21. THE LAST EYEWITNESS

Can you get the GPS to work?” Paolo asked.

I was sitting in the backseat of a four-wheel-drive Mitsubishi truck, fiddling with a Global Positioning System in an attempt to obtain readings of our coordinates. We were heading north-that much I knew-with a driver whom we had hired when we rented the pickup. Paolo had told me that we would need a powerful truck and a professional driver if we were to have any chance of completing our journey, especially in the rainy season. “This is the worst time of year,” he said. “The roads are-how do you say in English?-shit.”

When I explained my mission to our driver, he asked me when the British colonel had disappeared.

“Nineteen twenty-five,” I said.

“And you want to find him in the jungle?”

“Not exactly.”

“Are you one of his descendants?”

“No.”

He seemed to think about this for a long moment, then said, “Very well,” and began cheerfully to load our gear, which included hammocks, rope, mosquito netting, water-purifying tablets, a satellite phone, antibiotics, and malarial pills. On our way out of Cuiab?, we also picked up a friend of Paolo’s, a descendant of a Bakair? chief named Taukane Bakair?. (In Brazil, the last names of Indians are typically the same as that of their tribe.) Taukane, who was in his mid-forties and had a handsome, round face, wore Levi’s and a baseball cap. He had been educated by missionaries, and though he now lived mostly in Cuiab?, he continued to represent his tribe’s political interests. “I am what you might call an ambassador,” he told me. And, in exchange for a “gift” of two tires for a communal tractor, he had agreed to take us to his village, the last place that Fawcett had incon-trovertibly been seen. (“If it were up to me, I would take you for free,” Taukane said. “But all Indians must now be capitalists. We have no choice.”)

Upon leaving the city, we entered the central plains of Brazil, which mark the transition from dry forest to rain forest. After a while, a plateau came into view: Martian red in color, it spanned more than two thousand square miles, an endless tabletop that reached into the clouds. We stopped at its base, and Paolo said, “Come, I show you something.”

We left the truck and climbed a steep, rocky slope. The ground was moist from a recent rainstorm, and we used our hands and knees to ascend, crawling over holes where snakes and armadillos had burrowed.

“Where are we going?” I asked Paolo, who had another cigarette clamped between his teeth.

“You Americans are always impatient,” he said.

Lightning streaked the sky and a thin mist descended, making the ground more slippery. Rocks gave way under our feet, clapping as they hit the ground, fifty yards below.

“Almost there,” Paolo said.

He helped to pull me up a ledge, and as I got to my feet, covered in mud, he pointed at another ridge, a few yards away, and said, “Now you see!”

Jutting into the sky was a cracked stone column. I blinked in the rain-in fact, there was not just one but several columns in a row, as in a Greek ruin. There was also a large archway, both sides of it intact, and behind it was a dazzlingly large tower. They looked like what the bandeirante had described in 1753.

“What is it?” I asked.

“Stone city.”

“Who built it?”

“It is-how do you say?-an illusion.”

“That?” I said, pointing to one of the columns.

“It was made by nature, by erosion. But many people who see it think it is a lost city, like Z.”

In 1925, Dr. Rice had seen similarly eroded cliffs, in Roraima, Brazil, and thought they looked like “ruined architecture.”

As we returned to the car and headed north, toward the jungle, Paolo said we would find out soon if Z were such a mirage. We eventually turned onto BR-163, one of the most treacherous roads in South America. Built in 1970 by the Brazilian government in an effort to open up the country’s interior, it extends more than a thousand miles, from Cuiab? to the Amazon River. It was designated on our map as a major highway, but almost all the asphalt from its two lanes had been washed away during the rainy season, leaving behind a combination of ditches and puddle-filled gullies. Our driver sometimes chose to ignore the road altogether and steer along the rocky banks and fields, where herds of cattle occasionally parted in our midst.

As we passed the Manso River, where Fawcett had gotten separated from the rest of the group and where Raleigh had been bitten by ticks, I kept looking out the window, expecting to see the first signs of a fearsome jungle. Instead, the terrain looked like Nebraska-perpetual plains that faded into the horizon. When I asked Taukane where the forest was, he said, simply, “Gone.”

