Entering my third week in the Amazon, I can say this about it: mosquitoes and heat rashes.
Okay, maybe there’s more I can say about it…
For one, the idea that I’d be on a paleo-diet while here, and magically lose 50lbs in time for my wedding was an absurdly incorrect notion. The diet here consists of three things: meat, simple carbs, and sugar. Generally, those things are fried.
Every single restaurant here serves the same thing: either a sancocha (a soup with meat, potatoes, yucca, corn, and rice), or a slab of meat with a side of rice, potatoes, yucca, and fried plantain. If you’re looking for a cold drink, be prepared for fruit juice sweetened with panela (a concentrated brick of liquefied and hardened sugarcane). The only highlight is the amount of avocado that generally accompanies each meal.
Even when cooking at home, my compadres tend to fill the pan with several inches of oil before adding any vegetables, and sadly the supermarket doesn’t carry such things as extra virgin olive oil or whole grain bread. Additional bummer: we don’t have an oven or refrigerator, nor do we have any plans to get them. No veggie-filled quiches for this gal.
I’m not saying it’s not delicious – it totally is – but I’m already getting sick of it. And even worse, I’ve gained a few pounds since getting here. You’d think I’d be trekking through the jungle, burning off all those fried potatoes, but sadly most of our days are spent staring into our computers, looking at data and reading articles. Even if I wanted to go for a walk, it’s too damn hot.
If you’re wondering how I know I’ve gained weight, it’s because I went to the doctor the other day. The past week and a half I’ve had gigantic, inflamed, itchy rashes all over my body. And I mean gigantic.
I’d post pictures, but I’ll spare you.
Thinking they were heat rashes, I tried taking a lot of cool showers and begged Señor Stanford to buy us a fan (he still hasn’t done so). Unfortunately, showers and baby powder didn’t do the trick.
After waking up one day with a bright red, swollen face, I decided to see a doctor. They weighed me (motherfuckers!), and led me into the mosquito-ridden waiting room to watch telenovelas for an hour and half before the doctor saw me. After examining me, and declaring “¡Mis dios!” upon seeing my welts, he declared me allergic to something. What might I be allergic to? The water.
No joke: the water. Not drinking water (we buy that), but the ground water used for showering and washing clothes. Apparently the water in this area is filled with metals and all kinds of crazy chemicals. For years the government has doused this region with herbicides of every kind in an attempt to wipe out coca production, and the product of which has been a permanent toxic wasteland.
I already knew this thanks to Señor Stanford’s insistence that under no circumstances (even if boiled for hours) should we drink the water. But it never occurred to me that my skin would freak the fuck out over it.
I have a hypothesis that it’s really a reaction to the super-perfumy laundry soap we use. Otherwise, it looks like I won’t be showering for the next three months.
I more important news, we’ve been going into the field at least four times a week, visiting a Nukak Maku group that recently settled in a reserve about twenty minutes away from San Jose.
I so want to share pictures with you that show all the thatched roofs, tribal paint, and women breastfeeding while sitting in hammocks. Believe me, I’ve got them, and they look straight out of National Geographic. But you can see those in any magazine or google image search.
[Sidenote: you can also see some freaking awesome photographs from indigenous groups around Colombia at the website of an Austrian photographer we met recently. He and his Colombian wife (two fascinating, awesome people that spoke fluent English. Score.) accompanied us into the field several times. While the photos from the groups we’ve been working with won’t be posted for awhile, he’s ridiculously talented and you should check him out HERE]
Instead, I’m going to be a total bleeding heart and show you the reality: the reality is, there’s nothing romantic about being an indigenous tribe in the 21st century.
Among their problems:
- They can no longer roam freely as hunter-gatherers because of government and paramilitary restrictions.
- Thanks to the guerilla activity in Colombia, they’re often forced out of the land that has been set aside for them by the government.
- There’s not enough land for them to hunt without running into other indigenous groups on the reserves or trespassing onto private property.
- They traditionally lived in groups no greater than 15 people at a time. Because of land restrictions, they now live in camps that number well over 50 people, which causes conflict among themselves.
- Most of their food comes from well-meaning NGOs, which means they eat horribly. White rice and white pasta makes up the majority of their diet. The men will go fishing and the women with gather chontaduros (a very dense, fibrous fruit), but these things only happen about once a week.
- They have a ridiculous amount of money set aside for them by the government; none of which they can access, because the law has about 30 clauses on how the procedure works. Among which, they must choose one leader to represent them (feel free to look up how small hunter-gatherer bands’ social systems work, and you’ll understand why this doesn’t work), they must provide a detailed and notarized outline of what they’ll use the funds for and then provide receipts and reports afterwards. But a) most of them speak about as much Spanish as I do, b) few of them read or write even their own language, and c) who the hell is going to spend that much time figuring out governmental guidelines when all these NGOs and missionaries are showering you with food, clothing, bednets, and hammocks.
- As is evident from #5 and #6, their entire world consists of handouts. This has severely affected their introduction into the industrialized world over the past twenty years since they were “discovered”, and their concept of a market economy is certainly not the same as everybody else’s.
- When they do get money, the men spend most of it getting drunk in town. Charming, I know. But keep in mind that when you’re accustomed to a feat and famine cycle, the concept of saving up money for future use is not second nature.
- There’s no such thing as trash collection on indigenous reserves.
- The kind people at UNHCR and ACNUR installed a slew of windmill-operated water pumps at reserves all around the area. (We not be able to drink the ground water, but they can!) Which was great, until they all broke. Turns out they used materials that are only good for a few months. We recently ran into some people from ACNUR, who said they were aware of the problem, but needed to wait for this fiscal-year-budgetary-outline-fund-allocation-red tape bullshit until they could fly in an engineer from Bogota to diagnose the problem. Then once its diagnosed, then maybe they go through all the bureaucratic bullshit again to get the funds to actually fix it.
In the meantime, they’ve become dependent on the water pumps, as the reserves aren’t located right next to the river. So instead, we’ve been bringing them bottles of water when we visit (not that it’s even in our budget, but how could we let these people die of dehydration?). The handout cycle continues.
I’ve often been skeptical of many modern ethnographers, as they tend to fall into the post-modern cycle of hyper-criticism. They also tend to use so many buzz words (discourse, power construct, individualist, dialogue, social sensitivity, deconstruction), that their point is lost. Most egregious, often they write whole publications whose sole point is to bitch and bitch and bitch about the terrible state of the world, the failed efforts of NGOs, the awful structure of government, and even the misguided role of anthropologists themselves. They also tend to do all this complaining without offering any solutions.
But let me tell you, friends: after being here a few weeks, I totally understand why.
[Before you think I’m a product of surrounding myself with super Po-Mo colleagues, let me tell you that Señor Stanford has taken classes with Cavalli-Sforza and has Rebecca Bliege Bird on his dissertation committee: the guy has legit evolutionary cred.]
The problem instead is that all our methods involve observing and recording their behaviors in order to later correlate them with malaria incidence. It’s challenging to passively jot down notes on what they’re doing when there are Christian missionaries tromping through camp telling them to pray, and adolescent boys begging you for water. Evolution my ass – these people need legit solutions now.
I’ve found myself frequently ruminating over a side-project involving a study of all the NGO’s, individuals, and government organizations that work with the same group. I’m curious because they barely share information, and don’t seem to be very effective individually. Internationalista is interested in collaborating with me on this. If we publish, it will likely be lumped in the PoMo camp of anthropology, and all my former colleagues and instructors will be horrified.
Alas, this is not my primary role here. I’m not a health promoter, I’m not a consultant, and I’m not here to save the world.
I’m just here for the malaria.