Two members of the Irish Travelling community experienced the life of remote tribes in Siberia and the Amazon basin, writes Áilín Quinlan.
IT’S a difficult scene to watch — standing in the bleak Siberian Tundra, Carlow woman Selina O’Leary, 27, looks on wordlessly as tribesmen use cords to strangle a baby reindeer to death.
The young Traveller woman conceals her sense of horror and nausea. She does so again when members of the Nenet tribe cut the reindeer carcass open and kneel around it, eating directly from the bloody cavity — and later again while struggling to swallow some proffered raw meat dipped in reindeer blood: “One lady got the liver and ate it, and there was blood dripping off her lips. I dry retched — that was the most sickening part of it,” recalls the mother-of-one.
“I wouldn’t have gone there if I’d seen that on the telly beforehand.”
O’Leary travelled thousands of miles to Northern Arctic Russia to live with these nomadic reindeer-herders for 10 days and learn about their culture for Traveller’s Guide, a two-part RTÉ documentary in which she and another member of the Irish Travelling community journey to the other side of the globe to experience the day-to-day life and culture of other communities, each unique in its own way.
However, as she got to know the Nenet and develop a better understanding of their way of life, O’Leary says she learned that the reindeer blood is full of crucial vitamins — the tribe don’t drink fresh milk, though they have stores of the condensed variety, the young Tullow woman recalls.
“All of the ladies and even the little children eat the raw fish; they prefer their food raw,” she says.
She was nauseated by the custom, she recalls, and tried hard to do it, but in the end simply couldn’t stomach the raw meat and fish which is a staple of the Nenet diet.
“I didn’t want to feel that way; I had a bond with them, but I did feel disgusted.
“I knelt down out of respect and I drank the blood and took some of the meat but I couldn’t eat it,” she recalls of her attempt to eat some reindeer brain.
“When I thought about it afterwards, these people were eating good reindeer they had reared themselves on the land; it would make you think, because here they were, out in the middle of nowhere, with no doctors on call, and they were never sick.
“One of them, a lady...is over 100 years old.”
She also had second thoughts about the admittedly harsh, hostile environment in which the Nunet live and their physically gruelling lifestyle. Every three days the tribe packs up camp to move the reindeer to new pastures. In the documentary the Nenet are slowly journeying south to escape the Arctic winter.
“I noticed their skin is glowing and very young-looking.
“Tamara told me the climate was like a freezer for their skin! There were no toxins in the air; nothing. Their air and their food is really healthy. They are never sick despite all the hardship that they go through.” She developed a strong band with Tamara, with whose family she was staying. The Nunet woman cooked Selina’s food after the failed attempt to eat raw meat.
“The translator told me they don’t usually cook — they prefer to eat things raw — but everything Tamara made for me she cooked.
“She really liked me and she knew I didn’t like the raw meat.
“This was their custom, but it was so far removed from anything I had ever experienced,” says Selina, who during her stay with the Nenet, learned about how tribal children spend the years between age seven and age 16 at boarding schools in Russia, to which they are transported via helicopter.
She also learned to wrestle — a strictly male pursuit in the tribe. She drove a reindeer sled and had a lesson in lassoing reindeer, another skill usually restricted to the men of the tribe.
The young mother was introduced to tribal superstitions and taboos, which decree that women could not touch herding sticks or lassos, and even admits to unwittingly breaking one important taboo.
“There is a certain line in the Chum (family tent) for instance that women couldn’t walk under and I did, so I had to kneel down and get the smoke in my face to cleanse me of the sin,” she recalls, adding that the experience had changed her attitude to life.
“You can lose faith as an Irish Traveller in Ireland.
“I am used to Ireland. When I was growing up you’d feel the stigma — you wouldn’t be let into a nightclub for example — yet these people took me on board.
“They were like Travelling people. They reminded me of Travellers because of the way they observed me for a day; they were sussing me out and then they let their guard down.
“I loved it. I’d go back again in half a heartbeat. I’ve always had a problem with anxiety but over there I slept like a baby; I never felt as safe. I saw how content they were with each other; it was so peaceful,” she adds.
When she left, she says, Tamara’s husband gave her a deeply symbolic gift — his personal hand-made lasso.
“The translator told me that this was the greatest honour you could get from the Nenet, because they make these lassos in their teens.
“It takes months to make them from the bones of the reindeer.
“The old man gave me his own personal lasso that he made and when I realised what it was I was so honoured.”
JOURNEY INTO UNKNOWN
For fellow traveller Paddy Collins, 31, the trip to the Amazon where he spent 10 days living with the remote Wouja tribe was truly a journey into the unknown.
He had his skin scraped with Piranha teeth by the village chief to prepare him for a challenging wrestling competition; learned how to kill fish by biting their spines; went monkey-hunting in the jungle; and met the local Shamen.
He also learned for the first time about the tradition of ‘reclusion’, a rite of passage for young Wouja girls aged between 11 and 13, who are confined to a hut for up to three years after their first period.
“I was just taken completely out of my own setting and brought to the other side of the world,” recalls the Finglas-based Traveller, who works as a men’s mental health and suicide prevention worker with Exchange House, Ireland.
“They were one of the nicest groups of people I have ever met,” he says.
“They were so welcoming and I think they understood that I was from a tribe or minority group myself.”
He was deeply impressed by the natural fitness of the tribe. The hunters, he says, “were like body-builders, very strong and muscled.
“They do a lot of fishing and hunting and chopping wood. They’re training every day as part of their lifestyle,” he says, recalling how he received some wrestling training from a tribesman.
“He gave me a good going-over and a good hiding!” he says, adding that his skin was scraped with piranha teeth to prepare him for the contest.
“My trainer had very hard skin from years of scraping.
“My skin was soft and white, but theirs was almost like mahogany, smooth with a very hard surface,” he says, adding that the tribesmen’s strength was ‘unbelievable’.
“I play a bit of football and lift weights at home but because they are doing so many things in the forest they’re very strong,” he recalls, adding that he was also struck by their confident, positive attitude to life.
“They’re very positive-thinking.” Even if a wrestler loses a fight during a contest, nobody is disappointed or angry.
“In our lives when we lose we are upset, and people can get upset when they lose in football or boxing, but in this sport the culture is that it’s all about taking part in it,” he says.
He was struck by the lack of “finger-pointing” at a competitor who loses a match.
Back at home, Paddy often finds himself thinking back to that experience.
“I close my eyes and think of sailing down the Amazon river on a boat, looking at the parrots and the birds; looking at all this wildlife that you would only normally see on TV — the birds, the colours, the water, the noises — the peace was extraordinary.
“I close my eyes and think of the green colour of the Amazon and the trees and the noises and the smells.
“I’d love to come back. It was the experience of a lifetime, no negatives.
“I look back and see how content they were — no worries about money or mortgages; no pressure for holidays and houses and cars.
“They just go on, day to day — and tomorrow is another day.”
- Traveller’s Guide begins on RTÉ One at 9.35pm tomorrow.