Two wins for the good guys – meetings at the crossroads and off to the Ampiyacu

June 18, 2011

I woke up around 5 am on Thursday after too few hours of sleep – I admit that I had stayed up too late watching re-runs of Law and Order SVU and a movie I don’t remember. I watch a few favorite programs at home on the internet or via Netflix (which I much prefer because I can avoid all the commercials), but we don’t get regular broadcast TV. When I’m traveling alone, though, watching “live” TV on a nice flat screen is often too compelling to resist. I can rationalize this practice here to some extent as a way of improving my language skills, but apart from unavoidable commercials in Spanish, I prefer watching Detective Stabler say his own lines in English rather than listen to Dr. House mouthing Spanish spoken by an unknown actor.

I even watch some TV in the morning while I do my neck and back stretches. I’ve now added stretches to my right shoulder to this routine. For no discernible reason (other than I’m now 57 when some body parts apparently just decide life has been too easy to continue without some reminders of aging), my right arm got very painful a few months ago while tossing a football with Luke waiting for his school bus. I went through five weeks of physical therapy to treat this rotator cuff injury, and it got better. I cut back on the stretches for just over a week to save time the morning, and the aches returned. I am forced to heed the advice of my therapist who said I would need to keep up the stretches only as long as I wanted my arm to work without pain. OK – I get the message.

I enjoyed my standard Hotel Marañon breakfast – one cup of coffee with cream and sugar (another habit I don’t have at home), two pieces of toast or rolls with butter and strawberry jam, a small plate with fresh papaya, pineapple and banana, a glass of fresh papaya juice, and one scrambled egg. In between bites, I started writing a list of publications I thought we could prepare based on our research at Jenaro Herrera and topics we would like to address in upcoming research. I very much appreciate a two hour chat I had with CACE advisor Virginia Hubbs over a pot of Good Earth tea two days before I left home when I shared my stress about meeting with the Institute for Investigations of the Peruvian Amazon (IIAP) to discuss our cooperative agreement. She urged me to focus on the positive – particularly things that would mean the most to them. Apart from money, the most valuable scientific currency is publications in scientific journals. I was pleased that by the time my remaining toast crusts were cold and hard, I had generated seven solid ideas for articles and six ideas for future research.

Just before leaving the hotel, the lights went out again. Iquitos has apparently had a series of power losses in recent months – a fire in one sector caused a blackout that lasted several days. I had hoped to print out my list of potential articles for our meeting with Sr. Ricardo Faronnay from IIAP, but no power – no printer and no way to transfer my documents to their desktop computers. It was easy enough, though, to open up my list on my laptop. I hadn’t had time to translate it into Spanish, but fortunately Ricardo knew English well enough to read along with my outline. Like many Peruvian professionals, he had studied English in school for many years well enough to read it, but hadn’t had much opportunity to use it conversationally.

I was encouraged by the enthusiasm Ricardo expressed for our novel findings, understanding of challenges we faced in the field, and prospects for continued cooperation at the Jenaro Herrera field station. Finally arriving at the key points for renewing our agreement, he said that IIAP wanted to receive a report every three months about the activities we were carrying out at the center and confirmed that they wanted us to contribute 200 soles (about $70) per month to help cover their costs for maintaining the station. I said we could agree to these terms even though doing so was going to require a sacrifice for us because our largest source of funding for this project was cut last year and almost disappeared this year. What we couldn’t do was pay this amount going back to the expiration of our first contract two years ago. Yully and I heaved sighs of relief when Ricardo said they were not asking us to do this; it would be sufficient to honor this commitment from the beginning of 2011 forward. He also said he would inquire whether IIAP could receive all of our plant and insect specimens from our work in the Ampiyacu. We’ve still got lots of work to do to write up our results, keep up our basic research with fewer funds, and raise more funds to develop our future program, but I left IIAP feeling like we had sailed over one of the biggest hurdles I had anticipated facing before this trip.

Yully and I had a bit of a celebratory lunch at the El Huasai restaurant near the Plaza de Armas. Its central location, friendly owner and good selection of lunch “menus” (appetizer, fresh fruit punch and a main course with some kind of meat/fish, rice, and beans) for 10 soles (about $3.25) has made it a favorite for the stream of researchers that pass through Iquitos. Not surprisingly Yully and I spotted someone we knew looking for a table. Christine Beier and her husband Lev Michael are world class linguists who have documented several Latin American native languages and have recently gotten three years worth of funding from the National Science Foundation to document the Maijuna language with its elders and help parents teach their mother tongue to their children. I first met Chris two years ago when I attended a congress of the Maijuna association with our CACE board member and long-term Maijuna advisor Michael Gilmore.

