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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Post #13 – On Relationships

A person I love very much once told me: ‘if you want to be happy, you need to surround yourself with people who make you feel happy, and eliminate relationships that cause you negative emotions’. At the time I didn’t agree with this person. I believed that suffering for those you care for and sharing their pain was an act of love and affection. For this reason I have often put other’s happiness before my own. Today, after much consideration, I have decided to follow this person’s advice. The ironic element of my decision, is that it is precisely this person, or rather the world he lives in, from which I have decided to distance myself.

I still believe what I did a few years ago: the word relationship, whether it be referred to romance, friendship or family, implies a certain duality and interaction. If this interaction is one sided, it is not a healthy relationship. The world we live in is far from being perfect and I believe that everyone has their issues and their suffering. A relationship occurs when both parties are prepared the take a bit of the edge of the other’s pain, and take a bit of their weight upon their shoulders.

However when this weight becomes unbearable, and comes at the cost of severe personal unhappiness, the relationship is no longer healthy. I do not believe in long term obligations and commitments, or in forcing these to persist against all odds. Helping those we love, and sacrificing other aspects of our lives for them, ought to be an act that in some way makes us happy, and has a cathartic effect on our existence. Seeing the pleasure that our actions cause on another’s face ought to light us up and not drag us down. When our sacrifices put us in a place where we are angry, scared and become more of an obligation than a natural act of kindness, I believe our negative disposition may hinder rather than enforce the relationship, making the other even more unhappy and guilty for making us feel their pain.

Distancing ourselves from these negative environment is perhaps, the only way we can safeguard the relationship. I believe that fear makes us cling to situations we no longer have under control. Forcing relationship changes us, and can lead to anger and envy. Of a painless existence, of easy air to breathe. Today I have decided to recognise the forcefulness of this inauspicious situation and take a step back, not just for myself but for us and everyone involved.