Rain and the Art of Zen

It rains here.  

 

Yes.  Well, because it’s the Amazon rainforest, duh.  

 

No.  I mean, it really rains.

 

One minute you are walking down the road or swimming in the river with the equatorial sun beating down on your head.  Next, you are diving for cover.  

 

Last week, I took a weekend trip to Puyo, two hours away, to visit a beautiful ethnobotanical park called Las Yapas, where a devastated block of farming land has been lovingly transformed into an oasis of endangered Amazonian orchids and traditional plant medicines (dragon’s blood, anyone?).  The park owner’s mother, Yolanda, was in the middle of giving me an individualised tour.  We stood in the middle of the forest while she explained about biochar and pioneer species; next second:  “Run!”  (or as you can imagine, in Spanish:  “¡Corre, corre, corre!”). When we got back to the house I stood stripped down to underpants and a borrowed towel while my clothes took a lengthy spin around the dryer.  I don’t think I’ve ever been so wet in my life.  Oh, except for that one time I went ocean kayaking in a thunderstorm in Costa Rica.

 

Medicinal plants at Las Yapas; go and visit on a weekend, especially if you are into agroforestry and ethnobotany, which are two major reasons why interns come here to the Amazon.

 

 

Just to prove my point, the Rio Misahuallí (which runs right past the house wherewe interns hang out) is pretty amazing.   It carries a ton of water out of the Andes into the Amazon watershed, the world’s most biodiverse region.  But it does not usually look like this … 

 

  Flooding Misahualli

Flooding Misahualli

 

Enough about rain.  Let’s talk about Amazon Learning and my internship project with Fundación Runa.

 

No, let’s keep talking about rain.  It’s such a part of life here.  

 

My internship is in the area of community development.  Myself and three other interns are currently travelling to Kichwa communities and talking to leaders and producers in thirteen guayusa cooperatives.  We’re collecting data that hopefully will help Fundación Runa understand the different roles of men and women in the guayusa value chain.  Usually we do our interviews after community meetings, or asembleas, where Runa meets up with the local farmer’s association to monitor how their production and sales are going, or develop new products that will help farmers diversify and receive more returns through the fair trade system.  

  One of the dry days in the office

One of the dry days in the office

 

Several of our interviews have been conducted through the background noise of an afternoon thunderstorm.  My Spanish isn’t wonderful on a good day; imagine trying to pronounce ‘capacitaciones’ while being deafened.  The other day we were all literally held hostage in a porch at the back of a house talking with a family of guayusa producers, while the yard flooded around us.  It was a good opportunity for the family to have a mini-market: they showed us their delicious lettuces (which became the house salad that night) and laid out their fine beadwork for us.  Time is never wasted here.

 

One time the rain waited until we were piled in the back of a truck getting a lift out of a rural community down to the main road.   While I sat squashed in with half the community and a cooking pot and a large bag of potatoes and a foam mattress, we proceeded slowly down the dirt road.  Ten minutes later we let the women and mattress and potatoes and cooking pot off at the bus stop, leaving me and a farmer still in the back.  A few seconds after that, down it came.  From then on we both sat huddled together under my skimpy raincoat, having a disjointed conversation that between Kichwa, Spanish and English translated to:  “Oh my god, we are getting so wet.”  Cross-cultural relationship building at its finest.

 

The point of this blog is not just to talk about the project and about Runa, but do to it in a way that captures the feel and the essence of being here in this rich, green, steaming, culturally and ecologically diverse place.  Because if you are thinking of coming here, it’s not just to do your master’s degree placement.  It’s not just to be part of an NGO that is a world pioneer in fair trade guayusa tea production and community empowerment.  It’s to experience the back woods of Ecuador, a country that is not well-marked on the traveller’s map compared with its bigger and more famous neighbours. 

 

  Ecuador

Ecuador

 

I am from Australia, and a common response when I first announced to people I was coming to Ecuador (the first time; I’ve now made three visits) was:  “Oh … um … okay … is that in … Africa?  No!  Wait!  It’s somewhere in South America, isn’t it?”  Yeah, I reply.  That’s kind of why I’m learning Spanish.  “Oh, is that what they speak there?”

 

So I consider it my duty to educate people back home, not only about the existence of Ecuador, but what it’s actually like to be here.  The way the Andes carve up the country into sections that contrast so powerfully to each other that when you’re in one part, you can’t imagine being anywhere else.  You’re on a baking hot deserted beach with a humpback whale surfacing right next to you.  Or you’re sight-seeing the world heritage colonial centre of Quito and running out of breath halfway up the hill because it’s 2800 metres above sea level, and the air’s so clear and brilliant and dry the buildings look as if they’ve been airbrushed.  Or - in my favourite bit – the Amazon – you can forget the rest of the world even exists.  

