Saturday, August 15, 2009
I guess this is where I should be sentimental. I should reflect on my last six weeks in Peru and list the ways in which it has changed me. I should dedicate this blog to all that I will miss.
But that's not what I'm thinking right now as I look at Cuba.
CUBA. I'm out of Peru. I'm heading HOME.
I try to summon sentimentality, but it doesn't come.
Don't get me wrong - You would have to offer me a handsome sum to snatch these last six weeks away from me. I got to share an ecologist's enthusiasm for sticky liquids, to listen to an Amazon artisan sing native tales as she weaves her chambira, to play in a soup of tadpoles. I liked this adventure.
But all along, I knew I was going home. I came as a traveler, passing through moments of people's lives. I made friends, but I knew I would soon leave them. We would probably never see each other again. But knowing this made our limited time together better. We sang, we danced, we talked, and we didn't do it for a future friendship. All we had was this one song.
In Chino, Angel and I sang Te Amo by Makano until I could spit out all the lyrics with only minor slurring. On the airplane, I plug in my earphones and listen to Makano. "He's just not that into you" is playing on the TV above my seat, but I choose Makano. In this way, I wave good-bye to Peru. This is the extent of my sentimentality.
I feel heavy. I did not sleep last night. I went out to a karaoke bar and discoteca with Yully and Angel. And then it was 5 a.m. and I was taking a motorkar to the Iquitos airport.
Now I fall asleep to Cuba and Makano. "Espera, por favor no te vayas..."
This adventure was everything it should have been. I had fun. I was challenged. And now I have a new adventure waiting for me at home. I have a new apartment, five new classes, a new writing gig, several new bellydances to learn, a brother that's getting married in October, a mom with a new brick house, and Argentinian tango lessons with my Malibu.
"Ladies and gentlemen, the seatbelt sign is now on." New York's hodgepodge of lights stretches out below me. I'm HOME. My stomach lurches. Maybe it's excitement, or maybe it's the coffee cake.
Monday, August 10, 2009
Between experiments, Campbell runs around Iquitos in a hurried attempt to get an export permit. If he doesn't get all the paperwork signed and stamped before he leaves for Lima, he won't be able to take the hundreds of oil, resin and bug samples out of Peru. I intentionally distance myself from this process. The mind-numbing boredom of official-looking stacks of papers utterly terrifies me.
I eat a cone of coconut ice cream, every day.
I discuss roots and ocelot furs with the vendors of Belen and buy nine packs of mapacho (nicotiana rustica) cigars.
I spend an afternoon watching a street artist, Tomas, paint a Borra woman on a t-shirt. He sells each t-shirt for $15. He also creates bed-sized paintings, but he only works on those after taking ayahuaska. "When I have ayahuaska, I see the gods and godesses, " Tomas saya. "And that is what I put down on my canvas." In his paintings, frogs, raindroplets and nipples swirl out of rivers. Tomas tells me about his dead grandfather, who used to be a shaman. According to Tomas, his grandfather's bones continue to cure cancer patients. "My grandfather was like a god."
I watch a Hallmark movie dubbed in Spanish. The speakers' voices are all high-pitched and scratchy.
I spend $10 on Internet at a cafe that costs $0.70 per hour. I obviously miss my Internets, not to mention my Skype contacts.
Friday morning we leave for Chino, still fretting about signatures and still copying paperwork on our way to port.
Thursday, August 6, 2009
Angel Raygada (from Iquitos) and Milano and Itolo (two brothers from Jenaro Herrera) have been helping CACE write down these lump stories for more than three years.
CACE monitors about 170 copal trees at the station. I´ve chosen three lucky winners to introduce to you.
That ball between the legs of this copal tree is an orchid bee nest. These green bees made this nest mostly out of copal resin, with a bit of mud mixed in.
Two months ago, Itolo spotted a green stingless bee on the nest. The bee crawled around the lump, left something (maybe resin?), and then buzzed away. This sighting is significant; we already knew that bees collect resin, but this is the first time we can correlate resin collection with nest building.
Yes, this bee actually is green! It's flashy like a disco ball.
Goes to show that even protected research stations aren't always protected.
But this guy is making a comeback. Campbell and I found a live weevil inside one of the cone traps. This trap takes advantage of the insect's ability to climb upwards and inability to navigate steep downhills. The weevil climbed up into the trap through a hole, but now he can't get down through that same hole.
And that enables us to take a good look at him. He is candy-corn sized, with brown scaly legs and a chunky torso:
We assume that these weevil larvae navigate up and down the tube in order to catch a breath of air.
Two months ago, the respiratory tube closed. We think that the larvae are still inside, and that their mother is still feeding them. Campbell hypothesizes that the tube has closed because the larvae are now going through an advanced larvae instar (sub-stage).
(The scientific community still doesn't know much about the life cycle of the weevil. Hence, the abundance of assumptions, thoughts, and hypothesis.)
At about the same time that the respiratory tube closed, another tube formed on top of the lump. Itolo says that this structure looks like the entrance of an orchid bee nest.
Itolo is going to fasten a trap around the lump in order to catch any weevil or bee adults that emerge from the resin as they mature. Neither Itolo nor Campbell have ever seen a lump with both weevil and bee activity. This could be the first!
These lump stories don't directly affect our production of essential oil from copal resin. They are primarily for educational, not commercial, purposes.
These tales teach us more about the fascinating relationships among resin, weevils, bees and copal trees. They encourage us to question:
If we take away this resin, what else will we change indirectly?
When we pull on this small, knotted string, how many big strings do we pull with it?
