Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Amazon 2009: Day Three (Wednesday, January 7)

Today’s video was produced by the team called “As Onças” (pronounced “oz OHNzuhs,” and meaning something like the Jungle Cats). They include: Margeaux Pelusi, Samantha Yeates, Rob Silva, and Felicia Zhuang.

The morning started early for a few of us who went to check out our jobsite this morning. Like yesterday, today involved a lot of walking in the hot Amazon climate. We’re definitely figuring out how to cope with the heat, though. Now, if only we can learn how to overcome all of the logistical difficulties we face whenever we try to accomplish even the simplest tasks . . .

Georgete (pronounced “zhor-ZHE-chee”) and Jaime (“ZHY-mee”) took us to their program site on the banks of the Tapajós River, where we learned that they have a small storage building that needs some repairs. Because the ultimate veteran of the SMC New Orleans hurricane relief trips, Chris Verrips, is with us as a consultant, we are actually capable of completing the repairs they need. Along with these repairs, they also hope to attach a small deck on one side of the building so that they can be outside the building but still in the shade of its extended roof.

In just a few days (on Saturday), the children will return to the program, so we need to get as much work done on the building as we can before we start dividing our time between working with the kids and doing construction work. Thus, we spent the morning hustling around in different parts of town chasing down three important sets of supplies: lumber and tools, art and recreation supplies, and – most fun for us – BIKES for us to use as our primary mode of transport.

One group went with Jaime to chase down construction materials. That group includes Ana, our Brazilian group member whose fluent Portuguese is a godsend to all of us. She helped Chris translate construction needs, which means they spent the day playing a crazy version of talking charades where they speak of the function of the item and act out its use to try to learn the word for the tool they are seeking. Turns out that they – and the Brazilian hardware store workers – are pretty good at the game, as they succeeded in finding everything that they need except for one important item: lumber.

The problem was not that they couldn’t find the lumber, it was that there was a bit of an intercultural conflict at the lumber store. That is, Jaime had gone to the store ahead of time and priced out the items. He had the same list when he returned with our group members, but it turns out that the presence of our group immediately raised the price by a significant margin. Jaime was incensed and decided never to return to that store again.

For us, the experience was humbling, as we realized that as U.S. Americans (it seems weird to call ourselves “Americans” here, as everyone around us is also an “American”), we are automatically seen as rich and privileged. And, in comparison to every single person we’ve encountered since we arrived, we are rich and privileged. For example, today we purchased a power saw to help us deal with the lumber we’ll need to replace floorboards, frame out a new doorway, and build the deck/walkway outside the building at the program site. The customers in the store around us were in awe, saying that such a saw was so completely out of reach for them that they had never even considered buying one. For us, saving ourselves some grueling manual labor in the Amazon sun was worth the price of a power saw; for them, grueling manual labor in the Amazon sun is the only way to get anything done.

Another group joined Georgete in pursing art and recreation materials for the program. That group was also humbled, but not by the recognition of their own relative wealth. Instead, that group was awed by Georgete’s incredible resourcefulness and creativity. She showed us all some of her art made from discarded goods, including used coffee filters. Some of her coffee filter work looked like it was made from some exotic stone, when, in fact, it was made from “garbage.” In her program, she teaches local children to create similar art from discarded objects, while at the same time emphasizing the importance of sustainability to the future of the Amazon region. We look forward to joining into her classes so that maybe some of her talent will also rub off on us!

The final group got the job that was supposed to be the most fun: ten people at a bike store riding off on ten bikes, then returning to ride off on ten more. So far we have used three modes of transportation (not counting the planes on which we arrived): a hired bus, city buses, and walking. The first one was a great way to get home from the airport but it is too expensive to be feasible on a daily basis. The second is a great cultural experience, but it is confusing and daunting due to our language barrier. The third is great for exercise and sightseeing, but it is grueling in this climate. Thus we opted for a fourth alternative: bikes. Because this is not a tourist area, there is no shop or agency that rents bikes. Thus, our only option was to buy bikes. They will improve our lives drastically in three ways: they will save our swollen and aching feet (our hands are swollen too, apparently as a side effect of humidity), they will allow us to get more sleep (as we can leave for the worksite later and return for siesta faster than we can on foot), and they will improve our spirits (already pretty high) by reducing the frustrating tedium of repetitive sweat-soaked walks.

Things didn’t go quite as planned due to a series of complex but uninteresting financial technology glitches. (Now why would a credit card company be suspicious about a California resident suddenly buying twenty bikes in one day in the Amazon?) Five different modes of payment failed, including a very surprising one: travelers checks. As turns out, it is almost impossible to exchange travelers checks for cash, no matter how much cash they represent. Finally, though, after a series of runs to different banks, currency exchange spots, money-wiring depots, etc., we managed to purchase the bikes. Strangely, though, we did not manage to ride away on them. The bikes we bought, as it turns out, needed to be assembled at the store’s warehouse, so they offered to deliver all twenty of them to us this afternoon. We took them up on their offer and found our way home for a very late lunch.

We lunched, told each other our stories of retail adventure then settled down for our naps. When we awoke we saw thick black clouds that would eventually deliver a pounding rain forest rain. We also saw the truck pull up to deliver our beautiful bikes. Once we got the bikes under cover, the clouds burst. We gathered on the porch to watch the water fall (“Is rain wetter in the Amazon?”), then succumbed to our inner impulses and went out and frolicked in it.

We had hoped to start our construction work at the program site today, but things just didn’t unfold that way. It seems that lots of days work this way in the Amazon. We’ll have to get used to this.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

We're glad you all made it there safe and sound. Looks like you'll have an interesting adventure as well as help the local children. Take plenty of siestas. The videos really show what you are doing and what it is like, and the blogs help fill in the details. Keep 'em comin'. We love reading them.
Dean & Kim Leonard (Katie's pares)