At many of the ports of call of this cruise, the cruise line offered organized tours. However, at Boca da Valeria, the cruise director invited all interested passengers to visit the village on our own.
A presenter on board our ship had explained that the ancestry of the villagers was mixed Portuguese and indigenous. On cruise-ship days, people from this and neighboring villages converge to entertain and sell to the tourists.
The ship anchored off shore, and tender boats with about 80 passengers each ferried us to the small dock. You can picture us and our fellow passengers: mostly aged 60 and more, a lot of white hair, a lot of cameras, and a lot of sensible hats and caps. Meeting us was a receiving line of mostly children and young adults. On the arms and shoulders of many children were green parrots, big grasshoppers, and the occasional baby sloth. Some parents had dressed their kids up in local tribal headdresses and costumes. We don’t know how authentic these decorations are. Vendors displayed rough handicrafts of unknown origin at a few covered stands.
The shoreline village comprised about a dozen residential structures, raised on stilts above the ground and river level; and a solid church and a school. Some dogs slept in the shade beneath the very simple wood houses. Dirt, sand and mud paths meandered among the buildings.
Two boys held a small sloth. The sloth lounged against the chest of one of the boys, lazily munching on leaves. Sloth faces include an upturned mouth and bright round eyes; it is hard not to interpret these faces as smiles. But we project…
A woman hosted a glorious toucan. She encouraged us to offer an arm for the toucan. The toucan nonchalantly climbed aboard. He (or she?) continued to turn his head in various directions — perhaps scoping us all out, or ignoring us altogether.
An adult man stood bedecked in a tribal array, awaiting photo ops. At one point, he suddenly lifted off the immense headdress and set it aside. He ran over to where a canoe full of our fellow tourists was returning to shore. He helped his fellow villagers pull the laden canoe onto the shore.
Our presenter had coached us to bring single dollar bills. The children and the adults all expected to be given a dollar for each contact. Rub the fur of a sloth: one dollar. Be a toucan perch: one dollar. Be led in hand around the village by a boy or girl: one dollar.
This experience was interesting, odd and uncomfortable. We were strolling on a muggy tropical day in a tiny village on the shores of the Amazon! While there were some power lines above the buildings, and even an empty satellite dish, the structures were extremely simple. This group of well-off, elderly, and for the most part Caucasian visitors outnumbered the local people on this day. The children and adults seemed fully comfortable with the parade of aliens. No one seemed joyous; they seemed attentive and yet a little bored. Just another day when the foreigners visit.
Seeing and interacting with the sloths, parrots and toucans was great fun. I never thought I would stroke the furry head of a sloth — who instantly grabbed my fingers with his clawed hands as if I were a tree branch. The toucan’s colors and giant beak are so outrageous to be awe-inspiring.
When I crouched by the boy who was holding the sloth, his buddy seemed to want me to say “sloth” in Portuguese or some other language. It took me a couple tries to approach the right pronunciation. The boys giggled with amusement. Was it at my botched rendition, or that they had taught me a different ridiculous word? But they were cute and engaging, and doing their job for the day.
It was hard to be there in our bubble of affluence and at the same time in an extremely basic, perhaps precarious village.
Later that evening, after our village visit, we developed our thoughts a bit. We don’t have any idea what the villagers think about this meeting of worlds. We don’t know what is “authentic” and what is manufactured show. We presume that our dollars are useful for the villagers. But isn’t this much the same as other created tourist experiences throughout the world? In Hawaii, visitors enjoy attending an enactment of a luau. They know that the luau, chants and hula are staged for their enjoyment and cultural enrichment. The performers are talented and accomplished, but everyone knows that the performances are their jobs. The performers willingly assume the roles and costumes as part of their work. The visitors pay for tickets, fully aware they are paying their part of the costs of production, including the salaries of the performers. The local people provide entertainment and service; the visitors provide money to make it possible. No one harms or takes advantage of anyone else.
At Boca da Valeria, the disparity in wealth between the performers and the visitors is greater than at a Hawaiian luau. Our dollars provide access to opportunities that, if we didn’t visit, the villages might not have access to. (We presume.)
Does this commercial meeting of worlds distort something for the villagers that would otherwise be more natural? We know so little about their lives, their measures of prosperity, their opportunities, and their society. Perhaps, just like anyone’s second job to help pay for a child’s college or to save for a vacation, the villagers use cruise day to make things a bit better.