If we take away our tropical forests, what happens to us?
Maybe not much, but maybe a lot.
We don't know, not yet.
These lumps add to our understanding of ecology, of how our world works, of us.
Before Edith joined the Kolping artisan association at Jenaro Herrera, she lived according to a timeline of big things, not little.
At age 17, Edith decided to become a nun. She joined a monastery in Lima, but then quit four years later. "There were too many rules," Edith says.
Edith moved to Pucallpa (a jungle city notorious for crime and drug trafficking), got a boyfriend, and worked in a book store. During the workday, she lost herself in mystery and romance novels. "But of course, the Bible was still my favorite book," Edith says. "It tells you everything."
At the time, Edith did not know that her boyfriend, Arturo Pizarro, was a leader of Sendero Luminoso, a Peruvian terrorist organization.
One evening, Edith was walking home from the bookstore when two men on motorcycles pulled up alongside her. They threatened to kill Edith if she did not come with them. The men locked Edith in a dark room for three days without food or drink.
When they released her, the men said, "You can go, because your lover gave us what we wanted."
That was 14 years ago. Edith never saw her boyfriend again. She assumes that he is dead.
Afraid that her life was still in danger, Edith fled to Jenaro Herrera, her hometown. She made a living by painting toucans and selling them to tourists.
"When I paint, I relax," Edith says.
Edith is determined to not die "just an artisan."
Edith´s dream is to build a pharmacy in Jenaro Herrera. According to Edith, the government clinic lacks basic medicine. In the last two years, three people have died of snake bites because the clinic did not have anti-venom in stock.
"I will give them anti-venom. It´s that simple," Edith says.
Edith hangs the owl earrings to dry in the sun on a clothesline, along with 10 other owls.
She sells the earrings for four soles per pair. The license for her dream pharmacy costs 3000 soles. "That's 750 pairs of earrings. 1,500 owls, snakes and toucans," Edith calculates. "Not bad."
He freezes to let me get a good look at him. "If Yully were here, she would stomp you into a pancake with her rubber boot," I tell him. The antennae laugh.
You´re right, I won´t kill you because I don´t want to get my boot dirty with your goo. Better moving and solid than still and gooey, I reason.
This cockroach would be beautiful if he wasn´t creepy, disgusting and the length of my middle finger. He shines back like a mahogany coffee table accented with yellow crayon doodles.
I spot his friend on the cement floor. She is coffee and milk with flecks of black coffee grinds.
OK, seven more hours until daylight, and I need a new hobby.
I crack open The Unheard: a memoir of deafness and Africa by John Swiller.
The title sounds heavy. I expect it to try to guilt trip me into feeling sorry for Africa and deaf people, and then to remind me about how beautiful poor communities really are! I´m already mad at Josh because he´s about to transform that stupid infommercial -- the one with that old, white guy and skinny, sad African girl -- into a 265-page rant, and I´m not in the mood. You´re not going to make me get all depressed about the state of the world, Josh!
Josh shuts me up once I start reading the book. I´m happy to say that he does not live up to any of my expectations.
The Unheard isn´t so much about deafness or Africa, as it is about dealing with people in general, and coming to terms with yourself. Josh arrives in Zambia as a (sorta) deaf Peace Corps volunteer with high hopes to "save" Africa. But all of his projects fail. He spends most of his time arguing with the community headmen, playing chess, weighing babies at the town clinic, and sharing Playboy with his friends.
Josh tells his story with lots of periods and quotation marks; his sentences are witty and short, with the perfect degree of descriptive.
Josh doesn´t offer us any great insight into the state of humanity. He doesn´t pretend to know more about the world than the average reader (me). In this way, the book feels like a conversation.
I´m itching to share the last sentence of the book (my favorite), but I don´t want to ruin the ending for you.
Sucky title, great read.
The antennae wiggle in agreement, and the night exhales with daybreak.
Tuesday, August 4, 2009
Campbell asked Elox Pacaxa, principal of Jenaro Herrera school, what his school needed, and Elox drafted a wish list.
We bought most of the items at Jenaro Herrera´s biggest general store -- the kind of place that sells cake, cola, t-shirts on robocop manequinns, butter by the spoonful, notebooks, machetes and miscellaneous buttons in four-liter jugs.
Elox read his wish list to the store owner (shirtless, with hairy nipples).
This is what $170 buys at Jenaro Herrera:
1 Hewlett Packard printer
3 ink cartridges for printer
3000 pages of computer paper
2 dozen bottles of toilet cleaner
2 dozen brooms
500 pages of drawing paper
48 packets of ACE detergent
1 kilogram of rubber cement
10 colored poster boards
20 pills for pain and infections
5 packets of Vick´s vapor rub
1bottle of disinfectant
1 white-out pen
This research station is made with the needs and wants of scientists in mind. I get my own house, with a splotchy mirror, electricity for four hours each evening, a toilet that usually flushes, and three empty bedrooms. I think all the space is for my nonexistent equipment and experiments.
And I get two locks -- one for my bedroom, and the other for the front door -- and four keys.
The locks and keys are what did it.
You see, I am not a scientist. When my bedroom doorknob fell off and tumbled into a spiderweb (with spider), I did not fix it. I left it there.
I watched the spider explore the remnants of her web. She peeked into the cavity of the knob, obviously more curious than distraught in the face of destruction. I sketched the inquisitive creature on a square of toilet paper. Then my attention wavered, and I drew how the torn, lacy curtain plasters against my window in the late afternoon.
And then I left for dinner.
