Lucy was only a young girl but very knowledgeable about the forest – it was largely her patient lessons that I thought back to when alone and in trouble while attempting to cross the Amazon Basin.
I sometimes talk about Lucy in motivational speeches: she neatly illustrates how survival is often about finding resources in less obvious places. Indiana Jones wouldn't last long because he'd be seen as a threat whereas if you are prepared to be humble, more like a child, you may learn more about your surroundings as a resource.
Lucy and other children of course saw the forest as their home – which I found immensely reassuring when I, as an adult, was later struggling to cope. But her skill-sets were also those of a Matses girl as opposed to boy - that is, she was a gatherer more than a hunter – and these would be the more useful to me. Once I'd launched out alone I'd be moving rapidly through the forest, foraging as I went – there'd be little time for laying complicated traps or stalking monkeys.
This quote (from Through Jaguar Eyes) gives an idea of how Lucy quietly went about teaching me. Often, as in the case of this short diary extract, I'd be on a family hunting trip led by her father, Pablito.
"Pablito came with a huge bird slung over his shoulder like a jacket. He stopped, answering an animal call. "Dao-kwedt," he said, looking at the noise, then he climbed aboard... Pablito said the name of the bird for me, "Surnū," and held it out to Lucy. Silently she took it between her legs to pluck it as we went on upriver. "Sur...nū," she said, not looking up, but knowing by now I write all this stuff down in my [other] notebook"
Lucy's father Pablito teaching Benedict in the Amazon
First permanent contact of the Matsés with the outside world occurred in 1969, following sustained efforts by the Summer Instititute of Linguistics (SIL, an America-based protestant missionary organisation). The Matsés were traditionally nomadic/semi-nomadic people, and had successfully evaded outsiders for generations – they were described and even sketched centuries ago by early European settlers. Generally they seem to have avoided confrontation with the various invaders of their lands– gold-miners, loggers, oil explorers and others - preferring to retreat further into the hinterlands as outsiders advanced. However, they gained a reputation for raiding the more isolated frontier settlements to seize women and girls for marriage. It was the escape of one such woman to the outside world which provided the SIL with the key they needed to at last successfully contact the Matsés : she gave them Panoan phrases that would reassure the suspicious and scared Matsés (who they painstakingly lured with gifts) that they meant no harm.
Today the Matsés continue to face pressure from invaders of many kinds. On my last visit (1997) there was increased extraction from loggers on the Brazilian side of the border, and on the Peruvian side increasing activity by clandestine cocaine laboratories and traffickers. Sadly, a translator of mine was killed (perhaps mistaken for someone else) during this time, as the Matsés did their best to fend off further encroachment. The Matsés have access to basic schooling, and though their settlements are now permanent they continue to hunt, fish and pursue other activities that maintain their independence and a fairly traditional interaction with the forest.
Tsend was almost totally blind but continued to live the harsh nomadic life of the Dukha - or Tsaatan, "reindeer people," as they have become known to the Mongolians. Originally many Dukha were north of the Mongolian border but fled Tuva into Mongolia to avoid conscription. Although in the early years some times deported by the government they are today recognised as Mongolian citizens.
Tsend not only warmly welcomed me to her family tent – a tepee-like structure that was transported, like all other possessions, by reindeer whenever the herds decided to move on – but agreed to talk about her role as a shaman. Indeed while I stayed with her she donned a headdress of crow feathers (these birds being her spiritual helpers) and with the help of a large drum entered a trance-state to visit the spiritual dimension. She felt (as is often the case) that her blindness was a "sign" to her community that she had been given special powers of spiritual insight. Yet, as is again common among those who intercede with the spirit world, she came to the profession unwillingly, having become convinced that she'd been chosen by the spirits to take on the onerous task of communicating with powerful (and potentially dangerous) entities that may influence our world.
This passage comes from the book Edge of Blue Heaven, and the time when I was preparing for the 3000 mile trek through Mongolia (much of the way accompanied by Kermit, a non-English speaking horseman). Now the stars had come out, and inside her tent Tsend had began to prepare a ritual to try and gauge from the spirits the hazards awaiting us on our long journey, six weeks of which would entail me crossing the Gobi alone.
