July 30, 2018
This week has been a bit of a roller coaster so far. The course started out extremely well (around the time of the last blog post) until all of us (Mike, Elvis, Carlos, Liz and I) slowly realized that we did not escape our previous expedition without sickness as we had hoped; which is funny since I confidently wrote that in my last blog post. Within hours of making that last post, Mike was sick, then Elvis. Two days later I woke up extremely unwell, then the next day Carlos, and now Liz is down for the count as well. I don’t want to gross anyone out, but there’s a lot of pain and diarrhea involved lets just say. Elvis says it’s a parasite that’s commonly found in water buffalo feces. Water buffalo live in Nueva Vida and certainly poop in the water sometimes; that same water we had been using to cook our food while we stayed in the community. Elvis had some medication, but we have been rationing it, cutting pills in half to try and get enough of a dose each. It’s been several days now, but I still wake up feeling unwell each morning. Knowing that we are all running back and forth the bathroom and our beds every few hours trying to seem in control, here is what we have done for the course!
The second day was the first day in the Maijuna community and the focus was on the conservation and sustainability projects going on in Sucusari, including the Cultural Center, the Stingless Beekeeping project, and the water filter project. The beekeeping project is a collaboration between OnePlanet and Carlos’s NGO La Restinga. Basically, all native bees in the Amazon Rainforest have lost the ability to sting, so they are much safer to raise than the bees we keep in the USA. The idea is to go into the forest and extract tree trunks with bee hives in them. Families then care for those bee hives until they have reached a large size and population. Then, they can open the hive, extract the brood comb, and use a series of techniques to divide the hive into two. The new hive is in a little box that Carlos helps to construct. With the right care and maintenance, hives can be divided once or twice a year if they are productive. In the future, when each family has multiple hives, they can begin to harvest the honey for sale in tourist markets at a premium price. The honey from the bees is beautiful; it’s a bit more watery than the honey we are used to, just as sweet, and has a very light citrus or lemon aftertaste. Personally I like it a lot more than our honey. Carlos holds a “Bee School” with the families involved to make sure that everyone is able to care for their bees effectively and divide hives, etc. Pretty cool project!
Students also got the opportunity to participate in a Chambira workshop, which is a palm species whose leaflets can be used to create fiber crafts. It’s always great to see students interacting with the Maijuna one on one, even if they are not able to communicate with a common language. I always think that this has a lot of power when students return to the US and hope that they are more patient with other cultures and people who speak other languages on campus.
The next morning was a bit rocky because we were out looking at birds and we got in a pretty big boat accident. I’ll spare you the details, but to summarize it wasn’t anyone’s fault in particular, nobody was seriously injured, and we made it back to the lodge okay. Our next major activity was kind of a unique experience. Garrett, a graduate student on the course needed to teach a workshop on something for an assignment for the course and his passion is the intersection between well-being and sustainability. To address this, he led the students and a group of the Maijuna both through a meditation exercise, with Elvis doing the translation for the Maijuna. This exercise was a bit of a wild card while we were planning the course because we really had absolutely no clue how the Maijuna would take it or what they would think of the activity. In short, it was awesome. Discussing after the meditation, Shebaco said that it reminded him of decades ago, when they would have a hammock house where everyone hung out and drank Ayahuasca, which gave him a similar feeling to the meditation. Jairo shared that he suffers from chronic headaches and pain and after doing the meditation exercise his head felt clear and light and pain free for the first time in a long time. He said he was going to start doing this type of breathing each morning. Jorge, who is also the community’s pastor, shared that he was able to empty his mind and reach the meditative state, and he felt as if he was the closest he had ever been to God and heaven. He could feel his place in nature as he let his mind go over the sounds and feelings around him. He said he was going to bring the activity to the church for everyone to try. The Maijuna believe that the forest is filled with sentience and spirits, that the very ground, the air, the water is as alive as the organisms themselves. When I walk with them and sit with them for exercises like this, I always try to image what they’re thinking about, and how they perceive the sounds and feelings differently than I do.
It had been rained hard two nights before this day, and the water of the river had risen overnight. The Maijuna advised us that this would likely be the only time that we would be able to access a mineral lick up river that we wanted to take the students to to retrieve camera traps and learn about mineral licks; we decided to go for it. We changed the schedule around and got on some boats and headed up some streams for an hour or so with the Maijuna leading the way. The boats dropped us off at the side of a river and it was a 20 minute hike to the mineral lick. The fun thing about mineral licks is they’re giant mud holes, so you can’t really manage to leave without being covered in thick clay mud. It’s a ton of fun once you accept that. The students learned how we study the licks, how to set up and break down camera traps, and about traditional Maijuna knowledge and stories about mineral licks. It was a really cool, robust activity albeit a little bit warm in the forest. Everyone did really well! When we got back to the lodge, I loaded the camera photos and we did a comparison with a mineral lick way up river to see what animals we could find. The students worked with the Maijuna to go through the photos and ID the animals. The Maijuna sped up that whole process considerably. Everyone was so engaged they wanted to keep IDing for longer when it was getting too late in the evening. That was awesome to see. We got photos of everything from Jaguars to Giant Armadillos.