Since I am not a scientist, I did not contemplate the inner workings of the lock. I left my bedroom keys in my bedroom, assuming that a broken lock does not lock.
Obviously, the broken lock locked.
The groundskeeper did not have a spare. He had attached the spare to the original "to better keep track of it." He handed me a hammer, pointed to the window, and said that he would be back in a few minutes to help me in. I did not wait, because "a few" in Peruvian time means half an hour in Natalya time.
Clearly, this story would be much more dramatic if the window were made out of glass. But I just had to lift a few wooden planks and rip through the mosquito netting. They shouldn´t even bother with the locks.
As I swung my legs into the house, a clump of researchers passed by my house. Two of them noted my flailing silouhette, and the whites of their eyes popped. They quickened their step. If they realized that someone was breaking in, they never let on.
I climbed in, tangled my feet in the lacy curtain, tripped, and crushed my curious spider friend.
I drew her furry brown legs, crisscrossed.
The next day, I repeated this exercise with the front door. I am not a scientist, and I do not stive for efficiency.
It smells heavy here, like warm worms.
Michael, Randy and I are drinking "negritas" (coke) with purple straws from glass bottles. Michael buys a round of negritas for our new friends: 26-year-old Lito, his father Pedro, and his uncle Arturo.
The three men live together in a house on stilts that cost them 300 soles ($100).
Belen is where you go in Iquitos when you have nowhere else to go. It is literally the underworld of the city; when the river rises, Belen and its homes on stilts go under.
Here you poop in your outhouse on the river, and you drink the river, too. Ten thousand people live here.
Pedro moved here from Padre Isla, a small village downriver from the city. At age 15, he started washing dishes in the market.
Lito was born and raised on this same piece of land. He now gives tours of his home and river to passersby. Lito is proud of his neighborhood on stilts. He points and smiles and shows Belen off as if it were Venice. (It is almost like Venice --- same smell, different architecture.)
Michael and Arturo poke fun at each other. Their voices thunder and their stomachs shake. Pedro and Lito join in, giggling.
Our straws gurgle, lapping up last drips of black, and we hug, and we say good-bye, as if we were more than mere acquaintances. We shared a laugh in Belen.
On our way out, Belen asks me for sex at least three times and woes me with a drunken love song. Belen steals Randy´s hat off his head, while he is sitting in a moving motorcar.
This place is poor, underdeveloped and dangerous, no doubt. And the kids are skipping, and grown men are giggling. Like all of the places I´ve visited in Peru, Belen doesn´t let me form an opinion about it.
It is bad, good, and it is.
Tuesday, July 28, 2009
We agreed on chocolate ice cream with chocolate chips and fudge drizzle in a waffle cone. "And it would be as big as my head!" Yully added. A few hours later, we added a strawberry on top of our fantasy.
And as the congress continued to day three, hour eight, I drew a picture biography of Yully in blue pen, pencil stub and squeaky pink highlighter. Her eyes are uncomfortably wide open, as if someone is prying them up with matches. Her head is in profile, and her nose points longingly to a patch of trees, dirt and open sky. Her neck dissolves into a river filled with butterflies, chocolate bars, dancing feet, clapping hands, and a big chocolate ice cream in a waffle cone.
"Exactly," Yully whispers.
* * *
As we floated down the Napo River in an elongated canoe (hour 15 of 27), Yully flicked her wrist, and I understood. Time to switch seats.
I had been trying to fall asleep on a sugar sack encrusted in ants, and Yully had been using an orange lifejacket as a pillow. She was convincing her neck and back to conform to the 90 degree seat angle. Neither of us had succeeded in catching a wink of sleep, so we switched. The life jacket looked exceptionally comfortable to me, and Yully eyed my sugar sack with envy.
The lifejacket was hard like plywood and it rustled every time I turned my neck. The ants on the sack snapped at Yully´s shoulder blades.
So we both gave up on sleep and sang instead.
"Hoy yo conoci / un cielo de sol / noche sin suenos / rio de sal / y un barco abandonado en el desierto..."
In order to outdo the hum of the motor, we sang loudly and together. We filled the river with love, change and Shakira.
* * *
A month ago, I was on board a boat to Brillo Nuevo that wasn´t destined to arrive in Brillo Nuevo anytime soon. Yully had just joined our team of three, and I approached her with a handshake. As we talked that night, I interlaced niceties with questions - I wanted to know her stats, just in case I needed to include them in a blog or article. I wrote them down on a piece of brown scratch paper that I tucked away in my notebook:
Yully is spelled Y-U-L-L-Y, even though it sounds like "Julie" to me. Yully, 37, is an agronomist, which means that she studies plants. Yully helps us out in the field. She is from Iquitos, Peru, born and raised. And she has two daughters, ages 6 and 13.
I was the journalist, and she was my subject. We weren´t friends yet, so that bland relationship was still possible.
* * *
A month later, Yully and I talked through the night about love, change and Shakira, but I would never repeat that here. I can´t write a story about her now. That would be disrespectful to my friend.
As soon as my story subject becomes my friend, I´ve lost my story. That´s a painful realization - that actually getting to know someone, that catching a glimpse of what they mull over when they stare blankly into the river, isn´t in your best interest as a journalist.
Yully is not accompanying us on this upcoming expedition to Jenaro Herrera.
* * *
And I miss her.
"Chapaja," a tree the color of roadside snow. Locals burn its trunk, soak the ashes in water, and use the product as a salt substitute.
"Ungurawi," acorn-sized fruit that turn black when ripe. They taste best when swirled into ice cream.