"30th May: Slowly, Tsend began beating the drum. We watched intently, Kermit now like us, drawn in by the theatre. As the rhythm gathered, she began spinning. Then singing, quite softly at first. Then the beat slowed, became heavy, portentous. Two men positioned themselves at Tsend's feet, to stop this blind woman from falling back onto the stove, but already I had the feeling this was no longer the dear little old lady. When I glimpsed her face it was strangely calm, eyes closed, the wrinkles gone. She was changed: younger and stronger and no longer with us, in her mind carried away to this Other World, supported by her spirit guide, the crow.
This was not trickery, there was no doubt in my mind that she had gone from us, perhaps into a corner of her consciousness, perhaps indeed into a spiritual domain, the land of the forces which govern us and keep our planet in equilibrium. Out there she would encounter spirits, perhaps ultimately even the great god of the cosmos, Tengger."
Tsend, beating drum and in costume while in trance-state
The smallest of Mongolia's ethnic minorities, the "Tsaatan" are a culture stretching back some 3000 years and represent the southernmost of reindeer herders. The present-day Tsaatan represent a relic population of nomads who wandered, led by their migrating reindeer herds, on the borderlands of Mongolia and Tuva. With the advent of communism herds were collectivised – as the sheep herds were throughout Mongolia – but now live with a greater degree of autonomy. Conditions in this mountainous, northerly region are severe at times, opportunities for reindeer herders limited and this small population has little culturally in common with the Mongols and various minority groups which occupy the steppe, mountain and Gobi of Mongolia. As elsewhere in Mongolia, children of nomads attend boarding school in the urban centres – this further eroding the cultural integrity of the small population. The shamanism practised by Tsend is something of a rarity in Mongolia, the practise – regarded by some as the oldest form of religion - having been overtaken by Buddhism throughout the rest of the country and further suppressed by communism in later years. North across the border, in Tuva – never subject to the same degree of Buddhist influence - shamanism has seen something of a revival in the post – communist years but this seems to have come about through desperation on the part of the public (now without the comprehensive health system offered by the socialist system) and opportunism on behalf of various self-appointed "shamans" whose urban lifestyle is suspiciously different from that of the shamans of nomadic communities that their ancestors would have known – see Last of the Medicine Men.
Kwazarane adopted me as I prepared with the Himba for my 3 month journey up the Namib desert. Amongst my supplies was a stash of dried milk and muesli and in return for huge helpings of these - she'd visit my camp after tending to the goats and consume three very substantial bowls of cereal in one sitting - showed me around her neighbourhood.
I spoke very little indeed of her language, however she did her best to explain the semi-desert flora, various Himba practises and also prevent me from feeling too lonely. The Himba are semi-nomadic, and I was thrilled when, while passing through on the actual expedition with my three camels months later, I managed to track Kwazarane down. Her family had never seen camels before and expert stockmen like Wapenga (a friendly, middle-aged man always pre-occupied with the welfare of his precious cows) were fascinated by the properties – and potential – of these desert animals.
This quote (from The Skeleton Coast) comes from my diary soon after my arrival with the Himba, as I was trying to ingratiate myself to Kwazarane's family. I was feeling isolated, and had a great deal to learn if I was going to succeed alone in the Namib. Understandably, Kwazarane and her people had other concerns.
"19th May. If I'm known for anything as an "explorer," it's for sinking into isolated societies. Yet I've got a nasty feeling Kwazarane will always be able to run circles around me. Today she did consent to me walking with her in the rocky hills, rounding up miscreant goats... "Ag-ee! Agg, agg!" – sounds like these have blown through these scrublands for centuries. An impatient woman, for someone in a land which seems to have all the time in the world.
Her aunt, Ka-ada, does have time for me, but from her I learn only Himba vocabulary. I need to be up in the hills, to get a feel for the land. But Ka-ada's husband Wapenga is usually busy with his cows – without a herd, life for a Himba man is nothing...
