July 11, 2012
I had a bit of a false start getting to Chino. I had always gone there before in the speed boat belonging to the Rainforest Conservation Fund (RCF), but since it was occupied, I need to take a public lancha. Unlike the big ferries that carry up to 300 people and heavy cargo that are run by companies with a public office and phone number, some communities off the main rivers are lucky to be served by small “colectivos.” Yully accompanied me in a motor car that wove through the narrow streets of the Belen public market until we got to a small landing near the port. A water-taxi peque-peque took us to the boats bound for the Tahuayo River, but when we called out asking where the boat was going to Chino, the response was “there are none today, come back tomorrow.” Yully told me she’d heard that one of these boats had sunk here a few weeks ago. It was just coming into dock when a crowd of wholesale buyers swarmed on board to get first crack at the fish, charcoal and other forest produce the passengers were bringing from their settlements upriver. The surge of the extra human weight apparently tipped or outright swamped the small overladen vessel.
Later than evening I finally spoke to one of my artisan friends in Chino on the only public phone in the community. Norma said there was no lancha leaving the next day for Chino either, but I could take the colectivo bound for Esperanza – a community downriver from hers where her husband could pick me up in his peque-peque if I could pay for his gas.
Trusting to the fates, I returned to Belen the next morning and boarded the Guevara. I stripped off the mosquitero (mosquito netting), and strung my hammock across the beams in the middle of the lower deck. Swaying in comfort seemed preferable to sitting on one of the narrow wooden benches along the sides for the next seven hours. I put my duffle bag under me to give my bottom some clearance. Later arrivals had fewer choices as adjoining spaces were stacked with palettes of Inca Cola and other merchandise to stock little bodegas upriver.The trip proceeded slowly but tranquilly. I marked the location of a few larger settlements along the way for future reference with my GPS with names provided by a kind older man also going to Esperanza. I half-jogged up the hill during a half-hour break at Tamshiyacu to have some lunch at a three seater open-air restaurant. As usual, I asked the lady serving me to take off two-thirds of the mound of rice she’d piled on my plate and go easy on the noodles.
As the number of passengers thinned out by mid-afternoon, I learned that the fellow in the hammock next to me was the husband of the woman who was the President of Mi Esperanza – the little company that organizes the production and sale of woven chambira baskets to the U.S. with the help of the regional government agency PROCREL. Sales had been really slow for a year, but as the economy began to recover, the buyer had placed another large order. Artisans in four villages from the Tahuayo and three more from other areas had just made about 700 baskets that were now being packaged and readied for export. A cargo ship would take them from Iquitos through the Panama Canal to Houston, Texas where they would be transferred to a truck for delivery to San Diego. The gift shop in the Museum of Natural History there was apparently the biggest U.S. outlet for these beautiful crafts.
We arrived in Esperanza around 5:30 pm, and I was happy to see Norma’s husband Ezekiel waiting for me. I got in his 15 foot-long peque along with a family of four bound for a lodge just beyond Chino. It was a blessedly clear evening as we headed up the Tahuayo River. Our only stop on the way was the village of Buena Vista where I needed to get out and register with the local police – a requirement for all foreigners entering the Tamshiyacu-Tahuayo Regional Conservation Area. This formality is usually handled by a tour operator taking visitors to their “albergue” (ecotourism lodge). In the past trips, Gerardo from RCF had always been on hand to vouch for me. This time when I when I walked into the little police station and handed my passport to the officer on duty, he asked me instead for a copy of it. He showed me a book full of the photo pages of other foreigners and said I couldn’t go into the reserve without leaving them one of these to keep on file. I had a moment of panic since there was no photocopy machine within five hours of the place. I told him I had been visiting Chino for four years and had honestly never heard of this practice. He then asked me who my guide was, and I replied that I was on my own. My sincere explanation of why I was going to Chino and mentioning a dozen people waiting for me there, though, seemed to convince the officer I did not pose a threat to the communities in the reserve. He let me pass with the reminder to bring a copy of my passport next time.
I was expecting to go directly to the RCF for a quiet dinner but when we arrived in Chino just before 8 pm, a party was underway in the public meeting space – a round open air structure with a conical thatched roof and cement floor. The community was feting the presence of Jim Penn, President of RCF, his group of a dozen students from Grand Valley University (GVU) in Michigan where he teaches geography, and a few other guests from the Amazon Adventure Lodge located a short distance upriver. A three piece band including two drums and a flute were playing lively Peruvian folk tunes while Chino women coaxed visitors to dance. I greeted Jim and was immediately offered a glass of “masato,” a slightly alcoholic beverage made from homemade fermented yucca root by Jorge – one of the village officers and accomplished carver.
Jim and I made a plan for my quick visit and then migrated to a local pub with the students to enjoy a few beers. It was a welcome night out for them since they had spent the last two weeks doing an inventory of chambira palm trees in the community’s forest. This hardy group had suffered one casualty when one girl stumbled onto a fallen chambira trunk. Over the next two days, her comrades removed more than thirty sharp spines from her foot and legs. Buoyed with antibiotics and a tough spirit, she returned to the field three days later.I spent the next morning of four of the GVU students at Romelia’s house in Chino watching her and her neighbor Rosa dye chambira fiber with three different plants. Romelia’s husband Jorge first climbed up a huito tree in their backyard and tossed down a batch of its fruits. Romelia used her machete to scrape some bark from a cedro tree, but they were too dry to use. She and Rosa had better luck collecting pinkish shavings from an “ovos” tree. Afterward, she rubbed some mud on the wound to prevent termites from invading it. Oval scars on the trunk showed that she had been able to carefully harvest patches of bark for many years. Romelia said the ovos bark could be boiled to dye fiber or squeezed to release a liquid used to treat cuts and ulcers.
