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Latin America Shawn Dispatch

Bugging Out on the Amazon

A glimpse of El Fundo, ALPECA's model village
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BuZZZZZZ! The harsh buzzing of the motorcycles of Iquitos was replaced by the buzz of a motorboat taking me up the Amazon River to the village of Tamshiyacu. I was on my way to El Fundo, the primary work-site of the non-profit group APECA, the Association Promoting Education and Conservation of the Amazon. The organization works to conserve the Peruvian Amazon rain forest, its native peoples and their cultures. APECA was founded in 1993 to deliver medical services to remote Amazon River villages. Since then, the group's programs have expanded to include health education, nutrition, and sanitation. I was on my way to volunteer for a few days.

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As the river bank whizzed by, I got my first glimpse of life on the Amazon. People lounged on the porches of thatched roof huts, many of which were atop stilts to remain above the unpredictable waters of this gigantic river. Other people stood on the banks, tossing nets into the water to catch the many varieties of fish that fill these waters. No one seemed particularly rushed or hurried, as the smothering heat of these tropics seems to make rushing impossible. I felt helpless to do anything other than sit back in my seat and watch this vibrant world pass by.

Arriving at Tamshiyacu, I was delighted to discover that cars and roads had not yet found their way into this secluded village. In fact, this sleepy little town seemed devoid even of motorcycles, which was a bit surprising considering that there seemed to be an infinite amount of them in Iquitos just an hour-and-a-half down the river. I was a bit apprehensive now that I had arrived, since there are no phones in El Fundo either, and no one here was expecting me because we had only made arrangements with APECA through their representative in the US with no way of contacting the field workers. However, I was greeted warmly by Pablo, the director of El Fundo, and he seemed enthusiastic when I explained The Odyssey, so we set out on the grand tour.

APECA is a small organization with a big mission - improving the lives of the people who live in this area of the Amazon. El Fundo is the model village for APECA's system, and amidst the tiny cluster of cottages nestled here on the riverbank, Pablo pointed out a number of ongoing projects that both enhance and make life easier for the people who live here.

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This nearly completed boat is being built by ALPECA workers
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The first thing I noticed was that the kitchen and bathrooms had running water and flushing toilets. Elevated water tanks catch and store rainwater and then distribute it using the force of gravity so that no pumps are needed. Waste water is then flushed into septic tanks, which greatly reduce the amount of toxins and bacteria that get into the water table. Another basic but resourceful project happening in El Fundo is the creation of fish ponds that provide an easy and renewable source of food. The ponds are stocked with spawn from the river, and when they grow to an edible size, they are effortlessly harvested. Not only does this provide these people with an abundant source of food, it helps slow the depletion of fish from the river, which is a growing problem here as the population expands.

We crossed the main fish pond and made our way to the carpentry workshop, which seems to be where Pablo spends most of his time. Basic necessities, like materials for houses and boats, are constructed here and when we arrived several people were busily banging and sawing, making beautiful new cabinets for the kitchen. We jumped right in to help, and although I am a bit rusty with hand tools (it has been awhile since high school shop class), I was excited to be doing something productive with my hands other than banging on my laptop keyboard. They were also building a large boat that I had seen down by the river. It is nearly complete, needing only a roof and some paint before it will be ready to take to the river and fulfill its primary purpose of delivering sorely needed vaccinations and medical attention to children in remote villages.

Click here to see larger image Can't we all just get along? Why yes, we can!
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After an hour or two of this gratifying work, the sun began to set and we called it a day. El Fundo has a large dormitory to accommodate the college students from the University of Connecticut who visit every year to do research, but I was the only visitor at the time and I settled into my hammock to enjoy the sunset and the quiet. Aside from the occasional rumble of a boat going down the river, evenings in El Fundo are utterly peaceful, even the pets -- the parrot, the dog and the cat could find no reason to quarrel as they shared scraps from dinner.

Volunteer Categories:
Independent Researchers: Faculty, doctoral candidates, and working professionals may use El Fundo as a base from which to conduct research. They will share duties with APECA staff, and will be asked to provide copies or summaries of the work they accomplish.

Students: Undergraduates and graduate students who will receive academic credit for their work may undertake projects compatible with APECA's programs and assist APECA staff with project activities.

General volunteers who wish to help achieve APECA objectives are welcome to take part in daily activities at El Fundo and assist on APECA field projects in river villages.

Visitors Calendar
APECA is now accepting applications for visits during the following periods:

1999 2000
June 19 to July 3 May 20 to June 6
July 17 to July 31 June 17 to July 1
August 7 to August 21

For more info check out
APECA Volunteer Programs

It was at this time, however, that I began to notice another buzz in the air, which seemed even more insidious to me than that of the motorcycles of Iquitos. It was the incessant hum of the bane of the Amazon - man-eating mosquitoes! Although my dorm was enclosed in mosquito netting, and I had covered my entire body with two kinds of bug repellent, nothing seemed to be able to stop the onslaught as wave after wave of these tiny beasts gnawed chunks out of my wrists and ankles. After several days of excruciating blood-loss, I have come up with a theory that these are not mosquitoes after all, but in fact close cousins of the carnivorous jungle fish the pira˝ha, which have developed wings and super-intelligence. (If anyone can find evidence to back up this theory, please send it my way!) (shawnsullivan@bigfoot.com)

Somehow I survived the night, and although I was a few quarts short on blood, I set out for another day's work. After working in the woodshop for a bit, Pablo asked me if I would like to join his younger brother, Jaime, to go fishing out on the river. Since I'm a vegetarian, I usually don't eat fish, but I had been doing so on this adventure since there is very little else available. Although El Fundo is abundant with a wide variety of different fruit trees, the hot moist climate here is not conducive to growing vegetables, so fish is the basic menu for breakfast, lunch and dinner. I was very interested to learn more about the method of fishing here, so Jaime and I set out in one of the large motorized launches to see what we could catch.

When finished, this boat will be used to deliver needed vaccinations and medical attention to children in remote villages.
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The riverbank between El Fundo and Tamshiyacu was crowded with men casting nets into the water. Most of them fished from the shore, but some cast their nets from small canoes. Jaime demonstrated the technique of throwing the net, and when he did it looked quite easy. When it came to be my turn, however, I discovered that it was very difficult to get the heavy net to spread out evenly over the water, and each time I tried, it splashed clumsily into the murky river, much to the amusement of the surrounding fishermen. Although most of the others were fishing for food and kept only fish that were big enough to eat, we kept even the tiny ones in water-filled buckets to stock the fish ponds. We made several trips out to the river, returning each time to dump our living catch into the ponds.

The communities of the Amazon River basin are plagued with a number of health and social problems. The most serious of these is a lack of adequate medicine to treat the diseases, which are endemic in the jungle. Malaria, typhoid, and yellow fever are just a few of the problems encountered here. APECA knows that clean drinking water, vaccinations, and adequate food and shelter can make the difference in the health of these people. Although APECA does not have all the answers to the complex problems of Amazon life, they are taking initiative to make the situation better for the people who live here.

Shawn
 

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