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Wed, Mar 29, 2017 12:26 PM
Wednesday, March 8, 2017 issue
2003-06-27 communities
Smile Awhile
The best and worst place to live
Sara Hopson
Several weeks ago I received a magazine which contained an article about the best places to live in the United States. Ronnie and I briefly discussed the item, but gave it no further thought until he happened to read me a passage from this book, "The Best, Worst, and Most Unusual," by Bruce Felton and Mark Fowler, published by Galahad Books.

The Kalapalo Indians, who live on the savannahs of Central Brazil, have the world's most relaxed society, spending well over half their lives in their hammocks. Adults average 12 hours of sleep a night and catch two or three naps during daylight hours as well. (I believe at least one of those people live at my house). At most, the men work two or three short days a week fishing for picuda in the tributaries of the Amazon. And though wild game abounds, they are too peaceful to hunt.

Simplicity characterizes all aspects of their lives. In addition to fish they dine mainly on manioc, lice (lice?! How many do you need to make a meal?), and butterflies. The men wear only a belt of beads around their waists; the women wear a string of shiny wedding bells. Although women often have several lovers and a fish occasionally disappears from its owner's pot, the Kalapalo are not troubled with problems such as infidelity or theft. To accuse a neighbor of theft or a mate of infidelity is considered far more dishonorable than the acts themselves. But the most distinctive aspect of Kalapal life is leisure, and in their abundant spare time they enjoy gathering together and improvising melodies on wooden flutes. (Not unlike Ronnie and his pals in the early '70s.)

On the other end of the scale, however, we have the Yanomamo tribesmen, who inhabit the dense rain forest near the Brazil-Venezuela frontier. These guys are male chauvinists unexcelled in viciousness. They beat their wives savagely at the least provocation, real or imagined, and nearly all Yanomamo women are covered with scars and ugly welts tokens of their husband's affection. A common punishment for a misbehaving wife is to rip the bamboo earrings right out of her pierced lobes.

But the women also contribute to the incomparable cruelty of the Yanomamo society, most notably by murdering their female infants (strangulation with vines is the preferred method) until they deliver a son. And once they have borne a male heir, the women are permitted to kill all unwanted children, regardless of sex.

The two principle pastimes of Yanomamo are drug-taking and war. A man and his brother-in-law tend to be the closest companions in Yanomamo society, and they spend much of their days lying together in a hammock, blowing the hallucinogenic powder ebene into each other's nostrils. Under the influence of this powerful substance, as anthropologist Marvin Harris has recounted, they experience incredible illusions, walk around on all fours growling, and chat with demons. At war, the Yanomamo are notoriously dirty fighters. Whenever possible, they sneak into enemy villages at night and club in the skulls of unsuspecting sleepers.

Nor is it safe to be a Yanomamo's friend. When one village invites another village over for a friendly feast, it is understood that there will also be "competitions." The favorite sport is a chest-pounding duel in which one man takes a rock in his hand and slams it into the chest of the other competitor as hard as he can. The opponent, if he is able, then returns the blow, and they exchange wallops until one or the other sinks to his knees. Those who prefer more aggressive play take turns smashing each other over the head with bamboo poles. The Yanomamo are proud of the gashes they receive in these games and they shave their heads and paint the wounds bright red to exaggerate them.

A dinner guest is fortunate if he comes away with just a few scars on his head and chest. Not infrequently, one village invites another to dinner only to massacre all the men and gang rape the women. Well aware of this tradition, the guests are always on their guard and may come with the intention of striking first and slaughtering their hosts.

So the next time you go to a friend's house for dinner, just imagine the host lurking behind the door with a baseball bat in hand and you've got the picture of what life is like among the Yanomamo.

Ronnie and I came to the conclusion that life indeed is not always greener.


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