Friday, December 12, 2014

Rot in our structures, facilities improvements, and general update.

I am currently in Leticia. Last week I met with an ophthalmologist from Bogota. She travels to Leticia once a month to treat everyone in the area. The jungle city has very few specialists (and no ophthalmologists). My eye infection is viral, not bacterial. I probably caught it in Bogota, as she said that there is currently an epidemic of viral conjunctivitis in Bogota. My eye has improved greatly, but will not be completely better until one or two more weeks have past.
Getting better
There is now electricity available in the village! This is provided by a company that has contracted with the Colombian government. They have power from a generator from 3 pm to 9 pm. People use freezers as refrigerators, which works to keep things somewhat cool throughout the day. I am trying to connect power in our structures, but it is a bit difficult. There is about a mile between the generator and the guesthouse. The wiring in the village basically consist of cut and spliced together extension cords running from house to house. At many junctions they did not even use electrical tape, instead wrapping the exposed wires in bits of plastic bag.

The good things with electricity are that we are able to have light during the night, operate and charge small electrical devices, and to one day have a refrigerator. A negative side is that the villagers spend more time watching TVs, sometimes listening to music that is loud enough to hear clearly 500 feet away, and spending less time talking, playing, working, or doing homework.
Our first light bulb!  Hanging to the side of this is Mark's blowgun.
Additionally, watching many TV shows and movies seems to be having an effect on the culture of the villagers. I have been told that as families watch shows were children are disrespectful to parents, the children are less well-behaved. Likewise, the soap operas that feature drama and yelling between spouses has led to more drama and yelling between the husbands and wives of La Libertad. I will not even try to theorize what the influence of consumerism, affluence, sex and violence seen on-screen are having. If there are any sociologists or anthropologists reading this blog (or if our readers know of any), I think this would make an incredibly interesting study.

Connected to the grid and our solar power system.  It may look messy, but it is electrically stable and works well!
The rot problems were worse than I initially thought. There was more rot in the kitchen, with about 1/3 of the walls and some of the floors needing to be replaced. All of the structures have insects called gorgojos eating the wood, and carpenter ants in some places. I believe the gorgojos are powderpost beetles. The new roof and paint should keep much of the rot from returning. From internet research we believe that the paint will kill the gorgojos (if they are powderpost beetles). With more adequate roofs and paint the external walls should not become as rain-soaked, which will help to reduce rot.
The kitchen wall under the sink.  This rot was unnecessary and was due to a faultily-installed sink angle.
The kitchen floor next to the stove.  This is carpenter ant damage.

We must also reinforce the dock and paint it with a mixture of tar and gasoline as a wood preservative. This is on the list of projects for December. Hopefully we will have volunteers in the village to lend a hand!

Additionally, we are installing a new toilet and giving the old one to Gustavo. We are helping him to build a new bathroom for his family and tourism business. He is using the project’s toilet a lot and not cleaning it often (6 kids and 3 adults are using it).
The 9 feet deep toilet pit.  I have covered it three times and other people keep uncovering it.  Why they keep uncovering it, I don't understand.  Three days ago a four year old girl fell in.  She started crying, but was unhurt.  Luckily they grow the kids tough around here!

Quest for wood
The amount of wood needed to complete the rebuilding exceeded our original wood supply. We went on an expedition to find a tree that would supply the needed boards. The tree had to be of sufficient size, type, and straightness to meet the requirements of the building project. Different species of trees are harvested for different reasons: posts that will be set into the ground; floors; walls; ceilings; handcrafts; or boats.
Oskar, our chainsaw man.  He is a good worker, a founding member of the Christian church in La Libertad, and does not drink.  It is good to have a sober lumberjack with a chainsaw.

Last Wednesday morning we struck off to the forest to find a tree. Oscar, our lumberjack, selected the tree, cut it, and used his chainsaw to mill the trunk into usable lumber. In this case he selected a tree called a mata matar. This tree has white wood when cut, but it turns red after 4 days. It is a very heavy wood, but has excellent strength, rot and insect resistance.
A small group of boys followed us out to the jungle to watch the tree being cut.
As long as the insects or things don't bite, anything is open to being picked up and played with.
While waiting and on the walk back from the site we found various jungle fruits like ubo (round, light orange-colored, sour, and tasting a bit like passion fruit), nejillas (sweet, floral taste, with little flesh) and uvas (a grape-like sweet fruit with a large, single pit).
This fruit looked like grapes, but were most definitively not.  They had a tough outer skin and a single, large seed.  The flavor, however, was slightly like grapes.  Very strange.
This boy is at the top of a thirty foot high tree picking jungle grapes.

