“What do you suppose will happen if we do succeed in our endeavour ?” Dr. Renata had asked, his forehead strained, skin tanned, hands calloused and heart aching. They had lost their companion Clara, to the unforgiving jungle. He was distraught and saw no point in venturing any further.
“We will become rich and famous. Very rich,” Bruno answered. Bruno was a freelance adventure photographer.
They’d downsized to a canoe to enter the unexplored realms of Rio Negro heading towards Guaviare, a major tributary of Orinoco river. Their path was strewn with dangers, yet the greed of locating the indigenous tribes of Amazon had clouded their judgement and veiled their eyes. They had already lost Clara to a predatory piranha attack four days ago. The blood had attracted the crocodiles and it was impossible to wait and check on her. The dense forest was fraught with many dangers. Dr. Renata was on the verge of giving up. And Bruno realised he had very little time on his hands before the doctor backed out too. He could not afford to lose the doctor. If anyone, it would be the doctor who with his knowledge of the Amazon, could bring the tribe out of hiding. Dr. Renata, a renowned botanist was interested in learning the ancient secrets of toxins and herbaceous medicines of the tribe.
“We’ll be there soon,” Bruno cheered the doctor on.
Two young boys shouted in Tupi- Kawahib, their native language as they sprinted full throttle towards a dense canopy of walking palm trees expertly manoeuvring through the long stemmed, woody lianas. Bare foot, their bodies completely naked, they had black and white stripes painted on their bodies giving them a camouflage of sorts in the dense vegetation. Darts in hand, they hid themselves, while with their shrill bird-like whistles warned the others of their tribe.
The loud whirring of the helicopter blades reverberated through the Amazon rainforest. But within no time the small tribe had vanished in some pre-dug holes in the wetlands of Amazon. They wouldn’t surface till the danger was gone.
It wasn’t new for these Piripkura or the ‘butterfly people’ as the indigenous nomadic people were called, to be in and out of hiding. The rapid deforestation, indiscriminate construction and mining had destroyed their land, making them more vulnerable to being found or hunted down even. Stealth and constant change of place were their only weapons.
Four of them sat sharpening their axes and poisoning their darts. An old Piripkura, his face wrinkled and skin sagging with age, sat crushing and grinding the secret extract from yew bark and making a paste from sap of yucca to smear the needle tips of arrows.
Fauchi with four boys had gone after the canoe spotted by the young Piripkura on the tall palm tree top. A mother sat braiding her young daughter’s hair after greasing it with wildebeest fat killed by the tribe last night. Another woman made the black and white paste from the flowers and tree bark. A mother- to-be rested in a dug-hole to keep herself cool.
There was a sound of victory from afar and the tribe knew the work had been done. It wasn’t long before an unconscious Dr. Renata was unceremoniously bundled on the ground, his feet and arms tied with strung grass on two bamboo poles. Tonight there would be a feast.
Groggily Renata tried opening his eyes. He could see the moon shining bright in the sky through the tall trees. He moved, but his neck hurt where the darts had pierced through the skin. He winced! Then tried to sit up, his legs and arms bound for so long, had no circulation in them. He felt amputated. A little scream escaped his lips as a painted Piripkura bent over him, excitedly pointed his way, till the others joined him. They talked animatedly amongst themselves. He felt some cold hands pull him up near a fire and realised he would be tortured, something he’d seen only in movies till then. He cursed his fate and Bruno for getting him into this. Where was Bruno anyway?
Bruno had alighted to take a leak when the tribe struck. With bated breath, he hid behind a wrecked boat till the Piripkura left. He was damn excited. For him his life would now completely turn around. He had found what he’d come looking for. Loss of his companion seemed to have left his thoughts completely. How in his excitement he crossed the river to the other side, he couldn’t even recall. Only a torch and a camera held above his head, he followed the men at a safe distance.
It was two days since Renata had been taken hostage. That he was still alive was a miracle attributed only to a rhinoceros that had strayed from the herd and gotten trapped in one of the tribe’s huge dug holes. The focus and excitement had shifted. Dr. Renata saw the feast. Shaken and scared, he’d puked.
