Rain on the River and Ocaina Quest for Well-being

by amazonecology July 16, 2012

June 30, 2012

When we loaded our gear into Oscar’s boat to head downriver from Brillo Nuevo, we laid down one plastic tarp on the bottom first, placed our big bags in it and then put another tarp on top which we tucked in between the first tarp and the boat. I kept my backpack with cameras, book, water and snacks next to me. We’d been lucky with the weather in our trip up the Yaguasyacu five days before, but within minutes of leaving the village, a mild rain started falling. A fellow named Alex riding in the front of the boat (on his way back to the city after a stint with a logging crew from Ancon Colonia) called back to me that this would pass. Alex’s assurances notwithstanding, I tossed a plastic bag over my backpack and put on my poncho. The clouds above got darker and denser, and the rain got heavier. Yully and Ena huddled under one umbrella. I hunkered down under my poncho – eventually putting in my earbuds and setting my MP3 player at full-volume to hear my audio book over the diesel engine and downpour. During brief letups, Alex took off his shirt and t-shirt, wrung them out, and put them back on again just in time for the next cold shower. My gear and I were well enough protected from above, but the wooden peque was filling with rainwater. My fleece blanket cushion was soaked, the seat of my pants was soggy, and water was seeping into my backpack from below. During the next respite, I readjusted plastic bags as best as I could and prayed my cameras and other electronic items weren’t damaged. We arrived at Nueva Esperanza just after dusk. Oscar had stoically steered us fully exposed to the rain for almost five hours.

We carried all of our gear across the gap between the river and the village and settled into the house of our host – Gloria Vasquez. I peeled off my wet clothes in a back room, and hung them, my blanket and poncho over rafters to drip dry. I wiped off my camera and was relieved to find it worked fine. Important lessons: never gloss-over sealing sensitive items in zip-locks and make sure my backpack is fully enclosed in bags without holes during boat trips.

Ocaina vulture clan logo. Photo by C. Plowden/CACE

Ocaina vulture clan logo. Photo by C. Plowden/CACE

While waiting for the artisans to arrive to meet with us in the one-room school house the next morning, I had some leisurely time to scan the walls. The space above the black board was covered with posters produced from workshops conducted with all communities while planning the Ampiyacu-Apayacu Regional Conservation Area. One sheet for Nueva Esperanza showed a vulture in a posture similar to the bald-eagle in the seal of the United States. The vulture was the emblem of the Ocaina clan that founded this village. Its beak held the leaf of an irapay palm – key for covering their homes. Its talons grasped vines of uña de gato (“cat’s claw”) and clavo huasca (“clove plant”) representing their native plant medicines. Other elements in the wings and tail portrayed traditional dances and other customs and the central connection between women artisans and the chambira palm.

Nueva Esperanza values chart. Photo by C. Plowden/CACE

Nueva Esperanza values chart. Photo by C. Plowden/CACE

Next to this expressive mosaic of cultural pride was a chart with a more sobering self-assessment of their current reality. Community members had given themselves a score of 3 out of 5 in four key areas – culture (they hardly speak their native Ocaina language and rarely do traditional dances), social relations (they don’t have fights but lack coordination), governance (don’t understand how it’s supposed to work), and economy (they have no money but at least have their houses, education and little sickness). They only gave themselves full marks for natural resources because they enjoyed their pure air, clean water, and abundant fish and wildlife.

Kid's linguistic map of norhern Peru at Nueva Esperanza. Photo by C. Plowden/CACE

Kid’s linguistic map of norhern Peru at Nueva Esperanza. Photo by C. Plowden/CACE

A linguistic map of Peru colored in by a child provided some insight into the extent of territorial and cultural slippage of the Ocaina and their related tribes. It showed that Ocaina was once the dominant language in this region. Nueva Esperanza was now one of only a few Ocaina villages left. They had a maloca (traditional house), but did not have an active “curaca” (traditional leader) to organize the Ocaina festivals. The low score they gave themselves in the “culture” category seemed to indicate they weren’t satisfied with their inattention to practices that make them a distinct people, but it wasn’t clear what if anything they wanted to do to change this. Their priority concerns were making a living, educating their kids to function in Peruvian society and trying to stay healthy.

Raised house in Nueva Esperanza. Photo by C. Plowden/CACE

Raised house in Nueva Esperanza. Photo by C. Plowden/CACE

This last challenge had been the most significant in the past few months. Gloria’s husband Juan told me that this year’s intense rainy season had brought an unprecedented wave of malaria to the village. He was the first to get it, but in quick succession almost everyone else in this village of 80 people got it as well. Only one of his small children and a few other people escaped the alternating fevers, chills and shaking associated with this disease.

We began our meeting when five (just over half) of the women artisans had arrived. Our start was interrupted, though, when the male school teacher wandered in drunk. It wasn’t clear if he was trying to reclaim his territory or offer his advice, but Gloria’s patient coaxing finally got him to leave. I gave the women some feedback about the last batch of coin purses they had made. Some had beautiful designs, but they needed to improve their consistency in sizes and styles.