Umberto with some ripe jungle grapes.  This is one of my favorite pictures.

Redirection of funds
Due to the rot and needed expansion of our facilities, the maintenance and improvement budget has doubled. It is very important that we make the improvements needed to preserve the buildings. We must protect our investment in the structures. While initially this is expensive, the savings over the long-term will be significant. A palm roof cost 1/3 of the price of a metal laminate roof, but must be replaced yearly, leaks, and is a haven for insects and rodents. A metal roof covers and protects the buildings more adequately, is more hygienic, and will last for more than 10 years before needing replacement.

We have redirected $1,000 from the pier project to cover the maintenance to the buildings. We had originally budgeted $2000 for the pier and dock improvements, and $1000 for building maintenance. However, I believe we have a good chance of using part of the $1,000 from the project as the village's contribution to build a much better pier with concrete.

Quick update on everything:
  • My sister Crystal and her friend Kaitlyn volunteered for a week in the village. They painted a mural of the world on the school and painted much of the guesthouse. It was great having them help out in the village. Thanks Crystal and Kaitlyn!
Painting the guesthouse.  This make the room not only more cheery, but will also help to prevent insect damage.
This is a 10 foot wide mural painted on the side of the school.  It was organized by Crystal and Kaitlyn and painted by the village kids.

  • We installed a new roof on the guesthouse.
Our old, leaky, rat and cockroach infested roof.  Good bye old roof!
Hello nice shiny new roof!

  • We replaced rotted wood in the kitchen.
Kitchen repair.  In the end we needed to replace 3/4 of the walls and half of the floors. 

Helpers for kitchen wall painting.  The kids are currently on their "summer" break from school.  They have two months free.
  • I had two village meetings at which we discussed the formal incorporation of the village. This may bring an additional $15,000 dollars into the village annually. I may take a trip to Bogota in the coming weeks to help move the process along.
  • We have three (and possibly five) volunteers interested in visiting the village during the next two months.
I came across this moth on the walk back from one of my meetings.

What is on the “to do” list for December and January?
  • Connect the kitchen and bathroom to the village power grid
  • Finish the roof for the kitchen
  • Paint surfaces
Gustavo's dog, Pelacho

  • Put in a zinc laminated counter top in the kitchen
  • Finish tiling the shower floor
  • Reinforce the dock
  • Weatherize the dock
  • Fix the project’s bathroom
  • Build Gustavo’s bathroom
  • Continued maintenance to Gustavo’s motor
Gustavo's motor for his boat.  The motor needs constant maintenance in order to operate reliably.  It is not fun to break down on the river.

  • Gutter the kitchen and collect the runoff water in a 1,000 liter tank
  • Go to Bogota to explore option for incorporating the village
  • Start planning the projects for which we will apply for government grants

That’s it for now!

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Eye infection in the Amazon and project update

Things are going well, but it is –at times- uncomfortable for living conditions. We have not had significant rain for the past two weeks, so all of the rainwater for drinking is almost gone. Even the project’s 2,000 liter tank is running on fumes. Other families also use our tank when they really need drinking water. I have heard that some villagers are resorting to drinking river water. Not a wise thing to do considering the high concentration of parasites that call the water, and the people who drink it, their homes.
Almost empty water tank
The project’s structures are also taking a beating. We have structural rot in the kitchen and bathroom due to water splashes from roof water run-off. Inside the kitchen the walls are rotting around the sink, as the countertop is improperly angled. The screens on the guest house are rotting and broken, which helped to add more itchy bug bites to the hundreds that I already have.
Rot due to rain splatter.  After board replacement, an enlarged roof will help the problem.

Sanitation is also an issue. The thatched roof is home to many (I am reluctant to guess or investigate the actual number) defecating cockroaches. Large jungle rats hunt and eat the cockroaches. Then the rats poop out the digested roaches. And where does all this defecation go? It goes to everything below the roof, which includes me. Little bits of the thatch also decompose and fall. I believe all of these factors helped to contribute to my bothersome eye infection (more on this later).
The ceiling.  A home to cockroaches and nocturnal jungle rats!

