We Are What We Eat: Foraging in the Amazon Rainforest
Matthieu Paley’s visual food diary continues from frozen Greenland to the heart of the Bolivian Amazon. Over the coming weeks, we will be taking you with us as Paley travels the globe on assignment for National Geographic in search of our ancestral ties to the food we eat.
Carefully, I push muddy clay into a suspicious looking crack in the bow of our large dugout canoe. The water leak slowly stops and I smile at our guide, “Looking good!”
We have been going up the Maniqui river for two days now. Huddled together in the center of the canoe under a tarp to escape the intense sun and occasional rain shower are Asher and Kelly Rosinger, both research scientists, Ann Gibbons, the writer of the magazine story, our guide Dino, and myself. The river is swollen, and Dino carefully navigates floating pieces of wooden debris. I have some wilderness experience, but not in a jungle environment. I always felt closer to a high altitude yak than to a rhesus monkey. The heat is getting me. Sometimes on assignment, you have to fight to get yourself physically afloat, to carefully channel the energy you have left toward picture making. I have a feeling this is going to be one of those assignments.
Rounding the bend, Asher calls it: we have reached our goal, the tiny settlement of Anachere deep inside Tsimane territory. We settle into a bamboo house next to a Tsimane family. No phone reception, no electricity, no running water—the real definition of heaven for some. Except for the incredible heat, the ridiculous humidity, and the gazillion mosquitoes. You can shower yourself with DEET mosquito spray strong enough to melt your skin but it doesn’t matter. These mosquitoes will find a way to get you.
That night, a massive tropical storm decides to settle on top of us. Rain is blowing sideways through the cracks in the bamboo walls and an ingenious squadron of mosquitos has found its way into my net. Sweating—or am I wet from the rain?—I itch myself senseless. I will soon learn to worship antihistamine cream. I step out of my “bed”—a wooden plank propped up on stumps. My right flip-flop gets ripped off my foot. My room has turned into a muddy suction swamp.
On the mosquito front, I have pretty much decided to give up. Same with doing the laundry. The river water is so muddy, it almost defies the purpose. That and the fact that after 2 minutes walking in the jungle, I am sweating down to my knees. I feel heavy and inadequate. We walk through the jungle to the next dwelling—to my surprise people from this tribe don’t live together in a village, but rather in single family units spread out from one another, sometimes as far as a half hour apart. A couple sits under an open bamboo hut, looking content, biting on a couple of guavas. I feel like I am somewhere in South East Asia—in Laos or a remote part of Chinese Yunnan. Tsimane have very Asian features. The Bering Strait is a long way from here, but I am certain this is the way they came down, a long long time ago.
I spend two days running around behind Julio, a strong young man. He doesn’t sweat much and looks right at home hunting for monkeys with his dogs and bow and arrow. The heavy rains have pushed the wildlife up to the hills, so we don’t find anything. It is, however, the best weight-watcher program. I am slowly feeling a bit more “adequate.” I pay a visit to our next door neighbors, the Deonicio family. I come here often and sit by the open fire. They are very much at ease with me and my camera. Daydreaming, a young boy scratches a mosquito bite off my arm, using a wooden needle. I am used to it by now. He manages to pop a small blood bubble, and then another. I start grooming others around me too. It seems like the appropriate thing to do. I watch the young kids playing with knives, something that would be frowned upon in Western society. This is better than watching a soap opera.
What about other entertainment you might ask? Well, there is a mildly alcoholic drink, called chicha, made out of fermented manioc. It’s better to try it first before seeing how it’s made. Enzymes in saliva help start the fermentation process, so whoever is making the drink will chew pieces of manioc and spit it back into the main bowl. And repeat. Not a very elegant act to watch, but it does the job. Am I forgetting something? Oh yes … food! Right. Well, I eat a lot of plantain: baked plantain thrown straight into the fire—skin on or skin off—grated green plantain boiled in salty water, plantain in the morning, plantain in the evening. I come to like it very much. The Tsimane used to be solely hunter-gatherers but since the 18th century, they have also been practicing slash and burn agriculture—a “gift” from the missionaries. There is always a small patch of maize or plantains growing near a camp, usually half encroached by the invading jungle.
But watching them gather food is the exciting part. It’s raining heavily. Suddenly, for no apparent reason, Albania and Emiliana, two teenagers, walk into the jungle that surrounds their hut. I throw on my poncho and catch up with them. I feel like a walking sweat lodge. My camera is fogging up and I skip over streams, trying not to fall in. They pick fruits on the ground and in the trees. These are sweet. When I suggest some other little red fruit, they chuckle. This one would probably kill me, I deduce. In the developed world, we would go for a walk around the block, one eye fixed on the latest Facebook update, the other on the oncoming traffic. These girls literally float through the jungle, their eyes everywhere, their senses in full alert. I am spellbound. Back at the fire, I am drenched and I count my bites—80 on my right elbow—but also my blessings, for having been so happily swallowed by the jungle.
Next, diving for food with the sea gypsies of Borneo.
“The Evolution of Diet“, featured in the September issue, is part of National Geographic‘s special eight-month “Future of Food” series. Follow Paley on Twitter, Instagram, and his website.
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