"Wangbet," a vine that smells like passion fruit when you cut it open. Some indigenous groups use its coarse fibers to weave "paneras," or shallow baskets.
"Barandilla," a plant with a strong and pliable stem. Cut the branches off, and it makes for a great fishing pole.
"Irapai," a plant with clumps of four shinbone-sized palm leaves. The Maijuna weave these clumps of leaves around a branch to make their roofs. Their criss-cross design ensures impermeability.
"Wangana" (peckery), a wild pig that squeals, grunts, and scurries as it approaches a "colpa," a nutrient-rich watering hole. These black beasts thump through the jungle in groups of up to 200.
I huffed and puffed in my hammack, and then fell back to sleep until sunrise.
As soon as I woke up, I was confrontational Natalya. Why did you not wake me up?!!
"Oh, but I did," Yully said (in Spanish). "You murmured, ´Oh Yully, not now, maybe in another hour, go away.´" (in Spanish)
I slept-talked in Spanish! That can only mean that my Spanish conversational skills are undoubtedly improving! My subconscious is eating up this new language.
Forget the empty stomach - I am so impressed with myself.
(Sorry for flipping out, Yully.)
That´s not the case in Nueva Vida. Not yet.
The women here do not consider themselves to be artisans. Most of the women, and even some of the men and children, have weaved a hammock out of chambira before. But they are reluctant to tackle new projects, like belts and shopping bags.
I stop by each of the houses in the village and introduce myself. "I am Natalya from CACE, a small NGO in the US. You´ve probably already met the tall white guy with gray hair. He´s the president of CACE..."
After my speach, I ask them if they have any interest in making handicrafts to sell in the Amazon Forest Store. They stare back at me. Then they glance at each other, as if to ask, "Why is this girl still in our home?"
When I sat down in a peque-peque to visit some artisans in a nearby village, Kelly´s polka dot leggings squeezed in beside me. And she began:
I like your arm hair.
Do you dye your arm hair?
Have you ever been drunk?
Is your country by Africa?
How many kids do you want to have?
Is Charlie from Charlie´s Angels dead?
Why did Michael Jackson die?
And so I learned that Kelly, who lives five hours by peque-peque from the nearest tabloid, knows more about American pop culture than I do.
Michael Jackson died?
So it's significant that, in this hostile climate, the Maijuna chose to unite and fight for their rights. Four years ago, the small ethnic group of about 250 people formed a federation---nicknamed "FECONAMAI"--- that represents all four Maijuna villages. Since then, the Maijuna have come together annually to share problems, brainstorm solutions, and play soccer.
Pedro´s voice clinks like metal chains on an empty swing set. He traces my bare back with a fistful of achiote leaves. They rustle. I shiver.
Pedro is sitting behind me, cross-legged. Because he arrived after dark, I cannot make out his face, only the outline of his body. He must not be more than four feet tall, and everyone calls him "Pedrito," or "little Pedro."
Pedro breathes warm tobacco on the nape of my neck. Then, with his thumbs and pointer fingers, he forms a triangle on my right shoulder blade. His lips, slippery and scaly like a fish, find the center of the triangle. Pedro removes his fingers and sucks that center.
He continues "chupando and soplando" --- blowing tobacco and sucking my back and head. Then he rubs my spine.
Pedro Lopez Algoba is 58 years old, and he is the last Maijuna shaman.
Meet “el equipo”:
Randy Gabel is a mathematician and a professor at George Mason University. He loves to travel, and that´s why he´s along for the ride with us. Randy and I both like to eavesdrop and to mull over paradoxes and riddles. Hey Randy, how many elephants are there? Either 5 or 7, I think.
Back in Iquitos, I turn on the shower, and the droplets spank my face. Sure, the river bath was more romantic, but this shower is what I´m used to, and it doesn´t give me infections in unmentionable places.
I am happy to be back in the city with my cold shower, Internet and passion fruit ice cream.
I dance in the shower and then race out and flop down on my bed, naked. I turn on the fan before my body even thinks about sweating.
You have no idea how good this feels.
“And what does a naca naca snake look like?” Campbell asks a classroom of Bora artisans.
Yes, every comment does indeed deserve an exclamation point. These 14 women are psyched. Even the children clinging to their arms and legs are wide-eyed and giggling. A few curious men peak their heads through the window.
The women draw ten snake designs on the chalkboard. The group then chooses the six snake patterns that they like best. In teams of two or three, the artisans brainstorm how to make belts using these designs.
Each woman clutches a bundle of chambira fiber. As soon as Campbell hands them a belt buckle, they grab their chambira and start weaving.
* * *
A chambira belt begins in the forest. The chambira tree is made up of six to ten stems that sprout from its base, each about the thickness of a soda can. A few stories up, the stems curve under the weight of crescent leaves. If you cut down any of these stems, the tree will die.
But there is an exception. The stem in the center of the bundle is leafless. It points up like a spear daring to pierce through the sky.
Step one of making a chambira belt is to cut down this spear. In four months, the spear will grow back, and you can then cut it down again.
Step two: Hold one end of the spear and shake. The brown cylinder splits apart into dozens of yellow and green strips. They look like linguine drenched in pesto. Each strip is made up of a soft tissue and a hard cord.
Step three: Strip the soft tissue. But don´t throw away the hard cord -- you can use it to construct fences.
Step four: Dry the soft tissue in the sun for two to three days.
Step five: Dye the chambira with a plant of your choice. If you want yellow, add some guisador to a pot of chambira and water. Boil for three minutes. Red? Throw in some achiote seeds. Purple? A bit of mishipanga. You get the idea – Every color has a corresponding plant. If you are Bora, it probably grows in your garden.
