The Art Lesson


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Javier’s daughter drawing on the front step

At the community meeting Campbell volunteered me for a drawing lesson with the women weavers, and their children, which came at great surprise to me after my first exhausting day in the jungle, when this steady stream of women began flowing into Javier’s house. Luke was feeling quite sick, and Campbell was quite bust so I was truly on my own to try to creatively translate how to really look at a plant, and draw what you see, not what you know, a very difficult concept to explain across language boundaries. I was impressed with how they observed where light and shadow fell, as Felix did. They were good at catching on that a tree is not a line with little lines flowing from it. I felt like a huge disappointment to them that I couldn’t talk them through producing the level of drawing that I understand. They are incredible weavers, but had never had the opportunity to have formal drawing training. I also enjoyed that once the class began to wind down the children around were very happy to play with the crayons I had brought. We played a game of drawing any silly Spanish word I could think of. Or I would draw something and they would tell me what I was. When I asked them to draw their families my host sister drew a box, and we asked if that was her house, and she said no it was a television. She also made a lovely picture of me…as a vampire. I’m sure I do come across as quite strange to her. Overall it was quite fun, and I hope something productive can come from it.

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Me working on drawing a native plant in Javier’s kitchen


My First Venture into the Jungle

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Yully heading up Rosewood research, Me gearing up for the jungle (both taken by Brillo Nuevo man.)

                We had to wake up early today to beat the heat of the middle of the day if we were going out into the jungle. With no markers for time I only knew it was early because I was told it was, and did not feel so well rested. A group of men came this morning in long sleeve shirts, shorts, and black rubber rain boots, to learn how to use our cameras and GPS’s. They laughed as I suited up in pants, and long sleeves, and laced my large snake-boots. We set out first in canoe, to get to the bank closest to the rosewood oil garden we were setting out to check on. (Campbell is working with the locals to grow Rosewood oil, in hopes that there will be an opportunity to market the fragrance to perfumers, and provide more sustainable opportunities for income for these men. It is not uncommon to find logging or hunting as a source for income.) We only had to hike about a fourth of a mile through the dense forest before we reached the clearing on the side of a hill. It was incredible to look out over the grand trees and draping vines. I thought it would provide this serene sense of calm, but the energy of the jungle was so loud it was overwhelming. The guys set out to photograph and measure the plants. The gentleman using my camera had no interest in me showing  him how it worked, so I gave him some space, and let him figure it out, which resulted in some creative pictures of his friends. Luke and I made friends with a man named Felix, who took us into the forest and showed us many plants, proclaiming “This one will kill you, and this one, and this one has thorns, and this one is poisonous.” Or so I gathered from my rough Spanish. He used his machete to hack down a small piece of tree, stripping it to its soft inner bark and feeding it too us. It had very little flavor, and a strange texture, but I was happy to eat something, feeling quite dizzy from the heat.  Once we ventured down river to the next site Campbell pointed out a Chambira, the palm tree which the women use to weave with, and Felix sat and drew one with me. I explained the way light hits a surface, to look at the shadows it makes, and I was impressed with how well he progressed. When we left in the middle of the afternoon for a person who generally has a lot of energy to spare I felt so exhausted, and was thrilled to bathe and sleep.

The Community Meeting, and My New Best Friend

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Luke with children from Brillo Nuevo

  The community first met without us to decide what they wanted to do with and about the community refund the village was receiving from the artist’s work Campbell was selling. Try as I might 3 months of Spanish was not going to get me through understanding what was going on. I spent the evening really meeting Luke for the first time. We had met before our adventure in that I was a Friendly Adult Presence for the Quaker high school group for which Luke was clerk, but as they often have an attendance well over 100 students, Luke and I had never taken the opportunity to really meet. (In the end he became my new best friend, and survival buddy, and I was eternally grateful for his calming and playful presence.) As a twenty something you sometimes forget how to relate to high schoolers, even though it wasn’t so long ago that you were one. I found that Luke had a calm and collected presence and curiosity which I wouldn’t associate with your typical 17yr old boy. We talked about movies and music we liked, other Quaker high schoolers we were both very fond of, relationships, and how each sex relates to other members of its own sex. I was so happy to find this bond so very lost in everything that was happening around me.

            Over dinner I learned of the struggles of the meeting. In short 20% of the profits are returned to the community to do with what they all reach consensus to do, but the artisans were upset that other villagers who were not making art were benefiting off of their work, when they were struggling to support their families.  However if Campbell cannot market the goods as part of the profit going back to the community they lose a huge part of their profitability and market interest. The agreement reached was that 15% of the money would go to the community and the artists would see an increase in profit.

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Brillo Nuevo; Our Jungle Home

It’s hard to give you just one quick summarizing entry about a home so different from my home, where the majority of our trip was spent. So I just have to break it into many stories for you.

