Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Morning Three in La Libertad

Morning Three:

My notes from my third morning in the village cover my first full day of teaching, my first full day alone in the village, and a whole lot of “first” experiences. By this point in the trip I was really thankful I hadn't gotten sick yet. Before I left I'd had to get immunizations, buy a bunch of pills, and stock up on Neosporin, Tylenol, Immodium, and the like – because there are no medical facilities in the village and my travel doctor highly advised against purchasing anything in-country in the event it wasn't what I was used to in the States. However, by my third day in the village, I hadn't used anything aside of melatonin to help me sleep at night – which I take in the States anyway. So, here's the recap from Morning Three:
Yesterday Ben, David, Gustavo, and some more men from the village went to Leticia for supplies. We'd started keeping a notebook of things we needed the moment we unpacked on day one, and there was a lot to get. This meant I was also alone in the village for the day. My Spanish was rapidly (and out of necessity) coming back to me, so I was able to communicate, but I tried my best to stay out of the way since I didn't really know anybody. Before the men left, we agreed we'd start my first class at 10am so I spent the quiet hours in between poring over the lesson materials to figure out what to teach, and eating lime cookies for breakfast so I wouldn't have to cook just for myself.

After I studied I noticed many of the villagers were gathered in a house to drink chicha, which I'd never heard of. Aní, one of Gustavo's daughters who has been incredibly helpful and friendly, told me I was welcome to join in, so I went over to see what was going on before my class. I walked in the door and was handed a plastic bowl filled with a milky-white liquid. I remembered the final email I'd gotten from my father before I boarded my first flight: “Be sure to try whatever foods they put in front of you and tell them they taste good.” My father had lived in Manaus, Brasil, also on the Amazon River, for a time when I was younger. (Actually, my father has lived on every continent except Antarctica, but I'll be writing an entire entry about him later). He hadn't lived with an indigenous tribe as I was doing, but he'd made enough friends worldwide to have a pretty good idea how to treat others. So, that in mind, I accepted the plastic bowl and gingerly took a small sip. I smiled, thanked them, said it was delicious, and asked if anyone else wanted any. The men laughed and explained the entire bowl was for me and you are supposed to shoot it. I wasn't entirely sure I could pull that off, but I was determined to finish my bowl, because they had been so kind to share with me – some strange American woman with bad Spanish who just arrived a few days ago with their friend Ben and liked to play guitar, and yet they were so welcoming and inviting. It took me probably about 45 minutes, but I finished the chicha and everyone cheered. It wasn't bad either, just a very different taste I'd never had before. :)

I taught my first classes beginning at 10am as agreed, and 2pm in the afternoon. Two hours each, but it was hard because there are kids and young adults at all different levels. They are SO eager to learn but I'm not sure their school system prepares them well. They're good at copying words but not at copying the translations so once I leave it will likely be difficult for them to make sense of the words they'd copied down. We also couldn't get into anything beyond vocabulary – no sentence structure, no phrases. The children were somewhat shy about speaking aloud in either language. Each class had a few outgoing students who were proud to show off a few English words they'd picked up, but overall I wasn't sure how helpful I'd been. I knew I'd have to hit the books and get some more ideas for the rest of the week. I made a mental note to ask Ben to get some markers next time they went to Leticia. I could have used some tape, crayons/markers and activities for the kids, and possibly some more songs – they LOVED the alphabet song and we sang it multiple times in every lesson.

I've noticed the philosophy that it takes a village to raise a child is truly alive and well here. There are plenty of teenagers but I haven't seen nor heard a single teen scream at his or her parents. Toddlers are everywhere and yet there haven't been any tantrums. Tiny babies abound, but you rarely hear crying, and if you do, the crying is easily appeased by either a breast offering food, or an older sibling offering a hand and a hug. The children all help one another and it's really intriguing to see in practice. Teens – including Aní – were often seen spending most of their time watching younger siblings while the mothers cooked and cleaned. All of the kids are curious and imaginative because they don't have videogames or TV. They're motivated to help and they try to figure things out. They can make a toy out of anything – a cardboard box, a piece of a computer motherboard, leaves from a palm tree.

