Tipping Point: Observations from behind the viewfinder

Americas Now

Andrew Smith

Photojournalist Andrew Smith captured the amazing video and sound for Tipping Point. Here are some of his observations from behind the viewfinder. 

Whenever I thought of the Amazon Rainforest, images of tall trees with long green vines always came to mind. It seemed like it would be a vast, dense jungle- impenetrable to the outside world. But I quickly learned that there is much more to this region than the beautiful nature and it is much more accessible and vulnerable than you many think.

We started our journey in the charming city of Macapa. In this town coastal town in northern Brazil, the Amazon River reaches the Atlantic Ocean. The city flows with the tide- bringing in boats full of fish and acai berries when the water is high and playing soccer when it’s low.

Mud SoccerIt’s in Macapa where we filmed futelama or “mud soccer.” The low tide reveals flat swaths of mud where the locals congregate to play one messy -yet extremely fun- version of the county’s most popular sport. I was surprised how warm and soft the mud felt on my bare feet as I ran along with the players. Other than the constant battle to keep my lens free of mud, this was a great way to start our assignment.

Tourists would have few reasons to visit Macapa. There’s not much there other than a starting point for traveling’s beginning the long trek up the Amazon River. But there was something very authentic about this town. It probably helped that we stayed there for a week (the longest stint in any one place during the trip) but I felt welcomed by the people and was even discovered a school that shares my name. This led to my unofficial title as “Andrade Smith- Mayor of Macapa.”

Macapa is also where we learned how much Brazil loves their buffets. Churrascarias, as they’re known there, seem to be the main dining out option throughout the country. No matter where you go, you got a plate of rice, beans, yucca and as much meat of any kind and cut as you wish. We quickly learned that portion control was going to be another important facet to our success along with sunscreen and bug spray.

On the topic of food, I found the most delicious breakfast pastry on the planet in Brazil. Pan de Queso is the most amazing cheese bread ever invented. The cheese is mixed into the dough and baked into the bread rather than just being stuffed. It’s quite glorious and was my savior on many early mornings as we flew from one corner of the country to another.

Traveling throughout Brazil is not the easiest task. Their airports have a confusing process of waiting in line to check in to your flight, then waiting in another to pay for your luggage, then cutting to the front of the line to get your tickets when you have a receipt for your luggage. It definitely did not seem like the most efficient process. Security is much more lax compared to the U.S. and the boarding areas are often small, square rooms with plastic chairs and maybe a bathroom.

Over the AmazonFlying over the Amazon is the ultimate test of your patience because direct flights are almost unheard of. Each flight basically stops at all the major towns along the river. Even if you’re lucky enough to get a direct flight from Macapa to Manaus (like we once thought), routine delays and flight cancelations lead to new flight plans and more stops. I think we stopped over in Belem at least a dozen times in the course of our travels.

Riverboats are the major means of transportation (and the cheapest) but was too time-consuming for our action-packed 35 days of filming. A two hour flight from Macapa to Manaus can take up to two weeks by boat. Daring to travel the roads is another story altogether.

It’s clear that Brazil’s lack of infrastructure is going to be a major hurdle for World Cup fans and Olympic tourists. Potholes scatter the dirt roads that weave through the Amazon River Basin. Nature is definitely winning out here as all the rain washes out roads and makes them very dangerous and almost unusable. Often times only one lane will be clear and you find yourself playing chicken with huge soy bean truck that’s racing to get to port before all its goods spoil.

I consider myself quite an accomplished car sleeper but all the jostling, bumping and sliding was too much for me. On the ten-hour drive to where the Kayapo Indians live, my seatbelt was keeping my head from hitting the top of the truck as we bounced around so much. That and the fear of just sliding off the road and into the forest was enough to keep me awake.

Living with the Kayapo for a few days was the most eye-opening and profound experience of the trip. These people live with so few creature comforts of the modern world and must now devote their lives to the preservation of their customs and way of life. Construction and deforestation jeopardizes their land and livelihood and all they want is to be left alone.