A moment later, he pointed to a fleet of diesel-belching trucks heading in the opposite direction, carrying sixty-foot logs.

“Only the Indians respect the forest,” Paolo said. “The white people cut it all down.” Mato Grosso, he went on, was being transformed into domesticated farmland, much of it dedicated to soybeans. In Brazil alone, the Amazon has, over the last four decades, lost some two hundred and seventy thousand square miles of its original forest cover-an area bigger than France. Despite government efforts to reduce deforestation, in just five months in 2007 as much as two thousand seven hundred square miles were destroyed, a region larger than the state of Delaware. Countless animals and plants, many of them with potential medicinal purposes, have vanished. Because the Amazon generates half its own rainfall through moisture that rises into the atmosphere, the devastation has begun to change the region’s ecology, contributing to droughts that destroy the jungle’s ability to sustain itself. And few places have been as ravaged as Mato Grosso, where the state governor, Blairo Maggi, is one of the largest soybean producers in the world. “I don’t feel the slightest guilt over what we are doing here,” Maggi told the New York Times in 2003. “We’re talking about an area larger than Europe that has barely been touched, so there is nothing at all to get worried about.”

The latest economic boom, meanwhile, has produced another of the Amazon’s convulsions of violence. The Brazilian Transport Ministry has said that loggers along BR-163 employ “the highest concentration of slave labor in the world.” Indians are frequently driven off their land, enslaved, or murdered. On February 12, 2005, while Paolo and I were making our journey into the jungle, several gunmen, allegedly on the payroll of a rancher in the state of Par?, approached a seventy-three-year-old American nun who defended the rights of Indians. As the men aimed their guns, she removed her Bible and began to read from the Gospel of Saint Matthew: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice, for they shall be satisfied.” The gunmen unloaded six bullets into her, leaving her body facedown in the mud.

James Petersen, the distinguished scientist from the University of Vermont who had trained the archaeologist Michael Heckenberger and had been extremely helpful in planning my trip, told me when we had last spoken, a few months earlier, that he was excited because he was heading into the Amazon to conduct research near Manaus. “Maybe you can visit me after the Xingu,” he said. That would be wonderful, I responded. But I soon discovered that in August, while he was with the Brazilian archaeologist Eduardo Neves at a restaurant in a village along the Amazon River, a pair of bandits, allegedly working for a former police officer, stormed in to rob the place. One of the thieves opened fire, hitting Petersen in the stomach. He fell to the ground and said, “I can’t breathe.” Neves told him he would be okay, but by the time they arrived at a hospital, Petersen had died. He was fifty-one years old.

From BR-163, we veered onto a smaller dirt road, which went east, toward Bakair? Post. We passed close to where Fawcett had stayed with the cattle rancher Galv?o, and we decided to see if we could find his manor. In letters, Fawcett had said that the ranch was known as Rio Novo, and that name was marked on several current maps. After nearly four hours of bone-jarring bumps, we came upon a rusty sign at a fork in the road-“Rio Novo”-with an arrow pointing left.

“Look at that,” Paolo said.

We crossed a wobbly, wooden-slatted bridge over a river. The bridge creaked under the weight of the truck, and we looked down at the torrent of water, fifty feet below.

“How many mules and horses did the coronel have?” Paolo asked, trying to picture Fawcett’s crossing.

“A dozen or so,” I said. “According to his letters, Galv?o replaced some of the weakest animals and gave him a dog… which supposedly returned to the farm, several months after Fawcett vanished.”

“It wandered back on its own?” Paolo asked.

“That’s what Galv?o said. He also said something about some swallows he saw rise from the forest in the east, which he thought had to be some kind of sign from Fawcett.”

For the first time, we entered a swath of dense forest. Though there was no farm in sight, we came across a mud hut with a thatched roof. Inside was an old Indian sitting on a tree stump with a wooden cane in his hand. He was barefoot and wore dusty slacks without a shirt. Behind him, hanging on the wall, was the skin of a jaguar and a picture of the Virgin Mary. Taukane asked him, in the Bakair? language, if there was a cattle-breeding ranch known as Rio Novo. The man spit when he heard the name and waved his cane toward the door. “That way,” he said.