That said, there are many ways the children are universally the same. They're all fascinated by my camera and borrow it to take photos any time I allow (note: by the end of the trip I had over 650 photos, many taken by the children!!) just like kids here...except, of course, they don't have Instagram to upload everything. They love listening to music on cell phones or clicking through photos and music on Ben's computer. Ben's tablet has movies, games, and a keyboard, and the teens spend hours playing with each app.

One small moment with a very young child that stuck with me was on this day while I was in the kitchen watching Aní cook some pan de arbol – bread from the tree, which had a rich, nutty flavor when it was done. A baby who could barely speak – she was at the stage of just pointing and naming objects – pointed at me and said “¡Cantadora!” (singer) in the kitchen. Knowing how small her vocabulary is, and knowing I'd made enough of an impact on her to know me as the singer made me feel like I'd definitely made the right choice in coming here.

I was treated with much kindness (or perhaps sympathy) in the kitchen trying to cook for Ben, David, and myself when the men returned. Rainforest wood is, of course, rather damp, and I had immense troubles getting the fire hot enough to boil water for pasta. A silent grandmother who was always nearby and always working, but quietly, came up to me with an armful of wood after I'd pretty much destroyed the wood already in the fire. She arrived at the perfect time and seemed to brush off my intense gratitude as unnecessary – she was simply doing the right thing. Shortly afterward, one of Gustavo's daughters, a 7yr old student of mine named Estefani, wandered into the kitchen with her 4 year old brother Angel. The two of them saw the fire was less than fantastic, and without being asked, adjusted the wood, blew on the flames, and got my water boiling in no time. That kind of gave me some perspective – in my “vida aburrida” I live on the outskirts of the biggest city in the US, working for a world-renowned business, I have a cat, a Jeep, and a college degree. Yet I can't build a fire well enough to make dinner for the three of us?? I gave much credit to ancient humanity, for being able to cook with an open fire for thousands of years, and I also gave much credit to the villagers for continuing to be able to do so with all of today's technological advances. Cooking is more of a production in the village so the families usually only eat twice, instead of three times, but still, they're far better at it than I am, and I learned a few lessons in humility in that kitchen.

We are looking into an organization that provides clean cookstoves for women because the smoke from the fires is harmful to one's health, but again, that won't be happening overnight. I do hope we're able to make that connection though – the smoky wood made my eyes tear up so badly and my throat feel so sore. I can't imagine cooking like that twice a day, every day, for your entire life being very good for your health.

The day ended with more music, and Ben telling us scary stories at bedtime. As long as I've known him he has been a great storyteller, but this was the first time I'd heard scary stories in Spanish. He relayed some tales Gustavo had once told him that still give me the creeps to think about. I'd fill you in, but I'll let Ben tell the tales in whichever language he chooses. :)  

Sunday, July 21, 2013

My Second Morning: Musings on Music, Monkeys, and Making Progress with our Project

I write to you tonight on the heels of an amazing live outdoor performance by some dear old friends in the folk-Americana-roots-rock band Spuyten Duyvil. The husband-and-wife team of Mark Miller and Beth Kaufman, who front the band, have known me for nearly a decade, when I used to perform at their Park Hill Racquet Club summer events in Yonkers, NY. In the time since those summer nights, their band has evolved immensely and grown into something I don't think any of us could have imagined way back when. They're now staples in national and regional folk festivals and have achieved significant airplay with their records. Yet, much like my friendship with Ben, we've remained in touch over the various tracks our lives have taken, and it was incredible to see them perform live tonight. I was covered in goosebumps for much of the concert, and the (very large) audience was captive during the entire show.

Why is this important? Because the feeling of a live performance for an appreciative audience is a big part of today's story for me. The energy I felt playing in La Libertad was rather similar to the energy I felt listening to Mark, Beth, and the rest of Spuyten Duyvil tonight in a park on Long Island. It reminded me why I love performing – and listening to – live music. Music has always and will always be a driving force in making me who I am.

