I first became aware of Ines during my second visit to the Bora native community of Brillo Nuevo in 2009 because she was enthusiastic about everything. When we first tried to make incense candles from copal resin, she immediately got her hands blackened with the burnt sticky stuff and suggested they might look nice in the half-shells of macambo fruit pods. She pulled me aside, though, and said, “You know these are really pretty ugly.” I said, “I know,” and she burst out laughing.
Ines is a quintessential artisan from the Peruvian Amazon. She said, “I live by selling bags and hammocks made from chambira palm that I cultivate in my fields.” While meeting with artisans in a Brillo Nuevo classroom to discuss weaving new products to expand their income, Ines jumped at the chance to go the blackboard to draw the patches and wavy lines of a cascabel (tropical rattlesnake) as a design for a woven snake-pattern belt.
Ines soon welcomed me into her home while making the prototype on her hand-made loom with her two cats munching on a little fish in front. Ines’ voice stood out in the animated mélange of Spanish and Bora of artisans discussing their creations and her distinct laugh could mark her location more than a soccer field away.
Over the past six years, we have shared many adventures, triumphs and challenges with Ines. She showed us how she grew, collected, and prepared half a dozen plants used to dye chambira palm fiber various shades of yellow, orange, red and deep purple and then dyed my silvery hair black with roasted leaves from a huito tree. She has proudly showed us new styles of bags and guitar strap designs that she invented and readily shared these with her fellow artisans in skill-sharing workshops.
Ines’ hard work made her the most prolific craft maker with CACE. She once told me, “I really like working with your project because it has given me a chance to create new kinds of crafts and improve the quality of my weaving. The extra income has allowed me to help my sons study at a better school.”
Giving Ines an award for being the top-selling artisan in her community, though, first generated more resentment than accolades from her peers. One evening, she came to talk and began to cry. “My sisters and I love working with your project, but we are thinking of dropping out because people can be so mean.”
I soon met with other artisan leaders and families to hear their view of the situation. They had said they wanted us to give certificates to artisans according to their sales and give small prizes as incentives for doing extra good work. Did they want us to stop? We wouldn’t continue the practice if it was going to stimulate jealousy and weaken rather than build their community. One artisan Gisela said, “We really do like the certificates because they give us pride about our success. The prizes are good as well, but don’t ask us to select any winners.”
Since that meeting, some things have gotten better, and we have had to face new challenges. Over the past few years, providing some soda and snacks at the award ceremony, applauding and taking a picture with every winner has made this a fun and more mutually supportive event. When we announced that Ines was the top-seller again, one artisan Casilda said, “I knew that was coming, but it’s OK, I’m going to keep making more crafts myself.”
I’ve also learned that while Ines has a big heart, she can also be a tough cookie. During one recent artisan meeting, we were talking about ways to encourage artisans to plant more chambira palms when suddenly Ines and another artisan leader began yelling at each other. Apparently our survey of chambira in their fields had reignited an old dispute about whose family had the rights to harvest plants in one small section of recovering forest.
The incident helped me realize that artisans’ periodic troubles cooperating may be rooted more in historical frictions in the community than personality clashes in the present. We’ve been trying to bring people together in our project and navigate around hazards that appear like the tips of Amazon village icebergs. I’m glad that we have at least won the trust of talented and caring and sometimes feisty artisans like Ines to help guide us.
GETTING STUFF DONE IN IQUITOS
While it can be very hard to get certain kinds of things done in Peru in an efficient way (like standing in line for hours to pay a bill at a bank), it’s a fun adventure to get other stuff done in a fun, timely and affordable way. I went out on Sunday to get some basic supplies for our house and got most of them at a modern store called Quispe, but right around the corner I found a fellow named Elmo who is the owner of one of the typical mobile micro-stalls (about 3 x 2 x 5 feet) that is his shop for his business to make copies of keys and help people with other kinds of locks. He first used one of those simple machine to make a rough cut of the key copy from the original. He then used a narrow grinder to fine-tune the copy.
I was really impressed that he used a hand caliper to measure the depth of each notch in the original key and the copy he was making. He eyeballed any minute differences because the calipers had no graduated lines on them. Elmo had been doing this work for 30 years so I felt pretty confident that his keys that cost me $1.25 each to make would work. He gave me his phone number to reach him just in case. His copies got me in my house just fine, but I’d like to see him again just to learn more about his life.
While the lease that we signed to rent our new house for CACE in Iquitos said everything was in good working order, we’ve discovered a few things that needed fixing to make the place more comfortable, safe and functional for our needs. As soon Tulio moved into the house, he met our neighbor Jorge who quickly became our go-to motorcar driver. When we mentioned to Jorge yesterday that we had a few plumbing issues that needed tending to, he said he had a friend who could handle them.
Julio showed up ten minutes later. They quickly determined that the threads in the faucet in the kitchen sink were stripped, the sink in my bathroom was leaking because the pipe under it was totally rusted through, and the sink in Tulio’s bathroom was clogged and just needed cleaning. After several trips to the hardware store to get various new pipes, glue, and tape, Julio donned my headlamp and used his and Jorge’s collection of old saws and wrenches to replace or clean all of the degraded items.
Julio returned this morning and spent the better part of the day doing four more tasks: 1) installing new pipes connecting our elevated water tank in the back patio to faucets in the work sinks so we could distill our rosewood material with an abundant supply of cooling water, 2) installed a new section of mosquito netting in my bedroom, 3) installed a new section of mosquito netting in the space above my bathroom, and 4) fixed up a wire in the back patio that was loosely connected by duct tape that was hanging out of a busted piece of PVC pipe.
We paid a total of about $25 in materials and $50 in labor for all seven jobs and everyone felt good about the tasks that were done. Julio looked around the house as he was leaving and said “please call me if you need anything done. I can fix your roof, put up a wall…….” Tulio told me tonight that Julio is someone who is referred to here as a “mil oficios” – someone who can do a thousand things. I know we have handymen in the US, too, but I’m awfully glad that I met Julio here.
STINGLESS BEES AT CHINO One of the houses I also visit first at Chino belongs to the veteran artisan Romelia and her husband Jorge. Jorge is one of the folks in the village who has maintained several wooden box nests with stingless bees as part of a honey producing project developed under the guidance of German Perilla from George Mason University in Virginia. While these bees don't produce as much honey as their stinging honeybee counterparts, their honey is highly valued for its strong flavor and medicinal properties.
During my last visit, Jorge's nest boxes were in his back yard. This time, he had placed both at opposite ends of his kitchen to keep a closer eye on them. I took several shots of bees coming and going out of the entrance tube as well as the guard which is always on duty to prevent the entrance of unwelcome visitors (other bees, flying ants, etc.) who might wish to invade to prey on their young.
Check out the video Beekeeping in the Amazon (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ca2kYBJN4tI) focused on a stingless bee project developed with Maijuna native communities by OnePlanet.Org and its director (and CACE board member) Michael Gilmore.