Thursday, November 15, 2007

3. Butterflies and Toilet Seats – Summer 2007 in Jenaro Herrera

Written: October 2007

My eyelids refuse to open. The pale sunlight burns holes through them every time I try to lift them past a squint. And yet, the incessant, shrill repetition of my watch screams, it’s 6:15 am! Get up! It’s only a Saturday morning in July, get up! I groan at the ungodliness of it all, roll out of bed with an ungraceful thump, and pull on yesterday’s clothes. Trudging to the bathroom that has no electricity or toilet seat, I stand in front of the spotted mirror; splash undrinkable, freezing water onto my face and try to tame the tangle atop my scalp that is my hair; debate whether or not make-up is worth the hassle in a place where nobody has even seen eyeliner. A few minutes, many yawns and mosquito bites later, I’m sloshing along a wet stretch of sand that is supposed to be a road after last night’s rain. The sand squishes between the bare toes of my feet as my sandals dangle from my fingers. Thus dawns another day in which I am constantly reminded of the simplicity of joy and the joy of simplicity.

Photo: Boys playing soccer in Jenaro Herrera street. © C. Plowden/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

On the mile and a half walk into town, the quickly rising Peruvian sun and clear morning air wake my tired nerves in a way that cappuccino never does during the school year. Weather-beaten, machete wielding field –farmers flash their amiable, toothless grins as they pass, followed closely by wide-eyed, shoeless children. Pigs and dogs trot unconcernedly across my path, while scores of water buffalo dolefully stare from their mud puddles as I amble by. Soon I am walking against the stream of uniformed students going to class, all of whom stare, giggle and whisper as I go by, though I can’t help but smile when a few venture a “Buenas dias, señorita.”

Photo: Water buffalo at Jenaro Herrera. © C. Plowden/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

By the time I get to the health clinic, my self-consciousness gets the better of me, as I become yet again fully aware of the blaring “gringa” sign persistently hovering over my head. I try to slip inside unnoticed, a feat not easily done when twenty other girls my age in varying stages of pregnancy are sitting outside. I am greeted with the usual, “No desayunaste? Por qué? Eres tan flaquita, necesitas comer comida real!” (You haven’t eaten breakfast? Why not? You’re so skinny, you need real food!). When the first mother is called in, I measure her height and wrestle with the ancient balance to find her weight, feeling slightly put out when it tells me that this woman of eighteen, at eight months pregnant, is still at least five pounds lighter than me.

Photo: Measuring new baby at Jenaro Herrera clinic. © Marissa Plowden/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

A few minutes later, one of the nurses bustles into the room, brandishing a towel and sponge. “Ven, ven!” (Come, come!) She impatiently beckons me to the wide doorway of the cramped recovery cubicle. I hasten quickly, scuffing my feet over the dirty cement floor and peer tentatively around the doorframe. The nurse thrusts a flannel-swaddled infant into my arms and turns to help the baby’s sixteen-year-old mother down from her bed to squat over a plastic chamber pot. I shuffle away from the door to give her privacy, gingerly holding her offspring in the crook of my elbow. I haven’t held a baby since I lived in Brazil nine years before and feel a bit out of practice. She is so little, her skin still wrinkled and papery; her fingers are smaller than drinking straws and there are only three lines on her palms. My sheer wonder at this life form, not even three hours old, hits me as I examine that impossibly delicate nose before handing her back to the nurse.

Photo: New mother at Jenaro Herrera. © Marissa Plowden/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

By lunchtime, my stomach is gurgling unhappily over the inadequacy of a breakfast of saltines and I leave the clinic, destined for a lunch of meat, rice and fresh fruit. The sun is now beating fiercely down on my unprotected neck, but at least the road is solid. I can already feel sweat running down my back, even as I see the farmers coming home for lunch, hoisting unbelievably large, bleeding bags of game meat and wood. The absolute brute force of it amazes me as I watch their retreating backs and bulging biceps shining in the dry heat. Seeing them march by, I don’t feel like I have a right to even be perspiring, let alone tired.

