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Tag: River


A Price on Their Heads

Ever since my aunt lifted me up to a glass case at the back of Oxford’s Pitt Rivers Museum, at the impressionable age of eight, I have been hooked on shrunken heads.

Like so many schoolboys before me, my lower jaw dropped as I gazed in awe at the array of miniature human heads, correctly known as tsantsas. There was something wholly captivating about their gnarled features, the sewn lips, little hollow necks and manes of jet black hair.

I longed to learn the secret processes, known to a tribe deep in the South American jungle, which enabled decapitated human heads to be shrunk to the size of a grapefruit.

Despite an ongoing debate about whether museums should harbour human remains, the Pitt Rivers Museum still holds five, and the British Museum has at least ten. Interest in the gruesome exhibits remains strong. A roaring private trade in the illicit handicraft has developed, with heads being snapped up by wealthy collectors, many from the Far East and Japan.

The genuine article comes from the Upper Amazon, a region on the Pastaza river between Peru and Ecuador.

To continue reading, please see my article at Explorers Connect.

July 1, 2008 Posted by tahir in Travel


A few years ago I was in Manaus in the Brazilian Amazon. The city is one of those strange hybrids of culture and life that shouldn’t really exist at all. It’s an anomaly, a metropolis set deep in nature’s jungle, born from man’s greed, the greed for rubber.

When rubber seeds were smuggled out of the Upper Amazon to Malaya an entire cult of decadence collapsed. As everyone knows (especially those who have enjoyed Fitzcarraldo), there is an opera house in Manaus, and buildings constructed in the grandest styles.

So it was that I was sitting on the banks of the Amazon drinking something cool, marvelling at its silent immensity, when a man sat down beside me. He was lean, tanned, and had one of those ruddy faces, that comes from hard work and alcohol. He shook my hand, wouldn’t release the fingers.

         ‘I am Oskar,’ he said, ‘a fisherman.’

         I wriggled my fingers free and back to my glass, told him my name.

         ‘I don’t have any money,’ I said.

         After all, I’d been robbed a few days earlier near the Cathedral and had found it best to trust no one. I finished my drink, placed a folded note on the tabletop, clenched my knees to stand.

         Just before I was upright, I felt Oskar’s hand on mine. It was rough, a little damp, the thumb missing its tip.

         ‘I will tell you about the mermaid,’ he said.


         ‘The mermaid.’

         ‘What mermaid?’

         ‘The one swimming out there in the river.’

         Oskar nudged my empty glass.

         ‘A cerveza would cool my throat,’ he said.

         I sank back into my chair, nodded to the waiter. A beer instantly arrived, dripping in condensation. Oskar drank it in one gulp.

         ‘So tell me.’

         ‘About what?’

         ‘About the mermaid,’ I said icily.

         ‘I have seen her,’ said the fisherman, ‘she is the most beautiful creature alive. Her hair is golden, her face like an angel’s, and her body… well, it’s pink and slippery like a boutou, a pink dolphin.’

         ‘When did you see her?’

         ‘Oh when I was a young man,’ said Oskar dreamily. ‘I was out in my father’s canoe, fishing in the twilight. The air was very still, as if something terrible might be about to happen. The moon was almost full, its light radiant, the colour of polished silver. I was just about to throw out the net again when the water rippled all around the canoe and…’


         ‘And the head of golden hair pushed up out of the Amazonas. I thought at first it was a dead body. But the face was smiling, the face of a woman about my age. Time froze. I froze.’

         ‘Did she speak to you?’

         Oskar made a fist with his hand and blew into it.

         ‘Oh yes she did.’

         ‘What did she say?’

         Again, the fisherman blew into his fist. His eyes suddenly seemed glazed over.

         ‘She said that the loneliness of the river was mirrored above in the heavens, by the infinity of the stars.’