Tuesday, July 28, 2009

I miss Yully.

As the Maijuna Congress dragged into day three, hour five, and as we both began to slouch over in our toddler-sized seats and nod into a slumber, Yully and I woke each other up by whispering about our perfect ice cream sundae.

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.

Don´t trust the juice

I downed three glasses of fruit juice from a street vendor yesterday. I chose to ignore the fact that the "juice" was mostly just river water. I had been in the field for almost two weeks, and I was immune to such silly matters like brown water.

Or so I thought. You see where this is going.

A few hours later, I ate at a chicken restaurant in Iquitos. On the way out of the restaurant, I stepped into the bathroom and vomitted a sinkful of chicken and pink stuff. I recognized that color -- that fruit juice had betrayed me!

I tapped a waitress on the shoulder. "Excuse me, I´m sorry, but your sink is now filled with pink."
I write way too much about body fluids. I´ll try to spare you next time.

In the rainforest

I spy:

"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.

The Maijuna and the Bora: a comparison

After the Maijuna Congress, we traveled to Nueva Vida, one of the four Maijuna villages.
Nueva Vida is different than Brillo Nuevo, the Bora village we visited on our last expedition. Here´s how:

Brillo Nuevo: Each family has a latrine. Behind the school, there are four “upgraded” latrines with ceramic toilet seats.
Nueva Vida: We pee and poop in the woods behind the house. As I crouch, the pigs encircle me and grunt. Then they dig their faces into my excrements.

Brillo Nuevo: Everyone drinks clean water from a well. Some bathe with rainwater collected from the school´s roof.
Nueva Vida: Everyone bathes in the river. They wash pig and cow poop into the river. They drink from the river.

Brillo Nuevo: There are pigs, but I never saw them because they were corralled and separated from the village.
Nueva Vida: The pigs, dogs, cats, roosters and chickens all live under the house. The lawn is a muddy, poopy slush.

Brillo Nuevo: Everyone speaks Bora amongst themselves.
Nueva Vida: Everyone speaks Spanish. The older generation knows Maijuna, but most of the children never learned their parent´s native tongue.

Brillo Nuevo: There´s a school with five teachers that regularly hold class.
Nueva Vida: There´s a teacher, but he rarely bothers to visit the village. He lives in Iquitos and collects his paycheck there. The children here have not gone to school for three years. They spend their days playing soccer, fishing, chucking bottle caps and splashing in the river.

The Maijuna know what they´re missing out on. They want their children to drink clean water and go to school. They want change, but they´re not sure about how to bring it about.

For the last several hundred years, foreigners have played with the destinies of both the Maijuna and the Bora. Strangers enslaved them. They grouped them into villages to better control them. They made them believe in a god and a book that was not their god, and was certainly not their book. Foreigners told them what was right and wrong. They stripped them of their culture, and then they left them.

Looks like the Maijuna were destined for the shorter end of the stick.

Yo hablo castellano, por supuesto

I woke up last night at 2am, hungry and furious. I had fallen asleep at 6pm yesterday and no one had woken me up for dinner. And now my stomach was GROOooWLing.

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.)

The first step

Only now do I realize that I walked in on the middle of a project in Brillo Nuevo. Campbell had already visited the village several times. The artisans agreed to talk to me for hours about their personal lives because Campbell had already built relationships with them. They trusted us.

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?"

So I explain everything again, and then again with extra details. They nod. I ask if they have any questions.

No questions, but they thank me for stopping by and ask when I will come back. "And could you visit my sister´s house, too?"

I think I broke the ice.

I am a magnet for 16-year-old girls

These girls follow me around with strings of questions. Today the girl was Kelly.

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?

The Maijuna Congress

Just last month, Peruvian police violently attacked indigenous protesters, killing at least 25 civilians. In response, government officials publicly condemned indigenous people to second-class citizenship. 

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.

At this year's congress, more than 120 people gather for three days in the half-built community center in the Maijuna village of Sucusari. As they talk, construction workers bang bricks and scrape mortar. Children flick bottle caps in the doorway. Just outside, a woman chases a cow that sprints away with a purple skirt in its mouth. Whenever it rains, the drops create such a racket against the roof's tin shingles that the speakers are forced to break for the storm, trailing off mid-sentence.

