Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Second week in the Amazon, Leticia: City, A Constitution, Dock Materials, and The French Connection

I begin this post with a photo of the outside of the restaurant Applebee’s, in Thomaston, Maine. We had a meeting of the project’s director at Applebee’s in February, five days before I left for Colombia. This was one of the many snow storms that hit Maine this winter. I place it here to contrast with the week of temperatures in the 90’s that we had in Leticia for the week in which this post covers.

Applebee's parking lot in Thomaston, Maine, February 2014

Hotel and City Life

For this Colombia trip I am spending a fairly large amount of time in the city of Leticia, about half of my Amazon time. When in Leticia I stay at the Hotel Fernando Real. The price is $20 per night, without air conditioning. The hotel is clean, but very tiny ants and an occasional cockroach may be found in almost every room. But these things are found everywhere in the Amazon. The hotel is run by a woman in her 60’s and her family. As a family-run hotel they know their staff very well. I have never had a problem with stolen items. Their decorations go well with the Amazon, and while colorful, are not tacky. There are other hotels that are “nicer” (some charging up to $200/night –almost a month’s salary for Colombian minimum wage workers) and there are hostels for $8/night (if you don’t mind sleeping in the same room as strangers). I find Fernando Real to be the best value. But, maybe the $200 hotels are bug-free. I will probably never find out.

Lobby at Hotel Fernando Real, Leticia, Colombia

For a Colombian city Leticia is fairly quiet in the night. I have never experienced or seen crime in the city center. Further out from the city center, within a few hundred yards of the jungle’s edge, I have been told that crime is found and may include violent armed robbery. After dark I never venture far from the center. This is also the area of greatest police presence. A policeman or soldier is usually found walking around and, seemingly, at every third corner. In order to avoid bad publicity the tourist areas are heavily patrolled. When a foreigner is the target of crime, the police react quickly.

Main Street Leticia, Colombia

Lechona (stuffed pig), a traditional Colombian food

The food in Leticia is fairly standard for Colombia, but a bit expensive (about 25% more) then the same food found in Bogota. The restaurants serve mostly rice, bean, salad, and meat or chicken plates for lunch. These lunches include a choice of fresh juice. The price is around $3.50. Comida rapida, fast food, may also be purchased. However, the prices are about the same as the lunch plate and the quality of food is very questionable. All meat seems to be a mixture of processed beef and pork, and includes meat byproducts. I have only found one restaurant, Buffalo Bill’s, which has what I consider to be good pizza. Bill’s is run by a family from Colombia’s northern coast. The price of pizza is comparable to that of the USA, which is to say that it is costly by Colombian standards. I hope to have a restaurant guide blog post for the summer.

Cheese-less pizza from Buffalo Bill's in Leticia

Forms, Association, Constitution

The reason for my time in the city is mainly due to the amount of time that I needed to devote to filling out the forms for the constitution of association (non-profit business co-op for La Libertad). The previous week the villagers decided to go forward with forming the non-profit association, now was the time for the work to make it happen. I spent time with the lawyer in the business bureau, time in the copy center, time in the Internet cafes, and time working in my hotel room. One of my next blog posts will go into more detail about what is needed to form a business in Colombia.

My favorite copy center in Leticia

The other reason for my time in Leticia was to get all the materials, with exception of the wood, needed for the dock. From the motor store I picked up the chain and lubricant needed for the chain saw, which would be doing A LOT of cutting.

The motor shop, in the port zone of Leticia

From the construction store we picked up cement, tiles and paint for the bathroom/kitchen (which is already experiencing substantial rot due to the high moisture around the areas in which we use water). We also needed steel bars which would be used to help hold the dock together. (This is La Libertad’s second attempt to build a dock. The first, started two years ago, failed because, in a cost-saving measure, the builders used half the amount of steel bars that were needed. The bars weakened and broke due to the constant wave motion from the river. More bars would have stopped the looseness and resulted in a much stronger dock. When the dock (which had been half built) failed, the work and money put into the dock was lost.) Many, many nails and 40 aluminum roofing sheets rounded out our shopping list.

Leticia's version of Home Depot

While walking to the warehouse for the steel bars we passed an elegant-looking ruin. I asked Gustavo what the ruin was. He said it was the estate of a fallen drug lord.

The former home of a fallen drug lord

The French Connection

Arcecio Rendon is the president of the association of cacao growers in the village to the west of La Libertad, San Francisco. He currently has 10,000 cacao trees in production. However, in his quest to bring cacao to the Amazon he seems to have become almost personally bankrupted. He has some problems with the labor in the village, the method in which his cacao is processed, and a lack of buyers. We hope to avoid this fate in our cacao production in La Libertad. But things are looking up for Arcecio. He is receiving help from the Colombian government for the next phase of his project, he recently met with a fine-chocolate maker from France who may be a chocolate buyer, and he is now receiving some small amounts of help, and encouragement, from the Amazon Pueblo project!