Photo: Hauling material in a cart in Jenaro Herrera. © C. Plowden/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

I hear the strange, chunnering cry of various birds, the hum of the bugs, the snuffling of the water buffalo as a breeze cools my unaccustomed skin. A cloud of butterflies whirls in front of me and as they fly up and away into the cloudless sky, I recall how many stars can be seen at night, with no lights, no smog, no skyscrapers. This is the way to live, day-by-day, minute-by-minute. It is living without a toilet seat or electricity, with mosquitoes and dirty clothes, that I remember how the simplest aspects of life bring the biggest smiles to my face.

Photo: Marissa in the rain at Jenaro Herrera. © C. Plowden/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

Photo: Turquoise and black butterfly at Jenaro Herrera. © C. Plowden/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

2. First Time Volunteering at the Jenaro Herrero Health Clinic

August 2006

My Spanish speaking ability didn’t really improve until I started working at the health clinic in town about a week before we left. There, I fetched medical records, weighed and measured a lot of pregnant women, babies and children, took files to either the doctor, the nurse or the obstetrician, and returned the files to their proper folders at the end of the day. There were five “technical nurses” that I worked with: Sandra, Claudia, Manuela, Alcidez, and Gina.

Photo: Marissa tending child with inhaler at health clinic. © Center for Amazon Community Ecology

They were all very sweet and I spent a good chunk of time teaching them various English words. Alcidez taught me how to give injections—I never quite got around to doing it completely by myself; he always had to do the sticking part. I watched him pull a tooth and couldn’t help wincing through all of the cracking, twisting and yanking. He also had to lance a large boil on top of a little girl’s head and I could hear her screaming three rooms away. Manuela was the youngest at 22, and she took me swimming several times. We usually bought either bread or watermelon on the way. Sandra, Claudia and Gina thought that I never ate because they kept exclaiming, “que flaquita!” (“she’s so skinny!”).

Photo: Alcidez fumigating health records at Jenaro Herrera clinic. © C. Plowden/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

One of the biggest cultural shocks for me was when fourteen, fifteen, and sixteen year old girls would come in at eight months pregnant. One sixteen year old, Lourdes, gave birth around 5 am two hours before I came in. I got to hold the infant while she was using the bathroom and it was a little weird looking at a life form that would have been the exact same if it was my baby. She was so little, her skin was still wrinkled and papery and she only had the 3 or 4 main lines on her palms.

Photo: Young mother and baby at health clinic. © Marissa Plowden/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

These sort of experiences made me wonder if motherhood is viewed the same in Jenaro Herrera as at home. Most of the time, accounts of new mothers describe when they first hold their new born as truly a miracle and they could never imagine loving anything/one more. Here, children and babies are handled a lot more casually. A knock on the head with knuckles if they are crying for no reason other than attention; younger ones who can’t walk are picked up their arms. Did a mother of sixteen there resent her tiny daughter? As an incoming high school junior, I was constantly being directed towards thoughts of my future, whether by my own volition or otherwise. While previously I had been somewhat indifferent and almost resistant to the topic, I was now more forcibly reminded of how many opportunities I have for the future. In this case, indecision is a blessing, because here, options are severely limited.

By the end of the stay I was bug bitten and really ready for a hot shower and some ice cream. I also knew that I was going to miss the people in Jenaro Herrera greatly, along with the food and the completely clear night sky. One of the last days that I was walking home from the clinic, random people whom I had never been introduced to were yelling my name from the sides of the road and I couldn’t help laughing. Twice (on different days) I was offered a ride back to the IIAP center by people in motorcars or on motorcycles.