The students conducted focus groups with the Maijuna the next morning to get more information and insight on the different conservation and sustainability projects, which they need to evaluate as part of the course. I was floating around between the groups just kind of making notes and adding a tidbit here and there, but it was great to see the students come up with their own questions and make a connection with Maijuna individuals that they had not had an opportunity to interact with yet. The afternoon was spent on rainforest ecology. We trekked through the forest to a good spot, then had all the students sit in the forest, alone, in silence, for ten minutes, just taking in the sights and sounds around them. Their task was to observe as much as they could, from the ants and the soil to the monkeys in the trees. Taking those observations, I was able to expand it into a short lesson about niche competition in the rainforest, particularly in terms of light, space, and nutrients. It’s always great to create learning objectives and lessons from direct observations and reflections from students; it’s really easy for them to piece ideas together if they saw it for themselves! As part of the research methods portion of the course, we also did plant biodiversity belt transects along a section of primary rainforest. Students collected samples of almost all of the woody plants inside those transects, and we ended up with well over 100 samples. We hiked back to the field station (ACTS) to identify these species as best we could based only on morphology. Elvis was the mastermind behind classification, splitting the samples into over 100 different species groups. That dude is a crazy taxonomist.
The evening ended with a walk at the canopy walkway as the sun was setting. The students got to get up into the canopy for the first time, and they were rewarded by a beautiful sunset shining through the mist forming in the rivers down below. You might have seen my Instagram photo, but if not, here’s another one. During the walk back home at night, we had planned something special. We stopped at a particular tree whose leaves glow with a bioluminescent fungus. We had all the students turn off their lights at the same time, and look down at the ground. It looks like the stars are reflected on the ground, almost like you’re standing in the middle of outer space, in complete darkness, with stars all around you. It’s a mesmerizing experience. It’s difficult to capture bioluminescence on camera, but here is a photograph of the leaves on the ground! The leaves, combined with the crazy sunset, turned out to be a pretty cool wow moment for the students.
The next day of the course was focused on Maijuna food systems. We spent the morning going fishing with Jairo, then learning traditional Maijuna cooking methods from Jairo and Marina in their kitchen. It was almost like a Rachel Ray cooking show. Jairo and Marina showed us how to prepare the 15+ fish they had caught that morning for a variety of dishes, but then also showed the students the finished dishes themselves. They had prepared all of the dishes the night before to be ready for the cooking lesson. It was fantastic! The afternoon was focused on the Maijuna agricultural system. Students paired up and went with a Maijuna person to try to communicate about what was going on in the field. Any activity where non-Spanish speakers are paired with a Maijuna person without a translator always yields amazing results. It’s incredible how people can adapt to communicate on a basic level, when language is no longer a common thread. The groups always come back with a wealth of knowledge, and that day was no exception.
The next day, I was feeling no bueno at all. I spent the morning trying to drink water and eat fruit while groups did their evaluation assignments and learned about cacao and the Maijiki language, but my stomach was feeling worse and worse. After lunch, I had to stay back while the rest of the group went on a forest walk with Maijuna elders to learn how to weave things with traditional materials (i.e. roofing and backpacks for hunting kills). I spent the afternoon drinking more water and coca tea and reading in a hammock waiting for my stomach to feel better. Man, those days in Nueva Vida really messed us up. By this time, Liz was also not feeling well at all. It was struggle city at ExplorNapo, trying to keep it together and still teach some great lessons.
That evening I was feeling a bit better. We had one more surprise for the students in store. We told them to bring a flashlight and pile into the boats at around 8:30pm, well after night had fallen. We boated out to the middle of the Napo River where we climbed up a sandbar and lit a huge bonfire. The students, the instructors, the Explorama staff, and almost 10 of the Maijuna just sat around the bonfire under the stars chatting about anything and everything, poking fun at each other and having some good laughs. It’s a beautiful thing to look around at people who come from different backgrounds and different cultures who are all rolling on the sand laughing at a sloth joke. If there’s one thing that crosses cultures, it’s sloths. The theme of laughing and chatting has been present the whole trip really, as many of the Maijuna join us at the lodge for meals. Students disperse themselves among the Maijuna, with all of us translating throughout the meal, and the result is always entertaining. Talk about intercultural experiences, just fantastic.
Fast forward two days, and the students have gone. I was tired of being sick so I popped a Cipro and I am back at 100%. Luckily, a lot of the students left medicine behind for me and Liz to use in the field. I am in Iquitos, staying at Mark’s house in the center of the city. Yesterday (Sunday) consisted of organizing gear, reading and sleeping since it was a national holiday and most of the stores I need to visit were closed. Today, the first thing on the list was getting a phone so I can call local places and contact Liz and Elvis when I need to. Liz met me this morning and we went to the phone store! It only costs me S/. 5 to get a phone with an internet plan (just over $1.25). I didn’t have my passport, so we hit a wall. Liz put a smile on and asked the Peruvian fellow in line behind us if he would be willing to lend us his Peruvian ID to sign up for my phone plan, and he actually said yes. Now, I have a phone in someone else’s name, but at least I have a phone. Hit me up on WhatsApp: +51 981 058 685! I can get texts while I am in the city. We went out to lunch, then met with Elvis to think of a plan for the next day’s shopping spree for expedition supplies. Now, I’ve been camped at this internet shop for several hours doing email and this post.
The schedule for the next month is packed. We leave for the field August 2nd, and will likely not return to the city for about two months. The first month (August) will be spent way out in the field in the middle of nowhere, if we get some rain and the river rises. August 30th my house (should) be finished and I can move some of my stuff into my locked room. After that, the interviews part of the methods begin. Hopefully, I will have time to canoe down to the lodge to get a spot of wifi and connect with everyone again. Until then, it’s buenas tardes y adios para mi.