 

I need to be clear at this point:  We’re not in the jungle jungle.  We’re not floating down a river in a dugout with monkeys leaping overhead.  That is absolutely amazing, and you can do any number of tours here that take you out into the real thing. This area, the upper Napo region, has been farmed for centuries.  But it is still the Amazon.  It’s still green and lush and full of butterflies and birds (and yes … every possible kind of bug).  It is the headwaters, where all the rain collected on the mountain slopes – all the rain I’ve just been talking about – flushes down rivers that join bigger rivers that join even BIGGER rivers that eventually join the Rio Amazonas, which takes it all the way to the Atlantic coast.  By virtue of this connectivity, everything that happens here – the rain, the sun, human activity – is important.  Everything we do here impacts on the millions of hectares of fragile ecosystems stretching across Peru and Brazil.  This region is the source of life. 

 

Think about things this way, and it changes your whole perspective on your project here, be that agroforestry or community development or social enterprise building.  Consider the mission of Fundación Runa:  when we help empower Kichwa farmers to make income from their traditional, sustainable farming methods we’re giving them a livelihood option that doesn’t involve monoculture, imported crops, pesticides.  It enables people to stay in their communities and keep a strong connection to their culture.  In turn, they can teach us a lot about how to respect Mother Earth.  

 

And it’s not just while at work that you are helping the Amazon.  When you’re swimming, learning about traditional medicines (I have mastered the art of uña de gato tea), building relationships with your host family, doing tours, rafting, reading about the history and cultures of this place, you’re filling yourself up with experiences and learnings that you take back home to educate others and inspire them to love and protect the forest, too.  You become messengers of hope.  You become change agents.

 

Or not. (Here quoting my mum after I did a facebook rave about a particularly large tarantula we found in the house:  “Just saying this again, Liz, I am so-o-o not coming and visiting any time soon!”).

 

So to capitulate: there’s one final thing I want to say.  If you come here … enjoy the rain.  Revel in it!  Love it.  Know how vital it is – giving life to the soil, the worms, the guayusa, the rivers, the forest, the cacao seeds that produce your to-die-for dark artesanal chocolate.   Even when it comes through the roof and through your mosquito net and onto your top bunk bed and you end up with a wet head, breathe deep and apply the art of zen.  Consider it an initiation into the elements of nature.  You are being annointed by the spirit of the rainforest.  And your life will be so much better for it.  

 

Liz Downes

Summer 2017

Lydia Blanchet, Forest Conservation Intern

8 weeks in Archidona have flown by faster than I ever imagined possible. And yet, as so often is the case, I am astounded by how much fit into these short weeks. Since making the drive down from Quito in the beginning of April, the once-mysterious and intimidating tropical cities of Tena and Archidona have become another home for me. I have gotten to know so many wonderful people, experienced completely different ways of life and been exposed to new and refreshing life philosophies, gotten out into breathtaking places and pristine rivers, and found a clearer picture of what I want to pursue in this next chapter of my life.

What has made this place so special for me is the combination of community and the incredible natural environment. From my first week in Tena, I felt welcomed into the community—by the other interns, by the Runa team, by my host family, and by Tena at large. As a whitewater kayaker, I had come with the hope that I would be able to do some kayaking during my time here, but had no idea whether I would be able to find a community of kayakers to paddle with. To my pleasant surprise, I found a group of paddling friends during my first week, and in the last two months have gotten out onto some amazing rivers and made deep friendships. I also spent 3 weeks living with a Kichwa host family in the community of San Luis, about a 20-minute bus ride outside of Archidona. During my homestay, my family taught me some basic Kichwa phrases, showed me how to cook and harvest traditional Kichwa food—like chicha, maito, and even giant snail!—, taught me to weave a traditional “chigra” bag, and welcomed me open-heartedly into their home.

 

I also learned a lot from my work in the Runa office. This was my first experience with office work, and I think I was able to develop my ability to collaborate with supervisors, work efficiently, and take initiative and responsibility to complete projects. I really enjoyed getting to know the Runa team, especially the other interns. Getting to cook, talk, and hang out with Isabela and Romain in the evenings at Casa Runa was a highlight of every day and something I’m going to miss a lot.

