Sunday, September 29, 2013

Amazon Pueblo joins the Maine International Trade Center!

Amazon Pueblo is proud to announce our membership in the Maine International Trade Center.  This should help us to work through the difficulties of starting trade between Colombia and Maine.

On October 30, 2013, the Trade Center is leading a trade mission to Mexico and Bogota, Colombia.  With luck a representative from Amazon Pueblo will go with the mission to Colombia.  This would give us the opportunity to make valuable business contacts and learn more "of the ropes" of international trade!  A link to the mission is here,

From the MITC's Mission Information Sheet:

Opportunities for Maine
Mexico and Colombia rank among the top emerging markets for Maine exports, with Mexico positioned as one of the top 15 markets worldwide for the state and Colombia showing signs of solid growth following the advent of a new free trade agreement with the U.S.  Opportunities exist for a number of Maine industries in both markets, including: precision manufacturing to support the automotive industry; secondary and post-secondary education; medical devices and equipment; and food and beverage.

Mission Benefits
• customized one-on-one appointments: Individual appointments in both markets based on your business goals.
• in-country research: Research will be conducted by industry specialists in each market, and you’ll have the opportunity to meet via video-conference to discuss your company’s objectives before leaving Maine.
• Market briefings: Learn more about current economic and political conditions in Mexico and Colombia.
• State of Maine reception & networking events: These events provide an excellent forum to strengthen existing relationships, as well as establish new connections.
• Group tours and events: Visit private companies and research institutions and meet with Mexican and Colombian leaders to gain first-hand knowledge of the market environment.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Farewell to La Libertad (and epilogue)

Here are the notes from my final morning in La Libertad, my 24hrs of travel from the village to my apartment back in New York, and everything in between. This won't be my final entry in our blog, but my final one initially composed while actually in Colombia.

3 July 2013 620am

It is 620am and I am on a boat leaving the village I called home for the past 8 days. There are 10 of us: a mother with a sick baby, Ben, three sons/workers to help with supplies, Gustavo, his daughter, and David. The boat is low in the water like the fog is low in the forest. The breeze blows through my dirty hair and sticky clothes and I feel refreshed though I am not at 100%. Yesterday I got some form of heatstroke and had to sleep most of the afternoon. I still feel like someone or something is squeezing my ribs tightly so I can't breathe deeply but I'm a little better. No stars in my head right now. Last night we had a small dinner and I sang a few songs. I cried too. The hospitality I've been shown, help I've been given, humility I've learned. The love I saw and felt, from parents to children, siblings, cousins, and everyone to me. There is a part of me that wonders if the feeling of not being able to breathe is my heart breaking after all I saw and learned this week. I'm never good at leaving – whether I'm the one going or being left behind. I've done it plenty but it never gets easier. I'm hoping I won't have to check my backpack from Leticia to Botoga because I won't make my flight.

24hrs from now I will be on a train from JFK to my apartment – if I make my flight – and there I will shower and sleep and wash clothes in a washing machine and snuggle with my cat. I will rest for two days before going back to work where I will speak English and work with the general public.


I will not be woken early by obnoxious roosters. I won't hear the peal of children's laughter at 6am and, surprisingly, not be the least bit annoyed. I won't play duck duck goose with eager village children. I won't be cooking on an open fire and failing miserably nor washing clothes in water from the Amazon river. I will be eating fresh vegetables for the first time in a week, but I will not be eating them in a group. I will sleep in a real bed with a fan to cool me and unlimited clean drinking water but I will be sleeping alone in my apartment. I will have a shower and clean hair but no wild baby monkey to sing along with me.

I won't see millions of stars every night or the mist rise over the jungle in the morning nor will I sing to the children in the afternoon. No cuddling my baby dog Cani, swinging lazily in a hammock, or buying beautiful handcrafts from the women.

