyched and dismayed. I was all atwitter about what the rain forest might look like. Would we see jaguars? Would I enjoy my new jungle combat boots from the army-navy store? But I also felt like a ho. I mean, Sebastian was paying for my trip, and the publicity coordinator was so nice, and maybe she'd give me some Potion 9, a superb styling product. How could I now be unbiased? Mr. Sebastian was my friend!

Rain Forest. Day 1: In a canopied three-tiered boat, we motored down the Ariau River. Jean-Pierre was filming endless takes of Adriana saying, "I'm Adriana, this is my dad, and we're going into the Amazon rain forest, which is a dream come true!" Just like Leeza Gibbons. The air was so hot, you stuck to everything you touched. Then suddenly, it began to pour, a solid wall of water. Just as abruptly, the sun returned, complete with rainbow. This 15-minute sequence recurred every day. Guess that's why they call it a rain forest, yuk yuk.

I eavesdropped as Adriana lectured her dad for almost buying a snakeskin knife as a souvenir. She was in a tizzy of save-the-snakes indignation. But if Adriana's dad had bought the knife, the vendor could have fed his family for a week. We should remember that "ecosystem" means a web in which every element affects every other. Humans are part of the ecosystem.

We rounded a bend in the river and boom, hotel! The Ariau Jungle Tower, our home in the trees. An airplane flew overhead, dropping welcoming flower petals on the water. A steel-drum band played on the porch as a costumed belly dancer greeted us, putting necklaces made of sawed-off porcupine quills and colored seeds around our necks. Welcome to Fantasy Island!

The hotel was constructed on stilts, a tomboy's fantasy tree house. Long wooden walkways connected the rooms and the dining hall. Monkeys clung to the screens outside, longingly watching us eat. The rooms were arranged in a circle, each one shaped like a piece of pie with a tiny, screened private balcony as the crust. There was no air conditioning or hot water, but who cared? From the shower you could look out onto the river and marshland spanned by a rickety wooden dock, and watch the shapes of the land and water change with the tides.

While everyone else was unpacking, I climbed the wooden tower that gives the hotel its name. High above the water, alone under the setting sun, I thought for the first time, Oh my God, this is the jungle. There was no boat engine to drown out the birds' cooing, the monkeys' chattering, the rustling wind, the gurgling river. The trees were starting to spike shadows out onto the rippling, dark water, and the sky was turning purple at its edge. I was very happy.

Day 2: Bright and early, our guide, Katia, took us to see a tiny village school. We were in two motorized canoes„a big one for the adults and a small one for the kids. A battered little fishing canoe was tethered by the water's edge. As we pulled in, our oversized canoe smooshed the little one under the water beneath us.

The school was basically a shack with a packed dirt floor. A 14-year-old, Dora, was the teacher for 13 other kids! Katia had taught her to give lessons in counting, reading and writing. Jean-Pierre filmed her watching the sky. "OK!" he bellowed, in the middle of Katia's sentence. "Kids, back to the boat!" "But..." began Yildith, the beautiful blond girl from Holland. "We have to go now!" said JP. I think he wanted to film the canoe ride back before it rained.

I decided to go back later in the grown-ups' boat. We were allowed to troop through the villagers' houses, but I felt creepy about it. I peeked into one and saw a rug made of tied-together rags and a communal room with a mountain of clothes piled in a corner. Cut-outs from magazines and coloring books were glued to the wall. A woman who looked about 50 was feeding a baby. "Her granddaughter?" I asked Katia. "Her daughter," Katia answered. "She's 28."

Katia showed us a three-foot iron pan sitting outside. It was for sifting manioca flour, a staple of the people's diet. The flour has to be cooked until the liquid drains off, or it's poisonous. As we departed, two hairdressers left their empty water bottles on the manioca pan. In America we call this "littering."

