The Great Migration: Where I've been

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Channeling Steve Irwin and Anderson Cooper

It's absolutely pitch black. What few lights there are, are too far away to make a dent in the deep, heavy, hot darkness of a jungle night in Peru. I am sitting in a footwide hand-carved canoe, barely three inches above the dark water, while my friend bails the leaks behind me. There are a million unknown enemies in the dark trees--malarial moquitos, snakes, maybe terrorists (freedom fighters?), things I am not even aware of. Crocodiles abound in these waters. I know this because that's why we're here--we are on a crocodile hunt. I made a lame joke about crocodiles liking to eat people, and it wasn't overly comforting when our guide didn't refute it. When you are deep in the Peruvian jungle, ten hours by boat from the nearest town because there are no roads, a gnawed off arm is serious business.

I think this is a good story. It was a crazy night. We found a bunch of crocodiles, their eyes shining in the light of our flashlights. Our guide attempted to kill some with his handmade spear, though he missed. We did catch a baby one, though. Super cool, right? Except there is a more important story to be told from my three day rainforest jaunt. I love telling the stories of my personal triumphs and adventures. But there is more to my trip here than Hayley Currier: Selfish South American Adventurer, and I want to make sure to tell that story, too. I recently applied to a competition being given by Nicholas Kristof, New York Times journalist, to take an American college student on a reporting trip in Africa. Though I would be thrilled to go, whether I win or not is not all that important. What I wrote about in my competition essay was the power of writing, and it made me realize that I can harness that power whether I'm talking to warlords in Kenya or sitting in an internet cafe in Peru or laying in my comfy Berkeley bed with my laptop.

This was actually my second dive into the depths of the Amazon. This time, we left from Pucallpa, literally the end of the road. We spent our first night with a family--mom, dad, and two young kids--who live completely isolated on a little tributary of the bigger Ucayali River, which eventually feeds into the Amazon River (about three days upstream from Pucallpa at Iquitos). They only speak Spanish--not any of the native languages of the area. They collect this particular leaf that people of the area use for their roofing, dry and weave it, and then sell it. They grow much of their own food--yuka, various fruits, corn--but still have to buy things from the city (I'm using that term quite loosely to refer to Pucallpa), where they go about once a month. The husband has a gun that he uses to hunt in the thick forest behind their little clearing. They prefer to live like this, but will move to the city next year so the older daughter, Marta, can begin school.

We spent the second night in a Shipibo village. This is a village of about 200 people, many of them children. They live in wood houses with roofs of the leaves the first family harvested, raised on stilts so that they don't flood during the rainy season when the river swells. However, now actually is the rainy season, and the river was calmly keeping to its banks. ¨Calimiento global¨ (global warming) has been mentioned more than a few times as an explanation by the Peruvians I've spoken to. Most of the houses (including the one we stayed in) didn't have walls, but little rooms of mosquito nets appeared at night, to house odd couples like grandma and grandchild, or uncle and nephew. And on that particular night, gringa and gringa.

This village was a fascinating mix of contradictions and idosyncracies. Before we left, our guide Mario (a good foot and half shorter than me but wise in the ways of the jungle) warned us to bring sweets for the hordes of children that would ask us for handouts, and medicine (tylenol and such) for the hordes of adults that would ask us for handouts. This weighed heavily on my mind before we left. This is exactly what you are NOT supposed to do, as a traveler. Every good development studies major knows that giving candies just encourages begging and does absolutely nothing for the recipient. To have an entire community dependent on the scant tourists that come by for their medical care is ridiculously unstatainable. When I was in Nicaragua doing an alternative break trip with American Jewish World Service (good people, by the way), there was a no gift-giving policy, because among various reasons, to give a gift between volunteer or visitor and a poor community like that changes the dynamic of the relationship, and creates unstastainable expectations. However, with the way it was presented, I felt so boxed into a corner. Mario told us that we need insect repellent, a water bottle, and sweets for the kids. It was on the packing list, so to speak. It was so the norm, I didn´t know how to say no.