With that, here is my second (and, apologetically, VERY long) post, taken from notes from my second morning – after my first full day - in La Libertad.


I'm thankful I played for the village last night. I almost cried. Everyone was so rapt and attentive and thankful. It was amazing. More stars than I've ever seen in my life provided the backdrop for one of the most emotional performances I've ever delivered. My skin was sticky covered in layers of sunscreen and bug spray, my clothes were dirty and soaked with sweat and humidity. I hadn't worn makeup since I'd left NYC and my hair was in the same Heidi-esque braids I'd put it in our first day in Leticia to keep it out of my face in the heat. I'd never been so completely myself for a performance while also being so completely out of my element. I usually performed in classy wine bars or smoky rock clubs in the States, but here, I was standing outside in the middle of a pathway and nobody spoke the language I was singing in. Nobody wore makeup and nobody cared that I didn't either. Though I had just arrived the day before, the villagers gathered around – babies to grandparents – and sat quietly on a bench, on rocks, and on the ground. They came trailing out of their homes once I started singing the first songs and continued to sit down and listen until it was completely dark and time for bed.

Very rarely am I so overcome with emotion while performing that it becomes difficult for me to continue playing, but this was one such instance. I have never felt the level of connection between myself and an audience – despite the language barrier, they could still feel the emotion of every song I played. The attentiveness is almost unheard of here in the states. Add to this the fact I was performing in a totally remote village in the Amazon rainforest, and I just had trouble containing the overwhelming feeling that yes, this is my real life. I am living and breathing in this very moment, and these wonderful people are sharing this moment with me. How lucky I am to be here, to have come so far from my poor and sheltered upbringing, and to be able to share something that means so much to me with people who truly appreciate it.

Aside of my performance which closed my first full day in the village, we were also immensely productive. Our day started early with the sun and the roosters, and then began the first of multiple “presentaciones” of the current state of the project with village members. Many of the interested villagers met us in our cabin for the first presentation in the morning, during which we discussed the first steps to move the project forward. Health and safety considerations for volunteers were important. We needed consistent water storage and filtration for all volunteers. We also needed better cooking accommodations and a specific volunteer kitchen so we would not need to inconvenience Gustavo's family to cook our meals. A shower area was also to be constructed in the volunteer area and the water was to be used in an order: clean for drinking, grey water for showering, and then shower water recycled to flush the toilet, so we would be using the water as much as possible and not wasting any. Luckily, the villagers all agreed to these improvements, as they understood that without proper accommodations it would be difficult for future volunteers to visit and stay for any length of time.

The next steps after the improvements were discussing possible options for export from the village. Ben's research had indicated that growing cocoa in the village would be relatively easy due to the climate and location, and the exported cocoa would net them quite a bit more money than other crops. It wouldn't happen overnight – a cocoa plantation takes about two years to get started – but we could discuss with neighboring tribes who were successfully growing cocoa and hopefully work together to develop the best practices and products. Throughout the day we presented I believe three or four times total, but it was really great to see good people who want to work come together to improve their intriguing paradise community.

We asked the children for the bag of teaching materials left by previous volunteers so I began sorting through them to figure out some sort of lesson plan. I would highly recommend anyone going to teach to bring tape, markers, photocopied worksheets/activity sheets with crayons, and possibly some lesson plans. Since we didn't know what we'd find I hadn't created any lesson plans prior to my trip, and I'd never formally taught English before. I've been a music teacher for almost six years, which is somewhat of a language, but it's still very different. I organized the materials and decided to do repeated units on colors, animals, and numbers with the children. I hoped to have classes with the adults too but wasn't sure what to expect yet and didn't want to get ahead of myself.

We have much work to do on the project as a whole – but this is definitely not something I can go home and ignore. I may not be back for a while but everyone has been so kind and helpful with my Spanish. When I said I wanted to go to Peru since we are so close Gustavo said he will bring me since I have never gone. So many things both for me and for them.

