Do you really want to be in our tribe?
Explorer Bruce Parry has dined with cannibals in West Papua, become a shaman in Venezuela and undergone painful rituals in Ethiopia. What on earth makes him do it? Jan Moir finds out Bruce Parry would rather be described as an expeditioner than an explorer, but he’s not splitting hairs. For much of the past year, he has been splitting rats in half instead, then scooping out their colons for lunch or chargrilling their tails for a nice evening snack.
Going native: Bruce Parry with the cannibalistic
Kombai tribe of West Papua
Kombai tribe of West Papua
“Crunchy, full of gristle and quite hairy,” is how he describes the latter, although he’s not complaining. “If you have been living on raw, dry sago for a week, which sucks the moisture from your mouth and is like eating chalk, then you are grateful for anything different you can get. I ate and drank a lot of pretty grim stuff, but the truth is that I don’t mind the odd locust – it tastes like a prawn – and the secret to drinking blood is to do it quickly. If you don’t, it congeals and becomes stringy going down the throat, which is very unpleasant.” The redoubtable Parry and his ironclad intestines feature in a new television series, Tribe, which begins on BBC2 tonight. Over the past 12 months, he has lived with some of the most remote tribes on the planet; eating, sleeping and living the way they do, taking part in their rituals and adopting as many of their customs as he could.
“It’s about Brucie getting in the zone, Brucie immersing himself in the culture of each area,” is how he describes it in his casual, almost goofy, gap-year way. “I could be accused of being a wannabe tribesman, of wanting to be a tribal dude, but that is not how I see it. I see it as me doing what they wanted me to do, showing them respect and hanging out with them. And they loved it. They loved that I put a bone through my nose. They loved that I had my penis pushed back inside me.” I see. And did Brucie love it, too? “It’s all been an amazing journey, an incredible experience. I am grateful for it all.” Parry’s travels have looped across the globe. In the Arunachal Pradesh region of India, he was the first white man in living memory to visit the Adi people, while with the cannibalistic Kombai tribe of West Papua, he used stone tools and ate (non-human) meals cooked with hot stones. While with the Suri in Ethiopia, he had his skin slashed with razor blades and thorns as part of an ancient ritual ceremony. “The women laughed at me. They thought I was a terrible wimp because I flinched,” he says.
Just before Christmas, Parry flew back to Britain after his last tribal sojourn, a month with the Sanema people of Venezuela, where he became a shaman by having a hallucinogenic drug made from dried tree sap blown up his nose. He also tried to understand Sanema reality, which is that it is dreams, not awake moments, that are real, and that spirits live inside us, swinging in little hammocks on our ribs. Today, in a London restaurant, wearing a crumpled evening shirt and a rather ashen expression, he clings on to a glass of champagne and looks shattered. He says he hasn’t looked in a mirror for more than a month, which is probably just as well. “It’s not the travelling, it’s the partying,” he says, although it’s got to be both. “I love drinking and dancing. I hate going to the gym. I’m so lazy. I was still in a dinner jacket less than two hours ago, but I don’t feel too bad.”
After spending a month with each of the six tribes featured in the series, Parry feels a deep need to throw himself into a hectic social life. Understandable, although there are moments when “if I do have time out, I lie in bed for a day, look at the wall and think, ‘Bruce, you are knackered. You are pushing things a bit here”.
Back home :
Bruce relaxes on more familiar turf. We have sweet grilled scallops scattered with pomegranate seeds, delicious ribbons of ham from the chef’s home town of Latina, a hillock of spaghetti with crab and aubergine sauce and a bottle of Miani white wine from Fruili which, amongst its many excellent characteristics, is not one which makes it stringy going down the throat.
Parry despatches all this lustily, as you might expect, but with perfect manners and more than a hint of polish, which you might not – especially if the last time you saw him, he was buck naked with his feet up in the air, whimpering with pain after the West Papuan penis-disappearing incident, more of which later. As he chats away about his year of yo-yoing weight, there is something about polite, slight Bruce Parry that doesn’t quite add up. I had felt the same thing while watching a preview of tonight’s programme, showing him living with the Adi people, helping to build houses, carrying tottering stacks of logs through the jungle on his back, picking leeches off his legs as if he were flicking away flies, surviving on potatoes and the occasional live beetle. The way he copes, that nonchalant but deeply ingrained toughness, are truly exceptional traits. How did he get like that? The answer is so obvious, it’s embarrassing. “I was a lieutenant in the Marines.” Doh! “But I don’t really want to talk about it.” We can’t not talk about it. That would be like a snail coming into a room and saying, “But I don’t really want to talk about my shell.” “Look, I am so proud of being a Marine, so proud of it. I loved it; it shaped me as an individual; it taught me so many things about life and made me physically and mentally stronger than I ever perceived I could be. You are pushed through immense trauma; a physical, psychological and emotional stress that nobody else is trained to deal with. It was amazing. But I don’t want to be defined as someone who was once in the Marines. That’s not what Tribe is about. It’s not about me surviving the experience. It is about them.”
