October 12th, 2013
October 12th, 2013.
We arrived in Leticia around 2pm and I was immediately affected by the vastness of the Amazon. On a map of South America it’s plain to see that yes, it does occupy a good deal of space but you’ll never know it’s true scale until you see the canopy stretching from horizon to horizon like you’ve come to the end of the world. Even Leticia, a busy town, seems a paltry clearing in the face of the jungle. We dropped our things off at the Universidad Nacional’s boardinghouse just outside of town and headed into Leticia in search of two absolute essentials: rubber boots and a hat. What Leticia lacks in size it makes up for in raucous vibrancy. There are kids everywhere, friendly stray dogs haunt the shade beneath every awning, and crossing an intersection is an exercise in faith and luck. We stopped for lunch at a place that had to be the inspiration for the Rainforest Café; oozing kitsch and decorated with everything from tacky beaded wall hangings to a fishbowl of sawdust housing three pulsating grubs the thickness of a man’s big toe. After lunch we wandered down to the port and took a shortcut through a covered market. At this hour it is mostly empty save for a few fruit vendors sitting amongst their wares and looking as if they are being slowly consumed by oranges and bananas, and bored children making plastic trucks trundle across the uneven concrete. When we reached the port, Diego swept his arm in a motion of grandeur, declaring what we were seeing to be the mighty Amazon River. At this point in the year it’s more of a creek, surrounded by beached houseboats. In actual fact, what we were seeing was more of a canal. The “real” river lies behind an island called la Isla de la Fantasia. The only boats that can manage the canal during this time of year are the zippy little canoes sporting specialized motors known locally as “pekepekes”. After scoring some boots and an excellent Panama hat we headed to Parque Santander for the nightly roosting of the parakeets. You can hear the din of their chattering at least 3 blocks away and there are literal thousands of them, flying in tight groups, all banking at the same time like fighter jets and screeching. Even locals gather to watch this affair, which may have been going on since before Leticia’s founding. Once a colony of parakeets chooses a roosting spot, they will always return there. The sound at times is so deafening that your ears ring just as much as they would at a rock concert!
The Calanoa Foundation, founded officially in 2012 by Diego Samper and his wife Marlene, has been hard at work for years helping indigenous communities not only have access to crucial support and resources but to rediscover their cultural identity, a concept that for many tribes is in danger of being lost forever. The projects I will be working on are 1) daily digital photography workshops with groups of all ages that will focus on teaching the basics of photography as well as encouraging the community to take a closer look at themselves and the beauty around them, and 2) painting every house and community space in the town with murals of local wildlife and indigenous oral history. With these projects we hope to bring out the artistic side of the community--many of whom are of Ticuna descent, a tribe traditionally renowned for their skill as painters--and instill a sense of pride all while beautifying the community.
October 13th, 2013.
This morning we headed to market to buy provisions, stopping first by the river to meet up with a friend of Diego’s called Melciades—yes, like the character from One Hundred Years of Solitude—who is not only Diego’s go-to guy in the Amazon but a skilled curandero with an impressive knowledge of Amazonian plants. He is a lovely man. According to him, the market at 9am on a Sunday is apparently quite slow, but it seemed lively enough to me. The majority of what people buy there seems to be fruit: everything from peppers to copoazu hanging in bright bunches and overflowing from plastic washtubs, and fish: tiger-striped catfish, fat piranhas like sliver medallions and one huge creature that to my surprise was still alive, heaving on the steel table as fishmongers scraped and sliced efficiently. Markets are a fascinating way to get a sense of a place; it draws all sorts of people and there is always something interesting to look at. After lunch at the same place as yesterday and altogether too much arroz con pollo, we caught the fast boat to Calanoa, about an hour and forty-five from Leticia. At a certain point about ten minutes into the ride you reach a place where the river forks and it’s possible to see the Brazilian, Colombian, and Peruvian shores. When we arrived at Calanoa, a woman from Mocagua named Maria and her young son were there to greet us. Calanoa is gorgeous; all the cabins and covered spaces are giant A-frame shapes made of interlaced palm leaves and dark jungle wood and the minimalist/indigenous décor gives it the look of a trendy eco-lodge, but beyond the lovely façade Calanoa is the home base to various important community projects, both current ones like the painting of the village and those to come such as a floating inter-village library. Maria led me to where I would be sleeping, which is basically an awesome attic/tree fort with a hammock and a mosquito net. You enter through the floor and two walls are open (save for some mosquito netting) to the jungle and all its whispering glory. I told her it was like a dream from my childhood and she laughed.
