"they went that-a-way, chief."
I kept walking, checking addresses. This was in New York City, on Fifth Avenue, somewhere around 50th Street, and I was looking for an unfamiliar address. My attire, I felt, may have been inappropriate.
"Chief! Hey, chief. I'm talking to you."
The man was walking behind me, breathing into my neck. "They went that-a-way, chief."
I half turned. The person pursuing me wore a dirty trench coat and a black watch cap. His curly red hair bunched out around his neck in that peculiar '70s style reminiscent of Bozo the Clown.
"Who?" I asked. "Who went where?"
"The buffalo there, chief." He pointed west on 50th. "They went that-a-way."
My unique attire had convinced this gentleman that I was a particularly homely and pale-skinned American Indian. He was, I figured, one of those panhandlers who feels that he must entertain you in exchange for a handout. I was carrying a primitive, but unconcealed, weapon on my shoulder. Something you might use to hunt buffalo.
"So," the man said, "you got any spare change for me, chief?"
Out where I come from -- a little town located between the Crow and Blackfeet reservations -- you don't call anyone chief.
"Yeah," I said. "I got something for you. Just let me get my pack off."
All this happened nearly 20 years ago, and the best way to understand what I'm talking about is to put yourself in my boots. Like this:
For reasons that, to this day, have never been adequately explained, you've been given an assignment to travel out of state and out of country to a place somewhere at the end of the earth and at the beginning of time, where you are expected to make contact with persons living in one of the few pre-technological, pre-industrial societies left on the face of the planet. Upon your return, your job is to write an article about this peculiar journey and the people you've met. In what ways, the assigning magazine editors want to know, are these folks different from us? In what ways are they similar?
Because you are relatively young and not the most experienced reporter who has ever lived, these editors -- the sadistic bastards -- expect a report immediately upon your return from this strange sortie into the past.
The editors work in New York City. You live in one of those big square states out in the middle of fly-over country. The airplane tickets they've sent you show a scheduled stop in New York on the return leg. Your instructions are to deplane, cab into the city, meet with the editors for a few hours, then get the hell out. Cab back to the airport and flee.
You figure this is a big deal in your reportorial career: the first foreign assignment. The editors have never actually seen you and all the arrangements have been made over the phone. The editors, you suspect, probably wear pinstriped power suits. You yourself don't actually own a suit and feel that these men and women, who have the power to withhold payment, will undoubtedly peg you for a rube.
That's the deal. The question is: What clothes do you pack? Your trip will take you to the high, wind-whipped plains of El Mundo Perdido, the Lost World, the area where Venezuela, Brazil and Guyana all come together on the map. It will be cold: near freezing some nights. It will be humid and hot in the lowlands. In the mountains, which rise to 10,000 feet, it should rain every day. Or snow. To get where you are going, you will have to walk. For weeks.
So you'll need a backpack. Stuff it full of tropical gear. And for the cold and rain you'll want quick-drying long underwear, fleece pullovers and pants, along with top quality rain gear. Freeze-dried food. Stove. Fuel. Mountain boots. Sleeping bag, mat, tent. Dishes, utensils, first-aid kit and water purifying tablets.
The question is: Are you going to take a sport coat, tie, slacks and tasseled loafers for your meeting with the editors? Stuff this stuff in the bottom of your backpack and hump it over the mountains and through the rain? For one two-hour meeting?
Which is how, two decades ago, I came to be walking down Fifth Avenue, in New York on a November afternoon, wearing a seriously soiled rain jacket and my waffle stomper boots (still caked with red South American mud). I was carrying a backpack and a set of lightweight pre-industrial weapons that consisted of a weathered bow and a long, thin, woven basket containing 20 arrows. None of the stuff I was carrying fit in an airport locker, and anyway, the weight didn't bother me much. I'd already carried it halfway around the Western Hemisphere.
"you carry spare change in your pack there, chief?"
I was suffering my first instance of reverse culture shock. The
words "spare change" had sent me spinning.
The South American Indian people I'd just met and lived with for
weeks didn't use money. Everything was set up on a barter basis.
Sometimes, I couldn't help but notice, even barter didn't enter into
economic negotiations. Food, especially, was just given away.
Money was not unknown in the small village of Roraima, which lay
under the looming shadow of the great coffin-shaped mountain called Roraima
Tepui. The place even had a small schoolhouse, and I suspect that now, 20
years later, much has changed. A paved road, I hear, was built several
years ago and it passes nearby. There is likely a dirt road to the village
that no doubt sports several small shops, a cantina and a restaurant.
But back 20 years ago, the people of Roraima lived in wood-poled
huts. The floors were dirt. The roofs were thatch. The nearest place
money would buy anything was a 10-day walk away. Buy
something big and you'd have to carry it 10 days on your back. Money
wasn't worth the trouble.
