August 11, 2018
I figure I’ll use this blog post to talk a little bit about what everyday life is like living here in Sucusari. Most people that ask about this place don’t ask any questions at all related to my work or research, they really just want to know what the place itself is like. I always get asked where do you live? What do you eat? Are you the only one there? Do you get sick? Do the people like you being there? and so on. I have touched on some parts of everyday life in other posts, but I’ll try and give a complete picture here.
I’m living in a village called Sucusari (population 172), which is located along the Sucusari River, a tributary of the Napo River, which is in turn a tributary of the Amazon River. Sucusari is about 130 some kilometers from the nearest city of Iquitos, Peru (if I remember right). It takes about two and a half hours to get to Sucusari in a speed boat from Iquitos. Most of the residents of Sucusari are Maijuna, one of the most endangered indigenous groups in Peru. By endangered, I mean there are fewer than 500 Maijuna individuals left in the world. The Maijuna have lived in this river basin for thousands of years and are experts in ecological knowledge. They have their own language, Maijɨki, and they now speak Spanish as their second language. Like many other indigenous groups in Peru, they have a long history of being exploited by outsiders, from being enslaved during the rubber boom to starving while loggers destroyed their ancestral home more recently. Now, they live in and collaboratively manage an enormous protected area that’s over 22% larger than Yosemite National Park. In this region is immense biodiversity, complex habitat types, and species and landscapes never before seen by Westerners. It is the epitome of the image you get in your mind when you think of the Amazon Rainforest.
The Maijuna have also been victims of severe racism in the past, mostly due to the large ear disks that men traditionally wore. Cultural practices like this disappeared rapidly once missionaries arrived in the Amazon. Now, there is a church in the community and most of the people here (from what I can see) are a sort of Protestant-type religion. Many of the Maijuna still hold their traditional beliefs and religion. Traditionally, the Maijuna follow a god called Maineno who crafted animals from people and gave sentience to the forest. Maineno is symbolized by the moon, and the moon is symbolized by the ear disks. I always think Maijuna traditional stories are interesting, because they often involve people turning into animals, which subconsciously places humans and nature on a somewhat even level of life. This is certainly how the Maijuna perceive their environment.
Back to my life. I live in a tent in a large structure in the center of the community that was built as a community space. Also in this building is the only flush toilet in the community, fancy that! I’ve turned this space into a combination of a laundromat, research lab, living area, and work space. It can get quite hot in here at times since it’s made of concrete, but the temperature usually falls quite dramatically at night to the high 60s, so sleeping is reasonably comfortable. I do not have electricity or anything, but I have a solar panel rigged to the roof that provides me enough power to basically charge one item every sunny day. There are no showers or anything, so to bathe you just jump in the river with a bar of soap! It’s impossible to come out of the river without your feet being caked in thick clay mud but after a few baths it doesn’t bother you anymore and the cool water feels nice in the sun. Basically just a day at the beach with clay instead of sand is how I think about it. Yes, there are tons of piranhas in the river, and no, piranhas do not bite you or eat you while you swim or take a bath. If you can hold your bar of soap tight enough with one hand, you can fish with the other hand while you bathe; it’s like making a cheeseburger from your shower at home.
The couple that lives next door, Jairo and Marina, take care of me basically. Marina does all of the cooking and cleaning up for my team and Jairo helps a lot with logistics and answering all the silly questions we have. He’s also a fantastic fisherman and supplements our meals with fresh fish whenever he goes out. He was fishing all day yesterday and came back with LOADS – I can smell a fish stew on the fire now and my belly is starting to growl. Jairo has also suffered from stomach problems his whole life, so they are very careful about cooking clean food and drinking only very clean water. I pay Jairo and Marina every three days or so, 20 soles a day (about $6). I bought the rest of our food in Iquitos in early August and brought it here with me; that includes sacks of rice and pasta, cooking oil, eggs, canned sardines, salt, sugar, oatmeal, etc. I will buy food in Iquitos monthly more or less, thinking that each day I will be feeding 8 people in total. This is because when we are working, I feed the Maijuna that guide us as well, so at times Marina is cooking for myself, Elvis, Ellie, her and Jairo, and 3 or 4 other community members; and they can eat a LOT of food. I also buy fruit, vegetables, and fariña when I can although that is quite rare.