Diego took me to see the cabins where guests stay, which are well-equipped with their own flush toilets and electric lights but are basically of the same design as our cabin. As we were walking around the garden identifying stevia, papaya, and lemongrass, Diego told me about how when some folks from Kwantlen College were coming to visit Marlene ordered all the banana trees along the pathways pruned back and tidied. The problem is, tarantulas use the folds of banana trees as shelter and thus started showing up everywhere as they looked for other hidey-holes. When I asked nervously if it was still happening, Diego laughed and told me that it was less common now. Of course, when I went up to my room to put on some bug repellent, guess what was hanging out on my ceiling? Yep, a nice big pink-toed tarantula, casually rubbing her pedipalps together as if she were twiddling her thumbs.
October 14th, 2013.
This morning I woke at dawn to the sound of soft rain. The jungle always seems to find pleasant ways to sing you to sleep or wake you up, though it does so on its own schedule and so sometimes you end up waking at what some might consider an ungodly hour. My eight-legged friend had moved to the other side of the ceiling and was hunching happily behind a beam. I met Melciades on the way to the kitchen and he asked if I’d heard the birds going crazy this morning. He told me that the elders believe that when the birds start calling like that, it means that the river is going to rise. Sure enough, the river was higher than it was yesterday send apparently last week there was a beach. Melciades is full of stories—he told me that not a month ago he saw a jaguar on the property. He had been down at the beach and had heard an unfamiliar sound cut through the din of insects and frogs. He peered into the trees and suddenly the jaguar came into view, stalking a dove. Hunting here is easy for them; Calanoa rests on land that was once used for growing fruit trees and had been abandoned so the trees had gone wild and the jungle crept in. The fruit attracts all manner of animals and birds and Diego tries his best to keep their trails intact so they are not disturbed.
Diego’s niece Daniela arrived this morning—she and I had a chance to meet in Bogotá for coffee and hit it off from the get-go. She’s kind and very bright, with a passion for social issues and a love for animals that I can definitely sympathize with. Soon after she arrived we met with Diego Vasquez, a professional painter from the village who will be leading by example and helping us plan out the designs that will go on each house. He is a shy, patient man in his early thirties and possesses some serious talent. We discussed the desire to really bring traditional influences and narratives into the murals and what we could do to encourage that, as well as explaining that the figures need not be entirely true to life and that we hoped he’d play with surrealism and themes of animal transformation. Daniela showed him the maps she had brought to not only give us an idea of where to start but to involve the townspeople in drawing on the map; naming rivers and marking where certain animals could be found, cultural cartography, if you will. As we spoke, the sky collapsed in a sudden downpour that obscured the Peruvian shore and sent a mini Amazon river cascading down the slope. When I mentioned that I’d never seen it rain so hard, both Diego's smiled and told me that this was nothing.
We were supposed to have a meeting with the curaca (elected, state-recognized representative of the village) in the afternoon but we ended up having to wait almost an hour before he appeared. While we were waiting, we took a first look at the eight donated cameras that we’ll be using for the photography workshops. We numbered each camera, its memory card, and its charger and organized them into little Ziploc kits. Because each camera is different it will be a mite complicated: some have battery packs while others take AA, not all the memory cards are the same shape so some have USB cables, and some are a little damaged. Finally the curaca appeared accompanied by two young girls and we explained the projects again. He seemed enthused about the project and didn’t have too many concerns so the meeting was short. When he left, the darkness was beginning to deepen and the mosquitos came out in force, so we moved into the kitchen. The moonlight wasn’t as bright as it was last night but you could still make out the shadowy forms of pigeon-sized bats wheeling through the damp air. Daniela saw me making a woven bracelet and taught me how to do more complicated patterns. She’s a good teacher, and patient with my fumbling over the Spanish language. When we went to bed the tarantula had returned. I might have to name her.