Step six: Dry your chambira fiber, again.
Step seven: Twist the chambira fibers by rubbing each thread against your thigh. If you have hair on your thigh, you will soon lose it.
Finally: Grab your bundle and weave.
As they weave, some of the women grip the ends of the chambira fiber with their big toes. Others fasten their chambira to nails that their husbands pound into either a loose board or the living room floor.
The artisans finish their belts in a few days. The women, Campbell and I evaluate each belt together. Some are too skinny, and some are too long. Some are not strong enough, and some are perfect.
I learn a new set of Spanish vocabulary that I will probably never use again, like “pasador,” which is the loop next to the buckle on a belt.
By the next day, the snakes grow longer, fatter and stronger. They are stunning.
I coil the snakes up and pack them away. They´re ready to travel up north to a faraway land, and to be showcased in the Amazon Forest Store.
Thursday, July 16, 2009
First, Campbell, Julie and five community members from Brillo Nuevo searched the surrounding forest for copal trees with resin lumps. These lumps form when weevil larvae eat through the bark, enabling the tree´s resin to ooze out. This resin is perfect for caulking boats, and also for creating fragrant oils.
The team used GPS to map its progress and to divide the forest into lots. As a result, we now know how many copal trees are in each 100m X 1000m lot, and the community will be able to use this information in the future. When the team found a copal tree, they tagged it and harvested about half of the resin lumps. They made sure not to collect more than half, because that might endanger the weevil larvae and any other species that relies on the resin lumps for its survival.
You got to hand it to this team - this work was not easy. They searched the forest for at least seven hours per day for five days. I joined them on the first day, and it was exhausting! We tried to stick to trails as much as possible, but for most of the search we had to bushwack it through the jungle. And there were obstacles, like angry wasp nests and thin slippery logs that we had to navigate to cross the rivers.
We collected a total of about 10 kg of resin lumps. Then Julie and Campbell documented the weight and type of the resin lump - fresh or dry. Julie picked through the resin for hours in search of weevil larvae and other bugs. Meanwhile, Campbell collected dozens of samples of resin and bugs in tiny glass bottles.
And then came the most exciting part - the distillation! This is when we get to transform sticky resin into perfume. Campbell brought along a monstrous copper distillator that we affectionately call "mother." We heated mother up on a gas stove, and she gave birth. After about eight hours and a lot of anger from mother in the form of escaping vapor, mother sucked the oil out of the resin and neatly spewed it out into the glass flask.
We looked like crazy scientists, tending to mother in the dark with our headlamps. Everytime she coughed up a little steam from her seams, we sealed her up with yuca mass. When the yuca mass began to dry and fall off, we tried silicone and a plumber´s sealant. Eventually she stopped fuming.
We carried out four experiments - two with dry resin, and two with fresh resin. We got an average yield of oil of about 5%, which is approximately what Campbell expected.
I think this oil has potential as a perfume. It smells like a prarie in bloom with a hint of earth, like a grassland just before a rainstorm.
Now we have some more questions to answer:
Is there a market for this oil?
If there is a market, how can the community manage the harvest of copal resin lumps to ensure that the production of essential oil is economically and ecologically sustainable?
Find our more about CACE´s copal resin research.
Photos © Campbell Plo9wden / Center for Amazon Community Ecology
Wednesday, July 15, 2009
Pebas shocked me when we arrived here a few hours ago. I expected it to look like Brillo Nuevo, but bigger. But instead of embarking on a muddy bank beside a wooden house with a palm-leaf roof, we unloaded our boat at a floating gasoline station. Inside, a mother and son were watching a murder mystery on TV. It was nightime, but the town was lit up with lightbulbs and flashing ¨hostal¨ signs. There were even a few motorcycles cruising over paved roads. Sensory overload.
Only 1500 people live here, but this town is pretending to be something more. It wants to be the center. It is where small-town folks from communities like Brillo Nuevo meet to drink, buy clothes and sell lumber or meat.
I try not to overanalyze the situation. A pàrt of me is dissapointed to see such overdevelopment. But the other part knows that I can´t judge these people for wanting stores and bars. I also like clean clothes and iced-cold drinks.
It is what it is.
We are just passing through from Brillo Nuevo to Iquitos. We only have one night here in Pebas. And we´re determined to make the best of it. We dance and laugh, and then grope our way back to our beds in the darkness.
Monica´s husband, Beder, has prepared her workspace by banging a few nails into the floorboard in the living room. Monica uses these nails to secure her chambira fibers for the maroon and white anaconda belt. Beder says that he and his wife always work together. "Of course, she is the master," he adds. "I just help."
As she weaves, Monica nurses her six-month-old baby, Mayronela. When Mayronela cries, Monica swings her to sleep in the hammock and then returns back to work. Monica´s 11-year-old son, Willy, and four-year.old daughter, Darcy, peer over her shoulder.
The entire family is gathered in the living room, sitting on the floor beside a baby stroller, a boat motor, and a pile of palm leaves that Beder will use to fix the roof. Ten pairs of baby jumpers hang overhead on a clothesline.
This is where Monica works and lives with her family, together.
I drew a little map of Brillo Nuevo on half a sheet of looseleaf paper. It tells me where all the artesans live, approximately.
Once I arrive in the approximate place of the artesan´s house, I start asking around:
Excuse me sir, good day. Could you tell me where Graciela lives?
Oh, in that house over there.
Which house over there?
Oh, in that one.
(The Bora don´t like to point.)
Graciela is not home.