It is time to go home to what Ben calls our “vida aburrida” - our boring life, where I do such “important” things all day to make enough money just to get by. I really, really hope I pass my diplomat exam and can begin my “vida de aventuras” soon.

I also want to save money for visits. I did realize just how many things I don't need while I was here. Who is luckier? Me to live in the biggest city or the villagers to live in Paradise? We both struggle with money, food, and what others need or want from us. We are not so different after all...despite how here they live alongside the animals, we are all still human.

David is going to stay the day with me in Leticia because the men need to return at 11 and my plane is not til 630 so I don't want to be alone and sick with all of my things for that long. I am grateful he can stay with me, but sad I will eventually have to say goodbye to him too. I'm grateful to Ben for starting this project and being so knowledgeable, understanding, fun, and kind. He has lived a life of adventure – and continues to do so – and I wish for the same for myself.
For is time to get ready to go home.

I am alone in a hotel in Leticia with soaking wet hair, 3 backpacks, and a stomach illness. We're fairly certain it's heatstroke again so we decided to put me in a hotel to shower, drink, and rest while the men find the supplies they need to take back to the village. I already had to switch rooms because the first toilet wouldn't flush but I'm proud of myself I was able to handle the issue alone. I'm not thrilled with myself being sick. Rapid heartbeat, nausea, etc. :(

Also on the trip over our motor stopped so we had to wait for another boat to come get us and pull us to Leticia because we had no oars. What an adventure! It was curious – we had no oars, no radio, no way to call for help. Another family in a motorized canoe was driving by and Gustavo flagged them down. They tied our chain to their boat and hauled us all the way to the mechanic in Leticia, no questions asked, no payment expected. Once again, that sense of community that I find so lacking in the States was extended to us and got us to our destination safely.

But, I'm here, I'm safe, I'm resting, and I think I'll be able to leave and get home safe. By this time tomorrow I should be in my own house showered and resting. Happy for that but very sad this adventure is behind me already. Seriously, how on earth can I go back to daily life now? And how can I try not to forget what I saw, what I felt, what I learned, while I'm stuck in the rat race?

It is 10pm and I am alone in the airport in Bogota, soaked in sweat from a fever that broke once I boarded my first flight, where I left everything and everyone behind in Leticia. We went to a drogueria (Colombian pharmacy) and I got some random Colombian drug to stop my stomach issues before the flight but I'm not sure how much they're helping. Strange, I now feel like I have a real reason to save more money – so I can move to Colombia. Honestly, this too would bring me a life of adventure, whether or not I'm able to become a diplomat. The challenge for me will be finding a job with the language barrier but I'm getting better and better each day. In fact I'm thinking more in Spanish when I have to speak or read and I'm remembering more words.

The flight out of Leticia was long delayed and I felt incredibly sick. A fever held me in its grasp and I couldn't do anything but wait. David was already gone back to the hotel. No internet service and no phone service, and no way to get water in the waiting area. So I waited in pain and discomfort, but once aboard I was okay.

Once we landed – on time, thankfully – I left the plane, exited the airport, and found the international terminal. It was much closer than I expected and though it wasn't as empty as Ben predicted, it didn't take long to get through immigration and security. Since I had been able to carry my maleta on from Leticia I figure I'll do the same now. I'm fine with gate checking – I just want to make it through.
My plane is delayed and I'm exhausted as this is by far the latest I've been awake since I arrived in Bogota for the first time ten days ago.

For now, it is nearly time to put my tired, sad, dirty, sweaty, unshaven, achy body on a plane and take a nice long nap until I wake up in my city.
My life is full of adventure.

One final memory from the village I haven't written about yet, last night we piled into a house porch and watched a poorly dubbed movie with a host of other families. The TV is small and runs on a generator and I don't think they have many movies to choose from. Children ranging from breastfeeding infants to grandparents were all there, the kids laying on the floor with limbs all over, dirty feet in each others' hair. Couples lounged lazily touching in the heat and the teens watched from a platform behind. I was able to understand most of the movie and the main character's name is Sarah so the kids had a field day with that. Again, the mix of ancient humanity and today's technology was so strange.