The main topic of conversation is the proposed Maijuna Area of Conservation. This legal designation has the potential to protect the Maijuna lands forever, thereby revitalizing fish populations and decreasing deforestation.

Several local and international groups support the Maijuna's efforts to protect their traditional lands, including Procrel, a regional government organization, and IBC, an NGO founded by an American anthropologist. This summer, the Field Museum of Chicago is carrying out an assessment of the biodiversity and depth of Maijuna culture in the proposed area. The Maijuna hope that the assessment will convince regional government officials that their land is too important to be destroyed.

But the Maijuna are fighting an uphill battle. The government is considering a proposal to build a road that would cut through the Maijuna territory. Five kilometers of agricultural lands would flank each side of the road, effectively wiping out the lands of the Maijuna.

The construction of the road is considered a national priority, which means it overrides all other interests, including the regional Maijuna Area of Conservation. According to ethnobotanist Michael Gilmore, the road is being pushed by (illegal) loggers and (illegal) drug traffickers who are tired of walking through the forest on foot.

At the congress, the Maijuna practice patience and resilience. Romero Rios, president of FECONAMAI, punches the air and says in Spanish, "Let's always walk. Let's always lose time. But let's never lose our animals."

chupar y soplar

"Tu-te, this will protect you during your next journey on the river and through the jungle," says Pedro. Tu-te is my Maijuna name. It means "white dove."

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.

El equipo

This time, Campbell, Yully and I aren´t alone. We´re traveling with a team of researchers from the United States. We have an ethnobiologist, a bee biologist, a linguist and a mathematician (and Campbell, of course).

Together, we visit the Maijuna, an indigenous community of about 300 people. We´re here at the annual Maijuna Congress to pitch a big idea: The team wants to collaborate with the Maijuna in a big interdisciplinary effort over the next five years. Each team member has a specific project in mind, and each is here to share his or her vision.

The team calls itself The Maijuna Biocultural Conservation Field Team, or El Comite de Colaboradores al Proyecto de Coservacion Biocultural a los Maijunas, or "el equipo" (my personal favorite).

Meet “el equipo”:

Michael Gilmore is an ethnobiologist, which means that he studies the relationship between people and plants. He has worked with the Maijuna for over 10 years and is an adviser to FECONAMAI, an indigenous federation that represent the four Maijuna communties. He is currently developing a map that displays the Maijuna´s use and knowledge of local natural resources. Michael is a goofball that always wears a smile. He loves to bust some chops. When I burned my knees beet red, Michael laughed, pointed and screamed, "I TOLD you so!" No worries, I´m gonna get him back.

German Perilla is a bee biologist. In the next five years, he will teach 24 Maijuna men and women how to manage bees and make honey. German is always the first one to ask you how you´re feeling, or to offer you some Milo (a chocolatey drink that we drool over). "Germancito no toma so milocito sin pancito." I´m not sure why we say that, but it seems highly appropriate.
No, German does not speak German.

Chris Beier is a linguist. Chris plans to learn Maijuna and initiate a Maijuna language revitalization program. Chris says that there are two types of linguists -- the field linguists and the theoretical linguists, and that she could never sit at a desk and be theoretical. "The first time I came to the Amazon, I fell in love."

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.

And, of course, there´s Campbell, the copal resin and handicrafts guy. But I´ve already introduced you to this character.

Back in Iquitos

In Brillo Nuevo, I bathed in the river. I jumped off a log and into a soup of tadpoles. The current swallowed my soap suds.

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.

Chambira belts, snake style

“And what does a naca naca snake look like?” Campbell asks a classroom of Bora artisans.

The question incites a wave of chatter among the women. They respond in both Bora and Spanish.
“It´s red, green and white!”
“It has stripes!”
“It´s poisonous!”
“When it bites you, you die!”
“I have seen one!”
“I will draw it on the chalkboard!”

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.