The people I was to meet seemed frightened when my group walked
into their village one evening when cold sheets of rain were pounding down
and lightning made the mountain above explode into view every few minutes. Children stared at us from open windows, peek-a-boo style, but they weren't
We stood in the mud and hammering rain in the center of the village
until a somber, dignified man emerged from one of the huts and asked us,
please, to take refuge in the schoolhouse. No one came to see us that
night. In the morning, at first light, a delegation from the village asked
if they could enter their own schoolhouse. Would we like some eggs for
One of my traveling companions, a Venezuelan from Caracas named
Pedro Carniciero, thanked the delegation for its hospitality and explained
that we were carrying our own food and would be happy to prepare breakfast
for all. But our gray freeze-dried eggs were not a big hit with the local
gourmands. The same man who had directed us to the schoolhouse said
"Good Lord, gentlemen, you can't possibly be serious," and,
switching from Spanish to the local dialect, said something to one of the
younger men, who dashed away and returned with real hen's eggs. The yolks
were bright orange and the whites bubbled up in the fry pan like meringue.
They are still the best eggs I've ever eaten.
The people did not, however, have coffee, and we were able to make
several even-up breakfast deals. Pedro, who'd traveled in the area
previously, knew that certain trade items would be highly appreciated in
the village. In Caracas, we'd stocked up on high-quality cloth. Red was
the desired color. We had about a dozen yards of it apiece.
The cloth bought guide services to the top of Roraima Tepui. It
bought long walks in the forest with the woman who knew the healing
properties of various plants. It bought an invitation to stay in the
village, and it bought answers to our many questions. It was heavy red
cloth and, to some small degree, it bought us friendship. I used it to
buy a bow and arrow set from the best of the village hunters. It wasn't
as nice as the one he used in the forest -- this was his backup bow --
and I had it strung over my shoulder that day in New York City when the
Bozo-looking man who kept calling me "chief" asked if I could spare any
As I rummaged through my backpack looking for an appropriate gift,
my thoughts were jumbled in a process I now recognize: reverse culture
shock. It is only recently that I've come across a quote that expresses
exactly what I felt in that moment. In 1807, the great king of Tonga,
Finau 'Ulukalala, was discussing economics with one of his first European
visitors, a man named Will Mariner. "If a man has more yams than he
wants," Finau said, "let him exchange some of them away ... Certainly money is much handier and more convenient, but then, as it will not spoil by
being kept, people will store it up, instead of sharing it out, as a chief
ought to do ... I understand what it is that makes (Europeans) so selfish.
It is this money."
Just so. The only people I ever met who were completely unaware of
money -- didn't know the stuff existed -- were a group of tree-house
dwelling Melanesians who made their homes deep in the swamplands of Irian
Jaya. The women wore skirts made of bunched grasses, the men wore leaves
wrapped and tied about their penises. It was a place where red cloth was
probably even more worthless than money.
The families were segregated -- women and children on one side of
the tree house, men on the other. Each side cooked on its own fire, which
was set on a base of river rocks. I traded hatchets, salt and fish hooks
for access and conversation, though the people, these good Karowai people,
freely offered me great globs of their staple food, a kind of gray-blue
paste made from the sap of the sago palm. It tasted a bit like watery
library paste, only a good deal more bland than that sounds. It was, in
fact, this bland: When I fixed everyone a bowl of rice for all, one young
man burst into tears after a single taste. He was crying, I learned
eventually, because the rice tasted so good.
I looked to the walls of the tree house while the young man sobbed.
There were the bones of two small fish hung up there -- the remains, I
imagined, of a fine feast. The Karowai didn't accumulate money, nor wealth
of any kind. And even though it was clearly a challenging task to gather
enough to eat every day, these people offered me what they had. Every day.
What they had was sago sap.
These people, who didn't know what a dollar was worth, were the
most generous folks I've ever met in my life. OK, so they were rumored
to be headhunters and cannibals. The fact is, they were highly generous
cannibals and headhunters.
Navigating through that culture, and through the money-less society
I first encountered in South America, taught me a little bit about my own
selfishness, and about what a chief ought to do.
"Whatcha got in that bag there, chief?"
I found a few rags and remnants of the left over red cloth that
nobody in Roraima had wanted and gave them to the red-haired spare change
He stared at them for a moment, then shook them angrily in my face.
"The hell am I supposed to do with these, chief?" he said.
I tapped him gently on the chest with my pre-industrial weaponry
and told him precisely what he could do with them.
The Bozo panhandler tossed the cloth on the sidewalk and flipped
me an especially enthusiastic bird.
"And watch out who you call chief," I said, which, I think, is very
good advice. Call it "priceless."