The biggest difference in food that hits you right away is there isn’t really a discretion between breakfast, lunch, and dinner food. What I mean is, breakfast could be spaghetti and sardines and lentils and oatmeal and eggs (which it often is). Sometimes it is hard to make yourself eat heavily like that in the morning, but if you do not take in the calories, you won’t stay on your feet for long. Most of the food is boiled or fried and there aren’t really herbs or spices here besides salt so it’s usually pretty bland as well. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t taste good, it’s just different. The only things that I really have trouble getting down are the constant supply of boiled plantains and fariña. I’m still working on that. If we are having meat (game meat or fish), it is either boiled, smoked, or salted until it is as dry as jerky. I am a huge fan of the smoked fish, although usually the fish is fried. Here’s an example of what I have eaten today:
- Breakfast (6:30am): Fried fish, rice, lentils, oatmeal, plantains, and coffee. The fish is cleaned then slits are cut in the sides every half a centimeter or so. Then the whole fish is fried until it is crispy. The result is that you can eat the entire thing except for the skull. The rest of the bones and fins are broken up and soft enough that you just tear off a piece and eat it; kind of like eating fish potato chips. It’s quite good. Rice and lentils are boiled. Oatmeal is basically a cup of hot water with a tablespoon of oatmeal in it that you drink as a beverage. Plantains, boiled as always. Coffee, always fantastic.
- Lunch (2:30pm): Boiled fish, rice, lentils, plantains, onion salad, and lemonade. Jairo caught my favorite fish, a sabalo last night. It has a nice oily flesh and it’s huge. When I walked in for lunch, there was a big old sabalo head and midsection on a pile of rice, with Marina beaming over it knowing it’s my favorite. Super yummy. The whole fish was boiled, then cut into sections. Since it isn’t fried, you have to pick the bones as you eat. The trick is to have the fish in one hand, holding the spine, and your spoon in the other. Spoonful of rice and lentils, then you do a half bite of fish. The bones stay in your hand if you keep holding on and you just get fish! Rice and lentils and plantains boiled as always. Onion salad is cut up red onion that sits in a lemon juice broth – really good with fish. We have plenty of lemons so lemonade is a nice lunch treat! There was also an ENORMOUS smoked white-bellied piranha for us to eat, but I was done for after just the sabalo.
- Dinner (7:30pm): Salted and boiled fish, rice, lentils, plantains, and coffee. The fish was split and salted, then boiled and smothered in turmeric and served with the classic rice and lentil combo. A bit of hot sauce makes the rice and lentils taste a bit different than they usually do for a bit of variety.
Jairo and Marina are just simply good people. They’re humble, honest, and kind. When you buy a kilo of fish from Jairo you are almost always followed out the door by Marina waving three more fish in the air, claiming that one kilo is not enough and you should take some extra in case someone in your family is hungry. When Marina cooks you cannot finish your plate, otherwise at the next meal there will be a mountain of a platter sitting for you at your place at the table, with a half a kilo of rice, two whole fish, a pile of lentils, and three plantains. I fell victim to this my first day when I was starving, and I am still trying to convince her that that was a one-time event and I don’t need as much as she feeds me. The sabalo was delicious and I cleaned my plate today… tomorrow’s breakfast is going to be a big one. I was hoping the piranha would be saved for dinner, but when we said we were full Marina took it to the neighbor and gave it to him for lunch instead. I asked Jairo how much he wanted for all this fish and he said eh, I don’t know. Whatever, just give me a tip. Crazy man, I know he charges everyone else 3 soles per kilo so I’ll be heading back with some money later.