‘Animals !’ He thought to himself.
Indeed the painted naked tribe were unforgiving, ferocious and fast as animals. But they were considerate too. They did not breach their boundaries or venture outside their forest domain to ambush civilians. They kept to themselves. They had learnt about the rainforest from experience and their ancestors. They knew secrets of Amazon that few could imagine. They had a vast knowledge of jungle plants and could make medicines. They fiercely protected their domain but took care not to indiscriminately chop off trees.
Bruno hoped to take enough pictures and videos. He had already engaged a production house willing to screen his videos. He made a pre- dug hole on the far side of the present Piripkura dwelling his hideout cum peephole and kept a constant watch. Taking pictures from far, focusing his professional camera lens, but he wasn’t satisfied.
Dr. Renata felt hot and unwell. His tongue was swollen. He seemed to be down with fever. Lying on the ground, he felt it a chore to move his body. Mosquitoes bit him making him red. A wave of unconsciousness engulfed him. Loud whirring of helicopter blades suddenly woke him up. He stirred a little and tried focusing, looking for the tribe. But he saw no one around. Not a soul. Suddenly some sealed packets landed on the ground near him with a thud !
He fell into a daze again.
It was morning when he awoke to a cold hand feeling his forehead. The old Piripkura was smearing his forehead with a pungent smelling paste, sealing it in with some leaves. Two stones of varying sizes lying near him, his crude pestle and mortar. Some large sized rubber plant leaves strewn nearby.
On close look he had kind eyes and he spoke something in Tupi – Kawahib. A young Piripkura opened one of the packets and ate the contents. He offered some to the doctor. It tasted like cheese. Renata wondered who dropped off the supplies. Who else knew about the present location of the tribe ?
Jubelia, a nubile Piripkura came down to the river. Splashing about in the water, her wet bare jet black flawless skin, studded with droplets of water glowed like diamonds in the straight sun rays filtering through the tall palm and rubber trees. She swam like a mermaid. Singing in her native tongue, her voice melodious. With bated breath Bruno stood clicking picture after picture. Pure, sublime bliss ! He had his treasure finally ! He could not believe his luck ! Jubelia came out and sat soaking in the sun. Once dry, she smeared herself with the black and white paint she’d brought with her. The camera never stopped clicking.
Unaware of a presence, she playfully strung some lush grass, braiding it expertly into a necklace. Tying it around her neck, she went to the river to admire her reflection. A gasp escaped her lips. The clear blue water reflected someone else. White skinned ! Devil ! as mother would’ve called him. She tried to run away. Bruno was quicker.
He caught her by the legs and dragged her with him. A scuffle ensued but the young tribal girl was no match for muscular Bruno. The horror lasted a few hours. For Jubelia it proved to be a sentence for life.
Old Piripkura tended to the doctor with care and his temperature came down. He sat up a little. The Piripkura woman gave him a bowl of soup. It tasted bland but gave him strength. At sunset the tribe realised Jubelia was missing. A search was organised. Dr. Renata could not make out what the chatter was about. When she wasn’t found, Fauchi came near the doctor and made some threatening gestures that doctor could not comprehend. He got no response. Frustrated, Fauchi kicked the doctor hard in the ribs. He doubled over in pain. Fauchi stamped over his chest with force and the doctor vomited blood before collapsing. Old Piripkura intervened, gesticulating and talking to Fauchi, pointing towards the river.
Fauchi and his team of guerrilla warriors collected their weapons, painted their foreheads in black and white stripes and gave a war whoop before setting off.
It was late into the night that smell of burning flesh, ghoulish cries of the tribe and wimping, crying of a young girl awoke Dr. Renata. Peering through slits of his eyes, Renata saw the chequered white and red shirt on a man burning on a spit. Bruno ! Dr. Renata could not believe his eyes. He tried to get up but had been tied down well.
Indeed Dr. Renata was unaware that his being beaten up might’ve saved his life. Injured and weak, the doctor fell unconscious and never got to see when Bruno was brought in. The tribe failed to connect the two of them as being together. Neither did he see a bleeding and crying Jubelia. The tribe had always considered the modern man a devil and they’d just been proved right.