Aside from the presentations, work discussions, studying and lesson planning, and musical performances, I also saw one of the most beautiful displays of love I've ever seen. A baby monkey – called a mico in the village – about 3 months old had lost his mother and since latched onto one of the pet dogs Gustavo's family kept. This dog named Niño was a young male dog with fluffy hair and the children told me that's why Yuki, the mico, liked him because the fur was like a monkey's fur. Niño and Yuki were inseperable, save for when Yuki was out climbing trees. They ate and slept together and Yuki was normally found on Niño's back, playing with the children. I was amazed at this phenomenon. A domestic male dog was the surrogate mother for a wild baby monkey, and both animals were completely content with the situation. If humans could be more like this pair, what a beautiful world we would live in, where it wouldn't matter where you came from or what you looked like, but simply that two beings could offer one another help and companionship and form a symbiotic relationship.

As an animal lover, the dogs in the village were a joy for me to play with. I taught Caní, a little black pup, to fetch a stick, and I often picked her up and cuddled her throughout the day. My first night in the village I'd picked her up and just stood outside gazing up at the stars, and she relaxed in my arms like she'd been mine forever. I lost my dog to cancer last September and have missed her deeply in the months since, so being able to “adopt” some village dogs for my stay there was quite healing for my heart and soul. Before my trip people told me what a good person I must be for coming here, but I'm almost certain (and feeling somewhat guilty) I got as much, if not more, out of my trip than the villagers did.

"I am learning much – in humanity, in Spanish, in friendship, and more. I am doing things most people only dream of. It's really crazy to think “This is my life.” This is. I do have a real life in NYC but this too is real. This is the life I am making for myself. This is the life I would have imagined if I'd managed to think about myself. I want adventure, I want to meet people, I want to learn and teach and help.
And now...I am. :)"

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

My First Morning in La Libertad

Hello everyone! This is my first post here on the Amazon Pueblo blog. I'm doing a lot of editing and organizing from the journal I kept on my trip, so this is the first post of many. A tiny bit of background; my trip to La Libertad was my first foray outside of the United States, so it was a major milestone in my life. I've known Ben for nearly 15 years since we led camping and hiking trips together in Maine and I'm thrilled to be a part of this project. I simultaneously had absolutely no idea what I was getting myself into, while also knowing exactly what I was doing, when I bought my tickets. I wanted to have an adventure. I currently live and work right outside New York City and haven't spent nearly enough time in nature lately. Ben's website and blog prepared me very well for what I'd see and who I'd meet (and I hope to be able to impart a bit of helpful information for all future volunteers as well), but nothing could prepare me for what I felt within myself, beginning with my first flight's descent into Bogotá. 

Without further ado, here is the first coherent post from my notes, written on the morning after my first night in the village


“I'm thankful we have a toilet. It's not much, but it helps.” Thus began my first journal entry from the village, upon waking at 6am after spending my first night in La Libertad. By the time I wrote this entry I had left the US for the first time and spent a night in Bogotá, Colombia. I had walked across the border to Brasil – two countries in two days! - and I hadn't spoken English since Ben, David, and I had arrived at our hotel in Bogotá. I'd seen the jarring mix of poverty and contemporary life in the port city of Leticia and eaten a hearty dinner of rice and beans cooked for us by the villagers. And on this particular morning, I was waking to the sound of the rooster crowing next to our cabin, with the sun shining bright, and the clean air filling my lungs.
The afore-mentioned toilet in La Libertad

Leticia is curious enough to warrant an entire entry of its own, but for now, I just want to touch on the juxtaposition of poverty and modern comforts I witnessed all around the city. The houses are so very different than what I've seen in the US: nearly all ramshackle, run down, rickety wood floors with cracks and holes, very lightweight movable furniture, and most with little handmade signs selling wares or food. Same in Brasil. The level of poverty is truly eye-opening. The streets are full of street dogs and cats, none of which are neutered. The parks are messy and appear to be poorly maintained, filled with small food carts. And yet there are shops with current trends in clothing and people wearing the latest styles. There are restaurants with new dining rooms and fancy stemware. Motorbikes, smartphones, and Wifi signs are everywhere. New and remodeled buildings housed banks next to worn-down tour offices. In Leticia we talked with a tour agency to see what they offered and at what prices, to see if La Libertad would be able to offer similar programs. We also stopped in the office of a trade and export organization to learn a bit more about possible export opportunities for the future.
Ben inside Julio's (one of Gustavo's sons) homes in Leticia
Ben inside Julio's (one of Gustavo's sons) homes in Leticia

