National Geographic correspondent Scott Wallace joined a grueling expedition in 2002 into the Javari Valley Indigenous Land in Brazil, a dense, 33,000-square-mile tract of protected rain forest near the border with Peru. This was no Abercrombie & Fitch walk in the woods. Subsisting on piranha stew and boiled monkey, the 34-man expedition was plagued by malaria, dysentery, armies of insects, poisonous reptiles, and sudden, fierce downpours. Their mission, funded by the wonderfully named Department of Isolated Indians, was to locate one of the previously uncontacted tribes, the “flecheiros,’’ or Arrow People. Feared even by other wild Indians, the flecheiros still use blowguns and arrows dipped in curare, a deadly nerve agent, to keep trespassers at bay.
By pinpointing the tribe’s location, the agency hoped to create an exclusion zone for the flecheiros, “a kind of reserve inside a reserve,’’ off limits to gold prospecting, logging, the poaching of exotic flora and fauna, and other “socioenvironmental’’ insults perpetrated by industrialized society.
Wallace’s gripping account in “The Unconquered’’ takes us upriver to a place very few outsiders have ever seen. But the more important journey here is into Wallace’s dark night of the soul, where his ambition as a journalist intersects with his personal limitations, his fears. Almost as soon as he steps on a riverboat for the first leg of the trip, he begins to regret his decision.
Leading the expedition was 62-year-old Sydney Possuelo, a legendary Indian rights activist and wilderness scout. A bearded, bristling, romantic figure straight out of a Joseph Conrad story, Possuelo was both creator and caretaker of the Department of Isolated Indians; “[a] cross between Jesus Christ and Che Guevara,’’ according to a disgruntled colleague. Possuelo had almost single-handedly changed the department’s philosophy when it came to “indios bravos,’’ or wild Indians, from “contact to save’’ to “save without contact.’’ “We create national parks to save animals; why not do it for humans?’’ asked Possuelo.
Wallace and the other trekkers - a mix of “tamed’’ Indians like the Matis and Kanamari, known for their jungle survival skills; and white, paramilitary “riberinhos,’’ or river dwellers - soon discover that Possuelo is a cranky autocrat, subject to mood swings that plunge the adventurers into gloomy, even hostile factions. Traveling with his teenage son, Orlando, Possuelo plays favorites, unfairly chastising some of the men for loafing, while allowing others to pilfer supplies like powdered milk and sugar. Eager to get his story, Wallace initially overlooks Possuelo’s flaws, but after several days in the jungle, acknowledges “a sense of drifting terribly off course, toward a place they didn’t want to go, led by someone they didn’t want to go there with.’’
In fact, Possuelo is deathly afraid of drug traffickers and black marketeers who might spoil this preserve and its people, but blazes a trail for them anyway. Late in the 76-day trek, after the column has survived harrowing encounters with deadly snakes, caimans, and indios bravos, Possuelo charters a small plane to fly over the region where they’d just shed all that sweat and blood. Shortly after takeoff, they locate a cluster of huts occupied by the flecheiros, looking “down breezily from above on what had taken us months to grind out on the ground.’’
So why did Possuelo risk his own life, and those of his men, to tramp right to the edge of the flecheiros encampment and leave them a few trinkets, even while pronouncing that “[t]he white man brings problems, never solutions’’? It’s a moral question that the book leaves unanswered.
Wallace himself is an equally intriguing figure. He’s certainly not a lean-bodied swashbuckler like the writer Sebastian Junger, hopping nimbly out of harm’s way in Afghanistan and looking good while doing it. At 47, Wallace is a doughy, nearsighted guy who studied philosophy at Yale. Although he had reported from places as inhospitable as the Arctic and war-torn Central America, Wallace takes several embarrassing pratfalls in the jungle and at times has difficulty keeping up. But what’s driven him into the heart of the heart of the country is the lure of his first book, a goal he pursues as zealously as Possuelo seeks his.
At times, Wallace tries too hard. In his breathless cadences, there’s the arrogance of the liberal-minded explorer who thinks he knows what’s best for indigenous people (or flagellates himself when he doesn’t). Unconstrained by the usual sort of editorial deadline, he’s like a teenager allowed to drive his dad’s Ferrari: fast, hard, and all over the road. Wallace is prone to saying things like “I was a purveyor of news and information traded to a public that spanned the globe,’’ instead of just calling himself a reporter, and at one point confesses to harboring “a twisted sense of voyeuristic titillation’’ at the prospect of seeing the flecheiros.
Still, it’s hard not to like these characters and their tale. Near the end of the journey, Wallace spots a jetliner in the sky and points it out to the Matis tribesmen he’s with. Explaining how fast the plane is traveling, and the cost of a round-trip fare to New York, Wallace is surprised when one of the riberinhos, a sullen man he has nevertheless grown close to, expresses an uncharacteristic sentiment.
“ ‘Scott’s going to forget all about us,’ Soldado said, and sighed . . . . ‘No,’ I said. ‘I will never forget.’ ’’
And neither will we.
Jay Atkinson’s seventh book, “Memoirs of a Rugby-Playing Man,’’ will be published in April. He teaches writing at Boston University.