Mnislav Zelený-Atapana is pacing, talking on his mobile and looking slightly annoyed. Snapping the phone shut, he glances up and suddenly sees me. 

“You’re late,” he says, by way of greeting. “My time is precious.” 

We’d agreed to meet inside Pasáž Lucerna “around 11ish.” 

It is 11:05. 

Sitting down at a nearby café, Zelený-Atapana refuses to smile or even make small talk as he waits for his glass of “lukewarm water.” Clearly, he is holding a grudge. 


I nervously scan the questions I have prepared, worried that if I ask something he considers dumb or irrelevant he will get up and walk out. It is difficult to imagine this is the same man who has dedicated more than four decades of his life to the study of Amazon Indians, spending months at a time living among them in the jungles and mountains of South America. Sometimes naked. 


“I was just trying to suck in the atmosphere,” Zelený-Atapana states, wearily, as if he’s said this all 100 times before. “I found out the way they live is completely different than the way we live.” 

He was attracted by the simplicity of it all. He found meaning in this humble way of life. And, soon, he found he’d gained the trust of this population. 


“You shouldn’t present yourself as a Mr. Know-It-All,” he explains. “You have to be really sensitive and modest.” 


It was through this kind of quiet observation and respect that he was eventually accepted by one indigenous community, “adopted” and given an Indian name — Atapana — which he attached to the end of his own family name. He was the first “white man” allowed to dance a “holy dance.” 

“I was really satisfied,” he says, pausing to consider his next words: “Over there, inside the jungle, they have nothing, but they are happy — more happy than us.” 

“Their views and ideas represent ... the basic principles of life, like the Ten Commandments. They don’t [have] many material goods. [Instead], they focus on material values.” 

Today, Zelený-Atapana, 64, dressed in black and carrying a tattered briefcase, is looking more like a tired university professor than the Czech version of Indiana Jones. 

But, while he claims to have “students, successors” whom he hopes to pass on the torch to some day, Zelený-Atapana is no university professor and seems slightly offended when it is suggested otherwise. 

“I’m an anthropologist,” he declares, his eyes squashing any hope of a follow-up question. 

His reputation in the social sciences community appears to be tremendous. Ludmila Škrabáková, an anthropology student at Charles University, Zelený-Atapana’s alma mater, knew him from his writings and work long before she finally met him. 

“I imagined him completely different,” says Škrabáková, who did her bachelor’s thesis on the Peruvian Amazon and traveled through the Venezuelan jungles for three months last year. 

“I thought he would be some old man, like a grandfather, but he is actually very energetic for his age,” she says. “I really appreciate his energy and hard work and that he is trying to raise awareness of the Amazon.” Zelený-Atapana has written six books about his time in South America, including the recently published Malá encyklopedie šamanismu (Small Encyclopedia of Shamanism). He is planning to finish writing his seventh by the end of the year. He is a regular guest speaker on the lecture circuit and occasionally leads tourist expeditions into the Amazon jungles to live like Indians for a few days. 

“It’s a means of fundraising for me,” Zelený-Atapana admits. But, he adds, it is also his way of giving back to a part of the world that was so significant in shaping his destiny. 

“I decided to do something for the Indians,” he says. “They helped me with my life.” 

To say, however, that Zelený-Atapana is trying to “help” his Indian brethren is “misleading.” 

“The best thing we could do is leave them alone,” he stresses. “They know how to live.” 

And yet, “helping” is exactly what he seems to be doing. They asked him, Zelený-Atapana says, to bring them “work.” 

Setting up his own nonprofit, Velká Amazonie, a few years ago with a group of friends who share a similar passion, Zelený-Atapana is concentrating his efforts on a small village of some 100 inhabitants to raise money for school tuition for the group’s children to someday attend university outside the tight-knit community. 

There have been three tours through the jungle with a fourth expedition set for later this year, and Zelený-Atapana is looking for eager participants with money to donate. 

“We’ll only take a person who is capable of this kind of humility, who can be modest,” Zelený-Atapana says. 

Tomáš Zilvar says going on one of these excursions is “like a mushroom trip, but without mushrooms.” 

“You must be [a] nature lover. ... Before you leave, you must [put] your soul in the hands of nature or God. Then it will be the trip of your life,” says Zilvar, who runs his own publishing house for young people, and has traveled with Zelený-Atapana to South America twice now. 

“Mnislav is one of my personal heroes,” Zilvar says. “I respect him. I do not know another Czech person who is so in love with South America. 

”Zelený-Atapana has been fascinated with South America practically his entire life. 

“The name ‘America’ was a great symbol,” he says. “I was always attracted by America. It tempted me.”His first stop, in 1968, was Brazil. 

“Rio is something,” Zelený-Atapana says, a faint smile playing on his lips. “If you want to start in America, you have to start with Rio.” 

After working in Western Europe and saving money for six months, Zelený-Atapana arrived in Brazil’s stunning coastal city with $60 in his wallet and a deep desire to see as much as he could. The plan was to travel from Rio de Janeiro up to Mexico. He had given himself a year. 

“The first steps were terrible,” Zelený-Atapana recalls. “It was really repugnant there; people with open sores. ... The difference between Europe and South America is big. ... I wasn’t ready to see.”

It took him just a week to find work. For a month, he stayed put, saving his earnings and soaking in the culture, before moving on, hitchhiking his way through the Andes Mountains, which is really where his interest in Indian cultures blossomed. 

“It wasn’t any serious studies,” he says of the time he spent with the Indian community in the Andes. “I was attracted by [the idea of] living in a tribe. It’s a different way of life — I’m a Catholic, of course, but I accepted their religion and beliefs.” 

Another trip into the jungles of South America came in 1972, followed by a long break, when it became more difficult to travel outside Czechoslovakia. During that time, Zelený-Atapana wrote about his adventures through the Amazon and raised his family. 

It has been a good life. And Zelený-Atapana says he is happy: “I was — am — doing what I want.” 

It’s obvious there is not much more to add, and on that note, the anthropologist says a hasty goodbye before blowing out the front door of the cafe and quickly disappearing into the afternoon crowd. 

THE ZELENÝ-ATAPANA FILE
Born: August 1943
Family: Married, two children, one grandchild
Occupation: Anthropologist, author, lecturer, adventure-seeker