October 16th, 2013.
Last night we had the most incredible storm, pouring and gusting well into the morning. It almost seemed a living thing by the way it would pause right on top of us and rain so hard that we thought it might wash us away or rip the roof asunder by the force of its thunder alone. After a while it would move off deeper into the jungle only to return with increased fury. Even the ever-present frogs had gone quiet, feeling what I’d imagine to be a sense of inadequacy. In the morning we organized groceries and reviewed the cameras ones last time, and at around four Maria came down the path hauling a massive catfish decorated all over with black and silver stripes. Known locally as pintadillo, these fish can apparently grow a good deal larger than this one, which was no minnow at nine kilos. The reason for the fish was eighteen Polish tourists on a circuit of Amazonia. They only planned to stay one night at Calanoa, which meant a lot of work for Maria, Melciades and Beatriz, another Mocaguense with a shy smile. As we had a meeting with the townspeople at four, we couldn’t help with the prep so we headed to Mocagua by pekepeke. We had a couple minutes before the meeting so Dani showed me the lake in the center of town. The first thing you notice as you’re walking across the bridge is a large colony of oropendolas, crow-sized birds with an incredible song akin to large drops of water. They are known in Spanish as mochileros because they weave hanging nests that look strikingly like the woven bags used by people all over Colombia.
The town meeting went well until people began to get bored and then it became a bit disorderly. When there are a lot of people talking at once I find it difficult to follow the conversation and often I lose sight of what we’re talking about and can’t find it again. There was one man who spoke very well about the benefits this project could have for the community and how important it was to fight to keep their identity as indigenous people. Most of the town seemed enthused about the painting project and the photography workshops and when Dani brought up her idea of a communal-use pottery kiln, there were nods all around. It was dark when we returned to Calanoa and we ate dinner in the kitchen with the three guides that were leading the Polish group. They were headed on a night excursion in the jungle and so Dani and I joined them in hopes of catching sight of some nocturnal monkeys, which we had been hearing almost every night but had never seen. The guide, Jorge, was an expert tracker with a broad knowledge of all things jungle. He stopped by many medicinal and useful plants and explained not only their use but how they were traditionally prepared. My favourite is the palma sancona, whose massive spiny roots form tents six feet high and which drops beautiful dark brown seeds veined with red like a river map. The local people used to use the spines to grate yuca and make jewelry from the seeds. We also got a chance to see quite a bit of wildlife: at least four types of frog, a praying mantis that began shadow boxing rather threateningly when we shone our headlamps on her, a slender green and brown snake that looked for all the world like a vine hanging from a tree, and best of all, some little tan-coloured monkeys high up in the canopy! Dani and I caught a glimpse of them just before they fled our lights.
October 17th, 2013.
We arrived at the community centre this morning to find dozens of children waiting for us, eager to be among the first to take the photography workshop. We went to work splitting them into groups of eight (a camera per person) and chose a group of little girls around nine years old to go first, since they had organized themselves very quickly. We didn’t want to overload them with information so each lesson covered the basics: turning the camera on, the shutter button, the zoom function, and the number one important rule of photography: “don’t drop it”. Once they had the gist of it down, we began our walking tour of the village. Mocagua is small, with a population of six hundred or so, many of which are under eighteen. It’s a pretty and peaceful village alive with flowers, birds, and free-range chickens. At first the girls were easy to keep together, but after about 45 minutes many of them kept running off to have breakfast and change into their uniforms. It was then we realized that we had been eating up class time so we collected the cameras and told them to run along to school. The workshops would have to be held after lunch each day, since class ends at 1pm. Since we had some time to kill after that and it was so hot out, we ended up falling asleep on the floor of the community centre, which the children seemed to think was hilarious.
