Travel Post # 4 – Indigenous Communities of the Rio Tapajos – A Reflection on Learned Helplessness

There are no jaguars here, and there is no conception of power. Chicken. Featherless chicken everywhere. And dogs, skin and bone, sickly and hungry with empty eyes, biting at each other´s skin for a mouldy orange. Ants explore my legs and arms, as a dragonfly buzzes about and I wait for the boat, sweating, thirsty and useless. And often my eyes cross, a curious bloodshot glare – of men, women, children. But it isn´t malaria that haunts the forest and fills the air with sickness. It isn´t snakes and wild beasts that flood me with fear. It is the demon of helplessness that lurks here, by the edge of the Rio Tapajos. The air in these ´comunidades´ is drenched in learned helplessness. The playfulness, the dancing, the brincadeiras – they make me sick as a poisoned rat and I´m suffocating. Brincar, brincar, bola, bandoleira. Blissful ignorance and hunger. Laboratory dogs – they have been taught there is nothing they can do. Things will never change here, we will always be conquistadores. One cannot change what doesn´t want to be changed.

All I can do is hold on to this heaviness of heart. As always, I let the weight of the world sink in. The one that floats around in this forest, homeless, ignored by the bodies it belongs to. There was nothing I could do for that man who lay helpless in the mud, covered in ants and mosquitoes amd soaked in cachasa. Life had run him over. Life has run all of them over. All of these children, all this Criança, the demon of passivity etched upon them from the womb. A helplessness that is almost genetic. They queue up for the special merenda: chocolate milk and three biscuits. They look at me curiously, the meninas touch my braid. Eyes open, brains full of potential. Yet they are all slaves to Globo TV, that want to grow up to be modelo or a football star.  There´s no spirituality in these comunidades in these washed out wooden structures with holes for doors, but with TV´s inside, flashing telenovelas 24/7. I´ll always be a gringa here, eyed with awe or hatred, even if I play bola barefoot and let the insects eat my feet. Even if I swim naked in the rio with biscios. If I carry heavy things in the sun and take nice photographs and sleep on hammocks under the stars and learn amazonas music. Even after the insistence and casually handed out sexuality, just cause I´m playing a yes man game.
A transparent albino child plays in the middle of this dark brown criança. I wonder if he feels as much of an outsider as I do. I feel terribly lonely and nostalgic. The language, the faces, the colours, the heat, the upset stomach. Pull me, push me, make me feel alive. Maybe they´re right, autonomy is too hard a plight. One must choose and pick and do. Better to have someone do it for you. How many of you have really felt these chains? Understood the possibilities, felt the stagedness of this narcissistic freedom? And even if you do feel the chains, would you still choose to run alone? If you don´t know that you don´t know, you don´t torture yourself in doubt and uncertainty. To reach the knowledge of not knowing implies a duty as the next move: to act. So maybe openness to experience doesn´t have to come without care or with stupidity. It means considering and choosing what feels right, not playing a yes man name. And does recklessness really feel right what it comes with the risk of snake venom, malaria a hepathitis? I value this, because I recognise how easy it is to fall prey to the contamination of stupidity and carelessness. It snuck into my every pore over here and for two nights I gave into a carelessness that doesn´t lead to freedom. A million bloodshot eyes stare into mine every day to prove it. Freedom and versatility come with choice. I want to choose, not prove. I Have nothing to prove to these people. I don´t have to be like them. I need to learn how to stop feeling like I´m in debt to the world.

Note: All photos taken and thoughts written during work with a indigenous community development program of the NGO Saude e Alegria, based in Santarem.

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Travel post # 3 – First days in Santarem – Are poets big fat liars?

I’m immersed in literature, cinema and philosophical debates, here in my great uncle’s house. The hammock in the back garden, under the mango tree, is a lovely place for reflection and study. My head is dizzy from the Portuguese, the heat and the many people. The other night my great uncle Gilberto said something curious and rather provocative. He said all the poets he´d met, once skinned of their artistic and literary armour, where calculating and cynical individuals, skilled in the ability of mirroring the world´s emotions, but lacking the passion that comes from one´s own fire and beliefs. Am I really just an ornamental mirror? Perhaps one that reflects the beauty of the world in a magnified way? Is there some consistency to my words and thoughts? Or are we all just be mirrors of each other’s feeling, shadows of each other´s dreams, as I once wrote in a poem? I believe there is some truth to what he said. My poetry, my words, are a magnified version of what I see and feel and this includes my vision of myself. Just as it can be raw at times, it can also be careful and aesthetically pleasing. I suppose, in a way, that´s what all art does: it paints a picturesque and awe inspiring version of banality. It tries to inject some colour and unpredictability in the boredom of everyday life.