Day 3: At 5 AM, before the official day's events started, I went birdwatching with Elaine and Ute, two older women who'd won the trip in a raffle. It was sooo peaceful. We floated downriver, the canoe's engine off, in that funny quiet space between night and morning. It was grayish-light out. Steam was rising in clouds off the water. Elaine and Ute taught me to identify black-collared hawks and green kingfishers and yellow kisskades and white-winged swallows and turkey vultures. "The ugliest bird in the world," said Ute. "When they get upset, they throw up. It's the foulest-smelling stuff." But no turkey vultures were barfing that morning. It was quiet and beautiful, the birds' songs growing louder as the sun came up. We floated past wide trees with tiny yellow flowers on them; heavy hanging vines trailing their ends in the water like exhausted partiers after a big night; oversized palm leaves growing low; tall, slender, achingly green reeds and stubbier, thicker stalks. At last we were moving slowly enough to study all the activity at the sides of the river. Two arrows floated by. Soon we came upon a little canoe bobbing in the reeds. A boy was poised with his bow pulled taut, aiming an arrow at a fish in the water. We passed two brilliantly colored parrots bustling around in a tree, and tears sprang ridiculously to my eyes. For a second I couldn't believe I was in a place where a parrot was a wild animal, that I was actually seeing something I thought I'd only ever see in pet stores and Parrot Jungle and Gardens in Florida.

Later we went to see a larger village called Acajatuba. Jean-Pierre requested that I not be on his boat. Was my disdain for him and for the endless photo ops that obvious? I thought I was hiding it. So I sulkily went with the grown-ups. On our boat someone tossed a cigarette into the river. "Maybe you shouldn't do that," I suggested to him in my Andrea Zuckerman voice. "Oh, did they tell us not to?" his wife asked, sur- prised. He tossed in four more butts that day, and seething with hostility, I lost a year of life with each one.

We arrived at Acajatuba. Katia led us to an urucum tree, a tall, wide thing covered with prickly pods filled with sticky orange seeds. Crush them into a paste between your fingers and you have greasepaint, or very punk lipstick. Katia streaked my face and collarbones with orange marks, explaining that natives have always known the stuff as a natural sunscreen as well as a face paint. I'm sure I looked idiotic, but I felt really alien and cool, like Girl Warrior of the Cayapo.

The contest winners were all in the village school with the local kids. Major filming was occurring as Jean-Pierre directed the kids to sing. The locals sang in Portuguese (Brazil's language), and the Sebastian kids sang in their native languages. But Yildith politely and firmly refused her solo. Later she told me, "All we do is pose for video and photographs. Yesterday what Katia was telling us was interesting, but they made us go back in the middle for more pictures. I thought I was here to learn, not pose for pictures." Finally, Adriana presented the Brazilian children with school supplies last year's Little Green winners had collected for them.

That night the steel-drum band returned, and I learned to do the Lambada. It's so slutty, basically the guy sticks his knee between your thighs and you squat on it and gyrate. The kids stared open-mouthed at all the thnusting pelvises. Soon the loud, drunken atmosphere started to irk me, so I visited Katia. She is an Indian from a small tribe in Issartum, a village in the Andes between Brazil and Guyana. She works as a tour guide because it's better than being a maid, which is what she used to be. I petted a tapir (a piglike creature) a bit and let it chew my hair. Finally, bored and lonely, I went back to my room. I sat on the porch and moved my flashlight back and forth over the river. Pairs of eyes glowed red in the beam of light: alligators slowly floating downriver, looking for dinner. The shadowy outlines of their bodies trailed behind them.

Day 4: At last, our jungle trek! Time for my army-navy boots to prove themselves. We had to wear long pants and sleeves (protection against bugs and thorns). We took a canoe to a clearing, then clambered up into the woods. I had expected dank, wet vines winding all over the place, but it was hot and dry. The trees weren't as tall and packed as I'd anticipated either„I could see the sky. As we trudged past a manioca plantation, I was shvitzing so profusely my forehead was dripping onto my notebook. Katia showed us what she called a "Vick's VapoRub tree," whose bark is made into a tea that helps colds, and a succuba tree, a source of anti-inflammation and bruise-healing medicine. There was a fern for snakebite and a vine you could cut to make fresh drinking water come squirting out. One could see how the Indians did OK without modern medicine for so long.