After that entry my final flight began boarding and I left Colombia to return to New York. I ended up going to the doctor the next morning (after sleeping 28 hours straight) and not being allowed to go back to work for another few days. They're still not entirely sure what I had, but it was some type of cyclical fever, coming and going, and I still occasionally have woozy spells now when I overdo it. So, it wasn't heatstroke, but for anyone considering a trip to the village, make sure you drink your water anyway! I can't imagine dehydration compounding whatever it was I was fighting that week – but I'm certainly glad it waited to hit me until I was already leaving the village, so I got to enjoy my entire stay.

Since I've been home my priorities have shifted some, and I've started putting plans in place to change my life. I'm taking my diplomat exam in 3 weeks, though the odds are stacked against me, and trying to plan one day at a time since I don't know what life will bring to me.

Amazon Pueblo will be having another fundraising event this winter and I'm hoping to arrange to be able to attend. I've been able to give out most of the village-made jewelry gifts to those who donated toward my trip. My photo album (of over 500 photos) has traveled to friends and family with me, to tell stories and share images of what they helped me experience. The photo album will be going to Ben to bring to La Libertad since he will be returning before I do, and it will stay there.

Ben remained in La Libertad for about another month after I had to return and he's got stories of how much things progressed once they had the right materials. He'll write about the development of the project and how our goals have evolved. I'm looking forward to continued involvement in this nascent organization and helping to bring this wonderful community to a place of sustainability and dignity.


My final days and a Packing Guide

Today's entry comes to you after a whirlwind week of visiting family, visiting friends, and reliving some favorite childhood experiences while I'm still in the States. This was the first time I'd seen these friends and this side of my family since my return so there was a LOT of talking about my trip! I think I may have convinced one or two friends to come visit La Libertad with me, but my family still seems slightly unsure of my sanity. ;)

The morning of the below entry was the morning of my last full day in the village. It's a jumble of a suggested packing list, small moments I want to remember, and a general feeling of being out of sorts and annoyed. As it turned out, I was in the early stages of a feverish illness, but I didn't realize it until that afternoon:

I'm thankful so many of the villagers are coming together to help build the water filter and rain-catching systems. Also to build the solar panels/add them on afterward. It's really inspiring to see to many people coming together on a project they believe in and also understand will help their village. I'm really glad Ben started this project and that I've been able to be a part of it. What a crazy cool adventure it's been.

Things I think people might want to bring when visiting here:
3 pair of quick dry SPF antimicrobial convertible pants
3 long sleeve SPF lightweight quick dry tops (if you are pale and prone to burning like I am, or trying to avoid mosquito bites. Otherwise short sleeves are fine)
1 swimsuit to shower in
3 sets of quick dry antimicrobial underwear
natural febreeze
baby powder
dry shampoo
fan (when the solar panel is better)
lots of hand sanitizer
baby wipes
shower sandals/sandals you can wear socks with
3 wool sock pairs – most likely merino to combat wetness and odor
sleeping bag liner (big fan of the Sea to Summit CoolMax liner I got)
quick dry full size towel
photocopies of basic lesson activities to hand out for children
memory card/camera
money (small bills)
various meds – especially malaria pills. Our first night we found a mosquito with malaria and have seen more since. Also Gustavo became sick with malaria over the summer.
Sun hat
Big fan of the REI sahara shirt. The chest pocket is perfect for my passport.
Tons of SPF and insect repellant
anti itch lotion

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

The Amazon Returns to the Rockland Public Library!

Interactive slide-talk at the Rockland Public Library
(Rockland, Maine, USA) on October 10, 2013 at 6:30 PM!
Main display case at the library

One year after being founded as a non-profit business in Maine the project is at a crossroads.  We have improved the infrastructure of the village which will allow visitors to live healthily.  The villagers understand and want to go forward with the project.  We have made positive contacts with the local government.  Where do we go from here to achieve our mission?  Business!