The Arrival, the Family, the Starfruit;

Our introduction to our new home

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Javier’s home, in Brillo Nuevo

After an unknown number of meditative, exhaustive, hours in Javier’s canoe we at last arrived at the edge of Brillo Nuevo, and came up upon the bank that was nearest Javier’s home. We set up “Gringo camp” in Javier’s living room, which I’m sure was perceived as quite strange with our tents, hammocks, and laundry draping from one beam to the next. After a sleepless bug bitten night in my less than mosquito proof hammock I opted to spend the next two weeks on a foam mat on the floor with a mosquito net draped over top. From my posh perspective Javier’s home was very modest, it consisted of two rooms, a family room and single family bedroom, and a kitchen. His home was built from boards he made from trees pulled from the jungle. We soon learned that Javier’s home was not a modest home for the town of Brillo Nuevo, but was in fact quite grand. My largest concern, having a net surrounded mattress in the middle of his living room, was could I survive two weeks without privacy, which is a very American “need”.  As was soon evident to me from Javier’s many curious children and relatives.

                After lunch Yully, Campbell and I set out to greet the other local villagers, announcing Campbell’s joyous yearly return, or as they simply called him “el doctor”. Almost every artist had an armful of things to show us, or stories to share with us. I met Campbell’s top selling artist, a very hard-working, and incredibly high-spirited woman named Ines. (Who is one in a large family of women weavers.) Her husband fetched me a fruit out of the star fruit tree in front of their home; it was indescribable to eat one so fresh. As we moved through the village we met many carvers of “Juingos”, known in English as Calabash. These artists had carved Christmas ornament sized fruits. We were sad to find that they had been encouraged to strip away the entire back ground, leaving no interesting negative space around the figure. As it was getting dark and the three or so hours of generator produced electricity the village got about every day began to dwindle, we set home for our first Bora lesson. This is unlike any language I have ever heard, and it’s challenging to describe. It’s full of loud enunciation, and sharp pauses. For example good day, which in Spanish is Buenas Dias, is Imi Cyoj in Bora, pronounced eem-mee-quo-heur. After an exhausting day I decided I would brave the shower platform, which was in the center walkway of the house. Showering is not the private, warm, relaxing experience I am used to in my New Orleans apartment. Rather the platform is several boards, I unluckily learned were not nailed down, and two large barrels that collect rain water. I learned very quickly one for goes modesty in the jungle, which after years of Quaker camp was not such a challenge. Just as in Nueva Esperanza you dump water, lather, and dump again.

                What I observed in these first few hours was that life here is very hard. It’s a life of intense labor, where everyone works a very physical life, but as I have found in other rough travels the people here are always quick with a smile and a laugh. Similar to my experience in Palestine, foreign NGO’s come and go, and trust does not come easy, as it has been broken many times before. Campbell has gained notoriety through his years of work, and seems to have earned a very valuable trust.

Nueva Esperanza; the beginning of our Ampiyacu adventure

As I mentioned before this journey began with a 22 hour ride on a Lancha, a two story boat, where we slept in hammocks. The Lancha took us too the small town of Pebas. Pebas was much more rustic than our luxurious experiences in Iquitos. We were beginning to see the realities of lives faced with hardships. Without luxuries of sewage, grocery stores, or clean un-bottled water. Unknowing that this would be the largest town we would see for two weeks, we grabbed lunch, supplies, and snacks, before Luke, Campbell, Yully, and our new guide Javier piled into a wooden canoe with most of our gear, all propelled by a small motor, to begin a two day journey to the native Bora village of Brillo Nuevo. We began down the Ampiyacu river, which splits of the Amazon, where we visited several villages to set up meetings. At the end of our first days journey we came to the first native village we would stay in, Neuvo Esperanza, or New Hope. We arrived in the dark, and lugged our belongings out of the canoe, through a mud ridden field, and up a hill to the home of Gloria. Getting our first taste for native homes. Typically they consist of two buildings, one where the family sleeps and socializes, and one which is the kitchen. Generally the family sleeps together in one room, and the second room is a bare living room/multipurpose room. There was an outhouse out back, and a lovely entry to a small river where we could bathe. The bathing process in jungle villages is not for the shy privacy enjoying Americans. You simply disrobe down to your underpants, and using a plastic bowl pour river water on yourself. You then obviously soap up, and rinse. I recommend doing it early in the evening before it gets chilly, and the mosquitoes come out. Some houses have barrels where they collect rainwater, and you can bathe on a small platform. Needless to say we all became quite comfortable with ourselves quite quickly. Gloria was kind in offering to cook some of our eggs which didn’t fare the boat ride so well for our dinner, while she cooked freshly caught Piranha over a fire.. After tying up our hammocks we tried to drift off to sleep, after a rough nights lack there of on the Lancha. Sadly this too was not so profitable, as mosquitoes attacked us viciously from anywhere our bodies made contact with our hammock…ie the entire underside. In the morning after breakfast, and the viewing of a few woven Chambira crafts, we set sail yet again. This time to arrive at our two week jungle home of Brillo Nuevo.

Our first introduction to Javier, and the beginning of our wild canoe adventure!

Our first introduction to Javier, and the beginning of our wild canoe adventure!

The Lancha The Ampiyacu at night Gloria and her family in Neuvo Esperanza Gloria cooking Pirahnas on the fire