By morning, the tribe had left. Leaving an extremely scared, still crying girl and the doctor in the clearing that would temporarily be their home.
Over the next few days, the doctor would come in and out of consciousness. It took a while for him to recover enough to talk to the girl hidden in the dug-hole from the place he was tied down in. He had no idea how many days had passed before he heard the helicopter whirring again. Dr. Renata tried to shout, but thirst had chapped his throat dry and no sound came. When the helicopter turned back after dropping off packets, Jubelia craned her neck out. Dr. Renata pointed at the packet of water and then at his throat. Jubelia recoiled. When the doctor finally managed to loosen his ropes, he crawled with difficulty towards a packet of food and water. Greedily he drank the entire bottle in a gulp. Jubelia peeped with trepidation. The doctor tried reaching her and offered her some water. She shot out a hand and grabbed it but immediately went back deep into the hole.
Jubelia was in pain and the doctor searched for some plant leaves to make a medicine for her. Eventually, their plight brought them together.
They did not understand each-other, yet no friendship could’ve been better set. They wandered in search of newer shelter and Jubelia gifted with a special sense of the Amazon became a perfect guide. Dr. Renata found Bruno’s camera left back by the tribe and carried it with him, while he explored the depths of the jungle. Once they made a dwelling, digging out new holes, carrying wood and leaves to cover them, Jubelia taught the doctor how to make paint and smear it on their bodies to camouflage. They collected wild berries and mushrooms and hunted small animals. When the sickness started, doctor suspected something was amiss but dismissed it as absurd. The girl was barely twelve or thirteen he thought. He made her a brew with roots of a plant and the vomiting subsided. But months passed and the belly started showing. She was losing strength and would tire easily. They were communicating better now with signs mostly. But she learnt to say ‘water, food and fire.’ He too understood the meaning of some random native words.
She had been muttering in her sleep. Dr. Renata awoke with a start and felt her forehead. She was shivering and sweating. He tried to sooth and bring the temperature down with herbal pastes. But he knew soon they would need help. When fever did not come down on the third day, he etched a large ‘HELP !’ sign with a stick in the mud and climbed the tallest rubber tree and prayed for help. They were rescued after two days. Jubelia needed immediate attention.
Word about a half Piripkura spread like wildfire and it was a task to keep the so called gentry away from the hospital. Dr. Renata pulled all strings to keep Jubelia and her baby, Julio safe. He took the help of the Brazilian NGO, ‘SAL’ (Save All Lives), that had been trying to establish contact with the tribes, randomly dropping off food and water packets in different parts of the rainforest, in the hope that some indigenous tribe would respond. But they had no luck. Dr. Renata proved to be an asset for them.
It was Jubelia who explained to the good doctor why the tribe deserted her that day. The Piripkura were a proud tribe who had their own ways of leading life, good or bad. They do not take to violation of their blood or progeny. To them a woman of the tribe who’d been with an outsider was considered impure, half blood and was looked at as a harbinger of calamity. They thought it best to desert her.
Today Julio leads a solitary life in a separate part of Amazon. He did not take to the modern way of life, preferring to hunt and be one with nature. Jubelia, his mother, died of infection soon after childbirth. Dr. Renata is the only human being he has close to a family.
Bruno’s camera had helped Dr. Renata put two and two together and for the umpteenth time he felt the civilised modern man was the real animal. The tribes do not take half-bloods but only because they do not understand the modern humans or their ways. After what happened to Jubelia, Dr. Renata was bound to agree with them.
Dr. Renata has dedicated his life to the well-being of the indigenous tribes of Amazon, helping the NGO, fighting for their rights, preventing invasion by miners, encroachers and cultivators into their land. He is also trying hard to locate the Piripkuras and re-unite Julio with his people, for all lives matter. Even half-bloods.
Piripkura – a nomadic tribe in Brazil that struggles to maintain their indigenous way of life amidst the region’s massive deforestation.
Tupi-Kawahib – a language family shared by several tribes in Brazil.
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