Here’s a few pictures taken amidst the red mist of Santarem.

Travel post # 2 – Barco São Bartolomeu III and Santarém

Barco São Bartolomeu III, Manaus to Santarém, 5th July

This chunk of wood and coloured hammocks has been nothing but an exercise in patience. Ever since we crossed over the excitement of blue and brown floating side by side, latte-coloured water has been expanding indefinitely. I wonder all the lives that have lived and passed through these waters and dwelled in this desolation, this forgotten world – most people never leave Amazonas or Para, have never seen the sea. I´ve been on this boat for 24 hours and time feels different over here. Five hours is around the corner and everything is measured in seasons and circadian cycles.  Colourful hammocks, some pets in cages, banana trees, children running wild, a boy with purple hair tearfully reading a letter, music blasting from the bar, we all proceed as ants, shifting slowly downstream and the size of the world is almost inconceivable. I have never felt so small.


Santarém, 7th July 2016

The carelessness, mixed with embarrassment, of two young women on plastic chairs, letting their children play by the cemetery of solidarity, which is FUNDAC*. My uncle Gil, 80 years old and yet still fiery – with communism, rebellion, and desire to help the weak and exploited – completely ignored by their ignorant glances. Don´t you know me? Your children came here, I helped you for years, I did a good thing. And you just stood there oblivious, as this temple of learning was destroyed, by drugs and poverty and ignorance. It wasn´t just the humidity that thickened the air in that abandoned playground, with broken windows and shredded walls. Not for theft, but for sabotage, for anger. Anger against what? We will always be conquistadores here, even if I eat pimenta and fish heads and walk around barefoot. There will always be hatred. Llega a tu país! The rich kid said to my uncle on the first night, as we ate camaroes and drank cold Brahma. Todo o mundo é país… and ignorance and xenophobia are always the hardest to eradicate.

*FUNDAC was my uncle´s now closed NGO, which looked after local disadvantaged children, providing them with official identities, long-distance adoption programmes and after-school activities and tuition.


Mercado,  Santarém, 8th July

Colour clashes: indigenous, black and white blood, fruit, old faces and fat, juicy fish. It´s so hard to choose: where to point the lens, who to be, where it is that I stand here. Am I just quiet or am I an outsider to this bustling chaos? When I speak they laugh with me, and I suppose their language isn´t any more foreign than the rest of my life. Markets always overwhelm me, and I just let myself melt into its all-embracing senses.

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A Storm

The air smells like South America
I am cold and damp and the sky is lilac,
Lit up like the fields in Valensole.

(And I suddenly miss something that’s not there.)

The wind shakes the trees,
A neighbour’s drain gurgles distinctly
and I always loved the smell of the rain.

Oh, to be unlimited, to be free!
To flutter in the reality of possibilities
I’ve discovered for myself out here.

(I close my eyes and smell the air.)

And I’m running now,
With my feet on the damp grass
Alongside my discomforts and fears.

On the tepid sand of a beach somewhere,
With Northern Lights flashing above me
And christmas lights burning within me.

I do not care now.
Those distant judgements and colds,
cannot touch me, cannot hurt me!

I slip into memories
Of humid walls, sex and adventures.
Of bright white mornings without sleep, yet at peace.

(And I float back, into the stormy green.)

Five trees: I never knew there where five trees.
I wonder why I never count the things around me!
And the lonely nails on the wall

where the wisteria climbs in the spring,
All the way to the roof top where I lay.
And time shifts into darkness, but I feel no fear.

I am immense, and for a moment
the world is imperfect like me.
My finger tips tingle and my ankles sting.

I feel myself, wet and eternal
And for a moment, just a moment,
I am free.