Another Indian, who was younger, appeared and said that he would show us the way. We got back in the car and drove down an overgrown path, the branches clapping against the windshield. When we couldn’t drive any farther, our guide hopped out, and we followed him through the forest as he slashed at the creepers and vines with a machete. Several times he paused, studied the tops of the trees, and took a few paces east or west. Finally, he stopped.

We looked around-there was nothing but a cocoon of trees. “Where’s Rio Novo?” Paolo asked.

Our guide lifted his machete over his head and slammed it into the ground. It hit something hard. “Right here,” he said.

We looked down and, to our disbelief, saw a row of cracked bricks.

“This is where the entrance to the manor used to be,” the guide said, adding, “It was very big.”

We began to fan out in the forest, as rain started to fall again, looking for signs of the great Galv?o farm.

“Over here!” Paolo cried. He was a hundred feet away, standing by a crumbling brick wall nestled in vines. The farm had been consumed by jungle in just a few decades, and I wondered how actual ancient ruins could possibly survive in such a hostile environment. For the first time, I had some sense of how it might be possible for the remnants of a civilization simply to disappear.

* * *

WHEN WE RETURNED to the road, the sun had begun to set. In our excitement, we had lost track of the time. We hadn’t eaten since five-thirty in the morning and had nothing in the truck except a warm bottle of water and some crackers. (Earlier in the trip we had devoured my packets of freeze-dried food, Paolo saying, “Astronauts really eat this stuff?”) As we drove through the night, lightning flashed in the distance, illuminating the emptiness around us. Taukane eventually nodded off, and Paolo and I became engaged in what had become our favorite diversion-trying to imagine what had happened to Fawcett and his party after they left Dead Horse Camp.

“I can see them starving to death,” Paolo, who seemed focused on his own hunger, said. “Very slowly and very painfully.”

Paolo and I were not alone in trying to conjure a denouement to the Fawcett saga. Dozens of writers and artists had imagined an ending where none existed, like the earlier cartographers who had conceived of much of the world without ever seeing it. There were radio and stage plays about the mystery. There was the screenplay “Find Colonel Fawcett,” which was later the extremely loose basis for the 1941 movie Road to Zanzibar, with Bing Crosby and Bob Hope. There were comic books, including one in the Adventures of Tintin series; in the story, a missing explorer based on Fawcett rescues Tintin from a poisonous snake in the jungle. (“Everybody thinks you’re dead,” Tintin tells the explorer, who says, “I’ve decided never to return to civilization. I’m happy here.”)

Fawcett also continued to inspire quest novelists. In 1956, the popular Belgian adventure author Charles-Henri Dewisme, who used the pseudonym Henry Verne, wrote Bob Moran and the Fawcett Mystery. In the novel, the hero Moran investigates the Amazon explorer’s disappearance, and although he fails to reveal what happened to him, he uncovers the lost City of Z, making “Fawcett’s dream come true.”

Fawcett even appears in the 1991 novel Indiana Jones and the Seven Veils, one of a series of books written to capitalize on the success of the 1981 blockbuster movie Raiders of the Lost Ark. In the novel’s convoluted plot, Indiana Jones-though insisting, “I’m an archeologist, not a private detective”-sets out to find Fawcett. He uncovers fragments of Fawcett’s journal from his last expedition, which says, “My son, lame from a bad ankle and feverish from malaria, turned back some weeks ago, and I sent our last guide with him. God save them. I followed a river upstream… I ran out of water, and for the next two or three days my only source of liquid was the dew I licked from leaves. How I questioned myself over and over about my decision to go on alone! I called myself a fool, an idiot, a madman.” Jones locates Fawcett and discovers that the Amazon explorer has found his magical city. After the two amateur archaeologists are taken prisoner by a hostile tribe, Jones, whip in hand, and Fawcett escape by plunging into the River of Death.