Parry was born in Hythe, near the New Forest, but grew up with his two brothers and sister in the south-west of England. His father was a major in the Royal Artillery Regiment, although Parry insists he himself was never an Army brat. “What is that? I don’t like the sound of that at all.” He boarded at Wells Cathedral School, which he loved – “a really happy, special place” – and remains grateful to his parents because “they forfeited all their savings to put us in school. I thank them for that massively; it was very generous and loving of them.” Commissioned into the Royal Marines in 1988, he spent several years as a troop commander and specialised as a physical training instructor. “I taught gym,” he says, dismissively, even though he was the youngest ever officer responsible for all physical aspects of Marines commando training; no walk in the park, we can assume. During his six years as a Marine, he also served in Arctic Norway and on operation in Iraq – and there was me thinking he was quite tough for a wee television presenter from Hampshire. He also has, I note, first-rate communication skills and quickly bonds with the staff at Latium restaurant. By the end of our lunch, they are more than happy to help him in any way they can. Perhaps it’s just him, perhaps it’s part of his officer training; very charming, yes, but he also has a way of establishing control. But now, I’m doing what he hates most; defining him by what he was, rather than what he is.
Expeditioner Bruce with the Suri of Ethiopia
After service, Parry worked in the film and television industry as a location manager, before establishing himself as an expeditioner and leading more than a dozen major expeditions, including protecting turtles in Sumatra, establishing a monkey rehabilitation centre in Kalimantan, and climbing Mont Blanc, just because he felt like it. This led to making two children’s series for CBBC – Serious Desert and Serious Jungle – and thus to his new six-part, prime-time series. Parry, now 35, spends a month with each tribe and although the programmes make gripping viewing, they raise more awkward questions than they perhaps answer – chiefly, should we even be bothering these people in the first place? There is no doubt that we gain more from the experience than they do, even though the tribes are paid in one way or another for having Parry lodge with them. Whether that is a good or a bad thing, who knows? Certainly, his aims are sincere. Where Michael Palin passes through, Bruce Parry is embedded. Where Palin coolly observes, Parry gets stuck in. He says: “We tried to be very culturally sensitive with everyone. We thought about it all very carefully. My personal aim was to show each community as normal human societies with the same loves and hopes that we have. “All the anthropological programmes I have seen before just had some God-like voice pontificating on the behaviour of these people.” But there were some things he would not do.
“Is there a necessity for me to eat another human being? Answer, no. The hunting and death of animals is an entirely natural process, but eating human flesh is another worldview from ours, although the Kombai of West Papua only kill and eat male witches. And we decided that I wouldn’t have sex with any of the women, even if the situation ever arose naturally, which, I am happy to say, it didn’t.”
Which reminds me. After the Kombai had encouraged Parry to stick a bone – actually, a sago thorn – through his septum (“agony”), they encouraged him to wear his penis inside rather than outside his body, just like them. For reasons of hygiene, he assumes. Apart from the odd gourd, they are a naked people and the ants crawl everywhere.
“Well,” he says, pouring a glass of hazelnut liqueur over his tiramisu. “They push it back inside and then they wrap the residue of their foreskin in a leaf and tie it with tree bark that has been filed into a bit of string. So it looks like your penis is nothing, a macaroon. To make mine like that, this guy grabbed the end of it and squeezed it hard; a very strange sensation, like your foreskin is a sausage roll and your penis is the meat that is shooting back inside your body.” The awful thing was that, for once in his life, Parry’s communication skills let him down. “I was trying to say, by sign language, ‘I don’t want to do this, I don’t want to do this!’, but they didn’t understand.” You can’t help but wonder if the Kombai were just having a laugh.
“And I wasn’t supposed to move, but I did, just an inch, and then nearly fainted with the pain. Sweat poured out of me. I was in a very weird way. What delicious tiramisu.”
Elsewhere, Parry built up the natural immunity in his gut by eating green bread and mouldy stews for weeks before he left Britain – he didn’t get sick once – and sobbed and cried during a drug-induced re-birthing experience with the Babongo people in Gabon. However, he says that the most difficult and stressful times were just sitting in huts with his adopted jungle families, “trying to somehow communicate and not make a terrible social gaffe”. In some respects, it sounds like the average family Christmas – but hooray for Bruce Parry, who survived it all in his quietly heroic way.
Tribe begins tonight, at 9pm, on BBC2