Arcecio, the president of the cacao growers in San Francisco, Colombia

I will end this post with a photo of Gustavo loading his boat with the steel bars needed for the dock. We purchased four, six-yard lengths of ¾ inch steel bar. We do not want a repeat of what happened to the last dock.

Gustavo loading bars into his boat

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

The First Week in the Village: Dock Plans, Business, and Waiting Around

The flight into Leticia was slightly bumpy. We descended through rain clouds. Once out of the plane a gentle sprinkle fell, accompanied by a 90 degree temperature. After picking up our luggage and paying a $10 entrance tax, a taxi took us to the hotel.

My favorite hotel, Fernando Real, in beautiful downtown Leticia.

I always stay at the Hotel Fernando Real, located in the center of the city. It has 30 rooms all located on one floor, some with air conditioning, and none with hot water. However, hot water is not really needed as the temperature is usually in the 80s or above during the day.

Within an hour of checking into our hotel I received a surprise phone call from Gustavo, our main contact in the village of La Libertad. He was in Leticia with a group from the village doing errands and picking up supplies. They would be staying overnight and leaving the next day. This was fortunate for us, as we could more easily take up our baggage and supplies. We would also save on transport cost, as the fare for a group passage on a slow boat is $2.50 to the village. Much better than the $9 charged by the speedboat company, but as the saying goes, “Your get what you pay for.” Which in this case was a five hour trip opposed to a one hour trip.

The boat ride on the school bus to La Libertad
A girl sitting in front of me.  She stared at me for at least 3 of the 5 hour trip.

After picking up food for the week we carried everything to the dock. Gustavo and the other passengers helped us load it into the boat. After running around for last minute things like water and bread, we left the dock at 12:30. The boat belonged to the school, but was on loan to Gustavo to use for the community. So I guess it was a bit like us riding in the borrowed school bus! The boat was 9 meters long, was ¾ covered by a ripped plastic tarp, and held 10 adults, four children, and two babies.

Gustavo driving the boat.

30 minutes into the ride a heavy clunk was transmitted to the boat from the shaft of the motor. This was followed by a long string of Spanish curse words from Gustavo. Gustavo cut the motor and raised the shaft. Half of the propeller was missing. Usually this would not have been too big of a deal. However, Gustavo had forgotten the spare propellers in his house.

Propeller broken, waiting for the replacement.

We waited until Alirio, the former chief of the village, caught up to us. He had been scheduled to leave a half hour later. When he arrived Gustavo hitched a ride back with him to buy a new propeller. While waiting we took some shore time to annoy the local bulls.

Bulls are always fun to bother when you are bored.

A recently built resort.

When repaired and underway the rest of the trip took four hours. We luckily passed a rain storm before it broke, passed and were passed by many other boats, and saw the new construction and finished buildings of a 450 room resort. We arrived, without other mishap, at 5:30 in the village. We had a half-hour to unload before sunset.

The business leaders of La Libertad.

The rest of the week went fairly well. The villagers were almost unanimously in support of both our plans to build the dock and the plans to form the co-op business. Gustavo’s new son (now 10 months old) is much stronger and health. Chucky the monkey has grown. The guesthouse, kitchen, and bathroom were all in good working order. The next part: Leticia to start the process of incorporation for the business.

Stephanie holding Olmer, Gustavo's new son.

Chucky, the monkey.  Larger and as full of vinegar as ever.

We waited at the shore of La Libertad to start our journey downriver. The barco rapido (speed boat) was to pass at 8 am. As soon as it came into view the hopeful passenger must wave an item of white clothing. The boat would then make a stop and pick up the passenger. However, if the boat is full then it will pass the village. If full the options are to wait until the 11 am boat and hope it is not full, or to call by cell phone and request a pickup (for which they will charge an extra $5), or to seek a ride from a village boat.

Michael next to the backpacks.  He is very happily waiting for the boat.

The boat came into view a little past 8:30. It was a half hour late. Gustavo started waving a white, dirty towel. The boat did not change speed or direction. It passed the village. I had a meeting to attend at 11 am. The meeting was with the Camara de Comercio (government business bureau) to start the process of incorporation. Gustavo also realized the problem. We spoke briefly and Gustavo went to get his motor and borrow a boat. Forty minutes later we were on the river.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Before the Amazon: Emeralds and Birthdays

I hope to have two blog posts for this week. The first about my time spent in Bogota, the second to catch people up on project news from my first week in the village.

