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Daring Deeds - real stories, expeditions, road trips and adventure

Amazonia Calling

By Alpkit
03, Sep, 2010

James Vybiral headed into the Amazon to work with the indigenous Matses people

Back in May James Vybiral headed into the Amazon and now we finally have had contact. So what has he been up to all that time deep in the rainforest?
James is a visual anthropologist and he headed down to the Peruvian Amazon to work with the indigenous Matses people, teaching English, photography and collaborating with the children in order to produce media for their own website. Here he details what’s been happening over the last few months, with more to come hopefully.

So phase 1 of the jungle escapade complete.  Directions: fly south from the Peruvian Amazonian city of Iquitos to the border military base Angamos, buy lots of supplies and then take a canoe along the Yakarana river (that constitutes the border of Brazil and Peru) for several hours, then hang a right up a tributary that heads deeper into Peru.  There one finds quite a few Matses people living in Estiron. It’s as you would expect; houses on stilts bordering the river, canoes everywhere, women washing, men coming back from hunting and the odd 2 year old playing with a machete.

Photograph taken by 10 year old Ruben

My anthropologirlfriend has been living in the deep rainforest since January. She works with Matses people, of which there are 3000 spread across Peru and Brazil. They speak their own language, live as close to a hunter gatherer lifestyle as can be and are very nice folk. I was invited as a photographer and teacher. The Matses are at the brink of the inevitable advance of the tourism and other kinds of commerce in the region, so the village leader, ‘Daniel’, asked for help in preparing the community to benefit rather than fall victim of the forthcoming change. In particular he wants his people to be able to communicate as equals through:
Learning English
Producing media to help visitors understand their cultural traditions - teaching young people photography etc.
Learning to use the internet and basic website management to ensure fair representation of their culture and interests to a wider audience

Chaos with head shoulders knees and toes…

So…. It had taken 7 days to get where I was. London to the Amazon with a few stop offs and an issue with an erupting volcano in Iceland. We were moving upstream in an huge dug out canoe with that ominous haze of falling rain chasing our tail. With all our supplies, half a dozen compact cameras for the Matses youth and all my photography gear on board, the fear of everything being completely saturated was only outweighed by the prospect of sinking from hitting one of the floating trees that popped up out of the murky water. Realisticaly my concerns were only due to being a fish out of water (intentional pun) as everything was fastened tight in Alpkit Gourdon dry bags. Inside these wonderful bags my life was neatly organised inside a range of variously sized and coloured Alpkit stuff sacks…..

Rocan collecting water for our filter with a drybag! and Ronaldo laden with gringo gear - his only luggage was a single barrel shotgun..

Upon arrival, the kids were scared of me seeing as I am ‘dada ushu’ (white man) and half a meter taller than everyone. So after my introductory meeting, where I distributed schooling materials etc, school was the first logical stop. We decided that 5 and upwards would be best suited to learn English. Matses kids are not to keen on conventional schooling methods (as they are forced to follow an exotic, maybe pointless Peruvian syllabus), however once you have armed them with crayons and something to colour in, they quickly pick up any English that we may have subtly disguised in the pictures. I also brought in photocopies from illustrated teaching English books. The kids are unaccustomed to this as they normally only have a blackboard to work with - the result is that they literally run up to the table to receive the next sheet - ‘Head shoulders knees and toes’ went down a storm - see picture: we teach (or should I say Camilla teaches and I am the pronunciation parrot) in Mastes, Spanish and English. Amazingly Camilla’s younger adopted brother is picking up English at an incredible speed as he hopes to be a tourist guide in the future.

Child and Parrot. Edward in class

The village is small and personal privacy doesn’t exist, so when we ask “surene?” (who is it?) to the morning audience of eyes peeping through the palm tree bark walls of our room, replies fire back “Marcus (or so and so), how are you today? I’m hungry”  Hilarious. On that note I would like to thank Alpkit for providing my bed. The Matses bed is quite similar to the walls in that it is made of palm tree bark, which although it has a quite astonishing ability to decircularise from tree shape and lie flat, it is not that comfortable. However, once one lays down an Alpkit Dozer, the mosquito net becomes the happy place to escape to and get horizontal in times of intensity, of which there are many. 

Marcus and Nelly on my bed… an interesting use for the Dozer!

We made an assessment of the older kids in other classes and gave the cameras to the most responsible. Thankfully Alpkit dry bags where used at all times and all cameras have survived. I am truly amazed and proud of the results. Please refer to the photo in black and white; taken by Ruben (10 y/o)) it shows how the young photographers instinctively bring back amazing work. My attempted lessons on focusing and composition fell on deaf ears, so we opted for quantity rather than quality in the beginning. Following any feedback sessions on the laptop that our duff solar panels would allow, the kids bring back incredible images that I would never get access too. At the moment, Daniel wants my photos to go on their website, but we are slowly bringing him around to the idea that he can bring photos from the jungle and post them on the wonderful WWW too…

youngsters being ‘me’ with mud cameras - one of my best moments..

So this brings us to the website: this has been quite an experience. Jungle life involves a lot of sitting in hammocks discussing the intricacies of various things, at length, with extra time for translation and the fact that the only individual in the village who understands any part of the internet is Daniel who uses email. To say we have been around the houses would be an under exaggeration…. Then all jungle plans disintegrated when we accompanied Daniel to Iquitos.  He now understands blogging, but the idea of him managing his own website is unrealistic at the moment. So a proper website will be constructed where we can embed his Blog: (please understand this is the beginning and it has taken days to get him to navigate ‘blogger’ and then to feel autonomous enough to post without us. The blog is very much ‘under construction’ and the plan for the greater website is as follows: I will return with all my photos organised (such organisation was unfortunately impossible with uncooperative solar panels), then we will write all the texts in Matses, English and Spanish, get the all clear from the elders and then ask some whizz kid in the UK to make it Work

The point of the website will be two fold; in the same way their new Asociación Indígena Matses de la Amazonia Peruana: “Aimap is an indigenous association representing the Peruvian Matses communities of Estiron and San Roque. It was founded by Daniel Manquid Jimenez Huanan, schoolteacher and leader of Estiron community, to present the people of Estiron and San Roque to an international audience. Aimap works with a twofold aim: seeking international support for medical and educational needs, and promoting responsible tourism in Matses land. As the Matses do not allow non-indigenous tourist guides into their territory, Aimap offers the possibility for considerate and responsible people to visit Matses communities”. 

Wilma washing a gutted monkey.

Veronica gutting ‘shuinte’ (sloth)

And what else have I been doing?  Well they think I am useless, but they let me join them on most activities.  I gained some respect on the way back from a hunting trip by carrying a half dozen monkeys wrapped in leaves on top of my camera rucksack with our camping gear strapped to my head in a dry bag. So they call me in for ‘heavy’ jobs such as shifting massive canoes to the river on rolling logs. They still don’t let me fell trees. We have been on many fishing trips; pulling in massive catfish with only bare hands, or using a poisin called ‘barbasco’, burning frog secretion into the skin to induce vomitting in the name of detoxification and anti lethargy - for hunting - they don’t trust me to using one of their rotting single barrel shotguns either, but the ‘Sapo’ has maybe allowed me to aim my camera straight and true

Food wise I have found the only food in the world I cannot smell, let alone eat; boiled turtle eggs of a questionable age.  Otherwise my favourite food is monkey shoulder….

Post hunting meal in long house..

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