But that is enough complaining about maintenance and sanitary conditions. What are we doing to address the issues? Next week we are going to put a rat-free metal roof on the guest house, the bathroom, AND the kitchen (due to a drop in the price of metal roofing, we are able to replace all roofs). We will deep-clean the buildings, put in new resistant aluminum wire screens, start to repair the rot, paint everything, and maybe even put a comfortable toilet into the bathroom! These things should help with a lot of the sanitation problems.
Screen rot

Other project news:
  • The entire village is motivated to go forward with the project (a major task by itself).
  • The dock that we started building last March looks really good and is ready for “phase two”. Depending on funding this may include building a small store and seating on part of the dock.
    The current walkway
  • The village chief and I had very productive meetings about projects with the state and national government this week in Leticia. Basically the village needs to supply at least 10% of each project’s costs, all of the labor (or pay for specialized labor), and to complete each project in phases with the rounds of funding corresponding to each project phase. To apply for each project we must submit all plans, costs, timelines, and who and how many people will benefit.  Projects:
    • A much more expensive and well-build pier system than originally planned
      People looking at the site of our pier and walkway.
    • Drilling a deep well
    • Rebuilding and upgrading the village water filtration system
    • Further dock developments
    • Developing a village recycling system
    • Improvements in agricultural production
    • Traditional fishing development and improved technique
    • Beekeeping
    • The beginning stages for aquaculture
    • The beginning stages for cacao production
    • Rice production
  •  I believe the time is rapidly approaching for the village to begin talking about the problem of open defecation. We need toilets for all. However, this can be a complicated and messy situation. How “green” do we want to go? I believe that composting human waste is the answer.
  • This week I learned, to my surprise, that the village has not yet incorporated. It is not an officially recognized Colombian village. What this means I have yet to discover. It seems that being a legalized village would only be in the peoples’ best interest. However, the old chief told me that there is some resistance to doing this. I believe that the resistance comes from not knowing the proper way to become legalized. The paperwork and steps needed seem overwhelming. But paperwork is one of the things at which I excel. The village WILL become official.
  • The Peruvian government is hosting a trading convention in Leticia this Thursday, November 20. We expect the village cooperative to enter into our first international business contract! We hope to sell agricultural products, fish, and handcrafts. I will give an update about this in next week’s blog post.
  • On Friday the 21st my sister Crystal and her friend are coming to visit the project.  This is their first trip to Colombia.  Our father and other sister, Rose, visited Bogota in 2005.
  • I am happy with our progress during my first two weeks in the Amazon.
And more news:
Appointment cost $12.  Wait time without a scheduled appointment was 15 minutes.

Anyone for drugs?  Read about whatever problem you have, go in and buy drugs.  Be you own doctor!
  • EYE INFECTION. Last week I noticed a bit of blurriness and irritation in my right eye. I did not examine my eye, as there are very few mirrors in the village. When I got around to shaving I noticed it was very red and swollen. You might say pink, as in pink eye, which it was. I have had conjunctivitis three times before, but this was the worst case I have ever had. I believe it came from a combination of the stress of moving around a lot in Colombia, the pressures of the project, the extreme heat and humidity, the lack of sanitary conditions in the village, and the constant stream of rat-dropping falling into the house from our thatched roof every night. Luckily, the next morning I had a trip planned to Leticia. In Leticia people with money may buy any drug normally available only by prescription in the United States. The exceptions to this are narcotic class drugs like heavy pain-killers or amphetamines. I picked up some antibiotic eye drops and started dropping away. The next day I looked up what I was taking on the internet and found that it contained steroids, which I did not want to take due to their side effects. To make a long story short, I ended up trying three different drops and to a visit to an optometrist. I am now taking Cipro-based drops. I paid $9 for the eye drops and $12 for the doctor’s office visit. (I also found a good anti-allergy mast cell stabilizer drops for $5 per bottle). While I do have traveler insurance with World Nomad Travelers (highly recommended) I did not file a claim. This bout of conjunctivitis has been exceptionally difficult to control, but I believe I now have the upper hand.
    Pink Eye

