Thursday, July 16, 2009

An update on CACE´s research: From resin to perfume

This week we turned black, lumpy, sticky resin into an essential oil.

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.

© Campbell Plo9wden / Center for Amazon Community Ecology

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

not all south americans are born to tango

Campbell is belting a Bruce Springstein remake and stepping to the beat, double time. His arms are flailing. Of course, I have to join in.
In a discoteca in Pebas, Campbell, my dance partner, and I are the life of the party, hands down.

All the stools around the dance floor are filled. But no one else is dancing. I don´t even see feet tapping under the tables. Most of the shadows lurking by the tables aren´t drinking. They just come in to sit and smoke since there´s no cover charge.

My Peruvian dance partner takes off his shirt and does a back flip. Then he stops and points to me, as if to say, ¨Now show me what you´ve got.¨ Well, I can´t top that. I dip back, limbo style, and throw in a shimmy. He gives me a thumbs up. Ok, I think I passed!

This place is cheesy. There are drawings of flourescent women in thongs on the wall, lit up by blacklights. And there´s a painting of a tick. It takes up half the wall, and it´s creepy. The music is pumped up to max volume, and it´s crackling.

And then it all stops at 11 o-clock sharp. That´s when the electricity shuts off in Pebas, we learn. The building goes black and everyone shuffles out. Now it´s just Campbell, Julie, and me, and a random middle-aged woman that we somehow picked up on the way here. We sit in the dark bar, alone, pouring Pilsen beer into flimsy plastic cups.

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 p├árt 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.

Meet Monica

"Well of course I´ve seen an anaconda," Monica Chichaco says, as she weaves an anaconda design from memory. "It´s three, maybe four, meters long," she adds.

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.

What´s so funny?

The interviews go something like this:

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.
I ask:
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.

Breakfast, lunch and supper

The food isn´t anything to write home about. Fruits and veggies are scarce in the dry season. There´s a lot of noodles, but they taste a little funky. (We spilled gasoline on them during the boat ride over.) We have too many eggs. We´ve eaten them boiled, fried, and scrambled with sugar and powdered milk. Most of the meat tastes the same - salty.

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.

"This book is all about you."

All Peruvian students in public schools learn how to make friends and how to masturbate. Their textbooks tell them how.

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."

Yes, the bugs really are that bad.

This is a nice mixtue of mosquito bites and chiggers.

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 the artist

Nineteen-year-old Darwin Rodrigues is an artist.

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.

Why I´m here: a better explanation

I´m here in Peru because I can´t turn down an adventure.
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.

the bathroom trip

It´s 5:40 a.m. and my bladder is screaming. It´s been screaming since 4, but I refused to leave my bug-free cacoon that early. But now I need to get up, because I rather not wear adult diapers in a few years.

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.

Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaahhhhhh. Finally. Relief.

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.

Meet Elvira

Elvira likes to sing.

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."

your sneak peak

One of my main tasks in Brillo Nuevo is to interview each of the community´s 14 artesans. I want to find out about their personal history, and how it relates to their handicrafts. I´ll write short articles about each artesan. These profile pieces will be posted next to each artesan´s handicrafts on CACE´s Amazon Forest Store (which is still in the works as of right now).
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.

Glittery headbands and short shorts are in

The Bora of Brillo Nuevo build their houses out of wood and palm leaves. They cook over a fire and sweep their floors with handmade chambira brooms. They hunt wild pig and speak Bora.
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!"

You need a lot of patience here.

Our plan was to take a boat from Iquitos to Pebas, and then a peke-peke (long canoe with motor) to our destination, Brillo Nuevo. The first leg of our journey would be quick, because we would be heading down river. An 8 hour ride, they told us. Here´s how 8 turned into 42:

July 1
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!

July 2
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.

(By this point you are getting tired of reading this. It´s so long-winded! When will it stop?! That´s exactly how I felt on the boat, except I couldn´t scroll down to find out the ending.)

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?)

July 3
I´m getting used to this headache. I have accepted this boat.

We were expected to arrive at 8. I´m thinking 11.
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.
Now it´s time for our 4-hour peke-peke ride to our destination, Brillo Nuevo.

(Wow, you made it through. Now that´s commitment.)