Once we purchased food for the week, water for a few days, and a bottle of Brasilian cachaça to bring Happy Hour to the village, we set off for the port to catch a speedboat ride to La Libertad. We got kicked off the first boat we were on because we had so much gear and there wasn't enough room for all ticketed passengers plus our gear. Luckily another boat was leaving in about 15 minutes so we didn't have to wait long. A little over an hour later we arrived at La Libertad where Gustavo and his children were awaiting us. They helped us unload and hike up to the village and guest house. The first thing we did was set up our beds with nets to keep out mosquitos. I was surprised and impressed with the level of craftsmanship in the guesthouse and the level of care the family took in putting our beds together. The thatched roof, despite having a few thin patches, is overall very precise and perfect. During later storms, including an hours-long, intense thunderstorm, it also kept us and our gear dry. There are screens in all the windows and they had foam rolls and nets for every bunk bed. I'd brought two closed-cell camping sleeping pads to add to the foam pads too (which are now staying in the village for future volunteers).
My bed in the volunteer house

After this we went through our bags to unload food and supplies and to give tools to Gustavo. He talked to Ben about the solar panel and battery when we learned the battery they have is not sufficient...so we need to help find a solution for that. More important, though, was the clear lack of water filtration. They have not been using the filters and we had only brought water enough for two days or so. Gustavo cooked us dinner – beans and rice for me, with sausage for Ben and David! 

Then we went back to our guest house and read to the children and I sang songs. I broke a string on my guitar but it was okay – just my high E so I would survive. After a few songs it was time for bed and we wrapped everything up. Overall though it wasn't very different from primitive camping anywhere else – no lions roaring or anything. Our first priority was meeting with the villagers to discuss the project, where we stand, what we need to do ASAP (including remedying clean drinking water) to get things in motion for more volunteers and more forward motion with the sustainability project.
Ben reading to the children (and David)

Near Death on the Amazon, Part 2: The Propellor

The Propeller

After leaving Leticia we rounded a small island and headed into the main part of the river. But before going back to village, La Libertad, we stopped to fill our 5 gallon spare gasoline tank in the port city of Santa Rosa, Peru. This small city is located directly across from Leticia, on the Peruvian side of the river. Santa Rosa is frequently visited by Colombians and Brazilians from the area to buy cheap gasoline and other discounted goods at a number of huge floating stores called balsas. The mainland of Santa Rosa is not very interesting, with the exception of a restaurant where it is possible to play with monkeys, baby jaguars, see caimans (alligators) and anacondas and contract food poisoning.

Our stop at the balsas took us only 15 minutes. I also bought a kilo of nails that we needed for construction. When we left we were riding a bit lower in the water. We usually have a 24 foot boat, but today we had borrowed a 21 foot which leaked from poorly maintained seems. About every 10 minutes the driver or backmost person would have to bail water with a cut in half 2-liter soda bottle.

The first hour of our journey upriver was quite pleasant. The sun was hot but the wind of river travel produced a nicely cooling breeze. We frequently passed or were passed by other boats of varying sizes, speeds, and number of occupants. I took off my hiking boots, socks and rolled up my pants in an effort to get a bit of a tan. I always wear long pants while in the jungle to avoid as many bug bites as possible. Even so, my ankles and lower legs always seem to be covered in bites.

The sky started clouding over a little into the second hour of our trip. I saw dark, heavy clouds very far ahead of us and asked Gustavo if that meant rain. He said no, that the clouds were in Peru, further ahead than we were going. I had both my computer and cell phone with me, which I really did not want to get wet. My computer was in its carrying case and wrapped in a plastic garbage bag and could be placed on in my backpack, under a heavy coated nylon rain poncho. If the rain became extremely heavy, the kind where the visibility drops to less than 20 feet, I could wrap both my phone and computer in the case and switch the pack to my front. That was my emergency rain plan.