  • There is a new coffee shop in town. It is called Punto CafĂ© (Coffee Spot). It is run by a very nice young woman named Adriana. She speaks English and Spanish.  She opened the shop, located on one of the main streets of Leticia, four months ago. She serves espresso, cappuccino, lattes, regular coffee, juices, and an assortment of pastries baked on location. Adriana also has a love of Turkish food –serving the only Kibbes in town. Why the interest in this little restaurant? Before the arrival of Adriana I could not buy a good cup of coffee in Leticia. I had the plan, if we ever had an Amazon Pueblo office in Leticia, to invest in an expensive machine and serve good coffee. If I spent the time looking through the city for a descent cup of coffee, I’m sure other have as well. Adriana said she is interested in forming a partnership with the project. I will set up an English Facebook page for her, and she will have the project’s brochures in her shop.
    Punto Cafe!
  • I am planning a visit to San Francisco (Amazonas) to get a detailed view of their cacao production operations. They are located about one hour upriver from La Libertad by speedboat. The president of the operations, Arcesio Rendon, is from inland Colombia, but has been living in Leticia for over 10 years. They have 10,000 trees in production. However, they have many problems with the fermentation process needed to make a good chocolate. Currently their chocolate is bitter and tasteless. Gustavo (from La Libertad) described it as tasting like bitter dirty water with sugar added. Arcesio recently received a government grant to improve their production. I am curious to see how things are going and to make suggestions regarding quality improvements.
    Arcesio.  If this business venture does not work out, his plan B is to move back in with his mom.
My next post should be on Friday, as I wait for Crystal to arrive. Hopefully I will be able to include pictures of our newly-installed roof!
Village Green

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Maps for La Libertad

I have arrived in Leticia! Our flight was an hour late due to a passenger with an illness. She became sick just before take-off, so we went back to the gate and she de-planed. I hope it was nothing serious.

When in Leticia I checked into my usual hotel, Hotel Fernando Real, and settled in. The first things I bought in the city were a 5 liter bottle of water, bananas, a San Francisco Giants ball cap, and sandals. I then met with a cacao grower from the indigenous village of San Francisco (2 hours further upriver from La Libertad) and discussed how their chocolate production is going. The production of cacao (chocolate) in our village will be similar to what San Francisco is now experiencing.  They currently have 10,000 producing trees.

Yesterday I put together the maps. Why maps? And why did I have to put them together rather than buying them?

About a year and a half ago Gustavo, a project supporter and indigenous guide, was leading a group of foreigners from La Libertad to Leticia, through the forest. Gustavo became lost, and what should have been a three-day trip turned into a five-day trip. Since then Gustavo has not received any more request from the tourist industry in Leticia to lead jungle tours. And his river business has also dropped off a bit.

So, in order to help Gustavo I am putting together some maps copied from Google Earth. They were printed in color on adhesive-backed plastic. I then stuck the plastic to some pleather from my friend’s motorcycle shop in Bogota. I tried to buy topographic maps, but I needed special permission from the Colombian military to do so. Google Earth was the easier way to go. The ones I made don’t have all the features of a topo map, but they do have a smaller scale than what is available (about 1:24,000 rather than 1:100,000). I also bought compasses and a used GPS unit for Gustavo to use. Now I just have to teach a few GPS and map-and-compass skills to the villagers!

Tomorrow I will continue to take things easy. I expect to do a bit more blog posting, work on my professional webpage, and may even practice my Spanish a bit. I found out the hard way that it is best to give the body a few days of time to adjust to the heat and humidity before doing too much of almost anything. Dehydration and heat stoke come very quickly to a northerner in the Amazon!

Sunday, November 2, 2014

We are Back in Colombia. The Project Moves Forward!

I'm back in Colombia!  I have been in Bogota for the past week.  I leave this Saturday for Leticia.

My favorite restaurant in downtown Bogota, El Artistico

So what is going on with the project?  Here are selections from our last board meeting minutes with my current updates added.

