A busy day
It rained from yesterday afternoon straight through till morning. More importantly, it also rained up in the mountains, so the water level of the river rose dramatically. Throughout our travels on the river, we saw loads of wood debris floating downstream including fully grown trees. The temperature also dropped considerably after the rain, making it the coldest day the Me to We country director has experienced in the four years he has been here in the Amazon. Which means some of us wore long sleeves for part of the day.
Our first activity today was visiting our adopted village, Los Rios. It is one of Free the Children’s newest partnerships. They have one new classroom and are in the midst of setting up the water system. They are eager to build more classrooms, so we think Zev made a great choice for his Bar Mitzvah project. There is a lot to be done here. It was quite amazing to see the new classroom compared to the old classrooms that are still in use. As expected, every class wants to be in the “new” classroom. We didn’t get to meet any of the students as it is summer vacation. We did however meet the “inspector” of the school. She said there are 54 families in the school – 110 students and 13 teachers.
Next stop was Bellavista to return to work. We wasted no time getting down to business. One crew was continuing the job of cutting, bending, and tying the rebar. Another group was given the job of manually mixing, carrying and pouring cement for the support pillars. The third group continued the job of filling and then hauling bags of sand and gravel the 440m from the top of the river bank to the build site. It was a shorter day, but we got quite a bit accomplished.
After lunch we took a short boat ride across the river to Miguel and Maria Vargas’ farm. He originally came from the Highlands of Ecuador to visit his sister when he was only 19 years old. At that time, the government was interested in settling people in the Amazon to strengthen its claim to the area, due to a conflict with Peru. He bought a farm, but it was 2 km away from the Napo River. It had fresh water but was difficult to get produce to market. He would have to get up at 2am to start transporting produce 2 km to the river, where he would wait for the transport (canoe) to come. Sometimes, the canoe would already be full from other farmers, so he would have to wait until the next day. It was quite difficult. He went to back to the Highlands to find a bride and brought Maria back to his farm in the Amazon. Their family grew, and as the family got older, it brought new challenges. The closest school was almost 3km away, so it was often difficult to get them to school everyday.
Finally, after six years, they decided the challenges were too great and decided to move back to the Highlands. Miguel’s sister talked them out of it. There was another farm for sale right on the river. It was also closer to the school. They sold their farm and bought the new land and started all over again. It solved many of their problems, and through hard work they established the new farm and were happy. There was one big problem still, as they no longer had access to fresh water. When one of their daughters was only 13 years old, she got very sick from the river water and died from her illness. This devastated the family. Miguel and some of his neighbours were inspired to go to Quito to demand access to clean water for the community. The authorities were very sympathetic and promised to send someone out to asses the situation and get them clean water. They went home and waited a week, two weeks, a month, and no one came. A couple of years later, they went again to Quito to ask for help. Again, there were promises made without any actual response.
In the meantime, the farm had been supplying produce to a lodge across the river. Then that lodge was purchased by Free the Children in 2012. Staff of the Minga Lodge visited the farm to introduce themselves and inquire about continuing to supply them with produce. They discussed his challenges in farming the area, and asked what they could do to help. He told them of the lack of access to clean water. Although there were no funds available yet, they offered to bring groups of tourists to tour his farm. A year later, they had funds for the first water project, however they needed the project to be close to the clinic and the school across the river, next to the lodge. He would have to travel a bit to get to the water source, but at least they would have clean water. Another year later, they initiated the second water project, and now he has access to clean water on his own property. He wife no longer had to carry 80 litres of water from the river to their home daily, and his family would no longer be risking their lives drinking the river water.
Senor Varga continues to have a nice partnership with Free the Children. He still gives tours to groups and sells fruits to the Minga Lodge. We were very inspired by his story and his beautiful spirit. We especially enjoyed spending time with his six year old grandson John who was so sweet. At one point during Miguel’s talk, John sat down beside Aubrey and happened to make a noise of pain. He seemed to be favouring a torn finger nail. Aubrey took out his pocket knife and used the nail cutters to trim the offending nail to John’s satisfaction, which led to the silent request for a full manicure, thus provided.
While we were there, in addition to telling us his story, Senor Vargas showed us around the farm, and we helped him and his family pick coffee beans. Every 100 pound bag, which takes one person a day to harvest, sells for ten dollars. The buyer roasts and shells the beans and sells a bag for thirty-five dollars. He also demonstrated how he harvests “hearts of palm”. Each palmito tree grows for a year before it is quickly hacked down with a machete to harvest the tender shoots inside the trunk. We all sampled some fresh hearts of palm immediately after felling the tree. We watched him take down three of these trees, one for us to eat, and two to fill an order for Minga Lodge. He sells them for $3 each. The most interesting and most profitable part of this process is how the trunk actually nets about fifty dollars from the sale of grubs used for respiratory illnesses. The palm leaves rest on the fallen and machete-notched trunk to attract a beetle. The larvae eat the more firm and inedible part of the heart of palm and grow to large grubs over time.
We ended the tour by sampling several of his fruits, mostly citrus and papaya. There was one interesting fruit that was not edible, but used for face painting. Sandra painted Zev with a powder from inside the hairy seed pod. It apparently stains whatever fabric it touches and will not come off easily. He was warned not to use the fluffy towels provided at Minga Lodge for fear of permanently staining them with red.
We returned for dinner and then went out for a night hike. The adults went with our guide Miguel, and the kids went with Sandra and Kristin. We saw a couple of snakes, two tarantulas, a Cayman, and several katydids by flashlight. The kids saw a tarantula and an eel and did cool activities like using birds of paradise flower shells to make themselves look like toucans. A great time was had by all.
Tomorrow after lunch we will be visiting a local shaman.
Water pillar once education solid and engaged