When we arrived at their tribe, we were invited into the men’s hut where they gather at the end of each day to discuss the day’s events. It turned into us getting lectured and yelled at for all the problems the “white man” has caused and brought them. We headed back to our hammocks a bit tense- not knowing if we were welcome here or if we even wanted to be there.

The next day the men took us out on the river for a day of hunting and fishing. Being the photographer, I was in the boat with all the Kayapo and didn’t have a translator or my colleagues with me. The next thing I know, I’m in the middle of river in one of the most remote parts of the rainforest on a boat full of hooks, bows and arrows, a shotgun and bunch of Kayapo who just the night before told me that my kind is the cause of all their problems.

We headed off the main river into a small tributary. The water got narrower and vegetation crept closer to the sides of our boat the deeper we floated down. I sat up on the front of the boat to get a shot of all the Kayapo looking ahead as we floated around looking for something. What were we looking for? I don’t know. I don’t speak Portuguese and certainly didn’t understand the Kayapo’s native language.

Suddenly through the viewfinder of my camera, I saw all the Kayapo pointing behind me as they started to yell in a high-pitched tone that sounded as if they were scared. I turned around just in time to see a wasp’s nest on a low tree branch right by head. I dropped to the floor as fast as possible as the Kayapo feverishly tried to back the boat out of this narrow passage they have navigated us into. We drifted into another set of branches that again seemed to scare the Kayapo as they all pointed and screamed at each other. I looked over to see a line of huge red fire ants spiraling around a tree branch. The Kayapo were clearly scared, which had me convinced that I was in deep trouble. “If they’re scared of these things, they’re going to kill me!” I remember thinking to myself.

We managed to work our way out of the area and got back onto the main river. Still with no sign of another boat with my translator or anyone I knew, we stopped on the other side of the water and all the Kayapo started getting off the boat with their bows and arrows. This was the jungle I had always imagined the Amazon to be. Dense vegetation, tall trees and snaking vines were everywhere you looked.

The Kayapo just took off. Not running, but just walking through the woods at a pace that was impossible for me to keep up with. They seemed to float over the ground. I, on the other hand, got caught around every tree, vine and twig you could see. Chasing these men through the woods with my camera around my shoulder was not easy. What was worse was that I was making so much noise I knew none of these guys would be able to hunt anything with me close by.

I heard a gunshot and some boastful singing as Benjai, one of the eldest Kayapo, remerged from the woods with a dead Spider Monkey. I will spare the gruesome details here only to say that chumming the water with monkey is a very easy way to catch Piranha. The second the monkey meat hit the water there was a ferocious looking fish with razor-sharp teeth attached to it.

The fate of the monkey did not end on the river as the Kayapo are not a wasteful people. When we returned to the tribe, Benjai gave the remains of the monkey to the women who began to cook it along with some fish to make a stew. This was truly a traumatizing experience. I knew while filming this “cooking scene” that we could never air any of the video. Even as I tried to cleverly block or conceal the most graphic images, skinning, cutting and cooking a monkey is not a sight many want to see. Even fewer would want to know what it smells like. I have the dubious honor of saying I know both all too well.

Stories like this could go on and on. Thirty-five days in the world’s largest tropical rainforest is sure to give you some stories for the bar. From swimming with Pink Dolphin, to being overrun by Squirrel Monkeys, to having bulls-eye contests with our indigenous blow dart guns, we definitely had some fun.

But we also met countless people who welcomed us into their homes and lives so that we might show the outside world what is happening in the Amazon. Less than ten percent of Brazilians live in the Amazon and very few outside the region have ever visited. But up in this vast natural wonderland a battle is brewing. A very real battle in the sense that environmentalist and indigenous people have been killed while protesting construction projects like Belo Monte.

But the stakes are even higher still. Deforestation in the Amazon has global implications. But Brazil has the right to profit from its natural resources. They can they prosper but can they preserve? It’s a delicate balance to strike for a rapidly developing country. But a balance that must be found, so Brazil does not go over the tipping point.