While in the midst of contemplating the complete rain soaking I may have received our boat was overtaking a much smaller, paddle-powered fishing boat. Just before I was to raise my hand in greeting I felt a slight thud under the boat and then the high-pitched whine which, without looking, I immediately associated with of our propeller lifted out of water. That was followed by a Spanish swear word uttered passionately by Gustavo. We were not longer under power, but our momentum carried us slowly by the fisherman until we were stopped and, then pushed back, by the water current. A glance at Gustavo told me that something serious had happened. He explained to me that our propeller had hit a submerged tree trunk and that half of it had broken off.

Gustavo exchanged words with the fisherman as we slowly drifted by. I could not understand all that was said as Gustavo was speaking in what I think of as River Spanish. This is a mixture of Spanish (with many words being cut off and simplified grammar) and many regional slang words. For example; a boat’s motor is named a pecky-pecky, which is derived from the sound of the machine.

The repair plan was to go downstream to Puerta Alegria at one-quarter throttle and buy a replacement propeller. Even half a propeller will propel, but not well and with the risk of completely breaking off. We did not have a paddle. Gustavo’s paddle had been stolen some months earlier. We headed, slowly, back downstream.

After about 20 minutes of river travel and another 15 minutes to find, buy and install a replacement propeller we were back on our way to La Libertad. However, by this time the rain and wind had arrived. The men of Puerta Alegria advised us to be careful because of the strong waves caused by the wind. Gustavo told them that we would hug the left shore until Monkey Island, and then cross below the island which would protect us from the worst of the waves. This response satisfied them.
Puerta Alegria

As we left the shore I wrapped myself in a heavy rain poncho. I wished for the warmth of a life vest. I had brought some down on a trip a year earlier, but unfortunately they had been damaged and all but one, which we did not have, thrown away.

It was 4:30 now. Our arrival time in the village should be slightly past 6pm. This was very important as sunset is around 5:50. We had no light and river travel during the night is treacherous.

Next: Near Death on the Amazon, Part 3, The Storm.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Near Death on the Amazon: Part 1, Leticia

(I would like to alleviate the fears of my mother and to assure my blog readers everything did work out well.)
The bow of the boat
 We left the village at 6 in the morning to buy supplies. It helps to leave early as the sun is not yet that intense and the wind tends to be less strong (therefore less powerful waves) earlier in the day. Most of the stores at which we supply open early in the morning and close at noon for a 2 hour lunch. I am not sure why a two hour lunch is needed or what everyone does, but it is the custom in the city of Leticia. Gustavo, an experienced river and jungle guide like to leave the city at noon to return to the village well before sunset. To navigate at night without lights is very hazardous.

Gustavo was at the helm of the boat and his 9 year old son Hector at the bow. The brisk morning air and wind was chilling to the boy, who had placed his arms inside his t-shirt where they remained for the majority of the 90 minute trip downriver. Gustavo was constantly on the lookout for floating sticks, logs, and the occasional tree trunk which was also, slowly, making its way downstream.

We arrived in the port city of Leticia a little after 7:30. Over 100 small and midsized boats are docked at floating barges or on the shore. Many others arrive or depart with a rhythm that reminds me of working honey bees. After docking and securing our craft we spend the next 5 hours buying things for the kitchen construction which is scheduled to begin the following day. Slightly after noon we found a good deal on a 4 burner stove. We spent the next two hours getting the associated propane tank, connections, hoses, and more cookware. While we knew we would leave later than usual, the sun was strong, winds clam, and only a few soft, pillow-like clouds were in the intensely blue sky.

At a little after 2 pm we left Leticia to travel back to the village. Our arrival time would be around 5 pm, well before nightfall. It would be an easy trip, we thought….

Click to read the next part -Near Death on the Amazon, Part 2: The Propeller.
Monkey with dog.  Not directly related to the story, but very cute.