Strangely enough, when we arrived, other issues bombarded us, while these basically faded away. The kids didn´t ask for anything, and only one old woman asked for something for a headache. I gave her one pill, justifying it to myself by saying that if she had been someone in Pucallpa who needed a tylenol, I would have lent it to her without a thought, as a favor. I refused to give her a stash, and she didn´t push. However, what we did encounter was a great desire to connect foreigners to their lives. Almost the second we arrived, the family invited us to a ¨baptism¨ of two of the young children in the family. What a coincidence! The day two gringas arrive (and in the low season, this is a rarity), they are having a baptism. And what more, they want my friend and I to be godmothers! We agreed to participate. What else could we do? They led us to their house to spend two seconds splashing water on the two kids´ heads (baptism number 15, I´m of the kids looked about 3) and taking pictures. It was a little act to make us feel connected, maybe obligated to their family. Truthfully, it made me feel quite uncomfortable, but I understand the sentiment. Here come some rich gringas with resources to burn (so they think) and they want to take advantage. They want to make connections to people in other countries so they can get help. This really isn´t any different then getting a movie star to act as spokesperson for an organization, or buddying up to a politican to get something passed. What this community needs is awareness of people beyond their river, and they are trying the best way they know how.

The Shipibos here feel abandoned by the government. They actually received solar panels a year and a half ago from a government organization, but really they receive no other help. Their main complaints (according to the small group I spoke to) are pretty much the norm: their schools are lacking and they don´t have medical care. Some women also told me they don´t have enough food, which was interesting to me. It is the rainforest, afterall--how could there not be enough food? Flooding, too, is a problem. The rivers flood and wash away their farms. What struck me most was the seeming lack of thoughts of sustainability. It doesn´t feel right, coming in with my development theory jargon and ¨first world¨ ideas, but people have lived in the rainforest for thousands of years. The land has not changed much in all of that time. What did people do all those years ago about flooding, about food, about medicine, that the people now can´t do? Mario explained that there is a lack of trust in traditional medicine--¨white medicine¨ if you will just SEEMS better. But is that a good enough answer? The knowledge is still there--I spoke with a shaman back in Pucallpa who not only still practices traditional medicine with a decent following, but he told me that there is a thriving community of shamans all over the country. Students come from all over the world to study traditional medicine in the rainforest. Why are there old women asking me for tylenol?

Later in the night I had an extremely interesting conversation with a man named Manuel. Manuel told me he wanted to start a project, either for reforestation or to help the many abandoned children in their village (to me, it´s absolutely insane that there are abandoned children in a village of 200), and he asked me how to begin such an endeavor. Not going to lie, at first I was flattered. This is what I want to do, after all. I started running through everything I had learned, and after assuring him I was no expert, I told him what I thought. Be clear what you want to accomplish. Make connections with other organizations doing the same work. Collect the community to see who else is interested in participating, and who has ideas. That sort of thing. Turns out, though, that he didn´t really have that clear of an idea of what he wanted to do. He wasn´t interested in working with other people. All of a sudden he started talking about sending kids to college, then about sending his own daughter, who´s husband had abandoned her, to university in Pucallpa. Did I know how to get scholarships, did I have any way to get money for this? It started to sound much more like a plee for money from me than an actual desire to start a project. Sending his daughter to college is a worthy endeavor, but it´s not exactly the problem solving project I originally thought, and asking tourists for money isn't the way to accomplish it.

The next morning, I spoke with some more women from the village. They told me about a problem that was actually effecting them in that exact moment. Every once in a while, some toxin gets released into the water. The fish get contaminated and die, and the water causes severe medical problems. It usually lasts about three days, and for that time they either have horrible diarreah or drink nothing but coconut milk, because they have no other water. We witnessed the death of the fish ourselves as we traveled to the village--the river was full of them. I myself had some of that fish, and did feel quite ill the next day. (I can't prove it was the fish, but I'm putting two and two together here.) Many people in the area depend on fishing for their living, but a message was sent to the police in Pucallpa to stop all fisherman from selling their contaminated fish in the market for the next few days, a harsh financial blow for these folks. The people don't know what causes it, and have no where to turn to force an investigation. I felt their anger, and their pleading. They kept pressing me with the story, as if I had the answer. But what can I do? I'm a tourist hearing a story--all I can do is post a blog entry.