Clean water is a big issue in a place like this since dirty water is by far the leading cause of sickness. Our drinking water is water that has been put through a biosand water filter that some Mason students designed and built for the community. The filter is in Jairo and Marina’s house and is in a huge barrel that used to be filled with olives. It’s made from recycled materials and sand that is found in the river, but it turns river water cleaner than most bottled water you can buy. Pretty sweet. The issue is working in the field, since we can hardly carry a giant barrel of sand with us. We take as much clean water as we can carry to drink, but we wash our dishes and cook with the river water. Water that we cook with is boiled first, but this is when I would usually get sick if at all. When the drinking water runs out, I use a handheld filter!
I won’t live in the community center and eat with Jairo and Marina for the whole year because I don’t want to put a strain on them. The community is going to build me a house next door to them on the river, where there is a lot of open space. The work will start soon, the 15th, and should be done in two to three weeks. When the house is complete, I will do my own cooking and just buy fish, meat, fruit, and vegetables from people in the community when they have it available. It will be nice to have my own space that I can call home, particularly when Katie comes down in January! Marina has already gifted me a chicken so that I can start raising hens (although she is just still looking after it for me).
How the days play out here really depends if we are going on an expedition or not. When I am just hanging out in the community for the day or have a short day trip planned, I wake up with the sun (and the roosters) between 5am and 5:30am. Breakfast is usually around 7am. When we are leaving for an expedition, we will rise around 4:30am, and leave by 5am. The days are often long, hot, and full of rain so most people also go to sleep with the sun. By 6:30pm, the sun has fully set here and usually I am in bed fast asleep between 7:30pm and 8:00pm. Definitely a different lifestyle, but when you don’t have any lights or anything there isn’t really any point to being awake. The one exception to that rule is the stars. With no light pollution, you can see every star, planet, and galaxy in the night sky. I have yet to spend a long while out at night taking photographs, but the time is coming up soon so stay tuned for some images.
The atmosphere here and the landscape itself is dynamic, always changing dramatically just between one day and the next. The biggest driver of change is rainfall, whether it is raining here or up the river from here. A solid night of rainfall can cause the river to rise several meters in the night, ripping down trees and debris and turning streams into rivers. A week with no rain will make the rivers run completely dry. This is a huge issue we have to deal with because when we go way up the river, we are on a ticking clock to get back down to the community before the river falls too low to allow boats to pass and cutting us off from food and help. My work schedule is defined by the rain. When the river rises, it’s time to take the risk and head up the river to otherwise inaccessible places. When the river falls, we are stuck here. Playing the chance game with Mother Nature always gets a bit dicey, but we have made the right decisions so far. The big trip up river is still to come.
The river rose unexpectedly last night, so this morning I dispatched Ellie, Shebaco, and Everest to tackle a dicey stretch of streams and mineral licks, and sent Elvis with Jeison to try to find a mineral lick that’s a bit of a mystery. I stayed in Sucusari to take down all of our GPS and spatial data so far, back everything up, and prepare the camera traps that we had collected so far to be deployed again in mineral licks. We estimate there are around 50 known mineral licks in the basin, and we have found 38 of them so far in the last 9 days. That’s not too shabby considering we have not touched the northernmost third of the basin yet!
If this kind of lifestyle sounds fun to you, you should come visit! I can promise a house you can stay at, good food to fill your belly (although a tiny bit more American-ized when I am cooking), and some good exercise and adventures at a minimum. This will likely involve canoeing, hiking, climbing, fishing, swimming, and sitting around a fire chatting. I will also take care of getting you out here safely. If you have some reservations or questions about what it’s like, just shoot me a message! I have internet every now and then when I head down river to the lodge to contact my advisors.
Here are some photos from the last few days, particularly some portraits I snagged of Shebaco!