My plan to have dinner with Chris and Lev had to be postponed because some critical equipment of theirs had broken and they had to try to get it repaired before heading to their field site for several months. People and humidity are hell on electronics in this part of the world. We’ve gone through four electronic balances in five years here – three have died prematurely from unknown environmental causes; the most expensive one (an analytical balance that cost over $1000) was instantly fried when one field assistant plugged its 115 volt chord directly into a Peruvian wall socket rated at 220 volts without its transformer. On the plus side, I was able to take my somewhat torn fancy Lowe’s backpack designed for holding camera gear to our favorite shoe repair shop in Iquitos (where they also sew on the leather pieces to the chambira guitar straps) and have them put in a new zipper better than the original one for less than $3. The next time I need a crown on a tooth, I will try to wait for my next trip here to do it because a top quality dentist here charges $70 to $100 for this procedure. My last crown at home cost over $700 after getting a small break from our insurance provider.

I was very happy to have dinner with my friend Tracy – a PhD student working with Paul Fine at the University of California at Berkeley. We had first met at her lab where she showed me how to extract DNA from some of our resin weevils. Last summer we hung out and danced a bit with Paul’s other grad student exploring research topics related to Burseraceae trees. In the past six months, Tracy has gone from hard-core lab rat to hard-core field researcher. In order to study the extent of genetic differences in separate ranges of one species of copal (Protium subserratum), Tracy has learned to shoot a line over a tall branch with a cross-bow, haul herself up into the canopy and stay there for hours –sometimes watching and collecting bees that visit the flowers and sometimes putting in pollen collected from distant relatives herself. Sounds exciting (or boring depending on your perspective) until she recounts various times when she has been bitten by fierce ants and sat on wasp nests. Bites from hundreds of mosquitos don’t even register with her anymore.

Continuing in travel log mode, we ate El Zorritos – one of my favorite spots in Iquitos because you can get a couple of large wooden skewers of freshly grilled chicken, fish, and/or caiman (Amazon alligator) and share a large bottle of Pilsen beer with a friend for about $4 each. After dinner we moved on to the newer Karma Café near Plaza de Armas where we shared a pitcher of Pisco Sours (Pisco is a classic Peruvian spirit made from grapes) and stories about life at home and on the road away from loved ones.

It’s almost time for me to leave for the boat that will take Yully and I to Ampiyacu River for two weeks so I will finish the rest of this post quickly.

Angel Raygada and his Copal thesis defense committee at UNAP

Angel Raygada and his Copal thesis defense committee at UNAP

The big event yesterday was going to be Angel’s defense of his undergraduate thesis. It almost didn’t happen because the university students carried out a sort of revolt and closed down the building housing the LCD project and other documents he and his committee planned to use. I chatted with his committee for almost an hour until he returned to the room with a project he had rented. His presentation went very well. While his committee members asked some tough questions, he handled most of them really well. This part done, Angel’s ailing mom, wife who was nauseous with morning sickness, Yully, me, and Angel left the room for ten minutes while his committee (“jurado”) conferred. We were ushered back in and all stood as if in a courtroom. Standing while facing his committee, the president announced with solemn formality and congratulations that Angel had passed. We all whooped (within reason) in celebration of this verdict now five years in the making. A big lunch at a restaurant overlooking Marona Cocha followed. I understood later why the students had been marching in the street. Angel had had to pay his own university 90 soles to rent a room for his own thesis defense. He had had to pay to rent the projector and paid for the lunch for his committee members out of his own pocket (with a bit of help from CACE).

After a decent night’s sleep, I got up early and had a breakfast meeting with Devon Graham – teacher at Florida International University, President of Margarita Tours, and director of Project Amazonas. They had a good trip with their boat doing medical missions to all the villages in the Ampiyacu River. When they put in a cabinet in their social room, we are hoping to offer a sample of crafts from our partner communities to the special eco-tourists that come aboard their boat in between (and help finance) their humanitarian trips.
I spent a good three hours going over our research needs and hard budget realities with Angel and quickly (but not too frantically) packed all the stuff to bring with me to the Ampiyacu and what to leave in a big bag at the hotel. One more lunch with Yully at a little family restaurant (two tables) introduced me to a great new dish – Inchi capi – a soup made with a base of peanuts and corn meal with a few tasty chunks of chicken. Nice to still be discovering new foods here.

One final stop at El Cyber café to send this post before heading for the port. Tonight I’ll be sleeping in a hammock on a 300 person boat bound for Pebas. Will write again in two weeks.


For more information about the programs of the Center for Amazon Community Ecology, visit

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