Just some of the products which we hope to import
To fundraise and simply give the people of the Amazon “things” is not a sustainable model for our organization.  We believe that the best way to promote sustainability in the village of La Libertad, and throughout the region, is through socially conscious business.  The underused human capital of the village, and region, is seeking the opportunity to work and trade.  The resources of the Amazon are great.  The government is encouraging and willing to assist with development.  The Amazon Pueblo project will help the village to develop agriculture (plantain, cocoa chocolate, and other crops), fishing, and eco-tourism.

Learn about the adventures, challenges, dangers, and opportunities for profits for the people of the Amazon!
Join us to experience the latest developments in this exciting project.  Would you like to become involved or even visit the Amazon?  Come to the presentation and find out how!


Friday, September 13, 2013

Peru, animals, and kids singing my songs

Today I write to you with a belly full of arepas, eggs, and chocolate, just like in Colombia. Today I also write with much on my mind, not all of which may make it into this one entry – I will likely need an entirely separate entry to describe some events that have transpired over the last month or so since my previous missive, but we'll see what happens.

On one of my days off each week I usually spend an hour or so in the morning cooking a breakfast pretty typical of what we ate each day no matter where we were in the country. I found a Spanish grocery store near my house here where I can get arepa flour (though I cried a little when it said “made in the States;” I had been hoping for “made in Colombia” like the herbal tea I drink every day) and the same hot chocolate we had in the village. I listen to Spanish rock and alternative music and enjoy that little bit of vacation back to this wonderful country, and it's a fun reminder to me that yes, I did live that, and it isn't just something I thought about doing.

This week, if anyone's been watching the news, you know things in Colombia have been a bit dicey with protests against free trade agreements that began with farmers and have now spread to students and various labor groups. I have been in touch with David and he's fine, though he said a cousin was injured in a protest. Trade is absolutely important (more in a later entry, I'm sure) for economic growth in Colombia, but of course, providers need to be properly compensated for whatever they're trading.'s entry is from 1 July (I missed a morning, but for good reason – the morning in between I went to Peru!), which, sadly, feels so long ago already. It's only been a bit over two months but it feels much longer. Luckily, each time I review and edit my notes, it puts me right back into our little cabin on the side of the hill in the village, so here goes! This one's pretty long, but it was a very exciting time!

I made it to yet another country! Yesterday we went to Peru so I could see the animals at the nature preserve. We woke up very early and cooked a quick breakfast of arepas, and then Gustavo took his wife, baby, Estefani (the 7 year old who helped me clean up the school building), David, and me out to his canoe – the very same one Ben was stuck in during the storm. Now having seen it, I'm even more impressed neither he nor anyone else nor any gear was lost during that great adventure! Exactly one week ago today I boarded a plane for my first international trip ever, and now I've been to three countries.

Ben had told me there would be a baby jaguar but I wasn't sure what else we'd find. I need to take a moment here and say how amazing it is that Gustavo knows where everything is, and where he is, and how to get everywhere. There aren't roads, very few signs, no GPS, no maps, and yet those who have grown up here in the jungle have an innate sense of where everything is located. In my vida aburrida I balked at using a GPS for years, until my band was touring to unfamiliar areas too often and it became much easier to rely on the GPS than read a map. Four years later, I GPS myself just about everywhere and have a fairly poor sense of direction a vehicle (though I am okay on foot). But here in the jungle, Gustavo can just walk or get in his boat and know exactly where he's going and how he's going to get there. Once again, my modern life is thrown into perspective, thanks to the deceptive complex simplicity of jungle life.

