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An L.A. Sansei's Misadventures in South America

One of my weirdest experiences in Brazil

My visit to the town of Tupã brought me face-to-face with . . . wait, I’ll tell you in a second.

While visiting friends there, I was dropped off in the main square to take a walking tour of this small interior town in the state of São Paulo, Brazil. Stopping in the late afternoon at Tupã’s local museum of indigenous artifacts, I was looking to pass the time until dinner. I perused the variety of woven baskets, clay pots, musical instruments, totem-like images, feathered headdresses, food and cooking utensils, tools and weapons. Yawn.

You know the experience, right? The place closely resembled what you would call in LA and other cities the Natural History Museum. The problem is certainly not the fault of the museum or its fine collection of artifacts. They do their best to be what they are. But I come from the generation of museumgoers that pushes buttons, hoping to make lights flash and create trumpeting jungle animal noises. No buttons here. Not even the kind on clothing.

So, where was I? Oh yeah, headdresses, cooking utensils and weapons. All right. Okay. As a guy, I’ll admit that I lingered over the weapons. These were an assortment of edged and barbed piercing implements and blunt-force objects. Most, if not all, of them would be lethal if applied today.

fishbone arrowhead (left) and pig shank spearhead (right)

They would also be extremely painful, I would guess. Imagine being speared by a sharpened pig shank. Or perhaps you’d prefer a razor-edged fishbone affixed to the tip of an arrow? That would make your eyes water a bit if hit in the right places, wouldn’t you agree?

As I stifled my eighth yawn and thought about eating dinner in less than an hour, I was jolted awake when I came face-to-face with this guy. Upon closer inspection, the leathery facial complexion failed to give away any hint of actual humanity.

As I stood in the museum’s main (and only) gallery, I called out to the curator asking in Portuguese, “Is this genuine?”

Her answer: “Yes. It is.”

Wow!! It fascinated me even more. It looked so . . . NOT like a shrunken head!

My next question reflected the seriously negative impact of living in close proximity to places like Hollywood or Universal Studios. It shows the definite influence of too many CSI and Bones television episodes. Surely this wasn’t so different from something I would find in the Adventureland Tropical Imports Shop near the Jungle Cruise at Disneyland.

With my skewed background firmly set in your mind, please understand the process as I asked the curator, “Do you have any other heads that I can buy in the gift shop?”

She stared at me and stepped behind another glass display, her eyes never leaving me. The movement suggested that she wanted to place a barrier between us. She wasn’t behaving like a shop girl looking for the drawer containing the highly prized, gift-wrapped, shrunken heads. I think I scared her.

Noting her obvious distress, I smiled, shrugged my shoulders, and walked out into the warm evening air of the town.

That shrunken head makes that day stand out as one the strangest in my South American experience. It’s possible that the curator remembers it as well, recalling a strangely accented visitor who walked in one day and asked the most unusual question she’d ever heard.

© 2010 John Katagi

Brazil museum sao paulo travel

About this series

John Katagi is a former staff member of the Japanese American National Museum. He shares memories from almost two decades of travel to South America. His experiences result from study and observation as part of the directorial staff of JEMS, a cross-cultural agency based in Los Angeles.