She then pulled up the last few roots of a surviving guisador plant. The prolonged flooding had killed the rest of these along with her cocona, pijuayo, and achiote plants. The guisador and cocona would recover in four to six months, but it would take three years or more before new achiote and pijuayo trees would grow back near her home. In the meantime, she would need to go to the higher forest to collect the leaves and fruits she needed to make green, red and orange dyes. Rosa and Romelia then sliced, grated, and pounded the fruit, roots, and bark they had collected with some help from the GVU students. They put each batch in an aluminum pot and boiled them with a handful of chambira for five to fifteen minutes. The guisador turned its fiber a deep golden yellow, the ovos produced a dark red, and the huito turned its chambira black. Romelia added some fresh guisador to the water from the huito batch and boiled it with some fresh chambira to dye it a dark green. When each batch reached the proper shade, the women took it off the heat, washed it, and then laid the strands over a wooden post to dry in the shade. Laying them in the open sun could dull the color of the newly dyed fiber. When these fibers were ready, Romelia and Rosa each brought out samples of the other colors they had made with other plant dyes including achiote (orange), cumaca (brown), huacamayo caspi (pink), mishkipanga (purple), and huitillo (dark grey). It was a morning of earthly rainbows with diverse colors of chambira, skin tones, and feathers of Romelia’s parrots.
After a quick stop at the RCF lodge to gear up, the whole student group and local materos went back to Chino to survey chambira palms for a few hours. I joined a small team with Lilly from GVU and Ezekiel (Norma’s husband who had driven me to Chino the day before) to record the number of leaves, position and condition of these spiny palms in a large area of purma (secondary forest) where many of the village artisans harvest the cogollos (leaf spears) to make their baskets and other crafts. Periodically my lead pair would also measure the height of a water mark on a tree in our survey area. The flooding didn’t seem to have killed adult chambira trees. Intensive harvesting in this area, though, hadn’t allowed much natural regeneration, and a number of the few young palms we found were dead or dying – apparent victims of the high water. I appreciated the chance to join this crew since it gave me ideas about ways to improve our own chambira surveys with the Ampiyacu native communities. I also got a kick out of seeing a climbing vine whose large leaves were similar to the Philodendron leaf on the Amazon Forest Store logo of the Center for Amazon Community Ecology.
My task for late afternoon was shopping for baskets and other crafts in Chino. Most of the members of the Huacamayo association prepared a “feria” and laid out their wares from their designated spots behind two long tables. I made one quick round to greet every artisan and missed seeing a few of the regulars who were occupied in their field or away from the village in Iquitos. I laid a little white tag in each item that I definitely wanted on the second round, and added a few more to my purchase list on a third time around. The whole student group then arrived to buy a few things for themselves (usually an inexpensive bracelet) or gift (usually a nice basket) to bring home to their parents. When the students were done perusing, I took a picture of every artisan (or sometimes their daughter) with the crafts I had bought from them. These shots give me a nice record of the evolution of the basket designs and the chance to offer people who buy the baskets a photo of the woman who made it in this little Amazon village. As the sun started going down, we went back into the “feria” building and gathered a table for a crash course in speaking English to tourists at a “feria” – an event that happens every week or two when Amazon Adventures brings a group staying at their albergue to visit Chino. I covered the basic greetings, phrases like “How much is that basket?, This basket costs……” and the numbers for the most common prices for their crafts. As expected, a few of the women were painfully shy and too embarrassed to voice our strange-sounding tongue in more than a whisper. Most gave it a valiant effort, and a few showed real potential for connecting with visitors who often spoke little or no Spanish. They all said they would like to practice these things more. When my class ended, the GVU students were wrapping up a volleyball game outside. We then all went to the school where a few of them led a longer class in basic English with about fifteen kids and a few curious adults. They wrote lists of greetings, terms for family members and numbers on the blackboard. Their students dutifully copied them all into their notebooks and repeated them back to the guest teachers. The GVU students then spread around the room to encourage more direct speaking and listening practice with groups of two or three kids. This energetic group finally called it a night after two hours although they clearly wanted more sessions like this. They had all studied English from a little book, but so welcomed the chance to practice it with friendly native speakers.
Back at the RCF lodge, it was sort of a night at the movies. Someone had been a tasty batch of popcorn, but my talk about CACE’s work with copal resin and handicrafts was the main attraction. We didn’t have an LCD project on hand, but we managed to get all the students a little closer to a screen by showing it on two laptops spaced apart on the dining table.
I got a couple of hours of sleep on a pad in a one-person tent Jim set up for me in the living room and woke up at 3:30 am a few minutes before my watch alarm went off. I finished packing and brushed my teeth while the night time frogs were still peeping. Gerardo emerged half an hour later and took me to the Sanchez lancha docked next to Chino. I said a quick hi to Norma who was going to Iquitos with her daughter, strung my hammock from rafter to rafter and went back to sleep. I needed some rest after a busy day and a half in Chino.