"Throughout my life, I have been searching for a way to connect with other human beings," writes Tobias Schneebaum. That search for human connection has led him–a New Yorker born on the Lower East Side to Orthodox Jews from Poland; a painter and a gay man–to live among people who couldn't have been more different from himself: cannibal and headhunting tribes in the jungles of South America and New Guinea.
Schneebaum is best known for his first book, Keep the River on Your Right (1969), an engrossing, often astonishing account of his experiences among a tribe living a Stone Age existence deep in the Madre de Dios rainforest of eastern Peru. In 1956, Schneebaum, a successful painter, was awarded a Fulbright Fellowship to study art in Peru. But once he arrived there, he abandoned his studies to venture, alone and unarmed, into the jungle. A knapsack on his back, sneakers on his feet and the admonition to "keep the river on your right" to guide him as he walked, he was unprepared for what he might encounter yet open to whatever might come his way.
Seven months after Schneebaum went into the vast equatorial forest, the US State Department presumed that he was dead. Back in New York, newspapers reported the mysterious story of the prominent local artist who had vanished in the Amazon. But after a year Schneebaum emerged, naked and covered in body paint. He had found the settlement of the Amarakaire, a tribal people who ended up adopting him and initiating him into their culture, which, to his surprise and delight, sanctioned same-sex relations among men. Schneebaum spent many a happy night in the Amarakaire communal lodge, entwined with his comrades in the all-male sleeping piles.
For much of the book, the recounting of his experiences reads like a combination boy's adventure story (albeit a particularly strange one) and an amateur anthropologist's report. But the tale eventually takes a very dark turn. The Amarakaire were hunters, and on occasion their prey included other human beings, as Schneebaum found out to his horror when he unwittingly accompanied them on a raid of a nearby village. He witnessed young Amarakaire warriors, with whom he had enjoyed friendship and sex, efficiently and remorselessly slaughter the male villagers and butcher the bodies for a feast in which he partook, eating a piece of a heart.
This horrific episode constituted only a brief moment of his time among the Amarakaire, and it takes up only a little more than a page of the book. But it was surely the most shocking and sensationalistic of his experiences, and it has haunted him ever since. Indeed, it took him nearly fourteen years, from his return to New York till the publication of Keep the River on Your Right, to disclose what happened. (In a 1988 interview with the London Sunday Telegraph, he said that he wrote the book to "exorcize those demons.")
Traumatized though he was by his encounter with cannibalism, he never lost his appetite for traveling to and living in distant places, always preferring to take the isolated and unknown path, often discovering his destination along the way. His wanderlust has carried him through South America, Europe, Africa and Asia, and he has related his experiences in several books. It's not a large oeuvre. Since River–a countercultural classic, also popular with gay readers, that has never gone out of print–he has published Wild Man (1979) and Where the Spirits Dwell (1988), and he is the author or co-author of several volumes about the art and culture of the Asmat people of Irian Jaya (West New Guinea). Now, nearly 80, Schneebaum has a new book, Secret Places: My Life in New York and New Guinea, in which he reflects on his amazing life. He is also the subject of a first-rate new documentary, Keep the River on Your Right: A Modern Cannibal Tale. The film, by the siblings David and Laurie Gwen Shapiro, has been winning awards at film festivals and has footage from Peru and Irian Java. (More on the doc, hereafter referred to as KRYR, later.)