As we went in deeper, the greenery got thicker, it got much darker, and the temperature dropped about 20 degrees. Katia showed us a white palm used to make thatched roofs. Then she picked us wild passion fruit. I have never tasted anything so intensely tart and delicate, with seeds, suspended in opal-colored flesh, that burst in your mouth.

Jean-Pierre gathered the kids around a gum tree, adjusted Katia's hat and rearranged a boy's backpack so the Little Green logo would show better. Katia explained that you could use the gum to seal the seams of canoes to prevent them from leaking, but we wouldn't cut the tree to see the gum inside because termites would get in and eventually kill it. Jean-Pierre stepped forward with his pocketknife and made a slash in the tree. White gunk oozed out. "We need to see the gum for the video," he said to Katia, whose eyes welled up. He had each kid pose with his or her finger in the still-seeping gum. It looked like a ghostly bloodstain. Then JP elaborately plugged the cut with moss and weeds. "Will that prevent the termites from getting in?" I asked Katia. "No," she said, and began to cry. "Trees cannot say, 'Do not cut me.' Little things mean a lot."

Should I have told her that maybe the viewers of the film, seeing the tree sap, would fork over big bucks to the Rainforest Foundation? Which would then help protect the trees and the Indians? In the world of rain forest exploitation, JP's sin was small potatoes. Indians are not only being stripped of their territory; they're being killed. Last August, goldminers shot 16 of them, hacked them to pieces and burned them to get their land. They would've murdered the whole settlement, 81 people, but most were off picking fnuit and escaped. This tribe, the Yanomami, never even had contact with outsiders until the 1970s. Since then, thousands have died of diseases introduced by whites, like the flu.

Of course, there's a government agency that's supposed to protect them. No surprise, it's woefully understaffed and underfunded. Laws prohibit hunting, logging and mining on Indian reserves, but no one enforces them. The government is suspicious of all American and Canadian efforts to save the jungle, saying we just want to protect our own economic interests: The US and Canada are major logging powers, and maybe we don't want Brazil as competition.

As Katia talked, I stared at her, thinking, Ohmigod, she's so cool. Her waist-length black hair hung in a thick braid down her back, her beautiful brown skin shone, and I thought she must have this innate love for the land because she's an Indian. Yet I know that romanticizing Indians this way is condescending. "Oooh, Indians have a special bond with nature" is as racist as "Oooh, blacks sure do have rhythm." Indians can be as un-noble as anyone else. Some Cayapo have been illegally selling outsiders the rights to mine their gold and chop down their endangered mahogany trees. They figure it's going to happen anyway, so why shouldn't they make a profit? So how do we help them earn a living without being patronizing or letting them destroy the jungle?

That night we took a boat to a beautiful sandy beach for a barbecue. More butts were tossed overboard. The highlight was when little Megan's daddy almost beat the crap out of JP for whisking her off to the jungle earlier that day without telling him. She didn't have her hat or sunscreen and got very sunburned. There was a big parental/JP powwow, and from then on JP was more solicitous of the kids' welfare. Plus, Yildith told me, the photo-taking became much less obtrusive. I was pleased, but the cheesy music and disco lights were giving me a seizure, so I went for a walk. The noise from the party coated every inch of the beach.

You can't expect to bring a huge group of people to a pristine place and not have an effect. How many trees were cut down for the hotel's catwalk, stilts, lodge? Where do all the plastic water bottles and garbage go? A staffer who asked to remain anonymous told me, "It all goes in the river. When the water goes down, you see it at the side. What should I do?" As Megan's dad said, "The best thing they could do for this place is not let us in."

I don't know! That's what this story is about! What we definitely can do is encourage the use of renewable resources...Brazil nuts, rubber, etc. Yay to Sebastian for buying and using amor crescido (a plant that fortifies hair) and urucum, the schmutz in Potion 9 that protects hair from sun; yay to Ben & Jerry's for Rainforest Crunch. These products show natives that they can make money from the jungle without destroying it. As for you and me, we should probably stop seeing the world in absolutes. It doesn't help anyone, not the natives, not the rain forest, and not us.

return to sassy