At lunchtime when I was taking photos of the clouds of butterflies by the river, a pink dolphin broke the surface and rolled lazily back under not two metres from where I was standing! They truthfully are quite a vibrant colour of pink, the guidebooks don’t exaggerate. Upon our return to the village after lunch we went by the health centre, where Diego León Vasquez had been working on painting a mural with some young men of the community. In a single morning they had transformed the dingy little building into a vibrant scene of the jungle as seen from the river. Diego L. had worked an otter and a capybara into the river and was setting the base for a school of dolphins. I think after seeing this, people will start getting excited about painting their houses.
Our second photography group was also all girls, around the ages of 11-13. They took considerably less photos than the little ones, but were more careful wish the composition of each shot. We gave them freedom to wander unsupervised and told them to return at 3:30. This group’s work consisted of many shots of a lanky, pretty girl posing awkwardly for the camera, dark eyes fixed on the camera. After waiting out a short cloudburst we gathered the third group, all boys. Admittedly we were a little more worried about this bunch as they had seemed a bit rowdy but turned out to be good and patient boys. We split the group and I ended up with two “tag-alongs”, both six years old and adorable, clinging to my hands as if I were their lifeforce. As we made our rounds the boys would run ahead and I’d call them back, only to discover that they’d found something wonderful: a captive peccary, curly-tailed puppies, or borugos (a rabbit-sized rodent akin to a capybara) living in someone’s kitchen.
In the evening we downloaded the photos to Diego’s computer and were delighted at the results; there were a great many pleasant surprises, especially in the portrait department. Something about a kid behind a camera makes people soften and smile or look less guarded than if an outsider were taking the photos. Here were wizened grandparents, mothers, dads, sisters, their eyes full of love and patience. There were also so many photos of chickens that it became something of a running joke.
October 18, 2013.
We spent the morning painting the health centre with the help of a group of young boys. The work went quite fast with five extra sets of eager hands, and they listened well to our instructions and made us laugh with their jokes and commentary. It seems that the days will pan out as follows; painting til lunch, then two photography workshops until dinner. Our first group was mixed boys and girls but unfortunately we had some issues with a few of the cameras not holding a charge and leaving some without a camera midway through the workshop. We put them down to repeat it for the next day. The second workshop, all energetic boys, was a little more difficult to manage and we were stretched a bit thin trying to keep track of them and making sure they took care of the cameras, as well as working through the large group of tag-alongs begging to be lent cameras too. Eventually we had so much trouble with them that we cut the workshop about 15 minutes short. One little boy, a headstrong, sullen child named Vitaly, was so mad that he hadn’t been allowed to take more photos that he marked the wall of the health centre with mud or paint or something. Thankfully it was the blank western wall and not the mural, but we told him he couldn’t repeat the workshop tomorrow as he had wanted to do. Maria’s son Nicolas was also in today’s group, he is a fun boy with a talent for mischief who ran me a bit ragged but also had me laughing hysterically the whole time.
October 19th, 2013.
This morning Daniela and I spent some time going from house to house on the street beside the health centre asking what people wanted to paint on their walls. The Segundo’s house will sport a king vulture, the symbol of Pedro Segundo’s clan. The young woman (I believe his daughter) brought us juice and we showed her the field guide to birds to be sure we painted the right one. Doña Patricia two houses down was very enthusiastic about the painting project and told us she wanted a huge pirarucu covering the front wall of her house and possibly a monkey too. The other two houses posed a bit of a challenge: the Tangoas only wanted the bar they run next to the house painted, though later explained to us that they were going to rebuild their house and that it would be a shame to paint it and then knock it down. On the bar they decided on a pond scene with herons and Victoria regia flowers. The last house already has its façade painted green and the owners don’t want anything else. We then went to work painting the interior of the health centre, and were pleasantly surprised when Vitaly showed up and asked for paint so he could cover the damage he did yesterday.
We only had one workshop today due to the boat running late, and it was with a group of older kids and thus very relaxed. At one point a boy named Eduardo took us to his house to show us the babillas (small, less aggressive versions of the caiman) his dad had caught and was keeping in a massive pot in the living room. As we were finishing up the workshop the wind began to pick up and we barely made it to the shelter of the community centre before it stared to really pour. We realized we were missing a camera, though fortunately we had lent it to Maria’s elder son German, a mature, calm boy so we weren’t terribly worried that it would be harmed.