Though I've talked to hundreds of people in my more than two months in Peru, and there are a million more stories I could tell just from my three days in the rainforest, I will give you just one more. On my last rainforest trip, we stopped in a town on the way with a fountain representing a big festival they hold there every year, and all the different people that come to dance in it. One type of person was the rich rainforest man--he seems poor, but he has actually made his fortune in wood exports. Rainforest wood is very valuable, and probably right up there with fishing as top job. My friend and I saw them loading wood at the dock in Pucallpa at night, and felt bad for the long hours these men have to work. We then learned that they were working at night because harvesting rainforest wood (of which there are many types) is not all together legal. I had trouble getting a straight answer out of Mario, but it seems it is somewhere between completely prohibited and greatly restricted. However, as is quite common, the police are easily bought (and quite cheaply, I found, as a driving violation was paid off for 5 soles, or about $1.65) and greased palms mean smooth sailing for wood production. We visited a second Shipibo community on our last day and spoke to a man that was running a wood-production development project, where they grew and harvested the trees in a controlled, good-for-nature, environment, providing jobs and income for the community. It sounded like a very well run organization (though who knows) but the problem is if their paperwork is not perfect down to the letter, they get charged the same prices as if they had bribed the cops. Further, they are a small organization, and can't afford transport to big ports like Lima, but the port in Pucallpa pays very poorly, and buyers don't give a damn if the wood is legal. Paperwork is a dime a dozen en route to Lima. Certification in Home Depot doesn't mean a damn thing. Either way, though, wood is an important source of jobs in a place that struggles horribly.

These are some examples of the things I'm learning on the long and bumpy road of my travels in Peru. I'm climbing mountains, I'm sandboarding on sand dunes, I'm trying Pisco Sour (national drink of Peru), but I'm also talking to people. I'm trying to listen to what's going on, and trying to understand it. Hopefully, as I told Nicholas Kristof, I can pass that story on. That's all I can do--because, really, what the HELL do you do with a development studies major?

Given that, what do you think? Where is the place of the tourist, the traveler, the foreigner in another country? Who is responsible? Who should make sure there is an investigation into the dying fish? How valuable are the ideas from abroad? Should I have given that woman the tylenol? I'd love to hear what you think.


Isaac said...

Hi Hayley,

First of all, what stories! Yes, I think the tylenol was the right thing to do. Traditional medicine should be practiced and used, but very little else in the world stops pain as easily and efficiently as aspirin, acetaminophen, and ibuprofen, and for the old woman, that is all you need to consider (in my opinion).

The dying fish problem sounds pretty serious -- and probably will only get worse in the future. Who knows what other long term ramifications will emerge (cancer, etc). I don't really know what you can do. I'm guessing that the government is not going to be very willing to listen when they seem to know it's going on?

Thanks for sending another "installment" - I really enjoy reading them. I miss you, and I hope you continue to do well, stay safe, learn, and have fun!

Debbi Steinfeld said...

Hayley Currier... Out to save the world. I remember driving back from Mammoth one season and you going off on "equality for everyone" and Marc and I trying to explain to you that in the real world it just isn't like that. But you persisted in trying to convenience us that it could be done. And as we dropped you off at your home in Northridge, having just spent a wonderful weekend skiing, I turned to Marc and said "she's going to change the world".

Miss you so much. Safe travelings.

Julia said...

Dude, I think you're channeling Nicholas Kristof in this article! I was totally going to tell you to apply for that- what an amazing opportunity it could be. I love that, as a man, he is extremely focused on women and children's issues especially.

Anyway, I am constantly amazed with how eye-opening and life-changing this trip sounds like it has been for you. You are such an adventurer, and if you can use your sense of adventure to help people then that would just be too wonderful!