Excuse me sir, good day. Do you know where Graciela is?
In Segundina´s house.
And where does Segundina live?
Oh, in that house over there.
There´s five women sitting in Segundina´s house. Their toes and fingers are tied up in chambira as they weave their handicrafts.
I talk in Spanish, and Graciela answers in Spanish. I know when I make a grammatical mistake: The kids make sure to tell me. Each woman has a toddler clinging to her forearm or playing with her hair. When I say something wrong, the toddlers erupt in giggles.
The women don´t laugh when Im talking. They laugh when I am listening or watching. They look over at me, start talking in Borra all at once, and just laugh.
What´s so funny?
And that brings a second, bigger wave of laughs and chatter.
Once my brain is fried and emptied´of curiosities, the women start asking me questions. I show them photos of my friends and family in the States.
They start up again in Bora, but this time it´s more serious. After a few minutes they stop and say:
Natalya, only girls have long hair. Your boyfriend has got to cut his hair.
This time I laugh with them.
The setting makes up for the taste:
Felicita fries eggs over a fire. Slits of light filter into her kitchen.
It´s raining. It´s pouring. And in a matter of minutes the sun will beat down and pretend the storm never happened.
Clouds and sun stitch a patchwork quilt in the sky, blanketting the jungle.
A series of five government-issued books entitled "The Individual, Family and Human Relations" describes how to choose a career, think more creatively and improve your attention span. The book also discusses homosexuality, teen pregnancy, nutrition, alcohol and drugs. There´s a chapter on the importance of aesthetical harmony in nature, people and art. There´s another chapter entitled "You are forbidden to stop dreaming."
Nieves Flores, the prinicipal of the school at Brillo Nuevo, says that Individual, Family and Human Relations is just as important as the other eight classes that the school offers (math, history, language, religion, science, art, civic engagement and physical education). "It´s where they learn how to get along with other people," Flores says. "Most importantly, it´s where they are forced to question who they are."
It´s hard to tell how the lessons are affecting the community. We can take a look at an issue and ask the Bora for their viewpoint, but it´s difficult to distinguish the causes from the effects.
Take homosexuality, for example. The Bora accept homosexuals and do not discriminate against them, says Rolando Ruiz, former president of Brillo Nuevo.
Sixteen year-old Lisbet describes homosexuals as "different, but ok." Did the school lessons influence Lisbet´s opinion, or is acceptance of homosexuals just part of Bora culture? "I don´t know, the classes are just... classes," Lisbet answers, furrowing her brow.
Or we can look at teen pregnancy in Brillo Nuevo. The grandmothers in Brillo Nuevo each had 5 to 9 children, and they started giving birth around age 15. But their granddaughters had only two or three kids. Most gave birth to their first child around age 18. I only met one teenaged mom in Brillo Nuevo, and she was 19 years old.
So are the lessons about family planning working? Or is it the government´s free handouts of birth control pills that are making the difference?
Probably a combination of both, and it probably doesn´t matter.
What´s impressive about these books is that they get 12 year-olds talking about themselves and their relationships with other people.
The lessons are all things I figured out, eventually. But I wonder if growing up could have been a lot easier if it had been socially appropriate to discuss all of this with my peers. It would have certainly felt less lonely.
My favorite chapter is called, "Thinking about what makes me happy."
Chiggers are relatives of the tick. Chigger larvae attach onto an animal (like me), form a hole, and eat the inner skin. They like to dwell where your clothes pinch your body, like under your socks, bra and belt. After about 3 to 5 days, the larvae detach and then mature into adults.
They´re most active at night, and that´s when the real itch begins.
Darwin grabs his machete and leads me to his backyard. He slices a piece of bark off the chanchama tree and tears off the rough outer layer. He lightly taps the soft, white remnants with his machete, creating criss-crossing grooves that ooze with sticky liquid, like syrup on waffles. Then he stretches the bark to three times its original size.
"This is how I make my canvas," Darwin says.
Next, Darwin rips off a green, fuzzy fruit off a neighboring achiote tree. He splits the fruit in half like a plastic easter egg, and red seeds spill out. He rubs the seeds between his fingers. Red juice dribbles down his palm.
"This is how I make my paints."
If you´re interested in a Darwin original, send me a message and I´ll hook you up.
Adventures are not vacations; there's no pressure to always be enjoying yourself. They test you physically, mentally and emotionally. When you´re stuck out on a canoe for four hours in chilling rain, when you have to muster an answer to a question in a language with an accent that you only vaguely understand, when you miss your boyfriend´s hugs and your mom´s cooking, and when you´re 20 hours by boat away from the nearest city...and when all of that happens at the same time, that´s when you find out what you´re made of. You not only learn about other people, you learn about yourself.
Adventuring is not sight-seeing. It always has a purpose, whether it´s finding the percent yield of essential oil from a lump of copal, starting an online handicrafts store that directly links the product to the producer, or describing your new world to your old world back home.
In this way, you, my reader, are my purpose.
I´m here on the Internets because I can´t stop narrating my life. I don´t analyze my world through time or events, but rather through stories. Stories have a beginning, an end, and a theme; they make sense.
I don´t write these blog entries on my laptop. I´m always writing them in my head.
When I don´t keep a blog, I start narrating out loud in daily life. And then my friends get annoyed. I agree, it´s very annoying.
In this way, you´re my therapist.
As I swing my legs out of my hammock, the mosquito net flutters and breathes. The three palm leaf roofs across the soccer field are still covered in clouds. Moonlight and mist blurs my morning. I am standing in Monet´s Impression.
