April 15, 1914: “a red letter day” noted Theodore Roosevelt in his diary with jubilation. After being devastated by the death of 3 team members and wracked by illness, insects and intense hunger during their first 45 days on the River of Doubt, the team was immensely relieved to make their ‘first contact’ with the outside world by coming upon the primitive home of a Brazilian rubber tapper.
Today was our “red letter day” in that we experienced a “first contact” of a sort as well. (Although truth be told, most every day has been a ‘red-letter day’ for us. Compared to Roosevelt’s epic trek, ours has been a veritable cakewalk!) We’ve long been anxious about connecting with the Cinta Larga who control access to this region. A week ago, after much apprehension, we finally received tacit approval for entry into the reserve by phone message for from a tribal chief, but we had yet to meet any Cinta Larga.
Last evening, we arrived by canoe at a stout but aging wooden bridge with a beach nearby that beckoned us to camp. In a distant clearing on the far shore were the huts of a Cinta Larga village. After setting up our hammocks, our curiosity got the best of us so we slipped across the bridge to get a view of the settlement.
What a scene! The villagers were all gathered outside around a television watching the World Cup soccer games. Just then Brazil cinched a win over Cameroons and we listened as the Cinta Larga shouted with glee and shot off fireworks. Moments later excited Cinta Larga kids arrived at our beach to play soccer in the sand. Making the most of our ‘pigeon Portuguese’, we struck up a conservation with the woman who accompanied them. When she indicated she was a teacher, we asked if we could visit her school the next day. Yes, she said, but only if the village chief granted permission.
Later that evening, after we’d settled into our jungle hammocks for the night, a man stopped by in the dark. Very friendly, he expressed interest in our journey. We were amazed to learn he’d been the Cinta Larga team member of a 1989 Roosevelt Memorial Association expedition that had rafted down the river. Oita-mina is his name. He too said we could visit the village if we received the chief’s permission. Much to our delight, he said he’d return in the morning to escort us to the chief’s home.
Early today Oita-mina arrived with another Cinta Larga man, but they had disappointing news – the chief was away so we could not enter the village. They visited with us for a while (we even took them canoeing!), said goodbye and we prepared to pack up and paddle. But both of us then had a quick hunch that maybe we should hang tight awhile and see what might happen.
Sure enough, more villagers came by. First a group of hunters heading out into the jungle with bows and arrows. Then a group of Cinta Larga women and girls arrived who visited with us. One woman, the village nurse, was very accommodating of our limited Portuguese vocabulary so we told her as well that we had hoped to visit her village. No problem, she said. Although the chief was away, she said we could get permission from the assistant chief.
The women escorted us to the village where the vice-chief, a woman named Marcellina, very gratiously welcomed us. We enjoyed a great village tour: the tiny store, school and health clinic that serves the 300 villagers and we had a wonderful lunch with the nurse and her husband, a village teacher. Then we visited the home of Oita-mina, the Cinta Larga elder who’d stopped by our camp the night before. He dressed in the feathered Cinta Larga headdress and arm bands he wears for tribal dances and he gave each of us a wonderful gift: 5′-long arrows from his hunting quiver handmade with hardened bamboo points, taquara wood shaft and eagle feathers.
We were stunned by his kindness. We were also delighted to learn from him that the Cinta Larga are gathering for a huge tribal festival in 4 days at another village downstream from here. So now we’re on the water paddling again hoping to attend the festival. But that depends on permission from another tribal chief. Our ‘first contact’ with the Cinta Larga has been fantastic and we’re hopeful for other great connections ahead during our last week of this expedition.