  1. We have changed the registered Amazon Pueblo business from Rockland to Thomaston, Maine, USA.  The Colombian business co-op remains based in La Libertad, Colombia.
  2. Fundraising
    1. We have reached our $3,000 goal.  The monkey graph is full!
    2. We may have our next major fundraising event during June of 2015, at Water Dog Tavern in Thomaston, Maine.
    3. Amazon merchandise
      1. I am storing the unsold Amazon Pueblo merchandise at our Thomaston address.
      2. To buy for new sales: ONLY emerald stud earrings, blowguns, piranha jewelry, and stuffed piranha.  These are consistently our best sellers.  We have enough of everything else.
      3. I am selling coffee and chocolate for half price.  Should I bring back more?  Better marketing?  Should we try selling these items on EBay?  It is great coffee and chocolate.
    4. New developments
    5. University of New Hampshire
      1. We have started an informal talks with the Environmental Engineering department at UNH.  I met with them in October.  They are interested in helping with the project.  They are also a member of the Students Without Borders program.  They have two current projects at UNH for SWB, which is the max they allow.  When they are finished with one of the two, they may be interested in a formal partnership.  However, an individual student from the program is interested in volunteering in the village in January.  They are also open to the idea of jointly submitting a grant proposal.
      2. I met with a Ellsworth organization called Sustainable Harvest International, .  They have many overlaps with Amazon Pueblo.  I with the founder and a director of their organization.  They are a multinational business.  They are interested in expanding in Latin America, speaking further, and possibly in jointly submitting a grant proposal to fund work in La Libertad.
      3. I have been in contact with Vintage Plantations,,  (from New Jersey).  They are interested in buying chocolate from the Amazon.  I am going to meet with representatives in San Fransisco (10,000 trees in production) to see what we can put together.  This would help to accelerate the cacao industry in La Libertad.  However, from what I last knew San Francisco had some serious problems with their fermentation process during their production stages.
      4. I have been speaking with one of my former students from Colombia.  (He actually read all of the website!)  He has graduated from college with a degree in mechanical engineering, and currently working for a French firm in Bogota.  He is eager to help with the project.  I met with him this week in Bogota.  He may also know some of my other former students who may be willing to help.
      5. The Chisholm Group,, has offices in Washington DC and Bogota.  They have contacts in Colombia that may help with the project.  I spoke with them and have been in communication until September.   I have not had any further contact with them since.  I plan to stop by their office in Bogota this week to see what is going on.
      6. I have spoken with the founder of Maps for Good,  He is interested in the Amazon project and gave me some good tips.  To proceed with many of our development plans we need some good maps.  In the interim I have Photoshopped some Google maps with fairly good detail and applied them to vinyl.  These should help with jungle navigation from La Libertad to Leticia.  I may also get an official topographic map of the Leticia/La Libertad region, but to get these I need permission from the Colombian military.
    6. Board meeting in January
      1. Our director positions (for our four officers) have reached their two year limit this past month.  According to our bylaws we should reinstate our positions, as needed, this January.  We will discuss this, and the overall plans for Amazon Pueblo, Inc, further.
That's all folks!

Monday, September 29, 2014

Volunteer in a village in the Amazon!

Would you like to experience something completely different?  Or continue with your volunteer work in a new location?  Does adventure, service, and learning about an indigenous culture sound appealing?

Join us in La Libertad!  The project's guesthouse, kitchen, and bathroom are complete.  We will have full-time staff working in the village for the next six months, and an in-country presence for the next year.  There is much to be done.  Please read our volunteer brochure to find out more.  The jungle awaits...

Click the brochure page to enlarge

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Amazon Pueblo presentation at the Maine Center for Disease Control

On the positive side from my bout of Dengue Fever was the opportunity it gave me to speak with the Maine CDC!

When hospitals diagnose certain infectious diseases they notify the CDC in their state.  I had the honor of being one of the only cases of Dengue ever reported by a Maine resident in Maine.  Two weeks after I visited Togus hospital in Augusta, I was called by Megan Kelley.  Megan is an epidemiologist who works in Augusta and the Rockland branch of the CDC.

Rockland branch of the CDC    
As a former UROCK student, I have passed this sign 100 times.  However, I never really read and thought about the CDC being in this building.

Megan Kelley


Headquarters of the Maine CDC, Augusta

I spoke at the headquarters of the CDC in Augusta.  They were having a symposium on this day and asked me to talk about the project.  After being stuck behind buses on the ride from Rockland to Augusta, and setting up during a fire drill, I gave a short PowerPoint presentation to the attendees.

Below is a link to my presentation.  It is on the online service SlideShare (a spin-off from LinkedIn). 

Please click on the image to see the show!