In Peru we pulled the boat up and a lady holding a sloth met us first. I got to hold the sloth while Gustavo asked her about other animals. In Peru animals don't have the same rights they do in the US, so places like “nature preserves” are very different as well. In the US, nature preserves are often natural habitats protected by fences or borders with little to no human development or impact, save for a few trails or the like. In Peru, this nature preserve had private homes, a school, a large kitchen/sleeping area for group tours, a gift shop, and more – but of course, jungle-style. The school was one long building with one classroom per grade and the children wore uniforms. The homes were the stilted buildings with ladders like we had in La Libertad. The most developed section was the kitchen and sleeping building for group tours.

The most surprising aspect of this preserve for me was that the animals weren't hanging out in enclosed natural environments...they were living in the private homes and to see them, we went into these families' homes and they'd show us the enclosures they'd built to house the animals. In one home I met a macaw, baby sloth, huge anaconda, caiman, land tortoise babies, and water turtle babies. And a baby puppy, of course. One home!! I love animals, but this house was about the size of my apartment back in New York, there were at least three humans living there (that we met), plus all these animals. Such a reality check. We took many photos with the animals and paid the family for letting us come in. In some homes, the fees are by the animal, some are one fee for the entire home. I was glad to have David and Gustavo with me so they were able to negotiate. My Spanish is decent but my accent is decidedly foreign – not necessarily from the States, but Colombians have a distinct manner of speaking I absolutely haven't mastered, so it's clear I'm not from there.

We also met an 8-month-old manatee being housed in a kiddie pool under a wall-less roofed building, an 8-year-old water turtle (the mata-mata) also kept in another small pool, and finally the baby jaguar, which they referred to as the tiger. We were warned prior to seeing her that she was in heat and was tied up because she was very angry about it. She too was kept in a private house. Just an aside here, but how cool would it be to have a baby jaguar live in your house? But as we entered and waited for our guide to unlock the door to her room and I could hear her first, my though process changed from how cool to how sad. She lived in a wooden room in a wooden house – the room about 10x10 feet – and had a makeshift halter tied around her forelegs connected to the wall to keep her from getting out and hurting someone. She wasn't happy at all to see us, and I wouldn't have been, had I been in her situation. We took photos of her beautiful coat while she kept her low growl steady and I felt sad about her living situation. Jaguars should be outside running, not kept in windowless rooms with wooden floors...(Note added after I got home, I now believe the cat to be an ocelot, not a jaguar, based on her size and coat pattern, but still, it was sad to see her locked up just the same).

I asked David at one point how these families got all these animals and were able to keep them and he responded simply “Porque es la selva” (Because it's the jungle). Out here, it was basically finders-keepers. If you found an animal and you could take it home, it was yours, whether a sloth, a caiman, whatever. On one hand, that's kind of exciting, but on the other hand, it doesn't bode well for the animals. They can be kept in conditions that can't possibly be happy for many of them, eating food that's very different from their natural diets. These families don't have a lot of money to build special enclosures for the animals or buy specific food, and there's not a lot of work to go around in the jungle, so keeping the animals provides a source of income. It seemed somewhat of a vicious cycle to me, as an animal lover with a completely different set of cultural norms.

We stopped for some sodas at the kitchen building and talked to our guide a little bit about the different adventures they offer there, so Gustavo could network and can bring future tours here. We took a lot of photos so Gustavo can have them to show tour groups as well, so the trip not only was fun for me, but helpful for Gustavo's financial future, since he makes most of his money by guiding tour groups from Leticia.

On the boat ride back to La Libertad, in the little canoe on the Amazon river, I kept thinking, “This is my real life. I am really in a canoe on the Amazon and I really just held a baby sloth and shook hands with a manatee. Look what happens when you can change your mind and get focused. I went from growing up poor (relative to the States) to teaching English and holding a sloth in the Amazon, walking through Peru, and drinking a $1 bottle of Brasilian cachasa in good company last night. Who gets to do this if they don't have a travel show on TV?”