And that leaves me with only Kwazarane; I work on her, watch her, trying to be a friend. She throws stones with uncanny accuracy at straying goats – and spins in circles among the flock's dust clouds, singing the only song she seems to know. Out in the hills, she stopped under a tree and – not for my entertainment, I'm sure – began piping on a flute she'd fashioned from a sheath of bark. I got out a tin of pork luncheon meat. As I undid the tin with its key, she ogled at the meat like a child at chocolate: normally, she'd eat nothing more until dusk – she had about a pint of yoghurt this morning – and when it comes to eating meat she stops at nothing. Last night she ate through a whole goat's head including the knotty cartilage of its throat. She used a rock to smash open the jawbone."
Kwazarene putting on her morning coat of otjize, or ochre mixed with butter.
The Himba are a sub-group of the Herero – effectively, those who have maintained their semi-nomadic lifestyle in the arid lands to the north of Namibia and in southern Angola. Whereas those known as the "Herero" have adopted western-style dress (the women with spectacular voluminous skirts inspired by the Victorian missionaries who once sort to convert them) , the Himba still wear goat skin aprons and cover their skin with a decorative, and possibly protective, layer of ochre and butter. Life for Himba women revolves around the home – a simple wood lattice dome coated with cow-dung – and the herding of goats, whilst men maintain the cattle herds.
Himba girls pass through clearly defined stages towards adulthood, these marked in the way they wear their hair – as children they fashion it forward into two thickened plaits; at puberty girls are adorned with a demure curtain of many plaits; and at marriage they gain an erembe, a crested skin headdress which signifies the status of a mature woman.
Joel underwent the Niowra initiation rite – designed to make boys into "men as strong as crocodiles" – with me in his village, Kandengai. An even-tempered, quiet and kind bloke who I'd known only a little before the ceremony, he became a close friend during the six weeks I spent with him in the waarkdumba or "crocodile nest." Before I left the village, Kandengai, he treated and fitted a lizard skin for my hand drum so that I might continue to play the traditional songs that we learned together during our testing time together as bandees, or initiates.
The quote, from Into the Crocodile Nest, is from a time early in the initiation ceremony – we'd had the dramatic scarification ordeal, but were now discovering this was a minor element of the actual preparation of us. For what the novice does not know is that the crocodile markings, though dramatic, were only an insignia, a badge that marked men as Niowra. Initiates now had to earn those markings.
"At last the Timbun youths were ordered to pluck down the hand drums from the rafters and lead us outside. Joe, Martin and I exchanged dreary looks and half-heartedly breathed good lucks. For the very first dance though, our backs were shielded by those of our waus [protective uncles], and we marched in a squad, heads bent, all in time together. The Timbuns set the beat with the drums – thung, thung, thung – singing 'tambermang, tamber, tamberlan...' – and our guardians, both waus and fathers, actually seemed to be enjoying themselves, showing off their fearlessness and reliance. They shrugged away the canes and green twigs with howls of laughter – never an admission even of discomfort.
If only we could skip our schooling and acquire their courage and strength in some gentle way! But that was not feasible. Their example told us of the long haul ahead..."
Niowra man - and boy whose initiation is some years away.
The Niowra proudly identify themselves as distinct from other Iatmul, belonging to one of three subgroups. They live in seven main villages in the marshy hinterlands of the meandering Middle Sepik, on a diet mainly of fish and sago. Famously, the Iatmul have what anthropologists call a "crocodile cult," traditionally believing they are descendants of a mighty crocodile ancestor or Avookwaark. At a practical level, you could say that to survive the fetid swamp-forests of the Middle Sepik it makes sense to emulate a highly successful top predator: the crocodile is strong, highly territorial and also extremely protective of its young. Certainly the Iatmul are nothing if not formidable, and blatant headhunting was only stopped in the 1930s by Australian administrators. Their harsh initiation ceremony (during which initiates are scarred with bamboo blades - or nowadays more likely razor blades - and beaten everyday) attests to their "warrior" culture. As anthropologist Margaret Mead noted, "among the Iatmul, anger is good." Naturally, the Niowra group that I lived with – I was adopted by the Smaark clan, one of seven in the village – believed that they were tougher and culturally less decadent than other Iatmul, and certainly their version of the initiation ceremony at that time was the most brutal (and the scarification more extensive) than that operated by the others.