October 23, 2013.
This morning we painted John’s house. He is the secretary to the curaca and a ridiculously nice person with an infectious laugh. Both his sons have taken a photography workshop. They plan to paint their two-storey house with a forest scene; lots of green, with vines wrapping around the railings of the veranda. As Dani and I were prepping the railings, John’s wife Maria (from whom we always buy sodas on hot days) came upstairs to have a look. When we asked if she wanted to help, she shyly nodded yes. We gave her a sponge and soon she was stippling like a pro. The work went fast with an extra set of hands and it helped that it wasn’t in the upper thirties like it has been. Tomorrow we will paint flowers on the crossbars. In the afternoon we had two workshops, both good groups of chill kids. One man had captured what he described as “a dreadful breed of caterpillar” under a gourd for us to photograph—the thing looked like Chewbacca from Star Wars, covered in thick white hair that begs you to touch it...a clever trap. The hair will stick in your skin and burn worse than a wasp sting. In the second group we had Melciades’s youngest son, the spitting image of his father, join us, as well as a lovely boy named Arnol who went around with a heliconia flower tucked behind one ear and a leafy branch in one hand like the prince of the forest. After a long day we went for a swim with the kids. The vivid Amazonian sunset had turned the river to beaten gold and the water was warm and soothing. We had splash wars and played shark and Dani and I screamed just as much as the kids. It almost made me wish I could be a nine-year-old again.
October 24th, 2013.
Today was wickedly hot, and the house we were working on was in direct sunlight so Dani and I were wilting a little, but the kids helping us somehow had the energy to sprint all over the place. We started out painting with plastic bags to add texture to the background, but since that technique leaves the hands totally gloved in paint I said they could use the excess on their fingers to make marks too. All was going civilly when Segyale, a quiet little boy of five whom we all adore and who follows us on every photo walk, smacked his tiny handprint in white right on the lower border, where we hadn’t planned on painting. The older kids gasped, and there was a moment of heavy silence as they looked at me and then at Dani, expecting us to scold them. We both burst into laughter and then it was off to the races. More and more kids joined us as we slapped our handprints all over, turning the wall into a sea of blue and white hands of all sizes. By the end of it, we were all exhilarated and covered head to heel in paint splatters. The wall looks beautiful, and the owner of the house thought so too. A relief, since we’d had an incident that same day with one of the homeowners being very upset that we hadn’t painted her house a uniform colour but had opted for an abstract background.
Tonight was the culmination of all the photography workshops thus far, the presentation of the best photos taken by the kids. Dani, Diego and I had spent hours each night selecting the best and we were all very excited to show the community the final product. At first not a single adult showed up (though almost every child in the village was there), though midway through they began to filter in and appear at the windows. The presentation was a success, drawing roars of laughter, shrieks of delight, and wolf whistles every time a pretty girl appeared onscreen. It was really rewarding to see how well-received the photography project turned out to be, and the adults that did show up expressed interest in participating themselves.
October 25th, 2013.
As yesterday was the last of the workshops with kids, we spent all day today painting Maria and John's house. We had two young girls helping us to paint flowers on the veranda and they did a lovely job of it, making careful designs on scrap paper before running to get them approved by Maria. It was also the first day of the adult workshop, though we constructed it a little differently; each person will keep the camera and the charger for three days and then return it to us. There were a few complications to figure out: Three of the cameras take rechargeable AA batteries but we only have one charger for those, and another two have to share a charger cable, so we had to do a little juggling to make sure those who had those cameras lived relatively close to each other so as not to pose too big of an inconvenience. As we painted, people wandered by and we took their names down and Dani gave them a short lesson on how to use the camera. She went into a little more detail than with the kids, explaining the video function and composition a little, though once again, we didn't want to overload them with too much info. Every camera has a multitude of features, many of which frankly aren't of much use to anyone, even aficionados. People young and old came by; some of the young guys who had been painting with us every day, Don Jairo who owns the store next door, and an older woman who is the single mother of Mercy Amalia, who always tags along on our workshops regardless if she can use a camera or not. I'm really excited to see what this new and diverse group comes back with.