9/30/09

Greetings! I am writing this entry from the deck of our group’s boat which is cruising down the Rio Negro, a part of the Amazon delta. In total we will spend about two weeks on the boat sleeping, eating, and living together as we stop in places like Santarem, communities on the Rio Unini, Juruti, the Jao National Park, and Manaus. The first night we spent on the boat was four nights ago. The boat has two decks and we all sleep in hammocks, eat three meals a day cooked by Thelma, a hilarious Portuguese woman, and go swimming off of the boat at least twice a day. It is pretty close quarters but it has been really fun getting to hang out with everyone and reflect on each other’s experiences.

The primary thing that has occurred since I last updated was our first rural homestay. On Sunday we were split up into three groups of five, each of which would be travelling to a rural community on the Unini River. These communities were either within the confines of the Jau National Park or in what is called a Resex of the park (an area which has been designated an extractive reserve). The people inhabiting these communities are riberinhos, which directly translates to river people; they are essentially small communities of traditional peoples who live simple primarily self-sustaining lifestyles including fishing, forest extracting, and small scale agriculture with limited interaction with outside societies.

I arrived at my community, Lago das Pedras (Lake of Rocks), with a growing excitement for the challenges and experience I was to face and few expectations as to what my life for the next three days would actually entail. We were welcomed by a community leader and after quickly being paired up with our respective families, were sent on our way with our belongings, a jug of mineral water for drinking, and a bag of food we were given to provide our host families with compensation. I walked through the community with my host mother, Vilci  who was thirty, and her eighteen year old daughter Mara; we were all a bit shy at first and I found communication relatively difficult despite my experience with Portuguese based on their differing dialect. I met my family and found out that in their very small house lived mother and father, Jonas (who actually only showed up at the house the third day that I was there), their daughters Mara, Joici (fifteen years old and eight months pregnant), Josiele (ten years old), and Jovanna (eight years old) along with their cousin Clevia and her two children Leticia (three years old) and Leanne (one year old). Needless to say the house was always loud and full of action.

Within the first few hours I learned that there were only twelve houses in the community which comprised three major families who resided there. Additionally the village had a church, a small school house, a soccer field, and a very shotty electricity generator. The houses were strikingly traditional – all made of wood planks with tin roofs and only openings in place of modern windows and doors. Inside my house there were three main rooms: a bedroom which held all of the clothing for the nine people who lived there as well as six hammocks, a living space which held little other than two more hammocks, two wooden benches against the walls, and the television (which I was shocked to see), and the kitchen which was comprised of several shelves with a sparse collection of food items, a broken stove, and all of the dirty dishes and trash from the previous day.

It wasn’t that I was overly surprised to see this very basic living situation, but I was very interested in the things that my family did and did not have. For example, there were almost no toys in the house which surprised me considering that four of the individuals in my home were less than eleven years old. Instead I observed as the kids made their own fun, playing with each other in their natural surroundings, and finding an overwhelming amusement in the simplest of things, such as balloons, paper and wrappings, and a worn make-up set that doubled as painting materials. It was beautiful to see the delight in the children’s eyes created from none other than themselves and their imagination and certainly made me think twice about the amount of toys and fast-paced distractions that children in America have grown to require in order to have fun.

Next, I noticed that while they did have a somewhat modern looking stove it must have been broken because each meal was cooked in one pot over coals on the floor of the kitchen. It was quite a site to constantly see someone hunched over a single pot attempting to make enough food for ten people including myself. This brings up another observation which was a lack of furniture – they did not have a single chair in the house, therefore everyone was always sitting or lying on the floor planks which, while it may not seem like that big of a deal, defined the level of comfort one was able to achieve.

Additionally, despite not having what would seem to me as rather important household items, I was very surprised to see that each person in the house had a huge pile of clothing and that it was customary for people to change their clothes at least three times a day. Similarly the family had a television which was on pretty much whenever the electricity was working. It was interesting to be sitting in the context of a rural family living on a day to day basis and watching the novelas set in Rio de Janiero featuring elites sporting fancy jewelry lounging around pools discussing their latest relationship dramas. However in sharp contrast to this, not once did I hear a member of my family express a desire to leave their community or live a more prosperous or modern lifestyle. This made me really question the process by which people are influenced by television as I would have expected to see some type of recognition that the life they were watching was worlds away from their own.

In general I would say that my life during the past four days was defined by a few key feelings: boredom, hunger, and curiosity. I quickly learned that the pace of life in Lago das Pedras was about five or ten times as slow as the life that I was used to. Days were defined by bathing in the river, washing clothes and dishes, cooking and eating meals, and the task loosely set out for that day – usually either harvesting bananas or fishing, both of which were at most half day activities. Besides these activities, hours were consumed by hanging around the house, playing with the children, visiting other homes, and lounging in the outside hammocks. It took much getting used to having such a large portion of the days open and it occurred to me that with the bustling life I was used to leading, it would be challenging begin living a life where time passed so slowly and without such direction. I was inspired to see that despite the combination of an offensively hot climate and hours on end without planned activities, people were not what I would call lazy. The children were always running around playing and visiting each other and the adults were usually up and doing something whether it be playing a community game of soccer or fixing the younger children’s hair and clothing. Just the fact that at all hours of the day people were walking around and doing things was admirable to me, as often what I felt like doing most was relaxing in my hammock outside trying to catch a breeze.

Next, I mentioned that hunger was very much a reality during my stay. This was primarily due to the fact that my family did not have a lot of resources and therefore food was not always available or a main priority. As an example of this, the first thirty six or so hours I was there, all we ate were bananas cooked in a few ways and crackers. I recognized that not having a male figure around greatly impacted the amount of fish we had to eat and negated the possibility of having any other type of meat (many families also hunted for food). Over the next few days we did have rice, a bit of fish, and a few vegetables including manioc mixed in to our meals here and there, but honestly I found myself hungry a lot of the time and noticed that, while they never voiced these feelings, the children were also often hungry. At first I resented the fact that I was hungry and constantly wondering what our next meal would entail, but after a day or so I realized that having these feelings was an important part of experiencing my family’s everyday reality. Coming to grips with this helped me to take something away from the lack of comfort that I felt.

Curiosity came from everywhere during each and every hour that I spent in Lago das Pedras. I honestly felt that I was constantly learning creating a new perspective with each new thing I experienced. I experienced how important the river was to their community as the place where they bathed, washed dishes and clothes, fished, and got drinking water. I learned that fishing, collecting turtle eggs, and harvesting bananas were crucial activities that literally determined whether or not your family had something to eat that day. I saw the incredible love and ownership that each person had for their community and how their lives fulfilled most everything that they could want or need. Finally, I gained a much greater appreciation for the resources and opportunities that I have been privileged enough to grow up with.

I spent my last day in Lago das Pedras on a fishing trip with my host father, mother, and sister and experienced their incredible endurance spending over six hours attempting to fish and collect turtle eggs for their family to eat that night. At the end of the day we had collected over forty turtle eggs but had not managed to catch any fish, but as my immediate reaction was to feel a level of defeat (despite the fact that I was to leave in the next hour, not being affected by a lack of fish), I felt a splash and looked back in the canoe to see Mara and her parents laughing and chomping away on the caju fruit that we had just come across. I realized then that just as they do not sit around desiring a more privileged life, I should not come away from this experience feeling bad about mine. Instead, the act of reflecting on and appreciating everything that I do have as well as recognizing the cultural lens through which I view the world will help me to understand the context in which other people happily lead their lives.

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