To have been allowed as an outsider to take part in the ceremony was a unique privilege – and came about I believe only because the elders wanted a record made of this pivotal event in Niowra life – one threatened by protestant missionary converts, and also the encroaching values of the outside world. It's a testament to the strength and pride that Iatmul young still have in their culture that so many even today choose to leave town-life and return to the villages to take part in what many, especially the Christian converts, would regard as a barbaric and backward ceremony. However, as a concession to the world at large, it does now tend to be performed in a truncated form that fits within school vacations.
Amam Dirikogo ("Son of Dirikogo") was an extrovert, cheerful kerei (medicine-man) living with his small family in the heart of Siberut island. He became a major informant, and later a friend, as I tried to understand different methods of "traditional" healing practise around the world.
I'd been to Siberut years before (see Hunting the Gugu) but was astounded none-the-less by the extensive herbal knowledge of the Mentawai (attributed by them to spiritual forces, not chemical properties, within the plants). I was also attracted to the "philosophy of harmony" that they adhered to in the forest – every object had a bajou, a type of life force, that had to be acknowledged and respected as you went about your daily life. A simple monkey-hunting trip would become a complicated business of addressing the inanimate and animate forms around you whose bajou you might disturb en route through the forest – from the pebbles in the stream, to the tree foliage and to the monkeys themselves.
Before my departure, Amam Dirikogo's father gave me an extensive tattoo on one thigh – a process that took three and half hours, and involved repeated jabs from a blunt safety pin fixed to a stick and dipped in ink. It was the ink that worried me most, being composed of soot together with sugarcane juice- the extract chewed and then spat into a receptacle. The tattoo's function in itself reflects a need to acknowledge an all-pervasive spiritual realm. The spirits of the forest would, it's thought, find the elaborate Mentawai tattoos pleasing and therefore not wish to harm their owner.
The below quote (from Last of the Medicine Men) I like because it shows the rather exotic-seeming Mentawai medicine-men as the confident people they were – slightly mischievous and well able to deal with the naïve ethno-tourists they are subjected to.
A bunch of medicine-men are chatting away, discussing how they deal with foreignors, "orakturi":
"'When the orakturi come,' Amam Gresi said, 'we hide our wristwatches in the kitchen. They prefer it that way. It's very funny. The watches are given by previous tourists, but they don't want to see us wearing them. They like to imagine that they are the first to visit our houses and our forests!'
'And if we leave them on,' Amam Dirikogo added, 'the guides say that they won't bring them again!'
'We don't use our real names,' said Amam Gresi, whose uma [family house] was festooned with photos sent by grateful tourists, rows of portly Germans in bulging loincloths. 'Do you?'
Amam Maom nodded silently, as he did on occasions. The truth was, he had hardly seen a tourist in Taileleu. Only Australian surfers came to his bit of the island, and they were more interested in the offshore rollers. However, elsewhere he had seen a bikini, and he hadn't liked it. 'They should bathe in secret, these women.' It wasn't the breasts, which traditionally in Siberut were uncovered, but the sight of thighs.
'When we are with the orakturi,' Amam Dirikogo continued,' we give ourselves funny names.'
'I'm called "Sprite",' Amam Gresi said. 'It's the name of a drink which bubbles in the bottle!'
'And if my wife wants sugar,' Amam Dirkiogo said, 'she takes it from them without asking – and we all secretly have a good laugh at the poor orakturi! But I like them. It's the guides who are bad – they come from Bukit Tinggi, where they gather orakturi as we gather herbs from the forest. And then they pay us and we have to perform a Dance For No Reason.'
'But I enjoy that,' Amam Gresi interjected. 'I love doing a Dance For No Reason.'
Amam Gresi (left) and Amam Dirikogo explain to Benedict the process of divination from pig's innards.
© Steve Watkins
The Mentawai's culture has, against all odds, been somewhat preserved because of their relative isolation from the main archipelago of Indonesia. Threats to the Mentawai way of life – and also their forests (which might appear "virgin" but are more like tree gardens developed over centuries) - have mainly come from the Indonesian government – which some time ago banned tattooing and the wearing of the traditional bark loin-clothes. The authorities have consistently tried to move the Mentawai out of their isolated inland umas, or family dwellings, and place them into villages – though the Indonesians (and rest of the world) have now discovered the dangerous phenomenon known as the tsunami, to which these modern coastal settlements are prone. Further threats come from protestant missionaries – conversely the Catholics have sought to safe-guard and document traditional culture – and in recent years increasing numbers of Muslims from the mainland. More threatening still in the last decades has been the allocation of huge swathes of the island to logging concessions. Trees are felled, and the land planted with species-poor plantations of oil palm.