 

 

Saying goodbye to Tena is hard, and now that the reality of leaving is sinking in, I am starting to appreciate its magic even more. But rumor has it that anyone who comes and drinks guayusa is bound to return, and I know it’s only a matter of time until I’ll be back.

 

Lydia Blanchet

Spring, 2017.

Ezra Hereth, Social Impact Storyteller Intern 2017

Before coming to Ecuador to intern in the Amazon, I had no experience working for an NGO nor had I ever done any real long term work for a non-profit organization. Sure, I had volunteered. I was the treasurer of the biggest club in my high school. We worked with the homeless population. I volunteered at elementary schools in Nicaragua and Guatemala and in bioconservation in Costa Rica. However, in all my experiences I always felt as if something important was missing. I was there, bearing witness to the devastation of the longstanding hemispheric imbalance of North and South – an imbalance which has put the South through a downward spiral, resulting in economic dependence, depleted resources, and erosion of culture. My past volunteer experiences were positive because I learned more than I could have ever imagined and walked away with a completely changed perspective of the world we all share. Yet, outside of gaining insight and providing temporary support, I did not leave feeling I had left a permanent impact. I did not provide much long term support to the people where I was volunteering. I helped the stressed out teacher by splitting the class in two so she could focus on the kids that needed more attention. I helped out the tired and relentlessly dedicated turtle conservationists, who had their first break from nightly seven hour patrols because we were able to take over their duties for a week. However, these were short term, small drops of positive impact, and although certainly worthy, did not provide longstanding benefits to the organizations which is what I was yearning to learn how to do.

Although my past experiences with volunteering were eye-opening and great in many ways, I walked away troubled that the work I had done would not be of value after I left. As my experience in the Amazon winds down to a bittersweet end, I have had time to reflect on the incredible adventures and meaningful work I have done. From arriving to the shared intern house at eight in the morning after a sleepless night, exhausted, scared and sweaty, to my last days here, the road I traveled did not only serve to benefit my own understanding of the world, but gave me the opportunity to truly make a positive impact.

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The first project I was really able to dive into was the complex, and at times difficult, mission to work with guayusa (tea) farmers to organize rotative community funds. I attended dozens of community bank workshops where representatives from different rural communities would meet with each other and Runa staff to develop systems for finance, investment, and problem solving. My favorite part of these workshops was always the end, when a farmer would stand up to express genuine gratitude for how we were able to help them. It was because we worked alongside the farmers, giving them the tools to develop their own means of organization, that these workshops were so effective. Instead of throwing money at them or initiating our own projects, we helped to implement a method of community investment that was sustainable, even once we were gone and our work was done. I always left those meetings with a feeling of fulfillment, and an understanding that to have the positive impact that I had desired when I was in Costa Rica the month before, you must start small.

Working face to face with guayusa farmers and seeing measurable progress being made in real time was impressive and something I had not thought possible before. I came down to Ecuador with the dream of being a part of big change, as do many hopeful humanitarians across the world. However, what I realized is that the most effective thing someone can do is to work directly with individuals. To be inquisitive and creative about how to provide a service that allows them to create their own solution. As a Foundation Runa intern, that is exactly what I was able to do on a daily basis.

 

During my time at Runa, I built many deep and meaningful relationships with people from all different backgrounds. I had the opportunity to live with an Ecuadorian family for over half of my internship, which was more immersive and rewarding than anything I have ever done. The two places in the world I can say I truly feel at home is where I grew up, in Portland Oregon, and with my host family in San Pablo, Ecuador. In San Pablo I was able to see and experience first hand Amazonian life and culture. I encountered some of the difficulties that come with living in rural Ecuador, but most of all, I became absorbed in what I consider one of the most beautiful, vibrant, relaxed and friendly cultures in the world. As I get ready to say goodbye to my host family, I can be sure that I left behind a positive impact, as I am leaving as a friend, brother, son and cousin.

The Amazon is a tremendously special place that quickly works its way into your heart. I have acquired an entirely new appreciation for the endless beauty and abundance of nature, and for the importance of exploration and exchange of different cultural perspectives. I would do it all over again if I could. In a few days I will return home, but the trajectory of my life will forever be profoundly affected by my Amazonian internship and life experience. I urge anyone who feels a calling to be a part of an organization that works with locals to make a positive impact, a calling for adventure and learning, a calling to be a part of the difference you wish to make, to consider doing an internship in the Amazon.

Ezra Hereth

Spring, 2017.

 

Alice Hamer, Ecology and Conservation Graduate from Lancaster University, England.