In the afternoon I taught one class since we skipped the morning class while I was in Peru. The markers Ben got helped SO much as I was able to write out specific words the kids wanted, and they were able to write both the words and translations. They were also doing really well remembering words from previous lessons.

After class but before dinner I played catch with some of my children – ages probably from about 5-8. The older kids played soccer with David at the base of the hill and the little ones and I tossed the ball around at the top of the hill. After basic catch got boring I introduced them to the brilliance that is “monkey in the middle” and they got a kick out of that. We ended up playing for hours. Then the really little girls – about 4 years old – came to sit with me and slowly started gathering flowers and leaves from nearby plants. I don't remember who started it but one of them tied a leaf around my head and they all began sticking flowers and grasses into the “crown.” One put tiny flowers in my empty earring holes and another put a tiny flower on the bridge of my sunglasses. When they decided I was finally done, one announced, “You're the queen now. The Queen of the Amazon!” I was blown away by the love and kindness shown to me by these tiny humans. Queen of the Amazon is quite a title and I was honored to have it bestowed upon me, so we made sure to get photos of me with my “subjects.”

While playing, kids would occasionally step out of the circle and climb to the top of a tree to pick some fruit. I was the only crazy person cautioning them to “be careful, be careful!” and everyone looked at me like something was inherently wrong with my way of thinking. I realized these kids are far more self-sufficient and strong than I imagined. They're adept at climbing and will often climb up a tree, get the fruit, and jump down from the top of the tree, no harm done. They're very athletic and they know what they're capable of. The kids shared the fruit with me and once again I was struck by their kindness. They have so little – they pick the fruit because they are hungry – and yet they wanted me to have some of everything they had. I would generally take a bite or two and pass it along to a smaller child because I didn't want to eat all of their food. I did get to try some really crazy fruits unlike anything we have here though.

After playing it was time to cook dinner. Ben and David handled the cooking and I sang while they cooked. I actually had children request a song I'd written myself and played a couple of days before. The chorus has the words “baby, baby please don't, baby don't bring me down” in it, and two children said to me in Spanish, “Sarah, sing the baby song.” I was utterly confused and asked them what baby song a few times before one started singing and it hit me that it was my song – MY song, a song in English that I had written – that had made such an impact on them that they remembered it and wanted to hear it. That one word stuck out to them because it's repeated over and over and they latched on to it. Amazed and humbled once again, I obliged them, feeling more appreciation for my craft than I'd felt in a long time, and they sang along with me, making up words to the English ones they didn't understand.

Not only did I have children singing along with me, but at one point, Yuki, the motherless baby monkey, climbed into my lap, and actually started howling along with me. I was shocked. It had taken him a little time to warm up to the three of us “outsiders” and now here he was, sitting in my lap, singing along with me. A wild animal of a different species who doesn't speak English and isn't a pet had willingly and of his own accord climbed into my lap to sing with me. Even now, writing this entry in my apartment months later, I feel the same sense of surprise and unity I felt then with him in my lap.

I want my life to be full of such adventure always. I realize how much I missed out on because of my mindset. And it's not just about music and my tunnel-vision way of life for the past ten years. I will always be a musician. Now it is time to be a human too. To experience, to love, try, take risks, explore, throw caution to the wind (within reason – I still take my malaria pills and wear bug spray, but if the kids hand me food, I eat it. They don't have much so it's a big deal).

It is time for me to keep living and enjoy and embrace life.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Thank you Room 332!

A big THANK YOU to Room 332 (Camden Hills Regional High School), Ms. Alley and all the other teachers and students for their generous contribution to the project!

The donation was made last June (2013) before I left for the village.  This donation allowed us to build a rainwater collection system, for over 20 villagers and volunteers, to be used during dry periods and to better purify water.

During the project work of this summer we also finished (among other things) installing a bathroom, kitchen, and repaired the guest house roof (yes, it leaked -but now no more!).

More project updates coming soon!