We moved onto drawing some designs on the blackboard in white chaulk for a few new models – small and simple coin purses for girls and larger pouches for women – vertical models with straps and horizontal ones with zippers to accommodate a few common sizes of cell phones. We hit a snag when we moved on to assigning specific artisans to make trial versions of particular models. Only Rosa Vasquez, who didn’t even live in the village (but comes regularly to visit her sisters), knew how to weave the patterns involving wavy lines. We literally went back to the drawing board, and asked the other women for interesting design ideas they could make. I was happy with the concentric diamond shapes that emerged from this brainstorm and look forward to seeing their prototypes.

Roasting fish at Brigita's house. Photo by C. Plowden/CACE

Roasting fish at Brigita’s house. Photo by C. Plowden/CACE

The women all agreed they would be happy to receive Yully and me in their homes to take some pictures and videos of them making their crafts with the proviso we should not visit the home of one artisan who had not come to the meeting. Her husband had gotten drunk with the teacher the night before and hit her about an hour before we had arrived. She obviously didn’t want to have her picture taken in this condition. Domestic abuse is not a topic I have enquired about during my times visiting these villages, but this was the first time I had heard about it. It wasn’t surprising to hear this incident was associated with alcohol, a problem I was quite familiar with.

Brigita weaving irapay leaves. Photo by C. Plowden/CACE

Brigita weaving irapay leaves. Photo by C. Plowden/CACE

While Yully and I tried to walk past the teacher’s house as unobtrusively as possible en route to an artisan’s house, he called out an invitation to join him and his buddies for a beer. I had to exercise a lot of restraint to politely decline his offer and keep moving.

Irapay palm leaf crisnejas drying at Nueva Esperanza. Photos by C. Plowden/CACE

Irapay palm leaf crisnejas drying at Nueva Esperanza. Photos by C. Plowden/CACE

I mostly enjoyed spending twenty to thirty minutes with five artisans. The depiction of irapay and chambira palms as central to the lives of these women and their families in the Ocaina vulture clan poster was right on. Brigita showed us how she wove chamibira into bags and irapay into “crisnejas” – a sheet of overlapping leaves that forms one layer in a thatch roof. They make these for their own homes and to sell to others in Pebas.

Pamela grating guisador and hanging dyed chambira fibers. Photos by C. Plowden/CACE

Pamela grating guisador and hanging dyed chambira fibers. Photos by C. Plowden/CACE

Pamela was a young mother who grated several guisador (ginger/turmeric) roots, boiled the mash with a large hank of chambira, and then hung up the golden-dyed fibers to dry.

Rosa hanging and weaving chambira palm fibers. Photos cy C. Plowden/CACE

Rosa hanging and weaving chambira palm fibers. Photos cy C. Plowden/CACE

The elder Rosa is Nueva Esperanza’s oldest artisan who lives at the one end of the village. She laid out some fresh pale chambira to dry after its first washing and then did some crocheting on a bag.

Snail shell with huayruru seeds. Photo by C. Plowden/CACE

Snail shell with huayruru seeds. Photo by C. Plowden/CACE

A snail shell with huayruru seeds hung on a spiral string from one rafter for decoration. Draped over a back rail like an abandoned skin of a large snake was a coil of woven bark used to squeeze the liquid out of cassava (manioc) mash. It was impressive to realize that this 65 plus year old woman managed everything.

Cassava strainer at Nueva Esperanza home. Photo by C. Plowden/CACE

Cassava strainer at Nueva Esperanza home. Photo by C. Plowden/CACE


Yully and I then couldn’t help but feel her sadness and perhaps desperation as she began to tell us a bit about her life and cry. Most of the other people in the village enjoyed the support of at least some family. Rosa’s husband, however, was long gone. Her few children lived far away, and didn’t seem either able or inclined to welcome her to their places or help sustain her where she lived. Selling handicrafts was her only source of income.

Gloria Vasquez weaving chambira bag. Photo by C. Plowden/CACE

Gloria Vasquez weaving chambira bag. Photo by C. Plowden/CACE

We returned to Gloria’s house where she and her sister Rosa (the younger) worked on bags while we chatted. Gloria and her husband had been one of the two original couples that founded Nueva Esperanza twenty years ago. They had been living in the other Ocaina village of Puerto Izango, but left or were seemingly asked to leave when they had some irreconcilable differences with the other families of that village. They first started the settlement down river in a nearby spot but soon moved to the higher ground at the current location that has since grown to include eighteen families. I asked Gloria several times if she had any dreams for her community. When she could only offer puzzled smiles to this question framed different ways – first by me and then by Yully, I let the matter drop. Asking about the future just didn’t seem to compute.

Ocaina boy feeding pet pigeon. Photo by C. Plowden/CACE

Ocaina boy feeding pet pigeon. Photo by C. Plowden/CACE

I often appreciate seeing touches of people’s connection with animals of the forest in these communities and unexpected integration of items from the outside world. One of the former was seeing Gloria’s son tenderly holding a pet pigeon while it drank from a spoon. The latter was a large soggy toy dog perched like a sentinel near a palm tree. I gave it a nod of farewell as we headed down the bluff to our next destination.
Wet dog toy at Nueva Esperanza. Photo by C. Plowden/CACE

Wet dog toy at Nueva Esperanza. Photo by C. Plowden/CACE





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