I was greeted by Andy, the Amazon Learning coordinator on my first day and taken to Casa Runa. I was thoroughly impressed by how spacious and clean it was, and the location was simply beautiful with a stream close by and views of the local Chimborazo volcano. Hummingbirds and fireflies were always a delight to see around the jungle garden. The week of orientation was a great chance to meet the other awesome interns and get to know the local towns of Tena and Archidona which were easily accessible by bus. We were introduced to Ecuadorian history, environment, how to deal with culture shock and how to reflect on our time there. The support network was incredibly strong from the outset and all the interns within Casa Runa and those at homestays were very close throughout the duration of our stays, which I found very valuable. The locals were also incredibly friendly and willing to share their culture with us which made the experience all the more enjoyable. Even with my limited Spanish they were very helpful and encouraging!

My main project was focused around an incredible homestay experience at the local community of Mushullacta where my task was to create conceptual maps of the local chacra systems using GPS and create informative data sheets on what species they grew there. Coming from an ecology and conservation background, I found this very interesting! In addition to this, interacting with the local children, listening to historical tales from the family members and taking part in morning Guayusa ceremonies was wonderful and truly humbling to be a part of.

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At weekends we also made the most of exploring the stunning local scenery, either going swimming in local rivers and pools, taking bus trips to the local backpacker town of Baños to go canyoning and hiking, going white water rafting with a local instructor or going salsa dancing in the vibrant bars in Tena. We were also there at the time of the Napo festival which was amazing to witness!

A big challenge for me was the language barrier as I was the least experienced at Spanish out of all interns. Thankfully, with help from my fellow interns and a few lessons from the lovely local Spanish teacher, I was able to improve my Spanish to a level where I could comfortably understand and interact at a basic level. Now, I hope to continue with my learning so I can keep improving!

I would highly recommend this experience to anyone who would like to experience a vibrant and beautiful place and learn about a different and valuable way of living. However I would say every opportunity is what you make it, and being proactive in project involvement would make it all the more worthwhile.

Alice Hamer

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A Day in the Life of a Biologist in the Amazon

Writer is an Amazon Learning alumni who followed a normal workday of Lucas, a biologist working in Tena, Ecuador.  

-       Peccary footsteps, I suppose. Here, and over there as well. Gotta mark these down, he says as he takes the GPS device out of his backpack. Lucas carefully types the details and coordinates into the device and takes a photo of the footsteps. We are ready to continue.

   Peccary footstep. Peccary is a native South-American mammal with a strong resemblace to a pig.

Peccary footstep. Peccary is a native South-American mammal with a strong resemblace to a pig.

 

Lucas is researching wildlife populations and doing his master’s thesis on Capuchin monkeys here in the Amazon. He warns me not to get my hopes too high, since usually you don’t see a thing in the woods. Human activities drive animals deeper into the jungle and illegal hunting is a real problem in the area.

 

 – Some indigenous communities deeper in the Amazon, like Sapara, respect nature greatly and their hunting is not a problem for animal populations – they know how to do it sustainably. The problem is the people living in towns, separated from nature, who are ignorant or just don’t care. They might shoot a monkey without noticing that it had recently given birth. That way the babies are also doomed, Lucas explains.

 

As the rain gets stronger and stronger, we continue ascending through the thick of the jungle. Apart from the slight muddiness of the path the refreshing rain is a welcomed guest – a heat stroke would be inevitable on a sunny day. Since animal footsteps are vanishing because of the pouring rain, and monkeys are keeping themselves warm somewhere hidden, we speed up in order to get to the camera traps on the top of the hill.

 

Apart from a few birds, wildlife keeps itself well hidden on a rainy day. After a good four hours of ascending and descending through the muddy jungle we reach the camera traps, change the batteries, and settle under a tree to enjoy our lunch break. It was surprising to realize how hard the rain actually had been the whole time – the thick roof of the jungle keeps you isolated from the outside world.

 

Sometimes it is hard to realize the therapeutic effects of nature. I was beyond words when the rain finally gave in to the sun and all the birds around us woke up. All of a sudden Lucas stops and gives the biggest smile: - Did you hear that? Look at the treetops!

   The Capuchins finally came to say hi!

The Capuchins finally came to say hi!

After eight hours of marching through the Amazonian wilderness we jumped into a river to get rid of the mud and weariness. The feeling was absolutely fantastic, definitely beat a day at the office. Although for me, the day was an epic, rough adventure in the Amazonian rainforest, I couldn’t stop thinking about how for Lucas, that was just another Wednesday.

 

 

Matti Laukkanen