It was Yasha who made my journey through the Russian Far East (sometimes loosely referred to as "Siberia") with a dog team possible. Together with his friend Tolia, the two men led me, "my" dogteam and a translator-fixer from the regional capital, Anadyr, north along the coast to Lorino, from where I launched out on a short but rash attempt at crossing the Bering Strait alone with "my" dogs. Yasha is brave, unimaginatively tough and devoted to his dogs and the punishing tundra that he loves.
Much of Chukchi culture has disappeared under communist influence – the Chukchis were moved to settlements along the coast and placed often in regions they didn't know, along with the sea-faring Yupik. Soon the Chukchis became dependent on the resources of the Soviet Union, but on my arrival there are to be found whole villages which depended on their famous sledge-dogs – the breed which, exported across the water to America, gave rise to the Siberian husky.
The quotation below is from the episode in Into the Abyss when we were heading slowly but surely north with our three dogteams towards the Bering Strait. I was finding it hard going – not least because I was already suffering the effects of minor frost-bite, the cold was debilitating me further and the dogteam that I was operating did not trust me (quite rightly) and wanted Alexei, their owner and master, back.
"Yasha stopped the dogs. 'We eat here!' he said.
'Here?' I thought. 'We're going to stop here? Where someone who mislaid his dogs might as well lie down and die?'
Yasha was already settling down as if for a picnic. He and Tolia leant into each other, blocking the wind, creating an igloo arch with their backs as they got on with refuelling their bodies. They were hacking into the walrus, and even though frozen their picnic reeked.
'Here's yours!' said Yasha, proffering a slice on the top of his knife...
We wove into the hills – a pounded land, where the snows, even the rocks seemed smacked down. There was nothing soft here but us. And Yasha guided all the way by memory – or some mysterious higher instinct of his. I'd heard it said that the Chukchis even nowadays carried an internal navigation system; it was in the form of a song. 'A mother sings this to a child in the womb, and later as a lullaby,' a Chukchi mother had explained to me. 'When he or she reaches adulthood, the song acts as a guide. No one may take it away or use it. It's something that will always be there for them, and they add verses as they grow up and life shapes them. These are a kind of song-line, drawing Chukchis home.'
View from Benedict's sledge, heading north with Tolia (right) and Yasha.
The Chukchis when I arrived in Chukotka for the first time, in the year 2000, were in a bad way – much like the rest of the rest of the population of Chukotka. The Soviet Union had collapsed some years before, and these remote populations – miscellaneous migrant Russians, Kazaks, Ukrainians and others, as well as the two indigenous groups (Yupik and Chukchi) having been reliant on the huge subsidies that kept the power stations, hospitals and schools going, were now short of food and money and were having trouble trying to keep themselves going. Many Chukchis, having long-since forgotten their traditional means of livehood– reindeer herding, sealing and whale hunting – were starting to re-learn old skills. It was even said that stray dogs abandoned by the Russians (almost two thirds of whom had now returned to what was referred to as the "mainland," the rest of Russia) were being rounded up for use in dog-teams.
This changed somewhat with the arrival the following year of Roman Abramovich, the new governor. Unknown outside Russia at that stage – he had yet to buy Chelsea football club- the oligarch overturned the view of the previous governor and decided my little expedition was not a threat to security. He gave me permission personally.
Abramovich became enormously popular that year. At one level, here was someone at last incorruptible – it's not easy to bribe one of the riches men in the world – and without doubt he took a personal interest in the fortunes of the local population. He was especially well-regarded by the two indigenous groups, the Chukchi and Yupik, whom he supported out of his own finances. Perhaps because of his own impoverished background, he found an affinity with the poorer groups now in his jurisdiction. He used to load one of his planes with children and fly them off on holidays to the Black Sea – "yes to give them a good time," he told me, "but mainly to tell them that they are important."