Amber mud squishes between my toes as I drag my unbuckled sandals to the school building. I can see the pathway, but I turn my headlamp on anyway. I´ve seen tarantulas cross this path, and I rather not step on one.
Two dogs are growling at each other just ahead. The black one grabs the brown one by the neck. I give them some space.
As I reach the school, my arms instinctively hug my hair. I hear the bats bounding their wings, scurrying between the two school buildings. I don´t know if bats are at all interested in attacking my hair, but that´s what several movies have told me. The school principle calls the bats "little vampires." So it seems necessary to shield my head right now, even though in five minutes I will feel like a dork for having done it.
The four school bathrooms are outhouses with an upgrade - ceramic toilet bowls. Before I sit down, I analyze the situation in the wooden hut: Three small fuzzy spiders on the door, a dozen or so mosquitoes, a foot-long rodent above the doorway, an infantry of one-inch fat ants carrying poop pieces from the toilet paper bin, and a swarm of identical one-inch fat ants that can fly.
Campbell and I saw similar-looking ants in the forest. "My friend in Brazil once got bit by one of those.," Campbell said. "The pain was so bad, he lay motionless in his hammock for 24 hours." I avoid both the military and the flying ants, just in case.
This toilet is a manual flush. That means I am the water tank. I fill a bucket with water from the large rainwater bin. (Large means human-sized in both height and diameter.) I dump the water in the toilet bowl. It gurgles. Yellow turns clear.
Back at my bug-free cacoon, I hear Julie and Campbell shuffling nylon and cotton. I grab my notepad. I´m awake now, and it´s time to start the day.
Today I will drink less tea at supper, and tomorrow morning my baldder will shut up, I tell myself. But I doubt it. The chamomile tea is tasty and reassuring. And I´m beginning to like my mornings misty, muddy and moonlit.
In her native Bora tongue, she sings about an anaconda that transforms into a school of fish. According to a Bora legend, these fish cling to other anacondas like lice to hair, Elvira´s husband, Sergio, explains. "We do not know why," Elvira adds. "The story is part of Bora tradition."
Elvira Pena Saldano, 55, was born in Brillo Nuevo, a village of about eighty families on a tributary of the Amazon River in Peru. Elvira grew up in Brillo Nuevo. This is where she learned both Bora and Spanish. (And where her 11 year-old pet parrot, Maruja, learned both Bora and Spanish.) It is where she dreamed of becoming a teacher, and where she pocketed her dreams when she met Sergio. "Back in those days I was so independent," Elvira says and giggles. "I did not want to get married and have kids."
Elvira´s four children have inherited her independence. Three of them now live in the city. Her eldest daughter is a teacher in Iquitos, a city about 16 hours away by launch. Her youngest daughter, Lisbet, is a dreamer. After she finishes school this year, Lisbet wants to go to university. She wants to be a scientist or an engineer. "I am going to learn English," she says. "And I am going to travel around the world."
Lisbet is watching her mother weave a hammock from chambira fiber. She is learning to make her own hammock.
Things are changing in Brillo Nuevo, Elvira says, as her fingers dance around the chambira. The community used to have ten or eleven traditional festivals every year, she says. Now they hardly have one.
"Now most of us are more interested in making money than singing and dancing and being together. And that is why I tell my Lisbet my stories. And why I teach her to work with chambira. In this way, we are still Bora."
Elvira´s favorite pastime is making handicrafts. Elvira designs bags, hammocks and belts out of chambira. It takes her two to three days to weave one bag. But it is not hard work, she says. "I weave while I wait for the water to boil, or while I listen to the rain on the river."
You´ll get to see the rough drafts right here, as soon as I organize my notes.
You´ll even get a sneak peak at some of my feature stories.
But they would never get a feature story on the Discovery Channel. They´re missing the beads, bare feet and loincloths.
The Bora wear jeans and cargo pants, t-shirts and tank tops, long skirts and short shorts. Most wear plastic flip-flops, and some own sneakers. The women pull their hair back with glittery headbands, and the girls all wear matching pink t-shirts with a smiling blond princess.
The Bora used to wear paper-mache-like clothes made out of tree bark, but that ended more than 100 years ago when they were enslaved in Columbia.
Nineteen year-old Kori wears yellow shorts and a black tank-top. I bet a majority of Penn State girls have something similar hanging in their closets. But Kori doesn´t look like a Penn Stater. She wears it differently.
Kori stands up straight, pushing her belly forward. "The men here like their women to have some meat," Julie tells me. Kori has washboard abs, but she does not want washboard abs. She flaunts her (nonexistent) rolls of stomach fat.
The button on Kori´s shorts is missing, and her fly is a few centimeters down. She´s not wearing a bra. (None of the women wear bras). When her 1 year-old son, Diego, starts to whimper, she slides her shirt down and hands him her breast, even when there´s nine men and women clustered around her, and even when the camera is rolling.
Kori does not own a mirror. When I show her a photo of herself, she laughs and blushes. "Oh, that´s me!"
Victor is a Peruvian field botanist that is accompanying us in the field. He´s also our go-to guy. Whenever we have a question, Victor has an answer.
Victor, when will the boat leave? Around 6. Maybe 7.
We arrive early to grab a cabin. Most people sleep in hammocks on the boat, but we need a cabin for our 9 bags of equipment. Two of the bags are big enough to store me comfortably.
We take too many pictures. Victor´s on the right. And I´m the gringa (which roughly translates to sack of money with pale white skin).
