July 1, 2012Before leaving Nueva Esperanza, Yully and I had packed just enough things for our overnight stay in Puca Urquillo so Oscar dropped us off at the Bora side of the village and went on to Pebas for the night with our big bags. We hiked up the hill and were happy to find Zoila, the president of FECONA (the association representing the 14 native villages in the Ampiyacu region) was home. While Yully made arrangements with her to meet with the other officers the next morning, her husband showed me his recent batch of calabash fruit pods with images of jaguars and other Amazon animals. Pedro and Rider Velasquez, another experienced Bora artisan, had produced dozens of these new Christmas tree ornaments for our group to sell in the U.S.
We next gathered with about ten women artisans on the Huitoto side of the village. Unlike their Bora counterparts who decided to stick to weaving, the Huitoto women were making sincere efforts to learn how to carve the wildlife image “tutumas” (calabash) ornaments – the models that had sold better than the initial batch of ornaments covered with colored chambira fibers. Their varying degrees of success, however, created a challenge for Yully. While each woman in the group had been asked to make three ornaments the time before, some had made more. Yully had picked the best ones which naturally led her to buy more from some artisans than others – leaving the women with unsold pods feeling resentful. As the women now gathered around with their crafts laid in front of them, we agreed that I wouldn’t select more than three ornaments from any one woman during my first perusal to fill our order for thirty.
As I made my way around the circle, though, I felt Yully’s predicament. The women who had etched a nice toucan or dolphin usually had more than one, but in spite of looking at every piece carefully in three successive rounds, several women who had made half a dozen pieces hadn’t produced a single good one. Some women expressed renewed irritation. How long could they keep investing lots of their time and material without selling anything? Shouldn’t they be paid something for trying? I was sympathetic to their dilemma, but I made it clear I couldn’t buy crafts that I knew I couldn’t sell. Some women left disappointed, and seemed inclined to give up.I had thought that the difference in the quality of the ornaments laid out would be apparent to everyone there, but this was not a good assumption. The remaining women asked me to explain why I had chosen some ornaments over others. Pulling out a few of the ones I’d selected, I pointed out how most had finely etched (not crude) lines. The best ones portrayed one or more animal with rich detail – one frog even showed some personality. The women then said that they hadn’t actually designed the figures – two of their teenage sons had drawn the figures on almost all of their tutumas. They called for these boys to join us so they could hear the feedback. It was up to the women, though, to etch in the lines with care. They said this was hard and sometimes hazardous – the little awl often slid off the curved tutuma into their hand holding the pod. I would like to create some kind of leather guard (maybe similar to what archers wear) to protect their hand from this kind of injury.
Back on the Bora side, Yully and I had a simple supper at Milda Quevare’s house before setting up our sleeping gear on her upstair’s balcony – Yully in her one-person tent and me in my hammock covered with mosquito netting.Heading downstairs en route to the outhouse just after dawn, I noticed that Milda had already put out a selection of snack foods, oil, salt, sugar and basic items in her little front porch “bodega.” I suspected the “Kraps” salty crackers would need a different brand name to be marketed outside of Peru. Heading to our 7 AM meeting, I walked on one recent development project (the sidewalk). Waiting outside the FECONA office, I saw the remnants of a past one. The glaring need for clean water in this and almost every rural village undoubtedly inspired the construction of the large rectangular water tank by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). The plaque on its side recorded its inauguration in 1996; its advanced degree of fading only indicated it had been connected to any pipes for many years. Zoila arrived half an hour later, and we got started a half after that when a few more people arrived. Reviewing our first “convenio” (working agreement) with FECONA, I felt good that we had actually accomplished most of our goals. We would update our activities for the past year in writing and prepare a draft for a new convenio that would be considered at the full “congresso” of the FECONA communities in September. Zoila appreciated our donation of a digital camera that they could use to document these meetings and other community activities.
Yully and I spent the next few hours visiting and interviewing seven Huitoto artisans in their homes.Cherly Flores made the greatest variety of handicrafts that she hung from little nails on one wall. These included masks, dolls, woven and seed bags, carved balsa wood sloths, baskets, pink paiche fish scale belts, and woven chambira bags and water bottle carrier. It wasn’t surprising that when tourists did occasionally come to Puca Urquillo, they almost always visit her house to check out her crafts. She had one beautiful bag adorned with an embroidered snake, but it was too expensive for us to buy because she was able to get a high enough price from these visitors. We moved on to the house of Cherly’s mother – Janeth. She lay in her hammock crocheting a bag while neighbor kids wandered in and out of the kitchen. I spotted two neat elements of nature education about her living room – a poster about the basics of photosynthesis painted on bleached llanchama (Cecropia) tree bark and a guide to jungle birds. I took some photos of Ofelia weaving some chambira, but I most enjoyed seeing her relax with her baby in her hammock. I went to her back yard in search of the facilities and saw her neighbor renovating his. Indrefredo told me that he usually needed to dig a new latrine every seven years. He had dug about a foot down into the earth so far, but had a long way to go to get it down another eight feet. Alejandrina was also working on a bag when we came by. Her tutuma ornaments needed work, but she was pleased that I bought a woven frog that she had finished attaching a chord to so it could be hung from the branch of a Christmas tree. She and her daughter both showed their advancing maturity standing next to a simple portrait made of them some years before. Carline was another lady who I hadn’t bought any ornaments from the night before. I’m glad we stopped by her house, since it gave me a chance to see some cut dolls she had made with llanchama, tiny wingo pods, and a few colorful seeds. Each female model had a different type of bowl or basket. Males wielded different tools for hunting and fishing. We asked her to make samples of all of these in hanging ornament size in time for Yully’s next visit. Rosa Mery had a shy smile, one wandering eye, and she had become the most enterprising and talented female tutuma ornament maker. I could almost imagine her toucans whistling in the forest at the end of the day. The Bora side of the village was a hub of soccer central. The all-stars from Puca Urquillo were just starting to play a team of crew-cutted young men from the army in black uniforms with gold trim in the main field. While I watched the live game from Milda’s upstairs balcony where her mom was weaving a bag and father was lining up narrow strips of “bonbonaje” (cane) into the bottom of a basket, many others were most focused watching the finals of the European Football Cup between Spain and Italy on a small TV in her room downstairs. The army fellows seemed quite sturdy, but the home team was more agile and handily won 5-1 – just as convincing as Spain’s victory half a world away. After an afternoon rain abated, Oscar arrived to ferry Yully and me onto our next stop.