And on to Bogota: Emeralds and Birthday party for 15 years!

My flight to Bogota was long, but uneventful. I had an eight hour layover (12 at night until 8 in the morning) at the Fort Lauderdale international airport. The airport is undergoing much, seeming slow-going, renovation. The options for resting comfortably were very limited. The seats were few and the ripped-up state of the airport led me to feel like I was already in Latin America. However, when I compare Fort Lauderdale to the newly remodeled El Dorado airport of Bogota, El Dorado is beautiful.

El Dorado International Airport, Bogota

After having walked around my section of the airports three times looking for a safe place to stretch out on the floor, I finally settled on the carpeted area by the baggage carousels. No flights arrived after 12, and the occasional maintenance people were fairly quiet.

Fort Lauderdale International Airport, Florida

Upon arriving in Bogota I had a six day wait until traveling to the Amazon. I used this time to visit friends, drop off and pick up things at my apartment (which I am currently renting out), having my teeth cleaned, and to buy emeralds to sell for the project. Two nights before leaving I attended the 15 year birthday party for my friend’s daughter.

Taxis in Bogota

In Bogota I was picked up at the airport by a friend. We had a quick lunch and then caught a taxi. It was not rush hour, but the traffic was still very heavy along our route. About five years ago I read a story in a Bogota newspaper about a traffic study done by a company from Japan (a place that also has many traffic problems). They said that the only way to eliminate all the congestion was to form two layer highways throughout all of the major routes of the city. This has not been done, and considering that they cannot maintain the roads that have now, will not be done in the foreseeable future. After a one hour drive around and through potholes we arrived at my friend’s house. One good thing about Colombian taxis, the price is low. The fare was $15 USD.

Toscana, Bogota, Colombia

My friend’s house is in a working class part of the city. Their road is unpaved. The houses are made of cement frame and block construction. She rents her house at a price of $200 a month. Utilities are about another $50 a month. It has two bedrooms, a small kitchen, a small bathroom, and a small combination living/dining room. Five people, a cat, and a dog live there. Their use of space is much different from the use of space of most North Americans I know.

Cutting up some fruit in the kitchen.

Motas (dustball) the family dog.

On Thursday I had my teeth cleaned. I went with my friend and her son, who needed to have a root canal, and eventually a dental crown. I, sometime in the future, need to have a crown replaced. The cost: for the cleaning, $30, root canal, $90, and a crown for a molar (porcelain over metal) $300. These are all performed by licensed Colombian dentists.

The dental clinic in La Guitana, Bogota, Colombia

On Saturday I went down to the center of town to the emerald district. I go to the areas that most tourists would not find, into the areas closer to where the jewelry is manufactured. In these places I can get the best prices. I then sell and raffle the emeralds to raise money for the Amazon project. I have bought from one man, who works in the street of the district, for the past seven years. He gives me the best prices on cut and uncut emeralds, without settings. I check everything I buy with an emerald filter to avoid fake stones. The emerald filter detects the presence of chromium in the emerald. Colombian emeralds gain their green color from the chromium. If the filter does not detect chromium (which shows as red through the filter) it is a fake. Fake emeralds, even in the costly stores that cell “certified” emeralds, are common. My advice, never buy an emerald from someone you don’t know unless you have a way to independently verify its authenticity.

Buying emerads from my street source

Lunch, each complete meal costs $3 USD

Gold and emeralds snake ring.  My favorite from this trip.

And the last thing before the Amazon was the QuinceaƱera. This is the 15th birthday celebration for girls. It is very important for young women and marks their passage to adulthood. This may be the single most expensive party of a Colombian woman’s life. When they told me the party would start at 9 pm and end at 10 am the next day, I thought they were joking. They were not.

Viviana in her 15th birthday dress.

Michael with a bottle of soda.

It looked better than it tasted!

The party had much ritual. A special dress is worn. The girl has her shoes changed from low to high heels. A special ring is given. The girl (now a woman) dances with 15 men sequentially during one song. She extinguishes 15 candles, one symbolizing each of her former birthdays, as well as other things that I don’t remember. All of this was celebrated with much dancing and drinking. It was fun, but I left at 5 am and went to another friend’s house where things were a bit less festive and much more conducive to sleeping. I heard later that the party lasted until 3 pm the next day, and included a walk in the park and a game of futbol!

The dancing in full-swing.

Lechona, the pig, after one two many drinks.

The next day, Monday, I struck off for the Amazon…