Campbell and I are exploring the lumber yard and drinking beer in a nameless bar at port. We´re talking about hitchhiking (Campbell has hitchhiked across the country 3 times) when I begin to worry that we will miss the boat.
Oh no! The boat is leaving!
It´s already two meters away from shore! Two meters of grimy water!
Campbell and I consider wading through the river, but fortunately decide to hop on our moving boat via a neghboring boat.
No one else is freaking out. Victor is still on his cell, pacing around the beach. Silly gringos.
"I think we are actually going to leave on time at 6," Campbell says. I nod. The boat is back at shore. Looks like the porters are almost done loading the boat with fish, bananas and ice.
Victor is still on his cell, and the boat is still at port.
The porters are now removing ice from the boat. Huh.
The port captain says that the boat has too much weight on it. It appears to be sinking.
The porters remove more boxes of ice.
The captain orders everyone to find a lifejacket. I snatch one off a beam above the hammocks, but Victor and Campbell do not find theirs in time. There aren´t enough lifejackets.
We are still at port.
Campbell, Victor and I discuss what to do if the boat sinks. Victor says it would be best to relax and let the current take you to shore.
I´m sleeping. In brief moments of consciousness, I feel wobbly. The boat must be moving!
No more wobbly. Why has the boat stopped?
The boat has a hole in the bottom. That´s what they realized once they removed all that ice. We aren´t any closer to our destination. We are at a repair station.
I wake up with a sore throat, stuffed nose, and a ringing headache. Locals blame my sickness on the humidity. Stupid river.
I meet a friend:
Victor gets a message from his university. He has to go defend his thesis, and he has to do it immediately. So he won´t be accompanying us. He suggests his friend Julie instead.
Bye Victor. Lucky you, you get to leave this boat.
We are still at the repair station.
The port captain inspects the boat (again) and deems it unsafe (again). We leave the repair station and return to our original port. This boat won´t be leaving, they tell us. We must now lug our body bags onto a different boat.
Our new boat is expected to leave at 8pm. I do not have such expectations.
We eat a two-course lunch, with drink, for $1.50, and then get a $7 hotel room for the afternoon.
I pass out on the bed for three hours. When I wake up, it feels as if someone is sawing my head. F****** river!
Campbell meets Julie, and learns that Julie is Victor´s wife. We have now effectively exchanged Julie for Victor. Hello, Julie.
Our original boat leaves. We are in the hotel room.
Back on board the new boat. Why is this boat so dark?
(Stay with me now, we´re almost there.)
There´s no electricity. It needs to be fixed. So we wait.
We´re not leaving on time, but that was expected.
Wobbly again! We´re moving!
Aaaaaaaaaand... we stop. Time for a quick two hour break. Decided to unload some gasoline. (Try not to ask the obvious question - Why did they load all that gas in the first place?)
I´m getting used to this headache. I have accepted this boat.
I talk to Tim, a (former) engineer of pharmaceutical refridgerators. He´s traveling down the Amazon River for at least a few more weeks. Wow, that´s a lot of boat. (How´d it go, Tim?)
Ok, I think we´ll get there by noon.
Tim and I are talking. Mid-sentence, I notice that everyone else is eating. We missed our free boat lunch! We go down to the lower deck, and then down to the storage room, and then over five barrels of gasoline, to ask for our styrofoam dishes of yuca, chicken and rice. The lunch lady is chopping onions in a toilet-sized kitchen. She throws the peels overboard.
I SEE PEBAS.
Now it´s time for our 4-hour peke-peke ride to our destination, Brillo Nuevo.
Wednesday, July 1, 2009
But so far, I haven´t seen that. This riverbank is green, but also gray and yellow with a fringe of purple lights. It has a playground with screaming children in collared shirts. There´s a cement boardwalk. A short wrinkly man sells monkey and bear balloons. There´s a bar on the river that serves Pisco sour with lime, sugar and beaten egg white. Whitney Houston belts through the bars´speakers. ¨Iiiiiiiii will always love youoooouuuu...¨
This is Iquitos, a city of more than 400,000 on the Amazon River, the largest city in the world that has no roads connecting it to the outside.
Cars are a novelty here. Instead, motorcycles and ¨motokars¨-- three-wheeled motorbike taxis with room for two passengers -- zip through the streets. The motorcycles create a constant buzz in the city, like a troop of mosquitos that circles your head.
Iquitos is not completely disconnected from its surrounding rainforest. It is sweaty, sticky and flat.
The city lights up at night, but the river plummets into darkness as the sun sets. Friends and couples stroll along the river, holding hands and looking out into the jungle. The Amazon River seems so distant now, swallowed by mystery.
Tuesday, June 23, 2009
For the next six weeks, I will travel along the Amazon River with Dr. Campbell Plowden, president of the Center for Amazon Community Ecology (CACE) in State College, Pennsylvania. We will visit several communities in Loreto province, Peru, including Pebas, Brillo Nuevo and Jenaro Herrera.
I will interview village artisans and write profiles about them for CACE´s Amazon Store. I will learn how they transform bark into canvas, and how they paint using natural dyes.
I will also assist Campbell with researching the resin of the copal tree. Locals use resin to caulk their canoes. They also burn it for light and a pleasant aroma. CACE´s goal is to create a product from this resin that forest-based communties could make and sell as a source of sustainable income. Ideally, this extra income would deter the communities from logging, which would decrease deforestation. But first we have to determine if all of this is economically and ecology feasible. I´ll get into the details later.
That´s the formal explanation of why I´m here, but I don´t like formalities. Simply put, I´m going to the rainforest to talk to people, and to share their stories with you. Stick around and you´ll find out the rest.