Paolo and I went through several more fantastical scenarios-Fawcett and his party had their bodies taken over by worms like Murray, contracted elephantiasis, were poisoned by lethal frogs-before we both fell asleep in the car. The next morning, we drove up a small mountainside to reach Bakair? Post. It had taken Fawcett a month to get here from Cuiab?. It took us two days.

Bakair? Post had grown, and more than eight hundred Indians now lived in the area. We went to the largest village, where several dozen one-story houses were organized in rows around a dusty plaza. Most of the houses were made of clay and bamboo and had thatched roofs, though some of the newer ones had concrete walls and tin roofs that clinked in the rain. The village, while still unmistakably poor, now had a well, a tractor, satellite dishes, and electricity.

When we arrived, nearly all the men, young and old, were away hunting, in preparation for a ritual to celebrate the corn harvest. But Taukane said that there was someone we had to meet. He took us to a house abutting the plaza, near a row of fragrant mango trees. We entered a small room with a single electric lightbulb hanging overhead and several wooden benches along the walls.

Before long, a tiny, stooped woman appeared through a back door. She held a child’s hand for support and moved slowly toward us, as if leaning into a strong wind. She wore a floral cotton dress and had long gray hair, which framed a face so wizened that her eyes were almost invisible. She had a wide smile, revealing a majestic set of white teeth. Taukane explained that the woman was the oldest member of the village and had seen Fawcett and his expedition come through. “She is probably the last living person to have encountered them,” he said.

She sat down on a chair, her bare feet hardly reaching the floor. Using Taukane and Paolo to translate from English into Portuguese and then into Bakair?, I asked her how old she was. “I don’t know my exact age,” she said. “But I was born around 1910.” She continued, “I was just a little girl when the three outsiders came to stay in our village. I remember them because I had never seen people so white and with such long beards. My mother said, ‘Look, the Christians are here!’ ”

She said that the three explorers had set up camp inside the village’s new school, which no longer exists. “It was the nicest building,” she said. “We didn’t know who they were, but we knew they must be important because they slept in the school.” In a letter, I recalled, Jack Fawcett had mentioned sleeping in a school. She added, “I remember that they were tall, so tall. And one of them carried a funny pack. He looked like a tapir.”

I asked her what the village was like then. She said that by the time Fawcett and his men had arrived everything was changing. Brazilian military officials, she recalled, “told us we had to wear clothes, and they gave us each a new name.” She added, “My real name was Comaeda Bakair?, but they told me I was now Laurinda. So I became Laurinda.” She recalled the widespread sickness that Fawcett had described in his letters. “Bakair? people would wake up with coughs and go to the river to clean themselves, but it didn’t help,” she said.

After a while, Laurinda got up and stepped outside. Accompanying her, we could see, in the distance, the mountains that Jack had stared at with such wonder. “The three went in that direction,” she said. “Over those peaks. People said there were no white people over those mountains, but that is where they said they were going. We waited for them to come back, but they never did.”

I asked her if she had heard of any cities on the other side of the mountains that the Indians may have built centuries ago. She said she didn’t know of any, but she pointed to the walls of her house and said that her ancestors had spoken of Bakair? houses that had been much bigger and more spectacular. “They were made of palm leaves from the buriti trees and were twice as high and so beautiful,” she said.

Some of the hunters returned, carrying the carcasses of deer and anteaters and boars. In the plaza, a government official was setting up a large outdoor movie screen. I was told that a documentary would be shown teaching the Bakair?s the meaning of the corn-harvest ritual that they were about to celebrate, which was part of their creation myth. Whereas the government had once tried to strip the Bakair?s of their traditions, it was now attempting to preserve them. The old woman watched the proceedings from her doorstep. “The new generation still performs some of the old ceremonies, but they are not as rich or as beautiful,” she said. “They do not care about the crafts or the dances. I try to tell them the old stories, but they are not interested. They do not understand that this is who we are.”

Before we said goodbye, she remembered something else about Fawcett. For years, she said, other people came from far away to ask about the missing explorers. She stared at me, her narrow eyes widening. “What is it that these white people did?” she asked. “Why is it so important for their tribe to find them?”

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