Photo: Motorcar in Jenaro Herrera. © C. Plowden/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

Our last day was a whirlwind of desperate packing and last minute data compilation. The trip home went very smoothly and it felt a little surreal to be back in my own house and bed, sitting in front of a computer with wood floors, hot water and electricity that worked all the time. Everyone kept asking me, “When are you coming back?” I never knew how to answer, but it appears that I will be able to continue this particular exotic leg of my life this coming summer.

Photo: Marissa and nurses of Jenaro Herrera health clinic. © C. Plowden/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

1. Welcome to Jenaro Herrera: Summer 2006

August 2006

I realize that there are people who pay lots of money to go directly where they are going with no other hassle. But then there are people like my father who take what Frequent Flier miles give him, which means switching flights and waiting in a freezing airport for 15 hours while one bag is lost, walking through Iquitos instead of taking a motor car and riding a puttering boat for 12 hours where you are always in someone else’s way. This means you appreciate it so much more when things go right for a change.

Upon arriving at our final destination, Jenaro Herrera, Peru I was struck with a strong sense of déjà vu. Similar to when we would pull in to the Tembé Indian village of Tek-o-how in Brazil, everyone was standing on the bank or dock, waiting and staring. It felt like we were being appraised as we walked up through to town to the waiting truck that would drive us a mile and a half out to the research station operated by the government agency IIAP. Our three-bedroom bungalow was where I took refuge for the next week or two. We ate in Susana’s house, a wonderful cook who served us fruit and egg and cheese sandwiches for breakfast, soup, fresh fish or game meat, fruit juice and massive quantities of rice for lunch, and bread and cheese for dinner. It took a little while for my digestive system to adjust and more often than not I wrapped my leftovers in a napkin to feed Bandito, the affectionate but flea ridden resident dog.

Photo: Sagino (peccary) soup for lunch. © C. Plowden/Center for Amazon Community Ecology

For the first part of our stay I mainly stayed indoors with Gone With the Wind, The Bourne Identity, The Worthing Saga, Snow Falling on Cedars and various other novels that we had either brought with us or had found in the musty library. I made several attempts to go into the forest with Dad, but after the first day, I was suffering from digestive cramps that heat and mosquitoes did nothing to assuage. When the power went on for a hours in the evening, I did help the copal project by entering data from the day’s field work into the computer and used Photoshop to measure the area of the resin lumps from digital photos taken by Dad and his research assistants.

Photo: Marissa and Victor entering data. © C. Plowden/CACE

After being reprimanded for not “enhancing my cultural experience,” I went to Susana’s to help prepare lunch. My Spanish was still not very good, merely becoming a little less rusty (having not used the language since the end of school). I struck up a friendship with Diana, Susana’s friend’s 15-year-old daughter and her various other younger helpers. They took me swimming in the large “quebrada” (stream) one day. Later I met a six-year old boy named Miller (pronounced MEE-jer) when Dad was documenting his grandmother in making purses and fans from palm fibers. He took great delight in my digital camera and we pieced together a wooden puzzle of vowels and numbers several times in one day.

Photo: Marissa showing Miller digital photos. © C. Plowden/CACE

The last friend I made was Julio, the nephew of the IIAP station’s director. He was 17, finished with school and worked around the IIAP center at times. I saw him throughout our stay, either in town or around our house. He always smiled and waved to me, which I returned a little hesitantly. I didn’t actually speak to him until a week or so before we left. He loved to listen to Dad and I speak in English. I told him it was a boring language, but he insisted that it was beautiful. He lived with his aunt and uncle and various elderly relatives ever since his mother had left him in Jenaro Herrera at the age of two.

Angel, Victor, and Nestor, Dad’s workers, were all very friendly and I enjoyed talking to them during dinner. One Saturday night we went to the little “discotec” in town, where Angel made me dance. Victor is a fan of my favorite band and generally liked to practice speaking English with me. Nestor was the forest guru. He had been doing tree work for the better part of his life and always had some wild anecdote around meal times.

Photo: Nestor and Angel measuring copal tree diameter - woops! © C. Plowden/CACE