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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